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.
Regardless of whether you love or hate the endlessly debated Final Fantasy VII, there’s no getting around the fact that it’s one of the most well-known games Square Enix has ever produced. A few years back, Square Enix saw the massive potential to cash in on the FFVII name, and created the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII–a series of games and movies designed to flesh out the narrative. This sounded like a great idea at the time, but everything that has resulted up to this point has been abysmal, in my opinion. Thankfully, Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII finally does the series justice and ends up being one of the most enjoyable RPGs on the PSP.
Crisis Core is set seven years prior to the events of the original Final Fantasy VII and stars Zack Fair, a member of the Shinra corporation’s SOLDIER group who has been assigned to track down a missing SOLDIER member named Genesis. Somebody going missing wouldn’t be a huge problem, except that clones of Genesis have been attacking Shinra headquarters and it’s believed that Shinra’s former scientist, Hollander, is behind the mayhem. Fortunately, Sephiroth is on your side this time around, along with a number of other FFVII veterans. That alone should be enough to please the innumerable fans who simply want to see a pre-emo Cloud or a pre-skewered Aeris. As you’d expect from a good prequel, all of the returning characters get a significant chunk of backstory to flesh out their roles, and the events leading up to Final Fantasy VII are explored in far more detail. Crisis Core doesn’t use the returning cast as a crutch, though; newcomers to the FFVII mythos are both interesting and well-developed over the course of the game. It doesn’t hurt that the plot as a whole makes far more sense than the original FFVII’s story ever did, so if you’re afraid of being dragged into an incoherent mess, you can rest easy. As has become standard for a Final Fantasy, most of the story is told through flashy, often over-the-top cinematics; but these are wisely kept to concise, two minute chunks that mesh well with the portable setting. The one thing hampering the storyline is the dialogue, which is on the wooden side and can sound awkward from time to time. Even so, it doesn’t detract too much from the otherwise enjoyable plot and characters.
Zack’s quest is more combat-heavy than perhaps any FF entry to date, so the revamped battle system is exciting. Enemies in Crisis Core are randomly encountered, but that’s where similarities to the original FFVII end. Turn-based combat has been abandoned in favor of real-time duels, and the only character you need to worry about is Zack. The most basic actions are attacking, using materia for magic or special attacks, and using items; all of which are listed on the command bar in the bottom right of the screen. Once you’ve selected an action, simply hit X and you’ll perform it on the spot. Zack is far from invincible, though, so it’s imperative that you learn to block and evade enemy attacks, and do it well. Timing is crucial, as is knowing which defensive maneuver to use in a given situation, because even regular enemies can send Zack to his grave if you aren’t careful. It all plays out very smoothly, though, and thanks to the responsive controls, you’ll never have an issue with making Zack do exactly what you want him to. The end result is a fast-paced, fun, and addictive system that actually requires skill and reflexes to succeed. Sure, it’s a dramatic departure from what fans are used to, but it absolutely works.
Crisis Core also introduces a slot reel system (dubbed the Digital Mind Wave system in-game), but it’s undoubtedly the game’s biggest weakness. As Zack gets into fights, three slots with character portraits begin to spin. If the left and right slots stop at the same character, it’s time to get excited, because the DMW then halts the battle and gives you a chance to reap some rewards. When this happens, the middle reel will start spinning, and if it also stops at the same character, Zack will unleash a devastating attack or receive some sort of aid. This aspect of the slot reels, while random, spices up the battles quite a bit. Where things go wrong is that leveling up is also controlled by these reels–there are no experience points. Once the reels stop, a number appears in each of the three slots. If the same number appears multiple times, one of Zack’s materias will level up. If three sevens appear, Zack himself will gain a level. Adding an element of randomness to character growth is a bizarre and nonsensical design choice, but because the reels are far more “generous” when fighting tough enemies, the system still works fairly well. Still, experience points would have made for a less confusing game and one that doesn’t feel so arbitrary.
Apart from leveling up, you can customize Zack by equipping up to four accessories and six different materias for use in battle. It’s straightforward, but there is a wealth of equipment to choose from. Making things more interesting is the creative Materia Fusion system, where you take different types of materia and combine them (along with items, if you choose) to create a new, hopefully more powerful spell. There are countless combinations to be discovered and the strength of the resulting product depends on how leveled up your current materia is, so there’s a good bit of depth to the system.
If you just can’t get enough of the combat or want a real challenge, there are dozens of optional side missions for you to take on. Zack can check which missions are available to him at any save point with new assignments doled out as you progress through the game or talk to NPCs. Most of these side-quests play out in much the same way, ultimately tasking you with killing a certain monster. As you can probably tell, these are fairly simple diversions, but they serve as a good way to strengthen Zack and earn some useful items as rewards. If you skip the missions altogether, Crisis Core should clock in at a lean 12-15 hours, but tackling these side quests will tack several hours onto the length, so it’s certainly worthwhile if you want to get everything you can out of the game.
Square Enix went all out on Crisis Core’s presentation, and it shows. Graphically, this is one of the most impressive games on the PSP. Characters are stunningly detailed and expressive in their animations. The environments are similarly impressive and breathe new life into the familiar sights you’ll encounter. Of course, the requisite CG movies you’d expect from Square also make an appearance and are as beautiful as anything the studio has ever done. The soundtrack is decent, though some of the new songs are forgettable. There’s a heavy skew toward rock, but a few of the pieces sound more like the abuse of guitars than music. A number of remixed songs from the original game have found their way into Crisis Core, though, and these are undoubtedly the best the soundtrack has to offer. The voice acting is generally spot-on with all of the characters being well-cast, and while it doesn’t fix the goofy dialog, it does lend everyone some personality.
It’s about time. After multiple disappointments, Square Enix has finally concocted a worthwhile game in the FFVII universe that feels like more than a mere cash-in. If you’re a FFVII fan, your purchase decision should already be made, but even if you aren’t a fan, Crisis Core’s excellent gameplay and strong storyline make it worthwhile nonetheless.