Developer: indieszero / Publisher: Square Enix / Played on: 3DS / Price: $39.99 / ESRB: Everyone 10+ [Fantasy Violence, Mild Blood, Mild Language, Suggestive Themes, Use of Tobacco]
Rarely do games succeed in presenting style over substance, but Theatrhythm Final Fantasy nails the idea. Just looking at the nuts and bolts, it’s a novel but unremarkable music game. However, it cashes in on years of Final Fantasy nostalgia and even cleverly reworks some of the hallmarks of the series into new gameplay styles. As a veteran Final Fantasy fan, my time with Theatrhythm was extremely charming and surprisingly substantial, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone without years banked in the series.
The core gameplay of Theatrhythm is almost disappointingly simple. It’s a music game with three kinds of notes: taps, holds, and swipes in one of eight directions. You play those notes with the touch-sensitive lower screen while the top screen shows the notes and Final Fantasy themed visuals. That’s about it. While it’s playable and enjoyable, I did find the depth of the core mechanics lacking. I never once failed a stage, even pushing it to the hardest I could. My barometer for challenge may be a little off given my years in crazyhardmusicgames, but this game won’t challenge you terribly if you’re looking for some intense tapping.
Theatrhythm’s real charm is in the oodles of accoutrements surrounding the core gameplay. While the basic gameplay doesn’t change, it is repurposed in three main ways: Battle, Event, and Field stages, which mirrors the three main components in any Final Fantasy. After compiling your four-member team from a character roster spanning every FF game, you’ll send them to battle or explore in one of the three modes above. In Battle, the note lanes are separated into four, each representing one of your party members (but you play them as if they were still on one note track). For each note you hit, your party will attack an enemy on the left side of the screen. Field Mode has your party leader strolling the countryside of whichever game is linked to the song playing, and Event Mode displays a track of notes over a collage of cutscenes from the game in question. These modes are a shotgun blast of nostalgia, and will put you in a time bubble for a handful of hours.
After that, the game switches to another Final Fantasy staple — grinding. As you play, your party members will accumulate experience, level up, and learn abilities that are activated in specific situations (30 note streak in a battle, for example). Tweaking those around is enjoyable, and while the game claims that certain stats will help out in specific stages, I never really noticed a difference. Still, seeing numbers go up still holds the same appeal that it always has.
The ultimate in grind and Final Fantasy homage is the Dark Shrine, which is loaded with random combinations of Field and Battle songs. Each Battle stage in the Dark Shrine will contain one of three unique bosses, and each boss will randomly drop one of three explicit items. Plugging away at these songs reminded me a lot of running around to trigger random encounters in the Final Fantasy games, hoping that I’d get a unique monster or item. I didn’t expect to get a real Final Fantasy feeling in Theatrhythm, but it’s there and it’s pretty cool.
I really appreciate the understanding and love that indieszero is showing to Final Fantasy in Theatrhythm, but I also feel too much of the game’s content is locked behind walls of grind, especially since there’s not a whole lot of challenge to the game. You can unlock more characters, level up different characters — hell, you even collect trading cards that also level up, changing their appearance. There are so many numbers that go up in this game it’s almost comical, but I feel like more meaty content like interviews with Final Fantasy developers or series trivia would’ve filled out the package more completely.
Theatrhythm’s sound is superb, which it had damned well better be given that it’s a music game and all. The music quality is excellent, and even the older bleepy-bloopy music sounds great when using a good set of earbuds. The hit sound for popping notes integrates into the music really well too. It sounds like a cymbal hit, which ends up forming a percussion line that runs along the main song. The setup reminds me a lot of Ouendan or Elite Beat Agents, where in some songs the percussion of the notes even improves the song.
There’s a decent breadth of music included in the game as well, which you would hope given the catalogue the game pulls from, excluding Final Fantasy XIV for some reason. The in-game music player lists 77 tracks, though a chunk of those are prelude / ending theme songs that aren’t actually playable in the game’s main stages. Discovering a new song in the Chaos Shrine is a treat, and extra songs can be purchased for a dollar a piece as DLC, which makes some notable exclusions like Final Fantasy IV’s boss theme understandable.
A game hasn’t made me smile as broadly as Theatrhythm in a long time. The game pulls the broad cast of heroes, villains, and monsters from Final Fantasy and reworks them into a derpy, stubby, caricatured style that is both expressive and extremely simple. Everyone has huge bodies, heads, and tiny little arms and legs which makes Cloud’s Buster Sword look like an adorable toothpick or Yuna’s mismatched eyes look like a beady, vacant doll. You’ll really lose it when the walleyed Ultros with an overbite takes the field. It’s like watching a bunch of sock puppets reenact Final Fantasy.
The in-song controls for Theatrhythm are perfect. I never missed a note because of bad detection or game hiccups. I would occasionally mistake a hold note for a tapped note, but that’s really just a case of me being lazy rather than the game not giving proper indication.
I had some problems navigating the game’s menus though. Most of the main menus are easy enough, but changing equipment and swapping party members is bizarre. Most menu options must be tapped, then you have to hit a “select” bubble that pops out under it. Often I’d tap an item then hit the box in the bottom right, which would back me out of the screen entirely.
It helps to think of Theatrhythm Final Fantasy as a digital celebration of the series’ music and culture rather than a deep gaming experience. It provides loads of grind that can be satisfying in its own way, but really it’s a victory lap for a franchise that has run for 25 years. That said, a victory lap only means something if you were there to see the race. If you have roots in Final Fantasy, buy this game and relish in the nostalgia… and don’t be surprised if you enjoy grinding out some collectible cards and crystal shards on the way.