Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Ever wonder what you’d get if you stripped Elite Beat Agents of the licensed music soundtrack, and replaced it with iconic Final Fantasy arrangements instead? Well, you’d get something like Theatrhythm Final Fantasy, releasing this week for the Nintendo 3DS. Not to say that this is a complete rip-off of Nintendo’s Elite Beat Agents, but it certainly seems to borrow a few familiar elements. To be fair EBA was more of an evolution of old-school rhythm games that proceeded it, like Parappa the Rapper for instance, and in that same vein Theatrhythm builds off of the concept even more, but within the trappings of the Final Fantasy universe.
While the core gameplay is all about tapping, swiping, and holding down the stylus to mimic the on-screen prompts that play on the top 3D display, there’s a lot of underlying elements cribbed from the standard RPG playbook. These elements come in the form of building a party, taken from the cast of previous Final Fantasy titles, and completing musical tracks in order to gain experience and items. Yes, you can level up your characters in a rhythm game, and that’s partly where Theatrhythm’s surprisingly addictive gameplay shines.
Theatrhythm’s gameplay is divided up into a handful of modes, most of which are found under the Music Stage option of the main menu. Within this area you’ll have three different play types to check out, including Series, Challenge, and Chaos Shrine. Series is a structured play through of all 13 Final Fantasy titles, dividing up the musical tracks into five stages for each game. Each game gets a bookended opening and closing theme which is completely optional, and is there only to earn additional Rhythmia points, which are tied into various unlocks for the game. The meat of the Series stages consists of one Battle theme, one Field Theme and then an Event theme.
Each of these themes is composed of what most fans would label the stand-out tracks from their respective Final Fantasy entry. Final Fantasy 7 sports One-Winged Angel for its Battle theme, and Final Fantasy 6 shows of Terra’s Theme for walkabout Field music. There’s a ton of musical tracks included, and a lot more planned as optional DLC down the road. It’s a great mix of tunes that helps to remind even the most jaded Final Fantasy fan that the series has generally always supported excellent music, and that really shines in Theatrhythm.
Prior to beginning the game, you’ll be tasked with creating a four character party that gives you a selection of main characters from the 13 games. Most of these entries consist of who you’d expect to represent their individual titles, so to start with you’ll get characters like Cloud from Final Fantasy VII, Cecil from Final Fantasy IV, Vaan from Final Fantasy XII and so on. There are more characters that you’ll eventually unlock, but there’s definitely a lot of room for other characters that didn’t quite make the cut. There are certainly some disappointing omissions here, but my guess is that they’re just making room for a potential sequel, in the same way the PSP Dissidia titles never fully fleshed out their individual rosters.
Your party selection isn’t just for show, and come complete with individual stats, strengths, weaknesses, and abilities that will dictate how well you perform in each of the three songs that make up an individual level. Certain characters have higher agility than others, which makes them more ideal for Field music stages, because they can travel farther and might encounter random Moogles or other characters that’ll grant you items. Other characters might be stronger, or have better magic, and they’ll perform better in the Battle music stages, allowing you to fight more monsters which mean more chances to have random items drops.
And gathering items is a pretty important factor here, as they’re often a way of unlocking harder to get skills for your party members. You’ll get a lot of one time use items, like potions, and items that’ll allow you to use a certain summoning monster in the Battle themes (which is generally random otherwise). But other items you equip will grant you a special skill if their requirements are met, like a level 5 version of Flare, and these seem like the items to chase after. There’s also a set of collectible cards that you can earn, which is actually a pretty neat feature in the game, and comes complete with an in-game binder to hold the cards, multiple ways to view them, flavor text on the back of the cards, and various rarities for each card type.
Playing through the Series mode of the Music Stages doesn’t prove to be too challenging for anyone that’s remotely familiar with this style of game, but the other two modes will definitely put up more of a fight for experienced players. Challenge mode allows you to select single tracks from each game represented, and play through an expert version of the song. If you hit rank A or higher, you’ll unlock the Ultimate version, which is a tough as nails mode that’ll take a lot of practice before you’ll ever be able to perfect a round.
Chaos Shrine, for me at least, proved to be the most interesting of the three modes in the Music Stages. Chaos Shrine tracks are a little harder to get, but you’ll typically unlock one while playing through Series mode. Completing a Chaos Shrine round will unlock more rounds, but they seem to get progressively harder, and are often as difficult as some of the Ultimate tracks found in Challenge mode. However, Chaos Shrine gives you one random Field music, and random Battle music stage to participate in, and features tracks not found in other two modes. It also tracks the bosses you’ll fight in the Battle theme stage, and gives you an idea of what items you can expect to see once you’ve finished the Chaos Shrine for the first time.
Chaos Shrines are also tied into Theatrhythm’s Street Pass function, which is also pretty cool. I haven’t had a chance to actively try this out yet, but I’m really hoping to pick up some hits from random people once the game releases this week. For the Street Pass function, you’ll create an id card that uses artwork and various backgrounds from the game, a title that you can randomly generate or select, a small phrase, and then a Chaos Shrine that you can attach to your profile. You’ll then trade this Chaos Shrine with other people you connect with, and vice versa, providing an interesting method to unlocking more Chaos Shrine events.
Overall I was surprised by just how much meat there was to Theatrhythm’s gameplay, which ends up being a lot more than just tapping along with icons on a screen. The whole concept of building a party, outfitting them will skills and equipment, and leveling them up over the course of 40 plus songs is really a lot of fun, and insanely addictive. Having some appreciation for the music included definitely helps, and as a kid weaned on Final Fantasy since the NES I’m sure that this experience is going to be more appealing to me than someone that only has a passing interest in the series. But the musical tracks are so strong that I’m willing to believe that just about anyone can get some sort of enjoyment out of the experience, and I definitely think Theatrhythm is a 3DS game that’s worth checking out.