Genre: Other Developer: Indies zero Publisher: Square Enix Classification: PG Release Date: 1st Jan 1970 Platforms:
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Transposing melody to physical gestures seems an inherent human trait – the wafting wand of the orchestra conductor, the wag of your foot to the beat of heard music, the clapping of hands at a concert, bopping your head in time to a song, tapping fingers on the steering wheel. Countless other expressions find themselves in our bodily appreciation and expression of music. Rhythm games connect to this intuitive conduit, allowing us to feel like we are interacting in a physical, visual and auditory manner with musical-based gameplay.
Pressing plastic buttons in time with a note chart floating towards you in Guitar Hero is not the same as the actual creation of notes by striking a tightened string on a guitar, but strangely – almost despite that – it can be just as satisfying when you “score” the right note. Of course, when playing music, there is rarely such super tight adherence to timing. The groove and pace of the band can change over a song, set-list or overall performance. Playing a note out of time on a real guitar does not elicit an audience-cringing clunk. It simply pushes out a slightly off-beat note; an errant eddy in the stream of sound.
However, games require rules and delineations, particularly for rhythm tasks, and so the urge to gain a high score is translated into correct notes, beats and expression points, your performance analysed far more deeply than any punter enjoying Barnsey covers at their local. Theatrhythm Final Fantasy, released as a celebratory ode to 25 years of name-bending releases, at first seems like the shallowest of music titles. Tap along to Final Fantasy songs? How boring. It might be assumed that the only people interested in this would be those who sleep with a Cloud plushie and sit down to play FFVII on each anniversary of its release. To some extent this is true, yet only a small amount of analysis is needed to see that the series has as its broad foundation the interweaving strength of its music.
Final Fantasy games are rigid in their design, sticking to the triumvirate structure of world exploration, battles and story scenes. Concordantly, Theatrhythm structures itself around these arms, offering three distinct styles of rhythm play for field, battle and event stages. Bookending each Final Fantasy title are opening and closing themes, represented in Theatrhythm as optional tap sections that actually offer some of the purest enjoyment. A crystal hangs in the centre of the screen with notes drifting into it in time with the music. All you need do is tap in time, gaining extra Rhythmia – the game’s form of currency – as you do so.
There’s a forced story about… actually, it’s not even worth going into. Suffice to say that it’s set up so that you choose a party of four characters from a roster that spans all of the Final Fantasy games up to XIII. As expected, things are further needlessly complicated in the form of character attributes. The game is almost apologetic about the somewhat confusing configuration of stats, boosts and augmented abilities – telling you straight up that you’ll actually receive a bonus for playing the game without any of them. It screams of top-down design directives. So really, ignore all that if you want to just enjoy the pure rhythmic nature of the game.
Theatrhythm does a great job of making you feel like you are constantly working towards something, even when all it turns out to be is a new song or unlocked character. Each round ranks your performance with a kind of bar graph, tracking the moments when your actions were perfect (excellent hits are named “critical”) and urging you to fill the entire line with glittering gold. Scores tally, grades are given and sound effects chime your awesomeness to the world, lounge-room or train compartment.
The three gameplay variances all employ the same screen techniques, but present them in differing ways. Pressing anywhere on the touch screen, the stylus is used to tap notes, press and hold for longer passages and swipe in specified directions. The combination of these three inputs offers a surprisingly robust challenge, with swipes added in at the end of holds or peppered between short staccatos. Battle tunes play out with your party taking on monsters in the background, with missed notes taking HP from your party and successful hits landing attacks. The challenge is to get through all of the monsters to beat the boss within the time limit of the song.
Field music presents a side-scrolling journey through game worlds, with the character speeding up or slowing down depending on how well you are going. Bonus encounters and items are unlocked in these stages if you are a rhythm god. Held notes are also modified here, allowing you to move the stylus up and down in wavy patterns that follow the music. Event stages, the final type offered, require you to follow the prompts as the music circle traces around the screen while a story scene plays in the background. At first, this seems awkward, as you’re not sure if you should be enjoying the scene or concentrating on the prompts, but after a while – once you’re familiar with and automatically connect the visual prompts with screen touches – the ability to multi-task offers enhanced enjoyment.
Simple in nature, Theatrhythm Final Fantasy offers just enough extraneous complication to make it compelling. The urge to keep unlocking new songs, characters and other bonuses reflects the celebration of a series that keeps going and going. Nostalgic players will love the trip down memory lane and with more songs to buy via DLC there seems no shortage of tunes and scenes to remind players of their misspent youth. It’s not a particularly great rhythm game, nor is it really a Final Fantasy one, but for some reason the two work together well. If you find yourself whistling the post-battle melody hook at work, your hands itching for something to tap on, Theatrhythm will slide right into your life.