There are certain things you expect from a Final Fantasy game: a reluctant hero with a devil-may-care attitude, a hot feisty love interest, men who look a bit like girls, and a creepy little-sister character you're not sure you're meant to fancy. Something you don't expect in a Final Fantasy game is chasing a ferret through a shopping centre.
It's quite near the start of The Crystal Bearers, and the chalky-toothed rodent has stolen our hero Layle's magical gem. He wants it back, for some so-far-unexplained reason. In order to do that, I'll have to train the Wiimote's on-screen pointer over the sexually dimorphic predator long enough to fill a circular bar, and once this is done I can use Layle's telekinesis powers to pick the rodent up. Except he got away again. And now Layle's accidentally picked up an innocent bystander and flung him into a wall, sending coins everywhere. What in the name of Moogles is going on?
"We wanted to make a Wii game, but we wanted it to be a non-traditional Final Fantasy game," smiles Akitoshi Kawazu, the game's producer, and Square Enix's senior veepee of software development. "Crystal Chronicles was always an action based-IP, so going back to that world seemed like the perfect fit for a casual gaming audience." Kawazu knows a thing or two about Final Fantasy: he wrote the original Final Fantasy game way back in 1987, and has subsequently made himself a career as the Red Adair of Square, specialising in shepherding games going through "difficult" gestation periods. He was heavily involved in the eventually phenomenal Final Fantasy XII, for example.
It's clear that Crystal Bearers is one such difficult project, because after its announcement in 2005 there was very little information on it for a good few years. The release date was pushed back to 2007, then 2008, then 2009, and now we won't see it till early 2010 in the UK. According to Kawazu, much of that time was spent trying to make it work: "Square Enix hasn't been big on action games traditionally, and we were struggling to convince ourselves that this could be a good game," he says. "Even when we believed it was good, it was a struggle to get other parts of the company to see its merit. So that took a long time. We had to make sure that the game would be very appealing, and that was painstaking."
With this in mind, Crystal Bearers seems remarkably cohesive. Essentially Star Wars: The Force Unleashed but with more chocobos and less crap dialogue, it starts off at the pace of a Michael Bay film, as set-piece after set-piece spools onto the screen. Even the usul, interminably long conversations are conducted while the speakers indulge in showy fighting and jumping through windows. The game opens with Layle and his androgynous friend Keiss acting as bodyguards for the airship Alexis. The ship is soon under attack, and impulsive Layle flings his gun into the air, then dives after it, beginning an aerial shooting gallery section that sees you moving your pointer over dragons to shoot them out of the sky.
After defending the ship, a mysterious Yuke called Amidatelion appears from a portal and fights with Layle. You're also introduced to Belle, a sexy young Selkie photojournalist who'll no doubt cause Layle to blush and rub the back of his neck at some point. Thanks to Amidatelion's destructive actions, the ship begins to fall from the sky, and quick-thinking Layle must pilot it through a canyon. "We wanted Layle to be a character who could face adversity without losing his mind," says Toshiyuki Itahana, the game's director. Using the nunchuk stick to control the ship's sluggish turning proves tricky. After a few horrendous wall scrapes, it seems unlikely that a career as an airship pilot beckons.
Parking the ship at a nearby city, I finally get full control of Layle and see what he can do. Movement is on the nunchuk, while his Crystal Bearer telekinesis power is handled with the Wiimote pointer. Having a Final Fantasy character chucking bits of scenery around makes this one of the more immersive games in the series; rather than feeling like you're wandering through a series of exquisite paintings, you can actually affect the locations you're visiting, using your powers to rip the tops off fire hydrants or pull newspapers from people's hands. Almost anything or anyone can be moved, although they may not be happy about it.
Asked whether the idea for object manipulation came before or after the Wii's specifications were announced, Kawazu reveals that there were originally meant to be many different powers for the player to explore: "Some of the early characters could cause instant death, or putrification - one could toy with gravity, and the more we experimented, the more he seemed to suit the Wii the best." Soon after, you bump into the Lilty Princess Althea, and find yourself chasing after her naughty ferret, which in turn leads to a dramatic chocobo-back chase through the city's surrounding woodland.
If you're one of those gamers who make snide comments about the amount of waggle in Wii games, then start running for the hills, because it's everywhere. During the chocobo chase, for example, you'll mainly be targeting enemies and the interactive environmental hazards you can use against them (destroying bridge supports, causing landslides, etc), but if one of the pursuing Lilty guards gets too close to your cart you'll have to shake the controller as if your life depends on it - because it does, and failure will send you right back to the start of the sequence.
Those with a fondness for more obscure JRPG's may be thinking this all sounds distressingly familiar. Seiken Densetsu 4 (aka Dawn of Mana in the US) on PS2 used a similar object-manipulating mechanic for battling to miserable effect, and Crystal Bearers doesn't entirely improve on it. There's a slight delay before objects are picked up as you wait for the circular bar to fill. Presumably this is to give you time to cancel the action if you aim poorly, but it does seem to destroy the flow of the action considerably at this (admittedly early) stage of the game.
Crystal Bearers is a risky project that doesn't hesitate to do things differently - after the shooting gallery opening you get a giant score plastered across the screen, and, similarly, success at the canyon driving section offers you a completion time. It's the least Final Fantasy thing I've ever seen, and I haven't even mentioned the Awards (think Achievements) that are constantly flashing up on-screen. It's the ultimate feel-good 'press-button-get-bacon' mechanic, and it's instantly rewarding. According to Itahana it would take almost 60 hours to get every one, although the game's main story is a positively nippy (by JRPG standards anyway) 15 hours by comparison.
Kawazu says the game was developed at a difficult time for Square Enix, and that it took a while before he was convinced that the potentially lightweight Crystal Bearers could be a great game. While it's undoubtedly fresh for a Final Fantasy effort, the biggest challenge is yet to come, as the game lines up in one of the most packed first quarters in recent memory. Look out for our review closer to release.
Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers is due out for Wii on 5th February 2010.