Review by DDJ

Reviewed: 07/09/12 | Updated: 07/11/12

Come for the nostalgia; stay only if you like rhythm games anyway.

Review in Brief
Game: A rhythm game of the music through the first thirteen main-series Final Fantasy games.
Good: A fitting homage to a great franchise, not cheap fan service; a strong rhythm game in its own right, with plenty of content, a variety of difficulties, and some interesting twists.
Bad: No central motivating theme; overly simplistic gameplay based around only subtle modifications to the basic formula; failed RPG elements; a ludicrously silly visual design.
Verdict: A worthy homage and a strong rhythm game, but lacks lasting appeal for Final Fantasy fans.
Rating: 7/10 – “Good – a few problems, but worth the time to play”
Recommendation: Must-rent for Final Fantasy fans, must-buy for rhythm fans, must-avoid for everyone else.

"Come for the nostalgia; stay only if you like rhythm games anyway."

Theatrhythm (which I will be referring to by its shortened title given that the full title, Theatrhythm Final Fantasy, is a bit oddly-ordered) is Square-Enix’s 25th anniversary homage to its titular role-playing game series focusing on the music that has run throughout the various games. Focusing (thankfully) only on the series’ main games, it runs through the first thirteen Final Fantasy games, recapping some of the most memorable musical pieces from each game wall running through some cinematics of each game’s most notable moments.

Theatrhythm is, to the best of my knowledge, the first rhythm game produced by Square-Enix, but remarkably, the game is good enough to compete on its own rights with other notable portable rhythm games. Although the game was built on its nostalgic appeal – and although that nostalgic appeal is still without a doubt the game's major selling point – Theatrhythm also represents a surprisingly strong rhythm game in and of itself. I don't claim to be an expert on the genre, but from what I've played, Theatrhythm is about as good a rhythm game for the 3DS as you can find. It has plenty of content, plenty of challenge, and a couple interesting little twists on the classic and sometimes-stale rhythm genre formula.

What Theatrhythm lacks, however, is any appeal besides nostalgia the players who are not already big fans of the rhythm genre. Don't get me wrong; that isn't an enormous criticism, and it is indeed a rather minor critique for a game with a lot of strength otherwise. It isn't much of an insult to criticize a game for failing to transcend its genre; that's an achievement only a few games per generation reach, and to criticize Theatrhythm for failing to reach that is akin to criticizing a gold medalist for failing to break a world record. With Theatrhythm, however, there is a little bit more meat to that criticism then there would be for other games specifically because Theatrhythm was targeted by its very nature towards fans of a completely different genre. If you are going to make a rhythm game that leverages an enormous and popular RPG database of material, the fans you are going to draw in will by and large be RPG fans; so, you'd better make sure that the gameplay appeal of your game is beyond a simple rhythm game. While it's tough to criticize Theatrhythm for failing to transcend the rhythm genre, it is also hard to give it a free pass for lacking gameplay appeal to achieve exactly that given its target audience of an entirely different genre’s fans.

That's not to say that Theatrhythm didn't at least try to transcend its genre, and in some places, it even succeeded. By a large, however, the efforts of Theatrhythm to add in some RPG elements into the classic formula fell short and faded into the background as largely irrelevant or only important to the most hard-core players. As a result, although nostalgia will bring in a large number of Final Fantasy fans (and rightly so), the only ones who will want to stick around are those that already enjoy the rhythm genre.

The Game
Theatrhythm is a rhythm game, meaning it operates by asking the player to complete certain actions in beat to music. It draws from the enormous musical library of the Final Fantasy series the present a nostalgic trip through the franchise's history, touching on some of the most memorable songs and scenes from each entry in the thirteen main-series games.

The game is divided into three modes. In the first mode, the player can choose any one of thirteen original games and play through five songs from that game. In the second mode, the player chooses which song to play individually, as well as one of three difficulty levels (with each difficulty level unlocked only by completing the previous difficulty), dictating how difficult the score for that particular song will be (the songs themselves do not change; higher difficulties just add more commands to complete). The third game mode revolves around completing 99 pairs of songs, most of which are at a significantly higher difficulty.

