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Review: Theatrhythm Final Fantasy Is Game Music Nostalgia At Its Best 69

Posted by samzenpus
from the read-all-about-it dept.
Jon Brodkin writes "Few game series other than Final Fantasy have consistently provided epic adventures for 25 years—and perhaps no company outside of Nintendo capitalizes on its history like Square Enix. In its latest attempt to merge the best of past and present into one experience, Square Enix has produced the music game Theatrhythm Final Fantasy for the Nintendo 3DS. Joining Guitar Hero-style mechanics, 3D perspective, RPG-like character building and battling, and the rich music catalog of the Final Fantasy franchise, Theatrhythm is impressive, enjoyable, and one of the best examples of why it's worth owning a 3DS and that wacky stylus." Read below for the rest of Jon's review.
Theatrhythm is far from being the most exciting Final Fantasy game. But it's nonetheless addictive to uncover one great song after another, getting used to the quick taps, holds, and slashes the required by the stylus-driven gameplay. I bought the game on its North American release date of July 3, and became captivated after a few initial doubts.

Gameplay

Gameplay is controlled entirely by the stylus, and benefits from being comfortable to play. That may not seem like much, but 3DS owners who played the blockbuster remake of Kid Icarus know that an uncomfortable control scheme can ruin an otherwise perfectly good game. I found myself grateful to Square Enix for not creating a game that induces carpal tunnel syndrome.

I found the game's explanation of its mechanics confusing at first, but once you play for a few minutes it all seems self-evident. A circle moves over notes on the 3DS's top screen while you tap the bottom screen with the stylus. If the note has an arrow, swipe in the direction indicated. If two notes are connected with a solid line, just keep the stylus down on the screen until the second note passes.

In most cases, you don't have to worry about the location of your tap; you just need to get the rhythm down. Some long strings of notes require keeping the stylus on the screen and moving it up and down to hit each note, but the location of the initial tap doesn't matter.

Theatrhythm's songs come in three types: field music stages in which a Final Fantasy character walks around; event music stages in which scenes from the major Final Fantasy games play in the background; and battle music stages in which four party members fight a monster or series of monsters. In the lattermost, successful notes keep the monster at bay, while misses allow the monster to advance and lower your hit points.

Hitting a series of featured notes (similar to Star Power in Guitar Hero) can turn your character into a super-fast chocobo or unearth a summons that deals gobs of damage to the enemy.

A Noble Attempt at Story

As the game begins, a group of songs from each of Final Fantasy's first 13 main series titles are available for play. (The disastrous MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV is conspicuously absent.) As you clear songs, they become available in a challenge mode with two additional difficulty levels, and a separate section brings "dark notes," which offer the same type of gameplay but a different song list and often a greater challenge.

Standard role-playing elements such as leveling up, boosting hit points, choosing attributes, and equipping items (including a potion that will automatically save you from death) make the gameplay a little more interesting. A noble attempt is made to provide a shell of a story—something about the world being controlled by the gods Cosmos and Chaos, and a space between the gods called "Rhythm." A music crystal (every self-respecting Final Fantasy game needs a crystal) fills the world with harmony, but that harmony is disrupted by chaotic forces. The heroes (which the player chooses from a roster of characters pulled from the 13 main Final Fantasy games) can restore the crystal's radiance by collecting Rhythmia—which is conveniently made available each time a song is cleared. Extra characters can be unlocked by collecting crystal fragments.

Once you hit a certain amount of Rhythmia, a relatively easy final boss battle against Chaos ensues, and then the epilogue and credits roll. The ending seems abrupt, but there's little incentive to stop playing. I "finished" the game in eight hours, but still had some 80 or so dark notes left to collect and play through, not to mention the expert and ultimate difficulty modes for most of the main songs.

The Final Fantasy series and this game are astounding for their catalog of incredible music. Final Fantasy has produced classic tunes stretching from the 8-bit era to modern gaming. In Theatrhythm, you sometimes get the original version of a classic song, and in other cases you'll get a modernized version from one of the various remakes of early games.

