Throughout its 25-year lifespan, Final Fantasy has managed the enviable feat of balancing innovation with a recognisable formula. Whether or not you liked the chapter system of XIII, the License Board of XII or the introduction of whiny protagonists in VII, they’ve at least been unafraid to try new things. This time around, Final Fantasy celebrates its quarter-century heritage by paying tribute to its consistently great music in the rhythm-action title Theatrhythm.
Despite being a side entry in the greater scheme of Final Fantasy, Theatrhythm does try to have some semblance of a plot. An evil entity called Chaos is threatening to destroy the world, and the main characters (chosen by the player) must work together to (sing along everyone) restore light to the crystal and defeat Chaos. But really, do you care? What other rhythm-action games have had plots? Yes, you at the back, apart from Rhythm Thief. And Space Channel 5. Whatever.
The action takes place in three different ways, all controlled using the touchscreen but presented differently. The first, Battle Music, shows the typical Final Fantasy battle scene with the player characters arrayed on the right of the screen, while notes travel across four lanes – one for each character. With each command successfully hit with the stylus one of the characters will attack the enemy, which serves as a rather clever way for the player’s actions to translate to those on screen.
The second style, Field Music, sees a lone character traversing the fantastic lands, sword in hand, while notes make their way from left to right, this time along a single lane. The twist here is that the points on the green notes, which must be held with the stylus, move up and down, and the player must slide the stylus to connect with each point. It serves as a useful way to differentiate from the standard Battle Music style and tends to be used more for exploration themes like Giza Plains rather than combat themes like One Winged Angel.
The final style is Event Music, in which an FMV cutscene (or in the case of the pre-3D Final Fantasy games, a montage of scenes) plays in the background while the player taps and slides along to the music. If there’s an issue with any of the play styles it’s this one – the FMV playing can often be quite distracting, especially while trying to play quite a hectic song, and you’ll often find yourself dropping a few notes because you had your eyes on Vaan’s very revealing top rather than the notes you’re supposed to be watching.
The control scheme is rather simple, but that works for it – rather than having a whole bunch of different buttons to remember, there’s just three commands performed with the stylus – A tap of the screen, represented by a red circle, a swipe, represented by a yellow circle with an arrow indicating the swipe direction, and a hold, which comes in the form of two green circles with a line connecting them to indicate how long to hold for. If you need a point of reference, imaging Donkey Konga‘s control method but without the indestructible bongos. There might be some confusion with swipes specifically, since the arrows aren’t quite defined enough to make them easily recognisable, but you should have no issues after the first couple of songs.
Music has been, in this writer’s opinion, the only consistently great feature of the Final Fantasy series, and this game does not disappoint. Nobuo Uematsu is undoubtedly one of the greatest composers in gaming, and it’s great to have a library of high-quality tracks to play through. In the past, a handheld music game would have had issues with space, but there’s a good 40 songs at least – easily enough to see you through a few hours of gameplay. If you get bored of those, there are DLC tracks available too. The problem with having DLC songs available on release is the argument that they should have released it as part of the standard game, and that’s perfectly valid. Whether they didn’t do so because of space or because of greed is up in the air, but there’s no pressing need to buy them – all the classics like One Winged Angel are there and you shouldn’t be left wanting for anything.
What you might be left missing after playing Theatrhythm is the presence of any real graphical prowess. The character models are all puppet-style representations of the originals, and unfortunately they often end up looking the same. it could have been a lot more interesting to look at if there were proper 3D models used, but again, whether due to space or laziness, they weren’t, so you’ll have to make do with the FMVs, which, by the way, look rather nice on the 3DS’ bright screen.
Disappointingly, the FMVs haven’t been re-rendered into 3D for this game, but the rest of the game shows off the feature to its fullest – particularly the idea of the notes floating in front of the characters as they travel on their journeys. Whether you’re crossing the Mist Continent or battling a Tonberry, everything seems well defined and clear, without any noticeable difference in difficulty for having the notes in 3D.
Difficulty takes three forms – standard, expert and ultimate – which are unlocked by beating each song on the previous difficulty in Challenge mode, or each game in Series mode. It’s nice to have this element to add replayability and challenge, and it’s quite well spaced as well – a player getting perfect scores in standard will get middling scores when they begin expert, and so on.
The amount of content on show is quite impressive as well. Starting out with a run through a selection of songs from each main series game up to XIII (it seems Square are embarrassed about XIV after its poor reception), you’ll unlock the songs to play through individually in Challenge mode, before challenging the Dark Notes, which take two songs at quite a high difficulty and put them together for the player to get through and prove their worth.
All this is undertaken to gain experience for and ultimately level up your characters, chosen at the start of the game from a selection of (initially thirteen) characters. They all ostensibly have different skills, but playing with a variety of them yielded no real difference other than a few extra Rhythmia (points) in some songs. Really, levelling up is nothing other than a pointless distraction either, reducing character selection to its most basic function – playing as your favourites. Others can be unlocked, but it actually takes a remarkable amount of time, so really is, like the rest of this game, best enjoyed by the die-hard Final Fantasy lovers.
Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy is a game that ticks all the right boxes, and as a love letter to long-time fans it’s a great package with lots to do. Fans of the series will get the most out of it, but it’s still a solidly build title which should appeal to newcomers as well. 9/10.
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