Review: Final Fantasy VII: Dirge of Cerberus (PS2)


Final Fantasy VII: Dirge of Cerberus
Genre: 3rd person shooter/action/adventure
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: 8/15/06

Before we begin with this review, I’d like to issue a disclaimer of sorts. If you’re a diehard, hardcore fan of Final Fantasy VII, do yourself a favor: stop reading. Close the window, back up the browser, save yourself of the trouble of reading through this.

This is not for you.

That’s not because I’m negatively predisposed to anything named after FFVII (I’m not), or even anything named Final Fantasy at all (I’m definitely not). It’s not because I’m worried about offending someone (I’m not). And it’s not even because I expect this to change your opinion of the title in any way, because I don’t.

And that’s the point: you already have your opinion of this title, and anything I have to say will be a waste of your time. You might agree with what I have to say, but if you disagree, it won’t make much of a difference: this isn’t for you.

This is for everyone else.

For those of you who’ve either missed or avoided it all these years, back in the day, FFVII was a pretty big deal. Former Nintendo exclusive developer Squaresoft decided to side with the at the time newest console on the market, the Sony Playstation, as an exclusive developer, which pretty much shocked the hell out of everyone. Within a short time, Square came forth and let everyone know that they meant business with the announcement of Final Fantasy VII, and the screenshots that came along with it pretty much convinced everyone in the industry that they were serious.

Ten years and something like six million sales later, FFVII has become a an undeniably successful, if polarizing, title in the RPG genre; you either love it or hate it, but you can’t deny it was a success. So it makes some amount of sense that Square would attempt to go back to the well to cash in on the idea a time or two more; you can’t argue with success, and with the exception of the Kingdom Hearts franchise, very few (if any) of their titles have sold as well as FFVII.

Enter Dirge of Cerberus. Meant to appeal to a different sort of (read: wider) audience from the FFVII crowd, DoC is a full-on action title in the Devil May Cry/Max Payne/Gungrave vein, starring presumably immortal secondary character Vincent Valentine. It’s also one of several pieces of back story that pull together what is supposed to be a long, complex backstory in the FFVII world, encompassing several Japanese only games and the direct to DVD film “Advent Children”. DoC is a unique take on the franchise, but the question is, is the story it’s trying to tell compelling enough to merit existence? And more importantly, is it a good enough game to stand on its own, or is it just one mediocre part of a whole?

Let’s take a look.


1. STORY


Three years after the events of FFVII (or maybe it’s three years after Advent Children; I’m all screwed up on the time periods… it’s three years after something, let’s go with that), the Shinra Corporation has been broken down, but their legacy remains. It seems that an organization known as Deepground (which is composed of various Shinra experimental soldiers) is interested in following in the footsteps of the (stubbornly) deceased Sephiroth; in other words, they want to wipe out humanity and end the world. To do so, they begin staging raids on towns with the intention of kidnapping people, while simultaneously hunting one Vincent Valentine, he of virtually no existing backstory. Vincent takes exception to this, of course, and after some prodding from his friends, he embarks on a quest to not only take down Deepground, but to also clarify his past, which seems to be rooted to Deepground as well.

I suppose if you’re going to make a spin-off like DoC, Vincent’s one of the best characters you could choose for the role because, as noted, he has virtually no story to speak of and can be molded as you see fit. And hey, he’s probably the fourth most popular character from FFVII (behind Aeris, Sephiroth, and Cloud, natch), so people would be willing to play a game with him as the title character. That said, the story here isn’t terribly interesting, because:

1.) It does absolutely nothing to introduce new players to the world of FFVII. DoC expects that you’ve not only played FFVII, but remember a nearly decade old title well enough to be able to follow the story with no issues. Things like mako, the Turks, the Shinra Corporation, and Cait Sith (and other characters, but he’s easily the most absurd of the lot) pop up at various points with no real explanation given for their existence, and if you haven’t played FFVII (or barely remember it), it’s easy to get lost. This might seem like a sniveling little complaint until you realize that, yes, FFVII is about a DECADE old, and aside from Advent Children (which, oddly enough, suffers from the exact same problem), there’s nothing available to really give the players the heads up as to just what the bloody blue hell is going on half of the time. As an example, in the introductory cinematic, we get about ten minutes of Yuffie leading a clean-up mission for one reason or another, which is a nice little “Hey, look” moment for fans, but for those who are uninitiated will simply wonder what’s going on, and why they should care. This, sadly, is a feeling that will follow such players through the remainder of the game.

