If you're like me, then you've certainly played your fair share of fighting games. Between Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Tekken and Soul Calibur, I've experienced just about everything the genre has to offer. I don't care if it features polygons, hand-drawn pixels, fatalities, combo breakers or whatever, there's nothing that will surprise me about fighting games. At least, that's what I said before I started playing Dissidia: Final Fantasy for the Sony PSP.
While Capcom, Namco and Sega have the lock on influential fighting game franchises, one shouldn't overlook the contributions made by Square. Known mostly for their deep role-playing games, Square has made some of the most unique fighters on the market. One of their earliest efforts, Bushido Blade, had the balls to throw away all of the usual fighting game trappings (life bar, fireballs, etc.) and instead opt for a realistic one-hit kill approach. Tobal 2, on the other hand, allowed you to earn more than 100 playable characters, all while you fought your way through a crazy fighting game RPG hybrid. Sure the company faltered when developing The Bouncer and Ehrgeiz, but at least they were interesting disasters.
Now comes the company's newest fighting game, the curiously titled Dissidia: Final Fantasy. This is a game that is equal parts exciting, baffling and awe-inspiring. At its core Dissidia is nothing more than an excuse to turn our favorite Final Fantasy characters into pugilists. But this is more than Super Smash Bros. with Emo characters. Instead of giving us a run of the mill fighting game, Square Enix flips the fighting genre on its head and gives us a game unlike anything before it. This is not one of those games that is easily comparable to Street Fighter or Tekken, even after dozens of hours I'm having a hard time finding another game that comes close to even attempting to do what Dissidia does. This is a game that probably shouldn't work as well as it does; a disaster that was waiting to happen. But Square Enix pulled off the impossible, they proved to me that maybe I haven't seen it all.
Dissidia: Final Fantasy finds the cheesiest way possible to force twelve good guys to battle it out against twelve bad guys. Apparently the world's two Gods (Cosmos, the Goddess of Harmony, and Chaos, the God of Discord) have created a battleground using pieces of other worlds. The two gods each selected ten champions to wage war for eternity in an unending cycle of rebirth until the balance of power tipped in favor of Chaos. But evil is starting to grow stronger and the end is near. So the surviving heroes have decided to band together to take on Chaos' minions and restore order.
All of this back story leads us to the Destiny Odyssey, a series of ten intertwining story lines that introduce you to each of the game's ten hero characters. Each storyline is represented by a Final Fantasy game and character. For example, the very first story has you playing the Warrior of Light, the daring hero from the very first Final Fantasy game. From there you'll find Firion (Final Fantasy II), Onion Knight (Final Fantasy III), Cecil Harvey (Final Fantasy IV), Bartz Klauser (Final Fantasy V), Terra Branford (Final Fantasy VI), Cloud Strife (Final Fantasy VII), Squall Leonheart (Final Fantasy VIII), Zidane Tribal (Final Fantasy IX) and Tidus from Final Fantasy X. Each character has its own unique style, moves an attributes.
As you might expect, each of these heroes has a nemesis pulled straight from one of those classic Final Fantasy games. Some are more obvious than others, such as Final Fantasy VII's nefarious Sephiroth. However, not all of the enemies are as instantly recognizable. Regardless of whether you know these villains or not, the game gives you a quick summary of each character and what their motives are. Plus, you'll find that a lot of the dirty laundry will come out through the game's many cinema sequences.
In an ironic twist, the fighting mechanics found in Dissidia aren't based on any of the past Final Fantasy games. In fact, as far as I can tell the gameplay isn't based on any game, no matter the genre. Instead the game attempts to mimic the over-the-top aerial combat found in the dreadful Final Fantasy: Advent Children movie. Say what you will about the movie's hackneyed storytelling and distractingly awful dialogue, the lengthy battles are as exciting and you can get. It's clear that Dissidia shoots for that style of gameplay and, believe it or not, manages to succeed.This isn't one of those games where you're constantly next to your opponent trading fisticuffs. You are not locked to the ground in Dissidia. Instead they give you a gigantic level full of floating platforms to stand on and wind patterns that you can grind. You can double jump into the air, then rush towards your foe, double jump again and repeat the pattern until you're as high up into the sky as you can be. Just like the movies, physics play no part in this Final Fantasy game. You can run straight up vertical buildings, fly through the air like a bird and get knocked halfway across a level with one hit. Heck, you don't even have to worry about falling off of the level; the game will simply warp you back to safety.
The combat in Dissidia: Final Fantasy isn't like Street Fighter or Soul Calibur, it's more like Zone of the Enders and Virtual On. But even that comparison is flawed, since the way you inflict damage is unlike anything I've ever seen in a fighting game. The idea is that you have two attack buttons, one that inflicts damage (the "Square" button) and another that fills up your attack meter (the "O" button). The meter in question adds up "Bravery Points," a number that correlates to the amount of damage you can inflict with any one attack. The idea is to use your "O" button to add up a lot of Bravery Points and then unleash them all using the "Square" button. But be warned, your enemy is looking to do exactly the same thing.
