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The Ten: Updated Wednesdays-Fridays-Sundays

Sunday, November 6, 2011

"Not So Fresh" Review: Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles- The Crystal Bearers

Actually awesome. No, trust me.
Yes, this game came out quite a while ago. That's why it's a "not so fresh" review, punk!

If there was anyone who could help us realize the potential of the Wii, it was Square. They have created their fair share of Nintendo titles- though it's been a while since a true Final Fantasy title was created for one of their systems. However, that is why we have Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles- it is the Final Fantasy representative for Nintendo consoles, essentially. It is its own, ever-expanding universe, with locales, concepts, and races exclusive to the subtitle. Only in Crystal Chronicles will you find Yukes, Lilties, Clavats, and Selkies. The original game focused on a world plagued with Miasma, in which multiplayer campaigns were stressed heavily and leveling up via armor and long battles was the way to progress. However, the Crystal Bearers heavily focuses on a single-player experience, relying on a strong story and a fully-explorable world to drive the player to complete it.

Let me start by saying I love the Crystal Chronicles series. Which is why this review is very difficult for me. So, let's get down to business. Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers is one of the Wii's greatest games, successfully integrating motion controls into every aspect of its gameplay while presenting an incredible storytelling and gaming experience, all around. Don't believe me? Read on to find out why I think so.

You see, in every way that the Crystal Bearers departs from the original design of the Crystal Chronicles series, it becomes less like the games that I know and love. The original title, Ring of Fates, and Echoes of Time all feature strong stories that rely on the gamer's desire to discover more and gather materials. In that way, the Crystal Bearers is similar. But in execution, it is very, very, very very, very, very different.

In the Crystal Bearers, you are only allowed to play as a Clavat, Layle, a spunky Crystal Bearer with the power of Gravity. For those who don't know, Gravity is a spell that you can come across quite often in the Crystal Chronicles series- thought it is mostly seen when spells are combined. Therefore, this is a spell that it very specific in use and often utilized on specific enemies... the flying ones. Having the gameplay revolve around this power is a tricky and dangerous tactic- but one that ultimately succeeds. Think of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, but a little more precise and destructive in completely different ways.

In any case, you traverse the extremely spacious map as Layle throughout the entirety of the story, watching as other characters grow and react to events that you instigate. Layle is a pretty great character to play as- not only is his Crystal Bearer ability very palpable, but he has his fair share of baggage to keep the player interested in him, and also enough ambiguity to make the player feel as though they are making the choices.

In its entirety, the Crystal Bearers plays like a tech demo for the Wii- one moment, you're shooting down Zu with a machine gun in the middle of the air, then you're escaping from town on the back of a wagon, pulling down debris and pushing Chocobo knights into one another, the next, you're deflecting beach balls from hitting your hot Selkie girlfriend. There are minigames abound in this title- sometimes taking you from one place to the next, sometimes progressing the plot a little further. You traverse from locale to locale, never really having any idea what your goal is, and only relying on the many bits of mail you obtain from your friends. If you were to focus purely on the story, the game is a ten-hour breeze through, flying from rolling highlands to snowy peaks and dusty deserts in the blink of an eye. However, the depth of the Crystal Bearers comes from its freedom, not its constraints.

Again, the story is short, though extremely satisfying. You encounter so many faces along the way, some with wild connections to one another that may or may not be resolved, and some that are merely cool. You face classic Crystal Chronicles enemies, as well as new beings that fit in with the new world. The story is dramatic, sad, and reflective- much of what is important is never shown, which is part of what is so great. Really, it's just the story of Layle as he attempts to fit into a world that is not accepting of his kind. But as I said, the story isn't all that exists, here. You can get through the game easily if you master Layle's abilities, but obtaining materials to craft various accessories will help a great deal- especially if you plan on replaying the game on one of its higher difficulties. This requires facing down enemies that aren't directly on your path throughout the story- in other words, it requires exploration.

One of the most impressive parts of Crystal Bearers is that it's an entire world- Sure, not as vast as a normal RPG, but more Hyrule-like in structure- with different areas that are interconnected and can be accessed through a variety of ways. Taking the train to and from each location is quick and satisfying, seeing as you can access your fair share of minigames there, but traveling on foot is far more rewarding- encountering new enemies and minigames along the way. Every chance to explore reveals a new opportunity to collect materials and unlock more "achievements"- the game makes use of a unique system that relies on player skill and ingenuity rather than direct hints to complete a vast checklist of objectives. Part of the brilliance of the game is that you can do so much with Layle's powers- whether it's spinning a goblin into the ground so you can pluck him up and use him as a projectile, or grasping a massive clockwork gear that will bring a raging beast to life, or even breaking apart skeletons to combine them into a stronger enemy that will yield more profitable materials. The game gives you the freedom to choose what you wish to do with Layle's powers, which is why it is so difficult to master. The amount of things that are able to be locked onto with Layle's ability is staggering- that is why obtaining new materials, searching for portals, and completing objectives is such a brain-wracking experience, but ultimately rewarding in the end.

