Version tested: DS
It's ancient history now, but it's amusing to recall the sheer excitement that greeted the announcement that Square was working on a Final Fantasy game for the GameCube. At last, the fans rejoiced, the prodigal was returning - the local boy made good coming home, and surely, surely, signalling a new golden age for Nintendo in the process? Well...
When Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles arrived, it was a very different beast to the main FF "number series", and proved divisive. Cute, action-focused and fairly distinctly aimed at a younger (or, at least, non-teenaged) audience, its biggest sin in the eyes of many was that it tried too hard to take advantage of the Cube's possibilities - and, in the process, was seen as taking advantage of gamers' hard-pressed wallets. A primarily multiplayer experience, a proper session required that you have two or three friends around, all with their own Game Boy Advance, and with a link cable for each GBA as well.
In the end we loved the game, but we can certainly see how those who don't have any friends (or, at least, any friends who like cute RPGs and own GBAs) could have despised it. Perhaps as a consequence, the excitement around the new Crystal Chronicles game on the DS has been rather muted - but without the need for multiple GBAs, link cables and all that nonsense, does the game deserve more love this time around?
In terms of its style and presentation, there's no doubt that Ring of Fates is a fairly direct successor to the original Crystal Chronicles. The cute, "chibi" character designs remain, and the four main races from the original make a reappearance. The single-player game is relatively straightforward action-RPG fare, with a few of CC's unique twists applied to the game mechanics, while the multiplayer is basically the same levels and foes, but designed for up to four players on local Wi-Fi.
In single-player, the game tells a standard JRPG story about a pair of twins who possess the power to activate the eponymous crystals - and who, unsurprisingly, need to trawl through loads of dungeons on the way. You don't actually control both twins - the male twin, Yuri, is the only on-screen character, with his sister only appearing during cut-scenes and dialogue sequences. However, along the way you'll pick up three companions, who can be controlled directly (you switch characters by tapping their icon on the lower screen) or left for the AI to handle.
In theory, this works very well - and, to be fair, for the most part it works very well in practice too. The game promises a fairly solid and entertaining action-RPG experience, and it delivers on that promise. The problem is that all too often, it brings you crashing back down to earth with an unpleasant reminder that this is a game designed as a multiplayer experience - with the ability to play on your own not exactly an afterthought, but certainly second fiddle to the multiplayer.
So, for instance, there's that AI - the AI which controls the three team-mates you're not directly moving around at the time. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, absolutely bloody rubbish. Not even "oh come on, why aren't you healing me?" rubbish - we're talking "oh come on, can't you even walk across a bridge without falling off?" rubbish. "On come on, for god's sake, there's an enemy standing next to you urinating in your astonished face, couldn't you try hitting them back?" rubbish. This, friends, is the kind of rubbish you have to pay your council extra to take away.
To the game's credit, the structure of the gameplay - which essentially sees you moving from room to room and clearing out all the enemies, and allows you to directly control your team-mates with ease - helps to minimise the frustration caused by this weak AI. But it does definitely detract from the experience. So, too, do a number of other problems - for instance, the extreme difficulty of using combo magic in single-player, which is a doddle when playing with friends. Combos require casting multiple spells on the same spot on the screen; easy with friends, since you all target and release at once, but on your own, the chances are a monster will have moved somewhere else by the time you can stack up all the spells.
These problems are a real shame, because they simply wouldn't be that hard to fix had a little more attention been paid to the single-player. However, it's worth re-emphasising that these are not deal-breaking flaws. The core of the combat system remains fast-paced, responsive and most of all, varied. Standard melee, ranged and magic attacks are complemented by the ability to grab enemies and either damage them while they're incapacitated, or smash them into walls - and the ability to throw items around the play area contributes to the hugely enjoyable mayhem of the game.
Spirit of Co-operation
Still, if there are all these problems with the single-player game, then that's probably because the multiplayer works a treat - right? For the most part, yes, absolutely. Ring of Fates' strength lies in its multiplayer, and there's no question that it's incredibly well-structured and designed as a game for four players. Progress is fast, the drops from enemies are plentiful (and structured around an item-crafting system which demands a certain degree of co-operation among players to get the best results) and the puzzles are perfectly well balanced to present a challenge without frustrating.
Each player can create and level up as many as eight characters, choosing from the four race archetypes to do so. All of the characters are colourful and well-designed (although the race that look like giant, fully-grown babies strike us as being downright disturbing), a trait they share with the imaginative monster designs in the game. The real plus, of course, is that there are no concerns with AI in multiplayer - at least, if your friends are being thick, it's not the game's fault. Combos and puzzles, too, are both easier and much more enjoyable in a group.
Fans of the original Crystal Chronicles might be a bit sad to note some of the elements which haven't made it across to Ring of Fates, though. Gone is the bucket which had to be carried around to dispel the poisonous mist from around your players - an interesting idea, although we doubt it's one that'll be missed much. Gone too, and far more likely to be missed, is the bouncy physics on the magic crystals dropped by enemies, which allow you to cast spells (in Ring of Fates, each crystal is one cast - and when you run out, you'll need to find more before you can use magic again). It might sound like a minor thing, but kicking those crystals around to try and get them before our allies could grab them is one of our enduring memories of Crystal Chronicles.
Ultimately, however, these are fairly minor elements - and the core concepts and strengths of Crystal Chronicles have been translated very nicely into Ring of Fates' multiplayer mode. It would be remiss, however, not to mention one glaring flaw which has also been carried over from Crystal Chronicles - namely that this remains a very expensive game to play. For reasons best known to themselves (which may be technical - we noticed that the game suffers from heavy frame-rate glitches in multiplayer, which could be related), Square Enix has opted to restrict multiplayer to multi-card only - so if four people want to play, you'll need four copies of the game. In addition, there's no Wi-Fi Connection online play - this is for local wireless play online. Having crafted a great experience, we can't escape the feeling that Square is now doing its utmost to prevent many players from being able to enjoy it. Again.
This is a shame, because we suspect that many people who pick up the game on the strength of its single-player will be somewhat disappointed. Certainly, the presentation is wonderful - the graphics are lovely, the voice acting surprisingly good given the child-heavy cast, and while the story may be a bit predictable, it's kept moving along by some genuinely excellent dialogue and lovely nod-and-wink adult humour which will pass right over the kids' heads. However, the experience of single-player is definitely weighed down by the AI problems and broken spell combos, which can reduce it to the realms of being a simple hackandslash game at times.
It's in the multiplayer that Ring of Fates excels, and we have no problem with recommending it thoroughly to anyone who fancies some co-op action RPG fun with their friends. On the strength of excellent multiplayer and enjoyable if somewhat flawed single-player, we also have no problem rating Ring of Fates fairly highly - but we suspect that the lack of single-card multiplayer or WFC support is going to be a huge disappointment to many players. Let the buyer beware; this is a great game, but continuing the traditions of its predecessor, it may well not be the great game for you.
7 / 10