"Theatrhythm" is gonna get you
If you thought Square Enix had milked everything possible out of the Final Fantasy series -- you were wrong.
The latest related game in the ever-expanding FF world is Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy for the Nintendo 3DS, which mixes role-playing aspects with rhythm game elements. The forces of the universe known as Cosmos and Chaos are becoming more unbalanced, leaning dangerously toward Chaos (naturally), in turn dimming the light of the Music Crystal, which maintains harmony in the world. You must collect Rhythmia to restore the radiance of the Music Crystal and return balance to the land.
To do so, you assemble a party of four people, who vary in typical RPG stats such as strength and agility. Making up the potential roster is one signature character from each of the FF games from the first one through Final Fantasy XIII. You then choose from several different game types and play through popular songs from the Final Fantasy series.
When playing a song, "triggers" scroll by on the upper screen and you must tap the touch screen at the appropriate time, going along with the music, as the triggers pass over the target, called a "mark" -- much the same mode of play as Konami's Dance Dance Revolution series. In Theatrhythm, there are three different types of triggers: the simple Touch, where you quickly tap the screen; the Slide, when you tap and slide the stylus across the screen for a short distance in the direction that the arrow indicates; and the Hold, where you tap and hold the stylus to the screen until the end of the trigger, at which point you lift the stylus from the screen.
Points and Rhythmia are awarded depending on how well you hit the timing of the triggers, ranging from "Critical" for a perfectly timed movement to a "Miss" for a completely missed trigger. Earning more Rhythmia unlocks additional features in the game.
There are also different types of stages that change up the gameplay elements: the Battle Music Stage, the Field Music Stage and the Event Music Stage. The positioning of the triggers and the mark differ in each. Battle has your party members lined up along the right side in typical Final Fantasy style, with a mark in front of each person. Field has your party's leader walking across the bottom of the stage as the triggers scroll by from left to right, and at times you must move the mark to overlap with the trigger. Event shows key scenes from the game in the background as your mark moves all over the screen and passes over the triggers.
You try to get as far as you can within the time gauge shown at the bottom of the screen as the music plays. In Battle, this means defeating as many enemies as possible, so you should pick members who have high Strength, while in Field, this means traveling as far a distance as possible, so you'd like members with higher Agility. Every time you get a "bad" or "miss," points are taken off your hit points gauge, and if it drops to zero, it's game over. Members earn experience points after completing a stage and, just like the typical RPG, they gain levels that in turn increase their stats.
Sound confusing? It is. I strongly, strongly suggest playing through the tutorial several times to familiarize yourself with how each stage works and how exactly to deal with each of the triggers, because simply reading about it is never enough to prepare you for what everything entails.
Of course, there's a lot more than this to explore. Like any good RPG, there are items, songs and in-game cards of differing rarity to collect. Get far enough in a Battle stage and you'll encounter a Boss enemy, with the higher chance of picking up a rarer item. Each person can also learn and equip various abilities to raise stats, heal or do extra damage, among other effects. Different modes allow you to play songs grouped by game, individually, or even with a friend. Collect Rhythmia and get good enough scores on songs to reveal hidden characters to add to your roster.
And with this being a music game in this era of downloadable content, it was obvious that Square Enix could make a killing out of selling music DLC -- in fact, the day that the game came out, several gaming sites reported that there were already eight songs available for purchase through Nintendo's eShop. Though considering this game had been released in Japan long before now, it's not surprising that DLC was available so quickly.
The differences between the stages are pretty ingenious. The Battle and Field stages recreate some of the feel of playing in a Final Fantasy game while introducing new challenges. The visuals are both fascinating and distracting, especially in the Event stages -- I dearly would love to see what's going on in the background, but I can't or else I'll lose track of the targets. (There is a Theater feature in which you can unlock the movies that play in Events, to watch without having to worry about missing triggers.)
Just as the music itself became more sophisticated with each new Final Fantasy game, so too do the levels in Theatrhythm get more difficult: Triggers start appearing at somewhat unexpected beats (that are apparently in time with the music somehow); Touch triggers pop up closer together; Slide triggers point in funky directions instead of the standard up/down, left/right; and backgrounds get more colorful, obscuring the triggers more, especially in Event stages. Higher difficulty levels had me holding my breath because I didn't want something as annoyingly mandatory as breathing to disrupt my delicate rhythm as the triggers came up almost more rapidly than my eyes could follow.
