Stagnation is no friend to the game industry. No matter how great the brand or how long the lineage, games must evolve with the turn of each new season. Leaps in technology and graphical prowess are usually to blame for this, as the gamer community demands more and more from each $60 venture. But there are occasions when, despite consistent acclaim or a legacy of iconic characters and grand narratives, an industry staple must begin to move beyond the scope they are familiar with and dabble in new tastes that can breathe new life into an otherwise exhausted mine of golden memories. Final Fantasy is easily one of the most important and memorable franchises in the entire video game world, and Square Enix (formerly Squaresoft) has been responsible for some of the greatest video game characters in history, yet even the FF series is no stranger to the path less traveled. It is this curiosity that birthed cult favorites like Kingdom Hearts or Final Fantasy Tactics, and now Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy can count itself among other successful hybrids by blending RPG elements and customization with the unlikely music rhythm play style, ala Guitar Hero or Rock Band.
Having accumulated 14 (though only the first 13 are covered) titles under their wide belt, the Final Fantasy saga has a library of tunes and songs that many gamers can still recall by heart, and it is here where Theatrhythm builds its foundation from. Choosing a team of four from a healthy roster of famous characters, players tackle dozens of songs from different FF games using a system very similar to Guitar Hero. Three different types of “triggers” will scroll across the screen as you tap along in rhythm to the song that is playing. Though the premise sounds one-dimensional, the developers at Indies Zero came up with three different rhythm categories that keep the player from becoming too bored with any specific one. Character abilities will trigger after specific conditions occur, and each character can be tailored to fit each challenge without becoming permanent. Chaining several triggers together allows the team to cast offensive spells for damage, while missing a few notes will encourage a team member to cast a healing spell to keep your team from losing out of the song.
Songs are divided up by their original purpose in the game they appeared. Battle Songs represent tunes from random battles to boss fights, Field Songs house the world-traveling themes that accompanied players on the map, and Event music covers the many other songs that played during integral story moments in each FF game. From Aeris’ gentle string serenade in FF7, Terra’s haunting field music from FF6, to Lightning’s fully orchestrated battle song from FF13, almost every musical facet of the FF legacy is elegantly reproduced. Long-time fans will find old memories resurfacing in the midst of tapping along, almost adding another entertaining obstacle of focusing on completing the song without getting lost in reminiscing what each song brings back. Completing songs gives experience and rhythmia, a currency that leads to new characetrs, songs and challenges for the player as they progress.
Unfortunately, the RPG elements are not as deep-rooted into the overall experience as fans would hope. While new skills become available in later levels, their overall usefulness is never more than the most basic skills you learn early on. Some skills only become handy in very specific situations, while many other skills often go completely unused. Skewing more toward the rhythm side of the hybrid, Thatrhythm never strays too far from the mechanics that make music rhythm games so addictive and entertaining: Practice will be essential to mastering the more complicated songs, boss fights happen and disappear as blandly as the monsters you fought to get to the end of the song, and the traditional “star power” mechanic is discarded in favor of a Feature drive that changes depending on the song mode you are playing. Battle songs give you opportunities to summon one of FF’s famous gods to deliver a huge attack, while Field music will give you the chance to turn into a Chocobo for a short time to travel faster than on foot. Both occasions occur in fixed places during the song, and neither event change the ultimate outcome.
Lastly of note, Theatrhythm comes with a multi-player mode where friends can band together to complete “dark notes” designed to challenge a group of players. Each can take control of one of the four team members, and the rewards vary from rare spells and items to crystal shards that, when all collected, give access to more characters. While it is an adequate method of friends banding together to conquer a common challenge, it is no less difficult to complete than any solo attempt, and players who have mastered the frightfully hard Ultimate setting will most likely yawn at the slower pace of the dark notes.
As a product of 25 years-worth of Final Fantasy titles, Theatrhythm is a robust little gem of a game that marries two unrelated genres while honoring the qualities of each that made them famous. It is no secret that the Final Fantasy luster has faded in recent years, motivating Square Enix to explore new gaming avenues beyond the RPG world. While some titles may not have found the success they were hoping for, Theatrhythm strikes a harmonious chord with fans of the FF series while producing a delightful level of entertainment and playability for those new to the franchise. Perhaps more important, however, is that it is yet another example of how the future of the Final Fantasy brand may find further success by moving away from their original RPG roots and continue this trend of experimentation with modern gaming trends. With proper reflection on its history through melodic song, Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy is both a celebration of what made Final Fantasy famous and an optimistic look into its future.
See you in the next level,