This is how you celebrate the 25th anniversary of a beloved game franchise.
Theatrhythm Final Fantasy, a rhythm game celebrating a quarter-century of some of the most iconic music in video games, is a fantastic title. Every facet radiates care and polish, with the accessible and addictive rhythm mechanics framed by a gorgeous presentation that celebrates the first 13 instalments of the Final Fantasy series.
While the two Dissidia Final Fantasy games on PSP took heroes and villains from the mainline series and pit them against each other in a fighting game of overcomplicated and confusing design, Theatrhythm instead gives music centre stage. The result is a game that does a much better job celebrating Final Fantasy, emphasising what made the titles memorable rather than using characters as a way to sell a genre that Square Enix has little experience with.
The controls are as simple as can be: tap on the bottom screen in time with different indicators that scroll across the top screen. Red icons require a tap, green are held notes and yellow arrows indicate a swipe in the given direction. The simplicity of it all ensures that anyone can pick up Theatrhythm and learn how to play in no time flat, which is important in a game of this type. Compared to Elite Beat Agents that has markers all over the bottom screen to keep up with, Theatrhythm lets the complexity come from the songs themselves and doesn’t divert any of your attention to the bottom screen.
The main game mode, Series, takes you through the first 13 Final Fantasy games at five songs apiece. The opening and ending songs sandwich each game and feature a very straightforward tapping minigame that earns you Rhythmia, the game’s currency, used to unlock new features. The other songs are separated into three categories: Event Music Stages (EMS), Field Music Stages (FMS) and Battle Music Stages (BMS). Each one tweaks the formula slightly and highlights the songs that suit it best.
It’s not a Final Fantasy game without some kind of levelling mechanic though, and Theatrhythm is no exception. You’ll assemble a team of four series heroes, gaining experience after each completed song that will boost stats and earn new skills. While at first glance it all seems out of place in a rhythm game, it all comes together quite well; as stats increase players can traverse further in FMS stages and defeat more monsters in BMS stages, earning better items that can be used in various ways. In addition, higher HP allows for more missed notes, giving you a better chance to survive harder songs.
BMS stages are, obviously, focused on each title’s fight songs and simulate a traditional battle. BMS stages break the single note path into four, one for each character, with each note representing an attack as if in a traditional FF battle. It’s not nearly as confusing as it sounds, with the multiple note paths doing a wonderful job recreating the tension of going toe-to-toe with some of the series' most notorious enemies.
EMS stages are very straightforward, laying the notes over a montage of notable scenes from each game, usually playing a slower, more melancholy song to highlight the emotional content; Final Fantasy VII’s EMS stage featured Aerith’s Theme, of course.
Similar to the “star power” mechanic in games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero, each song has a series of highlighted notes that bestow a bonus if handled correctly. FMS stages give you a chocobo, speeding you across the field and giving you a better chance of meeting a Moogle and earning a rare item, while BMS stages summon mainstays like Ifrit, Shiva and Ramuh, making short work of whatever monster is opposing your squad at the time. EMS stages simply extend the song, allowing you to keep piling into your high score.
The difficulty in Series mode is purposefully low, ensuring that players of all skill levels will be able to complete and appreciate what the game offers. Once a game has been completed the songs will be unlocked in Challenge mode, supplementing Basic difficulty with Expert. Complete a song on Expert with an A or S rank and Ultimate difficulty will become available to give your stylus hand a legendary workout.
Over time you earn Dark Notes, which are two songs of Expert and Ultimate difficulty that are playable in the Chaos Shrine. Containing an FMS and BMS stage, Dark Notes allow several bosses to be challenged who have the potential to drop some of the rarest items in the game. They won’t come easy, as defeating them can require near-flawless runs.
Multiplayer, while not the main focus of the game, certainly enhances the Chaos Shrine. Players can swap Dark Notes via StreetPass, encouraging item hunters to keep their system in tow as they go out into the real word. Local multiplayer is a surprising addition, allowing you to recruit up to three friends to tackle a Dark Note, potentially earning huge payouts.
Of course the main focus of a rhythm game is music, and Theatrhythm nails it. The song selections are phenomenal, including just about every fan favourite tune imaginable. Classics such as Eternal Wind, Battle with the Four Fiends, Battle at the Big Bridge and Terra’s Theme will evoke powerful waves of nostalgia in longtime fans of the series, with even more songs becoming available at certain Rhythmia milestones. The first 3DS game to feature paid DLC, Square Enix keeps the pricing in line with the Rock Band standard at $.99 per song. There are eight available at launch, with promises of up to 50.
If you want things to collect, Theatrhythm has them in spades. In addition to extra characters and songs, there’s a series of CollectaCards, profiling characters and monsters from the entirety of the series. These cards can be leveled up as well by earning multiple copies of the same card, adding a “holofoil” version to your in-game binder. No modern game would be complete without a trophies list, either, providing players with a little extra incentive to tackle tougher challenges.
During play your focus will be on the notes, but Square Enix did not phone in the visuals. The characters and monsters are all presented as stylised “chibi” versions of themselves that are simply adorable. Not only does it give the game a unified attractive look, it also helps make Theatrhythm a game that will remain timeless. As time goes on, 3D graphics tend to look worse. A sharp, stylish 2D design ensures that the game will remain visually distinct and striking for many years to come.
Theatrhythm's varying difficulties make it easy to enjoy for players of all skill levels with the RPG mechanics an extra bonus for those who desire it. It absolutely does justice to the Final Fantasy brand, presenting its characters and, most importantly, music with love and respect that makes it feel like a tribute as much as a standalone video game. There are so many songs to play, items to find and characters to level up you’ll find yourself struggling to put it down.