Discussion Review: Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Echoes of Time

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Discussion reviews have been a core attraction for VGBlogger for quite a while – certainly something I looked forward to reading as a visitor to the site! There have been quite a few done over the last couple of years, featuring two of our editors playing the same game on either the same console or different consoles. But today we do something even different – we look at the same game on a handheld and console! That game? Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Echoes of Time.

Mike: Last year Nintendo brought the light-hearted off-shoot of the Final Fantasy franchise to the Nintendo DS with Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Rings of Fate. It actually ended up being a reasonably fun action-RPG despite having a terrible beginning filled with whiny pubescents that likely scared away a large contingent of possible customers. But despite that it was better than the original Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles for the GameCube, which required multiple GBA units and connections to complete the game as intended. It seems that with each iteration something is improved with the series, but at the same time there is much that is still holding it back from ever becoming a ‘great’ sub-franchise. Sadly, for all the cool stuff it introduces, I found that Echoes of Time continues the ‘mixed bag’ trend.

For this review, Matt took on the Wii version and I took the DS. The games are identical in most ways, so it will be interesting to see how our opinions compare and contrast!

The core gameplay of the Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles series is a party-based action-RPG ‘dungeon crawl’, where you battle respawning enemies and tramp through dungeons leveling up and meeting a huge boss at the end, just so you can improve your weapons and skills and proceed to the next dungeon. However, from the very beginning the developers have tried to inject an innovative style of multiplayer into the games. For the GameCube it was the cumbersome ‘Cube, 4 x GBA and loads of cords’, for the first DS game it was much simpler — 4 x DS … but with no story mode — and for this iteration we have mix and match Wii and DS multiplayer. But again there are limitations – only the leader gets to advance their story, and in a mixed hardware game only the Wii can be the leader. I’m sure Matt and I will talk about that later in detail.

One of the issues I had with Rings of Fate was that you were stuck starting out with the twin brother and sister and the themes and story were pretty predictably laid out. So I was happy to be able to create my character and later design my own party to work through the game. There are four races – Yukes, Selkies, Clavats and Lilties – each with their own strength: Yukes are the best at casting magic, Lilties are the strongest, Selkies are the quickest and Clavats are a balanced mix of the three. You choose a male or female character in your preferred race, give them a name and get started. Of course, given this is a straight-on JRPG, you can’t really expect much more in terms of controlling your character creation or development. Your character has just turned sixteen and has to go through a traditional ritual trial. During the ritual you discover some interesting foreshadowing information, and upon exiting the trial some bad things happen in your idyllic village that get the main plot of the game rolling along for real!

By the time you have solved the first problem that caused you to leave your village you have seen pretty much everything good and bad about the game. I will be very interested in hearing what you think about this game, because for some reason I found much of the game to be either boring or annoying. I kept quitting and playing something else for a while, then returning for more. Eventually I just left it in my old DS Lite and user the DSi for other things. I was surprised that for a game that is so light and friendly I got annoyed quite so often – and while I could start a rant on that, I’d rather let Matt get started so I can hear what he has to say.

Matt: Aye, both versions are indeed identical, and that’s the problem, at least in regards to the Wii version. I guess I wasn’t paying close enough attention throughout its development because I was always under the impression that the game would play to the strengths of each platform, but that’s simply not the case. The Wii version really can’t even be considered a Wii game. It makes no substantial use of the motion controls, and looks and plays exactly like the DS. So it’s basically a DS game you’re playing through the Wii.

The main problem is the way in which the two-screen format of the DS was adapted to the Wii. Rather than blowing the game up full screen and having a normal pause screen for inventory management and that sort of thing, the game is presented in two small boxes lined up side by side on the screen, one with the gameplay and the other with the magic and inventory management stuff that you point at and select with the Wii Remote. Both boxes are tiny at default size, but with the plus and minus buttons you can alternate between shrinking and enlarging each box to meet your viewing needs. Simply put, this interface is cumbersome and just plain annoying. Any time you need to view one screen over the other you have to stop, blow it up, do what you need to do, then blow the other screen back up again. What’s worse, even when you enlarge a display box to its fullest it’s still difficult to read text and follow what’s going on in the game at times.

The graphics, which look nice and colorful on the DS, are bland and blurry on the big screen as well. Square Enix put no effort into adding higher-res textures or anything like that. But I suppose in order to ensure a stable, equal experience across both platforms that was a necessary sacrifice.

The Wii version getting the short end of the stick is a shame too because for all its quirks I really do love the Crystal Chronicles series as a lighthearted spin-off to Square Enix’s Final Fantasy cash cow. You describe the gameplay style very well. The Chrystal Chronicles games have some dull moments, aren’t very heavy on story, and don’t allow you to really dig into building up the stats and abilities of your character to your liking, but even with these limitations I just can’t help but enjoy them.