Within a given song, gameplay follows a relatively standard pattern. Commands will flash across the screen and the player is tasked with completing the commands in time to the music. There are only three commands: a tap, a hold, and a drag with the direction to drag noted on the command. These three commands are presented in slightly different flavors based on the individual song, but the three commands themselves remain the same. Each set of songs consists of five individual pieces: an opening, a battle theme, an event theme, I feel theme, and the closing theme. The opening and closing themes are played just by tapping in time to the music to capture musical notes, while the other three each operate on a slightly different version of the standard commands mentioned above. All interaction is completed with the touchpad; I am not even sure if the buttons are enabled during the game.

Lastly, the game also includes some RPG elements. Whenever playing, the player must have an RPG-style party of four characters. These characters each have their own stats and abilities that manifest themselves in different ways while playing through a song. Every time you complete a song, your characters receive experience points. These experience points level them up and unlock new abilities. Characters are limited in how many abilities they can equip by a point system, with each ability being worth a set number of points and the character’s maximum number of points rising as they level up.

The primary driving goal of the game is to complete all of the sets on all of the difficulty levels, complete all 99 pairs of songs, and collect enough Rhythmia – the game’s between-level point system – to save the world (or something). D

The Good
Theatrhythm is a game initially motivated by its nostalgia that also attempts to be a solid member of its genre at the same time. It succeeds in both ways. As a rhythm game, it can certainly compete with the best portable games in the genre. As an homage to Final Fantasy history, it certainly succeeds in paying sufficient tribute and invoking the desired emotional response from the franchise’s fans.

Impactfully Nostalgic
Nostalgia is a tricky thing to leverage. On the one hand, it can evoke the most adamant and pure emotional response from fans of the given work. On the other hand, it can also amount to little more than a cheap fan service play to milk money out of the series' most undying and loyal fans. Where do we draw the line? How do we tell the difference?

In my opinion, nostalgia is best used when it actually impacts the player at a more emotional and personal level. Cheap fan service is when a player playing the game sees something that reminds them of something from their past and just finds it kind of cool or neat. Real nostalgia is a more visceral, emotional reaction. Instead of just making them fondly remember the old game, it makes fans mentally re-experience the same emotions that the original game evoked. It goes beyond a simple surface-level objective reference and hits at a much deeper level.

Fortunately for Theatrhythm, music is one of the most powerful and effective ways to evoke exactly this kind of emotional response, and the game leverages it to great results. If you are a fan of the series, playing it becomes more than just a rhythm game based on songs from an RPG. It becomes a personal trip back down memory lane through the enjoyment you received from these games in the first place. It hits at a more personal, emotional level than some cheap ploy to milk more money out of the fanbase.

At least twice during the game, I had to pause and collect myself because the flood of nostalgia-inspired emotions made it difficult to focus on the gameplay at hand (if you’re curious, the songs were Celes’s and Aerith’s from Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy VII, respectively). Several other times, I found just hearing the music reminded me of how much I would like to find time to replay those games. When reaching the music of Final Fantasy XII, the fact that I didn't remember any of it itself made me want to go back and replay the game to try and figure out why it apparently has much less sway over my memories. Is it because of some criteria of the game, or is it simply a function of the time in my life at which I played it?

Part of this effect is because even though Theatrhythm is a rhythm game based around its music, it complements that music with images and words from those old games. Although they sometimes make it difficult to focus on the actual rhythm commands, these images add to the powerful and personal nostalgia that Theatrhythm invokes.

Overall, building an entire game around nostalgic appeal is a risky gambit; Theatrhythm, however, executes the nostalgic features with style. The game is far more than just a profit-grab from the series' rapid fan base; it is a fitting and worthy homage to one of the greatest franchises in video game history.

Solid, though Limited, Gameplay
Later in this review, I'll spend some time talking about how frustratingly limited the gameplay of Theatrhythm actually is. However, what gameplay there actually is has been executed solidly. Designing content for a rhythm game is as much an art form as a technical skill; understanding how certain actions will intuitively and naturally sync up with the music requires an understanding beyond simply listening to the song. Failing to execute this can be a death knell for a rhythm game.

Theatrhythm, however, pulls this off very nicely. The commands that it gives match up with the music in nearly perfect ways most of the time. There are certain songs were the beats seem to come on the off-beats of the actual song, but for the most part the mapping between the on-screen commands and the audible music are very close. On top of that, despite the extremely limited number of input methods and commands, the actual nature of the commands tends to match up nicely with the music as well. The direction of the drag commands often plays on something intuitively present in the music. After playing for a few minutes, the player almost becomes naturally aware of what command the game will issue for certain musical bits. Taps tend to go with regular beats, holds tend to match longer runs, and the drags almost always coincide with crescendos or other downbeats.

