As the iPhone OS continues to reach more and more gamers, it seems that more and more big-name developers are taking notice. Square Enix is no stranger to the platform, having released at least one game on the iPod (Song Summoner) before the iPhone's arrival and several more since. Chaos Rings is their most ambitious work to date and it's certainly their most likely to draw comparisons to the mainstream Final Fantasy games. Given the early buzz, I decided to give it a shot despite its premium price tag, and I think you'll see that I'm glad I did.
Chaos Rings features four couples who have been magically summoned to a mysterious tournament, and you are intended to play it once as each couple. My playtime was a fairly consistent six hours for each of those four times, and completing them all unlocked even more gameplay. You can easily sink thirty hours into this game and you'll rack up many more if you decide to level up enough to beat every optional boss with every couple. In each playthrough, your goal is to make it through a set of dungeons and then defeat the other couples, thus winning the tournament.
Of course, things are hardly as simple as "win the tournament." The tournament itself is a surprise to everyone involved, and some participants are hardly willing, even after being informed that the winners will be granted eternal life and youth, while the losers and those who refuse to participate will be killed. In three of the four couples, there's also the question of "Why am I here with you?" and for at least one character, even the question of "Who is this person I've been paired with?" As the game progresses, their personal connections become clear, and in each case, characters who could have been one-dimensional stereotypes gain depth. I really liked the fact that you can play to the end of the tournament and get a satisfying ending, but then load up your final save for a bonus dungeon that really peels back the covers and shows you how the tournament came about, what your role in larger events is, and ultimately allows you to join forces with the rest of the group for an even more satisfying ending. (On a side note, kudos to the developers for putting a fast-forward button on the closing credits. I respectfully watched them once, but eight times at normal speed would have been excruciating.)
Although characters with the same names and appearances are featured in every scenario, they are not exactly the same people each time, and I loved that. The characters sometimes differ in small ways, and sometimes in very essential ways. These differences help keep things fresh while reinforcing a few important plot points that I don't want to spoil for you. Perhaps the best part about the differences is that, in four playthroughs, I always felt like I was playing the coolest version of the characters I was playing. I also enjoyed the clever bits of dialogue showing the developers' awareness of the humor inherent in certain gameplay concessions, like the time I was told just why no one in the tournament needed to use the bathroom since they arrived. The answer was surprisingly well thought out, and explained at least one thing that hadn't even occurred to me to wonder about.
Battles are turn-based and showcase a few of the game's unique features: pair attacks, elemental attachments, and the break meter. During each turn, you choose whether to have your characters take one action together or to have them both do their own thing. Acting together greatly powers up your attack and allows the pair to use either character's skills, but during any turn when you make a joint attack, your enemies' attacks hit both of your characters. Some attacks attach one of three elements (fire, wind, and water) to the attacker or the one being attacked. Those attachments remain until the end of the battle, and the elements' rock, paper, scissors relationship can make a huge difference.
The break meter serves as a momentum tracker within each battle. As you attack and are hit by attacks, the break meter rises and falls correspondingly and the strength of your attacks changes with it. It's an interesting mechanic that both raises the tension when a battle is not going well and makes you feel unstoppable when you are really sticking it to your enemies. Still, it stops short of feeling abusive even when you're at your lowest, which I appreciated.
Just about every RPG involves decisions on how to equip your characters, and Chaos Rings is no exception. The most important part of what you're equipping is not quite like anything I've seen before, although it is similar to Final Fantasy's Materia. Each time you defeat an enemy, you have a chance to receive an item called a Gene Plate. Each character can equip three Gene Plates, each of which grants up to six skills to the character. Once you've got an enemy's Gene Plate, defeating that same type of enemy has a chance to level it up and grant more of those six skills. They are shared across playthroughs, so your characters will start out with considerably more options the fourth time around than they had the first.
The one negative, which you'll see mentioned in almost every review of this game, is that each dungeon includes several puzzles that feel extremely out of place. The puzzles involve things like lighting torches and shifting boxes, and if you're interested in puzzles, you can probably find several hundred of that kind of game in the iTunes app store. The puzzles aren't terrible, and they range in difficulty from cake-walk to a few head-scratchers, so that's not the problem. It's just that they yank you so firmly out of the game. Still, when it comes right down to it, they only detract from the game as a whole a little bit.
It's nice when a game that plays great also looks great, and that's the case here. Its technical merits are certainly worth noting, but where Chaos Rings really shines graphically is in its character designs. The player characters are all very different from each other and look just the way it seems they should; and some of the bosses are simply outstanding. My favorite player character wields a huge axe and looks every bit as powerful as he is; and my favorite boss is straight out of H. R. Giger. There's a totally sweet T. Rex with horns as well, but the Giger boss is even better, in my opinion. It's not flawless – there's one character whose design was fairly disappointing, but to say who it is or how the design disappointed me would require spoilers that I don't want to give. I wouldn't even mention it, but with as much as I've gushed, I feel like I need to justify not giving an even higher score in this category.
Moving on, I have to compliment the developers on two things related to sound. First, they did a great job with the music in this game. If, like so many RPG fans, you like video game music, you shouldn't be disappointed here. Second, if you're listening to your own music when you start up Chaos Rings, the game will continue playing your music instead of switching to the game music. This is nice whether you're not into video game music or if you've simply been playing the same game for 25 hours and are ready to hear something new. I'm shocked at how many apps I have that don't do this, because it seems so incredibly logical, given the platform.
Chaos Rings' controls are yet another area where the developers did a nice job. In battle, your choices are clear, and don't require digging through too many menus, regardless of what you want to do. Outside of battle, the screen is very clean, with only an icon that opens a pop up menu when pressed. When you touch the screen anywhere aside from that icon, a virtual joystick appears where you touched and it remains in that spot until you lift your finger from the screen, at which point it disappears. The system works very well, and if you play many games on the iPhone OS, you'll know that there's still no real standard for virtual joysticks. Developers are still trying to work out the best way to implement them, and while the Chaos Rings system wouldn't work for every game, it certainly works well here.
Within iTunes, there is a completely different economy than what you see on other platforms. It's a world where even a game that costs $5 is considered a bit pricey, and where a $9 game is expected to be something very special. And yet, Square Enix released Chaos Rings into this world at the (relatively) astonishing price of $12.99. It isn't quite the equivalent of the $250 limited edition of The Beatles: Rock Band, but it's fairly close. Is it worth the price? Clearly, I think so.