Irresistibly cute art style; brilliant soundtrack filled with some of the best tunes in all of video games; giant tracklist of almost 80 songs to play; addictive gameplay; rpg-lite elements add some depth to the basic gameplay; responsive controls; tons of nostalgia for hardcore fans; rhythm gameplay feels generally spot-on.
RPG elements are not as fully developed as they could be; thin story; no online or competitive multiplayer modes; may only appeal to Final Fantasy fans.
Charming, absolutely charming– that’s probably the best way to describe Square-Enix’s Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy. Blending RPG elements and rhythm-based gameplay, this latest mash-up is equal parts clever, interesting and enchanting. With over 20 plus years of music in its vault, Square-Enix takes players on a marvelous, musical journey through time, evoking a very particular sense of nostalgia that’s hard to resist if you’re familiar with the franchise.
But even if you aren’t all that knowledgeable of the Final Fantasy series, there might still be enough here to pique your interest. The visuals are simple but adorable, the presentation values are top notch, the music is sweeping (and may even bring you to tears if you let it depending on your memories of certain iconic scenes from the series), and the gameplay is incredibly addictive. Whether you’re a seasoned franchise veteran or a casual gamer who just enjoys a dash of that Final Fantasy spice from time to time, there’s a lot of fun to be had with Theatrhythm.
What may sound odd right off the bat is that Theatrhythm has very little in the way of story. That’s right; the masterminds behind some of the most fascinating fantasy epics have opted for an experience that does not include an extensive narrative. While this certainly makes sense given the title’s premise, it does feel odd to play a Square-Enix game, no less a Final Fantasy, that does not have an intricate plot to follow. What’s there is very basic, and almost feels more like a means to an end than a purposeful and well-conceived story. Essentially, players are introduced to a world that is without music, and it’s up to them to restore it by way of collecting Rhythmia. Only then can the world and the music crystal be rejuvenated… and that’s about it. That said, given Square’s latest track record, perhaps this minimalistic approach is for the best as many of their newer FF’s have been convoluted to the core, but since there isn’t a compelling story to grip you and pull you into the game’s world, it can often feel like Theatrhythm is relying solely on gameplay to pull its weight. However, given that this is, in fact, a rhythm title above all else, the game doesn’t really need a drawn out tale to captivate its audience– after all, Guitar Hero didn’t need a plot to birth a generation of plastic guitar-wielding gamers who preferred experience over story. So while this is one of Theatrhythm’s downfalls, in truth it’s only a minor one.
What adds to the game’s cause is just how colorful and cute the vistas are. Despite Final Fantasy having undergone a host of visual and stylistic modifications since the ’80s, what we’re left with is a delightfully cartoon-ish look that re-imagines all the games’ primary heroes and heroines so that they all look like they rolled in from the same game. Old hands will get to see not only Cecil, Terra, Cloud and Lightning (to name just a few) in a simplified, chibi form, but also some of the most established Final Fantasy villains and monsters too. The whole thing is just a lot of fun, and it sums up the overall whimsical tone and gameplay.
And gameplay is where Theatrhythm really delivers. Breaking it down to the fundamentals, Theatrhythm is a rhythm combat game, with a dash of RPG on the side, that will see you combing through a combination of responsive touch-screen tapping, tracing and swiping. However, doing all this will occur in three distinct ways. First up are the “field sequences”, where your party leader will hike across the screen against a myriad of backdrops depicting locales such as deserts, grasslands, and forests to various tunes in the game. The second is the good old “battle sequence”, where you’ll choose four characters to plunge into the fray to combat celebrated bosses and beasts, such as Sephiroth and Ultima.
There’s three different difficulty modes to choose from too– Basic, Expert and Ultimate– but only the most hardened of rhythm game experts will be able to tackle Ultimate and survive…
Finally, we’ve got the “event sequences,” which will see you tracing and swiping the stylus in specific patterns against a background of infamous cutscene medleys. Anyone familiar with Elite Beat Agents on DS will know exactly what to do here, and I couldn’t help but rejoice each time I came to one of these event scenes, as they felt like nods to those of us that have invested over half of our years on this earth to the Final Fantasy universe. Even though the battling scenes were perhaps the most compelling out of the three due to their fast and fiendish pace, tapping and sliding my stylus to the sounds of Waltz for the Moon, while watching Squall and Rinoa from Final Fantasy VIII behind the geometric patterns, felt like pure bliss, and reminded me why I’ve dedicated so much time to these games. But regardless of which sequence you favor, this montage of scenarios makes for a dynamic and varied experience that never left me feeling bored or like I was simply going through the motions.
