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Square-Enix's Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles series tends to be something of a black sheep, even among other Final Fantasy spin-offs. Perhaps it's due to their experimental nature, or their emphasis on multiplayer, or even the fact that, so far, the series has remained exclusive to Nintendo platforms. Whatever the case, many Final Fantasy fans often find them a little off-putting.
Perhaps it's no surprise then, that the series was created by Akitoshi Kawazu, the man who is also responsible for the divisive SaGa series. Although he was never as directly involved with FFCC as he was with SaGa, having only been credited as producer for two games in the series and serving as executive producer for the others, it still carries his trademark experimental designs and old school PC RPG influences. In fact, the series might just as well have been called SaGa: Crystal Chronicles, but that obviously wouldn't carry the same brand recognition as the mighty Final Fantasy.
The games themselves are a little difficult to sum up, as nearly every game in the series has radically different gameplay from the others. They're often characterized as multiplayer action-RPGs, but that only applies to half of the six games in the series. The others encompass the simulation, real-time strategy, and open-world adventure genres.
Despite the drastic changes in gameplay, the series maintains continuity by having a consistent world and chronology. This is different from the main Final Fantasy games in which each one takes place entirely in its own universe. Thus, perhaps the appeal of FFCC has less to do with a particular gameplay style, and more with its world and characters.
The characters themselves were designed by Toshiyuki Itahana, who is known for his "super deformed" style, and had previously worked on Final Fantasy IX. While the characters in FFCC still look cartoonish, it's not quite as exaggerated and looks a little more natural, although all the characters look like children.
While there is continuity between the games, characters rarely carry over from one game to the next. There are the occasional cameo appearances, but the only character that has managed to appear in every single game is Stiltzkin the moogle. Stiltzkin is a world traveler who often acts more as a guide for the player, but occasionally appears as a minor plot character.
Aside from that, the most defining characteristic of FFCC is probably the four tribes. The tribes are basically the series' versions of races/classes, each with their own abilities and specialties, although they vary a little from game to game.
A peaceful people who resemble humans, and they're the default tribe in the FFCC games. They tend to prefer a peaceful country life, and are usually farmers. Their skills are well-rounded, with a slight focus on defense and magic.
A nomadic tribe whose people tend to be loners, and are often considered thieves. Like Clavats, they resemble humans and are well-rounded, but with a slight emphasis on speed and attack power. In some games they're also ranged fighters who can make use of bows, and have the ability to double-jump.
Despite their short stature, Lilties are strong and resourceful, making them the most dominant tribe in the FFCC world. Because of that, they're often a little on the arrogant side. It's also implied that they're part plant or vegetable. They're usually a warrior class, but in Ring of Fates, they're an alchemist class with the ability to create magic orbs and roll around in pots.
Essentially a mage class, Yukes somewhat resemble birds, with their lanky builds, big feathery hands, and beaked helmets, although they actually have no relation to avian species. In fact, it's said that they have no physical form at all and are merely souls inhabiting armor. Yet, they apparently do have faces, which they rarely ever show. Very strange creatures, indeed!
Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles was never a hugely popular series, and many of the games under-performed in terms of sales. Its experimental style and constant changes in gameplay perhaps gave the series something of an identity crisis. Still, Square Enix seemed to have higher hopes for it, which may be why it lasted as long as it did. The Crystal Bearers even ends on a cliffhanger, but as of this writing, there are no announced plans for a continuation, and the series as a whole seems to have gone dormant. Yet, its bold experimentation, unique style, and charming world perhaps make it worth a second look, especially since rounding up GBAs and link cables is much more affordable now.
After the falling out between Nintendo and SquareSoft in the mid-1990s, Crystal Chronicles was viewed as a return of the Final Fantasy series to Nintendo's platforms (although it was preceded by Final Fantasy Tactics Advance on the Game Boy Advance). As the two companies mended their relationship, Nintendo's then-president Hiroshi Yamauchi requested an exclusive installment of the franchise for the GameCube, and Akitoshi Kawazu took up the responsibility. The only hitch: SquareSoft was locked into an exclusivity agreement with Sony.
The solution was the creation of The Game Designer's Studio, which was really just an alternate name for SquareSoft's Product Development Division-2, but on paper, it was technically a separate entity owned mostly by Kawazu. While Kawazu is credited as the game's producer, it was directed by Kazuhiko Aoki, who was the producer of Chrono Trigger, and also worked on many of the main Final Fantasy titles. After the development of the game, Square's contract with Sony expired, and The Game Designer's Studio was reabsorbed back into the newly merged Square Enix.
