Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Essentials #4: Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles

A GameCube exclusive, Square-Enix's 2003/2004 release of Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles marked the return of the Final Fantasy brand to Nintendo consoles. Equally significant, it was also the first of only three titles to be designed specifically around the GameCube-Game Boy Advance Cable, allowing use of the Game Boy Advance handheld as a controller with built-in sub-screen.

Produced by JRPG maverick Akitoshi Kawazu, the uncompromising creator of the SaGa series and one of Square's longest-serving employees, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles, despite its title, was a dramatic departure from anything previously released under the Final Fantasy brand. At the heart of the distinction was the decision to design Crystal Chronicles as a local cooperative multiplayer game. While some of the flagship installments, most recently Final Fantasy IX, had included limited co-op functionality, the feature was clearly an afterthought with little practical value. The turn-based, menu-based combat of the series was not conducive to a multiplayer experience. Furthermore, the multiplayer was only in effect during battles, which were just one small part of Final Fantasy. Once on the field or in towns, only one player would actively control, while additional players would be reduced to observers, usually for long stretches. For Crystal Chronicles, the designers needed to go in a more action-oriented direction, focusing less on narrative and exploration, while employing a real-time combat engine with simultaneous play for up to four players. The resulting gameplay owed more to dungeon crawls like Diablo than to Final Fantasy.

Players would begin by selecting their character's race. In place of classes or jobs, four races offered slight variation in strengths and skills. The well-rounded Clavats were natural leaders, with high defense and average attack and magic. The quick-footed Selkies could attack more rapidly and had ranged weapons. The dwarfish, warlike Lilties had the highest attack power but the weakest magic. My character was one of the mysteriously faceless Yukes, a scholarly race specializing in magical ability. Truthfully, the statistical differences between the races were slight, with all of them feeling about equally limited within the confines of the simplistic battle engine.

The plot of the game saw the world covered in a poisonous miasma, with towns able to survive only within the protective fields of magical crystals powered by Myrrh. The crystals had to be refueled each year by journeying to distant locations to defeat the monsters that guarded the trees of Myrrh. In order to accomplish this, each town sent out a caravan equipped with a crystal chalice.

In a case of plot informing gameplay, or vice versa, while traveling through the miasma-filled dungeons, one player would have to carry the chalice, and any party members who wandered outside its field of protection would rapidly lose health. When engaging the enemy, the chalice would usually have to be set down, so that the team could fight at full strength. In the frenzy of battle, it was common to lose sight of the chalice, especially since it could be shifted around by stray attacks. Fleeing in panic as we often did from overwhelming enemy forces, my party would sometimes realize too late that nobody had bothered to pick up the chalice. We would then have to rush back into the fray to retrieve it. Then, having been severely depleted, first by the monsters that had sent us running, and then by the miasma that we had carelessly run into, we would face the choice between two equally impossible options. Either we could dig in for one last stand within the field, or one player would lead the escape at half-speed under the burden of the chalice's weight, while the other players tried to fend off the pursuing horde.

The cumbersome chalice mechanic frustrated many players, but the point of it was to reinforce the team coordination aspects that the game stressed, requiring that players keep a tight formation and move as a unit rather than wander off on their own. The necessity to stay within the field also made for some of the most intense moments in any RPG I've played, such as in the "last stand" scenario I described, since the inability to flee swiftly made it feel as if we were always up against it. Truly, it was an experience-defining mechanic that kept the game from being just another straightforward dungeon hack.

The basic format of the game involved the caravan heading into a dungeon, where the players would fight their way through monsters, collecting items and solving simple key and button puzzles along the way. At the end of each dungeon, the party would have to take down a large boss creature. Most of the monsters, including bosses, were taken from Final Fantasy lore (e.g. Flan, Malboro, Behemoth, etc.), with even a few obscure ones, such as Armstrong, the living house from Final Fantasy VII. This was about the extent of the game's connection to the Final Fantasy series, but these bits of fanservice were welcome nonetheless. After three dungeons, the caravan would have enough Myrrh for the year, and the process would repeat for as many game years as it took for the party to reach and complete the final dungeon.

