One-Winged Angel. Battle With The Four Fiends. Aerith’s Theme. If these names mean nothing to you, then Theatrhythm Final Fantasy is unlikely to resonate either. If, however, you’re one of the swarm of voters who propelled the last piece in that list to place an unlikely 16th on Classic FM’s recent poll of the top 300 tracks in the history of classical music, you’re exactly the kind of person that Square Enix is looking for.
Theatrhythm Final Fantasy is as much an artfully fashioned trip down memory lane as it is a rhythm-action game. While fans may be divided over individual entries in Square Enix’s long-running series – with some adamant that Final Fantasy XII’s experimentation with MMORPG mechanics was disastrous, and others convinced that the Junction system of character development from Final Fantasy VIII has never been bettered – its music is able to cross these boundaries. The work of Nobuo Uematsu, and occasionally Hitoshi Sakimoto, is one of the connective strands unifying this series of disparate yet linked games.
With that in mind, the main campaign mode of Theatrhythm was always going to be its chief draw. Offering three songs from all of the numbered entrants in the Final Fantasy canon (well, almost all of them – it seems that the dead-on-arrival Final Fantasy XIV is being written out of history), developer indies zero wisely lets players pick and choose the order in which they experience individual titles. If you’re pushing 40, you can relive the ’80s by starting at the original Final Fantasy and working your way onwards chronologically from there. Whereas players whose first experience of the series involved a brand new PlayStation and Cloud Strife hopping off a train in Midgar can just jump in at Final Fantasy VII and save the earlier games for when they’re in need of a history lesson.
Each game offers three types of rhythmic challenge, although in truth the variation is based more upon the kind of music they represent than mechanical differences. Field Music stages draw from the ambient tunes that play in the background as you explore Final Fantasy’s world maps or open environments. Suitably, they see one of your chosen avatars merrily trotting through a cute diorama of the game in question as musical cues scroll from left to right. There are three basic types of prompt: red ones, which need a simple jab of the stylus on the touchscreen; green ones, which come in pairs connected by a wavering filament of light, and which require the stylus to be guided around the screen until both have passed; and yellow ones, which come stamped with a directional arrow and require a flick of the stylus in the appropriate direction.
Finish your first Field Music stage and you’ll float, carried by a thermal of nostalgia, to a rather more thrilling Battle Music stage. These, obviously, draw from the music that has scored the series’ turn-based encounters, and go as far as arraying your party of four characters in a line to the right of the screen, with a monster plucked from the relevant game to the left. Don’t be fooled, however, because while the setup might hint at some ingenious combination of rhythm-action and turn-based battling, the execution very much has you fighting the same notes as before, not the monster – even if your rhythmically correct presses, taps and swipes are accompanied by adorable little slashes of Cloud’s Buster Sword.
Lastly, and most overtly nostalgically, are the Event Music stages. Here, a montage of scenes plays over music from the relevant game, while musical notes fade in and out of view in the foreground. In many ways, this is the game type that feels the laziest, with Final Fantasy VII onwards offering little more than spliced together FMV. But if nothing else, playing the Event stages from each game does offer striking glimpses of the series’ evolution, as it goes from primitive sprites to grandiose rendered sequences.
All this is held together by a cutesy art style that does a valiant job of drawing together the appearances of 13 very different games. But these doll-like characters are designed to do more than just evoke feelings of familiarity, and so, in true Final Fantasy form, there’s a progression and levelling system underpinning Theatrhythm. Characters’ attributes, modifiable by equipped items, affect the kind of game type they perform best at. The problem, almost inevitably, is that this potentially complex system of modifiers never feels essential. Rhythm-action is at heart a skill-based genre, and that just doesn’t gel with Final Fantasy’s preferred realm of statistics-powered action.
More longevity can be found away from the main series mode, though. Perform well in enough songs and you’ll slowly unlock harder, more obscure song pairings in the Chaos Shrine. This is where the game’s real challenge lies, and while unlocking new songs is (appropriately enough) a grindingly slow affair, the process can be sped up via Street Pass swapping with other Theatrhythm owners, even though they may well prove as elusive as a golden chocobo.
Few greatest hits collections can stir emotions like this one. Final Fantasy’s music has been the soundtrack of two decades of gaming, and many gamers’ lives, too. From the epic to the intimate, from chiptunes to full orchestral scores, Theatrhythm offers a chance to relive those nostalgic moments. It’s a simple rhythm-action title at its core, with a set of bolted-on RPG mechanics of little worth. But then players aren’t here for those mechanics, they’re here for the memories. Bearing that in mind, Theatrhythm Final Fantasy achieves exactly what it sets out to do.