What do we talk about when we talk about Final Fantasy?
Do we talk about the core numbered series, whose impossible, decades-long streak of quality work has been in limbo for eight long years, while Final Fantasy XV undergoes a very careful, deliberate birth? Is there anything to talk about, save reminiscence of the series’ past glories, and speculation as to whether we’ll ever see more?
Do we talk about the multiple subseries dedicated to exploring mythoi introduced in those core titles? The FFXIII-heavy Fabula Nova Crystallis series, perhaps? The retconned-into-being Ivalice Alliance? Or maybe the action-RPG-heavy Compilation of Final Fantasy VII?
Perhaps we talk about the two concurrently-running Final Fantasy MMOs—XI, first published before Enix’s incorporation into Squaresoft, and XIV, whose initial reviews were so poor that Square-Enix scripted an in-game extinction-level event, shut off the servers, and completely remade the game for re-release 18 months later?
Do we… do we talk about those awful iOS games?
These days, I think the answer is, “we talk about all of it,” in a way that wasn’t true when a flagship Final Fantasy title would be just around the corner, promising some enticing twist—but only a twist!—to the menu-driven RPG gameplay upon which the series was founded. In the absence of a core series title to drive the franchise forward, Square-Enix has expanded outward. Scores of one-off Final Fantasy titles have been released in the past decade, representing experiments with new genres and paeans to traditional JRPG action alike.
Here’s the most thrilling thing, though, and what brings us to the game we came here to discuss, Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call—a tremendous number of these experiments are excellent.
Curtain Call, like its predecessor, 2011’s Theatrhythm Final Fantasy, is a taut and mechanically-demanding rhythm game disguised as a hundred-hour RPG. Raised as one, really, because it demands to be configured like an RPG; planned through like one. Before you’re able to even browse the song selection, for example, the game takes you through a minutes-long narrative prologue, and then bids you assemble up a four-person party of adventurers. Well, of course, is the immediate feeling—this IS a Final Fantasy game, isn’t it?
There are several ways to engage with the game’s core rhythm-system, each designed to invoke a specific Final Fantasy principle. Battle Mode, for example, is designed like a Nintendo-era Final Fantasy battle sequence, with your party lined up to one side, and a parade of terrifying monsters to the other. Button triggers rush down lanes at your party members, and successfully matching them causes that character to attack. Over time you’ll gain experience, augmenting your party’s abilities, and increasing your chances to conquer harder stages and tougher foes.
Field Mode, alternately, invokes the grandiose scope of the games, the journey through hundreds of locations terraformed into cartridge RAM, by bidding your party members run against the tide of rhythm triggers, racing towards—what else?— treasure, accessible only to the nimble-fingered.
It’s a deft bit of design, this haptic representation, and it does great work to knit the physical, reflexive process of rhythm-matching to the emotional and mystical Final Fantasy universe.
On the off-chance you’ve wandered this far into this review without having spent much time with Final Fantasy, you are probably completely, hopelessly lost in the preceding four paragraphs. Excellent though it is, Curtain Call is chained to the series it repurposes; enjoyment of the game may well correlate directly to your knowledge of its referents.
Curtain Call, moreso than Theatrhythm, guzzles your nostalgia like gasoline, and the game’s increased depth and breadth only serves, in some ways, to dilute its own efficacy. Recall that Square-Enix has a lot of different cards in play as it waits out XV’s gestation—Curtain Call attempts a sort of near-field nostalgia, packing in content from a great deal of these recent titles. It seemed reasonable for Theatrhythm to assume a passing familiarity, at least, with Final Fantasies 1-10; Curtain Call would have you recall Crystal Chronicles, Mystic Quest, the Advent Children CGI film, both Dissidia titles, both of its MMOs—and Type 0, whose North American localization has yet to receive a release date.
But “applied unfamiliarity” is no crime, and the most precious resource these games mine from their forebears suffers little without introduction—the music. Its reputation precedes itself; the Final Fantasy titles have long held themselves to a genre-best standard of quality. Curtain Call’s soundtrack is 221 songs deep (before DLC, even), and the rhythm arrangements peel apart each track’s watchwork composition, taking full advantage of itinerant accent instruments to trip you up with a sudden kettledrum roll or a syncopated triplet. There’s a clear advantage to playing a song you already know—I found my thumb pausing, more than once, to compensate for a dropped beat my brain had forgotten was in some third verse—but it’s hard to pick out more than a handful of tracks which are unfun duds, even from those you may never hear in their original context.
With a song library and character roster this overstuffed, Curtain Call is lucky to have a solid pair of high-level game modes to encourage you to not only attempt each track, but to improve at it; to solve it.
They’re both a great improvement on Theatrhythm’s Chaos Shrine mode, a straightforward grind through stapled-together music stages which served to provide a perfunctory depth for completists and high-score perfectionists. Instead, Curtain Call offers up Quest Medleys, a richer iteration on the Chaos Shrine that play out across navigable mini-maps (which, honestly, look borrowed from Nintendo’s handheld Find Mii minigame). Tasked with completing several, or many, rhythm stages in a row, and sharing a single HP bar between them all, it suddenly becomes much more relevant whether you’ve been leveling up party members whose skills pair well—and entering a stage well-geared may mean the difference between limping to the end, or detouring for rare items.
There’s also a multiplayer mode this time around, which puts a well-needed chaotic spin on the game’s precision gameplay. As you and your opponent rush through a Battle Mode stage, you’ll trigger EX Bursts, randomized, gameplay-modifying maneuvers unique to versus play that can obscure your opponent’s triggers, or swap your HP. (Veterans of the late-90s online game service Tetrinet will likely feel right at home with this system.) Attempting to maintain control of your combo chains becomes an exercise in Muppet-limbed futility, and against a good opponent, you may well resort to hack-and-slashing your way, blindly, through oncoming triggers, hoping your point lead will last long enough to secure your win. It’s giddy, hilarious fun, even though the AI ladder is simple enough to cheese through, and I am desperate to cajole my friends into combat.
So, yes—Curtain Call is a terrific game, and is so not only because it is a great rhythm title, but because it accurately assesses, and leverages, the qualities that have made Final Fantasy such a long-running and beloved franchise. Each title demands dozens of hours of your leisure time, and—we are human—they leave imprints on us. Ghosts of nights hunched in front of a television, slowly spiraling up the Tower of Babil; squinting at blurry Chocograph pieces; running FATEs in hopes of an Atma drop. We live in these games for a spell, in a liminal universe—ones constructed for profit by Square-Enix, of course—but also co-constructed by ourselves. Little wonder that Curtain Call feels a bit like home.
Stephen Swift lives in Boston with the world’s tiniest and loudest cat. He has previously been published in the Village Voice, Maura Magazine and Nintendo Power’s Classified Information.