Let’s just get this out of the way: Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers. It’s a mouthful, even if I knew where to put the colon. Through the review, for everyone’s sanity, I’ll generally refer to the game as “The Crystal Bearers,” okay? Okay.
In 2004, Square Enix released the first game in what would become the Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles series for the GameCube. It featured a novel (if hard to utilize) approach to multiplayer action-based role-playing. Other titles have followed suit and improved upon this formula. In 2006, FFCC: The Crystal Bearers was announced and its details kept so much of a mystery that many thought the game to be cancelled until E3 2009. Breaking with series tradition of multiplayer-based gameplay, TCB presents a single-player adventure that’s not at all a typical Final Fantasy title, let alone a typical Crystal Chronicles title. So what does that mean? I’m glad you asked.
The story follows Layle, the teenage crystal bearer–one blessed with special powers and a birthmark of sorts to show for it–with a thirst for adventure. As one may expect in an RPG, his unique status as a bearer makes him either hated or feared by the world at large, as magic is a thing of the past. To a point, he’s the type of character that you’ve seen in other games, though despite his young age, he manages to bring with him a worldly sense of knowledge. It’s far too common to be put in control of characters like Layle and have them get on your nerves (and subsequently make you care just a little less about his story), so I was pleasantly surprised that I actually liked the guy. There’s a bit more to him than you’d expect; and the absence of a whiny voice does wonders.
Without getting too detailed, The Crystal Bearers tells a story that, to the best of my knowledge, is stand-alone in the series, yet also rooted in its origins, dating back to the first game. As usual, the world is made of of four races: the Clavat, Lilty, Selkie and Yuke tribes. At this point in history, the Yukes have vanished, until one shows up early on with a mysterious agenda. Who the Yuke is and what they’re after is the backbone of the plot, along with a dash of political and racial tension. The overall story may not be the deepest or most original out there, but it’s well-constructed and paced well enough that it doesn’t bore or drag on. The ‘racial’ thing I mentioned is something I found fairly interesting; maybe it’s not a new concept in games, but I liked that there was a realistic tension between the Lilties and Selkies, who are both humanoid tribes. You see this frequently in games, but it’s often between humans and some form of demon or something decidedly non-human in appearance. So while not a major thing, it helps paint a realistic world.
What possibly doesn’t help in this ‘realistic world’ scenario is interaction with NPCs; there pretty much isn’t any. It’s a very strange thing to have bustling towns full of people but be unable to talk to them. Only a select few have something to say and they’re marked with speech bubbles. It does make some areas feel lonelier than they should, though it does spare one from the age-old process of “talk to every NPC you see in case one of them randomly triggers an event or gives you that one piece of information you need to hear for the story to advance.” In that sense it’s a blessing. Most of your text reading will come to you from deliveries by the Mail Moogles in the forms of letters that tip you off on things to do, or magazines that discuss the goings-on in the world and share pertinent information about monsters and their loot.
That brings us to equipment, which employs a system that I wonder may have inspired that of Final Fantasy XIII–or vice versa–lacking in weapons and armor. Since Layle battles with his telekinetic powers, he has no need for weapons. Or, apparently, helmets, shields and the like. Since there’s also no levels or experience, all of your stats are based on three types of equipment: rings, amulets and earrings. Some can be purchased, but most are created using materials dropped from monsters or found in chests. Collecting the proper materials to upgrade your gear is not only key in gaining power, it’s the only way to do so.
Paramount to the experience of the game is its gameplay. Crystal Bearers was very clearly developed with the Wii in mind, which is made clear within minutes of playing. Movement is handled via the nunchuk’s analog stick as you would imagine, with virtually all interaction and attacks built around the Wii Remote’s pointer and accelerometer functions. Layle is armed with only his bearer powers, which is fancy talk for telekinesis. An on-screen cursor allows you to grab enemies, people, moogles, stones, steel girders, cacti, postboxes, you name it–and a flick of the Wii Remote will cause you to toss them aside haphazardly (by flicking sideways) or pick them up (by flicking upwards) and so on. On a basic level, this is par for the course for many Wii titles, but the ability to choose how you use the objects goes a long way in making the game fun to play and not simply another “point, click and waggle” affair that so many titles fall victim to. There are many ways to defeat certain enemies, and only by moving/turning/throwing things in the proper fashion will you be able to accomplish certain tasks. Enemies can be thrown into each other, or attacked with objects in the environment. Tossing an explosive cannon shell into a Sahagin is just good fun, though the shining example of why the system works is during battle with the Demon Wall. One of many classic enemies borrowed from the mainline Final Fantasy series, its an ever-moving wall adorned with two demons and a door. In order to stop its advancement, players must first slide open the door to reveal a weak point, and then pull the demons towards the center to damage it all while avoiding its attacks. The quicker you defeat the wall, the better your rewards will be.
