When Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy arrived in the Summer of 2012 it was an entertaining, brilliantly constructed celebration of the venerated Square Enix franchise. It combined a charming aesthetic, plenty of content through its music pieces and a simple, functional control scheme.
A little over two years later we have Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call, and 3DS owners could be excused for wondering whether it's merely an expansion pack with a relocated colon, yet that wouldn't do the release justice. Curtain Call does expand the original song catalogue to a significant degree, that's true, but it also shakes up the formula through its modes — gameplay remains the same, yet feels fresh in its new surroundings.
Taking its cue from many rhythm games that have come before, Curtain Call incorporates a combination of control styles. Inputs consist of stylus taps, directional swipes, and solid bars that require sustained pressure and — depending on the mode — vertical movement and a final swipe. It's an intuitive setup, in which the stylus provides speed and precision to take on the most challenging stages; there are also options to use the Circle Pad and any buttons as you see fit — or even a stylus and buttons combined — which are nice alternatives for accuracy in the easiest difficulty setting, but can lack immediacy for tough combos. The stylus on its own remains King in our view, then, though there are some occasions where directional swipes unexpectedly register incorrectly — it's a problem in less than 1% of inputs, in all likelihood, but will frustrate on those occasions that it disrupts a lengthy combo. All options can be mastered — we've seen players performing brilliantly with the Circle Pad and buttons — so it's down to personal choice.
As a control system it fits perfectly with the tracks on offer, of which there are over 200 spread across a staggering 25 soundtracks. As a result of this volume of content the first mode available is Music Stages, in which you're presented with lists of tracks that you can tackle in any order as you please. This immediately puts the throwaway storyline from the intro well onto the backburner, and instead you're given a gradual tutorial as you hand-pick some early songs. It becomes clear, immediately, that a priority is to accumulate Rhythmia — points, in Theatrhythm terms — to unlock more tracks, modes and eventually a whole load of customisations and collectibles. A storyline isn't missed in this context, but this early going does present this title simply — it's a celebration of music for the purpose of pure entertainment, not a world-saving quest.
Notably, there's no need to unlock multiple difficulty levels, no doubt a hat-tip to those returning for a second dip in the series, so there are three options immediately there to be picked. As in the predecessor 'Basic Score' is accessible to all but with arrangements that occasionally struggle to recreate a tight beat to match the music. Expert Score is an excellent compromise that often matches the flow of the track, while Ultimate Score is a frenzy of stylus swiping madness. Though it's not the most glamorous approach in practice, less skilful players can utilise this core mode to play through every track at their preferred level, with hours upon hours of content available.
The structure of the music also retains the form of the original, which tracks split between FMS (Field Music Stages), BMS (Battle Music Stages) and EMS (Event Music Stages). In practice the variations are minor, as whether the scrolling rhythm symbols are in a single track, four tracks as per the battle or dynamically moving around the screen, the principles remain the same. The majority of the content is in the former two formats, with EMS tracks showcasing moments (though low in number) in which you're playing over an impressive cutscene.
There's strategy beyond keeping a good rhythm, as there was in the original title, and you select a party of four characters — many are unlocked with progress — that embark on these musical quests. Each character has statistics and particular strengths, with equippable abilities and items adding another layer of depth. Experience points from performances level characters up, and those that are so inclined can dive very deeply into the rabbit hole of multiple teams and even switching out groups depending on the type of track in order to get the very best score possible. The abilities do make a tangible difference to minimise damage in battles or maximise distance in the field, for example, but those that just want to play music can simply stick with the same four characters and do the minimum of customisation.
While the lack of a relevant story isn't particularly missed, it's clear that the development team hasn't forgotten that a premise and some tension can add a great deal to an experience. Quest Medleys do much to scratch that itch, being split into Short, Medium and Long challenges. Though they're effectively just fairly random compilations of tracks from across the library, an overhead map, unique collectibles and divergent paths make it a compulsive option. They begin as relatively easy challenges yet ramp up in difficulty quickly, which may unfortunately push rookie players away quickly; practice will only take players so far due to the speed and precision needed in Expert and Ultimate Scores.
For experienced players, however, these quests are perhaps the best way to experience the game's library of tracks, mixing up retro chiptunes with sweeping orchestral numbers in the journey to defeating a final BMS boss. Short and Medium quests work well for commutes or dip-in sessions, while the Long alternatives take in over 20 stages and require plenty of effort, with greater rewards and a sense of satisfaction when complete.
The other main attraction is Versus Mode, which is a diverse offering in its own right. In single player it offers three ranked tournaments — bronze, silver and gold — in which you tackle CPU opponents to rise to number one. It's a clever risk-reward mechanic, as one defeat when rising 15 places sends you back to the start; you can move one ranking at a time to collect more cards and increase the difficulty more gradually, or skip a couple ahead to sacrifice a collectible card but reduce the number of required matches. Multiplayer options include local play — with each owning a cart — and, in an excellent addition, online multiplayer; the latter allows some customisation, such as determining the difficulty of song, while you can opt to take on Friends or 'Anyone'. Pleasingly, we appeared to be matched up with Japanese players when testing this mode pre-launch, suggesting that 'International' incorporates all regions — each player votes for a track, and even after a defeat (and lost ranking points) you can still pick up a Collecticard as a prize.
As per other modes you go into these battles with a team of four, and your basic goal remains to perform the song as well as possible. Your performance triggers attacks — and vice-versa — that distort and disrupt the opponents flow of notes. Some attacks make any note hits below the maximum 'Critical' level a 'Bad', while others visibly shake up the flow by adjusting the speed of scrolling notes, hiding them until the last second and more. Though there's no control over what items you throw at the other player, it's a tense, fun alternative to the fixed nature of the standard performances; our only wish is that non Battle scene tracks would have been included, though thematically BMS-only stages in the versus mode makes perfect sense.
Beyond these modes is a substantial range of trophies, collectibles and galleries to keep fans of the franchise happy. Profile cards can be setup and exchanged through online VS matches and StreetPass, while paid-DLC will be a feature post-launch. There's simply a huge amount of content to work through, and while it's no doubt thrilling for fans it should also be fascinating for those relatively new to Final Fantasy, especially as the soundtracks are, on the whole, excellent pieces of music.
Some praise should be reserved for the visuals, too, which do well to complement the music tracks. The same cutesy representations of the Final Fantasy universe are used here, with bright colours and simple designs for characters and environments. The art style is undeniably charming, with enemy monsters even looking almost adorable, and it's a smart approach in a title that substitutes the bombastic drama of the main series for irreverent music playing.
Overall, Curtain Call should keep most players busy for many hours, regardless of skill level. A minor complaint is that less experienced players will find the going tough very quickly outside of the completely open Music Stages mode; difficulty ramps up rapidly in Quest Medleys and Versus Mode. The title does provide all of the required tools to learn and improve, however, even if some of the most fun modes demand that weaker players learn the ropes a fair amount in order to make progress.
Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call is far more than a lazy expansion to the original release. The volume of extra content is truly impressive, but it also shakes up the formula with new modes to give the experience a fresh feel. Terrific music and tight controls are the stars, while competitive players will surely get a kick out of the online mode; whether you're a fan of music rhythm games, Final Fantasy or both, this is a must buy.