To put it simply, after playing through one song a few times, it almost begins to feel like the actions you take and the commands you complete are what directly determine the music itself. Unlike rhythm games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band, Theatrhythm makes no attempt to mimic actual instruments, making this seemingly natural and causal mapping between the gameplay and the audio quite an achievement.

Interesting Twist on the Rhythm Formula
Theatrhythm does attempt to switch up the classical rhythm game formula in a few ways. Some of these, like the RPG elements, fall flat and lack relevance, but I will talk about those later. However, some of these twists and tweaks are actually somewhat refreshing and interesting changes.

As mentioned above, there are three slightly different gameplay modes in the main portion of the game: the field mode, the battle mode, and the event mode. All three modes draw from the same three commands (the tap, the hold, and the drag), but use them in slightly different ways. In the field mode, there is only one row of incoming commands, but the hold command requires the player to drag up and down to trace along a moving curve rather than just hold the stylus down on the touchpad. In the event mode, the reticle (that is, the circle that commands pass through when you are supposed to execute them) moves around the screen along a winding path as commands appear in stationary locations, waiting for the reticle to hit them. The third mode, battle mode, breaks the commands into four different rows, mimicking a classic RPG battle layout. You still only complete one command at a time, but they are interspersed between the four rows.

Event mode is somewhat straightforward, but both field mode and battle mode take your completion of the commands and translate them into interesting events in the background. In the field mode, one of your party’s characters is seen walking through a field past various landmarks from that song’s game. The better you do on completing the commands given to you, the faster that character runs. The faster he runs, the further he gets during the course of the song, which leads to more points and a greater chance of finding items.

In battle mode, the translation from completing the commands to the on-screen events is even more interesting. Each command is mapped onto one of your four party members. If you complete it successfully, that member launches some kind of attack at an enemy on the opposite side of the screen. The better you do in completing those commands, the more damage your attacks do, and the more enemies you will defeat during the course of the song, raising your score.

Neither of these are really truly revolutionary changes to the rhythm formula; as I will discuss later, you're still completing the same tasks, and the only thing that changes is the way in which the game interprets them. These different interpretations have no bearing on what constitutes doing well on a particular song. However, they still do represent an interesting way to flavor a rhythm game.

One other interesting changeup occurs with what the game refers to as “Feature Sections”. A Feature Section is a sequence of commands highlighted in silver that, when completed successfully, allows the player to access several more seconds of the song (referred to as the extended version), scoring even more points. In the field mode, this is also displayed as the character riding a Chocobo to advance much further through the field. Even more interestingly, in battle mode, this is visualized as a summon spell where the player’s party temporarily disappears and the player is given a small set of commands to execute the summon attack, starring the franchise’s most ubiquitous summons, such as Shiva, Ifrit, Odin, and Ramuh. Again, you are still completing the exact same tasks and playing the game in the exact same way, but this interesting different visualization is a welcome change of pace and adds some Final Fantasy-themed appeal to Theatrhythm.

Sufficiently Large
The first and third subsections of this section discussed what makes Theatrhythm a suitable homage to the Final Fantasy franchise, while the second focused more on the game’s quality as a rhythm game. These last two sections will focus on this latter point as well: Theatrhythm is a good rhythm game. In my opinion, given the relatively limited gameplay almost inherently available in rhythm games, a game needs to major things to be good in this new genre: enough content, and enough challenge.

On the first front, Theatrhythm certainly has enough content. It ships with almost 60 songs - 40 in the main content area and several songs that can be unlocked by completing available portions of the game. These songs are adequately divided into several different gameplay structures. Each song comes with three difficulty levels that can be played in series mode, for a total of almost 180 different individual scores (three scores each for all 60 songs). Chaos Shrine mode (the aforementioned 99 pairs mode) does not add any additional scores (that I know of, at least), but presents them and arranges in a different and engaging way such that the player actually wants to complete both modes. That adds an extra 200 plays for a total of around 380 unique scores. With each song lasting at least a three minutes, that's already 20 hours of play time even if you only play each score once. In my opinion, that is more than enough content to make a good rhythm game.

