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Final Fantasy has always had a way to steer the course while trying to reach for new things at the same time. This strange duality takes their anniversary edition Theatrhythm Final Fantasy to the land of rhythmical games, while using the music we’ve come to love from 25 years of iterations. It’s an endearing and captivating idea for old and new, even if it suffers from some strict design choices that could end up ruining some of the fun.
The game is a rhythm section pure sang, with the background elements being more of a framing device than actual subject matter. Still, the stages set with cute renditions of iteration battles, fields and other events are definitely depicted with care. Blushing colors and super deformed style characters and monsters of the past quarter century of games act upon a rail of interaction; effectively faking combat movement. It’s a shame that the foreground occupied by the rhythm prompts will not only obscure but mandatorily demand all the attention, because it renders the background rather obsolete, certainly in higher difficulties. This is equally tragic, as there is a certain charm to the scenery reacting to gameplay, such as summons coming into play or Chocobo color being affected by how well a section was performed. It is reactive, but trying to balance viewing the whole will ultimately not favor progress.
As mentioned, the importance comes from the reel in front that conducts the music. A reel is either divided into 4 characters in battle or it follows a single line in the field, with special exceptions for summons and the like. From there, players need to input the oncoming prompts at the correct time, choosing from a set of 3 possibilities: Either just tap the touch screen, slide the stylus to the given direction or hold the stylus pressed for the duration of the line drawn. The latter can also demand that the stylus follows a certain path. This mix up that dances along the beat of the songs is really all this game needs.
Initial steps into the world of Theatrhythm are easy enough. Difficulty splits up in 3 modes and as players are more skillful, they can try their hand at more advanced challenges with more and faster prompts. In the beginning though, just going for a practice round or starting on the basic setting will be enough to string along the iconic Final Fantasy songs. The prompt on the right indicates when a command needs to be dealt with and markers on the oncoming icons detail what type of action is needed and in what direction it goes. This goes along perfectly with the rhythm of the songs and before long, guiding the stylus along the touchscreen will feel like an extension of the music itself. It sort of has a conductor feel to it, as if ordering the music where to go, instead of the other way around.
Unfortunately, this natural extension wanes in the higher settings. As prompts come in more and more often, this organic transition of inputting beats makes way for more frantic gameplay that walks a fine line between challenge and frustration. As the line becomes more populated, more of that gray area will teeter towards the negative spectrum of it. In the most advanced songs, this will ruin most of the intention, as the design demands strict compliance of the icons, which now speed by too fast to properly time. For instance, a slide icon might dictate to do an upward motion, only to be followed directly by one or more prompts, while the first action requires a fraction more time. This is exacerbated by a flash that appears at every beat, along with a scoring for that icon. In the highest setting it blinds the oncoming barrage of other beats and that leads to confusion and grave annoyance.
It seems the timing aspect of Theathrythm is too strict for its own good. This could be remedied with ample practice, but other flaws like obscuring flashes will still pose a sizable obstacle towards an otherwise enjoyable and charming exploration of the music, which has helped to build the legacy that is Final Fantasy. There is a solace to be found that on easier settings, this game is still a thrill and executes perfectly its nostalgic approach towards something novel.