I won't lie to you; this style of combat is perplexing at first. For two decades I've been programmed to believe that when I hit somebody it should take damage. But that's not the case with this game. And the more I played it the more I discovered the system's nuance. I found that destroying objects in the level and dodging attacks all influenced my Bravery number. I discovered that I had to do more than increase my number; I also had to make sure and decrease my opponent's possible attack. All while I flew through the air dodging fireballs.
While the combat is constantly changing and always interesting, it's only half of what makes Dissidia: Final Fantasy so impressive. Because it's an extension of the influential Final Fantasy series, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Dissidia is actually a role-playing game in disguise. It's true, the game has all of the trappings of a standard Final Fantasy game. The game is all about leveling up your favorite characters (up to level 99), finding brand new weapons and armor, buying new items in the shop, battling weaker characters for money and even summoning powerful creatures to help you win battles. Everything you know and love about Final Fantasy is included in this crazy fighting game.
The story mode starts you with ten missions featuring the ten main heroes. Once you've beaten a few of these missions you will unlock the second half of the game, the infinitely more interesting Shade Impulse levels. Here you can take any hero and expand the story into bigger and more interesting areas. If the first mission got you to level 15, Shade Impluse is there to take you the rest of the way. And best of all, you'll likely want to go through it multiple times with all of the characters.
It's not just that every character in Dissidia is different, that's something you can get in ANY fighting game. What sets this game apart is the level of control you have over each character. The game gives you access to all of the weapons and armor, so that you can buy and sell items and improve your characters stats. You also get to assign attributes, which can drastically change what kind of moves your character can pull off. You also have a large list of moves (which can be earned as you level up) that you can assign at just about any time. The way you develop your character is completely up to you.
The idea of controlling your own destiny seems to be an on-running theme in this game. Each level is played on what looks like a large board game. Each level generates a series of encounters, treasure chests and the all-important exit. How you complete each level is entirely up to you. There's an incentive for taking the quickest route to the exit, since you will earn valuable rewards for saving turns. However, you can forgo the rewards and take on everybody in the level and earn experience, money and loot. The choice is yours.Part of the reason this game is so addictive is because the computer is constantly giving you something. Not only do you earn money and experience after each battle, but you are also finding cool items, new moves and special summons. I found myself always wanting to play one more round, if only to find out what special item I earned next.
And that's just the start of it, the further you dig into the game the more ways there are to earn money, points and experience. The game offers a unique email-style service that will ask you Final Fantasy-related questions and reward points. You'll find that you earn extra experience on certain days of the way. You'll discover that you will get more points for simply playing several days in a row. The game has a thousand little incentives to keep you playing, some of which I've never seen before in a fighting game.
It's not a stretch to say that there are hundreds of hours of gameplay in the game's story mode. If you're the type of person that wants to see everything there is to see, then you'll be at this game for months. On top of the campaign, there's also an arcade mode and quick battle, which allow you to play as the villains and customize your levels. There's also a ton of content, achievements and settings for you to buy. It all adds up to a massive single-player game.
But you don't have to play it all by yourself. If you have a friend nearby you can check out the game's Ad Hoc multiplayer mode. Unfortunately you can't take the game online, but you can swap friend cards. This friend card allows you to fight a computer-controlled version of your friend's character, a cool mode we've seen in a number of other portable games recently. This friend card system isn't a good replacement for an online option, but I would rather have it than nothing at all.
Unfortunately the game does have two minor problems. The first issue involves the voice acting and storytelling, both of which are sub-par. Given Square Enix's amazing work on Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, it's disappointing to hear the shoddy writing come over my headphones. I also found the story to be something of a bore, though I will admit that it picks up steam after you start the Shade Impulse stages. I know this is nothing more than a silly fighting game spin-off, but part of me wishes that more time was put into making each of the storylines unique and interesting.
The other big problem with the game is that the camera will occasionally fight you. For the most part the camera does what it's supposed to do, but I found that on certain levels I would get stuck behind something and have no idea where I was or what I was doing. I certainly wouldn't call Dissidia a frustrating game, but it's certainly aggravating to battle somebody you cannot see. Thankfully there is a work around for this problem, so don't feel like you're constantly going to be fighting a lousy camera system.
It's rare to find a fighting game that brings so many fresh new ideas to the table. Dissidia: Final Fantasy is so different from the Tekkens and Street Fighters of the world that I wonder if I'm doing it a disservice by simply calling it a fighting game. What you have here is one of the most exciting action games of the year, a genuine classic that flips a genre right on its head. It's easy to be impressed by Dissidia, the only hard part is putting it down.