Thanks to some epic mid-90s squabbling between Nintendo and Square, there was a point when if you liked Final Fantasy, you needed to have a PlayStation. Sony’s new kid on the block and its expansive CD storage were simply a better fit for the huge JRPG experiences Square were crafting. It was years before the franchise returned to the house of Mario, and when it did in 2004, it was with the unusual action-RPG spin-off Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles. It felt like Square were sinking the knife in further, but for some the multiplayer-centric action-RPG became an important entry in the long-running series.
Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles is back in a remastered form for a bevy of formats, from the expected PS4 and Nintendo Switch versions to mobile options for iOS and Android, but, some sixteen years later, its ‘my first action-RPG’ charms have lost some of their lustre.
Back in the day, despite it being an integral part of the game, playing Crystal Chronicles in multiplayer took a serious effort. Built around an idiosyncratic – and rarely used – feature of the GameCube, each additional player needed to have their own Game Boy Advance and GameCube Link Cable, giving them on-the-fly access to their own menu system.
Thanks to the technology of the present, FFCC’s remaster aims to make that process easier than ever, with online multiplayer connecting people and cross-play allowing this to happen between PS4, Switch, iOS and Android. The downside to this is the arrival of friend codes. Every player has a personal 12-digit friend code that you’ll need to share about to link up, though you can generate a one-time 6 digit one that lasts half an hour which helps to speed things up a fraction.
It’s functional and lets you hook up with your friends no matter where they’re playing, but it’s an unappealing and clunky solution and impacts the rest of the game. Only the host gains myrrh at the end of a dungeon to progress their game story, and you can only play dungeons together – there’s no shared caravanning overworld, town visits, or family trades. If you just want to hop into the game, it does mean you can join open lobbies and hope to find someone with the same gaming sensibilities as yourself. Oh, but bear in mind multiplayer is region locked, for some reason.
The visuals for Crystal Chronicles have undoubtedly been updated, and the PS4 rendition offers a clean and clear image with some appreciable detail to characters, enemies and the huge end of level bosses. They’re not exactly breath-taking though, with flat textures and limited detail present through the majority of stages, and the faux motion-blur of the day feeling more like a graphical glitch. While those checking in with their nostalgia glasses on will be charmed enough by the return to their caravan travels, new players may be surprised at just how simplistic everything is.
One of the biggest hangovers from the original’s unusual set-up is the controls, and it’s here that Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles suffers the most. Built to be played with a Game Boy Advance, the controls were limited to two face, two shoulder buttons and two menu buttons. Despite having so many more inputs to that could have freed the action-RPG gameplay, you’re still forced to shuffle through a command list and switch between attack, defence and magic using the shoulder buttons.
Beyond an adherence to the way things were, there’s literally no reason not to have offered an updated alternative, and without that in place any activity in Crystal Chronicles, whether exploring or combat, feels clunky and without immediacy. Hours into playing I still found myself fumbling around with them in the heat of the moment. It’s a huge shame when many of the game’s other elements are more than capable of drawing you in, and I think they’ll be a major turn-off for modern audiences.
Being honest, my defining memory of Crystal Chronicles remains carrying a chalice around. A mechanic drawn from Chronicles’ world being beset by lethal Miasma which the chalice keeps at bay, sixteen years ago it would have served a purpose to keep players together, likely not stretching the GameCube’s processor beyond what it was capable of, but once more it serves to hamper your play in the here and now. It’s not something I would have wanted to see removed, and I couldn’t imagine how you could, but it is undoubtedly a barrier to enjoyment.
Another barrier could be the absence of local multiplayer on a single system. The GBA set up was a concession to the small TVs of the time, but modern, high-resolution screens could accommodate individual players access their own menus during play relatively painless. Instead, to get the kind of fantastic local co-op experiences that modern games like Minecraft Dungeons have provided, you need to lean on the online cross-platform multiplayer and the free ‘Lite’ version of the game. This lets anyone play the first three dungeons of the game in solo or co-op, but can also be used to join a player with the full release and play all of the original dungeons. So if you’ve got any combinations of PS4, Switch, iOS and Android devices, you can still play locally… it’s just more fiddly to set up, progression isn’t shared, and the lag of online play can creep into proceedings.
Playing and progressing in Crystal Chronicles does at least have the capacity to get its hooks into you. Each expedition into a dungeon has you fighting off monsters, searching for loot in the form of plans for new weaponry or armour, and Artifacts that upgrade your stats which you can pick between at the end of a successful mission. It’s light, amenable, and companionable with a friend or two in tow, and with the addition of thirteen rejigged, more challenging dungeons, there’s plenty for new and returning fans to sink their swords into.
The remaster also brings voice acting to the mix, and largely it helps to bring the world of Crystal Chronicles to life in a way it never was before. The opening drawl for each dungeon is presented as though a wise woman is weaving a tale over a campfire, and I was totally drawn in by them each time, lending the game a real storybook feel that its structure helps to support. The quality of the other voice acting is painfully inconsistent though, waxing and waning from wooden to woeful, and while it does lift the light narrative elements of the game, it’s far from the best example you’ll have heard.
One element that is as good now as it was then is the original soundtrack to Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles, enhanced with re-recordings and fresh additions. From the lovely title song ‘Morning Sky’ through to each ditty that plays during your exploration into new and unknown levels, Kumi Tanioka’s compositions with medieval instrumentation are bright, charming and memorable, and you’ll find yourself humming away to them while you dispatch orcs and flans in whatever method you’ve chosen. While Crystal Chronicles is something of an outlier for the series, the music really makes it feel like a Final Fantasy game.