Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII is a lot like visiting a shady Korean massage parlour. Fans can assuredly welcome the unabashed servicing, but the happy ending may turn you off if you're not intimately acquainted with the series. Too much inside information is needed to enjoy Crisis Core, which makes it ill-suited to anyone that doesn't wear the label of Final Fantasy VII junkie. An unusual combat system counters gorgeous graphics and a lengthy, involved campaign for a role-playing experience that barely avoids a crisis of mediocrity.
Crisis Core suits you up as Zack Fair, a 2nd class member of the elite fighting force known as SOLDIER. The group acts as the premier special ops division of the power-hungry Shin-Ra Electric Company, taking on difficult assignments around the globe in order to protect the company's interests. As the game opens, Shin-Ra's war against the small Asiatic domain of Wutai has reached an all-time low with the disappearance of Genesis, SOLDIER 1st class. Zack accompanies his mentor, Angeal, to the island nation to put an end to the conflict and discover the whereabouts of Genesis.
Zack's various assignments all focus on combat, which takes a form unique from any previous Final Fantasy game. As you explore each location in the game, you're stopped by random encounters that introduce enemies onto the exploration screen. Battles occur in real-time, with presses of the X button triggering attacks and abilities. The shoulder triggers enable you to cycle through a small horizontal menu resting at the bottom-right of the screen. Whatever materia – spheres of magical energy enabling you to cast spells and execute special abilities – you have equipped shows up here, as well as basic attack and item options.
The system works remarkably well. In fact, it's one of the best real-time combat systems so far conceived for a portable role-playing game because it so brilliantly works around the control constraints of the handheld. The only issue lies in the unpredictable camera, which can't be directed because there aren't any available buttons to do so when in battle.
Like any role-playing game, Crisis Core awards you with experience for defeating enemies in battle; however, you're never informed of the experience you earn. Leveling up is handled through the Digital Mind Wave (DMW) reel. During battles, the reel spins in the upper-left corner. Whenever two of the same characters appear on the reel, combat pauses for a limit verge. The DMW reel fills the entire screen while the center slot continues to spin, along with the three number dials. If the center spot completes the character trio, a limit break attack is triggered. Should two of the numbers match, one of your materia levels up. When all three numbers hit 7, Zack levels up.
Not only is the DMW confusing, it's an absurd means of handling character development. You have absolutely no control over the reel. Instead of accumulating experience and gaining levels when you've amassed an exact number of points, you level up at random. The hidden experience gained from enemies increases the probability of leveling up, but since you don't have a way of knowing how much experience you've amassed you have no clue as to your chances of doing so. It also makes for uneven character development since it's entirely possible to level up twice in one battle – it's obviously rare, but the fact that it's possible points to poor design.
Summons are tied to the DMW reel as well, which is to say that triggering them is essentially a crap shoot. Randomly, the reel will change over from characters to summoned creatures and only when the three match up does the summon commence. It'll take you until well near the end of the game before you actually witness a summon because they're so infrequent.
Time away from combat can be spent tackling optional side-missions accepted at any save point or progressing the main story through cut-scenes and conversations. As mentioned, none of the side-quests will make any sense if you haven't played through Final Fantasy VII, though. Moreover, much of the dialogue that forwards the plot is so referential that it can be difficult to follow if you haven't played the original. This makes Crisis Core a fantastic tribute, but a poor introduction to a complicated universe.
There's not a single thing poor about the presentation, though. Crisis Core undoubtedly boasts the finest visual and audio presentation of any handheld game right behind God of War: Chains of Olympus. Stunning cut-scenes of course make viewing a pleasure, yet what truly impresses are the incredibly detailed levels, characters, and enemies during play. All of the sound effects used in Final Fantasy VII return, although the music has been remixed to great effect. It's amazing what Square Enix has accomplished on PSP with Crisis Core technically, as well as artistically.
How much you'll like Crisis Core depends on your familiarity and level of adoration for Final Fantasy VII, then. Like that massage parlour, it may hit a soft spot or could leave you sore. And even in the latter case, you'll walk away still able to recall some enjoyable moments despite the game's apparent flaws.