Nukezilla Review: Theatrhythm Final Fantasy (3DS)
Anyone remember Funky Fantasy? Square Enix’s fake rhythm minigame that was going to be included in Final Fantasy X, before it was quickly ousted as an April Fool’s joke? Apparently people my age do, because when Square Enix announced its upcoming rhythm game, Theatrhythm Final Fantasy, many people (including me) thought it to be another joke, or at least the stupidest thing they’d ever heard – not the least of reasons why being the incredibly strange title. However, Square Enix proved they were being serious, and Theatrhythm launched last month – to critical and consumer acclaim.
While I know there are some rhythm games that actually make an effort at a story (the newly-released Rhythm Thief comes to mind), Theatrhythm is not one of them. The bare-bones story involves the gods Chaos and Cosmos – introduced in PSP’s Dissidia Final Fantasy – and the space between them, known as Rhythm – a crystal (naturally) that controls music. Chaos destroys the crystal, and titular (and unlockable secondary) characters from past Final Fantasy games must work together to harness the scattered Rhythmia and reform the crystal.
Players are initially only given the option to play game campaigns – five songs from each of the thirteen presented games – which include the opening and ending themes (pointless, and thankfully skippable), field music (a side-scrolling game where the point is to get as far in the stage as possible by tapping notes), battle music (hitting correct notes in order to damage enemies), and event music (a notable moment in each game, consisting of tapping notes while you watch a cutscene). After completing campaigns, individual challenge modes are unlocked – think of it as an a la carte menu for each game. By performing well on all songs within a given game, players will unlock higher difficulty levels to further challenge their rhythm skills. The game has light RPG elements – namely, abilities, stat enhancers and one-use items – that can easily be ignored if the player is only interested in clearing the game, but will be of use for completionists who want all of the in-game collectibles.
Also included outside of these two modes is a sort of dungeon crawl mode, known as “Chaos Shrine”. These consist of randomly-generated dungeons – “Dark Notes” – played back to back without any break to swap party members or abilities, containing a field music stage and a battle music stage. The note patterns seem to differ from their campaign counterparts at lower levels, and are close to insane at the higher levels, providing a real challenge for those who may tire of campaign mode. Completing each Dark Note will unlock another at a higher difficulty, and 3DS owners who utilize their system’s StreetPass function will be able to swap favorite Dark Notes with other Theatrhythm players, or even play through a dungeon together.
While the game’s art style is cute and stylized, much care has been taken with respect to the series’ long history; most importantly, the music. For all that Square Enix loves to remake its older games, it surprised me to hear that – with the exception of one or two tracks – all of the in-game tracks seem to be the originals: Final Fantasy I-III is presented in all its chiptuney glory, IV-VI have that classic SNES sound, and VII-XIII also sound like their disc-based counterparts. The in-game environments – a secondary thing for the player to notice, considering attention needs to be paid to the notes whizzing across the screen – contain landmarks and tiny easter eggs present in each campaign’s game, and the battle scenes are also fought on a unique battlefield from each respective game.
When long-time Final Fantasy music composer Nobuo Uematsu played a level out of Theatrhythm prior to its release, he took to Twitter and said, “As I remembered various things from the past 20 years, I was reduced to tears. FF music fans should definitely play it. Won’t you cry with me?” Uematsu’s emotional tweet perfectly sums up the audience for which Theatrhythm was intended. Fans of the series who got on board with Final Fantasy XIII – or even as far back as Final Fantasy X, really – are likely to either dislike the game outright or put it down after a few hours, citing repetitive gameplay. Theatrhythm, quite simply, taps into the more retro Final Fantasy gamer, who remembers what it’s like to grind for grinding’s own rewards – such as armor, weapons, or just a higher level – and who therefore developed a certain patience for fighting the same monsters again and again during their quest.
Because yes, Theatrhythm might as well be called Grinding For Unlockables: The Game, for all the extras that the developers have seen fit to cram into the game, be it collectible character cards, music files, in-game movies, and unlockable alternate characters from each game. But for those with an appreciation for Final Fantasy’s long history, there’s more to it than that.
Upon booting up Theatrhythm – my first rhythm game – and entering the campaign mode for the original Final Fantasy, I was suddenly seven years old again, playing a strange Nintendo game for the first time, thrust into a new world that was forcing me to adapt quickly lest I failed miserably. While playing Final Fantasy IV’s campaign, I warmly greeted characters and environments that were large elements in a game that was a crucial component of shaping me into the gamer I am today. Final Fantasy XIII’s campaign reminded me that at least that game’s music was pretty good.
My point here is that Theatrhythm counts on the player being nostalgic in order to stay invested in the game. In fact, they’re also banking on it – Theatrhythm has the dubious honor of being the 3DS’ first game to introduce paid DLC in the form of various songs – as of this writing, three or four songs are being released on the in-game store weekly, with Square Enix of Japan having released nearly fifty songs – and at a buck a piece, it’s a cost that can add up fairly quickly.
Theatrhythm Final Fantasy, while certainly a title intended only for Final Fantasy fans, is easily the best Final Fantasy game to come out of developer Square Enix in several years. And seeing as how the game was actually developed by indieszero and only published by Square Enix – that says something, at least to my jaded self who remembers the Good Old Days of Final Fantasy.