Call us musty old role-playing traditionalists, but the first thing we generally do after a monster drops an item is cram it in our over-stuffed invisible backpacks. We don’t, for instance, wear it on our heads, like Echoes of Time’s helpful AI companions choose to. It’s a bold fashion statement, no doubt about that, but we think we prefer the other way. You know, the way that isn’t immensely stupid.
Playing through the latest Crystal Chronicles solo can be a punishing experience, not to mention a lonely one. Puzzles and combat situations are clearly tailored to more than one sentient being, with practically no effort made to provide a satisfying alternative. Yes, it’s possible to recruit adventurers and mercenaries to bolster your four-man party, but at best they just get in your way and at worst they actively hinder you, standing on top of items – meaning you often amusingly pick them up instead – or moving off the switch you need them to stand on because there’s no way to command them to stay still.
There’s enough story, enough depth and enough darn Moogles for this to compare favorably with any other Final Fantasy game, but there’s no getting around the simple truth that if you play Echoes alone, you’re only getting half the experience. With one or more mates in tow, your workload is considerably reduced. Puzzles that had you dashing from one side of the room to the other in single-player, frantically obeying unfair time limits as your companions stood around scratching their bums, become instantly achievable and usually great fun. Leveling is swift, loot drops are plentiful and the ability to pick up and chuck almost anyone into anything allows for some brilliant mucking about.
At its heart, Echoes is a co-op game through and through. Players can combine spells for a massive increase in damage and heal or resurrect each other with relative ease. Each of the four races – Clavats, Yukes, Selkies and Lilties – might have a pre-defined role, but you won’t be punished for having, for example, four Selkies adventuring together, because they can all cast spells and hold their own in a melee. Communication is swift and intuitive, with a stock of set phrases and the ability to use a virtual keyboard to input your own messages.
Actually hooking up with someone is stupidly easy. All you need to do is approach a save crystal, select the multiplayer option and a character of your choosing will appear in a friend’s game, or one of theirs will be dropped into yours. Playing side-by-side on both Wii and DS proved exceptionally smooth for the most part, with only the occasional bit of barely noticeable lag. Still, since we were sitting right next to each other, it makes us curious as to how online gameplay will fare.
Aside from all the rampant dungeoneering, you can stop by the town to get side quests, recruit mercenaries (high-level swords-for-hire who only tag along if you fulfil some arbitrary condition first) or to craft/buy weapons and armor for you or your AI followers. Dungeons are fairly lengthy but also quite linear, with a few too many fiddly puzzles and platforming moments to warrant the replayablity that multiplayer games demand. The inflexible isometric viewpoint doesn’t help, often obscuring players behind scenery and making jumping over chasms hard work.
Much has been made of Echoes being a cross-platform release and a lot hangs on how gamers react to this and which version they decide to stump for. Already out in Japan, Echoes has been successful on DS but the Wii release has floundered – and looking at it, it’s not hard to see why. There are two ways to look at the game: it’s either a beautiful DS title or a functional, albeit hideous, Wii one. Given the choice, which of those options sounds the most appealing? Of course, if you don't own a DS, and the Wii is your only option, you're still getting the same game, just without the platform-appropriate graphics, and the controls are a bit more sluggish without the stylus.
Regardless of platform, Echoes is easily the best Crystal Chronicles yet. As a co-op title it’s superb, encouraging teamwork at every opportunity and rewarding you with its deep, fast-paced battle system. It’s just a shame it’s not much fun to play on your own.
Apr 1, 2009