Often portrayed as the kicked puppies of the most recent console generation, Wii owners often find themselves on the defensive when supporting their system of choice. It’s not hard to see why when zingers like “two GameCubes duct-taped together” and accusations like “no third-party support” get thrown around. In return, the Wii fanatic will lob responses like “graphics don’t matter” and “third-party games would sell if they were any good” at the system’s detractors, even as those same detractors giggle with delight at the softballs headed their way. Round and round it goes — the Wii has been out for over three years, and the debate over its merits (or lack thereof) continues to rage.
Not helping matters are games like Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers. The Crystal Bearers is as close as Wii owners are getting to Final Fantasy XIII, so it was important that Square Enix did a bang-up job with it in order to make sure that those tied to a machine with inferior graphics capabilities didn’t get completely hosed. In doing so, its developers created one of the most gorgeous Wii games to date.
The Crystal Bearers is one of the only Wii games that can pull the viewer in purely through the use of visuals; its art style and execution inspires a sense of awe usually reserved for stylized Xbox 360 productions and PS3 powerhouses. Landscapes are lovingly rendered with an incredible amount of detail: individual cherry blossoms are visible on trees while the intricate architecture throughout the game’s world invokes fear and respect, as appropriate. Enemies are detailed and highly distinct from one another. The suits of armor worn by an endangered race of characters are highly stylized and artistically rendered. Many games claim to push the Wii to its technological limits, but that push oozes out of every pore of this new Final Fantasy adventure.
While such a commitment to the appearance of a Wii-exclusive is commendable, it does fly in the face of one of the major arguments defending the underpowered specs of the Wii — that graphics and horsepower are simply unimportant. For a game like The Crystal Bearers, graphics are a vital piece of putting the player into the world that the developers at Square Enix have designed. The inclusion of motion controls that are well-designed and implemented and the more casual approach to the role-playing elements of the game give the impression that the developers knew their potential audience, but it’s those visuals that will hook you, convincing you that what you are seeing is a living world rather than a series of scenarios. If the details aren’t there or the enemies start to blend together or the cutscenes don’t somehow make you forget that you’re not doing any better than 480p, a game like this has no chance to maintain its audience.
That said, The Crystal Bearers is having a hard time maintaining — or even obtaining — its audience anyway, thanks to damning word of mouth that’s barely giving it a step on shovelware.
The Final Fantasy name carries with it a certain set of expectations, and aside from the best-in-the-genre visual aspect of the game, The Crystal Bearers spends a lot of time ignoring and subverting those expectations. Instead of armor or weaponry, our hero Layle spends all his time wearing earrings, rings, and wards which increase and decrease his defenses and telekinetic abilities. He can also buy emblems for his jackets that affect his skills. Battles are very much action-oriented, as you run around battlefields with the nunchuck’s analog stick while playing what basically amounts to a hectic game of Boom Blox with the enemies and debris that populate those battlefields. The map is utterly useless, the voice actors are (to put it nicely) a bit leaden, and the game has a sense of humor that’s alternately wry and juvenile.
What it all amounts to is an adventure game with mild role-playing elements that focuses on fun. That a game be “fun” is less a requirement than it used to be, and while something like Final Fantasy XII was certainly an achievement — an engrossing, beautiful achievement — it spent an awful lot of time being something less than fun. The player is fulfilled by a game like Final Fantasy XII more than delighted; The Crystal Bearers, on the other hand, shines in those moments when it can inspire giggles.
As you run around the world of The Crystal Bearers (and you will run around it a lot) a series of sandbox-style odd jobs will pop up. You can do these jobs or completely ignore them with no discernable impact on the central narrative, but avoiding them means that you’ll miss many of the most charming bits of the game. These tasks range from the taxing and rewarding (various treasure hunts that give you a snapshot of the world and expect you to go find where it was taken) to the banal (picking vegetables amongst laser-shooting scarecrows) but almost all of them are delivered with a sense of humor largely lacking the teen angst and existential crises of the game proper. The tasks even build on one another. Once you realize that you can toss garbage into the garbage chute, you also realize that said garbage chute just might make a decent escape hatch for a trapped fugitive. A constantly-triggering achievement system also encourages participation in these odd jobs and helps identify where other off-the-storyline meandering might be possible, always allowing the player to have options when it comes to how Layle is going to spend his time.
Unfortunately, even these side jobs appear too infrequently to distract from the fact that you spend an awful lot of your time in this game simply running from place to place. Even if you don’t get lost (and you will), you could kill 15 easy minutes in some stretches just running from one place to the other just to be told that it’s time to run somewhere else.
What Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers eventually amounts to is a few handfuls of darts thrown at a target, some of which hit the bullseye and some of which miss the board entirely. Part of the joy of watching developers work with the Wii is seeing what they come up with in terms of new gameplay mechanics for established series and genres. Still, it’s been over three years since the system was released, and we are still getting these hit and miss efforts. One gets the sense that by the time developers figure out how best to use the machine, Nintendo might just be on to the next one.
But it’s still fun to watch them try.