Developer: Square Enix / Publisher: Square Enix / ESRB: Teen (Alcohol Reference, Crude Humor, Fantasy Violence, Mild Language, Suggestive Themes) / Played on: Wii / Price: $39.99
Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers (a title so long I have to shorten the acronym to TCB) is confusing and maddening. First off, this is not a Final Fantasy game, nor is it even a Crystal Chronicles game, so throw those preconceptions out. It is, however, like a meal smothered in “special sauce.” There’s a lot of good in there, it’s just buried under mounds of cloying crap. In many ways, it’s the game Wii owners have been waiting for; it has great visuals, solid gameplay, and fantastic production values. However, enjoyable and goofy gameplay is interrupted far too often by a boring, uninvolving, and deadpan story. Boy… let me tell you about that story.
Players take control of an effete blonde named Layle, whose status as a Crystal Bearer grants him the ability to affect forces on physical objects – think force push with pretty blue spell effects and you’ve got the idea. The game opens with Layle running guard duty for a ship, which soon runs afoul of a thief looking to steal the ship’s crystal shards (the power source of the engines). This conflict sets a series of incomprehensible events in motion which eventually see Layle partnering with said thief, discovering a hidden traitor in the kingdom of Whogivesadamn, and waffling between acting like a world-weary vagabond and a passionate defender of virtue. The story hits nearly every major anime archetype, and even manages to squeeze in some shlock about supplanting gods at the end.
Every cutscene is a parade of disconnected dialogue, illogical actions, and unexplained setting references. For instance, in one event Layle is chasing the aforementioned crystal shard thief, only to bump in to another character along the way. Layle then stops for a leisurely chat via cutscene, leaving me to wonder, what happened to the sense of urgency in the chase? There’s a litany of such incidents when characters sprout new relationships, powers, or attitudes just to meet the convenience of the story. Some of the more egregious involve fleeing from monsters with a partner for five minutes, only to have the partner open a portal to escape at the end (why didn’t she do that first?), or to have the main character almost fall to his death at one point only to sprout the ability to fly near the end of the game.
I understand the idea – throw players into a setting without much explanation and have them acclimate via context clues. This works well when the setting is fully realized, as in Half Life 2 or Bioshock, but TCB’s setting is a perpetual magic hat out of which the developers can pull whatever convenient plot device necessary. However, these are the exact complaints I had of Kingdom Hearts, and people like that well enough. Normally I take the “Who Cares If There’s No Sound in Space” attitude, but cutscenes make up so much of the game’s ten hour run time that they have an appreciable and deleterious effect on the experience.
When the developers deign to let one actually play their game, the experience is much better. Layle’s powers were created with motion controls in mind, and they’re extremely fun to play with. Players can lock on to items with an on-screen cursor. Once locked, Layle can yank these objects in a direction or levitate them above his head for throwing. Learning how to trigger the right direction takes a bit of practice, but thanks to an on-screen arrow displaying the direction registered, the game provides the requisite feedback to fine tune one’s actions.
Yank-stuff-around powers are the most fun in combat, which – unlike Final Fantasy tradition – is completely real-time and open. The game world is on a rotating timer, cycling between clear skies and an infestation of miasma. With miasma comes monsters, and monsters always need a good yanking. The novel bit is that a particular series of yanks that will unlock hidden behavior in these monsters making them easier to defeat or yielding items for equipment synthesis. Oddly enough, discovering these combinations evokes a feeling similar to Pokémon Snap. For instance, throwing an oversized pill bug at another causes them to lock together into a giant pill bug ball, which can then be hurled at other enemies to do more damage than a simple rock or tree stump. These relationships get much more complicated, leaving plenty for the completionist to explore.
Aside from combat, most story sequences are divided by fun-but-insubstantial minigames which involve skydiving while shooting flying enemies or chasing a giant bird via chocobo-back through a canyon. These sequences aren’t complicated or difficult, but impress with spectacle and provide a necessary break from the intensely annoying cutscenes.
The biggest issue with the gameplay stems from the lack of a proper map. It’s extremely easy to get lost. Road signs only list adjacent zones, so traveling to an area three zones away entails time consuming trial and error. I had to resort to Google more than once to find destinations. The game’s other big annoyance comes with the unpredictable miasma cycle. Players can’t fight monsters when they want, and it’s infuriating to be one monster short of clearing a zone when the miasma expires. The (invisible) time limit places a premium on learning monster combinations and secrets to do damage quickly, but it’s frustrating nonetheless.
TCB is one of the best looking titles on the Wii, though that’s partially due to a lack of real competition. Spell effects are complex and colorful, dazzling when on display. Character models are well-textured, modeled, and animated. While most of the cutscenes alternate between boring and confusing, some of the cinematic fights impress with their speed and outrageous choreography. Presentation niceties like stylized menus and a scrolling information ticker at the bottom of the screen help the game develop a sense of style, and the ability to save screenshots at will to an SD card is novel. The critical eye will notice occasional blurry textures or blocky geometry, but on the whole the game is a fantastic showpiece of what’s capable on the Wii with a little effort.
Effects in TCB are well done, as Layle’s powers produce unique waves and crashes. NPCs talk in Sims-esque gibberish that is incredibly annoying when heard for over a minute. The game’s voice acting is horridly boring, though I attribute that more to poor writing and character definition than bad acting. TCB’s soundtrack is incredibly eclectic, though no particular track will send players scrambling to buy the soundtrack.
At its best, TCB is a lighthearted digital stroll through a visually inventive setting. At its worse, the game is a muddled mess of compulsory cutscenes, tired character archetypes, and one-off minigames without lasting appeal. Most of TCB’s value isn’t in the campaign proper but in exploring areas outside the plot and fighting monsters for the hell of it. Players desperate for developer affection on the Wii will appreciate the effort invested by Square Enix in TCB provided they have sufficient brain damage to enjoy, or at least ignore, the ridiculous story. It bears mentioning again that I felt the same way of Kingdom Hearts though, so fans of that game may genuinely enjoy the setting. That said, there’s potential here, and I’d hate to see the effort involved with TCB end with this game. Here’s hoping that Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers: The Crystal Principles (or whatever they call it) will invert the game-cutscene ratio to let people, y’know, play the damn thing.