What adds to this distinct rhythm combat are the RPG elements sprinkled throughout the game. Though they aren’t as abundant or as deep as I would have liked, their presence helps the game feel well-rounded and complete nonetheless. You earn experience points that count toward leveling up your troupe of adventurers as well as outfit them with skills, abilities and items, and naturally all this helps you to defeat more foes within the allotted period of time for each sequence– that allotted period of time being the length of a single song.
Excuse us while we go snivel in a corner– “WE’RE SORRY, YUNA!”
Ah, yes, the songs. This is what Theatrhythm is truly about. Behind the gameplay and colorful graphics is the symphonic goodness that has put the Final Fantasy series head-and-shoulders above the rest of its competition. In truth, we could probably look at Theatrhythm as a mere vessel for Square-Enix to lavish fans with its famous musical scores, but with an anthology that pulls from over two decades of music, Theatrhythm really uses its songs to propel the gameplay. As an avid enthusiast of the Final Fantasy series, I couldn’t help but feel transported back in time to some of my first playthroughs of these games, and this sense of nostalgia absolutely tugged on my heartstrings.
But even without those attached memories, the music here is irrefutably gorgeous. It’s varied as well, so you’ll get heartfelt ballads and head-rocking overtures that’ll keep your toes and fingers tapping out the rhythms succinctly– that is, if you have any rhythm to begin with. Fortunately, the soundtrack covers the series’ installments of both yesteryear and today, so you’ll get melodies from the original NES title, all the way up through XIII. Even better is that Square-Enix has already announced and lined up more songs for DLC, so if the initial tracklist of almost 80 songs isn’t enough, then the upcoming downlodable content should satiate your OST appetite. One aspect that might bother some folks is that the tracks have not been arranged or re-recorded, meaning if you are playing songs from Final Fantasy I, they are going to sound just as they did in the NES game. I can understand Square Enix making this decision, though, if for nothing else than to be able to fit more songs on the cartridge. While I typically value quality over quantity, this is a case in which I think more is in fact better, given the nature of the title. Even still, whether they’re old school midis, or fully fledged orchestral pieces, none of these songs lack quality. For me, I thought the songs being ripped straight from their respective game actually added to the overall charm.
I am bummed, however, that despite all of these apparent successes, there is no online multiplayer support. This seems like a brilliant game for at least a competitive mode, whether that be head-to-head, high-score or simple online leaderboard implementation. While we are given the option to play cooperatively with a friend through local wifi, rhythm titles simply scream competitive online rivalry, so why we weren’t given an option to experience this fanciful title with a friend online, or through some sort of face-off mode, almost feels criminal, or at the very least insulting.
Increased agility gives you a better chance of finding a moogle in the field sequences, and finding a moogle can only mean one thing– treasure!
Moreover, even with all the elements in-place, the RPG aspect of Theatrhythm feels underdeveloped. For a series that prides itself on character advancement and customization, having such a limited amount of it here felt out-of-place and strangely constricting. I certainly understand that this is a rhythm game first and foremost, but I also understand that Square-Enix can be an innovator. They can take a genre, and infuse it with its own style to make it transcend similar games. I look to the PSP’s Dissidia titles; they took a standard compilation fighter, and added so many elements that the depth seemed almost overwhelming at times that I felt that this could have been the case with Theatrhythm as well. As it stands now, however, it merely feels like a missed opportunity, and it’s because of this that the title feels like it lacks depth, and is, in some ways, a barebones rhythm game.
All that aside, regardless of what kind of Final Fantasy fan you are– casual, veteran or newbie– Theatrhythm has a little something for everyone, but only if you enjoy rhythm games, because that’s what this is. Cute graphics, an awesome cast and soundtrack that spans all the core FF games, engaging gameplay and a few customization elements make Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy a genuinely fun, though basic, rhythm experience. If there was a multiplayer presence or more RPG constructs, Square-Enix’s latest effort would feel like a perfect ten out of ten package. Of course, if you’re a fan of the series, you’ll probably be able to look past these, because in truth, any true Final Fantasy enthusiast should own this game. It’s a love letter to those of us who have stuck by its side through the good and bad, but regardless of whether you love or hate the series, Theatrhythm is a solid rhythm game that feels extremely polished and well-rounded.