If you're disappointed by the lack of a song in the series mode, just keep plugging away; it'll most likely appear among the dark notes. I was surprised that two of my favorites—Mt. Gulg's theme from the original Final Fantasy and the battle theme Blinded by Light from Final Fantasy XIII—didn't make the main series of songs. But both appear in the dark notes. The game has about 80 songs, and more that can be purchased and downloaded for a dollar apiece.

I doubt Theatrhythm will attract hordes of people who have never played Final Fantasy. But if you're a Final Fantasy fan, appreciate the series' music, and have even the slightest interest in music game mechanics, Theatrhythm is well worth the $40. Millions of gamers play the titles from their youth on emulators for nostalgia purposes. Theatrhythm provides just as much nostalgia, but also something completely new.

Final Fantasy Thrives in Many Styles

Square Enix seems to get more than its share of criticism from gamers and video game journalists, who claim the Final Fantasy series is somehow broken and needs to be fixed.

Among the most controversial games was Final Fantasy XIII, and undeservedly so. I believe XIII is great precisely because it overhauled the battle system into something faster and more dynamic, while de-emphasizing a lot of the tedious portions of previous games. I did not mourn the loss of towns in which the player must talk to every last person just to advance the plot. But lots of Final Fantasy diehards said XIII was too linear, didn't include enough traditional elements, ruined the whole series, killed their dog, stole their spouse, etc.

Square Enix can't be doing that badly—the company was profitable in fiscal 2012, something Nintendo can't claim. Granted, Nintendo's situation is a lot trickier, as it sells both hardware and software and faces the end of the Wii's lifecycle. But I don't think Square Enix's longevity and success are any accident.

Mario and Zelda are my two all-time favorite game series. But Final Fantasy, I think, is the best example of a series with roots in the 1980s remaining innovative while honoring its past. And because Square Enix isn't duty-bound to any one brand of hardware, it makes Final Fantasy titles for every gaming platform, and makes each one unique.

3DS and PSP Final Fantasy games aren't just ports from the PS3. Each game takes advantage of its target system's unique characteristics. Moreover, Final Fantasy extends to an impressive range of genres: Beyond traditional RPGs there are action-adventure games, hack-and-slash, tactical RPG, dungeon crawling, tower defense, city-building, real-time strategy, and even massively multiplayer online games.

In addition to completely new titles, remakes of the early Final Fantasy games for the iPhone, iPad, and Android offer some of the best touch-screen gaming around. While most Nintendo games from the 80s or early 90s would be clunky on a phone or tablet because of their precise control requirements, the command systems of early RPGs turn out to be perfect for touch screens.

All of this is to say that Square Enix manages to transform gameplay even while going back to the well of its early successes. Games like Theatrhythm, and the recent Dissidia series (which joined the most famous Final Fantasy characters in an RPG/fighting game) provide excellent ways to indulge in the past without actually replaying 20-year-old games.

In an interview with Nintendo President Satoru Iwata, Theatrhythm creator Ichiro Hazama said he came up with the game's idea for the Nintendo DS, but couldn't execute it on that platform because "so many compromises needed to be made in terms of storage capacity and what we could do in terms of presentation. When I saw Nintendo 3DS, my first thought was, 'Yes! Now we can do it!'"

The device's 3D perspective doesn't add much to this game, but the system's upgraded graphic capabilities are put to great use, and the sound is excellent. The Final Fantasy characters are all recognizable, but cuter and more cartoonish than in their original incarnations.

I would change a couple things about Theatrhythm if I could. In the series mode where you play a set of five songs from each game, the opening and ending tunes require no skill—you just tap mindlessly as notes pass into a crystal. Only the three middle songs offer real gameplay. You can skip the ending and opening songs, but you lose points.

The battle animations are also pretty tame, and a bit too similar to the early Nintendo games in which a sword is swung but no contact between the character and monster is made. The summonses help out by throwing huge fireballs and such at the enemies, but that happens just about once per song.

It would also be great to have a proper series of boss fights at key moments, instead of just one at the end of the game. Alternatively, the final boss could have been more exciting and memorable if it had multiple stages or harder difficulty.

