Final Fantasy is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and rather than porting a collection of classic games to Wii or PS3, Square Enix is electing to celebrate in a more interesting way. Theatrhythm Final Fantasy is one of the biggest parts of this celebration, and rather than being an RPG like its inspiration, Theatrhythm is a unique game blending the quirky rhythm genre with RPG mechanics.
Made by indies zero (who you may know as the talented folks who worked on Retro Game Challenge), Theatrhythm takes place in a world where the space between the two gods Cosmos and Chaos, Rhythm, gives birth to something called the Music Crystal that controls music. Chaos’ forces are revealed to be stronger than those of Cosmos, however, and they disrupt the crystal and dim its power. Our heroes (more on that in a second) are then tasked with restoring the crystal by gaining Rhythmia, “the musical wavelength filling all space.”
From here, you select a party of four with the selection made up of one representative of each main series Final Fantasy game, from Cloud to Lightning and more — and these are interchangeable at any time. From there, you can play Series mode, which lets you play five songs from each of the original thirteen games in the series on the easiest difficulty, Basic. However, once you beat any song on Basic, you unlock the more challenging Expert difficulty, and I will say (without spoiling) that there is a higher tier above that which is absolutely brutal.
The five songs from each available game follow a very consistent formula, there are always the opening and ending themes, which are simple tapping games to build Rhythmia and not much more. These are basic, come at the beginning and end of stages, and are only available during Series mode. In-between this comes the Field Music Stage, Battle Music Stage, and Event Music Stage. All three of the game types involve swiping the stylus, tapping, and holding the stylus down to a given rhythm, but all three of these play very different. Field Stages will contain field music from a given game of the series, and are more relaxed and focus on the player exploring to find loot. These feature one row of commands to follow, require raising and lowering the stylus for pitch at times and stand as the simplest game type. Event Stages take music from cutscenes and event scenes from a main series game, and rather than offering a faster beat to provide challenge they instead implore constantly changing tempos to reflect the emotion of the song which provides what may be the biggest challenge of the three. Lastly, there are the Battle Music Stages, featuring battle music, set up like a real Final Fantasy battle screen, and has four rows of commands (one per character) and hectically tasks the character with taking out enemies and bosses by successfully tapping your way to victory.
By now, you’re probably wondering where the RPG stuff comes in. Well, you have your stages simulating exploration and RPG battling, but the biggest stuff comes in with the EXP awarded based on performance at the end of each song. With the experience points, party members can gain levels, gaining access to new abilities (like getting HP boosts and more success in defeating enemies in the battle stages), and higher stats. It doesn’t make playing the rhythm stuff easier or harder, which is great, and it gives the game a lot of personality to separate it from other games of the same genre.
In addition to this, there are absolutely tons of unlockables, from collectible cards to music tracks to movies to bonus characters and tons more. This is where Rhythmia comes in, acquiring more (after completing each song of any kind) progressively unlocks more rewards, and adds a lot of replay value. There is also DLC to purchase single songs, but that wasn’t active while I was playing. And in addition to the regular song lineup, there is also Chaos Shrine, a mode that offers songs at harder difficulties (as well as some not available at any part of the game) for the chance at getting really rare items and unlocks. These are great, and these individual Dark Notes (as they’re called) can be exchanged via StreetPass.
I feel like now would be a good time to tell you guys that I’m playing this as a person who has never played a Final Fantasy game for more than an hour before touching this. After playing Theatrhythm as long as I did (about seven hours so far), I can say that there really is a lot to love regardless of familiarity of the series. Of course, if you are a fan of the series, you will have an absolute blast with this game, with all of the nostalgic celebration and replay value this game offers. More importantly though, the game is well designed, features great rhythm gameplay, has a beautiful paper-mâché-like style, beautiful sound quality, and stands as a really, really impressive experience.
Even though I feel that there is a lot to love regardless of your level of familiarity with the Final Fantasy franchise, I still find it difficult to recommend the game at full price to someone who has not played any games in the series before. While the game is really creative and well-polished, the appeal is admittedly limited to someone like me. Playing through all of the songs on Basic, getting some good replay value on tougher difficulties, and doing some hearty experiment on other game modes really only clocks in at five and a half hours of gameplay, and unless you are a big fan of the series, I can’t see a person playing much more past that, especially if they’re not playing this for review. To be frank, for a lot of these songs to be enjoyable, you really need to have familiarity with them in the first place. None of them are bad, necessarily, but only five or six of the songs were really memorable on their own if you have no reference point going in.
If you are a Final Fantasy fan, I can’t recommend this game more, it features high quality gameplay, nostalgia, and collectibles, it’s a true celebration of this renowned brand that will create one of the greatest experiences on 3DS for you, guaranteed. If you have no familiarity with Final Fantasy and plan to buy it because it looks interesting, I still recommend that you play for the experience, but I recommend that you hold off for a while (until the price drops), as the appeal and experience you can gain is rather limited.