I'll say this about the Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles franchise, Square Enix isn't afraid to radically change them up from game to game. If it wasn't for the package telling me that The Crystal Bearers was part of the series, I would have never guessed that this had anything to do with last year's Echoes of Time or the original GameCube release from 2004. The difference is jarring and not completely successful. Yet, at the same time I can't help but feel like the veteran role-playing game makers at Square Enix are finally on to something fresh and original.
Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers is more than an obnoxiously long name for a video game; it's also the adventure of a young man with special powers and his search for a bunch of mysterious crystal shards. You play Layle, a crystal bearer for hire that, surprise surprise, gets himself mixed up in power struggle that could spell the end of his world. Being a crystal bearer means that Layle is able to use an unconventional type of magic, a Force-like telekinesis that allows him to battle monsters, keep people from falling to their death, stop flying objects in mid air, climb tall areas, and much, much more.
Unfortunately for our hero, nobody seems to like him. He seems to think that it's his special powers making the non-crystal bearers a little jealous, but I have my own theory. I suspect that Layle is just an arrogant ego-maniac who is generally unlikeable. The good news is that he meets and equally unlikeable female character named Belle, a typical "hot girl" who spends much of her time flirting and stealing. These two belong together ... they just don't know it yet.
The Crystal Bearers isn't like most Final Fantasy games. This is not one of those traditional role-playing games where you go around the world battling random enemies, buying swords and leveling up your group of characters. Instead this is a decidedly more linear affair, one where you play as one character without the aid of any weaponry. That's right, this game forgoes the usual sword and shield combat we're so used to seeing in this series. Instead you use the power of telekinesis to battle baddies, find hidden treasure, open gates and, well, just about everything else.
The game's combat takes place in large, wide-open areas full of objects you can pick up. The idea is that you can use your Force-like power to use the surrounding debris to take out large groups of enemies. When you're not throwing boulders, you can also pick up and toss the bad guys around the levels. At first this isn't all that impressive, but before long you'll realize that every enemy reacts to your powers a little differently. For example, some enemies can be combined with other characters to create a large bowling ball that you can toss around the world taking out anything in their path. Another enemy will explode when you throw it your enemies. There's even one type of enemy that will turn into a traditional throwing spear, causing serious damage to anything that it hits.
As I experimented with the game's unique combat mechanic, I was impressed that Square Enix was trying something new. This is a company that has perfected the traditional turn-based battle, so learning a whole new play style was exciting and kept me playing long after I grew tired of the characters and story. Unfortunately there are some serious problems associated with this unique combat mechanic. For one thing, after you've picked up an enemy, it's extremely hard to aim your throw just right. Sometimes this isn't a problem, but the further you get into the game the more you'll notice the game's lack of lock-on aiming. I was also disappointed with the lack of depth associated with the combat system, while I love the idea of using the enemies against each other, I really wish there was more I could do with the Wii's motion control. As it is you're pretty limited with your attacks, which ultimately means that after a few hours of playing you'll dread getting into yet another annoying battle.
Believe it or not, The Crystal Bearers manages to find something even worse than annoying random battles. Instead of being attacked by a bunch of characters out of the blue, this game has a strange day/night cycle that effects when the enemies will be out and about. Some of the missions will require you to defeat a certain amount of these bad guys and rid the field of the dark presence, so you'll find yourself constantly waiting around for all of the enemies to come back out. This is made even worse when you realize that you won't be able to kill all of the enemies in one go and you'll have to wait around for the next time the day turns to night. When you're not battling these characters there isn't much to do, so too much of my time was spent just waiting for something to happen.
And did I mention that the camera battles you every step of the way? For a game whose sole gameplay mechanic is based around tossing stuff at your enemies, the camera is woefully ill-equipped to handle this relatively simple task. You can control the camera at any time by using the D-Pad on the Wii remote, but that's uncomfortable in the middle of battle. Even as I neared the games closing moments, I was still fighting the camera.Of course, each of these problems will go by the wayside the moment you realize that you don't have a functional map. It's not that the game doesn't give you a map, it does. When you pause the game you can see a large overview of the entire land. This overview map will even show you where you're supposed to be going. So what's the problem? The game is laid out in such a way where you never actually know how to get there. For the first half of the game you'll constantly be going to new areas, often warping through portals or zipping through the landscape in a cinema. Where things fall apart is when you try to get back to the main town. Collectively I spent a good three or four hours just wandering around completely lost, and without a workable map I didn't have a clue how to get from "A" to "B". Actually, I didn't even know where "A" was; let alone how to get to "B". It's such a mess that it manages to suck much of the fun out of what is otherwise a fairly interesting idea.
Moving beyond the awful camera, repetitive gameplay and complete lack of a map, I was impressed with how diverse this Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles was. From the very get-go you are forced to pilot an out of control flying boat through a serious of mountains and valleys. From that moment on I knew that this was not going to be your typical RPG, and I was pleased to discover that you are tasked with doing a great deal of fun mini-games throughout the somewhat brief adventure. Like anything, you have to take the bad mini-games with the good. I had a lot of fun with the mini-games that had me playing what was essentially an on-rails shooter, while at the same time I wasn't as excited about trying to help Belle butt-bump a girl off of a tiny ledge. The game really runs the gamete from deadly serious to cheesy whimsy.
The problem I had with these mini-games is that some of them feel a little under-developed. Take, for example, a scene where you have to escape a train without being detected by the armed guards. This portion of the game sets up what should have been a cool stealth-action sequence, similar to something like Metal Gear Solid or Assassin's Creed. But don't get too excited, because you are barely controlling the action. Instead of moving your character around, your job is to watch the enemies and then waggle your motion control in the way it shows. Once you've shaken the control about, Layle will move on his own and find the next hiding spot. You have almost no control over Layle's actions in this sequence, reducing your input to little more than a bunch of quick time events. This sequence could have been one of the most gripping moments in the game, but instead it's turned into another lame mini-game where all you do is waggle the control around.
When you see the game's world, you'll know exactly why these mini-games feel under-developed. The world and characters look spectacular. The Crystal Bearers is definitely one of the Wii's better looking games, even if it doesn't even come close to matching the beauty of the upcoming Final Fantasy XIII. The locations are diverse and full of detail, the enemies are menacing and the bosses will blow you away. What's more, the game manages to look even better the further in you get, complete with a few stunning cinemas that are so good looking that they felt a little out of place in a Wii game. With a few tweaks here and there, this really could have been one of the Wii's very best games. Instead it's just a great looking game that is marred by a few questionable design decisions.
In fact, the game is so beautiful that I almost forgot about the terrible, no good, very bad voice acting. If you can't hire actors that genuinely want to be reading these lines, then maybe it would be better to go back to an era where there's no voice acting at all. I have recently been going through Final Fantasy VIII again (thanks to the PSN and my PSP), and I have no problem with the idea of reading the text instead of hearing it poorly read aloud. Every time somebody opened their mouths to say something I immediately wanted to skip the cinema. But you can't, for whatever reason the game's cinemas can't be skipped.
Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers is not a game that I can recommend, however I do feel like Square Enix is on the right track with this game. With a little more depth to the combat, I can see this being an incredible action/adventure game. It lays down the groundwork for a phenomenal adventure, it just falls way short of the potential. If you can get over some of the game's glaring problems you will find an interesting story told using great graphics. Square Enix is on to something here; hopefully they go back to the drawing board and turn the unique idea into something that can get the bad taste of The Crystal Bearers out of my mouth.