(this review is based on the Japanese release of the game. Some things may change with the Western release)
It's hard to deny the power of the Squeenix marketting juggernaut. Final Fantasy remakes and spin-offs saturate the market to a point where it's difficult for other big-budget RPG franchises to exist at all. I'm convinced that Squeenix could package dog turds in attractive Final Fantasy collector's boxes and sell them for a substantial profit. For better or worse: VII is the most popular Final Fantasy installment, so it's gotten the most rehash: Advent Children, Dirge of Cerberus, Last Order, Before Crisis, Snowboarding, Ehrgeiz... The latest in the "Compilation of Final Fantasy VII" series is a PSP original by the name of "Crisis Core".
In the interest of full disclosure, I must make a confession: I don't think Final Fantasy VII is the best RPG of all time... and I actually think it's one of the worst Final Fantasy storylines there is. It was fun, it was revolutionary, and I remember playing it fondly: but the characters were animated turnips and I had a very hard time caring about any of them. The spin-off's have, so far, left me cold; convinced more than ever that VII isn't the Fantasy for me.
Taking this into account: I fully expected to hate this game.
But I love it.
Zax is everything that the characters in Final Fantasy VII failed to be. He is personable, funny, interesting, sympathetic and incredibly charming. He's a joy to watch... and just as fun to play. Silent protaganists (like our turnip friend, Cloud) suck. We don't WANT to be spikey-haired versions of ourselves when we play a game: we want to be heroes. And Zax is a hero we can really root for.
The story in Crisis Core is essentially the story of Cloud's sword and Sephiroth's wing. There are other origin stories and subplots scattered here and there, but the real emtional uderpinning of the game is Zax's relationship with his mentor Anjeel and Sephiroth's interaction with a new, incredibly annoying supervillain: Genesis. We learn, through the progression of cut-scenes and a series of Soldier missions, how Anjeel's beloved bastard sword makes it's way into Zax's (and eventually Cloud's) hands and how the Soldiers became "monsters". Zax and Anjeel have a genuine, ocaisionally even sappy, relationship that will probably make this game doujinshi fodder for the ages. Meanwhile Sephiroth becomes an even more loveable villain, wading waste-deep in a river of anti-hero angst.
Speaking of doujinshi...
Boys, I have some bad news: this game was tailor-made for fangirls. Not to say that it isn't enjoyable for guys, there's still plenty of over-the-top "awesome" combat moments and badass displays of bravado. It's just that, as of the 5 hour mark: there are a total of four women in this game, with all but Aeris accounting for about 3 minutes screentime total. Aeris gets a good chunk of screentime, a remarkably likeable personality and a MUCH better outfit... if only she had something more significant to contribute.
Apparently SOLDIER isn't exactly forward-thinking about women's rights... because there aren't any women in the organization. Consequently, there are next to none in this game.
What the game DOES have is hot, plasticy-looking, spikey-haired men. Lots and lots and lots of them. One of them (Genesis) is even voiced by and modelled after a real-life plasticy-looking spikey-haired man (the Japanese pop singer, Gackt). And while they're all cool enough, sometimes the whole thing just seems like... a very pretty sausagefest.
There are no ugly people in this game. Even relatively minor characters are hot.
And I'm sorry, but who thought it was a good idea to have characters flying around on single wings? One-winged angels can't fly (which was sort of the point in the quote that originated them). I'm sorry, it's not aerodynamically possible... and it just looks silly O_o; But um... just pretend they have two wings and one is invisible... that seems to be working for me.
Buyer Beware! In spite of the "Final Fantasy" label, Crisis Core is NOT a turn-based RPG. It's an action hack-and-slash in the vein of the "Sangoku Musou"(Dynasty Warriors) games. As Zax, you will take on large groups of enemies with a small selection of materia, items, block, dodge, and attack commands at your disposal.
While the game begins rather easily, the difficulty can ramp up quickly if you're not a veteran of action games. And without difficulty settings to adjust the strength of your enemies, it's likely that more casual gamers will not be able to finish the game on their own at all.
Meanwhile, fans of action games could also benefit from difficulty modes. The hardcore will be able to breeze through Crisis Core in a matter of days.
Even so, the system is fun... and while the enemies lack variety within stages: the battle system provides a certain level of unpredictablity missing from turn-based encounters. It's fast-paced, fun and requires a bit more interaction on your part.
Summons, limits and experience points have been combined into a remarkably useable slot system. Lining up the faces of your allies or icons of your summons will reward you with various power ups, special attacks and help in battle while lining up certain number combinations will power up Zax and his materia.
Materia can also be combined to form stronger materia, materia with bonuses and on occaision, materia that can't be aquired elsewhere.
Weapons and armor are not available. Instead you are limited to two accessories (which, in true Final Fantasy VII form, can totally nerf the bosses as long as you equip the right ones before the right encounter).
Shopping has also been simplified and is accessable through your menu, online-shopping style.
While the combat system is usually tight, I did find myself a little annoyed with the small areas to which some battles are confined. Barriers aren't always marked... which means you won't know you've gone as far as you can until you've been backed up by an enemy trying to chop your head off and get sandwiched against an invisible wall.
On the plus side: there are save points every few feet. Meaning you'll rarely have to lose progress just because your commute's over or a boss blindsides you.
The graphics are amazing, the cinematics are flawless, the voice acting is fabulous and the music is wonderful. I can hardly imagine anyone taking issue with anything about Crisis Core in this department. This is easily the most polished game to hit the PSP... ever.
Overall: Crisis Core is both a satisfying prequel and an entertaining stand alone game. The combat system, while lacking some amount of depth and variety, is still quite fun. The presentation is flawless. The characters are much more interesting than their FFVII counterparts and there are quite a few nods to FFVII fans scattered throughout the narrative. Those expecting a free-roam turn-based RPG system are likely to be dissappointed, but fangirls and Musou fans will rejoice. If you don't mind the action-RPG combat system: this is a must-own. If you're wary of it, try before you buy.
Would you recommend the product? Yes
Price you paid? None indicated