"I love... the way it pokes and prods moments of forgotten memory and makes me smile as I remember them."
Walk in circles. Six times clockwise. Four counterclockwise. Press the circle button at the north, south, and east (that's the side on the right, thanks Dad) sides of the tree. Make sure Cloud has 1 HP and 1 MP. If you do it right, a new cutscene will appear in which Cloud uses Life and Underwater materia to bring Aeris back.
Checked Target. Checked Wal-Mart and K-Mart. Sears? No dice. How am I supposed to play this chocobo minigame if I can't find a Pocketstation? The guy at the game store said it wasn't coming out here, but the game said I could get one, so it has to be somewhere.
"Okay," I said, "I guess I'll rent IX. I was burned by VIII, but I'm bored and I want to play a new RPG. Wait... this is fantastic! Look at that opening cutscene! Look at all the CG! This Vivi guy is ridiculously strong! Wait, no! The game froze at the Evil Forest cutscene. Better ask mom if I can buy the game."
7:00 AM. Boxes of unfinished pizza from the night before sit stacked on the makeshift table. One of us takes a slice. We've been playing since 5 o'clock the day before, and we're finally in Zanarkand. The air conditioner isn't working, so we've got the windows open and the smell of the marsh is drifting into the room. But we're finally going to stop Sin and figure out why Zanarkand is a ruin. If we could only get past this sphere puzzle!
I might be out of touch in saying this, but I think Final Fantasy is a series defined by nostalgia. So many of my warmest memories of playing games come from this series, and some of my closest friendships and family bonds were made and strengthened as I experienced new sequels alongside the people I love most. Now we've all gotten a little older and had our moments in which we declared "I'm done with Final Fantasy! It's a shadow of its former self! I mean, come on! Final Fantasy isn't
an MMORPG an action RPG open areas with a real-time battle system that plays itself
a linear corridor simulator! And yet, despite all the assertions of "I don't care about it anymore," it still remains a key part of the conversation in games.
We're still talking about what happens next with Versus XIII. E3 2013 was a bombshell of a year; some say it was due to Sony's mic-dropping press conference, but I'm confident it's because Square Enix showed up to raise the curtain on what we now know as Final Fantasy XV and Kingdom Hearts III (a series whose initial marketing line was "Final Fantasy plus Disney!"). Those trailers created a buzz of excitement because, along with Sony's return to golden child status, they reminded us of those exciting days when a new Final Fantasy was a landmark moment in gaming. Whether or not many of us care to admit it, we're all still cheering for Final Fantasy to make us feel young and innocent and less-experienced with games again; to make everything feel as limitless as those wonderful days when games seemed infinite and the borders of their worlds weren't the edges of the screen, but the farthest reaches of your imagination. Of course the City of the Ancients goes beyond just those few screens.
While the future of the series may or may not ever match up to those cloudy but fondly-remembered memories of pizza-filled all-nighters with friends and a SNES or PS2 controller, Square Enix is at least content to try and tap into that significant store of nostalgia. As one of RPGFan's resident Music standard-bearers, the first Theatrhythm appealed to all of my tastes. As a music game based on a beloved series that's known for its outstanding tunes and memorable moments, how could it not? However, while I enjoyed that game, something did feel missing; almost like it was testing the waters for something greater.
That something greater is its follow-up, Curtain Call, which is one of the best games I've played all year. However, it's hard to talk about game systems (they're great) or presentation (it's good) when so much of what I love about it comes from the way it pokes and prods moments of forgotten memory and makes me smile as I remember them. Packed full of over 200 different songs from a huge swath of the Final Fantasy series, Curtain Call feels like the apex of what Square Enix was trying to do with the original game.
I'd compare what's happening in Curtain Call to Smash Bros. Brawl; it's an "everything and the kitchen sink"-style homage to the various games it represents, with tons and tons of unlockable extras. Playing the Shadow Lord's battle theme from XI? The background environment is a cutely-rendered version of Castle Zvahl. Fighting through one of the Dissidia themes in-game? One of its iconic levels serves as the backdrop. The various enemies, people, and creatures you encounter throughout the Field music and Battle music stages are culled from every game in the series — even lesser knowns like Crystal Chronicles and Mystic Quest. Play enough, and you'll unlock the ability to change the in-game sound effects to those of your favorite game in the series. Party members are drawn from every game represented musically, from Mystic Quest's Benjamin, to Tactics' Ramza Beoulve, and each has their own set of unique abilities to learn as you level them up.
Carried over from the original, the ability and item systems tied into leveling your characters are given more room to breathe here, thanks to the addition of Versus and Quest Medley modes. Versus pits you in an Amplitude-style
battle against another player, whose good performance can activate a number of debilitating and hilarious power-ups. You're free to battle AI, locally, or even online, and I had a great time doing so. The power-ups are a bit random, so your success is mostly tied into how well you can deal with having your timing toyed with, which makes for a funny and enjoyable competitive experience.
Quest mode allows you to undertake journeys of varying length, featuring special treasures, unique song playlists, and a more-RPG-centric take on victory. You might complete the song, but if your characters aren't built up enough to take out the target monsters, your journey can still end in failure. I spent hours and hours finding new quest maps and plumbing their depths to find each and every monster and treasure. Once I maxed out the level of the greatest party ever assembled (Ramza, Zidane, Vivi, and Zack), I had a good time mixing and matching different characters (Ace from Type-0 paired with Barret? Of course!) and trying out new combinations. The variety of different abilities make certain characters better suited to exploration or battle songs, so there's great incentive to play around with many of the series' heroes. Additionally, once you hit the level cap, you're free to send any character back to level 1-- with extra ability points and a big shiny star indicating how awesome they are. This alone gives the game a huge amount of replayability over its predecessor, and allows you to create a powerful, customized party to your liking.
On the subject of collecting treasure, there's the Collect-A-Card system, in which you can gather up cards from every game in the series. Each one confers a statistical bonus with a certain success rate; combining them through use of the Card Crystarium lets you strategically power your characters up in the right ways. Ramza, with his generally low stats (offset by his incredibly powerful Knights of the Round summon), was well-served as I pumped up his stats in the Cryastarium, making him an unstoppable Zodiac Brave-slaying machine.
While the soulless, dead eyes of the character artwork might put you off, the overall look and feel of the game is charming and makes you regret that you can't spend more time taking it in, what with all those notes rushing toward you demanding to be tapped. Tapped, or pressed, depending on which of the games's several control schemes you're using. There are modes for stylus-only, button-only, stylus + button, and even a one-handed "analog and L"-only configuration, and I found each of them to have their merits. Even if you're not a fan of tapping away on the touchscreen, there's undoubtedly something here that will suit you.
With Square Enix having made the claim that they'd like this to be the "last" Final Fantasy Theatrhythm game, seeing it as the base for future expansions via DLC as new games in the series debut, there's really no reason not to dive in now. There's an absolutely massive amount of stuff to experience here, and by the time you unlock the joy-inducing "Final Fantasy Series Medley" exclusive to Curtain Call (of course, you'll still have many more songs to unlock, even at that point), you'll have had such a darn good time that it'll be easy to forget all the money you might want to spend on even more music and characters. In either case, there's enough here that you won't have to worry about buying half a game with downloadable extras on the horizon.
Final Fantasy is many things to many people. With XV on the horizon and A Realm Reborn lighting up the screens of so many fans, it's clear this is a series whose relevance is still without question. It might have had its ups and downs, but with Theatrhythm: Curtain Call, you can experience the greatest hits in what is easily one of the best, most content-rich games on the 3DS. Will I continue to play it for months to come?