The quarter-century long history of the Final Fantasy franchise has produced titles that have occasionally proved divisive in their reception amongst fans, but one thing that has remained more or less a constant in the eyes of the devoted has been the franchise’s stellar soundtracks. With that in mind, there really is no better way to ring in Final Fantasy’s 25th anniversary than with a game devoted to its memorable music.
Enter the awkwardly titled Theatrhythm Final Fantasy, a rhythm game from Square Enix that attempts to incorporate the RPG elements that have defined the Final Fantasy series for years. Featuring a diverse cast of adorably animated characters and gameplay based on a selection of some of the greatest songs in video game history, Theatrhythm is looking to provide something simultaneously unique and familiar.
Is this mixture of mechanics a beautiful harmony, or does it strike a sour note? Hit the break to find out.
Despite being a Final Fantasy title, Theatrhythm is practically void of any sort of narrative of its own. The basis of the game revolves around the conflict between Cosmos and Chaos that will be familiar to players of the PSP crossover brawler Dissidia, but don’t expect any sort of character development or melodramatic cutscenes – Theatrhythm is all about the music.
The game itself is a fairly simple rhythm game that those familiar with the genre will immediately pick up on. While different stages are set up slightly differently, the general gameplay involves tapping the touch screen rhythmically to the music as markers line up on the top screen. Different markers will call for more complicated actions, such as flicking the stylus in a direction or properly dragging it for a certain number of beats, but there’s nothing here that requires the sort of insane dexterity and precision as something like iNiS’s Elite Beat Agents. The mechanics are simple, but they get the job done.
The twist to Theatrhythm is that each of its songs is framed around a specific type of “scene,” each of which adds a new element to keep in mind as you play. “Field” scenes involve accurately sliding the stylus up and down on the touch screen to trace lines as characters explore the environment, “battle” scenes pit you against a host of Final Fantasy baddies as you launch attacks by nailing a series of inputs, and “event” scenes play out superimposed over selections of Final Fantasy’s famous cinematic scenes as they play. While the same basic gameplay persists for each of these three scenes, there is enough variation between them to ensure that the gameplay remains fresh between songs.
Battle sequences are easily Theatrhythm’s strongest element, incorporating an enormous RPG-style meta game in which you can create a party consisting of four characters drawn from throughout the Final Fantasy mythos. Notes travel across the screen in four distinct lanes, one for each character, and successful inputs will have your characters deal damage to the enemy and launch special skills based on their own stats and abilities. Field sequences are also solid, tasking your party with exploring the nostalgia-laced overworld of the game who’s song you’re playing through and traveling past famous landmarks and environments that are sure to make fans grin.
By contrast, event modes are the game’s weak link. While the concept of playing the song in tandem with a cinematic scene sounds good in theory, there really isn’t any sort of connection between your inputs and what’s happening in the pre-rendered movie. That’s not to say the entire mode is a wash – some songs, like Final Fantasy 8′s Waltz for the Moon, flow quite nicely with the selected movie. However, older titles from the 8- and 16-bit era don’t fare quite so well. Since these games lacked pre-rendered cinemas, you’ll instead be treated to montages of sprite drama that are difficult to follow when large chunks of the screen covered with input notes. Curiously, even though many of these games have received graphical remakes, the original games are used for these movies – one has to wonder why some of the gorgeous cinematic scenes from Final Fantasy IV’s DS remake are completely absent in Theatrhythm.
While Theatrhythm is a competent rhythm game in its own right, what really makes it shine amongst its peers is its surprisingly deep RPG mechanics. Completing songs will earn experience points for the characters you chose to take with you, which naturally causes them to gain levels. Higher levels come with all sorts of perks that directly translate into advantages while playing the game: increased HP totals let you make more mistakes during a song, strong characters can slay more enemies in battle to grab more loot, agility can help you explore more of the environment in a field stage, and so forth. You can further customize your characters with abilities that trigger under specific circumstances, such as magic spells and party buffs, and items can be equipped for additional benefits.
