Let me first start this review by saying that I've never really liked the Final Fantasy series. I used to think that this was because I'm simply not a massive fan of RPGs and turn-based gameplay... but as it turns out, I simply don't like Final Fantasy. How do I know this? Because I've just played a Final Fantasy title with not a turn-based battle in sight, and it's still one of the dullest videogame experiences I've ever had the misfortune to partake in. And believe me, after more than eight years in the industry, I've played a LOT of really dull games.
It's always a risk criticising a Final Fantasy game, because you risk arousing the wrath of the legions of fans who await each new title in the series with an anticipation akin to that of Nintendo fans waiting for the next special edition DS Lite to be released. I'm willing to take my chances on this occasion though, because I find it hard to see how even dedicated Final Fantasy fans are going to like this title. It basically takes a few familiar characters and drops them into a totally different type of game to what most people will be familiar with. Gone is the epic adventuring. Gone is the turn-based combat, replaced instead by a combat system which can best be described as 'Devil May Cry-lite'. You still get a range of different magical skills to play with, and there's a fairly complicated level-up system which affects your character's various attributes, but unlike in other FF games, I'd have to say that none of this actually has any significant effect on the overall gameplay. So now that I've warned you about what to expect, let's get into it: read through to the end and then let the barrage of "Final Fantasy rocks" and "Dude, you suck" comments commence...
So what's the story for Final Fantasy VII: Dirge of Cerberus? Well, the alliteratively-monikered Vincent Valentine is the hero of this one - you may remember him from such games as 'Final Fantasy VII', 'Final Fantasy VII Snowboarding' and 'Before Crisis: Final Fantasy VII'. Apparently FF fans 'loved' the character of Vincent in the original Final Fantasy VII, but not much was known about him. He is, however, a moody type. We know this because he wears a cool, 80's American rock band-style bandana under his 80's American rock band-style hair, and he growls all his lines like someone doing a bad impersonation of Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry whilst giving everyone a menacing stare... at least I think it's supposed to be a menacing stare, it might just be lazy facial animation.
The storyline, if you can call it that (packed as it is with all sorts of random flashbacks and obscure references in an attempt to add a Dan Brown-esque air of mystique and a sense of ancient legends gradually being revealed), concerns Vincent's efforts to combat an evil criminal organisation called 'Deep Ground', which comprises a handful of super-powered villains and a seemingly limitless supply of near-identical, non-superpowered henchgoons for you to battle through before you can tackle one of said super-villains. The super-villains are easily identifiable as they sport costumes apparently designed by Vivienne Westwood on Acid, have booming maniacal laughs (even the females) and all spend far too much time saying things like "Ah, Vincent Valentine, I've been looking forward to meeting you... prepare to die!"
Vincent's not entirely on his own in the game, as he has the backing of the 'WRO' (the 'World Regenesis Organisation). Unfortunately, the troops working for the WRO aren't actually much help, possibly because they all wear what appear to be bright red woolly hats with their camo gear, thereby making them a fairly easy target for the bad guys. Consequently, it's usually down to Mr Valentine himself to handle most of the exploration and combat.
And when it comes to said exploration and combat, the gameplay in Dirge of Cerberus is about as linear as it gets. Vincent basically has to explore small sections of each level, kill all the bad guys he encounters, then move on to the next section. Occasionally - for a little variety - you kill all the bad guys only to reach the end of the section and find that it's sealed with an energy barrier which requires a card key to open, in which case you then need to retrace your steps and kill yet more bad guys (who more or less randomly appear from apparent dead-ends) until you find the one carrying said key, which then allows you to retrace your steps yet again and open the barrier. Oh, the excitement.
Sorry for the sarcasm, but the 'find card key to open door' thing is such a lazy game mechanic, and half the time it doesn't even make any sense! I mean, I kind of get why the first town, which is being invaded by enemy forces, might have card key-operated barriers within it, but why on earth are there some (it should be noted: absolutely identical) barriers in the stage which is basically just a barren wasteland? And why does a big dog have the card key? And more to the point, where does he keep it? It's not like dogs have pockets! And while we're on the subject of weirdness with animals, what's with the talking cat? And why on earth is he Scottish?
And gameplay-wise, there's not really much to recommend in Dirge of Cerberus either. Although the combat is real-time rather than turn-based, there's not a whole lot of challenge to it, as you simply have to point a (rather large) cross-hair in the general direction of the enemy, at which point another crosshair automatically locks on for you. Basically, if you can see the enemy on the screen, you barely have to move the analogue stick to automatically lock on. Great if you're rubbish at aiming, but it makes taking out the bad guys a little on the easy side if you're not. That's if they're not standing by a big grey explosive barrel with 'Danger' written on the side of course - quite why so many of the enemies all feel the need to do this is beyond me, but then I also don't understand why all the bonus items are hidden in identical six foot square white crates with 'Cargo' written on them. Would it have killed the developers to vary the level furniture just a little bit? Oh, and the end of level bosses aren't any kind of challenge either - you simply have to aim in their general direction, hammer the fire button and run round them in circles. Occasionally switch weapons and perhaps take a health potion should your health get a little low. Repeat to fade.
It probably should be mentioned that Vincent CAN also use a little magic, and even turn into a super-powerful mystical monster creature (apologies to FF fans if I'm not using the correct terminology here). None of this really makes much difference to the gameplay though - if you want to fire magic instead of your gun, you simply hammer a different fire button, and when Vincent becomes a monster he shoots fireballs from his hand instead of bullets from his gun... whoop-de-doo. Oh, and while I'm on the subject of the magic, on a niggly little point: should anyone at Square happen to be reading this - the past tense of 'cast' (as in 'to cast some magic') is NOT '"casted"!
But I digress. If you enjoy all the exploration and stats building that the series is known for, then trust me, you're not going to find what you're after here. Similarly, if you're NOT a fan of the Final Fantasy series, then you don't want to touch this one either, not unless your idea of great gameplay is random button hammering broken up by really badly-acted cut-scenes. With Final Fantasy XII due in Europe pretty soon, I'd advise you make that your next Final Fantasy fix.