The Final Fantasy series has fallen out of favor recently. After a long string of missteps (some of which I've documented), the series has lost its luster. What was once one of the most revered names in video games has become a symbol of the bygone era of Japanese dominance. Whatever mistakes the series has made in upholding its legacy, however, that legacy is still known for some truly stirring music. Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy is mostly a tribute to that legacy, and functions as a musical museum with a few clever rhythm game ideas of its own.
Make no mistake: Theatrhythm is first and foremost a trip down memory lane. Square Enix has packaged nostalgia, and it's hard to imagine anyone really enjoying themselves without familiarity with the music. While most music games might turn a player on to a new song they hadn't heard or liked before, this one relies almost wholesale on your appreciation for the songs and the storied moments they represent.
Functionally, reliving those memories involves tapping, swiping, and dragging your stylus across the 3DS screen to the melody of classic songs, across a variety of game types. The main "Series" mode throws five songs from a game at you in quick succession. It opens and closes with a simple tapping mini-game, and each series title consists of a travel, battle, and event song. These are each visually distinct, but the method of tapping and dragging across the bottom screen while watching the top for prompts remains essentially the same throughout.
The opening and closing sections are the weakest of the bunch. They're used to squeeze a few more songs into the game, but the play mechanic is just mindless and dull. Making this mini-game the beginning and ending of each set of songs failed to start a multi-song session with any momentum, and ground the proceedings to a halt afterwards. Fortunately, they can be skipped.
Carrying the Final Fantasy name, Theatrhythm also adds in some light RPG mechanics. Before a single rhythmic tap, the player is tasked with building a party of well-known Final Fantasy characters (with an adorable makeover). As the characters gain experience, they'll level up and be able to equip more abilities -- all of which are used automatically, as necessary, during stages. It's not as rich as a proper RPG experience, but it's an interesting idea to infuse into this genre.
On the normal difficulty, the tracks are far too simple, even with low-level characters. Without knowing some of the songs -- even with the sound turned completely off -- I could manage a good score with ease. The real satisfaction in music games comes from overcoming a challenge and feeling the euphoric thrill of mastering a song, which is where the harder difficulties shine. Expert and Ultimate scores are significantly tougher, and better capture the sense of really feeling the rhythm. The Chaos Shrine also sports ultra-hard "Dark Notes" songs that rely on intimate familiarity with the musical movements.
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The track listing in itself is fairly robust from the start, with three tracks per game throughout the entire main Final Fantasy series. If you run low on songs, an in-game shop offers plenty of songs to purchase for a dollar apiece. It's a bit frustrating, though, that the shop doesn't offer short preview clips of the songs on offer. I consider myself knowledgeable of the classic series, and I didn't know all of the songs by name well enough to choose which ones I might like to buy.
As a concept, Theatrhythm shouldn't work. This mish-mash of different ideas seemed too strange. But it actually breathes some fresh life into the music genre while serving as a reminder of what made Final Fantasy so special in the first place. It may not result in any RPG converts, but those like me who hold a special place in their hearts for Terra's Theme will be glad for the opportunity to relive some favorite old moments in a new way.
[This Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy review is based on a retail copy of the game, purchased by the reviewer.]