It’s an amazingly addictive system that hugely expands Theatrhytm’s replay value while paying homage to the gameplay elements that have defined Final Fantasy over the years. In an intelligent design decision, however, the mode is actually entirely optional. Rhythm game purists who prefer to tackle songs without the bells and whistles of Theatrhythm’s RPG elements are free to do so – playing a song with a party of unequipped characters will put the game into “stoic mode,” which ensures that you’ll have no assistance as you complete the song. What’s more, stoic mode is the only way to attain the highest possible scores on a given song, which encourages players to challenge themselves once they’ve grown comfortable with a track. Even without help, however, rhythm game fans will find that high scores in Theatrhythm come far too easily – the game simply lacks some of the challenging difficulty of its peers.
There are several different modes to experience, each of which slightly mix up the way you play through music. Challenge mode is a straightforward affair in which you select songs individually to play through. Series mode tasks you with selecting one of the thirteen available Final Fantasy titles and playing through a field, battle, and event song from each one.
However, the most compelling mode is the Chaos Shrine, which sort of simulates a dungeon crawling environment. As you play, you unlock randomly arranged Dark Notes to play in this mode, each of which contain one field and one battle song. The notes for these songs are often randomly arranged and far more difficult than in other modes. Each Dark Note has different “boss” monsters to discover as you play through them, each of which can drop particularly rare loot and crystal shards used to unlock new playable characters. Loot dropped for each boss encountered is tracked, encouraging you to replay individual Dark Notes in order to discover everything they have to offer. The end result does turn into a bit of a grind, but the way the mode is set up encourages and rewards those that make the most use of the game’s RPG elements. As a bonus, Dark Notes can also be played cooperatively over local wireless, letting you team up one of your leveled-up characters with those of your friends.
The selection of tracks in Theatrhythm is absolutely top-notch. Obviously, all the music available is drawn from the history of Final Fantasy, which means that Theatrhythm is certainly catered to a specific audience. However, there’s little here for fans of the series’ music to complain about. The most famous themes from the franchise are all accounted for: Theme of Love, Dancing Mad, One Winged Angel – if you have a favorite song, there’s a pretty good chance it’s included in the game. There are over 70 tracks in total, which can be supplemented by individual songs available as DLC. Songs are reasonably priced at $1 apiece, and they’re mostly limited to the more esoteric entries in the franchise – no need to worry about legendary themes being locked behind a paywall.
It should be noted that, by and large, Theatrhythm avoids rearranged tracks. It’s a move that will certainly make purists happy, as each song is preserved more or less identically to how it first appeared in its original game. This is fine for the most part, but it is a little bit off-putting when it comes to songs from the NES/Famicom era. These tracks simply aren’t as long as songs from later in the series, and it can be a little jarring to have to have the same ditty repeat three or four times to fill in the length necessary to complete them in the game.
Visually, Theatrhythm is a real treat. The game utilizes a heavily stylized cartoon art to represent all of the characters, and the results are quite frankly adorable. All of the characters animate well, and while the 3D capability isn’t too pronounced, it does create a nice effect where a songs notes sort of “float” above the action in the background, making it a little easier to pay attention to both at the same time. Combined with the high audio quality of the songs themselves, Theatrhythm on the whole offers quite an attractive presentation.
Make no mistake about it, though: Theatrhythm is designed with the Final Fantasy hardcore in mind. Fans of other rhythm games might be turned off by Theatrhythm’s somewhat lighter difficulty, and it’s difficult to imagine those unfamiliar with the series getting to involved with what it has to offer. However, for Final Fantasy’s legion of fans and those who have a special love of video game music in general, Theatrhtyhm Final Fantasy is a real treat. It’s a charming, addictive exploration of the history of some of the industry’s best music packed with enough content to keep styluses flicking and feet tapping for quite some time.
Theatrhtyhm Final Fantasy was released on July 3rd, 2012 for the Nintendo 3DS.