Is the game without its flaws? Of course not. Sometimes it feels like too much of a tech demo- the amount of minigames in the base story alone is a little off-putting. The story, while great, is very short, and ambiguous, to boot. The boss battles never really give you a "correct" way to play or defeat them. The lack of direction is also a little aggravating- you're told "where" to go, but not really "how". This kind of comes from the world map being so vague, itself. The general location is given, but you can't zoom in to spot where you need to head next- and routes that connect one location to another aren't shown- they must be found. The game features a lack of platforming, which is what I would expect from a game about utilizing gravity, and sometimes combat can be a little tedious. Tedious, only if you fail to grasp the subtle mechanics of the gravity abilities- you can throw enemies in four different directions, and their "behavior" changes based on the original four directions- flinging them far can result in them being stuck in the ground, slamming them down can result in a stun, and side to side motion can dizzy them, which allows different results, all around. In any case, this is not a game in which you play as a God- bowling through everything... well, sometimes you can certainly do that- but if you want to actually kill enemies and close Miasma streams, you have to approach them with strategy.

But why is it one of the best games for the Wii?

The main draw of Crystal Bearers is truly its vastness and ambiguity. You can return to certain spots and replay minigames, you can find new areas upon obtaining enhanced "reach" with new accessories, and defeat stronger enemies. Only four of the fifteen bosses in the game are played via the actual story. You can play Kickerbaul, a recreational sport in the society of the Crystal Chronicles universe. There are Chocobo races. Newspaper articles can be found in each town detailing new events in the world. Each part of the capital city is accessible through the tram system, which can be changed manually. Enemies can harm each other in many different ways. You can steal money and other goods from NPCs by picking them up. The amount of things to do adds hour upon hour to your playtime. Areas have locked portions that can be discovered by using the right abilities and enemies. Honestly, you need to be a gamer who appreciates NOT having a constant mission objective in sight to really "get" this game. The idea of exploration goes back to Jak and Daxter, Diddy Kong Racing, Super Mario Sunshine, and the like. This is one of those games. You can literally get lost in the world if you decided not to check the map for a period of time.

The RPG elements are there, though far less than the other Final Fantasy games. Accessories boost certain abilities for Layle, such as his strength, defense, reach, elemental boosts, luck, and focus (not bullshit titles, honest. Luck helps you get better items, focus changes how fast you lock-on to an enemy and pick them up). The interesting thing, though, is that there is no "perfect set" of accessories- you have to constantly switch them out depending on which enemies you're fighting in order to make the most use of them- so if you're looking for a specific item, you'll have to switch in your "luck" set of accessories, but sacrifice attacking power- of course, there are some sets that boost both at the same time, so there's always that to look into. In reality, the RPG elements are indeed quite strong, just not in the way you'd expect them to be.

Even for a game on the Wii, the graphics are stunning. While not your standard PS360 fare, the locations are lush and vibrant, while also integrating a theme of futuristic technology- this world feels as though it is a Final Fantasy game, unlike the hyper-futuristic Final Fantasy XIII (in my opinion- perhaps I'll elaborate on that later). The character designs are brilliant and detailed, with a unified theme of style throughout.

Also, this game features one of the most stunning soundtracks on the Wii or any console- with a plethora of tracks featuring classic Crystal Chronicles instrumentals along with modernized beats as well as folksy, laid back exploration tracks- it is one of the most encompassing soundtracks I've ever heard, truly fleshing out the variation in locale and giving a sense of identity to the world. It encompasses joy, mystery, tension, and epic events all in one. I honestly could gush about this soundtrack all day, really.

It is extremely accessible, in my opinion. It has enough depth and exploration to last a seasoned gamer a long time, but the story, set pieces, and minigames are enough to keep a less-dedicated gamer interested and connected to the story. It has something for everyone. Hell, it even has a DDR-esque Ball Sequence. The best thing to do is to pick the game up and play throug the story ,and then tackle its more exploratory abilities in its Hard mode, before going for an intense mix of both in the Very Hard mode. But that's an ideal situation. The truth is, Crystal Bearers isn't really a game for everyone- it received great praise in Japan for its story and gameplay but was bashed heavily upon release in the United States- I only hope that doesn't dissuade Nintendo from selling another Crystal Chronicles title in the US again. However,if you are like me, and you do appreciate everything that I've described above, give this game a try. I promise you won't be disappointed.

It really is quite good.

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