On top of that, the game almost has a fetish for including various different collectibles and achievements. It has a built-in trophy system to monitor for certain achievements in the game. There are also several sets of eight “shards” unlocked by completing different tasks and reaching different milestones; completing each set unlocks a new additional character for your party, with sixteen total additional characters available (by comparison, you start with only thirteen characters). There are also collectible cards - 100 I believe - each of which has three levels that they can attain. And, on top of all that, each song can have a ranking from F all the way up to SSS. Personally, I find most of these things to be unnecessary and artificial padding, but I know some people enjoy completing a game with lots of such collectibles, so you completionists will have a good time (or a bad time, depending on how you look at it).

Sufficiently Challenging
The second feature that a good rhythm game must have is a sufficient level of difficulty. Because the gameplay in rhythm games remains relatively similar from start to finish, the only way to make the game continuously interesting is to adequately scale up the difficulty as the player moves along. Starting too difficult or ending to easily are both dire sins that some rhythm games commit.

In the case of Theatrhythm, though, it matches this quality flawlessly. The game starts off with it early basic content just difficult enough to be engaging. It is rather simple to get the hang of and after only a couple songs, it begins to feel natural. It maintains a relatively consistent difficulty level throughout all of the games while playing on the same level, likely so that the player can play them in any order and focus on their favorite game if they so desire. Leaving basic mode, however, the game quickly escalates in difficulty, increasing the pace of the commands and the complexity of the combinations. Most importantly, however, the increasing complexity retains that natural mapping to the music itself. Once the player gets the hang of the beat that the game is commanding them to complete, it feels very natural to stay on beat. That isn't to say it's easy, but it does feel natural once you get the hang of it. The difficulty level continues to ascend to levels that I personally believe would challenge even the most experienced rhythm game veteran: at least I hope so, considering how miserably I failed on what looks like only halfway through the game’s overall content.

The firm dividers between the difficulty levels does mean that there is a sometimes-frustrating significant leap from Basic to Expert and from Expert to Ultimate, and no amount of training on one difficulty level can prepare the player to succeed quickly at the next one. Still, however, this is not a major problem and certainly is an acceptable drawback to keeping the difficulty levels consistent within themselves.

The Bad
The major problem with Theatrhythm is that while it uses nostalgia to appeal to long-time Final Fantasy fans, it lacks any other appeal to fans who do not already enjoy rhythm games. There are many ways in which the game could've had that kind of appeal, either through a stronger central driving focus, more complex gameplay options, or better execution of RPG elements. However, its lack of these things means that while Final Fantasy fans will enjoy it a bit for its nostalgic elements, only rhythm fans will enjoy it in the long term.

No Driving Central Focus
The main problem that I wrote down at the very beginning of the game remained my main complaint throughout the entirety of the game. Theatrhythm lacks any kind of central driving focus. From the beginning, the game attempts to frame itself with a plot set up, drawing from the Dissidia universe and the characters of Chaos and Cosmos. The set-up is remarkably stupid, but I'm not bashing it specifically either because it never really comes up again in the game. It's basically a modern equivalent of the white text on a black screen the used to motivate the plot line of platformers in the NES days.

The natural inclination is to say that rhythm games do not need plot lines. Part of me is inclined to agree, but a plot line does not necessarily mean a story-driven jaunt through those prescribed songs. In Rock Band, for example, the driving focus was a back story on how your band was getting bigger and bigger and was thus playing bigger and bigger venues with more and more difficult songs. That wasn’t really a plot, but it was a driver; it was a somewhat subject story-driven way of motivating the player to keep playing. There was an achievement at the end of the tunnel, something to actually succeed in within the game rather than just succeeding at the game.

In Theatrhythm, there’s no such focus. That silly plot set-up disappears as soon as you start your first song and, as far as I saw, never reappears. As silly as it was, it at least would represent a pot at the end of the rainbow. Instead, that “plot” just tells you at the beginning to collect something called “Rhythmia”, which then becomes one of the various point systems the game uses to evaluate you. There’s just not a driving central focus in that respect.

