In the mid-2000s, Nintendo may have easily dominated the handheld gaming space with the DS and its incredible lineup, but never let it be said that the PSP didn’t have its fair share of absolute bangers. One of the most memorable PSP titles was Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core, a prequel to one of the greatest games Square’s ever managed to produce. Mixing fast-paced hack ‘n’ slash combat with a story that was just as endearing and heartbreaking as the original Final Fantasy VII, Crisis Core quickly built a strong reputation for itself. Now that Square is in the process of, uh, redoing Final Fantasy 7, the developer has seen fit to bring Crisis Core to modern audiences to bring them up to speed on certain plotlines and characters ahead of the launch of Rebirth next winter. We’re pleased to report that this remake has been a resounding success; Crisis Core was always a great game and now it looks and plays better than ever.
Crisis Core -Final Fantasy VII- Reunion, to give it its full title, places you in the role of Zack Fair, a peppy, cocky, and impressively skilled mercenary working for a paramilitary group called SOLDIER, which exists to maintain the interests of the hegemonic Shinra Electric Power Company. Though Shinra is of course the nefarious, puppy-kicking megacorporation you’d expect it to be, Zack genuinely dreams of being a ‘hero’ and wants to do the right thing. His world starts to unravel, however, when a high-level SOLDIER operative named Genesis goes rogue and takes a stand against Shinra. What follows is an increasingly bizarre journey into a world of aliens, clones, and genetic modification that somehow manages to stay coherent and alluring all the way through.
Though this narrative certainly features the series' goofy writing at its most, it’s the heart-to-heart moments between key characters that make it all worth it. [Update: A previous version of this review stated that designer Tetsuya Nomura was responsible for the writing — Crisis Core was in fact written by Kazushige Nojima with Sachie Hirano. We apologise for the error.] For example, Zack idolizes his mentor Angeal—a stoic, but compassionate SOLDIER operative wielding the iconic Buster Sword—and seeing how this relationship ebbs and flows over the course of the story really keeps you engaged when another hilariously angsty, poetry-reading villain makes you roll your eyes. Make no mistake, some of the writing and characters here are like something you’d expect to find scribbled in a moody theater kid’s fanfic notebook, but the way that it all comes together in the end somehow just saves Crisis Core from feeling downright silly.
As a portable game, Crisis Core was designed to be played in bite-sized chunks. There are ten story-focused chapters you can participate in that each take roughly an hour to complete, but anywhere throughout them you can choose to engage in missions via save points. These are each only a few minutes in length and usually just task you with exploring a small zone and killing a certain number or type of enemies. Each zone you enter usually has a few treasure chests hidden around its hallways, and you'll occasionally be interrupted while exploring by the sudden onset of a random battle. Some may not enjoy this ‘stop and go’ mission-based setup as much, but we felt that there were adequate rewards for knocking out missions, and they provide a nice distraction from the main narrative from time to time.
Crisis Core’s combat takes the shape of an action-focused hack ‘n’ slash, reminding us of the Kingdom Hearts series with its flashiness. Mashing the ‘Y’ button is usually all that it takes to cut most enemies to ribbons, with each hit always being punctuated by a satisfying screen shake and slight rumble of the controller. You also have a selection of magical attacks and special attacks you can deploy at will to exploit enemy weaknesses, though these attacks are limited by your available MP or AP. Crisis Core may feel a little simplistic in practice, then, but we found that the thrills of its fast pace more than make up for whatever shallowness there may be in its combat mechanics.
A key element of both combat and progression is the DMW—or Digital Mind Wave—which is a literal slot machine that is constantly running various numbers and character images in the corner of your screen during combat. If the slots land on certain combinations of numbers, you’ll get random buffs in battle like taking no physical damage or having all spells temporarily cost zero MP. If the slots land on a certain character’s image, you’ll be given a powerful Limit Break or summon attack to dish out massive pain on your foes.
At first, it feels a little weird having this completely random and unreliable assortment of buffs that might or might not really help you in this fight, but we found it inoffensive in practice. You don’t have to babysit or directly interact with it during a fight, so if you adjust your fighting strategy to simply not account for the existence of the DMW, then every time it actually does do something in your favor, it feels like a genuine bonus.
The DMW is also responsible for all your direct character progression, which feels like an interesting callback to the SaGa series. All of Zack’s materia and even his overall level can only be leveled up if the DMW numbers happen to line up in just the right way. If there’s a specific materia you’re trying to max out for a fusion or you want to grind up Zack’s level a little bit to take on a tougher mission, well, you’re just going to have to wait until the DMW decides to give you the power bumps you’re hoping for. This may sound infuriating, but we suspect that there’s a much more linear calculation happening somewhere behind the scenes, as we never felt like Zack’s level or materia was not sufficient to meet the demands of a given difficulty level.
Though much of Zack’s progress is tied to the DMW, you’re still given some agency over his build via equipping and fusing materia. Each materia corresponds to a different spell, ability, or stat parameter, and you have nowhere near as many available slots as you do materia. It’s fun to design specific loadouts to different mission types, and we enjoyed that there’s a meaningful sense of progress over time as you build your materia collection and gradually acquire more powerful varieties. Plus, once you’ve maxed out a materia’s level (or you just have way too many lying around), you can fuse any two together to make a new or more powerful variant. This system does well to offset the randomness of the DMW; together they feel like a perfectly balanced means of driving character growth.
This being a remake, Crisis Core has clearly benefited from borrowing various assets and designs from the recent Final Fantasy 7 revisit. Though the character models can sometimes have that glassy-eyed look, we were impressed by the visual fidelity here. Whether you’re fighting Ifrit in the depths of a fiery volcano or exploring the picturesque village of Banora, there are plenty of high-res textures and varied locales on display that make this feel more like a slightly downscaled port of a current-gen game.
The native resolution obviously makes all the models and environments look a little ‘soft’, but this feels very much like a game that should not be running on the Switch anywhere near as well as it does. It may run at only 30FPS, but that frame rate remains smooth regardless of what’s happening onscreen, which is often quite a bit. Every swing of Zack’s sword is accompanied by an array of sparks and flashy animations to really sell each hit, while the summon animations are almost comical in how over the top they can be. We applaud Square for its efforts here — a far cry from the disappointing cloud situation with the Kingdom Hearts games on Switch.
Crisis Core Final Fantasy VII Reunion is everything that we hoped this remake would be. It takes a great game once shackled to handheld-only hardware and brings it forth to a new generation with a fresh coat of paint. Though some may be put off by its mission-based gameplay structure or the sometimes ridiculous writing, its excellent combat, gorgeous presentation, and heartfelt narrative combine to make this one that no RPG fan will want to miss out on, especially those who were fans of Final Fantasy VII. Crisis Core Final Fantasy VII Reunion is a fantastic addition to the Switch’s ever-growing library of great RPGs, we’d advise you to give this one a go.