Before going into the review, I feel the need to be completely upfront: if you do not like the Final Fantasy RPG series or have an appreciation for the music created for it over the past twenty five years, Theatrhythm won’t be your cup of tea. For those on the other side of the camp, Theatryhthm: Final Fantasy is a celebration of the series that, despite its title, has gone on for a very long time. As such, there’s more of an emphasis towards charting rise of the series than creating a compelling gameplay experience.
If you haven’t guessed it, Theatrythm: Final Fantasy is a rhythm game and if you’ve played anything from the genre within the last seven years, you’re more than prepared for it. Theatrhythme offers up two main modes: Basic Course and Challenge. The Basic Course is divided into thirteen stages (one for each game in the Final Fantasy series) and within those stages are five pieces of music to play through. Rather than just present you with a consistent playing field for each song, the tracks fall into one of three categories: Field, Battle and Event. Field tracks are reserved for Overworld themes, Events are typically each game’s prominent love or character theme (“Eyes On Me” and “Suteki da ne” for example) and Battle levels feature, well, battle and boss fight tracks. Although each level type mixes up its presentation, you’re always going to be tapping, swiping and tracing your way through each song. These three categories are bookended by Prelude and End Theme levels that are incredibly easy to play through. All you have to do is tap the screen when the notes get to the center of the screen. There are no penalties in these two stages (they can even be skipped) and can best be thought of as bonus levels.
Timing is the key to victory and if you hit the beat at just the right moment, you’ll earn a ‘Critical” which significantly boosts your score. Scoring constant Criticals, Greats or Goods will feed into a chain that, if maintained by the end of the level, earns you additional points. Missing notes will break the chain (and your calm) and take a portion away from an HP meter. Should that meter empty, the game is over.
What makes the game an interesting novelty is the added RPG layer. At the start of the game, you’ll be asked to create a party of four from a pool of main hero characters from each Final Fantasy title. Each has their own set of unique stats that can be upgraded as characters earn experience points by completing songs. At the end of each song, you might find yourself rewarded with equippable, one-use items that will restore any HP lost during a round or make harder levels easier to manage. Apart from items, each character can equip a number of abilities that have more advanced effects, perks and buffs.
The game keeps two sets of scores, but only one of them is the most important. For every track and course you complete, you’ll be awarded with Rythmia. Apart from assigning an arbitrary number towards your progress, Rythmia is the key to unlocking new songs and characters. Along with completing songs and performing well, secondary conditions (such as having an all male party, or playing through a course while having a character from that game in your party) yields additional Rhytmia.
After finishing all thirteen stages in the Basic Course, you have the option to replay them to get better rankings or try your hand at playing the same songs but on a harder difficulty setting via the Challenge Course. The Challenge Course is considerably more engaging to play through as complex beat patterns are designed to give your tapping skills a workout. Another gameplay mode is the Chaos Tower. Throughout your musical adventure, you’ll stumble upon objects called Dark Notes. Dark Notes can be accessed through the Chaos Tower and include two additional songs that are significantly more difficult than those found in the main game.
Visually speaking, Theatrhythm isn’t much to look at. The beat baubles are nothing more than colored discs that look like flat versions of those found in Guitar Hero. Most of the time, what goes on behind the beat track is more alluring as gameplay clips from old school Final Fantasy adventures and CG cutscenes from more recent titles play in the background during Event levels. Battle tracks are superimposed over a mock-fight that looks as if it were lifted from Final Fantasy VI. As for the collection of characters available for you to play with, they resemble be cupie-doll caricatures based on their original designs.
The game’s 3D element is functional, but that’s about it.
Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy can be fun when it’s not incredibly easy. I truly wished that the harder versions of the tracks were available from the get go because the Basic Course portion of the game tends to get more than a little monotonous, especially for the earlier music which wasn’t nearly as complex as recent scores have been. From an RPG standpoint, levelling characters is a total grind. Everyone starts out with “D” grade stats and it will take considerable time getting everyone up to their “A” levels as each course doesn’t yield as much XP as the Challenge Mode and Chaos Tower tracks. But let’s be honest, you’re not playing this game for the RPG trappings. This isn’t the sort of game you’ll be playing for long stretches of time, either. No, Theatrhythm’s appeal is having the opportunity to interact with your favorite pieces of music from Nobuo Uematsu, Masashi Hamauzu, Junya Nakano, Naoshi Mizuta, Hitoshi Sakimoto, Masashi Hamauzu and Kumi Tanioka.
There’s plenty of things to do in the game and a Museum feature allows you to hear all the music you’ve unlocked as well as movies and an in-game card collection. The Chaos Tower even allows you to work with other 3DS owners. When you’ve exhausted the game’s entire catalog, visit the in-game store and download additional tracks for $0.99 each (currently, there are twelve tracks to purchase).
This is the first game I’ve reviewed where the line between those who will like it and those who don’t is very clear. Only hardcore Final Fantasy aficionados need apply as the game won’t sustain interest for those with a casual like for the franchise. That said, I’m more interested to see if Square Enix is going to farm out the brand to other properties. A Theatrythm: Disney game would certainly draw a significant crowd as would a collection of popular music – but then they run the risk of turning the game into Guitar Hero: On Tour. The bottom line is that this game will appeal only to a certain segment of the gaming population (but that’s not such a bad thing). If you’re a fan, then by all means enjoy. For the curious, wait for it to fall into the bargain bin.