What that means is that the drive to complete the game would have to come from some kind of indication of how much content you have left to complete, but the game is a little scattered in even representing that. You’re told what your percentage completion is on the main series, but only on your current difficulty level. You’re told there are 99 Dark Notes to complete and how many you’ve done, but that isn’t presented in a very prominent way. You have to kind of go looking to even discover how much of the game’s content you’ve completed, as opposed to even a prominent centralized screen that would sum up how far you are and how far you have to go.

This problem is, in some ways, exacerbated by the game supplying far too many ways to evaluate and assess your progress. Every time you complete a song, you receive both a score and a ranking from F to SSS. You also receive a certain number of Rhythmia points that get added to an overall tally. You also receive experience points for your characters, which you use to level them up and raise their stats. That’s four or five different ways to measure your progress, and with so many ways, it’s tough to decide which one is really an accurate depiction of how far you are.

Basically, the problem here is that the only motivation to complete the game is the motivation to complete the game. There doesn’t seem to be any pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, or even a way to tell how far over the rainbow you happen to be. It’s just kind of, “Oh hey, here’s some songs. Have fun!”

Overly Simplistic Gameplay
As mentioned above, the gameplay in the game is inwardly solid; nothing (with one exception I’ll get to later) seems off or finicky or faulty. The problem is that there just isn’t much gameplay at all. The entirety of the gameplay revolves around very slight modifications to those three main commands – the tap, the hold, and the drag. The three gameplay modes modify it slightly, but the core gameplay remains exactly the same.

The game attempts to disguise that simplistic game a lot of the time, and succeeds partially as mentioned above. The interpretations of your fulfillment of the commands change, leading to summon spells or running Chocobos, but you’re still just tapping the commands as they come across the screen. You could almost describe the entire game as a glorified version of Simon, just doing the things the game pops up and tells you.

Of course, there is more to it than that. The game chains the commands together in increasingly complex ways that match the rhythm perfectly. Still, however, the entirety of the game consists of accurately completing one of three different commands when told. No amount of content design can quite make such simplistic gameplay any deeper than that.

One could claim that this is just a characteristic of rhythm games as a whole. Rhythm games, or than any other genre, are still guilty of having very one dimensional gameplay. In many ways, the existence of the genre as a whole is somewhat surprising given that the genre got its start largely as mini-games in larger releases. For this, I have two thoughts. First of all, that's true: this is a general problem with rhythm games as a whole. This is one of the reasons why I never consider rhythm games to be among the best games released; they simply possess too narrow and niche an appeal to really be considered excellent games compared to any other. They are fun, but they are largely fluff. They are simple, easy to pick up games that lend themselves nicely to leveraging people’s fandom over different pieces of music. So, yes, in a way I am criticizing Theatrhythm for being a rhythm game.

Secondly, though, other rhythm games do manage to take simple concepts further than Theatrhythm does. In Guitar Hero, for example, the gimmick is the pseudo-realistic mapping onto an actual guitar. In Rock Band, the gimmick is the multitude of instruments. In Dance Dance Revolution, actions chain together much more smoothly in the skill to learn is how to move from one motion to another. In these ways, these rhythm games possess something that takes the very simple gameplay mechanic and translates it and leverages it towards a more complicated gameplay experience. For Theatrhythm, the experience never quite gets past effectively playing a one-button game, despite the subtle little changes between the battle, field, and event songs.

On the gameplay note, there is also one other annoyance that I have to mention. When playing the series mode, each game comes with five songs; the middle three are the battle, field, and event songs mentioned previously, while the first and last are that game’s opening and closing song. For the opening and closing song, there is no real gameplay. Notes spend from the outside of the screen towards the center in beat to the music, and you are supposed to tap the screen when they reach the center. This earns you Rhythmia points, but it is the most tedious and boring part of the game by far. A four-year-old could do well during this segment of the game as there is no skill involved whatsoever. You have the option to skip these sections, but that's where the annoyance doubles: you could earn twice as much Rhythmia during these two songs as you can during the other three songs put together, meaning there is a very heavy incentive to play through the most tedious part of the game anyway. I have no idea who thought that was a good idea. I also suspect that the opening and closing songs are even longer than the battle, field, and event songs, although that might just be because I was that much more bored.

Failed RPG Elements
I opened this review by talking about how Theatrhythm has a target audience well outside its own genre; it is a rhythm game targeted at fans of RPGs. For that reason, the game needed a way to appeal to RPG fans who might not like rhythm games on their own.