The game did not offer much in the way of loot. Instead, players would find Magicite and stat-boosting artifacts, none of which could be retained past the immediate dungeon. For most of the game, Magicite was the only source of magic, so, even though my Yuke character was supposed to be a powerful spell-caster, he would be unable to use any magic until he located and equipped that dungeon's Magicite. Sometimes my party's search was not quite thorough enough, and so we would have to make do without a Life spell. The fickle nature of the magic system made for one of the game's more frustrating elements, especially for Yuke players. Further compounding feelings of magical inadequacy, offensive spells were largely useless even once located.

Characters did not have MP, so spells could be used as often as desired by charging up with the attack button and maneuvering the targeting display onto an enemy. Even though I focused primarily on developing my magic stat, my attack spells were never strong enough to justify their casting times, compared to the free damage from other races' physical attacks. Higher-level "-ara" and "-aga" spells could only be used by combining spells of the same type, which required that multiple players coordinate by casting on the same target within a few frames of one another. During battle, this was tricky with two people and impossible with more. Worse yet, even the combined spells did very little damage. The only real bonus was the possibility that a spell might freeze or stun the enemy.

While the game was light on narrative, cut scenes would occur semi-randomly while journeying on the road between dungeons. Most of these scenes were encounters with caravans from other towns, where fellow travelers would impart news or advice, share amusing stories, or ask to trade items. The caravan would also periodically hear tales of a warrior known as the Black Knight, who had apparently lost his memory and his mind. Then there were the occasional encounters with the knavish Gurdy, a swindler and poet, who bummed rides with other caravans until they invariably lost patience with him. These recurring subplots were as close as the game had to a main story, though their significance would not become evident until the end. Occurring seemingly at random, just as with all the other cut scenes, it was never even clear what triggered them. This gave the caravan's journey an organic feeling that effectively conveyed the sense of being on the road, as events would just happen while traveling, instead of being sought out.

The GameCube-Game Boy Advance connectivity experiment came to be regarded as a failure before either system was done, though the two screen setup may have been the basis for the dual screen design of the Nintendo DS. With Crystal Chronicles, it's hard to make the case that the game was truly better for its required use of the GBA.

In dungeons, each player would be assigned one of four guides on the GBA screen: a map of the dungeon, a monster radar, a treasure locator, and an enemy scouting report. To get the full picture required that players communicate and share information. Like the chalice, this forced teamwork may have been manufactured, but it was no less fulfilling for it, as players would truly play their roles, leading the way around the map, directing the party toward chests, or warning of nearby enemy swarms. Of course, an FAQ or strategy guide would render all of that unnecessary, as would attempting a dungeon more than once, which happened from time to time.

Changing equipment also took place on the GBA, a logical application of the handheld screen, allowing each player to go into the menu without interrupting play for others. Because going into the menu did not pause the action, however, doing so during combat was out of the question due to how aggressive monsters were. Since you could only use the specific items you had equipped in one of your character's handful of action slots, and, since there was no auto-reload for consumable items of the same type, this meant that those bannock loaves went mostly unused. Even the critical Phoenix Down could not be taken advantage of most of the time, meaning that, if a party member went down mid-fight and nobody had the Life spell handy, that character was out for the remainder of the battle. Honestly, this was one aspect of the game that I could have done without. Even though it was meant to take advantage of the connectivity function, the manner of its implementation made its use impractical. They might as well have deactivated the menu altogether during combat.

The game's greatest shortcoming was how difficult and expensive it was to set up. It required a GBA and GC-GBA Cable for each player. For one person, all this equipment represented a huge cost to absorb for just one game (two, when The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures came out a few months later). On the other hand, it was extremely unlikely that one could find three friends who owned GBAs and were willing to get together and commit to the game. And, hard as it was to set up in its own time, it's effectively impossible to bring together all that dead equipment today.

Crystal Chronicles was by far the most challenging Final Fantasy game I had ever played, and that included the notoriously severe Famicom version of Kawazu's Final Fantasy II. Exacerbating the triple frustrations of the chalice, the uselessness of magic, and the inability to pause, monsters were consistently vicious, while the player characters developed at a slow pace. Instead of gaining experience, players could select from an arbitrary list of stat gains or items upon the completion of each dungeon. The inconsistent nature of these offerings made even level-grinding impractical. It wasn't very far into the game before my fellow party members and I found ourselves inflicting damage in the low single digits against bosses with hundreds of HP. The hard-earned victory is always most gratifying, however, and I would say that is even more so the case when earned through teamwork with other players. Indeed, beating Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles may have been the most rewarding video game experience I had ever had.