2.) It’s wholly unoriginal. Lesee… character discovers, while trying to stop a doom cult from ending the world, that the things he believes to be true may well be a lie, due in large part to experimentation performed upon him by an evil corporation. Hmmm… that plot concept seems so familiar… where have I seen that before…

Oh. That’s right. Now I remember.

I mean, come on. Odd flashbacks, questioning one’s memories, genetic experiments, the only difference between the two concepts is the name of the ultimate villain of the title (not like it matters that much).

3.) There’s entirely too much of it. When over a third of your game is storyline exposition, that’s a bit much, especially for an action game. Now, this sort of thing CAN be done properly, to an extent, provided your storyline is strong, however…

4.) The writing is rather clichÃÆ’©. Evil enemy force brought together from the machinations of the diabolical experiments of the Shinra Corporation? That was a founding basis for the plots of both FFVII and Advent Children, that it’s appearing in a THIRD FFVII-based plotline is lazy. Brainwashed family members now turned to the side of evil? Got it. Hero with a mysterious past, who used to work for the enemy? Got it, and had it in FFVII. I mean, maybe I have unreasonable expectations for a plot, but I’d like to see DIFFERENT things sometimes, guys.

5.) Color-coded villains. Let me put this out there for reference: dressing a guy in blue and naming him “Blue” is bland and basic. Dressing a guy in blue and naming him something like “Cobalt Richmond” is cute and tolerable. Dressing a guy in blue and naming him “Azul the Cerulean” (Blue the Blue) is pretentious, stupid, and insulting. That Square-Enix felt the need to do this three definite times (and possibly four, but I don’t speak Hindi, so I don’t know what “Shelke” means) just screams “LAZY” in a loud, nasally voice.


Also, it seems odd to have various Spanish, Italian, Hindi and Russian words in the game when we’re given the indication that the world of FFVII is a fantasy world that is far removed from a world such as ours. One thing you can normally say about Square Enix is that they make the attempt to create unique worlds for each of their titles, and seeing cultural elements that don’t seem to exist in the world of FFVII pop up throughout the story of DoC, again, seems very lazy, especially when compared to the distinct LACK of this problem in the game this title is spun off of.

To its credit, DoC does introduce several unique characters to make up the supporting cast, and what characters that DO overlap from FFVII either only do so in cameos or are themselves formerly secondary characters that benefit nicely from a larger part in this title. But that doesn’t really excuse the rehashing of plot elements, clichÃÆ’©d storytelling, and generally elementary writing. FFVII fans might enjoy the references to previous events and characters, and might be willing to overlook the basic story elements, but everyone else will probably left wondering if they’re missing something, which isn’t the mark of good storytelling.

Story Rating: 2/10


2. GRAPHICS


Let’s get this out of the way up front: the CGI cutscenes are some of the must beautiful rendered works I’ve ever seen, and prove once again that Square Enix make some of the best cinematics in the business. You will be hard pressed to find anything that looks better than the cinemas in DoC, largely because there are truly few things that ARE better looking.

That said, the actual gameplay graphics are pretty mediocre. The character models are all decent, but considering that I’ve played multiple games in the past year on the PS2 that look better than this, I’m hardly impressed. Vincent himself looks acceptable, but his hair looks really weird for some reason. Most of the rest of the characters look stylistically sound, but technically uninteresting (in other words, they look pretty artistically, but the poly count seems low and unpolished). The various enemies you face down throughout the game repeat to the point of realizing you’re facing down the same five or six enemies for the entire title, which is additionally bland. Level designs are repetitive and uninteresting, which is quite a feat; when you can make running around a mako reactor or an airship boring, well, that takes some kind of serious talent in the art of producing boring.

All told, though, while the game doesn’t look terribly great, especially in comparison to something like God of War, Shadow of the Colossus, or Resident Evil 4, it’s not ugly either. The look of the game is simply flat; nothing really brings any sort of life or appeal to the table, and it’s all rather drab and uninteresting. But for the most part, the visuals are technically sound, and you won’t find there to be any frame rate or glitching issues, so what you’re ultimately left with is a technically sound but uninteresting visual experience.

