No stranger to convoluted plots, Square Enix have seen fit to include another one into Theatrhythm. Anyone who has played either of the Dissidia titles on PSP will recognise the yarn of two warring Gods – Chaos and Cosmos – this time the focus being on a musical crystal between the two which has been corrupted by Chaos and must be brought back to normal by increasing the amount of a musical wave known as Rhythpo. No, really.
Controlled entirely with the stylus on the touch screen, the basic gameplay involves the rhythm action staple of successfully hitting an icon once it lines up with a marker. The colour coded notes each require a different action – red ones are tapped, green need to be held down and yellow are marked with a directional arrow, the player having to swipe the screen in that direction. There are variations of these (for example, some green notes will require a directional swipe at the end) but that covers the basics of the gameplay. While it may not be a revolutionary mechanic, it is uncomplicated and easy to get to grips with from the start, allowing the player to feel comfortable after just a few minutes.
The main guts of the game is the Quest Mode. Choosing a party of four from each of the thirteen mainline Final Fantasy games, (initially only the main hero of each game – Squall, Cloud, Lightning and so on – is available, with more available after being unlocked) the player then embarks on a journey through each of the games, taking on a number of themes from each. There are three different styles of gameplay for each game – Field Music, Battle Music and Event Music. The former sees an on-screen avatar move from right to left across a variety of terrain, meant to mimick the world map of each game, as notes flow from the opposite direction. As well as the basic tapping and swiping, here the green notes flow up and down, the stylus needing to be moved to match. Battle Music sees the party of four arranged up and down the screen, as they face off against a variety of enemies from the Final Fantasy universe, successful note hits dealing damage to these foes. Finally, Event Music has important scenes from the games play in the background, whilst an icon makes its way around the screen, overlapping with the familiar notes as it does so. Missing notes will cause the characters' hit points to deplete and, once it reaches zero, it's game over. A meter along the bottom of the upper screen acts as a timeline, a handy reference for how far along a particular tune is. For those concerned about not being able to focus on and enjoy the scenes taking place in the background, a handy gallery mode is available from the main menu where video and songs can be listened to without having to 'play' them. Character cards that unlock throughout the game, featuring characters - good and bad - from the series can also be viewed within this mode.
Adding more depth is the ability to equip items on party members that will boost hit points, allow stronger attacks and so on. In keeping with the RPG roots of the Final Fantasy universe, experience points are awarded on completion of a song, which will see characters level up and gain new and improved abilities. A grade is also given after each song and the higher this is, the higher the overall score earned. Not just something that will increase replay value as players strive for a complete set of S-ranks, the score is tallied over the course of the game and when it reaches certain milestones, crystals are earned which, in turn, go towards unlocking extra characters that can be added to the party. The unlocking process is a slow one however, but where this could see boredom set in whilst replaying songs, it adds length to the game, meaning that even five or ten minutes sessions will go some way towards the next bonus.
In addition, songs that have been completed in Quest Mode on the normal difficulty become available to replay in a Challenge Mode where better scores can be obtained. Higher difficulties become available once a song is successfully passed and things get very challenging on the hardest setting – something that will be sure to please those who, having watched the initial promo videos, were worried that the game would be too easy. The mid-range difficulty feels the most satisfying as it provides a nice flow whilst remaining something that can be passed with concentration.
The overall presentation in Theatrhythm is hard to fault. The Chibi (super-deformed) versions of familiar series icons are as pleasing to the eye as the 3D effect, most notably that seen during the Event Music scenes where the separate layers of video and musical notes don't feel cluttered or confusing as they may do when playing in 2D. Where it really excels though, is in the music. A rhythm action game can have compelling and unique gameplay mechanics, yet without appealing music it is likely to fall flat. Having a back catalogue of some of the best soundtracks to have ever appeared in games is a great place to start, themes loved by millions around the world sure to draw in a wide range of players. The temptation to remix these classics must surely have been there but thankfully they are left as they were and the game is all the better for it. There are seventy tracks throughout the game, with more being offered as downloadable content, (albeit for a price) a number that makes replaying them for points all the easier.
In many ways, Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy is another rhythm action game that ticks all of the boxes of what is required in the genre – solid mechanics, unlockable content, the ability to change characters, customisation and so on. Where it stands out though is in the music it contains. Whereas Project Diva, Pop'n Music, DJ Max Portable and Taiko no Tatsujin, to name but a few, feature the usual quirky J-Pop melodies, Theatrhythm is loaded with a selection of music from one of the most loved and highest regarded series in gaming. Part nostalgia trip, part timeline through the history of an industry giant, there is something for everyone who has ever enjoyed a Final Fantasy game here, with enough challenge and reward to keep players coming back for more.
- Familiar, fantastic music.
- Easy to get to grips with initially.
- Plenty of unlockables to extend the game's life.
- Non-Final Fantasy fans probably won't get much out of it.
- Chibi character design not for everyone.
- Some may feel mechanics are too basic.
Publisher: Square Enix
Other Versions: N/A
Version Reviewed: Japanese