When Theatrhythm Final Fantasy was first announced as being in development for the 3DS, I was actually looking forward to it. Not just for the namesake, mind you, but because it was such a brilliant concept. Take one of the best facets of the entire franchise, the music, and build an entire game around it. My only concern with the end product would be if it had enough depth to stand on its own two feet and could justify a $40 investment.
When I had the opportunity to play it at E3, I was so impressed by the game that it was easily one of my favorites on the show floor. Not only did it tickle the nostalgia bone in me, but it was legitimately fun to play. But again my concerns surfaced about how viable the experience would be in the long term. Now that I have the full game, though, I can confidently say that it is in fact worth the investment.
Despite being a Final Fantasy game, there really isn’t much in the way of story this time around. Much like the Dissidia games, the plot centers around the gods Cosmos and Chaos and the space between their two realms. This region and the crystal that occupies it is known as Rhythm, which is being disrupted by Chaos. Your job as the heroes of the various Final Fantasy games is to gather enough Rhythmia in order to face down Chaos and set everything straight.
If that sounded kind of lame, then you’ll be ecstatic to hear that the story stays out of your face for almost the entirety of the game. This is far preferred, in my opinion, than the melodramatic mess that the Dissidia titles tried to weave together. Other rhythm based titles like Rock Band and Rhythm Fever don’t need coherent stories to be enjoyable, and this one doesn’t either. It’s merely there to give your quest purpose.
There are three different modes in the game, though you only have access to Series at the beginning. As you progress, Challenge and Chaos Shrine will become available to you. Sadly, there is little that separates the base gameplay from one mode to the next (more on the differences later). Some additional minigames, or different approaches to the base concept would’ve been welcome in this case.
Story/Modes Rating: Poor
Rather than the high definition anime style character models you might be used to in the series, Theatrhythm takes all of the characters and enemies and runs them through a cute filter, followed by a second cute filter. They all have chibi style designs with big heads and rosy cheeks. Even the enemies in the game can hardly be called threatening given the high cuteness factor. And yet, it all works within the context of the game, because the designs are as non-serious as the gameplay and conveys the title’s atmosphere of low stress fun.
Not that you’ll be looking at the characters much anyway, since you’ll be focusing on the notes that stream across the screen. When you do manage to take in the visuals, though, you’ll notice a number of locales belonging to the various games in the series scrolling by in the background as well as memorable cutscenes from the game. Even Final Fantasy XIII with all the horsepower that game requires has pivotal scenes represented within Theatrhythm.
Graphics Rating: Enjoyable
While there are a few sound effects in game from chocobos and moogles and the like, the star of the show here is the music. And without that, a rhythm based title would fall flat on its face. It’s a good thing, then, that the soundtrack is a greatest hits selection of sorts of my favorite soundtracks in other games; effectively making it one of the best musical selections I’ve heard in a game period.
There are a total of 77 tracks in this game, which is simply staggering. Each of the 13 main games in the series gets equal representation, more or less, though the unlockable tracks lean towards the more well known games in the series. And yes, I said 13 main games. Final Fantasy XIV has zero representation in this game despite Square Enix’s recent attempts to salvage that title. I find this interesting as the Japanese version has DLC for Final Fantasy Versus XIII tracks, a game that is currently in development hell. But, I digress.
Some of the more popular songs in series history are here, as you might expect. Songs like “One Winged Angel” from FFVII and “To Zanarkand” from FFX are present, as are some really exceptional songs from some of the less popular titles such as “Battle on the Big Bridge” from FFV and the never tiresome battle music from FFI. Even FFXI, which I didn’t play all that much of, has some superb selections here. There are certainly going to be omissions of your favorites, but honestly, it’s really hard to complain about what’s here, especially with DLC on the way.
Sound Rating: Unparalleled
The gameplay in Theatrhythm is divided into three distinct styles. The first is Battle, which displays your chosen party on the right hand side with your enemies on the left in classic FF style with each of your characters being designated their own note tracks. As the notes come scrolling across and land in the circle next to your character, you have to tap the touchscreen with your stylus. If the notes are red, all that is required is a simple tap, but if it’s green, you’ll have to hold down the note until it is finished. There are also notes with arrows drawn in them, which tasks you with making a motion on the touchscreen in the direction of the arrow. Sometimes songs will combine the two and have you hold a note and then draw an arrow at the end of it. Occasionally, you’ll encounter sections that will trigger a summon or chocobo to come to your aid, leading to more enemies defeated or land traveled within that stage.