Graphics Rating: 6/10


3. SOUND

The in-game music is overall quite good. Some of it is stylistically odd (one chapter, for instance, features music that seems as if it were patterned after an episode of Hercule Poirot), but this doesn’t make it any less effective. It all sounds interesting and works with the tone of the game nicely, and you’ll definitely enjoy it. Plus, in the continuing trend of Square Enix recruiting Japanese musicians that I’ve actually heard of and rather like to do songs for their games, Gackt contributed the theme song, and it of course rocks. He also makes an appearance in the game, which will either excite you more than you already were about the title, leave you wondering why you should care, or leave you wanting to play Bujingai.

Don’t ask me to explain it, just go look it up.

The voice acting is largely all solid and acceptable, especially Vincent’s voice work. It’s very dark and raspy, and about what you’d expect from the character. However, it DOES seem a little… familiar… like the voice actor was trying for something else, somehow. He sounded like he was trying to emulate someone… I don’t remember…

Oh. Oh, yeah.

The rest of the voice actors are also quite solid, and most of them reprise their roles from Advent Children for those who are interested (Yuffie, according to IMDB, does not however, which is kind of surprising given the size of her part, but her present voice actress is pretty good). As noted prior, I’m not thrilled about the voice actors representing cultures that don’t exist in the game universe (Rosso the Crimson and her Russian accent, for instance), but the voice work is good enough that one can ignore it.

And to round it all out, the various sound effects are solid and reasonably acceptable, but aren’t terribly exciting in comparison to games of similar design. The gunshots sound like gunshots, et al, but they lack the punch and oomph (with the exception of the chaingun, which sounds appropriately powerful) one would expect. Overall, though, the aural presentation is very solid and likeable, which is to be expected from Square Enix. It’s not perfect, but it is pretty damn good.

Sound Rating: 8/10


4. CONTROL/GAMEPLAY


The simplest way one can describe the gameplay of DoC is to say “Take Devil May Cry, combine with Resident Evil 4, toss in a small amount of stealth elements, and shake vigorously”. That’s somewhat limited, though, so I’ll try to clear that up a bit. Basically, DoC is a 3rd person shooter with some platformer and melee combat elements. You have your standard melee attack (which can combo for three hits), jump, and shooting actions, but there are a few other things to take into consideration before you start blasting. The firing button doesn’t immediately start firing; rather, pressing it once brings up a targeting circle, which essentially means you’re in shooting mode, and pressing the firing button from that point onward shoots enemies. The game does a reasonable job of auto-targeting enemies within that circle, though there’s no way to lock on to enemies beyond that. You can also manually aim at enemies if you’d rather, and this is of benefit, as it allows for headshots, though it can be difficult to accomplish in pitched firefights. You can also beat the crap out of enemies with the aforementioned melee attacks, which Vincent can accomplish while standing or jumping, for some added variety. You can also crouch, for the odd stealth movement or to maneuver under obstacles. You’re also provided items called “Limit Breakers”, which allow Vincent to transform briefly into a demon of sorts, which not only makes his attacks stronger, but fills his life bar up and allows him to fire projectiles without losing bullets (as the projectiles are magic). The combat mechanics are similar between forms, though, so you shouldn’t have any problems adjusting. The game also supports keyboard and mouse controls, in case you’re one of the fifty people who own both a PS2 keyboard and mouse and want to play the game in a more FPS style.

But there’s a lot more to the game than that. Vincent has a couple of different types of guns he can equip, and each gun can be tricked out with different statistical upgrades and attachments to build it into a gun for any occasion. You can also save up to three gun configurations, which can be switched on the fly to really prepare for any occasion. You’re also given an inventory screen ALA FFVII, from which you can customize said guns as well as use items you possess (though items can also be hot-keyed for in-battle use). Your guns can be equipped with all sorts of different items, including barrels, scopes, Materia (which allows you to fire magically charged shots, at the cost of magic points), and other various knick-knacks that increase various stats. The customization options are fairly in-depth and solidly designed, and the option of being able to maintain multiple gun configurations adds additional depth to the system while making it more user friendly.


You’re also afforded the option to not only find many of the power-ups and items you would need throughout the course of the experience, but shop for them as well. In between missions and at various jukeboxes (yeah, jukeboxes), you can “go shopping”, acquiring yourself the various items you will need throughout the game, as well as upgrading your weaponry in various ways. All of these transactions require gil, which can be acquired off of the bodies of some of the dead, in item boxes, or by trading the EXP you receive at the end of the chapters. Alternatively, of course, you can use that EXP to boost Vincent’s stats, which raise his ability to survive as well as his ability to deal damage.

