Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates

It's been a little while since I last bought any Gameboy DS games, and I kind of wanted to get a few more if I could find them really cheap. So, I went to Book Off to see if they still had two of the Final Fantasy spin-offs, which are part of the Crystal Chronicles storyline. However, when I tried getting up to the second floor of the building via the outside stairwell, I discovered that the doors were blocked off and the lights in the stairway leading to the third floor were turned out. I went back to the first floor and entered through the main door and went up the indoor staircase, and the bookshelves on the second floor had all been moved around since I'd been there only one week earlier. (Previously, Book Off took up three floors of the building, and the indoor stairway only went up to the second floor. To get to the third floor you either went up the outside stairs or took the elevator. The games were on the second floor along with the movie DVDs and music CDs, and manga was on the third floor.) Now, the movies are gone, and the games have been moved to the first floor to make room for half of the manga. The third floor is completely vacant. I did find the games, but initially it was looking like all the DS games had been ditched. Fortunately, I did eventually locate the DS section, which is about the same size as before. And, the two games I wanted were still there, too. I was hoping that the prices would have been discounted to try to make them sell faster, but that hasn't happened. Anyway, I picked up Ring of Fates and Echoes of Time for 500 yen each.

FFCC: Ring of Fates (Square Enix, 2008)
Finally, a real RPG! Well, kind of. The story follows Yuri and his twin sister Chelinka as they start out from their father's farm in the countryside. Initially, the two kids discover the energy of the crystals on the planet when their father, Latov, teaches them how to "harness the power inside them" to pick up a heavy axe for chopping wood. The kids go into a couple dungeons to fight monsters, but the player can only use Yuri in battles. At about chapter three, the demon Cu Chaspel shows up at the house and we learn that Latov had been a knight under King Kolka Tawantyn, and had been the one that had originally fought Chaspel's boss, Hierophant Galdes, the King of the Moon. Chaspel kills Latov, turning Yuri and Chelinka into orphans. Chelinka uses her crystal powers to fend off Chaspel, but she then loses her voice. Yuri goes into training and, after several years, becomes a mean, lean fighting machine. But his friends, the cook Meeth and the former "Mage Royal" Alhanalem, have disappeared, and King Kolka has fallen under the spell of one of Galdes' minions. The game then becomes a quest to put the party together, while picking up Gnash the Jungle Boy along the way. Ultimately, the party consists of just Yuri, Meeth, Al and Gnash. Then, the group must rescue the King, defeat Chaspel, discover the history of Latov and his wife, and topple Galdes.

As with most RPGs, each character belongs to a different race and has their own weapon type and talents. Yuri is a human fighter, using a sword. Gnash is a Selphie archer. Meeth is a Lilty alchemist that attacks using a soup spoon. And Al is a Yuke magician that wields a scepter. Everyone can use magicite, crystals that provide healing or elemental attacks (fire, blizzard or thunder). And, as with most RPGs, there are too many items and things that just clutter the game and never get used. I never did get around to figure out how to use Al or Meeth as magic users; I just had them bopping things over the head with the scepter or spoon. There are all kinds of special attacks that involve pressing the R button, then drawing lines to the target for dealing larger amounts of damage, but during that time the enemy is attacking whoever you have picked as the team leader, and that aborts whatever special attack you're trying to do. It's easier to just have Yuri as the leader, make him run behind the enemy, and mash the A button to do physical attacks, and occasionally resort to the X button to do a magicite blizzard (freeze) or thunder (stun) attack. And X for cure and raise magicites.

(Yuri, in armor, talking to someone in the main town.)

As mentioned above, there's a lot to this game that isn't really necessary. The farm field has big houses for Meeth and Yuri, with bookshelves containing reading materials that do nothing to contribute to the plot. I never used most of the accessory rings, any magic, most of the armor and helmets, and the second time through the game I just used Start to skip all the cutscenes and dialog. The farm and the one town have other buildings you can explore, and people to talk to, that can be completely ignored. I mean, it's all big and gorgeous and everything, very well created, but none of it contributes to your ability to complete the game.

One other creature type is the Moogle. There's one Moogle, Stiltzkin, that you encounter very frequently near save points. He gives you a stamp card, and when you meet him again, you get one of 24 stamps. This makes buying Ring of Fates used kind of problematic, because the stamps are recorded permanently on the game cartridge. Starting a new game doesn't clear out the old stamps the previous owner picked up, which could be collected in either single and multi-player modes. So, when I got the game, 21 of the stamps were already filled in. Two of the remaining stamps were only available when playing the Star+ game (continuing after finishing the game once) and the last stamp is only available in Star++ (completing the game twice). Getting a stamp gives you a bunch of alchemy items, and there are specials at about 50%, 75% and 100% of the stamps. I succeeded in getting all 24 stamps, which gave me some extra items, but nothing immediately useful for power-ups or selling for money. (Completing the game three times just gives you a Star++ game again.)

