When we were children, we wanted two things: a Super Mario Bros. movie and a Final Fantasy fighting game; we got one of those things, and it made us wish we were dead.
Today, fifteen years later, we have the other one. Does it make us wish we were dead — or does it make us wish we were more alive?
This is a difficult question to answer. Come inside, then, and watch me run confused circles around myself as I attempt, with great vigor, to analyse Dissidia: Final Fantasy, a veritable cornucopia of aesthetic competence, attention to detail, affectionate fan service, and ever-present, cascading, waterfall-like arithmetic. Shucks, forget analysis — I'll be lucky if I can even describe it accurately without punching myself in the face on accident.
Serious production values: Square-Enix are absolutely, positively not kidding about making you want to buy this game if "you" = "a person who has ever liked any Final Fantasy game, ever". The characters all look just like they would if someone made a high-budget anime about their respective Final Fantasy game and then hired a very expensive video game developer to make a game about that anime. They're constantly jumping and twirling and screaming off the names of magic spells or special deathblow attacks. On top of all this, there's a story, in which Cosmos, the goddess of light, and Chaos, the god of . . . uh, chaos each summon ten warriors from different dimensions to lead their armies of good or evil (respectively) in an epic clash consisting of one-on-one duels in which Final Fantasy characters flip and fly circles around one another.
Wow — talk about music: Man! This game definitely has some well-produced music about it. If you've ever played a Final Fantasy game for more than ten minutes, you know that the battle themes might actually, genuinely be the single most awesome and timeless parts of them. Dissidia is a Final Fantasy where battling is everything. In other words, all of the time you spend playing Dissidia outside the menus, you're going to be treated to excellently produced, hyperactive chugging progressive-ish rock music. Literally every battle theme from Final Fantasy is presented in a sublime new arrangement sublimely lodged halfway between live rock performance and nostalgic videogamey goodness. It's awesome. You should probably buy the soundtrack.
The fans are served: If you like Final Fantasy characters for their staple one-line catchphrases, you'll love Dissidia's story scenes, in which booming voices in the sky foretell ominous things, and then Tidus turns to Squall and says "Yay, let's save the world dude, lol" and then Squall says "I prefer to work alone." When you press the confirm button to begin the single player story mode, you're treated to a nine-minute CG cut-scene in which the ten heroes and ten villains dash at one another and duel in dance-like flying spirals. Watch Squall's Gunblade clash against Sephiroth's mighty Masamune! See Tidus kick a Blitzball in Kefka's face! See Ultimecia shoot lightning bolts at Onion Knight! All the most action-packed scenes from your favourite fan-fictions are right here, in living colour, in deliciously expensive CG. And it's not just the big things — little touches are everywhere. When you earn a new ability, the pop-in tutorial window text is written in the sense of voice of a vintage Final Fantasy character. Like, when you get your first summon spell, the tutorial text has a little picture of Rydia (the summoner girl from Final Fantasy IV) by it. Et cetera. If this is starting to sound like a good deal to you, just stop reading now and consider this a must-purchase. It'll save you having to send hate mail. For all the cynics in the audience: you have to admit that this is way more courteous of Square-Enix than, say, another remake of Final Fantasy III with an extra dungeon or special weapon.
Plenty of stuff to do! You don't just fight battles. Oh no. You fight battles by selecting which battles you want to fight by moving your character around a board game map kind of thing, expending "Destiny Points" to enter encounters with enemies or open treasure chests. The more destiny points you have at the end of a particular board-game-map, the more bonuses you receive. Use bonus points to unlock all sorts of inane shi—awesome stuff. Like new characters, or new character costumes. Also, be sure to play every day, and check your Moogle Mail to get special bonus items, weapons, techniques, or whatever. Play against friends to learn even more techniques, trade items, or pass the time on a bus. It's not just a game, it's something to do.
