Despite being one of the most recognisable names in gaming, there's a sense in which the Final Fantasy moniker can do as much harm as good to a new game. The words call to mind images of interminable, winding adventures, capricious random battles, protracted cut-scenes, juvenile philosophising and hermaphrodite heroes. As a result, Square-Enix's increasingly regular habit of slapping the brand on products that have little resemblance to their flagship series risks seeing these games dismissed by swathes of gamers. How many readers chose not to click on this review simply because it bears the words "final" and "fantasy" and so couldn't possibly be relevant to them, for example?
In the case of Echoes of Time this is something of a minor tragedy, as the game represents a great many things that Final Fantasy does not. This is a snappy action-RPG in which storytelling plays second fiddle to Zelda-style puzzling and Diablo-esque dungeon exploration. Its USP - that Wii and Nintendo DS owners can adventure together simultaneously - is executed robustly and the finer details of the experience are crammed with creativity and sensible implementation. On that basis one can't help but feel that the Final Fantasy branding might cost Echoes of Time sales it would otherwise have attracted.
As the latest member of the Crystal Chronicles suite of Final Fantasy spin-offs, this is closer in style to the mediocre Ring of Fates than the WiiWare release of mixed success, My Life as a King. It's a fully 3D dungeon-exploring adventure with a heavy emphasis on item collection and equipment customisation. These systems are then tied together by a straightforward, childish story that's mercifully light enough not to get in the way. Conversations are never drawn out and the cut-scenes are brief, as indeed are many of the missions, ensuring the game's suitability for portable play. Your quality of experience is going to be somewhat influenced by the platform on which you play (more on that later) but the game within is sound.
You begin by choosing a character from one of four races - the sword-wielding Clavats, the spell-casting Yukes, the high-jumping Seklies or the long-range fighting Lilties. Whoever you choose, your hero begins the game on the eve of their sixteenth birthday, setting off into the forest that borders their village for a coming-of-age fetch quest. It's here you learn combat basics, which, to begin with at least, are basic. You've a stock attack move, the range of which is dictated by your weapon type and, in general, simply hammering this in the direction of any antagonistic woodland creature bold enough to attack you is enough to get through the first couple of dungeons.
Later you'll need to start combining attacks with the jump and lift commands to execute dive-in and lift attacks, during which you hoist a poor squirrel into the air and slash at its underbelly. These physical attacks are augmented by magical attacks, and, unusually, the seven basic spell types in the game are available from the off. Spells are represented by coloured symbols on the bottom screen: Fire, Blizzard, Thunder, Cure, Rise and Clear. To use one you need only click on the appropriate symbol (with your thumb on the DS or with the pointer on the Wii) and aim the attack on-screen for a few seconds to trigger it. Spells can even be combined, either by multiple players releasing magic on the same spot simultaneously, or by a single player stacking spells together to create powerful hybrids. This mechanic is designed to inspire co-operation during multiplayer adventuring, as combination spells are far more powerful than single casts and in this aim it works reasonably well.
Enemies release copious amounts of coins and items when defeated. The majority of drops are the raw materials needed to build new equipment in towns. Indeed, if you want a new spear, helmet or piece of body armour you'll need to buy the instruction scroll on how to build it and gather the raw materials yourself rather than purchasing one off-the-shelf. Both weapons and armour can be augmented with performance-enhancing crystals ala Fable 2, and, as your character's appearance changes dramatically with new equipment, much of the game's appeal comes from finding and perfecting different outfits.
As well as randomly dropping spell power-ups, occasionally enemies also drop scratch-cards that offer desirable upgrades to your character such as the ability to perform a double jump. However, you don't automatically receive these treats: instead you'll need to take the card to the nearest Moogle stall in town where you'll be told to, for example, scratch off all of the square symbols in 20 seconds. If you succeed then you win the character upgrade while if you lose the card will need to be discarded.
When playing a purely single-player game you can recruit up to three other in-game warriors to join you on your adventure. These characters can be named and customised, and will even level up with your main character as in a traditional RPG. Controlled by the AI, you can set rudimentary behaviour instructions such as "Just Follow Me", "Do Your Best" and "Protect Yourself". However, the AI is a desperately poor stand-in for human compatriots; it's obvious the game has been designed very much with multiplayer questing in mind.
And it's here that, for the first time, one player can play on the Wii while up to three others can take up their DS handhelds to join in. One player must host the adventure (and if you're playing on the Wii then you can only host: there's no option to join a DS-hosted game) and, while everybody else earns money, items and experience, it's only this player's storyline that will advance. Drop-in and out play is smooth and barely interrupts the flow of adventuring, and the ability to pick up and carry your team-mates around the environment and even scuffle with them (taking just 1hp off with every hit) leads to some humorous Zelda: Four Swords type moments.
However, what's immediately obvious is that the DS version was the lead platform: the game presented on Wii is emulated and has in no way been effectively re-tailored to the system, even in single-player. The screen is split into two square play screens, one for the top DS screen and one for the bottom, and the dead space on your television around these two windows is filled by a drab wallpaper. Overall it's a woefully uninspiring view into the game.
The relative sizes of each of the two screens can be adjusted using the plus and minus buttons, one growing in size while the other diminishes. As one window shows the character in the game environment, and the other handles all of the menu and shop screens, you'll need to switch between the two often, which is an awkward irritation, especially when trying to spell-cast in the heat of battle. For these reasons, the game is best played on the handheld.
But if Wii players can see clearly through the shrunken window, Echoes of Time offers one of the best multiplayer adventures on the system. For owners of both consoles it's something of a shame that you can't take your character from the console to the handheld and back again, but being able to team up with other players both wirelessly and across the internet is a strong bonus.
The game itself is fast and accessible, tailored toward the younger gamer, but with enough depth and interest to appeal to experienced gamers too. As with its poorer cousin, Rings of Fate, the puzzles are still relatively simple and the combat oftentimes unchallenging. But this is an action RPG with the fat trimmed off; one that, even beyond its multiplayer core, offers a machinegun volley of interesting things to collect and make and do. Fans of hackandslash dungeon-crawlers who are biased against the Final Fantasy moniker are encouraged to look past their prejudice as behind the super deformed heads a serious and compelling adventure awaits.
8 / 10