Theatrhythm Final Fantasy represents that whimsy in concentrated form – a celebration of the barest essence of Final Fantasy. More than that, of course, it's a celebration of the series' musical legacy, which is something worth celebrating. At the most basic level, that's what Theatrhythm is about. You tap, swipe, and drag to the beat of songs from every "main" numbered Final Fantasy game (except for 14, of course, which was all a dream). The base gameplay is always the same, but it's presented in three variations: battle scenes, in which your chosen party of four battles a parade of familiar monsters and bosses – including chibi Kefka, transformed Sephiroth, et al.; field scenes, in which the leader of your party treks from right to left through forests, deserts and other scenery to meet up with another character; and event scenes, in which you tap icons as they trace geometric patterns, over cutscene montages.
I love how each of these reinterprets the basic music gameplay into a simplified representation of that element of classic Final Fantasy. Battle scenes send the icons in four lines, each representing one character's attacks; every successful tap does damage to the enemies just as a menu selection would in a "real" Final Fantasy. Field scenes have you hold the stylus on the screen and trace long, contoured lines to simulate travel over rough terrain. Event scenes ... well, in event scenes, the icons follow beautiful patterns, and you don't have to worry about their positioning, simply tapping and holding anywhere. Each scene is a suggestion of the real thing, within the framework of a music game.
There are even genuine RPG mechanics in this music game. Each successful song gives your party experience, which makes them able to either cover more distance or defeat more monsters in the space of a single song. You can equip items, spells, and abilities, all straight out of Final Fantasy, to boost the stats responsible for these; for example, boosting "Agility" allows you to cover more ground in field scenes, increasing the likelihood you'll reach the treasure chest at the end. Spells like Thundara are activated in battle scenes when you successfully tap or hold a certain number of notes, and cause additional damage.
It occurs to me that it's possible to play Theatrhythm for hours and never pay any attention to the RPG mechanics at all. The actual notes you play, and your grading on their performance, aren't affected in the least by your experience, spells, or items, so you could just play to enjoy the songs and to improve your score, treating all the other stuff that happens on screen as adorable eye candy. It would just be a rhythm game with really good music.
When you do play the game as an RPG, you'll find yourself replaying songs in different difficulty levels to farm spells, level up, and acquire "crystals" to unlock new characters – it might take a dozen hours or more to see even a single character. There's a term for this kind of obsessive repetition in role playing games, and it's "grinding." Here, I'm going to overtly call out a Personal Choice Moment – while this whole review reflects my opinion, I feel strongly that your mileage may vary on this issue.
I enjoy the base gameplay, and the music, enough that I have no problem replaying each song repeatedly; however, I cannot ignore that I am, in fact, replaying each song repeatedly. Depending on your temperament, this might be an irritant. It might be some kind of half-joking meta-commentary on RPG grinding, but it's also actual grinding. It's not exactly necessary, but it is at least highly encouraged if you want to unlock characters or other items.
Theatrhythm offers a beautiful new way to interact with Final Fantasy's music catalog, and plays with the mechanical conventions of the Final Fantasy series by adapting them into a short-session music game with just the most adorable characters. If you're looking to catch up on any of the stories, or learn more about the characters, you're better off looking elsewhere. If, on the other hand, you want to see your party issue a hilarious, randomly-generated battle cry like "At last, we tremble mythically for an idiot!" before you're treated to "Mambo de Chocobo," this is the only place to look.
This review is based on a retail 3DS copy of Theatrhythm Final Fantasy, provided by Square Enix.
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