The battle system is... interesting. Were you worried that this "Final Fantasy Fighting Game" would rely entirely on skill? Are you no good at Street Fighter, and hoping for a game that would allow you to grind the hell out of everything? If so, Dissidia has you covered. Each of the selectable characters can be outfitted with custom armour, weapons, accessories, and skills. In battle, you freely execute the skills in balletic, chaotic, screaming, flying duels against single opponents. Duels are pretty short; they can turn out dozens of ways. If you can't beat a particular computer opponent, you can level up and try again. Also, thanks to the evil god Chaos's influence, the world has "lost its shape", meaning that every stage isn't just some boring flat battlefield — it's made up of dozens of little floating rocks or islands or piles of debris, meaning you'll be zipping between them by use of mid-air ethereal grind-rails, which adds up to great spectacle. Like something of a psychotic hybrid of Smash Bros. and Kingdom Hearts, the fate of the battle constantly depends on the flip of a coin. Thanks to the presence of a "Brave" meter, which acts something like a hit-point buffer that seesaws back and forth between fighters as they trade blows, and different sets of attacks for damaging Brave (reduce your opponent's Brave to zero to initiate "Break" mode, where all your attacks damage his HP) and directly damaging HP (these attacks are often slower and more risky) the tables can turn viciously at any given second. So, in other words, the combat is never, uhh, dull.
The battle system is...too interesting. Confession time: I played this game for over thirty hours, zipping through multiple characters' storylines and playing an unholy bunch of single battles, and the physics, calculus, algebra, and chemistry of this game's battle system still manage to completely and utterly elude me. To be one hundred percent honest with you, it's terrifying how much bullshit they stuffed into this game to make the battles look "sophisticated". We've got hit points, magic points, brave points, experience points, destiny points, story points (which, yes, measure your progress in the story), gold, experience levels, skills. We've got this little crawling Chocobo graphic in the lower-right corner of the status menu screen, which inches further toward the word "Lucky" with each battle you fight, whether you win or not; when it reaches "Lucky", you get a prize. You can equip your characters with any of hundreds of weapons or accessories, and prior to most battles you're offered a choice of what "item" you want to use to... I guess the best word is "sponsor" your fighter. You have accessories, and you have sub-accessories that increase the effects of other accessories if you fulfil some specific in-battle requirement. You've got attack skills, magic spells, brave attacks, HP attacks, innate skills, movement actions, and I can hardly remember what the hell else. It's a bloody mess. When you're actually in a one-on-one duel with another dude, which is supposed to be the meat of the game, you've got numbers clogging up literally the entire screen half the time, and your characters are running up walls and grinding on imaginary rails in mid-air. How the hell is this happening? When I was a kid and I thought it would be so badass if they made a movie based on Final Fantasy IV, even though that game had a character who was able to jump off the top of the screen and not come back down for a whole real-time minute, somehow scenes involving the characters and their enemies flying like eagles and doing midair circles and figure-eights around one another just wasn't what I had in mind. It's weird enough that you can fly on your own volition, though it's also, like, the best surefire way to hurt your enemy is to hit him so he flies up in the air first, and then you follow him up and play out some little quick-timer event thing in order to actually score damage. And then there are times when you're doing so well and you are whipping the enemy, and then, suddenly, it's "Break" and he touches you with his nine-foot sword and you die instantly. And then, you're like, GRRR. It's like, if Street Fighter II were Final Fantasy, Dissidia would be Unlimited Saga.
Too Much Stuff To Do! So is this a Final Fantasy Fighting Game, or what? Simply put, no. It's not. The description card at the Tokyo Game Show demo stations listed its genre as "Dynamic Progressive Action Role Playing Game". That about says it. Slightly related story: I was at a Square-Enix press conference at E3, once, where Tetsuya Nomura literally pleaded to the press, in their continuing coverage of the (then) upcoming "Final Fantasy VII Advent Children", to refer to the work as "non-interactive software", and not as a "film" or a "movie". No joke. Dissidia feels like the same thing. It feels like Square-Enix bigwigs were sitting around, going, "Can we sell this as an action game? Can we sell it as a fighting game?" The answer was an immediate "Hell yes! However, we can sell it even more it as something more." So now you've got all this board-game wandering bullshit and these long, drawn-out story sequences and "Destiny Points" and "Story Points" and . . . it's a mess. It's not an "action game" so much as it's a "dynamic action-based interactive computer program".
