Developer: Indies Zero
Publisher: Square Enix
The Final Fantasy franchise spans a quarter of a century, and much of its legacy is musical. From the original game's warbling 8-Bit arpeggios to the sweeping orchestral fanfares of Final Fantasy XII, each game's story has been accompanied by an original score that stands amongst the all-time greats, cemented both in history and in our memories. Aerith's Theme's appearance in the latest Classic FM countdown acts as testament to just how influential and relevant Final Fantasy is to classical music and videogame scores alike, while orchestral renditions of unforgettable songs pack out venues across the world.
So now the epic OST is the star of its very own game: Theatrhythm Final Fantasy. Indies Zero have sallied forth with a very different kind of rhythm game, one that provides a reunion concert for 25 years of unforgettable music and folds in the addictive persistent progression you can only get from Final Fantasy's RPG systems.
Which basically means that the 3DS has another killer app... if you love Final Fantasy.
Tapping away at the touchscreen is nothing new, gameplay-wise. Elite Beat Agents, Rhythm Thief, Ouendan and countless others encourage players to jab their stylus on the DS' lower screen in time with the beat, and this concept is present and correct here. You'll tap, slide and swipe in perfect sync with onscreen 'trigger' icons to score points and chains, gradually unlocking new songs, harder melodies and other bonuses. It's a little like Guitar Hero, only with obscure Latin bands replaced by the insidious, brain-melting brilliance of Nobuo Uematsu's Mambo de Chocobo.
Theatrhythm does its job well enough from a mechanical standpoint, and But Indies Zero mainly excels because it thoughtfully integrates traditional rhythm mechanics with Final Fantasy gameplay. Each Final Fantasy game, from the original to XIII, brings three songs to the party: one from a major battle, one from openworld exploration and another that accompanies a pivotal story event. Depending on the track and its connotations, you'll experience the music in a different way, reminding you of when you first heard it.
In Field Music Mode, a series character trots along a gorgeous stylised road representing familiar scenes, towns and backdrops from the Final Fantasy title in question. Notes - triggers - scroll along the top screen at the same rate, symbolising your character's onwards journey throughout the game, and recalling your own adventures. You'll stroll past Balamb Garden, for example, or the Golden Saucer - with graphics that recall either the 8-Bit days, jaggy 3D PSOne era or the polished later iterations. Hit enough notes and you'll potentially discover a Chocobo and chest-bearing Moogle, making each playthrough a mini-adventure in itself.
Battle Mode proves to be Theatrhythm's most impressive feature. Four characters line up against a selection of memorable enemies and bosses from your game of choice, with triggers scrolling down four preset lanes. Hit enough triggers and the corresponding character will attack, eventually defeating the enemy and replacing it with another. Character abilities and skills can be activated by strong performances, while summons (such as Shiva and Ramuh) bring elemental destruction if you hit key trigger phrases without missing a beat. It's the perfect mix of strategy, rhythm, roleplaying and nostalgia - and as much as anything, you'll vividly recall the last time you faced off against a particular foe; bringing back a wave of emotional memories long forgotten.
Event Mode pales in comparison to the Field and Battle gametypes. Essentially, you'll just watch a video montage of the game's most memorable moments and occasionally tap in rhythm. It's a disappointingly unimaginative use of the best music in the franchise, but you'll still enjoy it regardless. And, just to warn you, you'll have to relive that bit where Aerith... you know.
Graphically speaking, Theatrhythm is just lovely. An adorably cute and colourful art style packs each character, enemy and location with personality and flair, while simultaneously providing a unique visual experience in comparison to the core franchise games. The sprites are pin-sharp both in 2D and 3D - the latter being comfortable to use for hours at a time and actually helps to distinguish between the scrolling triggers and background elements.
This would have been enough. Each song, from FFII's stirring 16-Bit anthem The Rebel Army to FF VII's tub-thumping Sephiroth theme One-Winged Angel summons a new memory or emotional outpouring as you remember characters you bonded with, story twists you'd forgotten and enemies you loved to hate. The responsive mechanics, multiple difficulty levels and replayable score-attack gameplay ensure that the cartridge will stay in your 3DS long enough to make a thick film of dust appear on your Vita (seriously, this happened). Not content with the capable basics, however, Theatrhythm then proceeds to deliver its sucker punch: persistent character development.
You're free to assemble your four-person party of heroes out of a list of the franchise's best and brightest. Squall and Cloud rub shoulders with the Hero Of Light and the Onion Knight. Flighty esper Terra Branford hangs out with Zidane and Lightning. Upon completing each song, your party earns experience and grows more powerful; earning skills that can directly tie into the gameplay. Perhaps a mage will bring down a Thundara spell on enemies in battle mode after hitting a certain number of triggers, or Cloud will dampen enemy attacks with his Weapon Break skill. Choosing a varied mix of your favourite characters, all of whom excel in different modes, is compelling beyond words.
Meaniful content, which is sometimes at a premium in this genre, can be found in abundance. You've got thirteen games, each of which has three songs, each of which has three difficulty settings with unique icon patterns. You'll want to play every track several times over, partly to level up your party and acquire rare items, but also just to enjoy some fantastic music. In addition, continued play unlocks 3D FMV montages, a jukebox, a sprawling binder of collectible cards and bonus mystery characters (a couple of whom rank amongst my favourites from the entire franchise). If that isn't enough, you can also download new content from the eShop marketplace.
Streetpass functionality seals the deal. Players create and share randomly-generated Dark Notes, which pair up a random field mode track with a battle mode encounter against a familiar boss. Trigger patterns and swipe directions are also completely unpredictable, as is treasure and character-unlocking crystals. This mode has the potential to run indefinitely (since players can generate and explore Dark Notes by themselves), and even allows for some basic but enjoyable synchronous multiplayer.
Criticisms are few and far between, but I feel that feedback is a slightly sore point. In contrast to Guitar Hero and its ilk, that actively plays a song's melody when you hit the correct notes, Theatrhythm plays a 'chime' over the top instead. Sometimes this audio prompt takes the form of a crashing cymbal or bell, which works in some songs, but detracts from some of the quieter numbers. You can turn it off, but I'd have preferred a happy medium.
And there's something else too, a nagging feeling at the base of my skull. Something that gnawed at me, niggling away at my subconscious every second I played Theatrhythm Final Fantasy. I originally chalked it up to the fact that Aerith's Theme is slightly overrated when it comes to Uematsu's work (IMO, bite me), but it's actually something more profound. Theatrhythm has RPG systems in place. It has combat mechanics ready for action. Upgrade systems. Randomly generated levels. Instead of a nostalgia tour, Indies Zero were on the cusp of properly blending rhythm and role playing together into something new, something remarkable. For now, we'll have to make do with a wonderful concert, but I fervently hope that a sequel will give Theatrhythm a story of its very own. A voice, if you will.
- A new and exciting way to explore some of the finest videogame music ever scored
- Solid, replayable and fun mechanics
- Effective and addictive persistent RPG systems, loads of content
- Gorgeous artwork, massive nostalgia factor
- Slightly limp 'Event Mode' gameplay
- Chime feedback can be inappropriate in certain songs
- Could have offered its own story
The Short Version: Theatrhythm Final Fantasy succeeds on every level, as a point attack rhythm game, nostalgia trip, persistent RPG and inescapable addiction. An essential purchase and killer app for 3DS-owning Final Fantasy fans, and well worth checking out even if you're just looking for a quirky new experience.
We'd love a sequel to give Theatrhythm the only thing it lacks: its own voice.