Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers

Let me first start off by saying that Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers is not a Final Fantasy game, nor is it an RPG, nor is it a Crystal Chronicles game. If you go into this expecting an RPG or an action-RPG experience there's a very good chance you're going to be let down. Simply put, Crystal Bearers is an action adventure game set in the Crystal Chronicles universe, with gameplay closer to Zelda than anything else you've come to expect from Square. That said, if you go into Crystal Bearers with an open mind there's a very good chance you will have a truly unique and amazing experience.

I remember following Crystal Bearers throughout its development cycle, watching as it changed from action RPG to action and changed art styles and concepts more times than I care to remember. And when it first came out I started playing it expecting something along the lines of the gamecube game, but the game really rubbed me the wrong way and I gave up for a few months, relegating the game to my backlog, presumably indefinitely. But for whatever reason I couldn't get the game out of my head. The story, although somewhat shallow, really piqued my interest and the top notch graphics and inviting game world really drew me in, and soon I found myself back at the controls. I decided to give the game another chance and I was really happy that I did.

Crystal Bearers takes place several centuries after the original Crystal Chronicles games. The Yukes have been wiped out in a war that left the Lilties in power over the other races, and magic has gone from commonplace to relatively rare, concentrated in a handful of powerful magic users known as Crystal Bearers who despite their massive power are feared and reviled by society at large. You play as Layle, one such Crystal Bearer with the power of telekinesis who works as a mercenary.

If you've come to expect interesting but plot-holey stories with likable yet ultimately shallow characters from Square Enix, then Crystal Bearers won't disappoint you. Layle begins the game protecting a giant airship from an unknown attack and ultimately gets mixed up in a conspiracy to save the world from a magical cataclysm via lost artifacts- pretty standard fare. Layle himself is aloof but likable, much like his spiky haired contemporaries, and as you take a whirlwind tour of the game world you get a better sense of his motivations but nothing is really fleshed out all that well. The story is definitely formulaic in true Square Enix fashion but it's ultimately mindless fun.

The gameplay is where Crystal Bearers really tries some new and innovative things. There are no swords and magic here, just Layle's telekinesis powers. You use the WIi remote to point to what you want to lock on to, then use the B button to grab it. From there you can either flick the remote to the sides to cast enemies aside or spin them around, flick the remote up to pull things out of the earth or toss them up in the air, or flick the remote down to push things away from you. That's it. There's some simple platforming as well, and you can use telekinesis to interact with NPCs in towns (like ripping newspapers out of people's hands to get updates!).

It may seem simple but enemy encounters become something like rock paper scissors, with different tactics being used to topple certain enemies. For example, to kill a Behemoth (Final Fantasy fans will recognize Behemoths, Tonberries, etc) you need to spin it sideways to get it stuck in the ground, then you can lock onto its horn and break that off, which you can then use to cast Meteor back at the enemy. Hydras can be defeated by throwing rocks into their mouths until they get heavy enough to sink into the water and drown. Certain enemies like Cactuars can be tossed against a wall and picked up, where their own attacks can be turned around on other enemies. So despite the simple gameplay you ultimately need to learn the fastest and most effective way to dispatch your foes.

Unfortunately this is probably where most people will have problems with the game. Getting your movements to register works well enough, but it can be frustrating if you don't know how to kill an enemy. In addition, most zones only give you 5 minutes to kill all enemies, at which point everything reverts to a "peaceful" phase and you have to wait another 5 minutes to try again. This means if you're in a hurry you can skip nearly all combat in the game, but taking the time to clear an area awards you with HP Upgrades.

That's not to say that Crystal Bearers completely eschews its action RPG roots. Monsters and minigames can yield various crating materials, which can ultimately be crafted into accessories to enhance Layle's Attack, Defense, Range, Focus (lock on speed), and Luck, and players that ignore the crafting system may find the game's later encounters to be too difficult. Crafting the same item more than once can turn it into a high quality version that conveys additional benefits, so people who are into collecting will really enjoy the ability to max out Layle's skills. There's also the ability to craft numerous emblems for the back of Layle's jacket that have no benefit besides customization.

The main draw to Crystal Bearers is the world itself. The game world is huge, gorgeous, and varied, from snowy tundra to an autumnal forest to a grove of cherry blossom and ancient ruins-- all with virtually no loading screens between them. At most points in the game you are free to explore at your leisure, taking the time to discovery minigames or farm for items and materials. The game's main story is quite short, clocking in at around 10 hours or so, but there are dozens of minigames dotting the world, from chocobo races to fishing to soccer, which are all tracked along with combat stats and storyline progression via a huge in-game achievement system consisting of 300+ "medals", and completionists can expect to spend upwards of 60-80 hours to get them all.

It's worth pointing out that the soundtrack is fantastic as well, composed by Kumi Tanaoka. It's about what you'd expect from a Crystal Chronicles game, with in my opinion tends to be a bit more light and whimsical than the main Final Fantasy series, and most of the music perfectly suits the areas in which you hear it. The voicework is solid, and it generally matches the storyline cutscenes for better or worse, but occasionally the delivery falls a bit flat.

Reading reviews for Crystal Bearers it's obvious that people just didn't get it, as comparing the game to an RPG or a previous Crystal Chronicles title really does the game a disservice. I went into Crystal Bearers not expecting much, just a simple action adventure that I didn't think I'd enjoy. The real enjoyment for me came when I decided to go off the beaten path, to discover a new zone or find a hidden item or try a minigame. There really is a huge amount of content here, almost like a sandbox game. That's not to say I wasn't frustrated by the game, there were certainly infuriating moments when I just missed clearing a zone by a few seconds or made a few mistakes with my Wiimote gestures, but after playing Crystal Bearers I really feel like I was fully transported into a vivid and interesting game world, something that a lot of games strive for and end up failing at.

It's hard to say who would like this game but if you're looking to play a solid action adventure game that isn't afraid to try new things, then it's worth a shot. You can find it for $20 or less now, and given the amount of content you'll definitely get your moneys worth as long as you go into the game knowing what to expect. If you do, there's a huge world in this game just begging to be explored, one that is sure to capture your interest.

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