Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles (GCN) Retro Review

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII released today in North America. While you can read through the middling reviews of the game no one really asked for, why not take a respite from that and read up on a Final Fantasy game that is worth your time? It's Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles for the Nintendo GameCube, and it's our first retro review of February.

In order to dungeon walk, first you 
must learn how to dungeon crawl.

The Final Fantasy series is not shy of creating spin-offs within the franchise. We've seen it done to great success with Final Fantasy Tactics, for instance. Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles marked the first time in a decade that a Final Fantasy game hit one of Nintendo's home consoles. The last game before Nintendo and Square's falling out was Final Fantasy III for the Super Nintendo (aka Final Fantasy VI). Since this GameCube release, the Crystal Chronicles spin-off series has seen multiple sequels in numerous genres. However, there's no arguing with me that the best form of the Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles games are the ones that are dungeon crawlers. While not perfect, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles is a type of fun that is as clear as crystal.

A meteor has hit the once peaceful and carefree world of Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles. Now, a thick Miasma mist covers the world, and the only reprieve comes from large crystals that shine so brightly that they cut through the Miasma. Each town has its own crystal. However, in order to stay shining bright, they need a supply of Myrrh, dropped by trees spread across the world. You are part of a caravan for your village. Like many caravans for other towns, your duty is to collect enough Myrrh for one season, through traveling outside the safety of your village. If you fail in this mission, that means the hopes of your friends, family, and fellow villagers will succumb to the Miasma as their town's crystal no longer shines.

These crystals protect from the Miasma.
However, their power only lasts for a bit
before needing to be recharged with Myrrh.
You start off Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles through creating your own character. This isn't some fancy, in-depth MMO-like deal. You simply choose one of four tribes-- the well-rounded Clavats, the offensive powerhouses the Lilties, the magic-loving Yukes, and the focus attack-preferring Selkies. You then choose from one of eight character models, four of which are male, and four that are female. Finally, you select what trade your family lives off of, whether it's being blacksmiths, being merchants, being millers, farming, fishing, tailoring, ranching, and alchemy.

Crystal Chronicles is split up between years. As stated, your caravan's goal is to collect enough Myrrh inside your caravan's chalice to protect your town from the Miasma for another season. However, collecting Myrrh is no simple task. Only the strongest and bravest are able to collect droplets of Myrrh, as each tree containing the life-saving liquid is protected by only the most powerful creatures in the land. Each time a droplet is received, the tree exhausts its supply and becomes dry. It only gets nourished with more Myrrh in two years game time. Also, a droplet gained makes a third of the game year go by. Once three droplets have been gathered in your caravan's chalice, you return to your village victorious... at least until a new year begins and the song and dance continues all over again.

Only if you give me your
"village savior" special.
Miasma streams separate the land, each requiring your chalice to be made up of one of four elements: fire, earth, wind, or water. If your chalice is not the correct element, you cannot pass through the stream. You can change elements by moving to previously completed levels on the world map and selecting the element you need, pending it's available in that level. As you progress through the years, new areas of the land open up to you, eventually allowing you to reach the final dungeon of the game to witness the conclusion of Crystal Chronicles' story.

Travel aboard your caravan across
this Miasma mist-covered land.
Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles is a pure hack-and-slash dungeon crawler through and through. The main aim here is to go through dungeons and other monster-infested areas, defeating enemies, solving simplistic puzzles, and finally encountering the boss of the area in order to defeat him/her/it to obtain a drop of Myrrh.

Action takes place in real time. You shuffle through commands-- things like attacking, casting a spell, or using an item-- with the shoulder buttons. Attacking is your best line of offense, allowing you, with precise timing, to perform a three-hit combo. There's some semblance of strategy involved in this, as monsters have a windup animation before they attack, but the best way to engage most monsters is to simply hit once, run to their side as they attack, hit again, run to their side, hit again, rinse and repeat. When you're surrounded by monsters, though, this trick won't work so well. There's also a defense command, but I never used it. Playing as a Clavat, guarding is practically useless, as you can still get hit from behind. It's easier to just stick and move. Yukes and Selkies have an advantage when defending, as they become immune to all offense-- physical and magical.

Magic works quite differently when compared to mainline Final Fantasy games. You don't keep magic you acquire. Instead, occasionally a defeated enemy or opened treasure chest will reveal a piece of Magicite. Picking it up will allow you to set it to one of your command slots and then use it as much as you like-- there's no MP to worry about. Summoning a spell is as simple as dragging the casting ring on top of a monster and unleashing it. Of course, you're vulnerable to attack when you do this. More complicated spells, such as Fira, Blizzara, Thundaga, and Cura, are created by setting two of the same spell next to each other on the command list and then merging them. In multiplayer, you and your teammate(s) can each drag your casting rings so they're on top of each other and cast your spells at the same time.

