Game Review

by Dave Riley,

Theatrhythm Final Fantasy

Nintendo 3DS

Theatrhythm Final Fantasy
Adopting an Elite Beat Agents style, Theatrhythm Final Fantasy has players tapping touch screen prompts in time with their favorite Final Fantasy songs.

In Theatrhythm doll-like chibi characters from Final Fantasies I through XIII battle monsters or run across fields in time to an Elite Beat Agents-style rhythm game. Buttons are tapped, swiped, or held along with the beat of Dancing Mad or Battle with the Four Fiends while CG cutscenes or composited video of eight bit sprites plays in the background. The song selection isn't perfect, but most of the hits are represented. It is as flagrant a nostalgia grab as there has ever been.

Layered on top of this is a slew of RPG mechanics: leveling, party building, skill selection, items. Characters from each game slot into a group of four and gain experience from each completed song, learning magic and passive buffs in the process, increasing stats allowing them to run further in the field scenes and fight harder in the battle scenes. Fan-fiction parties of Cloud, Lightning, Cecil, and Terra sally forth, each member quipping one or two words in cutely cobbled together word bubbles, forming nonsense battle cries like “You know, we go, memorably, for music!” or “So now, we die, tirelessly, for... um...” and when they level up they spurt out similarly weird non-sequiturs (like Cloud's so-self-aware-as-to-be-hilarious “I'm no hero”).

Initially the RPG trappings come off as cute but pointless. The party has a life bar, but damage is only incurred from missing notes, and the songs are so easy that missing more than a few cues is pretty rare. So you puzzle over menus and wonder why anyone would ever waste a skill slot on Cure or Protect when they could throw in another Thunder or Fire. After you've moved on from the normal difficulty into the challenge modes the whole system starts to makes sense. The difficulty spread between Basic mode and the Chaos Shrines (random pairings of songs exchangeable via Street Pass) is rather large, and abilities that mitigate or heal damage begin to show their true value.

Theatrhythm can be played “straight.” You will never fail a song because you had the wrong abilities equipped or because your party wasn't a high enough level. If you want a game where your mettle is tested through blazing fast strings of taps and swipes, you can have that. If you aren't quite up to that then a well-balanced party can ameliorate some of the difficulty swings, creating an experience that is challenging, but rigged in your favor. Party abilities allow you to push limits and attempt songs a notch or two above your skill level, and make for frantic moments of “just a little longer”, where you struggle to hit enough notes to keep your nearly empty HP from depleting while waiting for an essential mid-song Prayer to swoop in and restore your health.

Abilities and levels and character progression provide an entry point the Final Fantasy fans who are not rhythm game fans, who would not otherwise be interested in a game like Theatrhythm. It might be pandering, to sink a bunch of RPG traits into a genre that has never needed them, but it's also accurate to say that a Final Fantasy game, even a spin-off Final Fantasy game, without them just wouldn't feel right.

And Theatrhythm feels so right. These songs, some of which are older than an entire generation of gamers, stoke the fires of such fond memories that any frustration over niggling issues becomes insignificant. Who cares about the unskippable score tally after every song? Three quarters of the way through Mambo de Chocobo I meet a moogle that hands me some Gysahl Greens and I am thrilled. That's nostalgia, yes, but nostalgia has its place.

The stand-out moments -- the tinny harmonies of Final Fantasy I, the haunting echo of Terra's Theme, the staccato timing of Se-Phi-Roth in One-Winged Angel -- remind us of just how long we've been playing these games, remind us of being ten years old, beating Garland, building a bridge, and discovering the game was only just getting started. Not every song in Theatrhythm is a hit, nor is every Final Fantasy, but the moments endure: groups of wizards in the Marsh Cave, Celes singing at the opera, even Tidus and Yuna's infamous laugh-out-loud lakeside sequence. All those memories, two decade's worth, in one little game.

Overall : B
Graphics : B-
Sound/Music : A-
Gameplay : B-
Presentation : B

+ Thrilling nostalgia, battle system more complex than it initially appears
Long load times between songs, song selection is comprehensive, but obviously can't represent every fan-favorite

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