Let me qualify my angst with the following statement: I suck at rhythm games. I commend the efforts of Harmonix to bring Rock Band consumers a wide breadth of genre-spanning music, but I overthink my finger placement and peer too far ahead of the oncoming frets to pay heed to which notes I should actually be strumming. That said, I adore Theatrhythm Final Fantasy. The absence of chords agrees with my ineptitude well, and if one franchise boasts a greater orchestral history than Square Enix’s lovechild, it has yet to be invented. Final Fantasy taught me that soundtracks could be more than just an accompaniment to the effects of onscreen battles. With harmonies ranging from FFVII’s sinister “One-Winged Angel” to the lamentable opera (“Celes’s Theme”) of FFVI, Theatrhythm’s 40-plus tracks – and more to come as Nintendo’s first test of DLC – give stalwarts welcome reason to tap and slide their styluses along to the most recognizable Final Fantasy melodies.
Although there is no true endgame, the developers at Indies Zero provide a concise narrative setup. Cosmos and Chaos reign as the two gods of creation. Between them lies Rhythm, and from their rule the Music Crystal was born. But the growing strength of Chaos continues to dim the precious stone. As the series’ protagonists, you must gather Rhythmia, the musical wavelength that can restore the Crystal’s waning luminescence.
You try to find less blurry images of Nintendo 3DS screenshots stretched to fit a 640x360 resolution.
You start by choosing four titular warriors from the Final Fantasy fiction, such as Cecil (IV), Terra (VI), Squall (VIII), or Lightning (XIII). From there, players select a core Final Fantasy (sequels not included) composed of its five most beseeched tracks. Initially, Series is the only playable option, but completing each title's setlist unlocks those tunes in Challenge mode. Here, you can up the difficulty to meet your faster hand-eye coordinated needs. As you master songs, you gain Rhythmia points, but your heroes rank up in near-arbitrary fashion as well. The more well-rounded your party’s stats, the better they perform in a mix of Field Music, Event Music, and Battle Music Stages.
Theatrhythm also includes the oft-forgotten opening and closing themes from each Final Fantasy, though these sequences can be skipped if you wish, seeing as they contribute nothing but Rhythmia to the warriors’ progression. The unique Stages flaunt their own visual presentations. Field Music covers the heroes’ traversal of plains, bridges, and forests as you conduct your rendition of the piece by sliding the stylus up or down to match the oncoming notes. Event Music features images integral to that respective Final Fantasy, whether they be cutscenes or boss battles, as the cursor loops about the screen. Battle Music throws your characters into 2D confrontations against Final Fantasy’s iconic nemeses, trading blows as notes scroll across the battlefield. The more consecutive notes you hit, the more damage you inflict to the rotating cast of creatures.
Theatrhythm would look utterly horrid without some form of animated backgrounds. From left to right, top to bottom: Field Music, Event Music, Event Music, Battle Music.
The gameplay could not be more simple in Theatrhythm. Inputs consist of light taps, holding the stylus for extended notes (what pass as chords in Rock Band/Guitar Hero), and directional swipes, though players need not worry about the orientation of their stylus on the touchscreen relative to the top screen. Missed notes deal damage to the protagonists, and should the health meter drain completely, the song ends. Characters can refill the HP bar or cast elemental spells on opponents with the aid of certain abilities once players meet the specific musical requirements – for example, missing five straight notes.
While the Series and Challenge modes shouldn't frustrate players with an ounce of rhythmic adequacy, the real difficulties lie with the Chaos Shrine and its “Dark Notes.” Here, players tap, swipe, and hold through testing back-to-back fights that ask— No, Dark Notes demand absolute precision. These sequences make “Through the Fire and Flames” on Expert look like “Smoke on the Water.” The higher a Dark Note’s level, the more elaborate the ensuing song. Several tracks that do not appear in Series turn out for these assessments of patience, but vanquishing a Dark Note rewards significantly more experience and rarer items, and party composition actually matters. For instance, Cecil’s massive HP counter allows players to sustain more missed notes before an imminent failure. Maestros with three friends and three copies of Theatrhythm can partake in local multiplayer to conquer the Chaos Shrine, but improper inputs accrue damage across all four screens, ending the fun before the tempos pick up the pace.
These still notes move at a more rapid pace than you think.
If I level one complaint against Theatrhythm, I condemn the indeterminate swipes within the Battle and Event Stages. Slides require much more pressure on the touchscreen to even register, and I never found the sweet spot between short or long strokes to help me nail a reliable percentage of the notes. Half the prompts went unacknowledged completely, breaking combo bonuses.
And even though the songs remain true to form, be it the scratchy 8-bit original victory music or XIII’s crisp, clear battle theme, I loathe every pixel of the chibi character models. I have no shame in saying I would prefer to see an 8-bit Warrior of Light (FFI) teaming alongside a polygonal Squall. Instead, Square Enix sought the route of dollish appearances for each protagonist, stressing the rosy-red cheeks, button-like eyes, and artificial, painted smiles. Others may delight in the sight of chibi Cloud swinging a miniature Buster Sword, but something about the poor animations makes me nauseous. The enemies, however, were given a much less headache-inducing, cartoon makeover. From the deceptive Cactuars to the earth-trembling Adamantortoise, each hand-drawn caricature represents an identifiable creature key to the Final Fantasy lore.
Perfecting a certain string of notes in Field Stages briefly swaps the party leader for a faster-moving chocobo – as if that's the craziest thing you've seen in a Final Fantasy game.
As you attempt to earn a song's elusive “S” rank, you unlock a wealth of skill-based collectibles. The Museum houses hundreds of holographic monster/hero cards, in-game cinematics played during Event Stages, and melodies without the rhythmic tie-ins. With every 500 Rhythmia gained, you also receive a colored shard. Once you obtain eight of a particular color, such as orange, scarlet, or yellow, you unveil hidden characters. Street Passing also give friends further reason to hate each other after swapping taunting Dark Notes.
If there was one wish I looked to Theatrhythm to fulfill, it was the chance to listen to my favorite Final Fantasy soundtracks without the tiresome sorting through YouTube videos. Theathrhythm’s simplicity promises enough depth for players that wish to revisit the nostalgia of past generations, and enough challenge for rhythm freaks to justify the full retail price. For the series’ fans, this Fantasy is worth reliving. Theatrhythm provides an excellent digestible music compendium to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of a franchise that was once deemed final.
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Indies Zero
Release Date: July 3, 2012
Number of Players: 1 (Series, Challenge), 1-4 (Chaos Shrine)
Platforms: Nintendo 3DS (Reviewed)