Few game series have been going quite as long as Final Fantasy - and fewer still have stretched the literal meanings of words quite this far. A much loved series of Japanese role-playing games that now comprises a whopping 60+ games - if you include all the various spin-offs, remakes and sequels, anyway - while only the die-hards will know their Crisis Cores from their Dissidias, it's the main, numbered iterations that are held in highest regard, with VII, VIII, IX and X becoming near legendary. But while the story and gameplay may be what made them famous to begin with, the Final Fantasy games have always turned heads for another reason - their music. With a perfect score to accompany every great plot twist, every killer character, and every epic battle, the games became famous for offering some of the best tunes you'll likely hear (some of which regularly feature in Classic FM's top tracks) - making a musical spin off no real surprise.
One of the 3DS' forgotten gems, the original Theatrhythm Final Fantasy was a surprisingly addictive little game, with cute characters, a solid selection of Final Fantasy themes and oceans of replay value wrapped up in a stylus tapping/rhythmic swiping wrapper. Now, some two years later comes a sequel of sorts in Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call - a game that promises to be the definitive portable Final Fantasy music title, packing a whopping 221 songs onto the tiny cartridge, and going one better than its predecessor in every which way.
First and foremost, the amount of songs packed in - including all the songs from the original game, all the post-release downloadable add-ons (of which there were a lot) and a whole load of brand new stuff to boot - makes for an incredibly impressive collection of Final Fantasy tunes. Going far beyond the main numbered iterations, I to XIV, there's also a pretty robust range of tracks from spin-offs games, from Final Fantasy Tactics (which had some really great tracks - Ed) to Dissidia, and the Lord-knows-how-many Final Fantasy XIII sequels. Crystal Chronicles, Crisis Core and even songs from the film adaptation of FFVII, Advent Children, are packed in too. For die-hard fans, it's Final Fantasy Mecca. For people with a passing interest in either Final Fantasy or rhythm action/music games, it's another solid addition to the 3DS library.
Played by swiping, tapping and holding the stylus on the Touch Screen, or using a combination of button presses and the circle pad, it's pretty easy to pick up and play. As coloured circles move from left to right along the screen, all you have to do is follow whatever the icon says as it passes over the ring on the right of the screen. Red circles are for tapping, whilst yellow ones have an arrow showing which direction you need to slide the stylus in. Green ones are joined together by lines, and are played by keeping the stylus held down for the duration, sometimes flicking the stylus in the direction of an arrow at the end of the note. The more accurately you time your swipes, the more points you'll score - miss one and you'll lose a chunk of your health. Lose it all, and it's game over.
But before you can take on a song, you need to set up your 'party' - a mix of four different protagonists and key characters from the many years of Final Fantasy games, who'll 'fight' in your place through the game's tunes. For every song you complete, they'll earn experience, become more powerful as they level up (giving you more health, and letting you make more mistakes), and learn new skills - a neat little way of infusing the music game with some familiar role-playing fun, even if it does seem a little superfluous. As you play through the game, you'll unlock more and more characters to pick from, letting you mix and match your team to make your ultimate Final Fantasy party to tackle the many songs of Curtain Call.
As for the songs, they can all be split into three rough categories, referred to in-game as BMS, FMS and EMS. Standing for 'Battle Music Stage', BMS songs are generally the more dramatic, fast-paced songs we've come to expect from the Final Fantasy series. Encompassing the likes of FFVII's 'One Winged Angel', 'The Man With The Machine Gun' from FFVIII and for some strange reason the lilting piano-and-strings 'Aerith's Theme', also from FFVII, each battle stage is set out much like a battle from one of the earlier Final Fantasy games, with enemies on the left and your party on the right, and your notes split into four rows - one for each party member. As you might expect, things can get a little bit manic...
FMS songs, also known as 'Field Music Stages' include your more everyday, wandering-around-town/fields/forests tunes and other incidental music, such as FFX's piano-centric 'To Zanarkand', the famous 'Waltz For The Moon' from FFVIII and FFIX's vocal 'Melodies of Life'. For these, all the action takes place on a single line as your character strolls from left to right along the screen, although how you play remains much the same. About the only difference is that during the green held notes, you need to follow the path of the green line as it snakes up and down the screen, over various 'points' along it to score points.
The final category, the EMS 'Event Music Stage' songs have to be unlocked as you play, and have the notes appearing along a swirling path over a cutscene taken from the game. Just to help keep things fresh, a note indicator moves over each note to show when you need to tap, swipe or hold, making this kind of the inverse of the other stages. The only problem is, because of the ever-changing path of the note indicator, it can be a little hard to judge timings, making these trickier than the FMS and BMS tunes. EMS stages are also few and far between, with not every game having one - although an arrangement of 'One Winged Angel' from the FFVII: Advent Children, the song '1000 Words' from Yuna's concert in FFX-2 and FFIV's opening 'Answers' theme all make appearances.
A separate, brand new Quest Medley mode has been added for Curtain Call too, to make things seem even more role-playing game-y. In this, your party go adventuring across a branching map to a final boss, completing a series of songs along the way. The twist is, this time, your party's health bar doesn't get restored between songs, so you'll need to keep an eye on them and try to only tackle the dungeons that you think you'll be able to complete (each stage has a recommended level). Successfully completing a quest will net you a number of coloured shards - items which are instrumental in unlocking new characters for your party.
But Quest Medley isn't the only way to get shards - simply playing songs and raising your 'Rhythmia' count will net you all sorts of extras. Rhythmia essentially reflects how well you're doing in the game as a whole, with pretty much every activity earning you a portion. For every 250 you get (which in real-terms amounts to about 2 or 3 songs worth), you'll unlock something new, whether it's enough shards for a new character, a new EMS song or a different design for the profile card you can exchange with other players over StreetPass. It's an addictive way of getting you to play more, as you're always only a song or two away from the next milestone - always wanting 'one more go' to see what you earn next.
All in all, Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call is another solid music game for the 3DS, that's easy to pick up and play, and deceptively difficult to put down after a few songs. It builds on its predecessor and brings enough new stuff to the table that fans of the original game should find plenty to do still. As for newcomers, if you're a fan of either Final Fantasy or rhythm action games generally, it's well worth picking up Curtain Call as the definitive version of one of the 3DS' early gems.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo 3DS