Few role-playing games have left a bigger footprint on the industry than the influential, instrumental Final Fantasy VII. You can't toss a Buster sword into a crowd of gamers without hitting a few who'd call themselves true fans, and it's nearly impossible to find a player who isn't at least vaguely aware of the title despite the fact that it came out eleven years and two hardware generations ago. Without VII leading the charge, it's hard to imagine that RPGs would have taken off in the domestic market the way they did, and just about every spiky-haired amnesiac who's come down the pike since then owes at least a small debt to Cloud Strife and company. With this legacy in mind, it's not hard to see why Square would want to capitalize on the VII mindshare, but the fact is that none of their recent efforts to cash in on that landmark effort have done justice to, or truly enhanced the source material.
The latest attempt, Crisis Core is no different.
Putting aside all concerns of characterization and storytelling for the moment, as far as I'm concerned, Crisis Core is a complete failure in terms of mechanics and gameplay. There's no arguing that it's probably the most beautiful PSP game produced thus far, easily eclipsing the vast majority of PS2 games when it comes to visual sweetness, but once the sugar high wears off, it's hard to ignore the repetitive combat and absurd design choices that keep it from being anything but fanservice piffle.
Best described as a hybrid between real-time and turn-based combat systems, players control main character Zack Fair much like any other standard action game, the difference being that he auto-targets towards the closest enemy in the direction he's facing, and the type of action taken (attack, minor magic, healing, etc.) is selected by moving a cursor back and forth on a menu in the lower right-hand corner of the screen.
This setup seemed clever at first, perhaps a way to compensate for some of the PSP's physical drawbacks. However, the more I played, the less involved I felt—and the more toothless the combat became. Since clicking the Attack command makes Zack automatically move towards the target and execute the command, there's no need to master timing or worry much about positioning. Occasionally hitting the Dodge or Block button will help against tougher enemies, but this auto-combat setup means it's entirely possible to win most battles by spamming the attack button—looking at the screen is optional.
Taking even more out of players' hands, the designers have created a bizarre slot-machine called the Digital Mind Wave to handle leveling up, Summon spells and other magic that enhances Zack or his abilities. Instead of being able to cast the powerful, cinematic incantations that have been a Final Fantasy trademark at will, the game constantly spins three wheels. When the wheels match portraits of characters, the action stops and a spell occurs whether you want it or not. When the same wheels match numbers, it will randomly level-up the item you had equipped in a given spot, though you never know which one will get the boost.
I'd like to go on record now as saying that the DMW system is one of the worst ideas I've ever encountered—is Square-Enix under the impression that their audience is incapable of managing basic functions that have been central to their games and the genre for the last decade? By removing my ability to choose, not only was I left hanging when I needed some high-caliber backup during boss battles, the game kept "hitting the jackpot" and casting spells I didn't want when trying to get through generic enemies that my auto-fighting would easily destroy anyway. Being interrupted every three seconds with unnecessary spells and being forced-fed unskippable cutscenes is not my idea of entertaining gameplay—automatic assistance can be a great option when players need to manage multiple things at once, but when all I'm doing is hitting one button and yawning, I don't need the computer to usurp my decision-making.
(...And at this point, I'm sure some readers are outraged that I haven't yet mentioned the "added value" side missions that occur completely apart from the main narrative, existing only to "reward" the player with extra items and a longer completion time. Since the quality of Crisis Core's gameplay is terrible I don't see how giving more of it is a good thing, but there is a ton of monster-killing and repetitive side-questing here for those who want it. FYI.)
With the gameplay a flop, the only thing left to discuss is the plot. One of the key twists in Final Fantasy VII involved the hero's lost memories and his relationship to a character that was only seen in revelatory flashbacks. Zack was that character, and Crisis Core chronicles the events immediately preceding VII. The mileage gained from this supporting adventure will entirely depend on the amount of love the player has for VII. Personally, I haven't sat down with VII since the week it was released, I didn't think the original twist necessitating this game was well-done in the first place, and I can't say I've been waiting on pins and needles for this bit of backstory since then. Nail-biting drama you can't take your eyes away from, this isn't.
When I buy a PSP title, I want something interesting, original, and above all, something that's entertaining to play. Hardly the blockbuster system-seller it's made out to be, Crisis Core is a puffed-up minigame that could easily fit inside a larger RPG alongside snowboarding, a few gambling diversions and a Chocobo breeding quest. Without harboring a socially crippling VII obsession myself, I could only endure it for twenty or thirty minutes at a time before becoming painfully bored, and when I walked away from it, I immediately forgot what I had been doing. After several such sessions, I started to wonder why I was even bothering to come back to it—so I didn't.
If the words "the death of Aeris" don't bring a tear to your eye, then dropping $40 on Crisis Core certainly will. here's hoping the inevitable VII remake fares better than this game did.