The story takes place in a fantasy world engulfed in "miasma". Exposure to the miasma can be fatal, and the only things that ward it off are crystals. The crystals, however, need to be recharged every year with the dew from "myrrh trees". Thus, while many villages and settlements are built near crystals, caravans must be sent out annually to collect myrrh. (Maybe someone should plant one of those trees right next to a crystal and save some trouble.)
There aren't really any main characters, per se. The story follows whatever custom characters you create, and unfolds via their dealings with the various side characters. In fact, it may not seem that there's much of a story at all because it's revealed in a rather organic way. Some players may find themselves on autopilot, collecting myrrh for years on end and waiting for some cutscene to trigger the plot forward, all the while not realizing that clues to a bigger puzzle are being placed in front of them. Indeed, this is not a game that holds the player's hand.
The game is basically a dungeon crawler with an unusual structure and a lot of weird little quirks. It's divided into years, and each year begins with your caravan setting off from the village of Tipa (or whatever you rename it). You roam around a linear overworld map from which you have access to levels and towns, and are occasionally interrupted with a story event. You receive a drop of myrrh after defeating a level boss, and the year ends after you collect three drops. Levels can be repeated as much as you want, but the myrrh only regenerates every two or three years.
The gameplay is difficult to summarize, as it's full of unique, weird little nuances. For instance, doing combo attacks requires timed, rhythmic button presses. There's no MP, so magic can be cast infinitely, but you have to re-collect each spell orb in every level (unless you're fortunate enough to find permanent spell rings). Also, raising your character's stats involves collecting artifacts after beating levels, so you need to keep repeating entire levels to collect more artifacts, which gets very tedious.
Then there's the most hated aspect of the game: the "Crystal Chalice." In order to move around safely in the miasma, one of the characters must carry around a bucket that creates a large spherical shield. However, while carrying it, that character moves at a slower speed and can't attack, can't pick up items, or do anything else, so it becomes a chore to keep putting it down, picking it up, and lugging it around.
The most controversial aspect of the game is its emphasis on multiplayer. At the time, Nintendo was pushing connectivity between the GameCube and Game Boy Advance, and FFCC was the first game to be built around the feature. That meant that in order to play multiplayer, each player was required to have a GBA (to be used as a controller) and a link cable to connect it to the GameCube. Maybe it wasn't a bad idea in theory, as the GBA sold far better than the GameCube, but in practice, it ended up being a huge financial investment that not many people were willing or able to make. Many players were frustrated that they couldn't simply use GameCube controllers, or even create AI party members. Consequently, most people ended up playing the game in single-player mode.
The game does make some allowances for the single-player mode, however. While you can't have AI-controlled party members, you are accompanied by Mog the moogle, who will carry the chalice for you, and even assist with casting spell fusions. Using the GameCube controller also allows for full 360 degree movement with the analog stick, instead of the GBA's simple 8-way d-pad. The difficulty is toned down a bit as well.
The presentation is top notch, with some of the best graphics the GameCube can churn out. Many areas in the game are bright, colorful and highly detailed, with beautiful water and lighting effects. A lot of the levels follow the typical clichés of grass, fire and snow, but some are very clever and moody, such as the ghostly remains of a village whose caravan never returned.
As previously stated, the characters were designed by Final Fantasy IX's character designer, Toshiyuki Itahana, and the game also makes use of other resources and ideas from the aforementioned game, including many enemies and the theme of memories. Even the moogles, Stiltzkin and Atemicion, are carry-overs from FF9.
The music was composed by Kumi Tanioka, who would go on to score most of the other games in the series. Here, she gives the music a distinct Celtic/Renaissance sound with the use of a lot of old instruments and it's stylistically similar to the soundtrack for Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.
The only voice acting in the game comes in the way of short story narrations before each level. It's delivered by Australian singer/voice actor Donna Burke, who also sang and wrote the English lyrics for the opening and closing songs (performed by Fujimoto Yae in the Japanese version).
Despite a somewhat mixed reception, the first FFCC sold well, and it wasn't long before Square Enix revealed plans to continue the sub-series. Ring of Fates was announced at E3 2004 for Nintendo's new unreleased handheld system at the time, the DS, but it would be three years before the game's actual release.
