Where have all these Final Fantasy games come from? It feels like we're under siege from an infestation of Japanese role-playing mice, every one fighting for control over our portable consoles. In under a year we've had a remake of Final Fantasy 3, Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo Tales, the rather excellent Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings and now Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates. And don't expect any let up. Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift is coming this summer. And we haven't even mentioned the countless Final Fantasy games released, and inbound, on the PSP. Square Enix has released so many Final Fantasy spin offs, remakes and sequels in Europe in the last 12 months that it's hard to keep track.
We don't mind the unashamed pimping of brand Final Fantasy. We're happy for Square Enix to slap those two priceless words on anything as long as it's worthy of the title. The problem with Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates is that while it's thoroughly decent and playable, it feels as if it wasn't worth the hassle.
Let's back track and provide some background. Ring of Fates is a prequel, set thousands of years before 2004's historic Crystal Chronicles on the GameCube, the series' first appearance on a Nintendo console for a decade. As with most Final Fantasy games everything revolves around crystals, but, despite its childlike look and feel, it deals with some pretty serious themes, like the death of loved ones, sibling rivalry and handling maturity and responsibility.
You play a little boy called Yuri, twin to magic wielding sister Chelinka and son to ex-knight of the King's Castle Latov. Unlike traditional turn-based Final Fantasy games Crystal Chronicles is more of an action platformer with RPG elements. Yuri can jump, strike with a weapon, cast magic and unleash special powerful attacks all in real time. Eventually, as you make your way through the game and its plentiful dungeons, other characters of varied races and special abilities will join your party, up to a total of four, each fighting alongside Yuri and controlled by the AI (you can switch between on screen characters at will).
The controls are cumbersome and don't feel as smooth as they could have been. Yuri is controlled with the d-pad, restricting movement to four directions - a problem for some of the more precise platforming sections. The touch screen is reserved for your inventory, which houses spells and potions. Again, there are problems here - to cast magic you need to select the spell with the stylus from the inventory, hold X to create a magic ring and then move it over an enemy with the d-pad and release X to cast. You can lock the ring in place with the L button, and even lay spells on top of each other to create super powerful attacks. It's clever in theory, but in practice it feels incredibly fiddly, especially when there are lots of enemies on screen. By the time you've moved the magic rings where you want them the enemies will have inched their way a little closer to you and moved out of the danger area. There are too many commands in the way of making what could have been a rewarding combat system intuitive.
This isn't helped by the truly awful AI that governs your party pals. When they're not stuck trying to solve some perplexing path finding puzzle, they're standing around watching you take a beating when they should be lending a hand. Thank the gaming gods there's an automatic spawn button, without it Ring of Fates might even have been considered broken.
The AI problems are just one of the issues which highlight the fact that Ring of Fates is much better played with friends. The level design, which often leaves you scratching your chin as to where you need to go next, is another. The race specific powers and puzzles which require a number of characters to work together to progress are two more. Here up to four players can play together wirelessly, each one controlling a character created from the available races specifically for co-op play. While the frame rate often drops to almost unplayable levels, you won't have to worry about stupid AI, unless, of course, you're playing with idiots. The multiplayer specific quests also offer excellent rewards, too, for all involved, so there's never a need to shaft your mates.
Our problem with the multiplayer stems from the fact that it's multi-card only and there's no online play, which is a real disappointment. How likely is it that you and three others, who all own a DS and a copy of the game, will get to play together? A rare occasion indeed we reckon. Online co-op would have raised the enjoyment factor no end.
Despite the cumbersome controls and awful AI, Ring of Fates' single-player campaign proves a compelling adventure, and much of this is down to the story, which is one of the best seen in a Final Fantasy game in recent years. At first you'll probably find the childlike cheesiness, reinforced by the super-cute but polished graphics, about as off-putting as an episode of Sesame Street. But stick with it. The plot, and Yuri, quickly grow up and, surprisingly, the game has its moments of tear-jerking emotion. We won't spoil it for you, but there's one moment in particular that rekindled memories of that seminal moment in Final Fantasy VII when Cloud buries Aeris' corpse.
Tied in with the excellent story is one of the most impressively designed bad guys we've seen in a DS game ever. Cu Chaspel is a leering, shadowy figure with a nightmarish face mask. He's wonderfully designed and scary in a subtle, disturbing way. And, he does a truly despicable thing about a quarter of the way through the game. A truly despicable thing. Bastard.
Ring of Fates will be better received by Final Fantasy fanatics than others because, well, it's a Final Fantasy game after all. But the harsh reality is that the excellent story is rather let down by the constricting control scheme. With games like The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass and Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword showing what can be done when developers put their minds to it, it's hard to be sympathetic. Still, there is fun to be had here. Disappointingly, the game does nothing to move the series on, which brings us back to our original point about the game feeling as if it wasn't worth the trouble. If online play had been included we'd be singing Ring of Fates' praise from the rooftops of VideoGamer.com HQ. As it is, the story just about makes up for its gameplay failings.