Crisis Core is one of the three big productions from the Final Fantasy VII 10th anniversary compilation. With the mediocre-at-best fanservice movie Advent Children and the horrible third person shooter Dirge of Cerberus, the compilation looked a lot like a big money grab. What distinguishes Crisis Core from the pack is that it's actually a roleplaying game - something where Square-Enix is still relatively strong. Action-oriented with real-time combat, sure, but roleplaying game nonetheless. It's a prequel with lots of familiar characters and appropriate amount of fan service, but it is also a pretty solid game. The main character is Zack, who was mentioned on several occasions in Final Fantasy VII.
1. How hard can hard be
Knowing that I was about to play a Square-Enix RPG, I decided to finally break my habit of playing most games on normal for the first time around and chose hard mode instead. Little did I know that the hard mode was in fact added to the North American version as an afterthought and the game failed to mention how hard the hard mode is. When I finally got pretty badly stuck in the game maybe halfway through, I got curious and checked from the source of all gaming information (GameFAQs). To my shock, the hard mode was no small adjustment - they had multiplied all monster stats by the average factor of 3.5 and up to 5. Whoa. A small mention in the difficulty selection menu might have been appropriate, huh?
Anyway, challenge is usually fun. What was not fun was that save point placement was sometimes very frustrating. But wait, it gets better! This game features unskippable cutscenes, yay. They are just unacceptable in this day and age. The game also does a really poor job of explaining its most important non-combat mechanic but I'll write about that under its own section. On hard mode players are really expected to really use that system to their advantage so a little more information would have been nice. Sure, it's kind of a JRPG standard that you'll need GameFAQs as a complementary game manual to actually understand how the game works. Just for future reference, not all standards are good.
2. Let's fight in real time!
In the Final Fantasy franchise, real-time combat has been reserved for spinoffs. Curiously they - at least the two instances I have played (Dissidia and Crisis Core) - have mechanics that are better than the main series' active time battle (prior to FFXIII). The system is not particularly special. It is more or less Final Fantasy VII transformed into real-time action. Actions are chosen from a menu using shoulder buttons and performed with X. This is system is okay and pretty much required given the number of available buttons on the PSP. It really only falls on its face with items. The item submenu should have used a unique icon for each item. Items are used relatively rarely so memorizing their positions in the menu does not happen automatically while playing.
Attacks in the system are very simple and in this sense the system was quite disappointing at first. However attacks do have appropriate hit stun, evasion is not overpowered, physical attacks do critical damage from behind and guard only covers the front sector (although rather generously). Because of these factors, movement and timing are essential to survival in Crisis Core, especially on hard mode where enemies really dish out the hurt. Because of hit stun, it is possible to pin enemies or be pinned by a chain of attacks. It's also a good idea that they gave evade a proper recovery time. In many action games, evade is generally quite powerful get-out-of-jail-free card, but in Crisis Core a poorly timed evade can lead to a nasty chain of back hits.
On hard mode the game really is surprisingly defense-oriented. A lot of the harder fights require preparation to guard against the most common element attacks and most debilitating status effects. Even poison is nasty in this game because poison damage causes stagger and interrupts Zack's actions. All in all, it is very important to not get hit. Zack can often pin down single enemies simply with his attacks but multiple enemies can get really troublesome really fast. This is often typical for games that have hit stun as a mechanic. For the delight of Devil May Cry fans, attacks are properly telegraphed, giving the player an opportunity to react before getting hit. Evades also have invulnerability frames during the animation.
I have one complaint. The game's auto-targeting sucks. Zack doesn't target the closest enemy, he targets the enemy closest to his line of sight. This is a rather poor mixture of targeting the closest enemy and manual targeting (hitting where you're facing). For example, let's say there are two enemies. One is really close and the other is behind it, on the other side of the battlefield. You evade the closer one's attack, getting behind its back in the process and try to hit it, only to realize that the targeting has switched to the far away enemy instead and Zack starts running across the battlefield. Fortunately you can cancel your attack by doing an evade but really, this should not happen. It also makes targeting specific enemies a bitch sometimes.
3. How random can we make this?
(Almost) every JRPG tries to add its own tricks into the combat bag. Crisis Core introduces Digital Mind Wave (DMW) which is essentially one big slot machine that's constantly running. Sounds very random, and it is too. There's actually two modes: normal and Activating Phase. The DMW has multiple roles: it controls the flow of battle with buffs; it acts as the game's limit break system; and finally it even controls character development to some extent. The most common are the buffs. They are short time advantages such as removing casting cost from spells or invulnerability to one of the two damage types, or even complete invincibility. These buffs are mostly to add a little variance. With zero MP cost you can go crazy with spells for a while. Immunity to damage is less useful than it sounds because the attacks still cause stagger but it can be useful in a tight place.