Starting with this installment, Kawazu stepped back and took the position of executive producer for most of the remaining games. The director reins were passed to FFCC's main programmer, Mitsuru Kamiyama, and Ring of Fates took a more accessible, mainstream approach in its design.
The game addresses some of the issues players had with the original game, in particular the multiplayer aspect, and not being able to have AI-controlled partners. Ring of Fates separates single-player and multiplayer into two completely different game modes. The single-player game is very story-driven with predefined characters and AI party members, whereas multiplayer has very little story, but allows players to create and customize their own characters (yet still doesn't allow for AI controlled partners when playing alone).
The plot takes place thousands of years before the events in the original game, and serves as a prequel to the entire series. It tells a rather convoluted story about a pair of Clavat twins, Yuri and Chelinka, who are born with the power to use crystals as a form of magic. However, an evil Hierophant named Galdes wants to use Chelinka as a means to summon magic from the moon so that he can take over the world... or something like that. In traditional Final Fantasy fashion, there are a lot of twists and JRPG clichés, but the characters are generally likeable.
Interestingly, the story for the multiplayer mode is actually like a continuation of the single-player storyline. You play as your own custom character and take him/her through the various areas of the game. The main city, Rebena Te Ra, is nearly deserted at the beginning, but the residents slowly return as you clear out the monsters from the surrounding areas, and you run into several characters from the single-player game in the process. It's something like an epilogue to the main story.
Yuri is the main protagonist of the single-player mode, and as a Clavat, has very well-rounded abilities. He starts out as young and immature, but when he grows up a little, he becomes very responsible, and is very devoted to looking out for his sister.
Chelinka is Yuri's slightly older twin sister, and despite being present throughout the story, she is not a playable character, and is conspicuously absent outside of cutscenes. Like Yuri, she starts off acting a bit childish, but quickly grows into a much more mature character.
Known as "Al" for short, Alhanalem is a Yuke who is like something of a teacher to the twins. He has an odd way of speaking, in which he has to end every sentence with a word that ends in an "al" sound. ("His communication, verbal, will drive you crazy, certifiable.")
Meeth is a Lilty who is something like a nursemaid for the twins. Like Al, she has her own verbal quirks, in which she tends to speak in the third-person, and adds an "ie" sound to the end of a lot of words. ("Meethie will cook you up some soupie!")
Gnash is a Selkie who was raised in the forest by wild animals. He has very little relevance to the story and exists mainly for the purpose of having a Selkie in the group. He continues the theme of verbal quirks by speaking in the third-person, and lacks the ability to use adverbs.
The game mechanics are far more standard than they were in the first game. Ring of Fates uses experience points, as well as "HP", rather than the relics and hearts of its predecessor. Magic still requires orbs, but casting a spell expends the orb, so you need to carry a stock of them. Combat no longer depends on timing, so it's much more button-mashy, but still requires some tact. The game also adds the ability to jump, so the environments are built much more around platforming. There are also a fair amount of block-pushing and switch-flipping puzzles.
Each tribe also has a special ability that makes use of the DS's touchscreen. Clavats and Selkies can do more powerful, targeted attacks, Yukes can make use of "magic needles" to create platforms and light torches, and Lilties have a strange alchemy mixing ability used to create magic orbs. Many of the puzzles in the game are built around these abilities, and using them requires "SP".
Although there are AI party members in the story mode, they're not very smart, and tend to get in the way as often as they do anything useful. One interesting aspect, however, is that their behavior is affected by the type of armor they're wearing. For instance, if you equip a character with a White Mage Robe, he'll focus on casting healing spells for the other party members.
Being a DS game, the graphics obviously aren't as eye-popping as on the GameCube, but they look pretty decent for the hardware. All of the characters and environments are rendered with polygons, and they animate very well. One cool feature is that all armor and equipment is actually physically worn by each character. For example, when you equip Mithril Armor, you actually see it on your character. (Oddly, though, they revert to their default clothes during cutscenes, despite being rendered with the in-game engine.)
As for the audio, Kumi Tanioka's musical score still uses old instruments, but it takes on a more traditional orchestral style, which is well done, but doesn't stand out as much as the original. The Japanese version also has an ending song performed by J-Pop singer Aiko. And unlike the first game, there is quite a bit of actual voice acting here during cutscenes.
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