I, like many people, was both blessed and cursed in my formative years to find a beautiful video game for the NES called Final Fantasy. Let's face it, even through various remake that have improved graphics and sound, adding new cinematic aspects to the game, it's crap even by the standards of 15 years ago. But it opened a whole new door for me in video gaming. It didn't always have to be about jumping on turtles and flying with a racoon tail, or dodging sadistically placed enemies and lines of fire in your ship that is destroyed if you even think of touching anything on the screen that's not you. There could be fantasy adventures with swords and magic and dragons too. Since that time I was cursed with the need to buy each and every game in the series.
As the series progressed the graphics, music and storytelling got better and better, and then the series hit its height and started going steeply downhill, focusing more on making pretty graphics rather than memorable characters and epic stories. When I say Locke, many guys my age will either think of Final Fantasy VI (III US) or Lost. When I say Balthier, they'll scrath their heads and ask "huh?"
In 1997 The last truly good Final Fantasy game was released. It had everything: killer graphics for the time, a great and memorable soundtrack, characters that seemed more like real people than video game sprites, a story of love, honor, trust, betrayal, and self discovery. It marked the beginning of a whole new era of RPG video games with full motion video cinematic cutscenes to help the story progress. Final Fantasy VII cost more money to make than most movies, and used the talents of more CG programmers than a star wars prequel. It was the most ambitious video game of its time, has sold more copies than any other video game in history, and remains a fan favorite even after a decade and a half since its release. Grown men will admit to having wept when they saw Aeris die halfway through. When this game came out, my friend Chris and I stayed up all night long playing it, completely mesmerized by the ridiculously awesome graphics, story and music. Even now, after all these years, it is in my top three video games of all time, between Final Fantasy VI and Xenogears for the number 2 slot.
So, when everyone finished playing Final Fantasy VII, they were somewhat let down. The world was saved. The villain was destroyed. The protagonist found himself, and his strenght to fight for what he believes in. But there was one question on everyone's mind. What happened next?
Eight years later, Squaresoft, now Square-Enix, decided to tell us in an effort to fill in the gaps of falling revinue from their array of lackluster games that followed FFVII. They announced a whole line of Final Fantasy VII sequels, prequels and spinoffs.
First came the much awaited Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, the feature length CG movie that was a direct sequel to FInal Fantasy VII. Despite some of the best CG graphics seen anywhere to date, this sequel fell well short of the expectations of fans, and the story was noticably cut down to make the release deadline. Rather than focusing on the characters we all came to love, and a story that could have been as epic as the one in the game, the movie basically only showed all of our favorite characters fighting and being cool without much in the way of any explanation why, or and coherrant storyline. It was a vast disappointment to many, though Square-Enix has gone through and finished the movie as it was intended with a director's cut that added more than 40 minutes of story elements that make it make more sense and suck less. While not the sequel everyone was hoping for, the director's cut is much more enjoyable than the theatrical release, and has won back many of the people who felt as though Square had gyped them out of their money on a cheap gimmick.
Next was Final Fantasy VII: Dirge of Cerberus. This game featured Vincent Valentine as it's main protagonist, but all of the FFVII favorites came back for at least a cameo appearance. This game sheds light on one of the more enigmatic Final Fantasy VII characters, and fleshes out a lot of ambiguous details left by the original game and the movie, however, it is far from a fan favorite. Rather than being an RPG like the original, it is a third person shooter, with awful controls and camera movement, and generally lacked anything resembling enjoyment for all but a few fans of the original game. It wasn't horrible, but it just wasn't the sort of game that most people considered a worthy sequel to one of the greatest games of all time, and the fact that it was a shooter game rather than an RPG angered quite a few people.
After that, the prequel Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core was announced, a game that would tell the true story behind Cloud, Zack, and Sephiroth’s ambiguous past. After the two bombs that came before it, hope was not high for Crisis Core, and to make matters worse, it was going to be released on PSP, a handheld system that few people owned. It seemed tht Square-Enix was just never going to come close to the greatness that they once had. And it’s not just them. With flashier graphics and the addition of voice acting, pretty much every company out there has begun producing games that rely heavily on those two things but have forgotten their roots in telling a good story, and lost a lot of playability by trying to add pointless innovations.
I bought Crisis Core on general principle, of course. As I mentioned before, I am cursed to forever buy every Final Fantasy game that is released, hoping for even a glimmer of the former glory that the series once possessed. After Advent Children and Dirge of Cerberus, my hopes were not high, but I was plesantly surprised. This game did a spectacular job of blending the new with the old, taking elements that made the first game so good, and adding new ones to make it it’s own game. There’s just enough remixed original music in it to bring back a bit of nostalgia while visiting places that you visited before, and enough nods and references to the story of the first game for it to easily fit into the storyline as a solid prequel telling the untold story of one of the coolest characters that was barely in the original game. It’s not the most original idea for a game, and it does suffer from some serious repetition, but it far exceeded my expectations after Advent Children and Dirge of Cerberus. At last there was a game that, while not as broad and epic as Final Fantasy VII, came close to the greatness of earlier Final Fantasies, and brought back the world and characters of FFVII in a great way. The game is fast paced, bringing in elements of RPG and action games, has great music, and though it does have some very spectacular cinematic sequences, it does not rely too heavily upon them to tell the story. It is, without a doubt, the best thing that Square has produced in a very, very long time.
Why am I talking about a game that came out 4 years ago? Because the shuffle on my iPod brought up the soundtrack of Crisis Core today while I was working, and it made me want to play it again. When I got home I turned it on, and found that it was just as good as I remembered it being. It’s great to see the story of the guy who is only seen in flashbacks and yet had such a huge impact on the hero of Final Fantasy VII. It was released as a “Greatest Hits” title and can be found for very cheap, so if you haven’t played it, own a PSP, and liked Final Fantasy VII and want more of it, I would definitely recommend Crisis Core.