Another game type is Field, which has the main character of your party traversing the landscape of whatever game the song you’re playing is from. As before, you have to tap the touchscreen as the notes pass through the circle at the top of the screen. Except now, the green notes that you have to hold will weave up and down and your placement of the stylus on the bottom screen has to match where the line is going up top. If you miss, your character will fall down and lose potential progress that can be used to gain an item at the end.
The final game type is Event, which shows a montage of cutscenes set to the tune of a memorable song from the game in which the scenes are based. The notes and circle will not be in a stationary horizontal plane as before and will instead zigzag around. Also throwing a wrench in things is the fact that you can only see so far ahead of you, so you won’t know what notes are coming until you are about to hit them.
You have an HP meter at the top of the screen which dictates how much you can fail on a particular stage. Every time you miss, your party takes damage and your HP meter drains. Once the meter is empty, you’ve failed the song. As you complete songs, your party levels up, raising your HP with it. You can also equip items and skills that can regenerate HP or give you another shot should you be dealt a finishing blow.
Since you can choose a party comprised of characters from the first 13 games, each one has different stats and abilities that can be improved as they gain levels. Using characters high in Strength and Magic will make it easier to down foes in battles, where Agility will allow you to progress farther in Field. Luck is helpful in obtaining rare items, particularly when stolen from boss enemies. Despite the perceived complexities with building your characters, the stats really only come into play during the Chaos Shrine mode, where encountering the bosses you want, defeating them, and getting desired items rely on these statistics and skills to succeed.
Control/Gameplay Rating: Classic
Theatrhythm can be “beaten” in about six hours or so, depending on how quickly you are able to amass 10,000 Rhythmia. However, there is a ton of content to be unlocked, not to mention that the songs are endlessly replayable. In the Series mode, you simply play three songs from each of the games, with an optional opening and closing song that you can play along to. During these optional segments, you only have to tap the touchscreen when a note comes into contact with the crystal. There is no penalty for failure and each successful note earns you an extra Rhythmia to add to your total. It’s a shame that the songs featured in these segments can’t be played in some other variation.
Once you’ve completed the songs in Series mode, you can then play them in Challenge mode, which will allow you to not only play the songs individually instead of in a set, but you can try them on harder difficulties and try to top your score. There’s also Chaos Shrine mode, which was alluded to earlier, that challenges you to complete Dark Notes. These consist of a Field song and then a Battle song, which will result in you earning items, including those that will unlock new songs or characters. There are a few songs that can only be played in this mode and not in Challenge, which seemed like an odd design decision. Fortunately, you can unlock a Street Pass mode for Chaos Shrine, so you and up to three friends can challenge the Dark Notes together. I was unfortunately unable to sample this mode as of this writing, so I’m not sure how much it contributes to the overall experience.
Besides unlocking tangible things that you can actually use within the game, there are a number of other things to collect for the OCD prone. There are collectible cards that can be obtained featuring various characters within the game, and obtaining multiple of the same card will cause them to level up and transform the card. There’s also a section for the in-game songs and movies that you can enjoy without the pressures of having to hit all of the notes.
In short, there’s a ton to do and I suspect this game won’t be leaving my 3DS anytime soon.
Replayability Rating: Classic
The unfortunate part about the way game progress is set up is that you really don’t get a good feel for the overall experience. You are forced to play each song on the easiest difficulty setting, which once you get a feel for the timing, is incredibly simple to clear. I was able to get A or S rank on almost every song on the first try. It’s only when you get to Chaos Shrine or Challenge modes that Threatrhythm even begins to show its true colors. Despite the simplicity in the gameplay, a number of songs on the Expert difficulty are rather tricky. If you do manage to clear a song in A rank or above, you will unlock an even more difficult setting for that song, which has the potential to be absolutely brutal. This is in addition to Chaos Shrine, which forces songs upon you that are by default on a higher difficulty setting, actually resulting in my failure on several occasions. Don’t let the cute visuals fool you. The game can kick your ass, though there is something for everybody here.