But all in all, this is a great game that I plan to continue playing. In fact, I'd love to see the Theatrhythm treatment given to the Zelda series, my favorite in terms of music.

Nintendo is still the master of nostalgia gaming, but Square Enix is right on its heels.

*

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Review: Theatrhythm Final Fantasy Is Game Music Nostalgia At Its Best

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  • >> If you're a Final Fantasy fan, appreciate the series' music, and have even the slightest interest in music game mechanics, Theatrhythm is well worth the $40.

    I didn't know games for portable devices were still sold somewhere $40 - seems like a lot in the era of $4.99 premium editions from app stores and all that.

    • Fun fact: the portable gaming market has been served by dedicated electronics devices for over two decades!

    • by Hatta (162192) on Monday July 09, 2012 @01:13PM (#40593627) Journal

      A Square game is like an app in the same way a hardcover novel is like a free weekly.

  • There's nothing wrong with casual gaming, other than where is hard core gaming or has is been pushed away?

    Decade(s) ago when I was playing Civilization, sim city, F-19/F-117, later F-18, Ultima series especially VI, Myst and clones, Zork and all that was Infocom, Wolf3d, doom, quake, Harpoon, the Steel Panthers series, I always wondered with anticipation what the future would bring to gaming. Amazing technological advances, huge storage, fast 3d graphics, fancy sound systems, strange and amazing UI devices

    • Hey dude, I'm playing Mass Effect 2 for ps3 at the moment. It was about 15$ in the budget game rack. It's fvcking awesome: first person shooting (well actually third person but okay), lots of role playing influences, a huge galaxy to explore. creepy sound and atmosphere in some of the missions, New missions and sub/side missions popping up all the time, etc... I'm at >40 hrs of playtime and have the feeling I'm not even half way in the game. The good immersive hardcore games are out there (and don't have
    • Hard Core Gaming hasn't been pushed away... However they got kinda boring. Civilization - War Craft - Star Craft... Build a city and kill the bad guys who make a city, after a while they get kinda blended together. The slew of 3d shoot them ups. They tried to improve on it by adding some people who you shouldn't try to shoot. Adventure Games - Hours of getting lost...

      Casual Games - easy to learn, easy to play, you can quit any time you like.

    • by ultranova (717540)

      There's nothing wrong with casual gaming, other than where is hard core gaming or has is been pushed away?

      Well, there's Europe Universalis and Victoria 2, which are basically world simulations. There's the Tropico series, which while not exactly hardcore is a pretty decent banana republic simulation. There's been an announcement of a new SimCity, which looks a bit like it'll be more like SimCity and less like Societies. And of course there's Super Meat Boy, Spacechem and other indie games Steam and other o

  • I expected $15 - $20 based on the platform, description, and the estimated 8 hours of gameplay. I've gotten hundreds of hours out of $20 Indie games recently.

    • by _xeno_ (155264)

      Wait, this game was $40? I preordered it a while ago, and after playing it I'd say it's well worth $20 if you're a huge Final Fantasy fan. If you're not, then just don't bother. The music isn't good enough if you don't get a nostalgia kick, and the gameplay is honestly pretty boring.

      If you are, wait for it to hit the bargain bin. Even better, wait for Theatrhythm Deluxe Edition in a year or so where they include the entire game rather than parceling it out via DLC. (Oh yes, they're doing that.)

    • So? It's not an indie game.

  • by gman003 (1693318) on Monday July 09, 2012 @11:36AM (#40592327)

    Square's problem is management.

    The early games were great. But, as inevitably happens, the best people, the ones making the games great, left, one by one. That's why the series peaked at either VI or VII - they would have continued to get better and better had all the original people stayed, or been replaced with equally-talented people. But that didn't happen.

    After that, the series stagnated. They had a good design, but nobody really knew how or why it worked (Japanese developers in general seem to have difficulty with the concept of a "game designer", as opposed to "game director" or "producer"). So they didn't change much for VIII, IX, X, X-2... Yes, there were changes, but not significant ones.

    But eventually the pressure from fans to "innovate" and their own false confidence led them to change things. And that led to a decline in the actual gameplay.

