The first Crystal Chronicles game, released onto the Gamecube in early 2004 was a package of mixed excellence.
Its visual symphony of joyful, expressive animations, picturesque and interesting environments and masterful, detailed character designs enriched a delightful multiplayer experience. However, with the tall requirement of committed friends, four GBAs and as many link cables on top of the usual GameCube setup, it was quite the hassle to experience it all as Square intended.
While the game enjoyed high praise from most critics and consumers alike close to launch, as the months rolled on a considerable backlash struck. Citing its rudimentary use of the GBA screen (certainly in comparison to rival Zelda Four swords) and the extremely weak single-player game, many players, given time, claimed deep and damaging flaws undermined its glossy surface.
Eurogamer pointed out some of these problems at the time saying 'it's just not a very good experience single-player' and giving the game a 5/10 for the solo adventure. For many players the meandering storyline and those inevitable frustrations that come from sharing a single screen with three other minds soured what was really a very beautiful and creative game.
Despite winning the Japan Media Arts Festival Grand Prize in 2003 for their work on the original title, these criticisms have clearly not been lost on the development team. Rather than attempting a straight up evolution to the original game's core ideas the company has opted to instead split the series into two streams: one focusing primarily on multiplayer, hosted on the DS, and the other focused primarily on single player for the Nintendo Wii.
Akitoshi Kawazu, Exective Producer for both new Crystal Chronicles games admits that mistakes were made with the original game. "Our primary focus with the original game was to provide a solid multiplayer experience," he says.
"When you're playing a local multiplayer game with your friends sitting around you you're not interested in or concentrating much on a story compared to if you were playing alone. In hindsight the original game's single player mode suffered greatly because of this and I think that put a lot of solo players off.
"With both of these new games we've worked extremely hard to provide an excellent single player story to play through.
In fact, with the DS game Ring of Fates you are essentially getting two games for the price of one - a very substantial single player game on top of a very substantial multiplayer game. It's been a huge effort for the staff but I think players will be very pleased with the results."
Of the two deliveries, it's this DS game, Crystal Chronicles Ring of Fates, that is the nearest to completion, slated for Japanese release in late August.
Mitsuru Kamiyama, the game's director explained to us the decision to move the multiplayer game over to the handheld: "Many players might have thought that the obvious choice for a new multiplayer Crystal Chronicles game would have been on one of the systems that focuses on co-operative play over the Internet.
"However, the first Crystal Chronicles game was all about local multiplay and we wanted to continue that with this sequel. You might think that there's very little difference between local and Internet-based multiplay but in actual fact they are worlds apart.
"You simply cannot have the same kinds of play mechanics and challenges in both styles of game," he asserts. "Additionally, as we wanted to avoid any danger of lag we decided that the DS was the ideal platform. This is an action orientated game and any degree of lag would simply ruin the experience."
Ring of Fates focuses on the story of two twins: a boy, Yuri and a girl, Chelinka. The twins are inseparable not only because they are siblings but also because they have to be together in order to use magic - which can only be channelled through the use of crystals.
But why did the team decide on twins for the story? "This game really continues the theme of love which was established in the first game," Kamiyama-san explains.
"The family trust implicit in a sibling relationship translates well into this co-operative play mechanic. The big bonus to using twins as the main characters in terms of the narrative is that their relationship is established right from the off - there's no need to go through lots of scenes explaining how they met or why they love each other. They automatically have very deep bond," he notes.
The decision to split a focused sub-series of the Final Fantasy brand is a novel one. We asked the team why they felt the need to develop two different experiences under the Crystal Chronicles banner. "The original concept for the first Crystal Chronicles game was to create an action orientated take on the Final Fantasy world.," explained Kawazu. "Ring of Fates is really the direct successor to that title while Crystal Bearers, the Wii game, is taking a new direction.
"While it's still action orientated, with the Wii game we've chosen to focus on the experience of the solo player in immaculate detail. This game will be the more story driven of the two and will really play like an interactive adventure storybook. It will also use the Wii's unique hardware to its advantage. The protagonist has a fire type weapon that will be shot with the controller's trigger and, likewise, an airship will be controlled by tilting the Wii controller. We have lots of clever ideas for how to integrate the Wii's functions into the game mechanics."
Both Crystal Chronicles games look to be addressing the problems of the original game in their own ways. By using the DS as its platform, Ring of Fates has, in one move, helped dodge some of the annoyance of having four players each wanting to go their own way on the same screen (solved in the original game by the irritating gaseous miasma). Now each player simply has their own screen. Likewise both games look to be focusing on delivering a quality single player experience. In particular this will put the series in a position more likely to appeal to older Western gamers for whom local multiplay experiences are, at best, short sharp bursts on Wii Sports post-pub, rather than marathon 30 hour co-operative RPGs.