"It's not the best game in the world, but it's far from bottom of the barrel, and Final Fantasy fans could do a lot worse for $30 on the PSP."
Chances are, even before you've read this review, you've made your decision on whether or not you're really interested in Dissidia 012[duodecim]: Final Fantasy. If you have, either because you loved the first game's deep systems and complicated combat or hated Dissidia's convoluted numbers game, you're likely right. Dissidia 012 makes few changes from the original title. While it adds an overworld map for story mode, a grip of new characters, and a couple new game systems, the rest is almost identical to its predecessor. Dissidia is a beautiful game with oodles of depth, but it feels like the game gets it backwards – the fighting feels too complex and the RPG aspects feel too shallow. All–in–all, Dissidia 012 is fun, there's no denying that. It's a little too off–the–wall for a general audience, but should fit right in with the hardcore Final Fantasy fan.
Dissidia 012 starts with Lightning, everyone's favorite spunky hero from Final Fantasy XIII, as a member of the forces of Cosmos. These heroes are fighting the villains of the forces of Chaos, comprised of (you guessed it) more Final Fantasy characters. It's pretty obvious from the get–go that the story exists only as a framework to put all these characters into the game. There's a lot of story here – after each standard story chapter, you unlock a Report that features cutscenes and battles. Despite the fact that the story is long and varied, it's not any good. It makes little sense, especially considering the individual characters involved, and I never continued playing the game for the story. There's no worthwhile exposition, and the characters themselves aren't true to their own worlds. Sometimes they refer to things that happened late in their respective games and other times they are oblivious to similar events. Regardless, I doubt that many will go into this game with a great expectation for the story, but temper even that and don't expect much. It would've been nice to have a Super Smash Bros–style parody of a story, but the game takes itself far too seriously and didn't strike any kind of emotional response in me.
Fortunately, the story is really the only negative part of Dissidia 012. Graphically, the title is fantastic. While the world, for the most part, is grey, dreary, and spartan, the characters are vibrant and pretty much meet expectations. NES and SNES stalwarts have been upgraded to polygons, and the PS2 and PS3 combatants haven't seen that significant of a downgrade – characters like Lightning actually look better than I expected on the small screen. On top of that, Dissidia 012 is one of the few titles that actually looks good when using the PSP's component out cables. Animations are good, although the 'speaking' animation still looks as odd to me as it did in the first game, but that may be a personal taste. Environments are destructible, but incredibly sparse. Something other than landmasses just floating in space would have been nice. Still, it's a small argument against a game that's visually above average on the platform.
Aurally, the game follows suit. The voice acting is more than competent, the sound effects are good, and the music is great. I'm usually not one that pays too much notice to the soundtrack of a game, but playing through Laguna's chapter in the story really made my day – the Eyes on Me remix reminded me that while I might not take notice most of the time, Final Fantasy really does have a fantastic score. The only real issue with the sound comes from the voice acting and the sometimes–awkward dialogue, which is a fault of the dialogue, not of the voice actors. The actors themselves do a bang–up job, and there's not a significant complaint about the characters as a whole. All this great audio and video work wrapped around the mediocre story doesn't create the best experience, but it's still more than worthwhile for most Final Fantasy fans.
Among Dissidia 012's differences from the original is the addition of an overworld. The problem is, it's a bad overworld. There are control issues when ambushing enemies on the world map and positioning yourself in the right place to talk to a Moogle Shop or open a treasure chest. Little things, certainly, but they affected how little I enjoyed the overworld. On the map, most of your time is devoted to running to the next gate and activating it; once inside the gate you find... the same board game–style setup as the first game. There are some additions here with how to chain enemies, but it's largely similar to the previous title. There are random enemies – manikins, as in Dissidia – that traverse the world map, as well as treasure chests to find, but it's obvious from the get go where you need to go. The lack of freedom makes it feel like this was simply slapped on as a way to quell the arguments of fans rather than to add any sort of actual depth, which is unfortunate. Much like the story feels like an excuse to put all these characters together, the overworld feels like an excuse to give the story a longer form.