I think that Square-Enix knew this, and that is why I believe they supplied the unique changes mentioned previously, as well as the RPG elements I am about to talk about. In some ways, it almost feels at times like they tried to create a normal RPG that simply used a rhythm system for the battles. The rhythm results are translated into various different RPG-like results, which then in turn alter the rhythm sections themselves. The problem is that none of these elements are really significant enough to feel like they matter, so instead they simultaneously miss out on the type of appeal they could have provided while distracting from what good gameplay there is.

As mentioned previously, the player has to choose a four-person party to take with them into every song. Each party member has four stats, as well as various different proactive and reactive abilities. The stats themselves map themselves onto different interpretations of the player’s successful completion of the rhythmic commands as well as the environment around the song. The skills trigger automatically when certain events take place, with most directly tied to one of the three music types. At the end of each song, each party member receives an amount of experience points based on how well the player did on that particular song.

There are a lot of problems with this system, though. The first and most prominent problem is the problem of mapping. Mapping refers to the connection between two different otherwise-unrelated pieces of the game. There inherently must be mappings between the individual characters' stats and skills and the actual observable results during the rhythm sections. However, by and large, it is very difficult to actually understand the relationship. Characters have agility, for example, but the exclamation the game gives for the effect of that stat is vague at best. Characters also have a strength stat, but there is no clear indicator of what difference it makes. I suspect that a higher strength stat allows you to blast through monsters in the battle music sections more quickly, but since they do not show actual HP loss, understanding the effect of higher strength is very difficult. None of the stats have a logical mapping onto actual results in the rhythm section.

The skills are not all that much better. About half of skills operate just by increasing certain stats under certain circumstances, meaning that they are inherently limited in how clear they can be by the player’s understanding of the stat system in the first place. The other skills apply seemingly somewhat arbitrary and strange changes to the rhythm game. For example, one skill gives you a certain chance of avoiding damage when missing a note. While interesting, it falls into the same problem I mentioned in the above section: none of these skills actually change the gameplay of Theatrhythm. They do not alter your priorities in any way or in any way change what you are trying to do during a rhythm section. As a result, the entire RPG element portion of the game is compressed down into occasionally checking to see if the best skills you have available are equipped. Even if there are particular games to be made by using the abilities effectively the experts would understand more than I do, the game does not give much feedback on the effect of different skills anyway. The appeal of RPG elements is that they add a strategic factor to games that might otherwise lack such a feature; Theatrhythm manages to add these RPG elements without actually adding the appeal that usually comes with them.

This isn't to say that the game should have left out RPG elements altogether; as mentioned above, the developers were correct in recognizing the need for something about the gameplay to appeal to fans of the original franchise rather than just fans of rhythm games. The execution, though, is the issue. These elements needed to be executed in a way that actually made the relevant to the gameplay. Instead they are just contrived and distracting. A more useful application of these RPG elements would have been a game more strongly based around a rhythm-oriented battle system where the skills of the player’s characters acquired altered something about the commands player was given, leading to more damage or better results. Instead, the system just seems unnecessary and ineffectual.

Silly Visual Design
For this section, I'll be blunt. What the hell were the graphic designers and character designers thinking in this game? The character design throughout the entire game takes on such a ridiculously cartoony appearance that it almost manages to destroy the nostalgic appeal of the game altogether. The designers went for very “chibi”-looking character designs with bizarrely rosy cheeks, giant lifeless eyes, and spherical heads. They look like the voodoo dolls the enemy in a particular game would use of the main character. They are simply awful, and they actually manage to detract from the game because it.

The nostalgic element of Theatrhythm is all about returning to the characters we love to in their original games and reliving our memories of them. It's really difficult to relive one's memory of the brooding Squall, the innocent Terra, or the vicious Lightning when they're rendered like a knockoff ragdoll. Again, it might seem silly, but it really does detract from the game experience. It's very distracting. I understand the desire for consistency with the way the different games' characters were presented, but consistency could've been achieved without making them look so absurd. Heck, just getting rid of the rosy cheeks, creating a few more head shapes, and adding some pupils and sclera (the white part) to the eyes would've basically saved the character appearance.

