IGN Review of Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers
It's not often we see games that are four and a half years in the making, at least not this side of the HD era. As one of the first titles announced for Nintendo Wii back in 2005, Square's Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Crystal Bearers is obviously a seriously anticipated adventure with a lot to prove. Over the years the traditional Crystal Chronicles design was tossed out, swapping in a pure adventure feel for what was a four player co-op hack n' slash RPG, and putting a larger emphasis on a futuristic world after the pretty impactful events in the century that followed the original GameCube game's story. Unfortunately, while Crystal Bearers treads new ground and brings all the expected Square elements to the table, it's also a game that's ultimately devoid of a solid base and some much-needed polish. Crystal Chronicles is an interesting offering with some great concepts – some that may even convince hardcore Final Fantasy fans to drop the cash for it – but the end result is an experience that's fallen pretty far from grace, and it just isn't that fun.
From the outset Crystal Bearers looks to have a lot of promise, showcasing beautiful production values with a truly fresh take on the Crystal Chronicles world. In the 100 years between the original Crystal Chronicles and Square's newest release the magic-using Yuke tribe has been completely wiped out, technology has taken over for magic, and crystal bearers – otherwise normal people that were somehow born with shards of crystal in their bodies – have emerged, playing the black sheep of society with their ability to cast magic and the accompanying "untrustworthy" swagger. With one of the four tribes gone, their crystal destroyed at the end of a great war, the world is far from at peace.
Crystal Bearers kicks things off by introducing Layle, a young bearer that works as a mercenary to get by. Right off the bat Layle is a negative, somewhat self-depreciating character, and while it adds a bit of grim depth to it all it also makes his character tough to identify with. True, society has left him behind, but the path for redemption is a long – and expected – one, and in the meantime you've got control of a character that more or less doesn't care about anybody. It's a tough spot to begin story-wise, but it's also one that's been pulled off in decades of great RPGs.
Since Bearers is an adventure title and not a traditional Final Fantasy role-playing game there are some important changes to the design, and unfortunately it becomes very obvious that Square's RPG roots would have been a better base. Gone are conventional weapons and equipment, replaced by three accessory spots for Layle to equip, and items to find and then exchange for new accessories around the world. Finding the right trinkets will allow you to upgrade your range, defense, magic, casting speed, and the like, so while you won't be stopping at shops every few minutes to outfit your group you'll still be on the hunt for new gear from time to time. As an interesting system, items you create have a chance at becoming "miracle" items, taking on new stats and skills, so those that get into the game's item construction system will want to go online or talk to people that have figured out some of these secret combinations. Team that with the medal system which is constantly rewarding you with in-game achievements based on your actions and Crystal Bearers seems to have a different – but well thought up – core system in place.
The gameplay doesn't follow though, and after a few hours of play most people will fall victim to at least a few of Crystal Bearer's less impressive aspects. For starters, the game is based entirely on the Wii remote's pointer, having you select items and enemies in the world, and then flick your wrist up, down, left, or right to send it flying in a direction or hold it above Layle's head. The detection is decent, but it often confuses up for down, and I've had a few instances where well thought out strategies fall flat because the remote doesn't read my actions right. That's Wii 101 kind of stuff. In addition, the entire game is driven with the pointer, but there's no ability to turn the camera when the pointer nears the edge of the screen, instead having players manage the A button and B buttons for in-game actions, but also use the d-pad constantly as a makeshift second analog stick for camera movement. Tapping a generic "camera" button will bring the view directly behind Layle, and holding it goes first person, but it zooms in based on where Layle is looking, not where the pointer is. That seems like a small gripe, but your pointer is seldom lined up perfectly with your character, so more often than not you are focused somewhere different than Layle. Even if you do manage to use the first person mode, the same d-pad turning is included, so making use of the perspective change is far from intuitive.
The combat system itself is fun, if not a little too repetitive. Simply grab an enemy, huck them around for a while until they die, or find an alternate way around dealing damage. This can come by grabbing other items in the world and tossing them at foes, or even by using enemies as your own makeshift weapons. Different reactions happen with each enemy, so you'll first need to learn how to unlock these abilities and then use them after stunning the creature. Still, even with these additions the combat can become monotonous, often having you unlock a great spell or move only to use it once and then toss the monster aside again. Since the attack button is the same as throwing, you never quite know if the enemy you have is about to use a skill or just be thrown as a projectile, and the amount of time it takes to set up the more impressive attacks will have you just grabbing at random items and throwing things around as an alternative option. Still, when used right the battle mechanic can be fun, though I never got the feeling like Layle's powers were as entertaining or well realized as something like Force Unleashed on Wii, which has the same basic functionality.
The real downside though is that the combat takes a back seat to countless other mini-games and challenges. Square set out to make a Final Fantasy offering that was fun for everybody – "Even Grandma" as stated in an earlier interview – and that hurts the experience for those looking for a true, hardcore Final Fantasy. You'll spend just as much time doing battle or watching the decently constructed story sequences as you will pulling off odd-job tasks or playing mini-games around the world. Some are fun, such as the chocobo races (who could resist that?), but others are very dull, including a beach game where girls try to knock each other off a floating platform, garden building, a stealth based train sequence, or larger chase and escape challenges. Honestly, the best challenge is the one that comes before any other action, where Layle jumps off an airship and blows away enemies in a light gun style mini-game. There's no way to fail these missions, though they do keep score if you want to go back and play them again. For the majority of them, you won't. Crystal Bearers is at its best when you're using your powers for boss fights or open-world battles, and unfortunately those moment come few and far between.
As far as the whole adventure aspect goes, Crystal Bearers also misses the mark in a few big ways. For starters, there's no reliable map system in the game, and with no way to check out city names, get an exact location as to where you are, use mini-maps or objective symbols in towns or when on-mission, and no compass to tell you which direction you're heading players will find themselves wandering around in order to find their way, and thus not encouraged to take time and venture out when not on the main story track. A chocobo riding system was put in place, which is a great idea, but any time you jump off the critter it'll run away. That means any time you happen upon a treasure, want to check out a quick shop on your way to a destination, or even want to stop and read a street sign (one of the only ways to find your sense of direction) you'll have to weigh the potential gains of that stop against losing your transportation. Would it have been too much to allow you to get off your chocobo for a few seconds and mill around with it happily waiting your return? Apparently so.
Even with all these issues in place it's hard to discount the package entirely, as Crystal Bearers has some great visuals, a decent – though predicable – story, and some fun moments. The world Square set into place is truly impressive, blending future with magic in a compelling and imaginative way. The game is technically impressive, has some decent effects, and even makes use of a few interesting concepts, allowing you to take snapshots at any time with the 2 button and then export them to your SD card. In fact, the only real downside to the presentation (minus the map issue, if you count that) is the audio design, which blends some great orchestral tracks with some downright stale voiceover work and some seriously hokey battle music. Banjos and jaw harps in the middle of fighting evil? Yup, that's Crystal Bearers.
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