Game Review: Theatrhythm Final Fantasy [3DS]
Nobuo Uematsu is possibly one of the most recognisable names in video games, which considering he’s never actually made a game is something of an achievement.
Responsible for some of the most memorable (and honestly some of the most fantastic) pieces of music to ever come out of any console, Uematsu is most well known for his work on the Final Fantasy series. When you think of Final Fantasy music whatever track comes into your head is bound to be one of his.
Ranging from slow and emotional pieces to fast paced blood pumping action music, the man has created so many pieces encompassing several generations of hardware. Theatrhythm Final Fantasy is a love letter to everything Final Fantasy he has composed, and it’s about time too.
Taking the form of a rhythm game similar to Elite Beat Agents, Theatrhythm takes music from the thirteen main entries in the Final Fantasy series, splits them by game and then by style (field music, battle music, event music) and asks you keep a beat and conduct your heroes in their auditory adventure.
Whereas the last Final Fantasy crossover event – Dissidia – had a complex and involved story told throughout the course of the game, Theatrhythym tones it down significantly. Outside of a paragraph or two at the start of the game, the story takes a seat so far back it isn’t even in the same area as the gameplay. What little plot there is tasks you to collect “Rhythmia” in order to bring order to chaos. What this really means is you play the songs, collect enough points, then unlock a final track that is the battle against chaos. It’s all very forgettable, even when it is being told, but the story isn’t why anybody will be picking this game up.
Taking five tracks from each Final Fantasy game from I through XIII, the gameplay sees you choosing one of these sets and conducting a party of four through them. The opening and ending tracks are always the weakest in gameplay sense due to them being little more than keeping a beat, and in fact can be skipped as they are unimportant to the overall progression of the section (though can award not-insignificant amounts of rhythmia). The gameplay holds up better in the main three stages of a section. Battle music stages take the form of, surprise, a battle, with every correct tap or swipe being a successful attack, and every miss taking away health from your party. Red notes need to be tapped, yellow notes need to be swiped in the correct direction and green notes need to be held, while silver notes encompass all three and, if successfully executed, will summon a [summon/GF/esper/etc] to cause large amounts of damage to the enemy currently on screen. On higher difficulties this can become just as hectic and dexterity testingly difficult as anything involving a plastic instrument, with all manner of directions needing to be swiped in rapid succession.
Field music stages are a welcome break from the fast paced battles, with the overworld themes often being a slower tempo. Here you’ll still be required to tap and swipe, but the green hold notes also need to be traced up and down, as if you were conducting a tiny chibi orchestra. Even on the higher difficulties these are slow paced and relaxing, though some of this may be due to the fact the music is peaceful as well. The silver event notes here are also used, but instead of an all powerful attack summon a chocobo, complete with delightful chirps as you hit the notes, to help you travel further faster.
The event music stages, the final third of the main three, are similar to field music stages, though green notes don’t require any tracing this time. The difference here comes from the notes moving all around the screen, rather than appearing in a simple single line moving in one direction. This can be confusing at first, but just as with any rhythm based game soon becomes second nature, and with practice you can even tap swipe and hold your way through a track while still being able to concentrate on the scene playing out in the background. There are no helping hands to summon in this stage, but instead the event notes, if successful, extend the track slightly to show the heroes triumphing over evil at the end of the game.
As a full set comprising an entire Final Fantasy game, these stages all gel together nicely, with the order they appear differing from game to game. Luckily for those of you who have a particular entry you want to jump straight into, you can select the titles in any order, letting you experience the glory of your favourite game and leaving lesser musical entries (such as the Uematsu absent XIII) till the end.
Once you’ve done a game in the main mode, though, its songs also become playable in challenge mode. Here you can select individual tracks to attempt at three difficulty levels in an attempt to achieve perfect chains or perfect critical runs, all the while unlocking more Rhythmia to inch closer to the final battle and unlock even more extras.
These extras include the Chaos Shrine, a set of increasingly difficult couplings of field and battle tracks (called ark notes) that don’t just stick with the same numbered entry, and even include tracks that can’t be found elsewhere in the game. Completing a dark note will unlock an even more difficult pairing, and so on. This can quickly become addictive, as there’s a sense of progression both in game and personally, with harder and harder tracks slowly being trickled as your skill improves. The additional tracks that aren’t present elsewhere are a nice touch, a way to get them in the game without having to sacrifice another track in that entry, but it would have been better if they were also unlocked in challenge mode for free selection later.
Other extras include videos and a music player, which are self explanatory, but of extra note are the collector’s cards and trophies. The collectors cards are found as randomly dropped items by performing particularly well in stages (getting particularly far in field stages or beating bosses in battle stages), and feature chibi versions of characters and creatures from the series and can quickly escalate to a point where you’ll find yourself grinding stages your good at to collect them all. Trophies have a similar hook, but are awarded for performing specific tasks, such as your first perfect chain etc, but they never tell you how to actually achieve them. This means that when you find out you’ve done something special and unlocked one it’s a real sense of accomplishment, though if there’s a few you have left with no idea how to get them it can be frustrating, especially if you just need to get a full completion dammit!
Graphically the game is beautiful. Trying to merge thirteen games with distinctive art styles (and different amounts of graphical capabilities, some of these games are from the golden age when we still counted bits on consoles) would have been an impossible task, so instead a distinctive and unique art style was used for this entry. Using a very cute chibi style for all the characters it at times can almost look like a children’s book, with the 3D even adding an almost pop up effect to the environment. It’s very easy on the eyes, and never distracts from the notes that are the main focus of the game.
Event stages, however, use actual clips from the games they’re based on. With the early entries of the series you’ll watch 8 or 16 bit gameplay (in the original Japanese) while from the PS1 era onwards youll be treated to sections of the FMVs. It’s a brilliantly nostalgic trip to watch the graphics get better as time goes by, but the music is where the real nostalgia lies.
Rather than update the audio with a full orchestra, for example, the tracks are presented here in their entirely original form, that means chiptunes to midi to orchestration. Hearing the original 8-bit rendition of the prelude never fails to make a Final Fantasy fan well with emotion and memory. Even the PS1 midi files are perfect in their execution, hearing such classic tracks as they were heard back in the day is the perfect tribute to a childhood well spent. There aren’t many composers who could make music older than most of the people that will play this game and still have that exact same track, bits and all, still hold up as a seminal example of gaming audio.
With tracks from the prelude, to The Man With The Machine gun, to Sephirorth, to Mambo de Chocobo and beyond, there’s going to be a favourite track for everyone. Even your least favourite tracks are brilliant tracks (Final Fantasy XIII notwithstanding, when packaged with the brilliance of the other games its lack of Uematsu’s touch is evident and jarring) and while it may not be a game you can play for hours on end, it is a game you will always return to, just to play a couple of tracks again, and you will enjoy it just as much as your first time.
Bottom line is that Theatrythym is a perfect tribute to the music of a series that many of us will have grown up with. If you have any interest in rhythm games or Final Fantasy or good music then you owe it to yourself to play this game. It’s simultaneously a gentle and hectic wave of nostalgia that gets its hooks so far into your childhood memories you cant help but smile.