I’ve got the moves like Jenova
I would love to believe that the opening 30 to 45 minutes of gameplay in Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy was a carefully orchestrated plot, one conceived in some smoky Japanese bar one night when staff from both Square Enix and indieszero went out drinking together. The goal would be a scathing commentary on Japan’s RPG industry, and how—inexplicably—so many of its offering force players to sit through 5 to 10 hours of boredom in order to get to the “good stuff.”
“If this is truly to be an homage to Final Fantasy,” one of the game-development salarymen would say between taking drags from a soon-to-be-expended cigarette, “then it has to be a true homage to the concepts of Final Fantasy. Even the bad parts.”
I would love to believe that—but I’m not sure I can. Instead, I find it more realistic to believe that Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy’s early moments were simply an attempt at making first impressions that somewhere went horribly wrong.
I can understand the difficulty in trying to figure out how to ease players into a game like this, because for many, Theatrhythm will be something of a bizarre concept for the franchise. In an era when Final Fantasy has come to be represented by epic drama, finely rendered CG, sprawling cities filled with technology, and—how could I forget?—guns, the graphics and characters here scream Final Fantasy Babies. Aww, look at the adorable little faces on Terra, Cloud, and Lightning, with their bright eyes and rosy cheeks! They’re just so darned precious!
And then there’s Theatrhythm’s gameplay. Forget the arguments over real-time combat versus turn-based battle systems—here, victories are won with soul, not swords. The core mechanic is pretty standard rhythm-game fare: Note icons show up on key beats to the music, and you—as the player—must do something to clear that note with the proper timing.
For anybody well versed in rhythm games, Theatrhythm’s mechanics will probably take you all of about 15 seconds to grasp. Tap notes, tap and hold on notes, swipe on other notes—basic concepts we’ve learned plenty of times before. For those not so familiar with the genre, I might say that it’s something like Guitar Hero, but I’d hate saying that, because the genre existed long before Guitar Hero, and I’d only be using it as a reference point due to the fact that it’s the genre example you’re most likely to be familiar with.
More important than a detailed explanation of how to play Theatrhythm is what the game does with those concepts. Playstyle is broken up into one of three types: Battle, Field, and Event. In Battle, four familiar Final Fantasy faces (of your choosing) team up to fight a series of monsters, where properly timed actions on your part cause damage to foes—while missed notes result in your team instead being on the receiving end of attacks. For Field tracks, your team leader takes to the overworlds of the Final Fantasy games, where playing better means more ground covered, and more ground covered means collecting more loot.
Finally, we have Events, which are the cinema scenes of Theatrhythm. Here, the game’s distinct art and visual style is pushed aside for gameplay laid over the top of full- motion video clips taken directly from each of the 12 major Final Fantasy chapters. (Thankfully, Event tracks don’t make up the majority of what you’ll be playing through—they come off a little gaudy and feel out of place when compared to the atmosphere of the rest of the game.)
Now, I know what you’re thinking—I totally forgot that part where I was going to tell you about how Theatrhythm’s early going is terrible. Ah, but I didn’t!
Just as I’ve introduced you to the basic concepts behind this project, so, too, does the game. This is accomplished via the Series mode, where we’re taken through every mainline Final Fantasy release by way of an Opening, Battle, Field, Event, and Ending theme for each. In theory, it’s a nostalgic trip back through the franchise that should serve as the perfect introduction to the game.
Except, it doesn’t. The Series option feels just like the beginning hours of the RPGs it honors: It’s slow to get through, it offers far too little challenge, and you can’t stop wishing that the game would hurry up and become fun already. I also found the initial song selection in this mode rather peculiar. Some tunes make perfect sense for inclusion in a game such as Theatrhythm—but many others simply feel like they’re more along for the ride due to fan service and less because they’d actually work well in a rhythm game.
So low was my level of enjoyment with Theatrhythm’s opening that, at times, I had to force myself to keep playing it. And then, I finished the last song in Series mode—and suddenly, I felt like I was at that moment in RPGs when you take your first steps out of the game’s initial town and out into freedom.
The difference between Theatrhythm’s beginning portion and the major chunk of the game you’ll find after it is so drastically different that it’s somewhat shocking. Freed from the confines of title-specific courses, Challenge mode lets you go straight to whichever particular tracks you’d like—and now that you can crank up the difficulty, getting through each successfully is not only more daunting, but also much more enjoyable.
The true star of Theatrhythm, however, is the Chaos Shrine. Coming off as something of a strange bonus mode at first, the Chaos Shrine could best be described as the random dungeon for Theatrhythm’s RPG elements. Here you’re presented with Dark Notes: uniquely generated courses that consist of one Field track and one Battle track paired together in random combinations and difficulty levels. Each Dark Note has three assigned bosses—reached by satisfying different conditions when playing the course—and each can drop one of three items. Every piece of the equation is a secret the first time you play a Dark Note, and after your first trip through, you’ll still only know whatever details you revealed during that first journey.
The Chaos Shrine is a rather simple concept, but one that becomes terribly addictive. This is, in part, due to those RPG elements that I mentioned above, elements that don’t really become relevant until you get to Theatrhythm’s more challenging levels. Each of the Final Fantasy protagonists you can choose from have their own strengths and weaknesses, and as you play through songs, you’ll earn XP in order to beef up your squad. As the Onion Knight’s strength rises, he can do more damage with each hit on Battle tracks; as Shantotto levels her agility, she can travel farther in Field tracks. Becoming stronger and faster, unlocking more powerful spells, equipping support items—all of these things are so foreign to the concept of rhythm games, but they’re part of what makes Theatrhythm the utterly-peculiar-yet-completely-compelling experience that it is.
They’re also tied to the one real disappointment that I walked away with—the wish that Square Enix and indieszero had been even more daring with Theatrhythm. What if it were some crazy RPG, where the various Final Fantasy heroes and heroines were brought together to journey through each game, defeating a wide roster of foes that had suddenly come together to threaten the fate of the franchise? Here, traveling, fighting, conversing, and everything else would be done via these music scenes—think of all of the possibilities the development team could come up with!
The real question, however, is what Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy is—not what it could be. That answer is clear: a game that initially may seem like little more than a heavy dose of nostalgia, but one that then grows into a project full of creativity, charm, and cleverness. With over 70 tracks to unlock and play through, extra characters to discover, the added element of the game’s RPG aspects, and an endless supply of Chaos Shrine challenges (which can be played either in single-player or local multiplayer), Theatrhythm contains a whole lot to love in a little 3DS cartridge–provided you can survive the terrifying Boredom spell its beginning loves to cast on inexperienced adventurers, and that you have some affinity for the Final Fantasy series in the first place.
SUMMARY: Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy is a nostalgic trip back through the history of one of Japan’s most beloved RPG franchises—and while that trip isn’t exactly the dream vacation it could have been, it’s absolutely a journey worth taking for all Final Fantasy fans.
- THE GOOD: A crazy rhythm/RPG hybrid overflowing with entertainment and personality.
- THE BAD: Getting to the good part takes a bit of patience.
- THE UGLY: Square Enix’s unashamed trolling by offering a Final Fantasy Versus XIII track as DLC.
Theatrhythm Final Fantasy is exclusive to the Nintendo 3DS.