Did you cry when Aeris died in Final Fantasy VII? Is your bedroom a shrine to white haired bad ass Sephiroph? Did you breed the Gold Chocobo and obtain the Knights of the Round Table summon? If the answer is yes to any of the above questions you're going to love Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core, the PSP exclusive prequel to what's considered one of the greatest games of all time.
Set seven years before the events of Final Fantasy VII, Crisis Core tells the tale of uber confident sword wielding (isn't everyone in Final Fantasy?) warrior Zack, a 2nd class member of special forces unit SOLDIER. All he wants to do is get promoted to first class and become a hero (bless) and he'll do anything his superiors at the evil Shinra Electric Power Company ask in order to achieve that goal.
Zack, you might remember from flashback scenes in FFVII, was Cloud's best mate and identical twin in all but hair colour. In Crisis Core Zack's the star of the show, and is guided by Angeal, a SOLDIER 1st class who acts as the player's mentor. Crisis Core begins with Shinra at war with the continent of Wutai over the harvesting of Mako, the planet's life force. During the conflict another 1st class, Genesis, goes rogue, bringing a legion of Shinra deserters with him. It's then up to Zack, Angeal and a more humanised Sephiroth to track him down and find out what the bloody hell is going on (something we're used to doing with Square Enix RPGs).
Crisis Core will delight long standing fans of FFVII, mainly because players will return to iconic settings (Midgar, Nibelheim) and interact with legendary characters, like Aeris (called Aerith in Crisis Core, like the Japanese version of FFVII), Sephiroth and Cloud, from the original game. It's like playing an interactive homage to the FFVII universe. Almost everyone turns up in some shape or form, albeit a bit younger, whether it be as a fully fledged fleshed out NPC or as a cameo in Easter Egg form (Yuffie, Vincent). But the reason why this game has scored so well in our eyes is not because we're playing it through rose tinted nostalgia shades, it's because it's one of the best action RPGs on the system.
Much of this is down to the addictive combat system, which combines real-time movement with traditional Final Fantasy turn-based attacks. When you approach enemies in Crisis Core the traditional heavy rock soundtrack kicks in and a sexy female voice says: 'Activating Combat Mode'. The game world then shrinks and you have a small arena in which to battle your enemies. Zack's movement, controlled with the d-pad or the analogue nub, is in-real time, but his attacks, selected by scrolling through basic sword slices, special moves and magic spells with the L and R buttons, are turn-based. Most battles, especially against multiple enemies, require players to dodge attacks with the square button, heal repeatedly with a Cure spell or potions, and dish out damage when they can. Once you've dispatched all the enemies the sexy voice brings the scrap to a close with the words: 'Conflict Resolved'.
While the combat can get repetitive it's hugely satisfying. Materia once again returns and with six slots available it's easy to get bogged down in serious strategy before battles. Should you go for an offensive load out, with an emphasis on damage dealing special moves like Jump and Assault Twister? Or should you go magic heavy with FF classics Fire, Blizzard and Thunder? The game gives you the choice.
What doesn't give you any choice is Crisis Core's combat hook, the Digital Mind Wave (DMW) reel, designed to mimic the Japanese slot machine game Pachinko. At random points in any given battle combat will pause, the sexy voice will say 'Modulating Phase' and the action will cut to three slots, each with multiple spinning images of the game's characters as well as numbers. Landing combinations of images and numbers will result in different status effects (invincibility, MP cost zero) as well as trigger Limit Breaks, but their use is entirely random. You might level up Zack himself, or level up a piece of materia, or even trigger some pretty cool attacks, but we're a little disappointed at the way the game takes control of the DMW away from the player. We would have at least liked to have had some impact on what pictures and numbers come out. There's just no skill to it.
We can forgive the game this failing though, not because we're Final Fantasy fanboys, but because everything else is so brilliant. The production values are through the roof, the CGI cut scenes are as good, if not better, than those seen in animated film Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children and the story is certainly up there with the best the Final Fantasy series has to offer.
The game isn't a complete bed of roses though. Zack can be pretty damn annoying at times, with his adolescent whining and emo issues grating, especially during the first half of the game. As with loads of PSP games, the loading times are frustratingly long, with too much time spent waiting for rooms to load, cut scenes to commence and dialogue to kick in. And some RPG fans might baulk at the slightly short main storyline, but we reckon it's just about right for a hand held game. Plus, there's literally hundreds of optional side quests available to embark on from any save point in the game (perfect for the odd 20-minute bus journey) not to mention the opportunity to get knee deep in materia fusion and the 'catch 'em all' effect of tracking down all the characters for the DMW reel.
At the end of the day, as a FFVII fan it's almost impossible to resist Crisis Core. The familiar soundtrack, environments and fleshing out of back story will delight the game's fanatical army of followers. More importantly, however, is that Crisis Core's overall quality makes it a must buy for all PSP owners, whether you're into your materia or not. Us Brits have once again been forced to wait for a Square Enix RPG, but it's been worth it. Crisis Core is not only a must buy for FF fans, but a must buy for RPG fans.