Fire in the hole!
Throughout each level, there are an abundance of treasure chests. These contain things like Magicite, food, scrolls, and treasures. Each of the four tribes have their own preference for food and what they like best. Eating foods that your character's tribe enjoys most will have great effects on the battlefield. Taking scrolls to blacksmiths in the game's handful of towns allows them to craft new weapons, armor, and accessories, pending you have the money and materials needed. I'll return to treasures in a bit.

At the end of each level is a boss of some sort. It's a creature far larger and far more dangerous than any you've encountered in the level. You would expect such, too, seeing as each boss is the final obstacle between you and your droplet of Myrrh prize. Boss fights are generally thrilling battles, offering a tense atmosphere. Each has their own tells to help you expect which of their many moves they will be ready to unleash. From electric crabs to more traditional Final Fantasy foes like Marboros and Iron Giants, the range of bosses is large. It's always fun to see who or what you're going to face next. Perhaps the only gripe with the boss battles is that each boss summons two lesser enemies to contend with each fight. These can be eliminated, but they return eventually. They just make the fights a touch more tedious than they need to be.

Such bad breath. Seriously,
would some Scope kill you?
There are three cycles of each level. The differences between cycles are that each version introduces new enemies, new moves for bosses, and better rewards for gear and treasures. It's prudent to not only replay levels to advance the years, thus advancing the story line, but it's also to gain some great gear and treasures. Each cycle begins when the Myrrh Tree replenishes its supply of Myrrh.

After a drop of Myrrh has been collected from a level's Myrrh Tree, you get a letter from the local Mail Moogle. Once you've read your latest letter, usually always from your ever-worrying family, you get a screen showing all of the treasures you've collected in that level's run. There are four that you get from uncovering them in treasure chests, and four that are dropped by the boss. As there are no levels to gain through experience, you upgrade your strength, defense, and magic through selecting treasures. Each treasure ups one stat by up to three points, but you can only select treasure each run. This means you'll need to replay levels once the Myrrh Tree in them has been replenished in order to obtain all of the treasures and upcoming stat boosts-- and in some cases, added command slots or extra health.

However, even if you collect all eight treasures in a given level, you're not guaranteed the ability to choose any one of them. Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles has a bonus point system that rewards players points for satisfying a random condition. Such conditions can be taking damage, defeating enemies with magic, picking up treasure, not getting hit, etc. At the end of the level, your total bonus points are added up. Pending on the range your final tally for the level winds up in, you can have either slim pickings of treasure or a bumper crop.

Regardless, there is one stipulation that makes bonus point conditions and trying to get treasure incredibly frustrating. That is that you need a Game Boy Advance hooked up to your GameCube to serve as the controller, as the GBA screen shows the bonus condition on it. If you don't have this, you're out of luck and better hope you are somehow satisfying the bonus point condition.

The Game Boy Advance is also used for multiplayer. In fact, it's the only way to play multiplayer. Do you have four GameCube controllers that are itching for some multiplayer mayhem? Too bad. You and your friends all need their own Game Boy Advances and link cables in order to play. If you can somehow get this expensive setup organized, you'll find a very fun multiplayer experience. It's enjoyable to take down a boss together, split up duties, and sync up to cast a powerful spell on an enemy. If you're only playing with two players, the fun is of lesser quality. One player must always carry the chalice, which shields players that are close by it from the poisonous Miasma mist. In single player, your Moogle carries the chalice, but for some reason the developers decided to allow your furry friend to get tired. This means it complains and wants you to carry it for a little while. Otherwise you're stuck with a much slowed down Moogle.

When you're all working together, things
go so much more smoothly than when not.
The world of Crystal Chronicles still impresses to this day. The levels and cities are heavily detailed, each exuding immense amounts of ambiance and personality. Character and enemy models are visually stunning as well, boasting nice little accents all over. In terms of sound, Kumi Tanioka delivers a remarkable rustic soundtrack, using Renaissance and Medieval era instruments to create an earthen sound. From the melancholy "Into the Gloomy Darkness" to the jaunty and rosy "Amidatti, And Eleonor Too", the music of Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles makes for one fantastic soundtrack-- one of my personal faves.

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles can be described as a simple hack-and-slash, but with interesting dungeon design, superb presentation, and rewarding gameplay, the game is at the higher end of its genre. The ability to play with friends-- however costly-- only adds to the fun, creating a whole new dimension of craziness of dungeon exploring hijinks. Overall though, I would say that the requirement of having a Game Boy Advance for each player in order to try the multiplayer features, and the need for one to see what bonus point condition you have in a given level brings down the game a little. However, what Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles has is something that should quench the thirst of any gamer with a desire for a highly competent hack-and-slash dungeon crawler.

[SPC Says: 8.0/10]

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