With the final dungeon, the game saw a sharp difficulty spike. The first several times we attempted it, we persevered up to and through the first two forms of the boss, only to have his third form decimate us within seconds. When we finally prevailed against that third form, we were shocked to learn that there were another two boss fights left to go. It was only during that final set of fights that I discovered the usefulness of my Yuke's unique defensive ability, which allowed him to become intangible for as long as the button was held down. While I could not move or act in this form, I was completely invincible. Our eventual winning strategy had me remaining intangible for nearly the entirety of the fights, acting as a lifeline, only coming out of it to heal or revive other party members. Meanwhile, my partners would whittle down the bosses, one damage point at a time. In the end, we managed to overcome a massive power gulf to achieve victory through cunning and guile.

While Crystal Chronicles was clearly designed for multiplayer, it did contain a single-player mode, which was actually much easier. Use of the GBA was not required. The sub-screen could be brought up on the TV screen, pausing the action while the player sorted through items, allowing the player to equip the auto-reviving Phoenix Downs at leisure. Also, the chalice would be handled by an AI-controlled moogle. These differences removed most of the stressful elements of the game, but, without other players to party up with, the simple mechanics didn't make for an engaging experience. Sadly, with the multiplayer game being so hard to set up, this is the only practical way to play it now.

Too bad, because I consider it to be the greatest cooperative multiplayer game I have ever played. In this current age of wi-fi, and with the ubiquity of the DS, the problems that prevented widespread appreciation of the original game would not be a factor this generation. Hopefully, it won't be long before we see a true successor using the Wii and DS.


Czardoz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Czardoz said...

"it was extremely unlikely that one could find three friends who owned GBAs and were willing to get together and commit to the game."

I would say: these are not true friends.

"And, hard as it was to set up in its own time, it's effectively impossible to bring together all that dead equipment today."

Not so; I have all that stuff at home.

Henry said...

I wouldn't forget that stuff, though I don't remember the final battle being so close at the end. If anything, I recall jumping into the fray at the very end to try and snag the death blow. Anyway, I cut these parts out, because the explanation was getting so convoluted that I didn't think anybody would understand who wasn't there:

"Your character's family trade dictated what items or services your family would provide in the party's hometown. The system was on the esoteric side, though, and I never figured out how to take advantage of it for anything useful, beyond the free bannock loaves that my family would give me. You could also send letters with attached items to your family members, and it would affect their happiness ratings accordingly. Even with all of my family members at max happiness, however, nothing special ever came of it."

". . . This gave the caravan's journey an organic feeling that effectively conveyed the sense of being on the road, as events would just happen while traveling, instead of being sought out. All of these encounters would be recorded in the in-game journal, and, once again, plot and gameplay would cross paths as these memories became vitally important at the end of the game.

"Right before the final boss fight, the party would be subjected to a bizarre quiz of obscure questions. Answering incorrectly led to unnecessary fights against powerful monsters, but the answers were all taken from the party's own journal. Then, during the final boss fight, the collected memories took the form of magic bubbles labeled with the names of the characters' family members. The bubbles would flow across the battlefield toward the boss, Raem, who would devour the memories, as was its habit. If the player collected them first, however, they would become one-use Magicites of the highest order, able to deal heavy damage, assuming you could find an opening to go into the menu and equip them during the fight. The amount of Magicite available was directly tied to the number of journal entries the party had made. Furthermore, if the party ran out of memories, it would be game over, with the characters presumably left to suffer the same fate as the once heroic Black Knight, as well as his companion, the preacher Hurdy, who, after losing his memories, somehow convinced himself that he was his own brother, a ne'er-do-well calling himself Gurdy.

"While the story's final moments were certainly loaded with revelations that seemed to have little to do with the original Myrrh and miasma plot, that battle proved to be a powerfully resonant moment of gameplay. Collecting journal entries was never the mission, but it was the joy of the journey, both for the caravan and for me as a player. So I wasn't about to let this monster steal all my cherished memories from me."

Also, if the party was wiped out by Raem, the game allowed you to continue from the start of the fight, but it wouldn't reset the number of memories left, so there were only a limited number of chances, and each attempt would be more perilous than the last.