IGN Review of Final Fantasy VII: Dirge of Cerberus
It's been ten years since Sephiroth threw a meteor past half a dozen planets at Cloud and friends, and yet Final Fantasy VII continues to tell its story. In fact, no other narrative in "RPG sequel" history has planned more spin-offs, revisits, sequels, and tie-ins than Mr. Strife's edgy trek across a battered Midgar -- and fans just can't seem to get enough of it.
Though diehards still have some time to wait before they can get their hands on the SOLDIER and Turk-based FF7 prequels for PSP and mobile phones, the aftermath of "Meteorfall" is getting immediate documentation now. The recently-released direct-to-DVD (and UMD) movie Advent Children picked up two years after the final events of the game, and it succeeded in answering several of the arbitrary questions left hanging from the PlayStation days. It didn't answer everything, though, and that's where Square Enix's latest offshoot comes in.
Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII proves that's there's still plenty of story left to tell. Following the strange and brooding FF7 bonus character, Vincent Valentine, Cerberus addresses a number of unsolved mysteries that fanfic writers have only dreamed about: "Where did Vincent come from and how did he become such a badass?" That's the primary theme over the course of the game's 12 chapters. But that's not all. Discovering the unsettling plans of an elite band of evil narcissists known as Deepground, teaching an unwilling warrior the meaning of family and friendship, and watching the goofball antics of Yuffie and Cait Sith are also popular subjects.
Like Final Fantasy VII before it, Dirge of Cerberus tells an impressive story. Most of the new characters involved go through quite a bit of development and even some of the old ones have a chance to shine. Don't expect much from anyone other than Reeve or Yuffie, though, as the rest of the FF7 cast are typically consigned to supporting cameo roles and little else. Luckily, Vincent himself is exposed pretty convincingly here, and while there aren't any major surprises or twists to get excited about, the game's focus on a small group of characters and their experiences hold their weight just fine. This really is some engaging stuff.
Of course, the real twist to Dirge of Cerberus is that despite its strong story and RPG background, it's actually a shooter and not a role-playing game. Cerberus also has the distinction of being an infamous underachiever in the import market (particularly in Europe) where it was panned by critics for its lackluster targeting, easy difficulty, and dumb-as-bricks AI.
Criticizing the US version for the same problems isn't entirely fair. Though it does retain some of the original issues that hurt it overseas, Dirge of Cerberus has fixed a number of its hindrances. The targeting and game balancing in particular are two ways in which Dirge has obviously improved. It's no longer possible, for example, to get perspective changes and firing buttons crossed-up during simple button presses, and barreling through opponents with one weapon in your arsenal can't be done without generous item or magic usage. Granted, the game is still easy by most console shooting standards, but the point here is that it's nowhere near the cakewalk it once was.
Fixing the camera and targeting system aren't the only addendums either. A plethora of various adjustments have also been addressed for the final American version. These updates include a hastening of Vincent's default running and firing speeds, a more challenging item management system (there are fewer to hold and they're worth less when resold), and the Chaos limit break (an alternate beast-form melee attack) is much more useful. More importantly, though, these changes have an actual effect on the quality of the game by making it quicker, more balanced, and more intense.
There's no doubt that Dirge of Cerberus' strongest gameplay attribute, however, is its weapon customization system. Though players will only be able to create a handful of gun types, their uses and interchangeability are handled well. If you want to create a handgun that runs on Ice Material and benefits from an item that allows you to lighten gravity's effect on it, you can do that. If you prefer to create an explosive long-range machinegun that shoots fire-charged bullets instead, you can do that too. It was also nice of Square to include a handy hot-swap option to switch between three different preset customizations -- keeping the amount of time spent fiddling with menu screens at a minimum.
Another nice mentionable is the fact that Dirge isn't always a straight-forward shooter. Between its primary bouts of first and third-person blasting, there's also the occasional stealth level (which is played from Cait Sith's perspective), a narrative-only environment (spent on the Highwind 2), and rail-shooting moments with very large heavy repeaters. To be honest, none of these stages are particularly striking in their depth or value compared to the main shooting bits, but it does attempt to change the pace of things and is succeeds. That has to account for something... Then again, irregular pacing is probably Dirge of Cerberus' biggest enemy.
While it's accurate to say that the game does suffer from other issues (the AI, while more aggressive, still doesn't offer much beyond shooting directly at you and the level design is straightforward with few deviations), the tempo is what hurts the action more than anything else. As cool as the plot may be, several portions of the real-time cutscenes feel completely unnecessary, with some sequences lasting in excess of ten minutes a piece. This disjointed method of moving from gameplay to story back to gameplay again makes Dirge a passable, but troubled experience for most of the first half of the game. Once you overcome the Highwind 2 story stage, however, the pace really picks up and it becomes more about the action without the overly-intrusive cutscenes. The story doesn't suffer at all either, which just goes to show that Dirge could have been an even better experience if it was toned down a bit.
It should also be noted that, while the game is entirely playable from the first and third person perspectives, first-person is the way to go, Vincent's jump and double-jump moves are hardly ever used at all and quick-targeting an enemy through Vinnie's eyes is much easier to do. It's actually a bit disappointing that Square Enix didn't take advantage of the possible stage designs that using a traditional third-person view and double jump could provide. It's made all the more bothersome by the fact that, even without a deeper mechanic, the game can still be fun to play.
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