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Editor's Note: Due to the nature of this game as a part of the "Compilation of Final Fantasy VII," this review contains spoilers for Final Fantasy VII, as well as a few minor spoilers regarding the "Advent Children" film.
It's hard to believe, but it has been over 10 years since Final Fantasy VII graced the PS1. Square Enix's desire to expand Final Fantasy VII's story with new sub-plots and characters in the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII continues with their latest release, Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII. Taking place 7 years before the events in Final Fantasy VII, Crisis Core stars Zack Fair whom was in flashbacks in Final Fantasy VII. He didn't have that much of a story in the original game, but his origins will be explored in detail this go around. Is his tale worth the wait, or more importantly, the Final Fantasy VII name?
Crisis Core's gameplay is quite a departure from the original Final Fantasy VII. It's an action RPG that mixes Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy XII. Your basic commands consist of attack, magic, and item, but with the addition of dodging and blocking. Players use the "L" and "R" buttons to move the cursor back and forth through the command slots at the bottom right of the screen. Pressing "X" executes the command the cursor is over while pressing the square button dodges and pressing the triangle button blocks. Dodging and blocking take ability points (AP), so if you run out you can't do either of those commands. There are healing items you can use to gain AP back though, which is nice. When Zack attacks he is auto-targeted to the enemy and will run towards them to attack. You can simply button mash the attack button if you like, but Zack will only attack after each successful attack is completed. After each attack animation Zack is allowed to attack again, so it is basically Final Fantasy XII's battle system except you have to actually press the attack button each time. Battles are all random, but not in the typical Final Fantasy way. They are random like in Kingdom Hearts, where the enemies pop up on the screen and there is no transition between battles. This makes all the combat and exploration seamless and not a chore like in other JRPGs.
The materia system in Crisis Core is a little different then it was in Final Fantasy VII. You can equip up to 6 materia (after certain events in the story) and materia in Crisis Core can level up a maximum of 5 times before they are mastered like in Final Fantasy VII. The typical materia is all there, including the magic for the different elements, statistical boosts, and combat abilities. What's different in Crisis Core is that you can fuse Materia together and make new materia. You can also give boosts to existing materia with items found throughout the game to make your materia more powerful. All of these additions are welcome, but also make the game unbalanced if the player spends enough time to get the essential items and materia to make Zack more powerful early on in the game. In order to do that the player would have to take on side missions that have nothing to do with the main story. These side missions can be taken at any save point, making it easy to dive right in and start doing them no matter where you are. They are short and to the point, with most consisting of finding an enemy in an area and killing it. They all take little time which makes them great for portable play. They can also be quite addictive despite there simplicity.
The new innovation that Square Enix has added into Crisis Core is the Digital Mind Wave (DMW) slot system. The DMW is located at the top left corner of the screen and is constantly spinning in battle. It has pictures of the faces from characters in the game as well as the numbers 1-7 in a row of three. Different effects take place when the DMW matches up faces or numbers. Matching up faces on the left and right side of the slots gives you a chance to activate a limit break if the middle slot matches with the other two slots. Matching up numbers when the DMW is trying to activate a limit break also has various effects on Zack. If all three numbers are 7's, then Zack will level up. If two of the numbers match, the materia that Zack has equipped will level up (for example: If the numbers are both 2's, then the materia in the 2nd equipment slot will level up). Summons also activate through the DMW and take the place of the limit breaks when activated. All of the summons faces will show up and they have to match just like a limit break. All of these elements may seem completely random to the player at first, but there is actually a system that Square Enix has implemented to make sure the right things happen at the right time. Leveling up is handled through getting SP from enemies when you kill them, and after you gather so much it triggers the DMW to get all three 7's. Zack's emotions throughout the story also affect the DMW. If his emotions are heightened then limit breaks will activate much more often then normal. The DMW is a nice twist on the typical formula and keeps combat fresh and interesting throughout the whole game.
The controls in Crisis Core are spot on, except for a thing or two. The camera during exploration is rotatable with the "L" and "R" buttons, but doesn't always do what you want. In close corners, it might simply refuse to turn even if you are pressing down the buttons, but most of the time it did what I wanted it to. The camera gives you a clear view of the combat at all times, which is a must with as much combat as Crisis Core has. I know one complaint that some people might have is that once you pick a command, Zack will be uncontrollable until he executes the command, but I didn't find it a big deal at all. It is like that in the Tales series and I didn't mind it there either.
As mentioned before, the story in Crisis Core takes place 7 years before Final Fantasy VII. You play as Zack Fair, 2nd class SOLDIER operative. He is assigned to find a missing 1st class SOLDIER operative named Genesis with his best friend Angeal, another 1st class SOLDIER. Zack's dream is to become a 1st class SOLDIER operative himself, and with the help of Angeal he believes this to be possible. During their mission in Wutai (a place Final Fantasy VII veterans should remember) all of the soldiers Zack and Angeal are fighting appear to be clones of Genesis. Angeal believes this to be the work of a former Shinra scientist named Hollander. Angeal ends up going missing during the mission, leaving Zack to finish the job. SOLDIER tells Zack after the mission that they believe Angeal has sided with Hollander and Genesis and that they want Zack, along with Sephiroth, to hunt them down. The story takes some unexpected twists, but it eventually ends up at the point where the flashbacks take place in Final Fantasy VII. This is where the story truly shines as it helps the Final Fantasy VII veterans figure out exactly what happened to make Sephiroth snap and propel Cloud to stardom. Even the ending will come as no surprise if you have played Final Fantasy VII, but the ending is easily one of the most emotional and fulfilling endings I have ever experienced. Just like players were moved and brought to tears when Aeris died in Final Fantasy VII, they will absolutely be moved by the ending in Crisis Core.
The presentation in Crisis Core is absolutely stunning. Your senses will be hit, and hit hard. The graphics are some of the best yet seen on the PSP. All of the character models are superbly animated and look better than anything else I have seen on the PSP. The CG cutscenes shown for the major plot points are also the best looking I have seen on the PSP. The only minor quibble I have is that the areas and dungeons (mainly in the side missions) are all empty hallways and have no distinct style to them, but this is only a very minor quibble. While the graphics in Crisis Core are nothing to sneeze at, the soundtrack and voice acting are what really brought this game to life for me. The soundtrack pulls quite a bit of the classics from Final Fantasy VII and remixes them with a lot of guitar added in, much like in Advent Children. The entire soundtrack isn't from Final Fantasy VII though. There are a ton of new songs by new composer Takeharu Ishimoto (who has worked with Square in the past, but only as a synthesizer programmer). Takeharu did an outstanding job on the composition of the soundtrack and fills in the shoes of Nobuo Uematsu gracefully. His songs match with each emotion you feel from the story amazingly. The voice acting in Crisis Core is delivered by the same people from Square Enix's movie, Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, and is done remarkably well. Each character is brought to life and helps the story move along much better than even the original Final Fantasy VII did. If Square Enix ever does remake Final Fantasy VII, these voice actors better be in the game.
What makes Crisis Core so great isn't just one thing, it is many things. The presentation is the best I have seen on the PSP; the gameplay is simple and addictive with a great twist on the traditional JRPG, and the story is emotional and fulfilling. If you are a fan of the original Final Fantasy VII, Crisis Core is a must. Newcomers are welcome as well, but they may not understand everything the story has to offer. Crisis Core is absolutely the best original RPG I have played on the PSP and continues Final Fantasy VII's legacy in stunning fashion.