(Main control window. Yuri, Al, Gnash and Meeth on the left. Magicite crystals on the right.)

Monsters and chests provide recipes, alchemy items and money. You can use money for buying "magicite pockets", magicite, armor and weapons. Initially, your party can only carry 8 or so of each magicite type. Buying, or finding "pockets" increases that maximum by 1 each. You can buy some weapons and armor from the shop in town, or from certain Moogles in the fields in later chapters of the game. Otherwise, you use recipes at the alchemy shop to have the shop clerk create stronger weapons and armor, which is cheaper than buying them directly. Additionally, and this part took me a REALLY long time to figure out, you can apply a gem (ruby, sapphire, emerald) to the recipe for an extra 200 gold to add up to 3 bonuses to the item (HP regen, plus to attack or defense, etc.) Having bonuses on the weapon, armor, helmet and accessory can really boost the main character when you're fighting the stronger bosses.

Generally, during the first two run throughs of the game, you're kind of money starved and you only get 5 extra pockets for each magicite type from the shops every few chapters. The shops also have stat boosts (attack, defense, HP, SP), but these are also limited. So, having Meeth in the party can be helpful in the longer dungeons. As the cook, she has the ability to use her cooking pot to turn raw magicite bits into full-blown magicite you can put into inventory. Specifically, you want the green bits to make cure magicite crystals (heals 200 HP per crystal). There are only a few locations in each dungeon where you can receive the magicite bits, but they are good when you find them if you need to do a lot of healing for some reason. (In one dungeon, you face invisible monsters that take 10% of the damage you're dealing out. Casting magicite Cure on them makes them visible and they then take normal damage, but now you're running through your Cures much faster...)

(Ending animation, when Yuri gets reunited with his mother.)

The first run through of the game is just the normal game. Star+ gives you the Hard mode, where you get the same monsters and story, but the monsters have higher attack and defense levels, and you can find better recipes and ingredients, and more money. Plus, there's one bonus dungeon that opens up. Star++ is almost identical to Star+, with the exception that you can get a few more Moogle stamps, the weapons store sells a "leisure suit" armor for 1,000,000 gold, and the gem shop has 99 of each of the magicite pockets at the beginning of the game. I finished the Star++ game after 40 hours of total play, with all the characters at level 99, and Yuri with 999 attack, defense and HP, although it took about 6 hours of churning to make enough money to buy the leisure suit. The suit was nice in that it had a stat boost for stunning the enemy every few hits, including bosses. Some of the boss fights were still a bit challenging after that, but not insurmountable.

Finally, there's the game itself. It's really not an RPG. You have fighting and all, plus the story, but there's a huge amount of jumping and puzzle solving involved, making Ring of Fates more of a Zelda-style game. You need to use Al to make stone blocks, elevators and moving tiles; Gnash to shoot target switches and balloons, and to do double-jumps, and Meeth to use her cooking pot as an elevator, or jump extender. Then there are the barriers and boulders that need to be pushed or pulled out of the way. I put all of my stat boosts, and the best armor and weapons, on Yuri, but the trickiest parts of the game weren't when the underpowered characters had to face a boss on their own; it was when I had to use Gnash to jump between moving platforms, or move a key from one end of a series of rotating platforms to another. I really hate these puzzle-solving elements of the game, and would have been happier just fighting monsters. There aren't that many kinds of monsters, maybe 20-30 total, which are mostly just variations on color between each other. The game is fairly short, too, at only 11 chapters. You play Star+ for the extra dungeon and new weapons. Star++ is just to get the last missing Moogle stamp (chapter 5), and maybe to see what the leisure suit does. But, there's little point in going all the way through the Star++ game to the end again, and no value at all to playing the game a fourth time (which is just another Star++).

(Yuri facing a chimera.)

I should mention the character AIs while I'm at it. There's no option for setting one character to defense, another to attack and the third to healing. Instead, everyone attacks, but only once per second or so. They generally follow the leader, although they will attack the closest enemy. This is fine for regular low-level battles, since button mashing with Yuri fully armed works most of the time. It's when you get to the boss battles that the lack of a real AI becomes obvious, as the remaining three characters run in front of the chapter boss and all die about 15 seconds into the battle. There is no point to reviving dead characters during the fight - just keep using Yuri, and resort to healing items when you take any level of damage at all. The only exception being the last boss battle, when you have one minute to revive everyone and have them all cast magicites at four points on a rotating ring. Failing this allows Galdes to revive and you have to fight him all over again. Sigh. But that's the only time you need anyone else alive during a boss fight.

Summary: Ring of Fates is a prequel to Crystal Chronicles, which had come out for the GameCube. It's a visually impressive RPG with a big story and lots of CG cut scenes. And it's fun to play if you like puzzle solving and don't like strategic RPGs. But, if you like the original Final Fantasy games, the ones that came out for the Playstation, then Ring is going to be disappointing because it's not a pure RPG. Recommended if you can find it used cheap.

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