    But Square doesn't get that. Mr. Miyamoto (of Nintendo) has a well-known personal mantra: "find the fun". Square doesn't get that. They don't seem to see games as games, but as interactive stories. That just does not work. That's not just Square - it seems symptomatic of the entire Japanese game industry - but Square has it worst.

    What makes it worse is that they "innovate" on the wrong features. The combat system was decent. Not perfect, but pretty good. So it got thrown out and replaced with something terrible. But things that aren't good or don't fit (Chocobos, for example) keep being thrown in, just because the fans buy a lot of merchandise based on them.

    Personally, I blame Nomura. The latest Square games are about what you would expect from putting a character designer in charge of the game. It's like putting a costume designer in charge of a movie - it doesn't work. You get crazy costumes, but static, "archetypal" characters and a boring plot.

    They also just have massive mismanagement. Reportedly *half* the content made for FFXIII was cut. Now, that figure itself isn't bad - most games cut 90% of their *planned* content. But they cut half the stuff they had already made (and later recycled much of it into XIII-2). That's just terrible management. FFXIV is a train wreck.

    They also seem to pick the wrong staff. Their portable division does much better - remember Crisis Core? Even Dissidia was pretty good. Even on a single-person level, Takeharu Ishimoto's a far better composer than Masashi Hamauzu; he's the one who should be writing the music for their big-box console games. (Yes, I'm a FF music nerd who pays attention to all that stuff and can recite both versions of "One Winged Angel" in two languages from memory)

    In short, yes, Square may still be profitable. Even many of their other franchises are doing well, not even getting into their Eidos side. But the Final Fantasy series is coasting on it's brand identity. They have two or three more chances to get it *right*, or that brand identity is gone.

    • by tuffy (10202)

      They also seem to pick the wrong staff. Their portable division does much better - remember Crisis Core? Even Dissidia was pretty good. Even on a single-person level, Takeharu Ishimoto's a far better composer than Masashi Hamauzu

      Search around for "Bravely Default", another 3DS RPG from Square that has yet to have a western release announced. It's classic style and gameplay without the "corridors and cutscenes" that have plagued recent Final Fantasy titles. More evidence that their portable division is

    • by gman003 (1693318)

      Something I forgot to put into the above rant:

      They quite likely *are* hiring good developers, good game designers, to replace their original staff. But they quite likely don't give them the freedom to actually do their jobs properly (especially regarding gameplay/story integration). Even in a Western culture, you would have difficulty going against a senior guy with several million-selling titles under his belt. In a very authoritarian Japanese environment, it would be nigh impossible.

      I'm not trying to crit

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Square's problem is management.

      The early games were great. But, as inevitably happens, the best people, the ones making the games great, left, one by one. That's why the series peaked at either VI or VII - they would have continued to get better and better had all the original people stayed, or been replaced with equally-talented people. But that didn't happen.

      After that, the series stagnated. They had a good design, but nobody really knew how or why it worked (Japanese developers in general seem to have difficulty with the concept of a "game designer", as opposed to "game director" or "producer"). So they didn't change much for VIII, IX, X, X-2... Yes, there were changes, but not significant ones.

      I disagree with your assumptions here.
      The series did peak around 6-7, but if Square had actually listened to the fans and expanded on 7 with a sequel (at the time, since then they've released junk with the characters from 7, I refuse to call them sequels though) and stuck to a working formula things wouldn't have slipped as far as they have.

      Instead we asked for a 7 sequel and received 8, a half cooked emo love story.
      The changes between the games were huge, so much so that it alienated a lot of long time fan

      • THIS! Like a million times.

        The one thing that I do have to disagree with you on is that just because fans wanted a FF7 sequel doesn't mean they should have made one. It was a really good story, and if they didn't have a place to take it then I think they could have let down a huge amount of the fans by continuing it just for the sake of continuing and not because they had a great idea.

        Overall, each of the games after 7 had some really fun and unique aspects to them (I liked the SeeD tests and ranking
    • (Japanese developers in general seem to have difficulty with the concept of a "game designer", as opposed to "game director" or "producer").

