That it’s taken until 2012 for the Final Fantasy series to receive a spinoff title that focuses primarily on its massively memorable musical library—one that can fairly hold a candle to the likes of Nintendo’s Big Three in terms of decade-spanning, catchy tuneful themes (Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Pokémon)—is something of a perplexity. Square Enix has given us offshoots such as Chocobo Racing, Crisis Core, and Dissidia, tackling the go-kart, action-adventure, and 3D fighting genres, respectively, yet no sign of a primarily rhythm-based crusade seemed to be looming over the horizon. Main canon Final Fantasy RPGs, however inconsistent they’ve become over the last few years, have consistently been able to exponentially excel in the soundtrack department, and the central quests themselves often give way to currency and/or EXP-amassing subsections featuring a variety of addictive mini-games that could easily be branched out into fuller endeavors, given the proper craftsmanship and attention to detail. Theatrhythm Final Fantasy is this precise idea fleshed out to the nth degree; a Final Fantasy cognoscente’s dream come true, sublimely stuffed with over two decades of celebrated anthems supported by a generally well-executed method-of-play system and heaps of nostalgic substance, the game is a welcome addition to any 3DS repository, and practically a requirement for those who label themselves Final Fantasy fans.
Be it that the inherent elements of what make a great Final Fantasy undertaking significant are conventionally simplistic, secondary developer Indies Zero (responsible for the overlooked Electroplankton, another delightful exploration in interactive audio) opts not to mess around too much with the basic tap-and-slide stylus controls, instead introducing varying grades of difficulty through three separate gameplay scenarios that each offer diverse, qualified mutations of both the rhythm genre and Final Fantasy expeditions. Field Music mode is customarily aimed at beginners, giving prominence to a smooth, relaxed beat-keeping orchestrated by calmly guiding the stylus along the screen as your character moves about numerous landscapes, some more familiar than others. The Battle Music setting cranks up the necessary speed and timing reflexes considerably, casting four player sprites on a combat plane facing off against a throng of notable Final Fantasy baddies. Far and away the most creative, exciting, and visually delightful type of stage, and the reason Theatrhythm might generate a more positive loyalist response than Final Fantasy XIII-2. Ostensibly the closest we’ll ever get to 3DS remakes of Final Fantasy through Final Fantasy XII, the Event Stages transport the player to miscellaneous key cinematic sequences from throughout the series (reliving Aerith’s demise still hurts the heart), prompting them to maintain the symphonic cadence that made the original scenes classic moments in console gaming.
For the most part, Theatrhythm regularly nails the aggregation of its source’s diversified levels of artistic rendering in a skillful, dignified fashion. The chibi style of animation has always had its detractors (I was at one point among them), yet here downsizing the distinctive character designs of Yoshitaka Amano, Tetsuya Nomura, Toshiyuki Itahana, and Akihiko Yoshida into miniaturized, cutesy versions of their former selves works to efficiently emphasize the much lighter moods and tones this bouncy, compact game catalyzes. The song selection is fantastic, and menu navigation provides seamless transition between each breed of campaign. Unfortunately, one area where Indies Zero stumbles is in their attempt to recreate Final Fantasy’s RPG elements by incorporating them into the established rhythmic motif. HP gauges, potions, leveling up, Weapon Breaks, Phoenix Downs, and multitudinous item abilities could have added to the overall experience if they were assimilated with a more revelatory technique. As it stands, the developmental characteristics feel like an afterthought, unpolished and seemingly a lackluster attempt to attract that section of the Final Fantasy fanbase that isn’t all that interested in rhythm games.
Even though its roleplaying functions fumble (it rarely matters how high your level is at any given time) and the game’s storyline is kind of a throwaway, this melodic journey through the universe of Final Fantasy offers enough unlockable content to attract players long after they’ve mastered each of the game’s unarguably earwormy, 70-plus songs. Bonus characters become playable after boss shards are collected, the challenging Chaos Shrine rewards the dedication of experts with its Dark Note contests, and there’s even a Museum where countless Final Fantasy artifacts are stored when specific conditions are met. Local WiFi allows for up to four players, and 3DS’s StreetPass functionality is also in effect, granting individual statistic trades for bragging rights acquisitions. All in all, in the face of its minor lapses, Square Enix has constructed an adequate gift to itself and to its followers with Theatrhythm, a magnanimous memento and time capsule to honor one of the greatest and most musically eloquent game series to ever exist.