That’s the basics of combat and interaction, but the thing that probably concerns most RPG players is the fear that The Crystal Bearers is a glorified collection of mini-games. It’s true that there’s several mini-game-type events throughout the main story, and yes, most are required to play. The thing is, it’s a disservice to call them “mini-games,” because besides bringing to mind images of Moogle Air Hockey or Hungry Hungry Malboros, and that’s not what you get. All of these “events” (as I like to call them) are related to the plot and only serve to bring you closer to the on-screen action. A pivotal chase scene later in the game could have easily been relegated to a non-interactive cut scene , leaving you a mere spectator. Instead, the developers put you in control and throw on a timer and special rewards based on your performance. Some feature familiar controls while others have a unique twist. I admit that the footage shown leading up to the game’s release had me worried that the game would boil down to a host of mini-games loosely tied together, but I’m more than pleased to learn I was wrong.
Hardly unique in today’s world of Xbox Live Achievements and PlayStation Network Trophies are TCB’s Medals. That isn’t a knock against the game: with Nintendo’s continuing lack of any kind of online community like its competition, it’s a welcome addition to a Wii title that normally wouldnt give players this kind of thing. There are over 300 medals in all, awarded for the mundane (collecting your first Board Game!) to the expected (clearing an area of enemies) to the fun (angering a tonberry queen, prompting her to whip out her chainsaw). All completely optional, but nice for us completionists.
Graphically, The Crystal Bearers is one of the best-looking Wii games out there. I mean that sincerely, not as a “good by Wii standards” backhanded compliment. Like Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, it’s a reminder that while the Wii isn’t as powerful as its peers, it’s capable of far more than we think, or often see in other titles. The beauty of the game isn’t in its polygon count though, but its art direction. The FFCC series has always had a certain style to it, and while I’m not smart enough to be able to describe it in an artistic sense, that style is alive here in everything from the character and monster designs to the bulbous cacti in the desert, to–yes, I’m getting specific here–the animation of a Bomb exploding. Trust me on that last one, I single it out for a reason. There’s a cool stop-motion effect that’s hard to describe, but fun to see.
Complementing the visuals themselves is the camera work employed. Many RPGs have a habit of dropping a camera somewhere in the distance and letting the story unfold, providing a scene that’s boring to watch. During these scenes I find myself wishing someone would take a cue from movies or TV and mix it up a bit, and playing TCB, I finally stopped having those thoughts. The camera is dynamic, it moves, it focuses on people when it should, and there’s some interesting angles at work. At times the view even shakes a little, as if it was filmed with a handheld camera. It’s a nice touch that makes it feel like someone is actually there filming these events, and brings you that much further into what’s going on.
Somewhat related to camera work, I’d be remiss not to mention the game’s built-in screenshot utility. It’s fun to play around with, and while it serves little purpose in the grand scheme of things, it’s an interesting addition. You can see a collection of screens that I took along my journey on our Facebook page.
I’ll touch on the music only a bit, as I’ll be getting more in-depth in my review of the soundtrack. Like the game itself, the music is all over the place but in a good way. Just as you’ll be fighting a malboro one moment and saving the farm from laser-eyed rocket pack-equipped scarecrows the next, the music is incredibly diverse. The game opens with a disappointingly-short orchestral track that while simple, quickly became one of my favorite such pieces in my collection. In the afore-mentioned farm and wildlands area, you’re treated to a very ‘wild west’ type of music, while battle themes range from whimsical to rock ‘n roll. There’s a bit of roarin’ 20s, a song that sounds like it belongs in a 1950s teenage beach movie, and more. It sounds like the music is all over the place–and it is–but it’s nothing that ever feels out of place, and fits each area and event well.
I know this has been a fairly glowing review, but despite that, I probably wouldn’t recommend The Crystal Bearers to everyone. It very much does its own thing, and with its gameplay and quirky charm, I can see how it wouldn’t appeal to someone looking for a hardcore RPG experience. Me, I like quirky. In the end, The Crystal Bearers manages to be a somewhat simple but entertaining adventure, but one that is polished and put together with care, for the sole purpose of entertaining the player. From the opening sequence shooting a zu swarm out of the sky to the epic final battle that gives some of my favorite boss fights a run for their money, I was never bored in my 24 hours with the game. Plus, there’s a “New Game+” mode that carries over your equipment and medals, so there’s some definite replay value.
What all this means is that The Crystal Bearers is proof that making a fantastic game takes more than horsepower and plot twists. It takes a keen eye, a solid artistic vision and a desire to simply let people have fun and enjoy themselves.
And cows that shoot milk beams from their udders. Naturally.