What do Contra, Final Fantasy, Maniac Mansion, Mega Man, Metal Gear, R-Type, Shinobi and Street Fighter have in common? Answer: They’re all celebrating their 25th birthday in 2012. We use the word “celebrating” loosely, of course. Some of these franchises are dead and buried, while others will merely be celebrated with re-packaged compilations – hardly the tribute these titans of game history deserve. But Final Fantasy is different. Square Enix has decided to mark a quarter century of phoenix downs and summons in interactive form, befitting the medium that we love.
Theatrhythm Final Fantasy doesn’t just commemorate the FF heritage by bringing together characters from the first 13 games in the series, however; it goes further than that, tapping into one of the most popular and nostalgic parts of FF fandom – its music. Using mechanics similar to that of Ouendan/Elite Beat Agents, Theatrhythm sensibly keeps complexity low, recognising that its audience is FF fans first and rhythm-action players second. Only taps, holds and swipes of the stylus are required, and the prompts look the same no matter whether you’re playing a battle music scene, field music or event music. Only the direction the notes come from will be different.
The focus, therefore, is very much on enjoying the tunes. Which is presumably why a new save file defaults to the easiest difficulty so that the barrier to entry is as low as possible. Experienced rhythm action players may find it frustrating to slog through the Basic difficulty level to unlock Expert and Ultimate difficulties, but it’s just about worth it. On these levels, the tunes really come to life and, like any great rhythm-action game, you’ll find your hand movements dance perfectly in synchronisation with the music, tapping into the brain’s pleasure receptors in the way the genre does so well.
Square Enix has previously commented that it had to think very carefully about what tracks to include in Theatrhythm. Three playable tunes per game are included on the cartridge (one battle, one event and one field tune) and the producers have done a fine job of choosing tracks that are popular among Final Fantasy fans while also satisfying the gameplay requirements of the rhythm-action genre.
Final Fantasy music has become an industry in its own right, spawning countless album recordings and live shows, so it’s great to see some of the most popular tunes represented in Theatrhythm. There would probably be a riot at Square Enix’s office if One-Winged Angel wasn’t represented, so it doesn’t surprise us to see it here. It’s not the best battle theme on the cart from a gameplay perspective, but it’s definitely a challenging one and totally justifies its inclusion. Final Fantasy VIII’s Waltz For The Moon, meanwhile, is perhaps the greatest marriage of player input and game output, and as the FMV dance between Squall and Rinoa plays in the background, it provokes fuzzy nostalgia in exactly the way an anniversary release should.
Taking Theatrhythm beyond nostalgia and into a place that aims to evolve the rhythm-action genre as a whole, are the game’s light RPG mechanics. An enticing prospect, this is the side of Theatrhythm we most struggled to comprehend before release and, well, we’re still not sure we fully understand it. When starting the game you assemble a party of four from the thirteen FF protagonists on offer and equip them with spells and abilities, as well as a single item for the whole team. Each time you play you’ll acquire new skills and items, and will earn experience points, allowing your characters to level up and equip more skills. This all makes perfect sense… Except there doesn’t seem to be much of a compelling reason to do it.
Most of the abilities can be used like training wheels, compensating for missed notes and reducing the chance of song failure. But they’re no substitution for genuine rhythm-action skills, and won’t help you reach those elusive S ranks. It’s possible that some enable you to defeat enemies quicker during the battle music scenes of the game, leading to rarer encounters within the time it takes to play the song. But if that is the case, we’ve seen no indication of it and it certainly isn’t explained in the game’s tutorials. Which only leaves the fact that abilities can sometimes be used to help you find and unlock even more abilities. That would be unlocking for the sake of unlocking, which certainly has its appeal but is a little shallower than we’d hoped from the RPG/rhythm hybrid.
Still, there’s no denying the basic appeal of tinkering around with a party and watching them level up or accrue more skills as you play. The vagaries of the mechanics even lend an experimental edge to proceedings, and players of loot-style RPGs in particular will get a kick out of customising their characters just to see what happens when they take them into a song. The game does a great job of encouraging such players. There are tons of items to discover, new characters to unlock and, crucially, secret songs to find. Best of all for these players is the Chaos Shrine, which offers Dark Notes – two random songs grouped together on the highest difficulty and featuring possibly three boss monsters, who all drop one of three potential bits of rare loot. Shareable over StreetPass, these extend the life of Theatrhythm way beyond the main mode and wring the most out of the RPG mechanics… Whatever it is they do.
In summary, Theatrhythm is a very good rhythm-action game, and a confusing but compelling RPG. But, above all else, it is a nostalgic anniversary package that will be adored by Final Fantasy fans and sets a new benchmark for interactive celebrations.