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'Crisis Core' explores the history of role-play game's hero, Zack Fair

Justin Hoeger
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

CRISIS CORE: FINAL FANTASY VII

3 ½ stars

PUBLISHER: Square Enix

SYSTEM: Sony PlayStation Portable

PRICE: $39.99

AGE RATING: Teen

The spinoff "Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII" concerns itself not with the future of the original role-playing game's hero and his companions, as have other spinoffs of the popular RPG. It delves instead into the past, specifically the history of Zack Fair, a member of the evil Shinra Electric Power Co.'s elite Soldier program.

We figure the statute of limitations on spoilers expires after a decade or so, especially for a game as prevalent as this one, but to avoid ruining the fun for anyone going into "Crisis Core" blind, we ask that such readers skip the next paragraph.

In "Final Fantasy VII," Zack is the locus of a major plot revelation: He died shortly before the game's beginning, but his friend (and the game's protagonist), Cloud, a Soldier washout delirious from years of experimentation and trauma, picked up his giant sword, put on his uniform and unknowingly combined Zack's mannerisms and history with his own past to create an idealized version of himself.

Zack was a key player in the years before "Final Fantasy VII's" story line, we discover. Beginning the game as a midlevel member of Soldier, he carries out missions for Shinra while trying to figure out why his mentor betrayed him to join a dangerous renegade who led a mass exodus of Soldier operatives from the company.

It would be a shame to spoil any of the plot here; suffice it to say that the game provides a great deal of insight into the events leading up to the original game, Zack's personality and friendship with Cloud, the workings of Shinra and the personality of the series' main villain, Sephiroth.

The game is divided into two big chunks and subdivided into lots of little slices. One chunk encompasses the missions that drive the game's story.

These tend to be explicit assignments from Zack's superiors that send him out of Shinra's base city, Midgar, and they can get fairly complicated with multiple objectives.

The second chunk consists of the dozens of minor missions that Zack can take on at any save point. They're bite-size bits of game play set in numerous locations.

In these, perhaps Zack will have to re-fight a defeated boss or work through a series of corridors fighting Shinra security guards as an exercise. The challenge is often high, and the rewards are often great; many items can only be gained by battling through these missions.

The fighting itself is a mixture of action and RPG elements, with some random factors thrown in. Tapping the X button queues up an attack or some other action, which Zack carries out quickly but not instantly; there's room for timing and some strategy here, but not much. He can block and dodge attacks, expending action points, or fling magic spells by burning magic points.

He can equip a wide array of Materia, concentrated spheres of magical crystal that allow him to cast spells, execute special attacks at the cost of action points, and impart passive bonuses and resistances to himself.

This is all similar to some other action RPGs, but "Crisis Core" has a unique element: the Digital Mind Wave meter. This combat aspect appears as a slot machine that constantly cycles through character portraits. Every now and again, it makes a match, imparting a bonus to Zack, depending on the faces locked in. He might gain temporary immunity or be able to cast spells without using magic points, or whatever else. It's uncontrollable, but the benefits can be dramatic.

When the right conditions are met, the DMW meter activates a Limit Verge, generally a supercharged attack, or an improvement in Zack's level or one of his Materia spheres.

The DMW meter and Limit Verges make battles unpredictable; Zack may seem at the brink of defeat before busting out a massive attack. This randomness helps keep the combat interesting and fun.

The visuals are excellent in all respects, almost on a par with "Final Fantasy XII" on the PS2 - no mean feat on the PSP. The music is a fantastic combination of remixed "Final Fantasy VII" pieces and pulsing rock, and the voice acting is superb. The camera can be a little finicky, especially when it wants to park itself on the other side of a creature that's blocking the player's view of Zack, but that's a pretty minor issue in this game.

With all the work that went into this prequel, one wonders if a proper "Final Fantasy VII" remake can be far behind.


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