I don’t think it’s an understatement to say how much of a borderline unhealthy excitement I had for Theatrhythm Final Fantasy when it was first announced. After all, Final Fantasy is one of those series that has managed to transcend mediums, and has consistently had great music to back it up over the past 25 years.
Hell, I’m the kind of guy that drops $185 on a concert entirely dedicated to Final Fantasy music. Nobuo Uematsu, the composer responsible for about 90 percent of that history, is often touted as the John Williams of the video game industry. Who couldn’t pick out that signature ominous drum beat in the beginning of One-Winged Angel? Who hasn’t struggled to hold back tears when hearing Zanarkand when remembering the sad turn of events of the game? Hell, the prelude itself, present in every single game over the past few decades, is probably one of the most recognizable pieces of music in the world.
This is what Theatrhythm is all about. It’s one part addictive gameplay, two parts awesome soundtrack and several parts nostalgia. And that ain’t exactly a bad thing.
To get the explanation out of the way, Theatrhythm does technically have a story. Something about between the worlds of Cosmos and Chaos is the land of Rhythm, which holds a crystal that’s lost its power, and you need to gain Rhythmia in order to bring the crystal back to power. This really doesn’t have any bearing on anything, it’s just a way to cleverly set up the unlockable system.
Gameplay is simple. You’re presented with three different types of songs: event, battle and field. Event songs are memorable events in the Final Fantasy history that come with their own song. A video plays from one of the games while you tap and swipe in time to the music. Event songs can range in pace dramatically. Field songs are a bit more relaxing, usually slower paced songs. This is literally the music you hear in the respective games while you’re just out and about exploring. Ultimately, your character actually speeds up depending on how well you’re doing with the song, which can result in increased rewards. Battle songs are fast-paced, high action songs that borrow iconic battle songs from the franchise’s history.
The controls are done entirely with your stylus and the touch screen. Red notes just mean a simple tap, green notes are long notes that must be held down, and yellow notes with an arrow on them mean you have to swipe the screen in that given direction. Easy to pick up. In field and battle songs you wait for the notes to move over your Mark, while the Mark moves across a set line of notes in event songs. As with any rhythm game, you get more points and bonuses based on accuracy, from completely missing a note, to bad, then good, then great and finally CRITICAL! Critical is obviously what you want to be aiming for most of the time in order to get a higher score.
Each song also has a special section that allows for even more points. These are silver notes that require a high accuracy rating in order to activate bonuses, like initiating a summon in battle songs, dashing forward as a chocobo on field songs or simply extending a song for events.
After completing a song, your performance is broken down into how many notes fell into what accuracy category accompanied by a little chart showing which parts of the songs you did best at, and you get a letter rating, with D being the worst and S being the best. I’m still not sure why S is always the highest rating in Japanese games, but let’s roll with it.
An initial concern I had with the game was a lack of challenge, but boy was I wrong! You start the game with Series mode, which sees players playing a set of songs from games I through XIII (odd that they didn’t include XIV, but oh well,) in order to gain Rhythmia to unlock stuff. These are played on the “Basic” difficulty. These are three songs, one of each type, which have very, VERY simple tapping minigames for the prelude and end credits song for each respective game. None of these songs are terribly difficult, although that may just be because the music is fused with my DNA at this point.
Once you complete a game’s set in Series mode, you unlock those songs in Challenge mode. Unlike Series mode, you can play songs here one at a time, and you’re introduced to the “Expert” difficulty, which, as the name implies, is much harder. More notes are thrown at you, and they scroll much faster as well. Should you get an A rating or better on an Expert song, you unlock that song in the “Ultimate” difficulty, which is probably the music game equivalent of suicide. As of this writing, I’ve yet to actually clear a song on Ultimate difficulty, but you can bet I’m gonna keep trying.
Also, if you can complete the three given songs of any series on a harder difficulty, you also unlock those in Series mode.
The ultimate motivation to playing through these songs is not only to hear one of the industry’s finest sets of soundtracks ever, but to unlock literally tons of stuff. New playable characters, new songs, collectible cards sharing information on the Final Fantasy universe(s), item drops for your party, etc. Also a mysterious item called Dark Notes, which are used in the final mode in the game, the Chaos Shrine.
Chaos Shrine is home to several songs that are not available in other areas of the game. There’s always a field song paired with a battle song, and these are placed in difficulty somewhere between Expert and Ultimate. These Dark Notes are the only songs you can play locally with up to three other friends wirelessly. These Dark Notes are also sharable over StreetPass.
You may have noticed throughout the length of this review that I’ve hinted at the inclusion of RPG elements into the game, but haven’t really elaborated on them too much. That’s simply because, like the RPG elements in the game itself, I’m struggling to figure out how to work it in. You’re told to create a party of four protagonists from the series, and you have the ability to give them each abilities and equip items and arrange them so you put people with high agility at the front for field songs, but those with high strength and magic at the end for battles, but I never really saw how my party was actually affecting the flow of things. I managed to get a handful of my favorite characters up to about level 25 before sitting down to write this review, and I’m still not entirely sure how the party system works. I wouldn’t worry about it too much, personally. I had a blast with the game without ever putting too much time thinking into how to equip my party for a music game. It even sounds a bit silly. I can’t knock too many points off given that, as I said, it’s not something that requires constant attention. I’ve barely given it too much effort and I’ve gotten plenty of enjoyment out of the game thus far.
My only other gripe with the game lies in the translation. The game features full English menus, but many of the videos of older games still feature Japanese text. I understand that it was meant to be each original release of each game, but I would have loved an option to switch back and forth. Many of the older games have even seen re-releases since their original release, and I would have loved an option to switch between them. The same goes for many of the older songs. I’m not sure if it was done out of nostalgia or laziness, but all of the songs are played exactly as they were in the first game they appeared in. Which means if you were hoping for one of the many awesome orchestral renditions of Aerith’s Theme, you get stuck with the PS1 era computerized tracks instead. Some of the earlier songs, like the ones that appeared on the NES, suffer from being dated the worst, but it’s something that’s fairly easy to get past. Again, I would have loved an option to switch to a “remastered” version of the song if one’s available. Nearly every single soundtrack in the franchise has been orchestrated and recorded at some point, and released by Square themselves, so there really shouldn’t be any sort of cost issue.
Regardless of a few odd design choices, Theatrhythm Final Fantasy is a masterful collection of one of the greatest aspects of one of the greatest game franchises of all time. Life long Final Fantasy fanatics will want to look into this game for the nostalgia, and celebration of a memorable series full of wonderful sounds. Newcomers to the franchise should also look into it to see why the veterans keep coming back, and why many of us can’t stop talking about it. Sure, it may not be the way you wanted Final Fantasy to debut on the 3DS, but it’s a great way to remember why the franchise’s fans are so dedicated in the first place.
This review is based on a copy of the game provided to us for review purposes.
Theatrhythm Final Fantasy is a celebration of one of the greatest collection of soundtracks of all time, and it shouldn't be missed.