Ignore the GBAs for a moment, even though the game insists on them as a requirement. Forget about the singleplayer too, even though it transpires to be more simple and satisfying than expected. The real question is how Crystal Chronicles shapes up as a straight multiplayer. Initial observations are hopeful: teams of two to four players (with two to four GBAs, and two to four link-up cables) are supported, and saves can be opened in both single and multiplayer modes. Closer inspection, however, reveals a shambles.
Say, for example, you've played a few hours on the singleplayer and are keen to rope in some assistance. Nineteen phone calls, two cancelled Saturdays and five dud batteries later, you're all assembled. Although you can add your friends into your ongoing adventure as new characters, they simply won't be strong enough to survive as your companions. Or, more viciously, you may be able to battle through a level, watching them die during every battle and reviving them at every lull, only to discover that you simply can't beat the boss. When this happens there's no retreat. The only options available to you are to lose to the boss over and over, or reset the game. And so an hour of effort is squandered. For Square Enix to have designed a game which requires so much organisation, expense and co-operation on the part of the players and then make it probable - not possible but probable - that all that effort will be wasted is unforgivable.
Phantasy Star Online solved this dilemma by giving strong characters the means to protect weaker players, to put them on a fast track to EXP heaven. FF:CC strips you of that possibility by removing all your magic at the end of every dungeon. Each spell must be re-found on each level, left randomly as a pick-up by defeated enemies. It's an idea with potential, but delivered with a total lack of balance. It's possible to go through a whole level without finding Cure, making it impossible to survive the boss encounter at the end. And it makes a mockery of the press shots of four players working in complex co-operation - one player hanging back and healing, while two more tag team a powered-up Thundara as he hammers at the enemies with a broadsword. It's only in the very last stages of the level that you'll have any hope of pulling off any moves of that sort, and by then things will be too cramped and chaotic to encourage it.
Any why? It's because of that blighted bubble. Every multiplayer, single-screened RPG has had to wrestle with how to keep everyone together, but FF:CC's solution is ill-considered. Players have to stay within a protective bubble, centred on the crystal chalice. This must be carried by one player, and for no appreciable reason whatsoever it halves their speed, forcing other players to trot back and forth around him like puppies who need to go out for a leak. Should anyone venture outside the bubble, they take damage. This might seem fair, if it wasn't for the fact that the chalice can be knocked out of the carrier's hands by an attack, which can leave it in a position which is both strategically frustrating and difficult for the camera. If it happens in a boss fight, then it may be impossible to retrieve it and battles can be lost purely because of it.
Now, let's remember about those GBAs again. What are they for? They're supposed to prevent the menus from cluttering the main screen and do away with those irritating multiplayer moments when someone wants to fuss with their inventory, since whenever someone is using their GBA their character is tugged along by the bubble. In practice, no one will dare resort to checking their menus during battle, since it's likely to mean a rapid death and, for the rest of the time, there's not all that much to be done - certainly nothing which couldn't have been made tolerable as a traditional, pause-screen menu system. At no point will you find yourself thinking: "Thank God I'm playing this with the GBA's tiny D-pad!"
Played on its own demanding terms, Crystal Chronicles offers something unique: the chance for your living room to experience the kind of convivial, epic co-operation that MMORPG players take for granted. It offers one of the most beautiful worlds ever created on a console, heavy with atmosphere and wonder, laden with the treasures of the Final Fantasy heritage. However, it asks too much expense and hassle and it inflicts too many setbacks, frustrations and restrictions to come close to being a fair exchange.
Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles will be available for Gamecube on 12 March