The game also awards some strange bonuses. Not only can you get extra Rhythmia for playing without abilities or items equipped, there are also bonuses if you use a party that consists of all males or all females, or even if you play Theatrhythm on consecutive days.
But the unexpectedly funniest part of the game -- partly because of ridiculous results and partly the utter uselessness of including such a feature, if it can be called that -- are the comments the characters make when you're assembling your party, when they level up, and right before playing a song. That last one is particularly silly: Each person has a number of phrase snippets, and before starting a song, one snippet is pulled out at random from each party member and joined to create such uplifting statements as "My friends, we'll win unwillingly in boldness!" or "I guess we shoot darkly for Cosmos!" or even "Well, I think we hope peerlessly in vain." (Some of the Final Fantasy characters are real downers.)
And yes, Theatrhythm can be played in 3-D, although with my previous experience of getting nauseous after staring for just a few minutes at a game on full 3-D, I was extremely unwilling to turn on that dimension. I finally summoned the courage to try it, and it gives the usual illusion of certain elements being in the foreground and others in the background. Thankfully, the 3-D effect doesn't mess with the eyes too much when playing the main game, because you're so focused on the triggers and marks in the foreground that you ignore everything else. The main drawback to playing in 3-D -- and this will hold true with any game on the 3DS -- is that it makes the screen extremely sensitive to changes in angle; any slight alteration in such will make the playing area largely unviewable. (Have you ever seen those stickers and such where you have to hold it at just the right angle to see it in 3-D, and any other direction won't work? Same principle.)
Overall, it doesn't take very long to finish the main part of the game, but the extra challenges and more difficult versions of songs will have you playing this for some time to come. One tip: Before attempting Expert level and above, find a stylus that has a rubber grip or a similar nonskid surface. The frenetic pace of the triggers caused my hand to slip down the smooth metal of the 3DS's included stylus and messed with my gameplay.
At first glance, Theatrhythm might be a tiresome entry for those fans (such as I, I will admit) who have been rather disgusted with Square's recent attempts at trying to keep making money off the glory days of the Final Fantasy series. The effort produced games like Dissidia and its follow-up Dissidia 012: Duodecim, which took characters from previous FF games and put them into a head-to-head battle royale with villains from the series; numerous spinoffs from the popular Final Fantasy VII game such as Dirge of Cerberus and Crisis Core; and even-more-numerous remakes of older FF games for systems including the Nintendo DS and Playstation. In fact, the story of Cosmos versus Chaos in Dissidia is repeated almost verbatim in Theatrhythm, lending credence to my belief that Square has run out of ideas.
But those willing to keep an open mind will find that Square hit the mark -- no pun intended -- with this game, appealing to the nostalgia of a generation of gamers, of which I am one. I let go of Final Fantasy long ago after life became too busy to fit in the extended hours of playing RPGs, but the series and the music from it have always held a special place in my heart. Plus, the rhythm gamer in me was intrigued by the concept, although I was a bit overwhelmed after reading the instruction book.
I'm glad I overcame that doubt. Not only does Theatrhythm revisit the tunes that are engraved in our memories -- the music is presented in their original, unvarnished glory, so you'll be hearing FF1's 8-bit beeps slowly evolving into FF13's orchestrated tunes -- but the Event stages allow you to relive key scenes in the games that we loved.
The beauty of Theatrhythm is that you're not simply listening to yet another rendition of Final Fantasy music; you're actually becoming a part of it, and in many ways it lets you test how well you know your favorite tune's beats and irregularities. The Slide triggers in particular make you feel like a world-class conductor, letting you pour your emotion into sweeping the stylus to match the emotional highs and lows of the tunes. All that interaction puts a very enjoyable spin on Final Fantasy and is a well-crafted take on a core aspect of the games that hasn't been much addressed outside of Japan. If you loved the music of Final Fantasy, Theatrhythm is definitely a game to try.