Let me save you some time. If you hate Final Fantasy VII, think Japanese developers suck except for those Gran Turismo guys, and you secretly hope to be the next fatal1ty, then move along. There's probably a new first-person shooter (FPS) on its way to XBox 360 to sate your gaming needs. Having spent a bit of time with Dirge of Cerberus, I can safely say there are two types of people who it targets with the precision of its gun-toting protagonist: fans of the original Final Fantasy VII role-playing game (RPG), and gamers not terribly familiar with the shooter genre. Both of these fit me to a "T," so I had a great time.
I realize that it's become popular to hate on Final Fantasy VII, but I maintain fond memories of that game. I'm also not a fan of the first-person shooter; the closest I've come to playing those kinds of games is the Metroid Prime series. Shooters (in the FPS sense) don't appeal to me. Yet I found Dirge of Cerberus quite playable. It wasn't always easy for me, most notably when up against an agile boss, but an auto-target option helped a lot. Hardcore Halo fans who can play that game blindfolded will no doubt find Dirge too easy, and not enough of a shooter. But the overall playing style suited me well.
The protagonist is Vincent Valentine, a gun-wielding character with a tortured past who was hidden in the original RPG. The focus of this game, then, is on shooting and surviving, with some light RPG-style stat building thrown in. Starting in the peaceful town of Kalm when a violent event kicks off the proceedings, Vincent proceeds through Midgar by traveling from area to area, killing all the enemies and often locating a hidden key-card to unlock the next area.
Vincent's special power-up and attack, the Limit Break, is present in Dirge of Cerberus. This item fully heals Vincent, gives him special attacks, and turns Vincent into his alternate Chaos form (which is also tied into the storyline). I had no trouble locating and carrying the maximum of three Limit Breaks most of the time; and although I was glad to have them, they made many of the boss fights fairly easy. Which is good for a non-FPS gamer like me, perhaps, but not so for the person who lives and breathes virtual guns.
The gamer can freely switch between third- and first-person viewpoints, and despite some minimal melee ability, Dirge functions like a basic shooter. So what made this game so engaging? It turned its lights on parts of the Final Fantasy VII world that were previously alluded to, but not yet revealed. To paraphrase: the story's the thing.
Dirge of Cerberus takes place after the events of the recent movie release, Advent Children. Square Enix branched out within its Midgar pantheon to focus on Vincent Valentine. Being a Final Fantasy, this game has a crisis threatening its world. (I don't know how Midgar's inhabitants keep any sense of optimism after the last two crises.) Yet the story is told by focusing on the players who populate it, and it centers around the theme of redemption. Vincent is trying to come to terms with actions he failed to take in the past, and even the villains search for acceptance to renew their dreams, and to make their hard lives worth something.
There is plenty of nostalgia for fans of the original RPG. There are a few cameos featuring returning Final Fantasy VII veterans. Some, like Cloud and Tifa, fare better than others. Cid sounds like a country hayseed, and Barret comes across as a loudmouth with attention deficit disorder. Revisiting the old Shinra building provided a dose of the remembrance—seeing the big sign and stairway in the entrance lobby brought back memories. As did skulking into the infamous Shinra manor. These kinds of things definitely make a treat for fans of the original RPG.
The story is plentiful—at times, almost too plentiful. I don't like the way that the game, especially early on, kept stopping for brief cutscenes. This was so that some tidbit (often involving civilian activities, such as someone Vincent must aid) could be exhibited to the player. These weren't enticing plot points, just a way to prod Vincent to keep moving, so to speak. Although it was reasonable to see these in-game scenes, the abrupt pauses made the flow choppy, and broke up immersion with the stop-and-watch mentality. Critical story exposition would perhaps have been less jarring.
Technically, every mission is ranked according to various stats: accuracy, shots fired, mako points (which charge up materia attacks) located and so on. Striving to earn that A, or even S, goal provides some additional challenge. Vincent can acquire guns besides the triple-bullet namesake Cerberus, and the gun parts can be combined and upgraded throughout the game to theoretically be tuned according to the situation or player's style. Personally, my gun use was controlled more by how much ammo I had on hand. The customization aspect had potential, but seemed too basic to be truly useful. In keeping with the Final Fantasy VII world, materia could be equipped and utilized. There are only three materia, which correspond to better attacks (such as Fire material, which blasts the surrounding area when it hits). It was a great help to have them, but I wish there had been more interesting materia to round out these souped-up, but mundane, attacks. Slow or Ultima would have been useful!
The bottom line is that I really liked playing Final Fantasy VII: Dirge of Cerberus. It is not the most technically competent first-person shooter, and it won't be competing with the likes of Halo or Half-Life (or even the visceral explorations offered by Metroid Prime). Yet Dirge of Cerberus still manages to be engaging thanks to its rich storyline, and the typically luxurious cutscenes provided by Square Enix. I found it challenging enough for my level of twitch skills (or lack thereof) in the genre. Vincent may not perform an action ballet like Dante, but his brooding demeanor does move quickly through a story that utilizes the rich heritage available to it. This makes for a game that isn't outstanding, but is intriguing to its computer-generated ending.