All of that said, however, the game suffers from some serious flaws that hamper the enjoyment a bit. First and foremost, the repetitive level designs and enemies are complimented, and not in a positive way, by the repetitive gameplay. With the exception of an unwelcome stealth mission (seriously, does EVERYONE have to do stealth missions these days) and the final chapter, the game is essentially the exact same experience from start to finish. You can play the game any number of different ways with any number of different weaponry if you so choose, but in most cases you can simply run about with the default pistol blowing away everything you see. The game gives you no incentive to vary your combat or techniques, and little incentive to do anything but shoot things a lot. There’s a dearth of weaponry; even with the hidden guns, RE4 had a larger variety of more interesting weaponry, and the upgrading options were more interesting, to boot. Boss battles aren’t much better; circle-strafing and firing like mad will take care of most bosses, and if you have a Limit Breaker, even better. Speaking of the Limit Breaker, didn’t Vincent have FOUR Limit Breaks in FFVII? So why is he only allowed the use of one here?

In fact, here’s an absolutely perfect example: prior to Chapter Eight, you’re given an absolutely awesome cutscene depicting the beginning of the battle between the WRO and Deepground. It’s a very pretty, very nicely rendered cutscene that culminates in Vincent hover surfing down into battle. Nice job, guys. But couldn’t you have maybe, possibly, oh, I dunno, PUT TOGETHER A PLAYABLE HOVER SURFING MINI-GAME INSTEAD? Or, for that matter, maybe given us a stage where we could play as Yuffie or something? Anything to break up the monotony.

And speaking of the cutscenes, another major problem with DoC is that there’s simply too much story exposition, and the game suffers for it. A nine hour game with four hours of cutscenes is ridiculous, and there are many points where you have to sit through twenty or more minutes of storyline exposition just to get to the next action sequence. In an RPG, this is tolerable (though disagreeable) because RPG’s are meant to be about the storyline, at least in part. In a third person shooter, this is borderline insanity, and someone should have realized that this was the case.

The game also seems like a lot of disconnected parts of other, better titles most of the time. Lesee… hand to hand combat, demon transformations, platforming sequences? Devil May Cry. Third person shooter, gun customization, shopping for stuff? Resident Evil 4 (and in some respects, DMC). The only thing that doesn’t feel like it came from some other game is the ability to equip different peripherals onto your guns, and that’s not so exciting as to justify the experience. If the game mechanics were the peak of perfection, this might not be the case, but they aren’t, sadly. Aside from the aforementioned lack of a need for weapon variety and lack of Limit Breaks, Vincent never learns any additional hand-to-hand combat maneuvers, either, which only adds to the repetition. The camera, while solid in third-person shooting mode, is difficult to work with outside of that, and isn’t terribly friendly. And the game is incredibly linear, to the point where it feels like the game is holding your hand and showing you where to go throughout the experience.

All in all, though, DoC isn’t so much “bad” as it is “meh”. It does the same things over and over and over again, to the point where the term “repetition” is redundant. It plays okay, it feels okay, and you should be able to work with it and even extract some enjoyment from it. Unfortunately, the complete lack of variety combined with the jerky pacing make the title uninteresting beyond the first two hours, and only the most diehard fans of the genre (or FFVII fans) will be willing to see it through to the end. A little more variety and a little less “HEY LOOK HERE’S SOME STORY” would have done the game wonders, but as it is, it’s thoroughly uninspiring.

Control/Gameplay Rating: 4/10


5. REPLAYABILITY

Beating the game unlocks a crapload of playable extra missions, which is good, so long as you care about the actual game itself enough to be bothered playing through them. The various missions themselves feature some interesting restrictions that might have perhaps livened up the game somewhat, but on their own they’re acceptable. There are also hidden things to discover throughout the course of the game that, when shot, unlock event cinematics, extra missions, and art galleries, among other things. It’s good to see that a lot of attention was paid to giving players a reason to return to DoC, but in this case, the game would have been better served giving players a reason to get to a point where they’d want to come back. The plethora of extra knick-knacks that exist in the title are great, but they don’t serve to really make the game one you’ll want to come back to and play again if you weren’t that excited with the gameplay in the first place. On the other hand, if the pacing is your major issue, this will give you plenty to do outside of the context of the story.