      Yep, and it's not just Square-Enix. Raiden in MGS2 is what we get when someone doesn't tell Kojima, NO. Bait and switch heroes with whiny emo guy is NOT FUN. Lollipop Chainsaw is what we get when someone doesn't tell Suda51..NO Saga Frontier is what we get when someone doesn't tell that insane Koichi Ishii guy that Square should have got rid of sooner,...NO.

      That's one reason Phil Fish made his "You Suck" comments at Japanese developers. He's right to a certain extent, their practices most certainly do

    • Thing is, Square remains profitable. FFXIII, as much as I think it's a pile of doggy doo-doo sold incredibly well and now has a sequel coming out. However Square is losing us gamers who want good gameplay AND good stories (stories about angsty, stereotyped 'teenagers 'spending lengthy bad drama sequences blaming each other for stupid things don't appeal to me, I'm talking about you, FFXIII).

      I would say if they don't get it right soon, it's not that they will go broke, but the Final Fantasy line will be de

  • For sixteen dollars it seems a bit pricey for an older game, but they've gone through and freshened the graphics and other tweeks. I never played the original FFIII, but I'm tempted to support this with the hopes Square will continue to port stuff to Android. I'd love to have FF VII in my Galaxy SII.

  • by eldavojohn (898314) *

    Theatrhythm is impressive, enjoyable, and one of the best examples of why it's worth owning a 3DS and that wacky stylus.

    And then you say:

    The device's 3D perspective doesn't add much to this game, but the system's upgraded graphic capabilities are put to great use, and the sound is excellent. The Final Fantasy characters are all recognizable, but cuter and more cartoonish than in their original incarnations.

    So a long time ago I bought a DS Lite and then the DSi XL came out and I was told that I just had to have it. So I bought it and was not too impressed. Bigger screen, now I can buy from an online store, use an SD card, etc. Now I need to have a 3DS so I can play games that don't take advantage of the 3D perspective?

    Why add 3D perspective and a "whacky stylus" to a game that does not need it? You can still play regular DS games on a 3DS right? So why are game publishers going 3DS

    • by _xeno_ (155264)

      Why add 3D perspective and a "whacky stylus" to a game that does not need it?

      This is another game where you can challenge yourself to see how long you can keep the 3D turned on until your eyes bug out and you're forced to turn it off. Since you need to pay attention to the music prompts, the 3D effect actually makes it more difficult, because the background elements are at a different depth by the exact same focus. It looks really weird and I had to turn it off fairly quickly.

      As for what this game does that it can't do on the DS? My guess: DLC. That's it. Everything else can be done

    • by NearO (591410)

      So why are game publishers going 3DS for the sake of 3D? That just feels so gimmicky to me. Especially when they can access other systems (like all of them) that do not use 3D technology if they make a non-3D version of the same game or just go non-3D natively. I really do not understand.

      There's a very simple reason: It's a completely different system.

      The 3DS has much more RAM (128MB vs 16MB, that's more than the Wii), a much better CPU and a much better GPU with actual fancy shaders and stuff. The old DSi

    • by gman003 (1693318)

      Nintendo really dropped the ball on naming the 3DS.

      It *isn't* another DS. They tried to associate it with their prior brand for sales purposes, but it isn't. It's as different from the DS as the PS3 is from the PS2 - completely.

      The DS was, technologically, about halfway between the SNES and N64. Some N64 games could be played on it, some couldn't. The 3DS is about halfway between the N64 and the Gamecube - I expect we'll see some Gamecube ports for it sooner or later.

      IIRC, it only plays DS games by having s

    • by goldgin (1218596)
      The 3DS has superior sound, pretty important for a music game. It would never have sounded properly on DS. Despite the pricing and the DLC controvercy, the game fits/feels great on 3DS.
  • This review has obviously been written by a Final Fantasy fanboy. There are even several paragraphs where he's being an apologist for Square Enix, even going so far as to call the scorn Final Fantasy XIII received "undeserved". Come on.