Echoes of Time is no different. Even with all the Wii version’s issues and series’ usual flaws, I had a ball crawling through dungeons, solving puzzles, hacking up cute little monsters, battling the diverse bosses, collecting loot, customizing my hero with all sorts of cool gear (you can’t manage character attributes but you sure get to customize their equipment), and hitting the town to play mini-game side quests. But hey, I’m a sucker for dungeon crawls so it takes a lot to turn me off.

Mike: It is interesting to read the Wii experience you had, because after playing some of the DS version with my kids, they had expressed an interest in getting the Wii version so we could team up and work through the game together in multiplayer. I picked up a used copy for pretty cheap, and we were on our way. Our first thought – cool, this is just like the DS version! That ‘coolness’ quickly wore off since, as you say, you need to work through too many machinations to accomplish what you can easily do on the DS. Once the kids decided that the Wii version was worthless for single player compared to the DS, we started looking at multiplayer. We soon hit a roadblock there since the Wii game is the only one advanced in this mode, which was a problem since everyone wanted to play single player on the DS.

But back to the DS version …

I agree that there is plenty of charm to the dungeon crawling, but for me it just wasn’t enough. I found myself bored and frustrated quite often and that sometimes made it a chore to progress. Why? I need more than a bit of dungeon crawling – I play loads of them on a regular basis on the PC, and most offer more than the lack of character development, boring characters, inane and time-wasting puzzles, and bone-stupid AI-controlled NPC behavior found here.

I appreciate that you can buy new equipment and upgrade your existing stuff, and I always love tromping around killing beasties, but for me the game just falls flat in a sea of other DS action-RPG games that offer similar or better experiences. To me the biggest detractors were the puzzles and the NPC party AI. I love puzzles in my role-playing games, but these were mostly just time-wasters. In fact the one time I thought I was stuck, it was because the answer was off-screen and I just needed to move around correctly to see it.

I wouldn’t have minded the puzzles so much if I didn’t end up repeating them because of the dumb companion AI. The setup screen looks great – you can set each member of your party to a specific setting from ‘protect me’ to ‘don’t use magic’ to ‘do your best’ to ‘protect yourself’. While each of these produces a different effect in each of your party members, none of them approaches what I would have preferred, which would have been a ‘do something effective’ button. I don’t know how many times I just hoped my main character would make it to the next section alive since the rest of the group was standing around way back at the beginning of the area, stuck behind a barrel or something similar.

All of this sounds pretty solidly negative, but I still think this is the best entry in the Crystal Chronicles series to date. It takes everything from the Rings of Fate game and improves it. The controls are simple and effective – where the previous game forced you to use the stylus, here you can choose stylus or a combination of buttons to select party members or which school of magic for a character to use. Casting magic is very simple – once you’ve decided which type of spell to use, hold down the X button to bring up the targeting cursor and move it around using the D-pad and release the X-button to let the spell fly! Movement is done using the D-pad, which has the expected difficult results when superimposed on a isometric grid. Fortunately the game offers an option to align movement to the isometric grid rather than the D-pad, but oddly I had as many problems with this method – apparently my brain is hard-wired to struggle with the D-pad so I couldn’t adjust to the easier option!

So Matt, it seems that you liked this one more than me, so I’ll step aside and let you elaborate more about what drew you into the dungeon crawling so much and how you liked the weapon customization, and also add some thoughts about the story and any multiplayer if you had the opportunity.

Matt: Well, not so fast there, partner. I’m not sure I liked it any more than you. In fact you may actually have a loftier opinion of it than I did. You say it’s the best game in the series, but for me it’s the one I’ve actually had the least fun with. I’m sure my view of the game would be a bit sunnier had I played it on the DS because most of my problems stem from the poor Wii translation, but looking past the frustrations with the interface and presentation I found this installment to be bland and near forgettable compared to the others.

As I said earlier, the Crystal Chronicles series’ formula of simplistic hack-n-slash dungeon crawling is something I enjoy, and I continued to enjoy it in spurts in Echoes, but overall I couldn’t shake this feeling that there was something missing. To me it just felt like a game that was slapped together real quick for Square Enix to trumpet the whole cross-platform multiplayer component.

The series has never been big on story and character development, but at least in the previous installments I felt like I was working towards an end goal. But in Echoes I just felt like I was going through the motions, crawling through dungeons just for the hell of it with no real objective in sight. As long as I played in short spurts I had a great time — the boss battles are a blast and in my opinion the puzzles add a nice change of pace to the core hacking and slashing — but whenever I attempted to play for an extended period I eventually found myself half paying attention and looking to go play other better Square Enix RPGs that I’m trying to finish up right now, like the new Valkyrie Profile DS game (which I’m digging quite a bit so far), the excellent Chrono Trigger DS port (yep, still working my way through that classic!), and the new 360 Star Ocean (iffy game overall, but pretty fun).

