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Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles

Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles is the first Final Fantasy on a Nintendo console since the Super Nintendo's Final Fantasy VI (III in the U.S.). However, anyone expecting a title similar to Final Fantasy X or any other game in the main Final Fantasy series will be sorely disappointed with Crystal Chronicles. An earlier Square series, Chocobo's Mysterious Dungeon was lambasted for being simplistic by reviewers too young to recognize that the game wasn't an RPG per se, but a graphical version of early text-based computer classics like Nethack and Angband. Similarly, Crystal Chronicles isn't an addition to the main Final Fantasy series; instead, it functions as kind of a recreation of the MMORPG experience without the Internet.

The game's major conceit, for those unfamiliar with it, is that up to four players hook into the Gamecube via their Gameboy Advances and play using the GBAs. The GBA screen affords each player some different information (radars for enemies, or items, or a map) and the party must work together to defeat enemies in Chrono Trigger/Sword of Mana action RPG gameplay. One player of the four must carry a challis that protects the party from Miasma, a fog that has enveloped the world. The party sets out yearly from their hometown, Tipa, to seek the liquid that protects their town. Throughout each level, different characters fight, use magic, pick up items and artifacts (the later of which end up being prizes for players at the end of each level).

The game itself has a great number of gameplay extras; for example, the enemies become weaker or harder depending on how many people are in the party and how many times one has gone through a particular area (i.e. beaten levels can be replayed). During my third time through the first dungeon, I was shocked when a new enemy, a huge griffin-like creature, attacked my party. Indeed, each "year" (the game starts a new year after 3 or 4 dungeons) the already accessed levels change. Another aspect, mentioned above, is competing with other players for artifacts at the end of the level. Each player is given a goal like "Take magical damage" or "Don't pick up items." These goals can be ignored, but points are awarded for how closely a player adheres to them. At the end of the level, the player with the most points gets first crack at the artifacts that can give stat boosts or add command slots.

The game has four races of characters that players can choose; Selkies are roguish thieves, Clarvaals are the standard human race, Lilties are short, but aggressive warriors, and Yukes are bird-like magicians. The game lets you choose your race, one of several costumes/looks for each race, and then a trade for your family. When you visit Tipa, your family can give you items relating to your trade (a blacksmith, for example, will forge weapons at a lower cost). Unfortunately, the nature of the gameplay means that there aren't huge differences in playing with different characters. Yukes use more magic than Lilties, but since you'll be using a lot of magic anyway it doesn't change things very much.

For what it's worth, assuming you already have enough GBAs and GBA/Gamecube link cables, the game is fun to play with multiple people. I've found myself talking to my fellow players on where to go, how to defeat enemies, and timing our spells so they are cast together (which results in a more powerful spell). It provides for a lot of interaction and fun as a party of three or four people crawl through a dungeon. Unfortunately, that's the crux of the game; if you don't have the equipment you need (i.e., enough Gameboys or cables), you're out of luck. And more so if you regularly only play by yourself; the game simply isn't worth the investment. Though Crystal Chronicles has a 1 player mode, the game's central conceit is going out with a party, so the 1 player mode is pretty hollow. Mog, a computer controlled moogle helper, follows the one player around and carries the challis.

Crystal Chronicles has a very fantasy/Celtic feel, not unlike J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (or, perhaps more accurately, The Hobbit, as many aspects of Crystal Chronicles are much less threatening than cute). The graphics are bright and convey the world very well, and there are some cute graphical tricks (enormous bosses, gorgeous water, and a flat map spinning behind an isometric overworld). Indeed, Crystal Chronicles will probably be underrated in the graphics department, but it sports some of the most beautiful graphics on the Gamecube to date (Jugon River, for example is a waterway that twinkles like the night sky. It's simply jaw-droppingly gorgeous). Overall, a lot could be done with the world created in Crystal Chronicles, but it looks unlikely that Square Enix will milk this franchise.

The music was done with real instruments and is definitely one of the highlights of the entire game (though the English version of the vocal theme isn't nearly as good as the original Japanese, and Square Enix did not leave an option to play in Japanese). Each of the game's twelve levels also features an odd little intro with a very Celtic sounding female narrator; some of these are decent, some are odd, and it's the only voice acting in the game.

Since players can drop in and out at any time (though it's hard for newbies to join an established caravan, since the enemies get stronger in the game too) the game has a very disjointed feel. This applies also to the game's story sequences, which are short clips that are accessed as "random" encounters on the world map and further explained in a text diary. Again, there's no voice acting for these scenes, which seems like a minus, but if the English voices were as bad as the narrator's voice, perhaps it's a good thing.

Choosing whether or not to invest in Crystal Chronicles is relatively easy; if you've got the requisite number of players (at least 2, preferably more) and everyone already has the equipment necessary, it's definitely a fun game to play. It combines the social interaction of an MMORPG with the closeness of being together with the other four players on a console. If you don't have all the necessary goods or don't play with another player regularly, then Crystal Chronicles won't be worth your dollar.

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