Review: Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles: Echoes of Time (Nintendo DS)

Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles: Echoes of Time
Genre: Action RPG
Developer: Square-Enix
Publisher: Square-Enix
Release Date: 03/24/09

Previously, Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles was known for having one of the highest entry cost for any video game save for Steel Battalion. Released for the Gamecube in 2003, playing Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles required having a Gamecube, a copy of the game itself, a Gameboy Advance, and a connection cable between the handheld and the console. As a primarily multiplayer game, you also needed to have friends who also happened to own Gameboy Advance systems and the corresponding connection cables in order to really get the full enjoyment out of the game. Even if you went through all of that trouble, FF:CC was, at best, a mediocre dungeon crawl.

Determined not to let the spin off of the popular RPG series die off as a failed experiment, Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles returns for a third time (The fourth if you count the WiiWare My Life as a King) with Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles: Echoes of Time, which at least has the unique distinction of having perhaps the longest name for a DS game. From this point on, I’ll refer to it as merely Echoes of Times.

With a sequel that requires much less of an entry cost than the original Crystal Chronicles game, it is already more appealing than the original title. In the beginning of the game you are asked to create a character that is either male or female from one of four different tribes. These tribes essentially act as various character classes. One class is better at melee combat, another at magic, another can double jump, and so on. By default, the game suggests that the melee class is the best for beginners. The art style of the game is similar to the original FF:CC and the recent Final Fantasy remakes for the Nintendo DS. They designs are child-like and androgynous. While the game gives you a chance to choose between male or female options at the beginning of the game, if the game hadn’t told me which character model was male, I wouldn’t have been able to tell on my own.

After choosing and naming a character, the story starts with your standard RPG story about a character coming of age and getting caught up in grand events while eventually being tasked with saving the world. While this type of story is pretty typical for this genre, it felt more cliche than it usually does. Part of this might be because it doesn’t matter what gender or class you choose or anything else as the story stays the same. Instead of strong supporting characters with rich personalities and detailed back stories that join your party throughout the game, you instead get the chance to create some AI mercenaries to join you, if you so choose. It just feels like an excuse to create some dungeons to hack through.

Visually the game looks fantastic on the DS. 3-D brightly colored sprites and backgrounds cover the screen from an isometric perspective. The character models all look fairly well detailed, and there are a lot of different costume and armor options that are unlocked throughout the game to outfit your character with. The enemy and boss designs look good and there are times when a lot of spell effects will be going off without any slowdown.

The only downside to the graphics are the constant re-use of enemy models with different colors to represent different element affiliations. It doesn’t matter to me if an enemy is now blue and is more prone to fire, then red and more prone to water. If it looks the same throughout the whole game, then that’s lame. There are plenty of different enemies, but there are a handful of them that are used so many times with palette swaps that it becomes obnoxious.

The reuse of graphics isn’t just limited to enemy types. After a certain point in the game, you have to go through the same dungeons. Throw a two or whatever at the end of the name of the dungeon name – that doesn’t change the fact that the dungeons look the same. Even worse, the annoying puzzles that unlock a door to another area of the dungeon are pretty much same each time you go through them, flip a switch here and move a block there. The only difference is that the enemies get harder.

Music has always been a highlight of any Final Fantasy game, and Echoes of Time is no different. The game has some great background music and sound effects. More impressively, the story cut scenes in the game feature voice acting. Maybe I’m easily impressed since so few games on the DS feature voice acting, but I liked this addition. It adds a new dimension to the main bad guy’s laugh when you can actually hear his evil cackle.

The game stays true to most dungeon crawling mechanics. You press a button to attack, and pressing it multiple times results in a combo. The main point in the game is to travel from one end of a dungeon to the next hacking through enemies and collecting loot. There are a few ways that Echoes of Time tries to mix up the usual formula. The main difference is how the game handles magic. Instead of assigning magic to the buttons on the DS, the game displays several different colored tabs on the touch screen. Tap one and a cursor will appear under your character on the top screen, then you use the D-Pad to move the cursor onto an enemy or ally. After gaining a few levels, the game lets you stack magical spells, which is a great idea. If you add multiple fire spells onto one target, it will results in Fira or Firaga. Mix two different spell types together and you can create spells such as Slow or Meteor. It’s fun for a while to mix and match different element types to see what different spells you can create.

There are, however, some pretty big flaws to this system as well. While it’s a good idea in theory, in practice it just feels clumsy to switch between melee combat to the touch screen, then to moving a cursor and trying to remember what are a good combination of elements. Since the game is in real time, the spell casting leaves you far too vulnerable when playing by yourself. Spell stacking is even worse since it takes even longer than just trying to cast a quick spell. As long as you are playing with other people, it’s possible to play as a spell caster while a melee character defends you, but when playing solo it doesn’t work very well. This would be a great idea for a turn based system, but for a real time hack and slash it just isn’t responsive enough.

