Zack attack

A stellar prequel to Final Fantasy VII
By MITCH KRPATA  |  April 15, 2008
4.0 4.0 Stars

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Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII | for Playstation Portable | Rated T for Teen | Published and Developed by Square Enix
One of the enduring images from 1997’s Final Fantasy VII was a short cinema showing the rogue warrior Sephiroth disappearing into a wall of flame. The scene was striking not just for its graphic beauty — it was a brilliant showcase for the power of the original PlayStation — but also for its understated horror: Sephiroth had just massacred an entire town of innocent people. This took place in flashback as seen through the eyes of a minor non-playable character named Zack. Now Zack takes centerstage in a hand-held prequel called Crisis Core that fleshes out the events surrounding that iconic moment.

Unlike the new Super Smash Bros. Brawl, which relies on prior acquaintance with its characters for its appeal, Crisis Core would be compulsively playable even if you’d never spent a moment with Final Fantasy VII. The basic mechanics share much with traditional RPGs, but they’ve been streamlined to include some real-time action elements. Although combat is still menu-driven — you can choose to attack, cast spells, and use items from your inventory — you maintain full control of Zack at all times and can block or dodge at will. Zack travels and fights alone, without a supporting cast of characters. This is different from what you find in most Final Fantasy games; it makes for economical use of the PSP’s screen, and the relatively brief battle sequences keep the action moving.

Also making the journey from Final Fantasy VII, though slightly modified, is the Materia system. Materia is the crystallized energy that gives its bearer the ability to cast spells or acquire status upgrades. Although you can no longer choose to assign Materia to weapons or armor for different effects, you can fuse two types to create a new one. The basics are easy to grasp, but the possible combinations are almost limitless. (A guide to Materia Fusion posted on GameFAQs.com reads like a mathematics thesis.) This customization, combined with dozens of optional side quests and hundreds of unique items, means there’s surprising depth beneath the short single-player mode (short, that is, for Final Fantasy).

The gameplay is solid; it’s the care and attention accorded the story line that makes Crisis Core sing. An intimate knowledge of Final Fantasy VII will help you to grasp the full significance of the people and places you encounter. But Crisis Core has more on its mind than nostalgia. Zack is something of an anomaly in the series; far from being an alienated rebel, he begins the story as the dutiful company man — an advancement-minded employee of a private army belonging to the mega-corporation Shinra. In pursuit of an AWOL compatriot named Genesis, he witnesses first-hand the living conditions in the slums beneath Shinra’s headquarters in Midgar. Encountering anti-Shinra factions, he’s not furious, he’s befuddled. And when he begins to sense his co-worker and idol Sephiroth going off the rails, he’s torn between the dictates of his employer and those of his conscience. Zack’s quiet but growing disillusionment is the anchor that keeps the broader story from drifting too far into fantasy.

It’s also responsible for Crisis Core’s greatest achievement. Many games posit an apocalyptic scenario that only your character can avert. And that’s true of Crisis Core, particularly as it sets the table for the global events that take place in Final Fantasy VII. What’s impressive is the way it succeeds on an intimate level, compelling Zack to reconcile his notions of loyalty, duty, and honor. It’s an adventure that changes him forever. You may feel the same way.

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