"No Bucket is Good Bucket"
Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles, one of the first GameCube titles to make real use of the connectivity between Nintendo’s square console and the Game Boy Advance, got a lot of flak for being a multiplayer title with a fairly shallow single player mode. Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates doesn’t do multiplayer quite as well as its predecessor, as it loses a lot of the finely tuned balance between competition and co-operation that made the original so enjoyable, but it makes up for it with a much deeper and more satisfying single player mode. On the whole, Ring of Fates is a bit of a finger in the eye of some other, more simplistic dungeon crawlers, as it offers an entertaining, fairly complex combat system and a variety of dungeons to run through and level up in, and yet doesn’t skimp on the storyline, which is a surprisingly well-told and emotional tale.
The story follows a set of twins, Yuri and Chelinka, through early adolescence, dealing with their unusual relationship with their world’s two major symbols of good and evil – the mysterious magic-creating crystals, and the sinister moon in the sky. The story largely deals with the attempt by the twins to unravel the secrets regarding their family’s past and the strange abilities the twins control, but its main strength lies in the characters themselves, who are surprisingly well developed and likeable. Despite some overused clichés present in the story, the overall tale is still fairly engaging and surprisingly emotional. The translation helps a lot, especially given the bizarre, at times subversive sense of humor that it grants the game.
Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates offers two main modes of play; single and multiplayer. Both offer a real-time combat system on a fairly open playing field, with roughly the same basic game mechanics in each, but the introduction of human intelligence over AI changes the combat system so drastically that they feel like completely different systems. The most major difference between the single and multiplayer modes is the number of characters a player controls.
In the single player mode, the player will have control of all four party members at once, switching between them on the fly. You can take a swing at a monster with Yuri’s blade, then switch characters and start pummeling the foe from a distance with Gnash’s bow. One of the biggest uses of this on-the-fly switching is the magic system. Magic is used through expendable Magicite items, and isn’t unique to any one character. Once the player selects which Magicite to use via the touchscreen, pressing the X button will bring up a targeting ring, which can be locked to a specific place or can remain free-floating. What really makes it interesting, though, is that magic can be combined by ordering a second, third, and even fourth character to join in by touching their portrait on the touch screen while the original target ring is still activate. The AI characters will home in on your ring with their own, creating higher levels of magic, or even entirely new spells. In addition to this, each character has a unique ability that can be used to attack, solve puzzles, or even create new Magicite and items for the party to use. Switching between characters is not heavily encouraged by the game, as it only rarely throws up enemies that require you to switch to a different character, but this is probably for the best. Character AI is a bit lazy, attacking only in lengthy intervals except in extreme circumstances, though it can be molded to a certain extent by abilities attached to equipment you give your allies. White Mage armor with the Healer’s Eye ability, for example, will encourage the character to use Cure and Clear Magicite during battle. This would be a better system if there were a way to transfer abilities between equipment as the player acquires new armor and weapons, but some control is still better than none.
Multiplayer mode – which is, alas, available only to local wireless play – is just as complex, but in a different way. Since each player is in control of only one character, a lot of what makes the single player mode so interesting – switching characters on the fly, for example – is simply not necessary. As with the original game, communication between players is more or less essential to co-ordinate Magicite combos, to request healing, and form a plan of attack. Unfortunately, a lot of the elements of the original game that made it a balance between co-operation and competition have been removed. Player’s aren’t graded on their performance in each dungeon, characters trained in the single player mode are not available in multiplayer, and there is no Bucket to carry around. The only real competition to be had occurs at the end of the various side missions, where the King’s reward for completing the mission is thrown on the ground for the characters to grab as fast as they can before time runs out. On the whole, the single player mode is the more complex, and usually the more satisfying of the two modes, but there is something to be said for constructing your own character, building them up through trials and tribulations, and fine tuning them for use amongst other players. The two modes of play, combined with the wide variety of items to be collected and crafted, give Ring of Fates a fairly broad appeal, and both offer some very rewarding and intriguing combat situations.
As with many dungeon crawlers to be found outside the PC realm, Ring of Fates struggles a bit with the idea of item shortcuts. On the whole, its solution is simple and effective – items are presented on buttons on the bottom touch screen, and can be flipped between at a moment’s notice with a simple touch. The eight item buttons are a bit less responsive than one might like, but their placement is solid and a player won’t have to stop moving or defending to use them, which is important given the intensity of some of the boss fights. The rest of the interface is remarkably solid, with overall control being tight and responsive.
Ring of Fate‘s music carries on the slightly Celtic sound that the original Crystal Chronicles loved so dearly, which comes as little surprise given that Kumi Tanioka served as composer for both games. Unfortunately, either due to a small loop size or just overall composition, the overall sound comes off as being a bit repetitive. Sound effects are fairly solid, but what really stands out about the game’s sound is the voice acting. The cast does a wonderful job of bringing the characters to life, even the somewhat less developed characters like Gnash. There’s also great deal more of it than would have been expected for a DS game – every major scene is fully voice acted, and the quality of the clips is superb.
The visuals of Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates are surprisingly solid. It uses some of the same CG cutscenes most recently seen in the DS remake of Final Fantasy III, but Ring of Fates even manages a few in-game cinema sequences, replete with voice acting. The only major failing is a small amount of slowdown which may cause problems during some of the more complex and muddled boss fights, but on the whole it isn’t a major issue. The game uses an overall style that is very similar to the first Crystal Chronicles, though it picks up far more of its inspiration from earlier Final Fantasy games, particularly Final Fantasy IX. Ring of Fates borrows a great deal of weapon and armor design from that game, and although character design is far more Crystal Chronicles, the addition of visual changes to a character based on the armor and weapon they carry produces an odd synthesis of the two games. On the whole, Ring of Fates has a reasonably consistent visual style, but the references to other games in the series feel a bit out of place here.
Possibly the most disappointing thing about Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates is its length. The single player game lasts only around fifteen hours, and ends just as the player is becoming really proficient with the system. Granted there is also a multiplayer option that can be played with friends or by oneself, but the shift in play mechanics and the fact that not everyone has people nearby willing to drop $40 on a DS game just to get in some multiplayer means that it doesn’t have quite the same impact as the single player mode.
By providing not only the hack and slash gameplay and complex character building that is expected from a dungeon crawler, but the emotional storyline and three-dimensional characters that usually aren’t, Ring of Fates shows itself to be not only an improvement on its predecessor, but an improvement on dungeon crawlers in general. Though it does have some issues with poor AI and is undoubtedly over far too soon, the game’s better-than-average combat system works wonderfully alongside the focus on character building and the huge amount of weapons, armor, and items to be hunted down or created. In the end, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates is a well above-average dungeon crawler which can claim the one thing that so many others in its particular sub-genre cannot – a wide appeal.