Story: why bother? Really? Like, here's an example from the Light Warrior's first story mode: Tidus is standing around the dimensional rift. He says, "Frionel [hero of FFII]had something stolen from him, so he followed an enemy into the dimensional rift!" Light Warrior says "I will go get him". Tidus says "I'll go too!" Light Warrior says "No! It's too dangerous!" Uhh, okay. So you go into the "rift", fight your way across a board game thing, reach the boss square, and start the battle. The cut-scene shows Frionel injured. Light Warrior says "He's too strong for you! I'll take care of this!" Frionel nods and retreats. Light Warrior then battles Sephiroth. He beats Sephiroth and then gets a . . . rose. "This is what he stole from Frionel!" Light Warrior says. Uhh, okay. Now repeat this level of "dramatic" "writing" ten times for every character. Can't we just say that the evil god and the good goddess are having a feud and have summoned tough dudes to duke it out? Why in the flipping heck do they have to talk to each other so much before fighting? "Bunch of dudes summoned to beat each other up" was enough for Mortal Kombat, and that game didn't even have any Final Fantasy characters in it!
So, look. I'm going to level with you. I disliked the living shit out of this game. I disliked it because — and this is the honest truth — I love me some Final Fantasy characters, and I honestly believe the fans deserve better than some quite frankly genre-less game-like slab-blob of computer programming and nifty CG. Playing it is like doing your taxes on the moon — both in that numbers bombard you constantly while you float and spin helplessly in zero gravity, and in the slightly pathetic feeling that you've come to some fantastic, far-off place to sit in the pod and think about your life back on earth while the rest of the astronauts take a spin on the lunar rover.
What that analogy means is I feel like this game was a big missed opportunity. It could have been a big juicy steak, and instead it's a salad bar, where each individual type of vegetable is laid out on a table thirty feet away from the next. If they wanted to get the fan money as efficiently as possible, all Square Enix really needed to do was, you know, kinda copy Monster Hunter a bit, maybe make this game into a really solid 3D brawler, instead of some slippery, weird, fragmented playable cut-scene factory.
THAT SAID, despite thoroughly disliking his game, I enjoyed playing it for around thirty hours. Does that sound impossible? Maybe it does. If Dissidia were a place, it'd be a weird place. It's a garden in a box; it's a bucket of Final Fantasy-shaped Lego bricks. It's a neat little toy. It's brain taffy. It's a hang-out game. You just kind of hang out with the characters, scoff at their hammy little stories, and go "Cool, I leveled up" or "Cool, I got a new skill" every couple of minutes. If you ride a lot of trains of buses, Dissidia has got you covered. And you can have fun with friends with the wi-fi battles, so long as neither of you actually cares who wins.
If you decided before reading this review that you like Dissidia, if all it really takes to get you to love this game is the mere presence of the characters in splendid 3D and the ways and means to level up everything, then by all means, please, love it. It's certainly jam-packed with enough juicy little baubles of near-finished game-design, and it presses the "Fan Service" button enough times per second to split a watermelon. If screenshots and videos have you thinking you might be interested, then you are officially interested. Take the plunge.
Ahem. Final warning: the music is so badass it might lead you to compose your own terrible improvised original Final Fantasy battle themes, as it did for me. If this happens to you as well, try to get a better drummer. And a better guitarist. As far as guitars go, though, you can't really do much better than this one right here.
Dissidia: Final Fantasy was developed and published by Square-Enix, released in Japan on Dec. 18, 2008 for the Sony PSP. Retails for 5,980 yen. Played story mode to completion, played local multiplayer with random strangers on a train.
Confused by our reviews? Read our review FAQ.