On a similar note, what in the world is up with the randomly generated quotes preceding each song? Before each song, the game shows each character lined up with a speech bubble. In each speech bubble is a randomly generated word that fulfills some part of speech such that any for randomly generated words or phrases will make a grammatically correct sentence. While the grammar is correct, the sentences are just bizarre. Two of the ones that I recall include “We pounce unendingly for gil” and “We die eternally... for Chaos?” I'm not sure if they're supposed to be funny or something just didn't translate from the original Japanese way of doing things, but as it is, they're just weird. They're not even cutely quirky, they're just distracting.

Poor Feedback on Drags
Lastly, there is one seemingly minor point that actually has a significant impact on the game. As mentioned, there are only three different types of commands: taps, holds, and drags. Holds are definitely the most common of the three, followed by taps. There are still several drags per song, though, and if you ask any player of the game, I would be willing to bet that over 90% of their missed notes come on drags. Why is this? The game gives very poor feedback on how to properly execute a drag in time. A drag is different than either a tap or a hold because taps and holds are instantaneous events. The moment the stylus makes contact with the touchpad, the tap or hold is registered; the moment the stylus is released from the touchpad, the release of the hold is registered. Those both happened instantly. For the drags, however, it isn't completely clear at what time the game once a drag to take place. Are you supposed to start dragging when the icon crosses the reticle? Are you supposed to finish her drag when it crosses the reticle? Are you supposed to start shortly before and released shortly after? Any of these answers is fine, but the problem is the game does not give feedback on when the proper time really is. You'll receive a note that your timing on a particular command was bad without any idea if you should've gone sooner or later.

Granted, that problem probably only arises about one-tenth of the times you encounter a drag command. Usually they seem to work, and there even seems to be a natural rhythm to them such that it's easy to hit them when you're kind of in the zone with the beat. The problem, though, is the game places a very high incentive on getting a perfect around on a given song. A perfect round means hitting every single note at exactly the right time. Sound tough? It actually isn't, except for those drags. Without really even trying to do so well, three different times I got every single note perfectly on a song only to miss exactly one or two drag commands. That would not be annoying if I had any idea what I did wrong on those commands, but to my eye, I hit them perfectly. The poor feedback on these notes means that the game's highest achievements are extremely difficult, but not for the right reasons. They are difficult not because they're hard to actually achieve, but rather because it’s hard to convince the game to cooperate for an entire song. For those who want to get a perfect score, that is an extremely frustrating problem. Additionally, I should note that initially I wasn't going to include this point because I assumed I was just bad at the game, but I heard from several others that this was a problem as well, validating it as a legitimate knock against the game.

The Verdict
Theatrhythm is a rhythm game targeted towards an RPG fan base. That on its own puts it in a unique and possibly difficult position, but at the same time affords it a great opportunity. By appealing to such a large existing fan base, the game could get more attention than rhythm games typically receive; at the same time, however, it would have to find a way to be interesting for that audience as more than just a nostalgic momentary diversion in order to be considered truly great. Additionally, it would also need to be a good rhythm game in its own right; if Pokemon Conquest taught us one thing, it's that an established franchise is not entitled to make mediocre spinoffs for other genres and expect to be praised for them. And, finally, it would have to make sure that its nostalgic appeal is not just cheap fan service, but rather is a deeper emotional connection.

Theatrhythm succeeds at two of these three things. It provides the right kind of nostalgia, evoking personal memories and emotions from the games that it draws from. It is not cheap fan service, but rather a fitting and worthy homage to a great video game franchise and its incredibly memorable characters and stories. At the same time, it is a strong rhythm game in its own right, with enough content and challenge to keep seasoned fans of the genre entertainment for a very long time.

The only thing it fails to do is to transcend its genre and give Final Fantasy fans a reason to like the game for more than just the nostalgic quality. Fans of the franchise will enjoy it for the nostalgia, and fans of the rhythm genre will enjoy it as a solid application of the normal formula; however, there is insufficient cross-appeal between the two to be truly great.

My Recommendation
A must-rent for Final Fantasy fans: you’ll love it, but you’ll get all you’re going to get out of it after only a couple hours. A must-buy for rhythm game fans: plenty of content and sufficient difficulty to keep even seasoned fans of the genre entertained. Anyone else, there’s no reason to even consider it.

Rating: 7

Product Release: Theatrhythm Final Fantasy (US, 07/03/12)

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