June 8, 2004

Fancy-pants Game Boy makes latest Final Fantasy all the sweeter

Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles is not a traditional entry in the Final Fantasy series. Final Fantasy games—there are 11 of them so far—are story-driven games that are almost invariably about a blade-wielding pretty-boy hero who must save a fantasy world from an overarching evil force by teaming up with other warriors and sorcerers, learning how to summon monsters, finding ancient technology and an airship, and all the while confronting his own mysterious past. Crystal Chronicles contains many of the tropes of the series, as well as a lot of its memorable creatures, spells, and its very beautiful aesthetics, but it's an action game in the tradition of "hack-‘n-slash" games like Gauntlet, not a story-driven role playing game.

The "story" of Crystal Chronicles is pretty thin. A long time ago, a meteor crashed and covered the world with a deadly substance called miasma. Towns survived by crowding around giant magic crystals that divert the miasma, but these crystals are like rechargeable batteries and they need to be renewed every year with a liquid called myrrh. You, the hero, (and, if you play the game multi-player, your friends, other heroes) travel around the miasma-filled world, collecting myrrh from myrrh trees in a little bucket called the Crystal Chalice. Once it's filled up, you take it back to your town to recharge the crystal so the miasma doesn't swallow the town whole and kill everyone you know and love.

That's pretty much it. Aside from a few abrupt story-scenes about meeting other caravans on the road, and, at the end of the game, the usual metaphysical bullshit about memories and the importance of believing in yourself (a Final Fantasy cliché, for sure), Crystal Chronicles has no real plot. The essence of the game is hacking and slashing your way through about fifteen dungeons and getting the myrrh and treasures at the end of each one.

In fact, the whole complicated premise—the miasma, the chalice—is really just an elaborate way to ensure that the players don't wander off the screen and screw up the camera. Outside of towns, your only protection from the miasma is the chalice, which emanates a screen-sized circular aura of protection. If a player wanders outside the aura the chalice sweeps out, he or she dies slowly from the miasma. So, when you're playing the game with friends, the miasma forces the camera to focus on all of you at once (although sometimes it gets stuck behind the giant monsters you fight).

The game is really designed to be played in multi-player mode, and the gist of the game is this: one player carries the chalice around through the dungeon. Whenever you encounter monsters, the chalice-carrier drops the chalice, you kick their asses, and you collect the treasure and spells they leave behind. Since this is a Final Fantasy-themed game, you can cast magic to kill things along with using melee weapons, and the spells are the familiar ones from the series: Fire, Ice, Lightning, Cure, Life, etc.

However, the real fun of multi-player is in combining the spells to make more powerful magic. If two players cast Fire at the same time and over the same area, the spells combine to create a more powerful fire spell. The game actually forces you to combine spells this way in order to vanquish some of the more esoteric enemies. For example, ghost enemies are invulnerable unless you cast Holy on them; but you can only cast Holy by casting a Life spell and an elemental spell at the same time. Ideally, this results in a room full of people yelling "1-2-3 … POWER OF FLAME!" and "1-2-3 … POWER OF LIFE!," which is awesome. While the friends I played Crystal Chronicles with weren't nearly cool enough to shout these things with me, I can assure you that the game is way more fun if you do.

You may be saying to yourself, "that sounds like a lot of fun … too much fun, in fact. What's the catch?" The catch is that if you want to play the game multi-player, everyone who plays needs to own a Game Boy Advance and a link cable since you have to use the GBA as a controller. That is a hell of a lot of hardware to own just to play this one game. The reasoning behind this is that each player needs to use the GBA's screen as his own personal menu screen, so he or she can select items, spells, weapons and armor without making everyone pause the game at once and holding things up. Although many fans of the game would disagree with me, I think this is a totally egregious requirement. Aside from a few other gimmicks, the only real attraction of using a GBA as a controller is not having to pause the game every time someone wants to use an item. But when you think about it, that's not a huge enough inconvenience to require all players to own $60 to $100 worth of hardware each. I personally never took advantage of my personal GBA menu screen in the middle of combat, which is when pausing the entire game would actually screw things up. Also, the GBA is quite a bit less comfortable than the actual GameCube controller. When the details of the game's multi-player mode were first made public, many people were outraged and thought, perhaps correctly, that the whole thing was a gimmicky ploy to force GameCube owners to buy Game Boys. I'll put it simply: don't waste $100 for a GBA if you're just going to use it as a controller for this game—it's not worth it.

Luckily, for those of us without Game Boys or sufficiently nerdy friends who own Game Boys, the single-player mode of Crystal Chronicles is pretty good. In single-player, you can mix your own spells via the menu. Consequently, it lacks the main ingredient that makes multi-player mode so much fun—the frenzy of magic double-teaming. In fact, single player isn't frenzied at all—it's very calming, almost zen-like sometimes, for a hack-‘n-slash game. Single player is significantly less fun than multi-player; I would even call it bland. But on the upside, the lack of craziness lets you better appreciate the very beautiful artwork of the game. The art is not as good or as original as the visuals in Final Fantasy X or the latest Zelda, but it has its own Celtic-themed charm, along with some very cool and completely over-the-top crystal-surface effects, which are the kind of graphics for which God, in his strange wisdom, seems to have put marijuana on the earth.

By far the best part of playing the game single-player is your new AI friend who carries the chalice around for you: Mog, the moogle. Moogles, who first made their appearance in Final Fantasy V, are these furry white little pluffsters with purple wings, basically looking like a cross between a baby polar bear, a cat, a bat, and a pig. They can talk, but they always say "kupo!" after every sentence, as if kupo were a form of punctuation. Let me tell you, your moogle is almost as good of a companion as a real friend—and in many ways he is better, since he is way fucking cuter than any human and doesn't ever drop the chalice too early (although he does get tired of carrying it every now and then, which is understandable, with all that chub and fluff!). And single-player mode features what is arguably one of the coolest things ever: the option to spray paint your own moogle. I'd just like to say that for the longest time I have wanted nothing more than to spray paint my cat silver, but I haven't been able to because he always runs away and hisses at me, and also it seems vaguely inhumane. It's about time a game let me (and others like me) realize my depraved fantasy. Honestly, once you start painting your moogle, you won't want to stop. It's almost worth the price of the game.