Given all of the misses lately, you may not remember that Final Fantasy is a top tier franchise. While the numbered sequels never disappoint and there are the occasional spin-off surprises (Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII springs to mind), most of the recent off-shoots haven't lived up to expectations. Unfortunately those hoping that Square Enix's newest Wii game, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Echoes of Time, would be the fresh blood the franchise needs are in for a rude awakening. While this game is cute and has some great ideas, it's impossible to overlook the game's multiple problems (both gameplay and technical).
Echoes of Time is more than an incredibly long-winded name, it's also a story about a small town that suddenly gets caught up in a mysterious crystal illness. Before you know it, you (and your friends) are traveling around the countryside battling bad guys, taking down bosses, solving devious puzzles and collecting all of the crystal shards to fill in the back story and resolve this problem once and for all.
Obviously there's more to the story. The game revolves around small world where there are two mountains (one that is completely iced over and another that is full of fire and flames), a big centrally located town, some mines, an aqueduct or two and a big forest. In other words, it's a really small area. And to beat the game you will find yourself going to these locations two and three times each, solving the same types of puzzles and battling the same kinds of monsters.
I'm purposely vague about the story, but only because what is there is pretty shallow. Don't expect the epic tale of good overcoming massive evil. In Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Echoes of Time I felt like I was more of an observer to something that hinted at being interesting. The truth is, the story elements are only there to give you a reason to go from one generic level to the next. Most of the missions involve you battling through a level, collecting a crystal shard and then returning to this enchanted forest. And when you're not doing that, you're out finding more crystals and doing exactly the same thing over and over. The story hints at something bigger, but at the end of the day it all boils down to you dungeon crawling through only moderately interesting areas.
The key to the game is the multiplayer, which has been this spin-off's biggest asset since it debuted on the GameCube. Back in 2004 you used four Game Boy Advance units to control the four characters. Here you have a number of choices, including the ability to play online with other Wii owners, at home with a Nintendo DS owner or a combination of the two. On paper it looks like Square Enix gave you every possible way to connect, making it as easy as possible. Unfortunately it only looks like that on paper. In practice Echoes of Time is a multiplayer mess, full of technical problems and questionable design choices.
But before we get sidetracked talking about the laggy online experience and hair-pulling frustration that is trying to connect with friends, perhaps we should actually address the multiplayer gameplay. You see, the game's puzzles are made up of multi-person tasks, so that you will have to use a second or third person to stand in specific places in order to open doors, defeat enemies and unlock treasure. At first these puzzles are pretty cool, but before long you'll realize that most of these puzzle elements are recycled from one area to the next. If you understand how the puzzles work early on, then you won't have a problem solving the rest of the challenges, no matter how late in the game it is.
While I'm generally down on the simplistic way the puzzles incorporate the multiplayer experience, I do appreciate that each of the game's levels offers a different type of skill to learn. For example, when you're fighting through the library, you'll have to open doors by using the magic that floats out of books. In the ice levels you will have to thaw and free small patches of water in order to open doors and make your way to ladders. Each of the game's stages has something like this, something that is a little different from the other stages. While this is certainly a welcome addition, I was disappointed that the puzzles didn't go all the way with these ideas. Just as the puzzles start getting tough, the game starts to give you suggestions and hints, which ultimately makes the experience much easier than I would have preferred.
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