    Gameplay issues aside, Final Fantasy XIII was a failure. They pumped so much money and manhours into the thing. The sales weren't bad, but they were well below expectations and didn't offset the investment.

    Final Fantasy XIV was an even bigger failure.

    Why do you think Final Fa

    • by _xeno_ (155264) on Monday July 09, 2012 @12:38PM (#40593117) Homepage Journal

      This review has obviously been written by a Final Fantasy fanboy.

      Well, yeah. There's no reason to even consider Theatrhythm unless you're a Final Fantasy fan - of the complete series at that, not just a single game. If you're not, or only like a few of the games, there's no reason to even consider it. Hell, if you're a Final Fantasy fan but not a fan of Final Fantasy music, this game is not for you, either.

      Seriously - this is a game that's for Final Fantasy music fans to the point of excluding everyone else. There's no reason to play it unless you like the entire series and want to listen to music from the entire series. There's a reason rhythm games aren't popular any more - they get pretty boring after a while, especially if you're not playing music you actually like. (And on that note, even as someone who in general likes Final Fantasy music, there's a good number of tracks you are required to play that I can't stand. Like the entirety of Final Fantasy XI.)

      I'd also have to question the eight hour play time in the review. I S-ranked all the songs on Basic and defeated Chaos in the game, and I've yet to hit eight hours play time. Once you do that, you can replay the songs on harder difficulty levels to potentially unlock more characters and "collector cards." Yay?

      I mean, I'm one of the few people who probably is in Square Enix's target market, and I'm already bored with the game. I can't imagine recommending this game to other people at $40, even if they were a huge Final Fantasy music fan.

      • by PKFC (580410)

        Hmm.. My 3DS is kaput for repairs atm (R button broke from Find Mii.... :P), but I was going to buy this game pretty blindly. Responding to your comment directly because I love FFXI's music.. But looking at their track list.. Yeah.. Not so good. Ronfaure is good, but the others are skippable. They should have had more of the unique songs from it and they have 5 discs minimum from the extra OSTs to choose from. Looking at my iTunes ratings for songs, best are - regional songs (eg. San D'Oria/Ronfaure), battl

  • from your line:
      "and more that can be purchased and downloaded for a dollar apiece"

    I see my main concern for this game has not been resolved. I might get this game when and if they release a "Deluxe Edition" that has all the songs. Until then I do not like the idea that there are songs for the game that do not come with the game. I love FF and enjoyed Elite Beat Agents but do not want to encourage developers to nickel and time customers with DLC micro-transactions.

    • by Daetrin (576516)

      I love FF and enjoyed Elite Beat Agents but do not want to encourage developers to nickel and time customers with DLC micro-transactions.

      A slight reality check here. Elite Beat Agent had 16 basic tracks and 3 unlockable tracks.

      Theatrhythm comes with about 80 songs, a couple of which are apparently only used in special situations, but over 70 of which are "general" songs.

      So you think having about four times as many songs as Elite Beat Agents isn't good enough? Or are you just so offended at the idea of DLC that you refuse to buy any game that offers it, no matter how much content is included in the base package? Are you also waiting out

      • by Whatah1 (2651417)

        Yes, I am offended at the idea of DLC and will strongly resist any impulse to buy content that pushes microtransactions.
        I just recently got into Rock Band (wife decided she thought it was fun) and we did go and get RB2 and the full set for $40, and Beatles + Green Day for $5 each. I will buy no DLC for those games and the fact that DLC exists for the games annoys me. I do not like the fact that the "retail game" comes will less than 100% of "the total game".

  • by Daetrin (576516)

    (The disastrous MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV is conspicuously absent.)

    Well that's a shame! In retrospect the only good thing about FF14 was that they got Nobuo Uematsu to "come back" and do the soundtrack. (Well, hired him and his studio on contract rather.)

    I got ahold of an early leak of the soundtrack and it was enough to get me kind of excited about the game, despite never having played an MMO before. Then of course the game was actually released and the reviews started coming in and there went that idea.

    But still, the music was the only redeeming feature of the game,

  • Square Enix will just just keep milking that cash cow till blood comes from the udders.

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