If there were ever a game that was more than the sum of its parts that game is Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers. This Square-Enix action game–if you are being generous you could call it an action-RPG–is a spin-off of a spin-off of that revered RPG institution Final Fantasy. Being a double spin-off is not the best pedigree that a game could have, especially when it strays from the original series’ genre. Released in December 2009, The Crystal Bearers, despite its exceedingly popular parent title, landed with a wet thud on the gaming scene. The genre, the system, the buzz; it all worked against the game. Even as staunch supported of the Wii as I am (best console of the generation, no contest), the game fell off my radar for most of the year, but good fortune and the clearance rack worked in my favor.
Despite its original, and not wholly unwarranted, poor reception The Crystal Bearers is at the very least an interesting game. It is one of the most inventive and original games not only on the Wii, but also of the entire console generation.
The game’s reception is no surprise when one takes a closer look at who made it: Akitoshi Kawazu. Kawazu is the man behind the bulk of Squaresoft’s, now Square-Enix’s, most obtuse and reviled games. While the hate for his games is not entirely unfair, it is somewhat small-minded. Kawazu’s games, most notably the SaGa series in its myriad forms, ply by their own always complex rules. Mostly they look and play like regular JRPGs, but the underlying mechanics are usually different enough that playing them as though they are just another Final Fantasy game results in an awkward and unsatisfying experience. If the player takes the time to properly learn the game’s systems, they can be some of the most satisfying games. It is not easy to do so, though, because the games are usually obtuse and unintuitive and downright unfriendly. Moreover, as his games are often experiments, some of those experiments are failures–I’m looking at you Final Fantasy 2. The best way to describe Kawazu’s oeuvre is that it is an acquired taste. While The Crystal Bearers is very different from most of Kawazu’s games, it still fits that acquired taste mold.
The Crystal Bearers is two different games jammed together. There is the story mode, a sequence of partially controlled scenes and events. The events are not exactly mini-games, but they do usually use unique mechanics specific to that one event. They are similar in concept to QTEs but with more player control. Some of them even use the central mechanic of the other game, grabbing and throwing things with the Wii remote. The story takes about 8 hours to play through and as far a JRPG stories go (I know that Crystal Bearers technically isn’t a JRPG, but it is still Final Fantasy) it is pretty solid. It is not particularly well written or original, but it has its own unique charm. The Crystal Bearers’ story doesn’t take itself too seriously, moves quickly and keeps the action coming. Comparing the pacing to an action movie is accurate. It doesn’t hurt that the game is darn pretty. And I do not mean that backhanded compliment “pretty for a Wii game.” On a pure technical level, it is not particularly astonishing, but the artistry and the design of the world are outstanding. The story part of the game is a thrill ride with plenty of fun, though not too deep, gameplay.
The real meat of the game is the open world parts, which are everywhere that is not a story scene. The player only has one ability, the aforementioned grabbing and throwing. Despite the simplicity of this core mechanic, the game has tons of ways to utilize it. If you throw a skeleton’s head, he will stop attacking to chase after it. If you throw two long time Final Fantasy enemy Bombs at each other they will explode fantastically. Enemies are not just focused on the player, but they react to each other. The King Behemoth chases other monsters around his map. There are tons and tons of different reactions to get by throwing enemies different places or at other enemies. Similar to the joy people get from tooling around in a Grand Theft Auto game, The Crystal Bearers gives you an open world with tons of possibilities. I spent tons of time messing around and ended up with about 30% of the game’s medals.
True to its predecessors, The Crystal Bearers has some baffling choices in game design. Like the fact that everything non-story is optional. You do not have to do anything outside of the short storyline. So all that emergent gameplay in the field areas is easy to miss. The player is given little incentive to explore the game, outside of sheer curiosity. I was halfway through the game before I started really messing around with all of the field parts. The two different games are put together, but they do not mesh very well. The player will get out of the game what they are willing to look for. Except for at the very end. The last boss takes the gameplay of the field segments and uses them for the basis of the battle. It is suitably epic and enthralling, but if the player has not kept up with the optional parts and increasing the quality of their gear, there and only there will they have a problem.
It is odd and unique and definitely not for everybody, but The Crystal Bearers is a flawed gem. All of the wonderful emergent gameplay that the game is built for is sidelined for a focus on the trite if somewhat entertaining story. It shows the best that Square can do, but also how they are still stuck on the recreating the success of FFVII. At the very least, it shows that the experimental and odd Square from the PS1 days is still around; it has just been branded Final Fantasy.