Even with the overworld, the bulk of the game sits with the combat and its surrounding systems. For those of you who are familiar with Dissidia's combat, not much has changed here. Characters still have two main numbers – their hit points and their bravery. Hit points are exactly what you would expect them to be – when they hit 0, you die. Bravery denotes how much damage a character can deal to another's hit points, but also functions on its own as a value of fortitude. Each character has six unique hit point attacks and six unique bravery attacks that they can equip at any given time. Using these skills, the goal is to boost your own bravery by successfully initiating bravery attacks on your opponent and then unleashing an attack on the opponent's HP. There's a lot more going on here than you might initially imagine. Without sounding like an instruction booklet, there are myriad systems at work that change what you can do and your power – equipment, accessories, summons, breaks, the EX Gauge, and the new Assist meter all come into play. The goal is simple at the end, however: be the guy that still has hit points at the end of the match.
The problem with all this is that it feels too complicated at times – and far too simple at others. Sometimes it felt like battles in Dissidia boiled down to backing my opponent into a corner and destroying him. Other times it felt like a game of cat and mouse waiting for just the right time to pull off the perfect attack. This also causes a division in the difficulty: many battles in story mode are set up in such a way that they're simply not challenging, yet some feel too difficult, and some even feel like they're entirely based on luck. The game throws enemies at you that only have one hit point – a single attack will kill them – but I never felt skilled beating these enemies, just lucky. Other times, enemies felt too simplistic, and some boards featured level 1 opponents, despite being deep into any given characters' chapter. There's no doubt, though, that there are plenty of battles that are both engaging and difficult and feel like they have actual challenge; most boss battles fall into this category. Aggravating these issues, however, are some control problems – I always had problems dashing without attempting to parry first, and sometimes that split second cost me greatly. The game controls well enough, but it's just not quite as fluid as it should be, especially since many commands are entered by holding a shoulder button and tapping a face button.
Assist characters and changes to the EX system add depth to this sequel. Assist characters sound like what they are – summoned characters for a single attack, somewhat akin to Capcom's Vs. games. Unlike, say, Marvel Vs. Capcom, where these characters are on a timer, in Dissidia 012 they are charged by connecting with attacks. This changes up how players attack – Assist characters can get you out of a bind if you're in trouble, as they can attack while you're juggled. These characters can also be attacked and knocked out of battle for a length of time, known as an Assist Break. Assist characters can also knock opponents out of EX Mode in what's called an EX Break. This also sends the bravery points of the character in EX mode to the attacking player, changing the flow of battle. EX Revenge is another addition to the game. In addition to EX Mode's normal function of stopping the opponent in his tracks when activated on the defensive, it now allows massive damage to be dealt at the same time.
Make sense? It won't, at least not right away. Dissidia has a lot of systems (and I haven't even gone into hold–overs like the Battlegen system, and the great number of points and currency systems in the game: AP, PP, KP, Gil, etc.) and they're all deep. The problem here is that it can become overwhelming, especially to the novice player. It feels like the depth is misplaced sometimes, though; I'd rather have a game with more static characters than completely customizable ones, if only for the sake of balance. Those who found the customization in Dissidia to be amazingly fun, however, will find the same amount of joy in 012. Series stalwarts are also able to import a great deal of their data to have a head start on leveling up.
I can't really fault Duodecim for being what it is: a title that's meant to be played by longtime Final Fantasy fans who really just want to see all their favorite characters together. However, it's undeniable that the game is broken in many ways – incredibly uneven difficulty, obtuse systems, and control issues both in and outside of battle. What Dissidia has in spades, though, is addictiveness and an absolutely massive amount of content. Certainly there are issues with Dissidia, but when it comes down to it, Duodecim is just plain fanboy fun. It's not the best game in the world, but it's far from bottom of the barrel, and Final Fantasy fans could do a lot worse for $30 on the PSP. As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, you probably already know if you'll like Duodecim, and if you think you might like it, you won't be wrong.