Of the many multiplayer titles that graced the Nintendo GameCube, probably none were more hyped than Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles from Square-Enix. Not since Final Fantasy VI (III in US) for the Super Nintendo had a Final Fantasy title graced a Nintendo console, and not since Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars had a single Square title come out on any Nintendo system by the time Square announced a new title was finally coming to North American shores on a Nintendo platform. This announcement sent shockwaves through the industry, as some thought it may be a signaling of a shift in power, especially since Square and Nintendo formed The Game Designers Studio, a second party developer, to head up the project, as well as others to come. The game released to relatively positive reception, but two main complaints dogged the title ever since: the fact that multiplayer was handled via the now archaic Game Boy Advance link cable system with the GameCube, and the crystal chalice gameplay component.
Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates is a prequel to the GameCube installment, and utilizing the more practical WiFi capabilities of the Nintendo DS, as well as remedying problematic gameplay mechanics of the previous incarnation, manages to result in a very solid experience. To be clear, the game is broken into two distinct modes; single player and multiplayer. Players can opt to go solo, and have up to four characters in their party at anytime while clearing the main adventure, or they can pair up with two-to-four players (with the remaining AI controlled) and tackle the same adventure. The primary difference is the fact in multiplayer mode; players create custom characters, whereas in the single player mode, characters are pre-set in their basic physical appearance (though the outfits change as equipment is upgraded).
The story of Ring of Fates is one of two siblings who are forced out on a quest to basically save the world, though one might hardly call the world of Ring of Fates a "world". The overworld is a map, which has areas players can travel to by tapping the directional pad or the screen. Each area is a three-dimensional map which contains various segments connected together, so that the map itself is not completely seamless, and feels more like a dungeon. The exceptions are the starting point of the game, the home of our two heroes named Yuri and Chelinka, and the main tow nearby, which consists of the shops (but is also surrounded by three areas which are dungeons). As players progress in the game, new areas open up, and the story dictates where the player should head next, but at anytime they can go back to previous areas to explore.
As mentioned, the majority of these areas are structured like dungeons, filled with various enemies and puzzles to solve. Players navigate using the D-pad and perform basic actions like attacking or jumping by pressing the A and B buttons. Pressing the X button will allow players to equip the current Magicite, or item, and use it by creating a ring that can be moved around until the desired area is targeted. Once the player let's go of the button, the spell is cast or item is used. Now, players can "chain" spells by pressing and holding the X button and then tapping the L button to lock the ring in place, and then press X to begin casting another spell. Of course, the instant the X button is let go of the first spell, even if locked, an invisible timer goes off and the player has a limited time to chain spells together before the spell is cast.
Many enemies can simply be defeated by randomly using your primary weapon, but later on enemies (this is a Final Fantasy title after all) become more complex and have different weaknesses and strengths, requiring the use of alternate methods of attack (such as the use of Magicites). Even foes that can be defeated with brute force shouldn't be taken lightly, and magic should be used as often as possible to progress smoothly. Awaiting players at the end of each dungeon is a boss encounter, complete with a behemoth that takes up a large portion of the screen, has attacks that deal massive damage, and an obvious weak spot - a glowing red crystal somewhere on their body. The boss battle encounters are typically the primary portion of the game where using more than one character to attack will come into play; otherwise character switching is typically reserved for puzzles and other situations.
In the single player adventure, toggling between your active party members is crucial to navigating these dungeon areas. Each character comes with a unique special ability, ranging from a double jump, to a long range attack, to the creation and use of a magical pot. Yuri and Gnash each have special attacks that can be used on enemies that are tapped when engaging their special mode by pressing the R button at anytime, while Alhanalem can reveal hidden platforms and light torches. But by far the coolest ability is Meeth's magic pot, which allows her to roll through tight spaces, jump and glide, or outright fly straight up into the air. Learning when to use these abilities is key to advancing in a majority of situations, and just focusing on one player throughout the game isn't a very good idea.
Of course in multiplayer mode, you could have a human player controlling each character made (and you must have one of each race), which turns out to be much more efficient than the in-game AI. In the single player adventure, the AI for the characters in your party is abysmal, and trying to toggle between members quickly enough to have any chance of an effective strategy is almost impossible. For most battles, expect to go one on one with foes in single player mode, and don't count on assistance in the form of say, healing if you get low on HP, or if you are going in for close melee, any form of long range support. This is the game's biggest flaw, but though it adds to the difficulty of the game in a rather unfair manner, it still does not break the gameplay. There are also segments where abusing teamwork in single player, such as some bugs related to platforming, allows the player to bypass some puzzles even when it wasn't intentional.
The presentation is top notch, with the visual and sound work once again showcasing what the Nintendo DS can do with three-dimensional graphics and its limited audio output. The difficulty doesn't really kick in until later on in the game, and even then if one figures out some basic strategies, such as using the Ice Magicite to freeze anything temporarily before attacking, almost every encounter is nothing to worry about. Even the final boss wasn't too much of a challenge, though figuring out what to do to finish him off required the assistance of our Moogle, who showed up to tell us what to do after messing up three times. Unfortunately, the title can be completed in as little as ten hours for most, though to get the full experience, one should play through both single and multiplayer modes, which doubles the length of the game, though it's still the same content for the most part. The multiplayer is only for local WiFi, and the only online component involves the Moogle "stamp" subquest, in which players try to collect every possible stamp.
Final Verdict - 7/10
Ring of Fates improves upon nearly every flaw found in its predecessor, but also contains new faults at the same time. Single player mode could have used more efficient AI elements, perhaps just borrowing the system found in Final Fantasy XII or Revenant Wings, where players could issue commands to AI characters that they should follow, or at least a set of rules. The experience is also a bit on the short side, and opting to not feature any true online multiplayer (which Square-Enix officially stated was left out because it would be too laggy when we asked about this) hurts the replay value and the appeal of the multiplayer mode. Still too deep and complex for a casual audience, but not deep enough to satisfy the other end of the spectrum, which is atypical of a Square-Enix title or any game with the name Final Fantasy in it.