Replayability Rating: 6/10


6. BALANCE

There are a couple different difficulty levels to choose from (including a Very Hard difficulty, which was apparently added to the American release, while the Japanese game’s Easy difficulty was excised), and on the easiest difficulty, Normal, the game is something of a cakewalk. The AI is marginally competent, and capable of putting up something of a challenge, but even on harder difficulties DoC shouldn’t prove much of a challenge for someone who’s skilled in the genre. The hardest thing about the game is figuring out how to work with the control scheme and gameplay, and once that’s figured out, the game becomes substantially easier. There are occasional challenges to be found, but they’re the exception, not the rule; the rule is that unless you’re a beginner, you won’t have much trouble with DoC.

Balance Rating: 5/10


7. ORIGINALITY

The ability to customize your guns with various attachments, change them on the fly, and retain multiple configurations of them is certainly interesting and somewhat novel. The rest of the game, sadly, feels like a mish-mash of concepts from other, better games. Practically everything here is something you’ve seen elsewhere, and DoC does nothing to make these borrowed concepts new and interesting. The result feels like a disjointed cross between Devil May Cry and Gungrave that retains none of the charm or original presentation of either.

But at least they didn’t use bullet time. I’ll accept the stealth mission, but at least they let bullet time rest in peace. Thank God for that, if nothing else.

Originality Rating: 2/10


8. ADDICTIVENESS

If you’re a fan of FVII, you’ll be addicted to the storyline. Otherwise, there’s not much here to keep you coming back. Aside from the final battle and the one stealth (ugh) stage in the game, everything is the same, from top to bottom. You might find yourself amused for an hour or two, but when you realize that yes, this is it, for the rest of the entire game, your interest begins to wane. DoC doesn’t do a lot to keep you involved in what’s going on, and between the repetitive gameplay and frequent breaks in the action due to cutscenes, there’s not really a lot to get addicted TO.

Addictiveness Rating: 4/10


9. APPEAL FACTOR

Ahem.

6 million sold, and a rabid fanbase that continues to discuss the game to this day.

I think that’s all that needs to be said.

Appeal Rating: 9/10


10. MISCELLANEOUS


The saddest thing I can say about DoC is it feels like there’s a GOOD game trying to fight its way out of this mess. As noted, some variety and a lot less storyline would have made the game pretty much acceptable outside of its context, and some hand holding for those who are uninitiated to the world the game is based in would have helped broaden the appeal immensely.

Sadly, this isn’t the case. What we’re left with is a title that appeals to one group, and one group only: fans of FFVII. If you fall into that group, and you’re still reading this, I will say simply that if you’re on the fence, by all means rent it. The storyline is something you’ll probably enjoy, and you’ll be able to muddle through the game and enjoy it more than most. And hey, it’s got all your old favorite characters, that’s a good enough reason to play it, yeah?

But for everyone else, this is a bland, poorly paced, thinly veiled rehash of about ten games you’ve already played that were more fun and more interesting than this. If the fact that it’s like a bunch of better games doesn’t put you off, the fact that you’re constantly stopping to watch cinematics that talk about a story you’re unfamiliar with will, and if that doesn’t, the unvarying gameplay chapter after chapter will. The game isn’t so much bad as it is not worth your $50, simply because it wasn’t made for you. It was made for fans of a game you either never played or didn’t care for, and this game is going to do absolutely nothing to suddenly make you care when you didn’t ten years ago.

Miscellaneous Rating: 3/10

The Scores:
Story: 2/10
Graphics: 6/10
Sound: 8/10
Control/Gameplay: 4/10
Replayability: 6/10
Balance: 5/10
Originality: 2/10
Addictiveness: 4/10
Appeal: 9/10
Miscellaneous: 3/10

Overall Score: 4.9/10
Final Score: 5.0 (AVERAGE).

Short Attention Span Summary
When the nicest things I can say about a game are “the theme song is nice”, “the CGI sure is pretty” and “the voice acting is pretty good”, well, that’s not terribly good. Repetitive gameplay, average graphics, poor pacing and a “been there, done that” feeling all contribute to a mediocre at best experience that will only satisfy the FFVII purists, who will and should absolutely love this. There are far better games out there than Dirge of Cerberus, and you’d be hard pressed to find a reason to buy it. Unless you’re a Gackt fan, in which case, buy Bujingai; it’s cheaper.