Echoes of Time, the follow-up to last year's DS dungeon crawler, Ring of Fates, shows Square Enix listens. Our main gripe with that game was that there wasn't any online multiplayer. Now, not only has online multiplayer been included, but Square Enix has ported the game to the Wii and implemented clever technology that allows DS and Wii owners to crawl the game's dungeons together wirelessly and across the internet. Fancy that.
While Echoes of Time shows that Square Enix listens, it also shows that it doesn't listen that much. The fiddly controls, awful party member AI and annoying camera from the last game haven't been given even the most cursory of glances. We're delighted we can play with other human beings across the internet, but we were hoping for some gameplay improvements too.
Echoes of Time begins by asking you to create your character from one of four tribes: the Clavats (good with swords), the Yukes (good with magic), Selkies (good at jumping) and the Lilties (good with spears). Whatever tribe you pick you begin your adventure in the same way: in search of a crystal in your coming-of-age, sixteenth birthday ceremony. It's during this tutorial that you learn the basics of Crystal Chronicles' real-time combat and simple Zelda-esque puzzle solving gameplay. In the main you use the d-pad (or Nunchuck control stick on the Wii version) to point your character in the direction of a monster and hammer the A button to attack with your equipped weapon. Beyond this, you're able to pick up monsters and hit them from below, and jump on them and hit them from above.
It's magic, though, that makes Crystal Chronicles' combat unique, but it's also what makes it frustrating. From the very beginning of the game you have access to all six of the game's base spells, displayed in orb form on the right of the DS' bottom screen. With your thumb you're able to press on the desired orb, fire, for example, then, with a press of the X button, you cast the spell, creating a ring that you can move about the battlefield with the d-pad. Letting go of X will unleash the spell, with any luck on an unsuspecting monster. Cue some nice flames and satisfying damage numbers.
By pressing L, however, you're able to lock the ring on an enemy monster, allowing you to cast another spell on top of it. This "Stacking", as it's called, means you can create more powerful spells than you would otherwise. So, stacking Fire on Fire creates Fira. Stacking Clear on Fire creates Barrier. Stack three Cures on each other and you'll create Curaga. When played on your own and up against multiple enemies, Stacking is a cumbersome job. In multiplayer, though, it works a treat because you're able to work together to combine your spells. Indeed much of the game is better when played with others, and it's designed to be so.
It's when you play the game on your own that its failings are more pronounced. Because movement is governed by the d-pad, and there's no enemy lock-on, you often find yourself haplessly flailing at thin air even when a monster is right next to you. This also makes the more challenging platforming sections harder than they should be. The frustration caused by the four-way movement pales into comparison, however, with the shocking camera, which often hides not only you but your entire party and the monsters who are killing you. We were hoping for a fully rotatable camera with this release - it's not as if no-one complained about the camera in Ring of Fates.
While puzzle-solving never works your little grey cells too hard, they often require the simultaneous pressing of multiple switches. This is where other party members come in. In multiplayer this isn't a problem, but in single-player, with the AI governing the actions of recruited party members, it's almost game breaking. Again, this is something we were hoping Square Enix would fix.
Our next gripe involves the story. Once you've completed your coming of age quest, a fellow villager collapses with "crystal disease". You set out into the big wide world to find a cure, given to you by the villainous librarian Larkeicus. Soon after you return to save the day all hell breaks loose and Echoes of Time descends into your typical anime-styled save the world adventure. This approach is standard fare, but it feels disappointing when compared with the wonderfully emotive yarn spun by Ring of Fates. And, we're sorry to say, the admittedly creepy Larkeicus has got nothing on the brilliantly designed Cu Chaspel, one of the best bad guys ever seen in a Final Fantasy game.
Still, the core dungeon crawling experience will be loved all over again by Crystal Chronicles' loyal fanbase. They'll easily sink 50 hours into the game, enjoying the puzzle solving, the equipment customisation (equipment can now be levelled up independently of the character that's wearing it) and the simple story. Most of all, though, they'll love the online play, Echoes of Time's true innovation. It works brilliantly, with seamless drop-in and out play. While the fact that the Wii, if connected with other DS', always hosts the action isn't a problem in of itself, some will be irked when they discover that only the host's adventure will advance, despite items and experience being dished out to all. Overall though, it's a welcome addition, one that extends the fun factor and longevity of the game exponentially.
In any case, Echoes of Time is much better on Nintendo's handheld, if you have both consoles and are wondering which one to pick up. The touch screen/d-pad controls work better than the Wii Remote/Nunchuck combo, and the graphics are a better fit on the DS' smaller screens than a big television. Indeed the Wii version is nothing but an emulated copy of the DS game: clearly the lead project. The Wii version projects the DS' top screen as a screen inside your TV, with the bottom screen to the right of it and smaller, all surrounded by a boring background. This lazy approach is laughable: why not put more effort into the Wii version, make the graphics better, implement better point and click functionality? Time and money, we suppose.
Echoes of Time on DS gets gets a point more than Ring of Fates simply because of the excellent online multiplayer, which, for fans of the 2004 GameCube original, marks the realisation of a five-year dream. The Wii version, however, suffers from a point drop simply because it's a lazy port that's got no effort behind it. So, as with so many Final Fantasy games, Crystal Chronicles: Echoes of Time is one for the fans. For everyone else it's yet another curious Final Fantasy spin-off, with clunky controls, a frustrating camera and dumb AI. Next time, Square Enix, we hope you listen harder.