Balance Rating: Great
In a franchise with as many installments as Final Fantasy has, you wouldn’t think that they’d be able to come up with a unique way to adapt the concept to a new genre. Indies Zero has succeeded, though, and despite the striking similarities to games like Elite Beat Agents, it’s hard to deny the innovative twist that the RPG elements bring to the table. The only downside is that the most original parts of Theatrhythm are not utilized to the full extent that they could be. For example, your levels and statistics only play a large role in one mode in the game. It also would’ve been interesting to craft an entire role-playing adventure using this title’s gameplay as the main gimmick, despite what a colossal feat that would be. Still, I’ve never played a game quite like this, so it’s hard to complain much in that regard.
Originality Rating: Great
My time with Theatrhythm went in phases. First, when I was playing each of the series trying to unlock all of the songs for Challenge mode, I played the game in large chunks (since each series was three to five songs each). Once they were all unlocked and I had Chaos Shrine accessible to me, it suddenly became a case of “one more song” or “I need to get a better score” and before I knew it, it was four in the morning.
It’s easy to pick up and put down, given that your only commitment is the length of a song or two, which is a few minutes in length each. This makes for a perfect portable game, and an even better 3DS game since the title makes use of the touchscreen in a way that is actually beneficial to the game and not just a tacked on gimmick. Though if you’re like me, I suspect there will be little want to put it away.
Addictiveness Rating: Classic
If you’re a Final Fantasy fan and you own a 3DS, you should own this game. It’s filled to the brim with nostalgia, consisting of characters from the series’ beginnings all the way up to just a few years ago. All of the songs save for a few are presented in the same way they were in the original games, so the NES/Famicom ones will sound 8-bit as opposed to how they did in the remakes. This might turn off some of the newer fans, but it’s a real treat for series vets.
As for non-fans, I think the gameplay itself is strong enough to appeal to anyone who likes rhythm games, especially given the unique twists this entry takes with the genre. Without the appreciation for the games and the music they feature, it may be a bit tougher to stay as invested in the game. North America lacks a demo for the eShop unlike other regions, so it’s hard to get a sampling of the game unless you see it at a retail kiosk. Still, I’d say it’s worth the gamble, if only to support Square Enix trying a unique endeavor.
Appeal Rating: Great
While the 3D in Theatrhythm is done reasonably well, considering how much you’ll be admiring the graphics, you may as well keep it off. The effect itself is neat, overlaying the note tracks over the backgrounds making them appear as if they are popping out at you is cool. I also liked how the 3D presented itself in Event scenes, making it look as if you are peering into the screen at what’s happening. But all of this serves as a distraction and actually makes playing the game more difficult if you are concerned with getting a decent score, so it’s best to save your battery life.
Of all the games that could take advantage of Nintendo’s willingness to allow DLC on the 3DS, I’m glad Theatrhythm is one of them. My Xbox 360 hard drive is full of DLC for the Rock Band titles, and I continue to pick them up if there are songs I really want to play. I suspect Theatrhythm will be the same. It may seem shady that there is already DLC available on the eShop as the game just came out, though this is the same DLC that Japan has gotten. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect that songs will be just simply added to the game for the North American release. At any rate, $1 per song isn’t that shabby.
Miscellaneous Rating: Great
Appeal Factor: Great
Final Score: Great Game!
Short Attention Span Summary
The Final Fantasy franchise invades the rhythm genre at last, and the results are better than I could’ve expected. Theatrhythm Final Fantasy includes all of the familiar trappings of the rhythm genre and coats it with a thin layer of RPG elements. The presentation might put off some, given the cutesy nature of the art style, but those who can look past that will find a game with one of the best soundtracks on the market along with all of the addictiveness the genre can offer. Local co-op, DLC, and a ton of unlockables will ensure that you’ll be playing for months, though many of the songs are catchy enough that you’ll find yourself replaying them just for the sake of doing so. It would have been nice if certain songs were not exclusive to specific modes, though it’s hard to argue with with such a large setlist. If you are a Final Fantasy fan, you need to pick this up. As for non-fans, it’s at least worth checking out if only to see something unique.