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.