My opinion of Final Fantasy VII for the last decade and a half has not been overly positive. While many quickly point to it as one of the best games of all time, I generally push it back behind many other titles that I find far superior. It certainly had a significant impact in the world of gaming, and I do not deny it that. But I always believed its story was one that never really made a great deal of sense, and although it had great visuals for the time, I was never much engaged with the characters or their plight because the story was so obtuse.
It seems as though someone at Square Enix was able to break into my thoughts, and the result was Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, a game that, surprisingly, was able to turn my views around on its predecessor that I never really “got.”
The Beginning of FFVII
Crisis Core takes place seven years before FFVII proper, and it sets up the story for the 1997 hit. The game follows Zack Fair, a 2nd Class SOLDIER working for Shinra, the large, multinational corporation that you might remember does everything from providing energy to towns to creating half-human, half-monster abominations; you know, typical corporation stuff.
At that start of the game, Zack is chosen by 1st Class SOLDIER Angeal to help in an operation involving the Wutai clan and their war. During this mission, Zack learns that another 1st Class, Genesis, has left Shinra and taken quite a few SOLDIER…soldiers with him, and Angeal turns up missing as well. Upon completing his mission with the Wutai, Zack is partnered up with the other 1st Class SOLDIER operative, Sephiroth(!), to locate the whereabouts of these two missing (or traitorous) members. We soon learn that Angeal and Genesis were part of an experiment by Shinra early on in their lives, and that this experiment is finally coming to a head as their bodies begin to degrade and they begin to change into monstrous forms.
In the process of chasing Genesis and attempting to help Angeal, Zack spends time in a certain slum of Midgar, befriends a lowly Shinra infantryman named Cloud, and takes part in a turning point in Sephiroth’s life.
To sum up Crisis Core, it has enough of its own story to create an antagonist and keep you going, but really the game serves as a fleshing out of every time in Final Fantasy VII there was a flashback that you wish had more substance than Cloud holding his head and shouting, “AHH! Five years ago! AHH!” while the screen flashes white. Also, you’ll learn about the origins of that big, fat Buster Sword.
Crisis Core‘s gameplay is a mix between general turn based and action, with more emphasis on the action side than the turn based. The entire game is rendered in 3D (which makes you go, “Oh man!” to various nostalgic locations), and the pseudo random battles take place right in the environment. I say “pseudo” because while battles begin “out of the blue,” like many FF titles, you can generally predict where these battles will take place by where the environment opens up. If you are walking down a narrow hallway, you’ll never fight a thing. But as soon as that hallway opens up, prepare yourself. And be prepared to fight something every time you walk back through.
When the fight actually begins, preceded by a robotic female voice that says, “Active Battle Commenced,” Zack pulls out his sword and you are able to run around the environment attacking any enemy you wish. Using the L and R buttons allows you to switch among a standard attack, spells, and items, and all of this happens in “real time,” or, to be more precise, the time it takes for a spell or action to take place. While casting, you can be interrupted and you can interrupt enemy casts, and if you are keen-eyed enough, pressing square allows Zack to dodge attacks and triangle block them. Pretty standard stuff, really. The combat becomes unique, however, with the DMW, or Digital Mind Wave.
In the upper left corner of the screen, the DMW sits and spins like a slot machine. Three slots with faces of characters in Zack’s life spin continuously as Zack builds up SOLDIER Points (SP). At intervals, the slots stop, and if certain numbers or faces come up, different effects will happen with 7s particularly special. For example, if 7-4-3 comes up, Zack might get buffed with Endure, a status that lets him survive a fatal blow. If it’s 7-7-2, spells might cost no MP for a time. All 7s, 7-7-7, levels up Zack. Now, if two of the same faces show up on left and right slots, a “modulation” will occur, where a separate screen pops up to show the slots front and center. If the last slot falls on a face matching the other two, then Zack will pull off a limit break associated with the character whose face is on the slots.
Sound confusing? Don’t worry, it is! While you learn the basics of the DMW through the game and get used to it, its random nature sometimes becomes pretty frustrating. There will be times where your slots are coming up so good you can’t believe it, and Zack is fighting while invincible with double his health. But other times, you can do with long stretches of nothing. In the last area of the game, in particular, I hardly got any help from the DMW. I don’t know if that was just luck of the draw, but in the hardest part of the game I was forced to whittle away at big bosses without much help from the thing that makes the fighting system unique. But I suppose it kept me from having to watch the mini-cutscenes that happen when Zack has a limit break, all of which are unskippable for some ridiculous reason. Have we learned nothing from Final Fantasy VIII?
There are several little gripes with the battle system that I could point out (like camera and targeting issues), but generally it is pretty OK. The only major thing that I wish was different is your status display. When Zack is poisoned or cursed or is invincible, all of these notifications are positioned in the same place, and at intervals the display cycles through them. So at one moment it’ll say “Poison” then the next “Invincible” and so on, making really difficult to know not only everything that your character is afflicted with but when buffs run out. One moment you might have Wall up, which protects you from physical and magic attacks, but because it’s flashing among several other things, you don’t know when this buff goes away and the enemy hits you for twice the damage because you were focused on the action and nothing told you the buff ran out. And it’s not like there isn’t enough room on the screen. Right under this line of flashing buff text is enough space to list each out individually. Pure craziness, I tell you.
“SOLDIER 2nd Class Zack, on the job!”
Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII ended up doing a pretty impressive thing: by telling a story that fills in quite a few gaps in the narrative I took from FFVII, and with a few pokes at my nostalgia center, it has caused me to change a decade long grudge I have had with the game everyone else seemed to love but me. I now get motivations for several of the characters in FFVII that were maybe too hard to convey through the blurry, cuboid handed pantomiming and sometimes oddly localized text that I remember. On its own, Crisis Core might not be that interesting if you are coming at it without any prior knowledge of this world. There is A LOT of “hey, do you remember THIS?” in the game that would fly right over the head of someone starting here before FFVII proper.
That said, if you have a PSP laying around, it’s not a bad way to spend about fifteen hours if you enjoyed or, like me, wanted some clarification of Cloud and Sephiroth’s story.