Final Fantasy 7 so thoroughly revolutionized JRPG’s that its legacy was long and wide reaching. From it’s move to polygonal graphics that allowed its characters a deeper range of expression to its dense and layered environments that didn’t rely on sticking the perspective in the ceiling of the world to look down on its inhabitants to its mind-blowing CG cutscenes, it tolds its story of good and evil with a memorable cast of characters with cinematic (though not always consistent) flair. So it’s fitting that as a pivotal entry in the Compilation of Final Fantasy 7’s timeline, Crisis Core is the snake’s jaws wrapped around the back of its own head, further realizing the cinematic ambitions of that important milestone.
Crisis Core opens as 7 did: a train charging through the sprawling megalopolis Midgar to the swell of an orchestra. The 1st Class SOLDIER we see isn’t Cloud Strife from the original but Zack Fair, the young man whose identity we know Cloud will later steal, setting in motion the events that would lead to his 3 disc saga. It’s perhaps the only way for this prequel to start- from Sephiroth to Aeris, Shinra to Mako, it’s an adventure that will introduce us to characters we already love, enemies we already fear and give us a new perspective on a story we already know.
But to be ‘cinematic’ you need action. For all Final Fantasy 7’s cinematic qualities, its menu-based combat is entirely abstract, implying that you’re not Cloud but the person giving him an order. Battles were largely time management as you juggle between him and the two other members in your party. Parasite Eve simplified those- still random- battles by reworking it for one character, choosing to have combat take place in-world and allowing the player to actively run Aya Brea around her enemies (while we wait for menus to pop). The combat may have been more RPG than action game but its limitations set your expectations for control accordingly.
Building off that battle system meant giving players even more direct control over Zack’s moves while incorporating FF7’s materia, limit break and summon systems.
Crisis Core shows its dedication to keeping you in the moment by implementing real time menu navigation into the combat; the shoulder buttons cycle through a row of set actions including attack, your six currently equipped materia and item bag and X executes your selected command. It’s really just a big menu. While not nearly as awkward as it was in Fear Effect, it simultaneously feels like a needlessly artificial way to keep the game grounded to its JRPG roots and diminishes its opportunities as an action game.
Materia and an attack. Those are your offensive options. The materia spells are typical JRPG fare, each with their own properties and uses that extend the variety. Not only can your sword attack interrupt enemy action but subsequent attacks come with different animation profiles, changing their direction and range. Zack’s defensive capabilities add perhaps the most engaging part of the gameplay in the form of dedicated buttons for evasive rolls and blocks instead of the genre’s traditional reliance on stats. These moves consume Action Points and effectively replace the ATB’s time management with resource management.
These design decisions result in this scenario playing out over and over: load enemies into a battle, try to group two or three up and repeatedly start hitting X to stun lock them in their animations, roll away when an enemy pulls off an attack and heal when HP gets low. Do this until they’re all dead. By the end of your first fight, you’ve already fallen into a behavior of mindlessly mashing X.
This is because of the animation priorities. If it will help, think of every animation like a mini-ATB with a half second-long timer. You hit attack, get an instant reaction if you’re close to your target and then wait for a cooldown before the next press will register. The problem is the attacks have about as much impact and weight as erasing a sketch of a chocobo, making it unclear when the first animation is over. So you hit the button again…and then again because the last one was too early. You fall into the compulsive behavior of repeatedly pressing the button because it’s the only efficient way to attack. Final Fantasy 13 would push this same compulsion two years later but at least had a bar to communicate the passage of time. Despite the control you have over the action, the delay ultimately leaves you feeling disconnected from it.
Crisis Core’s attempts to be more cinematic have created a dissonance between its presentation and gameplay- the RPG systems have been streamlined to facilitate more action but Zack’s combat options don’t live up to the deeper expectations they set.
Why not have more attack buttons for deeper combat? Why not map all the spells to one of those triggers and free the other one up for something else? Why not let Zack attack as quickly as you can push the button, especially since we’re pushing it non-stop anyways? Why not remove the random battles and put enemies on screen? Why not use the circle button for something more than just cancelling out of a menu?! Because Final Fantasy 7. Crisis Core is crippled by its legacy.
Look no further than the Digital Mind Wave. A three wheel slot machine containing half a dozen character portraits and numbers one through seven, the DMW is constantly spinning during every engagement. Rolling a ‘7’ or three matches grants limited timed status bonuses including invincibility and unlimited MP and AP. If the two end wheels match the same character portrait, the game transitions into Modulating Phase, a mode where matching the third portrait allows Zack to pull off a character-specific limit break. Matching any two numbers during the Modulating Phase levels up whatever materia you have placed in the corresponding numbers equipment slot and all 7’s increase Zack’s character level and stats. If that weren’t obtuse enough, every roll in Modulating Phase has a chance to activate an entire second slot machine for summons.
The DMW is inherently malicious design. Practically, the Digital Mind Wave is a means of uniting a handful of otherwise unrelated systems to streamline the fighting. That would be fine if any of those systems added a layer of strategy to your decision making, but the DMW acts only to completely remove them through automation. What’s worse, as a character progression system, it actively incentivizes entering a battle and then NOT fighting- since the slots take 10 seconds for a full regular spin, quick wins offer less rewards than prolonged ones. Crisis Core doesn’t want your skill, it wants the ever dwindling minutes of your life and promises nothing in return.
If we’re being honest, it’s nothing more than sensory crack. It just starts slapping the pleasure centers of your brain with flashy visuals, crisp audio and a constant sense of false success to keep you hooked on playing. You don’t even need to spin the thing yourself (although, it would fix the grinding issue if every command stopped one wheel and then respun all three). It’s a trick to distract you.
The thing is, it’s effective. Even with the non-committal combat, simple AI and shallow strategy, Crisis Core is enjoyable, dare I say satisfying. Maybe it’s the slick sounds and pretty animations or how quickly the fights move. Perhaps it’s the addiction to winning that comes from a hot streak. It’s definitely the responsive dodge and the spot on enemy tells that let you know when to use it. The gameplay is just engaging enough to grab you, the production values just strong enough to keep you.
Really, it’s Zack. Where FF7 centered around a morose loner with hardcore identity issues, CC gives us a positive and friendly main character who fights for what he believes in and helps those he cares about. It’s unfortunate that so much of the story consists of adolescent ruminations and waifish philosophizing that speaks about concrete actions in vague, ill-defined terms until its inevitable close.
Final Fantasy 7 heralded a new era of production values for videogames. The secret to Crisis Core’s cinematic success largely lies in the portable nature of the PSP. By scaling the progression to bite sized missions conducive to car rides, the narrative beats work in tight rhythm, keeping the story from dragging and the gameplay from getting stale. The end product is cinematic. Too bad the back of Crisis Core’s case doesn’t have a better quote. I can suggest a few.
DEVELOPER: Square Enix