Then there are other small features, such as being able to lift an enemy and smash them into a wall, attacking from underneath a foe, jumping on top of an enemy and attacking from above, or grabbing onto a flying enemy and attacking. In practice, none of these methods of attack work as well as just running up and mashing the attack button (Or using magic for people who choose play as that class.).

Other than just crawling through dungeons, there are mini-games to play and bonus missions to unlock. Many of these mini-games require multiple players, but nearly all of them are fun ways to kill a few hours if you have some friends to play the game with. There are modes such as a tag variant, or a firefighter mini-game and so on.

While I said that the multiplayer mini-games are fun to play through if you have multiple people to play with, this is something that holds true for the rest of the game as well. You can play solo, but it’s just not much fun. The game isn’t really balanced for trying to go through the dungeons alone. This means you need to create some AI allies to go through the dungeons with. This is a problem because the AI for the game is pathetic. There are different options to choose from to set how aggressive the AI is, but even choosing “Do Your Best” leads the AI controlled characters to just stand there doing nothing much of the time. The ally AI is such a non-threat that the enemy AI will not even bother with it much of the time. If there are enemies that cast magic in the area they will always target you and leave the AI controlled ally to sit there while they stare at the wall.

However it is important to have at least one of these characters on your team as an insurance policy. If you die, you can always switch to them, resurrect your main character, heal them, and then switch back. It’s not good to have too many AI characters on your team, since you’ll have to constantly manage the state of their equipment and so on. As well, the AI is so stupid that the more AI controlled allies you have, the more time you will spend baby-sitting them just to make sure none of them got stuck on a wall or something. The enemy AI, on the other hand, isn’t half bad and the game with throw a decent mix of enemies that require different strategies into an area.

Playing with a friend locally who owns the game, or playing via the DS’ WiFi connection, completely changes this. It means that you can have someone on your team that is actually useful. There are a bunch of simple puzzles in the game that are easy to get past, but they are more frustrating when the computer AI is just sitting there picking its nose. Having another human player makes these frustrating moments a breeze and adds a whole new level of strategy to the battle system. It’s possible in multiplayer games to actually utilize the class system.

Playing on Nintendo’s WiFi service still requires jumping through the usual friend code hoops, though this game does feature the ability to play with strangers. Unfortunately the matchmaking system is completely broken and will most of the time pair you up with people that are much higher in level or much lower in level than you are. Playing WiFi is also limiting due to a confusing communication interface with preset phrases. Playing local co-op with other people who own the game is the most enjoyable way to play, even if only the person hosting the game session can save story advancement. Another issue with the WiFi is the fact that Echoes of Time on the DS isn’t very portable. If you are playing on a WiFi network once you leave that networks coverage area it is game over. Most of the fun can be had with getting people together in the same room for a long gaming session, which seems to be against the whole reason for a portable system in the first place. Another strike against portability is the fact that you can’t pause. I understand this game is meant to be multiplayer, but this is a portable game. With sometimes twenty minutes between one save location to the next, not being able to pause is annoying.

With all of these complaints, it must seem like I hated Echoes of Time, but I was hooked to the game. For every mistake the game makes, the core of the game gets the basic principles right. The hack and slash gameplay is simple and fun. Gaining levels gains new abilities and loot collecting is addictive. There is a limited creation system in the game to create your own weapons and armor. Putting on new armor results in a visual change on the character model, which is a nice touch that FF games usually leave out. The puzzles are irritating, the AI is dumb beyond belief, yet it still feels rewarding to hack and slash through a dungeon while leveling up and collecting the items you need to make the next piece of armor that might be missing. Even the hassles of the multiplayer system are generally worth the rewarding moments in the game. The game also makes sure that there are no lack of new quests to take, even if they take place in the same areas with the same enemies. This gives you a whole new reason to go through these areas. A game like this makes me wonder why they haven’t bothered to create a really good Diablo style game for the DS.

The Scores:

Story: Poor
Graphics: Good
Sound: Great
Control/Gameplay: Good
Replayability: Great
Balance: Decent
Originality: Bad
Addictiveness: Great
Appeal: Good
Miscellaneous: Very Good
Final Score: ABOVE AVERAGE GAME

Short Attention Span Summary:
Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles is a fun hack and slash game if you have friends to play it with. Playing online means you’ll either have go through the hurdle of friend codes, or you’ll be stuck playing with strangers that are nowhere near your level. Even with all the problems plaguing the game, it remains an addictive dungeon crawl – it’s just not the most enjoyable one.

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