Set seven years prior to the events of the most famous Final Fantasy title in existence Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII presents players with an action packed prequel worthy of the Final Fantasy name. But while Crisis Core continues the trend of the Final Fantasy series by being one of the most graphically stunning games to appear on its chosen hardware (in this case the PSP), can this prequel worm its way into the hearts of the die hard Final Fantasy fans?
In lieu of Cloud Strife, Crisis Core introduces gamers to another spiky haired, sword carrying protagonist in Zack Fair - a character familiar only in tidbits of back-story to those who have played Final Fantasy VII or have seen the animated feature Final Fantasy VII Advent Children. Crisis Core serves as a means to provide players with details to fill in the gaps of Final Fantasy VII - who is Zack? How did he met Aerith? How does he tie into Cloud's story? And why is the Shinra Corporation engaged in a bitter war with the Wutai people? These are just some of the questions that are answered within the many hours that you will spend with the game, and that is all that we are going to mention about the plot because it truly needs to be experienced for itself rather than be spoiled.
What is truly a great aspect about Crisis Core is that it is accessible to those that have not previously experienced the phenomena of FFVII. There is no feeling of missing out an important plot point, as even those rare head scratching moments of confusion will all be explained throughout the course of the game, which is a reason why Crisis Core stands on its own merits so well.
Another reason why the game stands so well is that it breaks itself from the shackles of the traditional turn-based combat style - a style which the series has become synonymous with. Instead, Square Enix has turned to a more action RPG style - akin to that of Kingdom Hearts, with a rapid-paced, 'on-the-fly' combat system which definitely suits the casual gaming nature of the PSP hardware. Players are able to attack their enemies in real time with basic commands that consist of attack, magic, and item - as well as the addition of dodging and blocking. Players use the L and R buttons to move the cursor through the combat menu at the bottom right of the screen allowing them to use an item, use your materia to perform magic spells or even whip out Zack's extra large blade and slice up the enemies into ribbons. Pressing the X button will execute the particular command you have chosen while pressing the square button will let Zack dodge out of the way of incoming attacks and pressing the triangle button will perform a block, allowing Zack to block the barrage of rapid-fire attacks from a group of enemies. Dodging and blocking take ability points (AP), so players will need to ration their use of these commands because once you're out of AP, you can use these useful commands until you replenish your AP bar. Thankfully there are many healing items at hand that will not make replenishing your points an absolute chore.
For players who don't have the patience to tinker with materia (which are essentially magically-fused elemental stones that can be equipped to perform a variety of elemental attacks) or just want to hack-and-slash their way through the story, the game makes several concessions which allow you to bypass the crafting process that has become a staple diet of the RPG. You can opt out of crafting by choosing the 'best' combination of items, weapons and materia - which the menu will automatically sort for you.
It has to be said that the greatest element of the new combat system is the Digital Mind Wave reels (DMW). These slot-machine styled reels appear in the top left corner of the screen and they are adorned with character or summon faces (or blank silhouettes until you actually encounter the characters that they represent) that continuously spin - providing you have enough SOLDIER points, which you collect by slaying the enemy. As you are engaged in combat these reels will bring up a combination of numbers which could turn out to be useless, or which can give you an edge over your opponents. It might be something like being able to use your magic points (MP) or ability points without exhausting the points bar. Every once in a while, the action will pause as the reels take over the entire screen. At this point you are given the opportunity to level up your powers or perform a 'limit break' depending on where the reels stop spinning. Depending on the character face that is matched up across the three reels, you will be given the ability to perform a different limit break move - which are often familiar for those that have played previous titles in the series. As well as unleashing a vicious combo, limit breaks can also serve to overcharge your health and magic gauges past their maximum capacity, which definitely becomes a handy tool as you progress through the game.
While the DMW proves as a fun way to ante up the action, at times it also feels like the title's weakest point. In the past, limit breaks have been used to gain a tactical edge over an opponent - mostly used to help soften up a particularly difficult boss - but in Crisis Core, limit breaks are more akin to a gambling mini-game than anything else. While players still greatly benefit from the limit break, players have lost control of actually choosing when to strike with a devastating limit break attack. Players will become enormously frustrated at times by watching the reels fruitlessly spin up a dud combination whilst in the midst of a difficult battle, only to see the reels spin out a super-powerful move when you're about to deliver the killer blow to an easy enemy. But that is a particularly small negative amongst the many positives that the title has going for it.
Slick combat and RPG mechanics aside, the game also has a lot going for it in the questing department. If you are a player who loves to explore every nook and cranny of a title, you'll find that there are many nooks and crannies to be found in Crisis Core. Available from any of the game's numerous save points, you can choose the 'mission' option from the game menu which will allow you to step away from the main story and dive into the dozens side quests that can be unlocked as you progress through the game. These aren't the most involving quests at times, usually involving you travelling to a dark, dingy cave, laying the smack down on a horde of enemies and then receiving your awesome reward. While not essential to the main story, the side quests are a good way to level up your character and obtain some tricked up items and abilities without laying down some hard earned Gil - the game's currency.
The Final Fantasy games have long held the reputation for providing gamers with smashing eye candy and an overall cinematic experience - and Crisis Core doesn't disappoint. In Crisis Core, the eye candy displayed teeters between okay at times and absolutely tremendous at others. Trying to fit the graphical prowess of Final Fantasy onto UMD sees that a majority of the game's cinematics are highly polished in-game graphics, rather than the typical CGI fare, but this doesn't detract from the game's style. Characters look brilliant and the graphical detail rivals that of another quality PSP release God of War: Chains of Olympus. The only minor visual quibble is that some areas (mainly in the side missions) are all barren hallways that pull the gamer out of the rich environments that are displayed in other parts of the game. The soundtrack also does a bang up job of completing the entire package. The soundtrack pulls many classic tunes from FFVII and remixes them to good effect, while the voice acting is remarkably good at bringing life to the game's characters - with only minor cornball moments detracting from the overall quality.
First time players might not appreciate the value of the FFVII character cameos, classic locations, and the littering of familiar themes, but the story coupled with the slick action-RPG features provided show that Square Enix has again managed to live up to the unbelievably high standards that gamers have come to expect from the series.