Square Enix engineer a surprise return for GameCube game Crystal Chronicles and fully embrace cross-play multiplayer.
In the years since the Nintendo Switch was first released we’ve had lots of Wii U remasters and a few scattered Wii games, but there’s never really been any GameCube titles. The Wii U remasters of Zelda: The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess are probably inevitable at some point, and there are those lingering rumours about Super Mario Sunshine remasters, but the first major remaster is not from Nintendo but Square Enix. Visually, it holds up surprisingly well, the question is whether the gameplay does as well…
Crystal Chronicles was first released in 2003 (2004 by the time it made it to the West) and although it wasn’t a Nintendo title it was one of the most prominent examples of using the Game Boy Advance link cable to control a game, with up to four people able to join in with local multiplayer. The chances of you ever getting four people, all with GBAs and a link cable, round to play were, however, remote and most people never got to experience the game the way it was originally intended.
Fast-forward 17 years and this remaster is also being released for Android and iOS, as well as PlayStation 4, so at last the original concept is easy for anyone to experience… kind of. There’s not actually any local multiplayer per se, it’s all online, but there is cross-play between the different formats and if someone is playing on a TV in the same room it’s almost the same experience. (Including the fact that it’s a nightmare to set up, although this time the problems are revolving passwords and no voice chat.)
If you’re thinking this all sounds very interesting, that’s just what people thought when the original version came out – back in the days when online play was still a rarity, especially on a Nintendo console. Crystal Chronicles itself though is a very odd game, a sub-series that continued right up to the Wii era but which never became as big as Square Enix were obviously hoping.
The set-up involves such laughably overused role-playing tropes as a poisonous miasma and life-protecting crystals, the latter of which you have to carry around with you in order to penetrate the deadly fog wherever it lies. Which is actually quite a clever way to make sure that all four players keep together, and don’t run off all over the map, since the crystal only creates a safe area a little smaller than the screen.
The story to explain all this is surprisingly low-key for a Final Fantasy game, as you play as a custom character from one of four races (portrayed using an art style reminiscent of Final Fantasy Tactics). You’re in charge of a caravan that journeys out into the world in order to collect ‘myrrh’ from magic trees, which is used to renew crystal fragments. Things get a bit more involved towards the end, when you learn more about how to disperse the miasma for good, but initially at least Crystal Chronicles is a surprisingly straightforward action role-player.
There are no turn-based battles here, as you instead attack with melee weapons as if it was a straight action game. There are also various magic spells, which need a few moments of wind-up but can otherwise also be used freely. None of this is very complicated but you can create simple combos or fuse together multiple magic spells to create new ones.
There are also special abilities determined by the race of your character and their chosen profession. And while there’s no traditional experience point system you do earn skill points by completing challenges that are different for each dungeon.
In terms of structure the game regularly has you returning to a village to stock up on supplies and customise your character, and then forging out across the map again to explore a new dungeon. The game’s more linear than that suggests though and while the dungeons and their enemies are at least visually different the variety is really only skin deep.
Rather than anything else though, the biggest problem with Crystal Chronicles is simply the combat, which is just not complex enough to remain interesting for the whole game. The remaster has tried to tighten up the controls but there’s no grit to the movement or combat controls and so fighting the same monsters again and again slowly loses its appeal, even if you do manage to get other people playing together – and not just rely on computer-controlled allies.
In terms of its qualities as a remaster Crystal Chronicles is harder to fault, with the graphics polishing up surprising nicely. Character models and textures have been improved but even when the GameCube origins are obvious this still looks at least a generation newer than it actually is. There are also more than a dozen new dungeons and extra voice-acting that wasn’t in the original, plus improved artificial intelligence when playing on your own, so this is no quick cash grab.
Given the amount of work put into this, and how many formats it’s being released on, it seems likely that Square Enix are testing the waters for a new entry in the series. But Crystal Chronicles does seem a peculiar choice to lavish so much attention on, as while it’s true the original version was rarely experienced in the way that was intended that was partly because it was obvious to most people it wasn’t worth going to such effort.
There is some co-op fun to be had here, and it’s great to see Square Enix encouraging cross-play between such disparate formats, but there are far better co-op games to play today and little obvious need to bring back this 17-year-old oddity. A new game in the series could still be interesting but only if it recognises just how limited the original was.
Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles Remastered Edition review summary
In Short: The original was hardly viewed as a classic even at the time and while a lot of work has gone into this remaster it can’t hide the game’s intrinsic shallowness and repetition.
Pros: An excellent remaster that improves the visuals while still retaining the atmosphere of the original. Lots of new content and the option for cross-play is very welcome.
Cons: The combat system is nowhere near complex enough to keep your interest and despite the changing visuals the dungeon design is similarly repetitive. Horrible multiplayer set-up and even worse on your own.
Formats: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4, iOS, and Android
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Release Date: 27th August 2020
Age Rating: 7
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