Back in 2004, I had the perfect setup to play Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: three friends, four Gameboy Advances, four link cables, one Gamecube, and one sprawling weekend afternoon after a long week of high school. Looking back 17 years later, it seems like a wonder that any such confluence of events could transpire. They’re fun memories.
In previous years, I sequestered myself while playing through the single-player mainline entries on PlayStation, so the prospect of playing a Final Fantasy title with others was well worth checking out. Crystal Chronicles would dole out different roles to each player during each dungeon — one might be navigating the map for the party, another on the lookout for treasure chests, and so on. You would constantly be communicating and cooperating, whether you were plumbing dungeons, wandering around your village trading items to craft, or sharing what kind of build you were thinking up.
So much of the game was built around couch co-op, that it’s disappointing to report that the online co-op that’s replaced it feels ill-thought out and barely resembles the spirit of the original game.
In recent weeks, we learned that the Remastered Edition wouldn’t have offline co-op, opting to move the experience wholly online. While you could still simulate couch co-op (albeit by playing together on entirely different platforms) it seemed like an odd route to follow. Multiplayer is also region-locked for reasons unknown. The addition of cross-play and cross-progression softened the blow a bit, but it’s a small consolation prize in light of the other problems.
That’s not to say that the issue is simply that co-op is exclusively online, but more the list of design decisions that accompany its adaptation. First off, when playing together with others, only the host will receive story credit (myrrh drop) for completing a dungeon. That means that should you and your three friends complete a dungeon together, you’ll need to complete it three more times to ensure everyone advances at the same pace. Frankly, that sucks. While I understand it may not always be desirable to advance time by collecting a myrrh drop, it just doesn’t seem conducive to the precious amounts of time you can collect your friends for a play session.
Multiplayer, by the game’s own definition, has been reduced to dungeons only. No longer can you trade with and craft items for each other, nor travel around the world map as a single caravan. Even dungeons have been stripped of assigning special roles to each party member. All in all it feels distant, very drop-in and drop-out, rather than a journey with friends. Why multiplayer lobbies are only restricted to dungeons and not to the other parts of the game seems to be a mystery as well.
The conclusion I’ve drawn is that the remaster’s misstep is in centering the single-player experience within a multiplayer-capable space without the attention or space to recreate what made the multiplayer experience special. That’s doesn’t mean Crystal Chronicles can’t be enjoyed as a single-player experience — that works here. In fact, if that’s what you’re seeking out I think you might find more to like than dislike.
Some of these decisions feel as if they were formed around the expectations that online multiplayer titles have. While item drops may be unique to each player, it subtracts the ability to trade among friends while adding a way to avoid griefing by snatching items you or other players want. I don’t know if there’s an elegant solution here, but again, the result here is one that chooses to preserve a single-player experience over the multiplayer. Additionally, the ill-preserved multiplayer design impacts some of the core systems in an undesirable way: many crafting recipes that could be created by your co-op party can now only be created by passing items through storage between characters only you create. The needlessly laborious task set in front of you might serve only as a reminder that it was more fun as a group endeavor.
Aside from these woes, the rest of the game fares well enough. The updated graphics are clean and crisp, and adapt well in large part to the game’s wonderful art direction. There’s a ton of new voice acting that well captures the Crystal Chronicles whimsy, but if you’re not feeling it you can toggle it on or off as you so choose. Donna Burke’s narration and the re-recorded main themes are excellent, and add a charming storybook flair. Some of the moment-to-moment gameplay feels dated, such as having to use shoulder buttons to toggle through a menu of commands, but it’s something you get used to after a few hours. I would have loved the ability to map shortcuts to certain buttons instead — especially the attack and defend commands. Also, get used to frequent loading screens. Individually they’re not long, but as you move through certain dungeons or the field map, the idle seconds add up quickly.
Additional content new to this version comes by way of new high difficulty dungeons you’ll encounter later in the game (with higher powered items), but they’re largely borrowed and repurposed from existing assets. People who enjoyed long play sessions maximizing their character’s stats and equipment might find some mileage here even if it’s a bit superficial. There’s also a feature that lets you assume the appearance of key NPCs in the world as well as other main characters in the Crystal Chronicles series of games — for when you really need to be Layle from 2009’s The Crystal Bearers.
What I love about Crystal Chronicles is that, in a time where the mainline series relied heavily on cutscenes and melodrama, there was this other Final Fantasy that relied on short skits and simple, solemn journaling to build an intimate link between the game’s world and the player — that Final Fantasy could be both these things and do them both well. In spite of the warm, cozy world, the sense overcoming profound self-doubt and loneliness plays out in such an earnest way really hits the right spot in the current moment.
It’s hard not to overlook the glaring problems here, and the more I mull them over the more difficult it is to recommend to people who loved the original. Despite this, I feel that if you’re brand-new to the game and want an easy entry into a Final Fantasy game you might have passed up years back, it’s worth a closer look. A free version is available with a limited amount of content, that might be a good way to try before you buy.
I really wish there had been a more cohesive plan for adapting Crystal Chronicles’ multiplayer elements than what we’ve got here. The co-op experience of the original doesn’t feel remastered or preserved in any way. Perfectly recreating that couch co-op experience several generations later with different types of hardware isn’t a reasonable expectation, but it still feels like local play should have been an option. Even the multiplayer design we’re left with seems to be at odds with itself, with restrictions and limitation that really drag the game down. It almost feels like they wanted to push a more persistent online experience, but stopped halfway. Despite most other aspects of this remaster holding up well, coming back to this after many years feels like a disappointing experience — like part of what made the original game special is completely missing.
Disclaimer: PlayStation 4 review code was provided to Nova Crystallis by Square Enix, the publisher.
Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles Remastered Edition is now available on PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, iOS, and Android.