Activating Phase is more interesting. It is basically a limit break system that activates when the same character lines up on both left and right slots. If the third slot also comes up with the same character, a limit break is activated, resulting in a damaging attack or a bigger buff. They also give Zack a varying amount of HP, MP and AP back upon triggering. This is an interesting mechanic because it lends a hand to the player by restoring Zack at random intervals. Finally, before unleashing the limit break, Zack is invulnerable against all attacks for a short while. This has been done so that all attacks that were already coming out are carried out against Zack's invulnerability before the limit break activates. Although the player cannot directly affect this, it is a neat mechanic because it often opens up opportunities for attacking or getting out of trouble.
To make it just a little more complex, there is a chance for Activating Phase to change into one of two special modes, summoning and, well, special. Especially the latter one has even wilder effects which can give the player free items are level up their materia. The DMW is in charge of leveling up materia in another way: if two of the same number line up in Activating Phase, the materia in that corresponding slot gains a level. Zack gains a level if three sevens line up but this is not in fact completely random - the game runs a hidden experience calculator which eventually forces level ups to happen. Materia development on the other is completely random.
From the description it might seem that the system is truly too random to be of much use. It would be so if it weren't for DMW materia. These handy things can be equipped to make specific effects a lot more probable. There is one DMW that actually makes Activating Phase in general a lot more probable for a while. I found making that DMW more probable be equipping its materia a solid strategy for some of the harder encounters (remember, even limit breaks that you don't really need give free restoration and a breather). This sort of indirectly controlled randomness is in fact a quite interesting mechanic. By sacrificing some flexibility (materia slots), the player can manipulate the odds of getting free goodies to his favor.
4. Fusing for win
To my experience, when a development system is named Fusion it tends to be great. Atlus has demon fusion, there was monster fusion in FFXIII-2 and there is materia fusion in Crisis Core. It's a surprisingly complex system so it is very weird that the game doesn't really reveal its true importance to the player. It's portrayed mostly as a way to create new materia. However, it has a much more important function: raising materia stat bonuses. These start at very low values which makes fusion seem rather useless. This couldn't be much further from the truth - materia stat bonuses are the most important avenue for stat development. The system has a bunch of rules that are left for the player to discover (i.e. read from GameFAQs). It actually needs one key item from a side quest before it becomes really useful. That item allows using items as a component in fusion, which strengthens stat bonuses further.
Once the player actually figures out the system, it is quite clever. Because materia can only gain levels when they are equipped, there are also some serious considerations about which ones to wield - farming levels for materia reduces the number of more useful materia that can be equipped. The reason I like this system is that like Junction in FFVIII, it gives the player a powerful parallel development lane. Leveling up is just a general indicator of progress while real leaps in power are made by crafting materia with solid stat bonuses. This imbues character development with a lot of really meaningful choices for the player. It is what truly distinguishes action RPGs from plain action games.
Although I like the system, there is one particular problem with tying stat bonuses to equipped abilities. Because transferred stat bonuses in fusion are always halved, moving stat bonuses between materia is not feasible. This makes endgame builds rather rigid. At some point the player needs to decide which materia they will ultimately equip, and stack the big bonuses on those materia - and keep them there. There is still some flexibility: in fusion only one materia loses half its stat bonus (the weaker one). So by manipulating fusion results, it is possible to transform materia into other materia, but there are limits because of the system rules. Most importantly, the most powerful materia in the game cannot be transformed from any other materia type and fusing almost anything with them transforms them into other, weaker materia.
Overall, all the systems combined, the game does allow for quite a lot of builds. However, it does suffer from the Final Fantasy Syndrome. I just named this syndrome, but it is very prevalent in the series so the name is fitting. In short, a game that suffers from the syndrome has certain skills / equipment / whatever that are so obviously more powerful than anything else in the game that not using them would be stupid. In Crisis Core there is one peculiar materia called Costly Punch that is ridiculously overpowered. Immediately upon getting it, I reached the increased damage cap with it. It also ignores pesky things like enemy defense which makes it an ultimate weapon against, uh, everything. Curiously hard mode didn't become a steamroll with this materia because even normal enemies can stand and deliver ridiculous amounts of damage.
5. Bonus: Not so random encounters, or wallhuggers unite!
There was another curiosity about Crisis Core I forgot to mention. The game doesn't exactly feature random encounters. It also doesn't show the enemies on the map. So what does it do? Well, the environments in the game have these invisible zones where battle (with random enemies) commences. Usually, not always. Confusing huh? It gets better though: the zones typically do not go from wall to wall. Zack can avoid most battles in the game by tightly hugging walls while moving. It's uh... a very interesting solution. I kind of appreciate the fact that it's possible to not have to fight every single encounter in the game but really, invisible zones?
Crisis Core has surprisingly lots of depth. This seems to be a common trend in Final Fantasy spinoffs - the riskier ideas are realized in them instead of the main series. I guess it's a sound strategy from SE because the spinoffs are typically played by their core fans who are prepared to tackle more complex systems. It's still not Shin Megami Tensei complex in Crisis Core, but enjoyable enough to warrant full post-game experience all the way to the ultimate boss. I haven't gotten there yet but I have a good feeling that I will. The game also goes to show that SE really should include a hard mode in every single one of their games. Only difficulty demands players to learn and use various systems in these games.