With the Crystal Chronicles series, Square-Enix has deviated from its core RPG roots in favour of more accessible gameplay. The third title in the series, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Crystal Bearers, is further proof of the RPG veteran's need to experiment, with a much firmer emphasis placed on action and adventure. Taking place some 1000 years after the events of the original GameCube game, things have changed quite dramatically. Swords have been replaced by guns, the magic wielding Yuke Tribe has been driven to extinction, and alchemy has been outlawed by the Liltian Kingdom. Only a select few are born with magical powers, and are known as the Crystal Bearers.
Enter Layle; a floppy haired and strangely attired young man who just so happens to wield powerful telekinetic magic. Born with a crystal shard in his body, the titular Crystal Bearer is shunned by society and forced to pick up a job as a mercenary where his powers are hired out to anybody with enough gil. The opening scenes see Layle guarding a luxury airship, where his skills are quickly required after the thought-to-be-extinct Yuke Tribe launches an attack. Grabbing a large gun, Layle throws himself overboard, where the player, Wii Remote and Nunchuck in hand, must shoot down the winged hostiles while skydiving through the air.
It's a high octane start to the game, and in true Final Fantasy fashion the story that unfolds is well crafted and suitably epic, if a little generic. Pursuing a Yuke known as Goldenrod, Layle finds himself at the centre of a conspiracy where the life and death of all four races hang in the balance. The world in which this all takes place compliments the narrative perfectly, and is unquestionably one of the game's finest assets. From the steam punk inspired towns of the Clavat race to the golden sands of Costa Faguita, the Crystal Chronicles universe has never looked so beautiful. The marriage of plot and game world is consummated by an equally impressive soundtrack, with the catchy, fantastical influences of Hidenori Iwasaki (Final Fantasy XI, Vagrant Story) coming through strong.
Even after the impressive opening, the game refuses to loosen its grip on your attention for one second. One minute you're piloting an airship through a treacherous gorge, the next you're taking out enemies in a frantic on-rails Chocobo pursuit, and not long after that you're surfing through the rapids of an underground cave. Crystal Bearers offers plenty of diversity to its moment to moment gameplay, but sadly there are fundamental flaws lurking in the gaps between these refreshing set-pieces.
Chances are if you're not talking, exploring or throwing NPCs off bridges, you'll be fighting. The combat system is quite unlike anything the Final Fantasy series has thrown up before; there's no turn based command giving, no spells or summons, hell, there aren't even any weapons. Crystal Bearers builds its combat system exclusively around Layle's ability to throw enemies around the screen like unwanted toys. By pointing the Wii-mote at the screen and then pressing and holding the B button, Layle will grab hold of an enemy with a burst of blue magic. From here, a quick shake will send it flying across the screen, or a sharp pull up will raise the enemy above Layle's head, where it can be used as a projectile against another foe.
The whole thing feels awkward at first, as you never actually make contact with the enemy. There are no clashes of swords or little white numbers popping up to let you know how much damage you're doing. This lack of connection gives combat a bland feel to it, and the limited options available to Layle make the whole affair tiresome. A sub-par camera makes targeting enemies an issue too, as well as down-right ruining the frequent platform aspects of the game. Ultimately, combat is a chore, which in a game that relies so heavily upon it, is a crying shame.
There is an incentive to endure it, however, in the form of Myrrh fragments, which extend Layle's health in much the same way that Heart Pieces extend Link's. In order to do this, all the enemies in a given area must be disposed of in a given time frame, and the Miasma Stream from whence they came sealed. This time limit is never made visible, and should you fail, all the monsters will simply disappear, forcing you to wait until they return to have another go. It's a strange feature, and only succeeds in adding more irritation to the already incredibly frustrating nature of battle. Outside of combat, Layle's powers can be used for all manner of shady shenanigans, from shaking down shopkeepers for a few extra gil, to opening the doors of girls' dressing rooms on the beach. There's certainly a lot to interact with in the game, and nearly everything that you can point your Wii-mote at can be picked up and thrown around.
Although the game forgoes many of the mechanics associated with more grown up role-players, Crystal Bearers still holds onto a few shreds of its heritage. As mentioned, there are no weapons or armour to speak of, but Layle has three accessory slots which can increase attributes such as defence, speed or attack distance. There's also the (somewhat shallow) customisation, which allows you to create new emblems for Layle to wear with pride on his clothes. I'm currently rocking around town with an emblem of my own wanted poster on my back, but that's just how I roll.
Another nice addition is the medal system; an in-game achievement system that rewards skill in mini-games, impressive moves in battle, or innovation in item creation. As well as making combat slightly more bearable, completionists can add a considerable amount of extra time to the 10-15 hours the game would otherwise offer, because there is certainly no shortage of medals to hunt down.
The game packs a lot into its comparatively short lifespan, with Chocobo racing, fishing and treasure hunting side-quests all making the cut. Putting the boredom of combat to one side, Crystal Bearers is a rich and accomplished adventure RPG, with an abundance of varied features tied up in a detailed and gorgeous world. Zelda fans may want to check it out as they wait for Link's next outing, as Crystal Bearers offers a very similar experience.
Underneath its myriad of flaws there's something endearing about Crystal Bearers. I fell in love with the game world, enjoyed the company of the characters, and lost hours to the distractions the game had to offer. Just don't fall into the trap of comparing Crystal Bearers to other Final Fantasy titles; you'll only be disappointed. Take it as it is, and you'll enjoy a side of Square-Enix that hasn't been seen before.