Of all gaming’s great franchises, few have the proud musical history of Final Fantasy. Masters like Nobuo Uematsu and Hitoshi Sakimoto, among others, have graced it with their talents, creating memorable, majestic tracks like One Winged Angel, The Man with the Machine Gun, To Zanarkand, and much more. They’ve sold albums of this music, made concerts of it, and wow’d crowds the world over. A more perfect match for a rhythm game you think you’d never find.
So why is Theatrhythm Final Fantasy such a soulless husk of a game?
Theatrhythm Final Fantasy- I’m just gonna call it Theatrhythm from now on- is an attempt to distill several decades of Square Enix’s biggest franchise’s musical tradition into a rhythm game on the 3DS. With a unique, colorful art style, and affectionately parodic interpretations of FF gameplay, it was set to be the perfect tribute to the 25th anniversary of the biggest JRPG series around.
“Play back your awakened memories” says the back of the box, and damn if the game isn’t one big nostalgia trip. Hearing the tunes that made up your youth- whether it’s the blipping and blooping of NES Final Fantasy, the intricate chiptune rhythms of the SNES era, the orchestral swells of the PS1 Final Fantasy or beyond- takes you right back, awash in recollection of how gaming used to be… and, oddly, reminding you of how little quality work Final Fantasy has put forth lately.
The game’s presentation is surprisingly hit and miss- while the art style is well done, and the sound quality and such are everything you would expect them to be, the gameplay itself has some strange shortcomings. The songs are divided into five types- Prologue, Field, Battle, Event, and Epilogue. Field is decent enough- it simply consists of your party strolling through one of the series’s many huge open fields, with various backgrounds passing by. It’s not complicated, but it works well, and looks attractive.
Battle is less impressive- while the mode is an enjoyable parody of the classic turn based battles, it feels like there were some odd mistakes made. Your party battles with a series of enemies that appear one after another as they are defeated, and mostly everything is well animated, but annoyingly, your characters will only do the same single slash no matter what input you do… it’s fine for the slash to be mapped to the tap input, but it’s strange for the same move to be used for the tap and hold, or the slide inputs. It feels lazy, and sloppy.
Event is borderline embarrassing- it’s a simple clip show made of snippits of plot from the game, playing out with all the slick presentation one associates with PS1-era Dance Dance Revolution. They look sloppy, lazy, and bad, and if the goal is to convey plot, they don’t even do that- watching the Event songs for games that I beat years ago, I wasn’t even refreshed as to what had happened- other than a few standout moments, I couldn’t follow them at all.
Prologue and Epilogue, though- for they are exactly the same in design- cross that border, and are well into embarrassing territory. You stare at a single screen with a big crystal, and tap notes as they very slowly drift over it. In the background, a Star Wars-esque few sentences of exposition scroll up the screen, fade away, and then scroll again. This repeats several times before the song is over. If this sounds kinda boring, I apologize, because I’ve done my job wrong. It isn’t. It is incredibly boring.
But this is mostly just presentation stuff. What really matters is the music, and the gameplay, right? Well, unfortunately, that doesn’t feel right either. The game has some rather key omissions in its track list- songs like Don’t Be Afraid, many of the early games’ boss and regular battle themes, and other classics. It’s understandable that some things are missing- after all, they had to cut off somewhere, and some stuff was always going to be left on the floor, but… oh, wait. They’re releasing most of that stuff as paid DLC. Yeah. Okay.
The really important thing, though- more important than all the annoying animations and the questionable song choices, is the fact that Theatrhythm commits the cardinal sin of rhythm games. The game makes you play notes that either do not exist in the song, or are not synced up with the beat. This is a death sentence for a rhythm game. When the whole point of the gameplay is to get into the rhythm, and tap to the beat of the music, punishing the player for getting into the music is the absolute worst thing you can do.
So, what are we left with? The game’s list of bullet points seems impressive enough. Over seventy songs from thirteen different Final Fantasy titles. Tons to unlock, tons to play, multiple difficulties, multiple song presentations, items, spells, summons, chocobos and treasure chests. But there’s no passion in the game, and not nearly enough attention paid to the all-important details. The game feels bad, and for a rhythm game, there is no greater problem to have.
If this game was a twenty dollar release, it would be a bit of a tough sell, given all its flaws. For forty bucks, there’s no excuse.
You can discuss this game on our forums- check out the Theatrhythm Final Fantasy thread.