A couple of years ago I was faced with a choice. I wanted to buy a handheld console, but I didn’t know whether to get a Nintendo DS or a Playstation Portable. The DS had the Pokemon games and the PSP had Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII. Back then I chose the DS purely because it had more games, but recently I have had a bit more pocket money and so I bought a PSP and I played Crisis Core. Even though I still think I made the right choice back then, Crisis Core was well worth the wait.
Crisis Core is a prequel to the much-loved game Final Fantasy VII for the Playstation. Its main character is Zack Fair, whose presence is felt throughout the original game, even though he is never directly encountered. Those who have played Final Fantasy VII will come to this game with a pit in their stomachs as they take control of the fated Zack. The game is only part of a world that exists around Final Fantasy VII. Other parts include the excellent Advent Children feature film, and the enjoyable Playstation 2 game, Dirge of Cerberus. Each addition to the series throws new light onto the events depicted in Final Fantasy VII, and works to flesh out the world featured in that game. Crisis Core is perhaps the most relevant of these as it depicts events that are directly represented in the original game.
Final Fantasy VII is my favourite game. I find the characters charming, the story inspiring and the setting beautiful. What is essentially a story about revenge goes on to become a thoughtful narrative on what it means to exist. It also explores how the characters as moral agents react to the threat posed to the world by the heavily industrialised Shinra Corporation. In Final Fantasy VII, Shinra are the bad guys, from experimenting on people to literally draining the life out of the planet, they are universally despised by all right-thinking people. This is why Crisis Core is such an interested game, as in it you play as a Shinra employee.
Shinra is not yet the evil organisation in Crisis Core that it will later become, but it’s still pretty shady. As Zack, you play a member of SOLDIER, the elite fighting force at the beck and call of the Shinra big wigs. Zack’s innocent demeanour and joie de vivre at the beginning of the game are in stark contrast to what I thought I knew about Shinra, and throughout the game I constantly asked myself: am I the bad guy? What was more disturbing than that however, were several scenes in which Zack and Sephiroth interact. Sephiroth is depicted as the epitome of evil in Final Fantasy VII and yet here he seems to be an all right guy. It is here that the finesse of Crisis Core is most apparent as characters and organisations we thought of simply as ‘the bad guys’ take on a new dimension.
Crisis Core is impressive in lots of other ways too. The action/RPG genres are seamlessly blended in a fluid and poised battle system, with a control scheme that is simultaneously easy to use in a real-time action environment and reminiscent of the traditional RPG command-based system. The score is sublime: a mix of new and old that both invokes fond memories of the original and yet entertains with several new additions.
The game isn’t perfect though, there are several segments (pretty much mandatory mini-games) which seem to be there for little else than the sake of having them there. For example, there is a point in the game where you travel to Banora and for one reason or another someone is spraying the town in splatter-gun fashion with missiles. Your job is to destroy the incoming missiles by pressing the attack button at just the right time to cut them in half. This probably sounds much cooler than it actually is for in reality it’s a pointless endeavour, unlike another part of the game in which you are required to build a flower wagon for Aeries, which neither sounds nor is fun. Crisis Core has several other flaws besides, but so did the original game, and they didn’t make me love it any less.
For me, the materia system in Final Fantasy VII is the best of all the Final Fantasy games. It is the only system that allows you to give each character their individual and personal set-up, compared to say Final Fantasy X where after a certain point in the game all characters can use exactly the same spells and skills as one another. It is also the only system which rewards grinding for AP, unlike Final Fantasy VIII in which you will find relatively early in the game that you have maxed out the abilities available to you. With Final Fantasy VII however, even after 60 hours of gameplay you still have not mastered all of your materia. I was glad to discover that Crisis Core keeps the materia system relatively intact, with the addition of a new feature that allows you to fuse materia together for some interesting results. As materia cannot be levelled directly in Crisis Core (instead seemingly relying on chance with the introduction of a fruit machine mechanic called the DMW) this new system adds a new layer to character customisation.
Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII is a real blend of new and old. It manages to strike a balance between honouring the original game and creating a space for itself. Although a prequel, it manages to resist being absorbed into the original narrative, instead creating a new and equally memorable story of its own. The developers of Crisis Core have made it a meaty enough game that you would not need to have played the original to enjoy it. Just as Crisis Core throws light on to Final Fantasy VII, so too does Final Fantasy VII throw light back onto Crisis Core. What is even more impressive is that this also holds true of Advent Children and Dirge of Cerberus as all four link into each other. Each element stands out on its own and at the same time lends light to the others. But in this constellation of stars, Crisis Core shines out as one of the brightest.