This lack of motivation — on top of the stupid party AI that you mentioned — renders the game nigh useless as a single-player game. But really, the Crystal Chronicles series is focused on multiplayer, so anyone looking for a great solo experience from Echoes is looking in the wrong place. To me, the game’s problems aren’t nearly as big of a deal in the multiplayer arena. When I’m playing a hack-n-slash game with others I don’t really care if I have some story that I’m following. It’s just fun to get a party of adventures going and hack up some beasties for a while. And that’s something I still feel Echoes excels at, especially with the new online, cross-platform component in place.

Mike: I laughed after reading your most recent comments and my reaction to them. This is getting interesting – each of us has highlighted things we like about the series and game, but neither wants to get pinned down to saying we actually like the game. For me it is easy to figure out why – there is nothing about it that isn’t done better elsewhere. Take as an example Legacy of Ys for the DS which you recently reviewed. I’ve played it also, and agree wholeheartedly with your ‘Buy It’ assessment – the story is more enjoyable, the combat is much more fun, and overall it is a much better package. The same is true for the Chrono Trigger, Valkyrie Profile and Suikoden DS games among many others. I have no problem liking mediocre or even bad games if I can find a ‘hook’ somewhere – I got loads of guff for the tons of hours I put into the deeply broken Dungeon Lords and am enjoying Stalin vs. Martians for what it offers while other sites are pounding it harshly for its’ (many and obvious) flaws. But Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Echoes of Time lacks any hook – it is really just severely average across the board on the DS, and worse than that on the Wii.

And just as you are quick to shed my assessment of you liking Echoes of Time more than me, let me wrap some context around my ‘best of the series’ statement. As I detailed in my opening paragraphs, the Crystal Chronicles sub-franchise has failed to hit a solid note thus far, and this game is no exception. The GameCube / GBA release was more of an ‘interesting idea’ than a polished game – and that is how this comes off. They wanted a Wii-DS multiplayer game experience, and got one that connects and works seamlessly. They used the deeply flawed but still mildly entertaining Rings of Fate as a basis, fixed some of the glaring flaws, duplicated it for the Wii, made multiplayer functional and then shipped … oops, they almost forgot to drop in a story!

As you mention, having a story in a dungeon crawl is nice but not necessary – look at games like Etrian Odyssey which pretty much say ‘oh you’re an adventurer come to conquer the labyrinth? Good luck!’. And that is the whole story! Yet reviewers took that in context because the game isn’t ABOUT story, it is about reliving a classic party-based RPG experience. The same could have been true here, but there is nothing else to grab on to. As I said, I constantly found myself annoyed with the game, and it is because the story was non-existent, the NPC’s were useless, the puzzles were inane, the combat was second-rate, and so on. None of it was terrible, but neither did I ever feel the driving compulsion to continue that causes so many gamers to get too little sleep!

My final test of games – particularly of ‘the hook’ is my kids. They will grab hold of stuff that bores me and keep playing it forever. A great example is Spectrobes – my younger son STILL actively plays both of those games, while I figured he would have dropped them when the DS Pokemon games arrived. He found the hook in an otherwise flawed game that kept him going. My older son keeps two copies of Star Wars Episode III for the DS close at all times to dogfight anyone he can grab. Yet neither of them could find anything interesting here. They each played for a while, enjoyed a bit of multiplayer, but both copies were soon relegated to the storage shelves, not likely to see action anytime soon. And so while much of what I have said seems to warrant a ‘Try It’ rating, I cannot in good faith recommend anyone spend their money on what amounts to a glorified ‘tech demo’. Let this one pass by and just enjoy the knowledge that solid DS to Wii multiplayer is quite possible … and hope someone comes along soon and attaches it to a good game!

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Pros:
+ Looks good
+ Controls work well
+ Seamless multiplayer

Cons:
- Weak story
- AI is terrible
- Puzzles are lousy
- Can’t advance DS story in cross-platform multiplayer

Matt: Wow, we are really all over the place here! I think it’s probably the weakest game in the series while you deem it the best, yet I still have a more positive opinion of it than you. Kooky!

But, as you say, the fact that we can’t seem to agree on one overwhelmingly positive element of the game is a clear indicator of its shaky quality. We really seem to have differing opinions of the Crystal Chronicles series as a whole, but ultimately I think we’re both in agreement that Echoes of Time is a lackluster effort. Our reasons for reaching that conclusion are wildly different, but at least we found some common ground here.

However, unlike you, I do think Echoes of Time — even on the Wii with its awkward interface — has some playable worth to it strictly as a multiplayer experience, which is the game’s main purpose. If you’re a fan of the series and have been patiently waiting for the introduction of online play, you’ll definitely be able to squeeze some good dungeon-crawling fun out of this game. At least a rental’s worth.

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Pros:
+ Simple dungeon crawl fun, especially when played with others
+ Cross-platform multiplayer works well
+ Rewarding loot system and equipment customization

Cons:
- Wii version hindered by poor interface and presentation
- Lousy party AI
- Lacks a source of motivation to really hook you in
- Forgettable story mode

Game Info:
Platform: DS and Wii; both versions played for this review
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Release Date: 3/24/09
Genre: Action-RPG
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1-4

About the Author

I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!