I’ve been waiting 16 years to finally enjoy playing Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles. But after sinking five hours into the remaster, the fun still eludes me. I’ve wanted to play a Final Fantasy party game that combines arcade co-op with RPG customization ever since I first read about Crystal Chronicles in a 2003 SquareSoft brochure, but decades later Crystal Chronicles still ain’t it.
Out on PS4, Switch, and smartphones this week, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles Remastered is a re-release of the 2004 GameCube dungeon-crawler with some updated graphics, new end-game dungeons, and online multiplayer complete with cross-play. Unfortunately matchmaking is a chore, the load times are terrible, and nothing in the remaster fundamentally fixes what was so annoying about the original game.
Crystal Chronicles has you travel the world in search of myrrh drops from special trees. You need them to power a giant crystal back home because if you don’t a poisonous mist called miasma will engulf the town and kill everyone in it. This means visiting new towns to stock up on items and then venturing into dungeons in search of the myrrh, which is always safeguarded by a boss. Occasionally while moving between locations on an overworld map you’ll hit a crossroads, where a random scene will play out intended to build out the magical world full of brave warriors and evil monsters in which your adventure’s taking place. It’s structured like a children’s storybook, with florid voiceovers introducing new dungeons and attempting to stitch together otherwise unrelated scenes.
There’s the toadstool forest and the mineral mine full of orcs, followed by a graveyard whose boss is an anthropomorphized haunted house. The entire thing feels a bit like navigating a game of Candy Land where you have to smash the attack button a certain number of times before you can progress to the next square. Crystal Chronicles’ soundtrack, which features some new tracks this time around, remains a treasure, and the remaster’s refreshed graphics look crisp and more vibrant. But the story beats and world, which feel cribbed together from the bits and pieces of lore from half a dozen other Final Fantasy games, are still completely forgettable.
That shouldn’t be a big problem for what is essentially a beat ’em up with RPG-lite elements, except that Crystal Chronicles’ dungeons are repetitive and grindy without offering much in the way of rewards or a feeling of progression. You can build multiple characters of four different races, but beyond offering slight advantages in areas like magic, melee combat, speed, or defense, all of them are functionally the same. There’s no skill tree to customize how you approach combat, and no leveling system to build out character stats.
Instead you start every dungeon with the ability to attack and defend. From there you eventually pick up orbs from defeated enemies that will grant you the ability to cast cure, fire, or a handful of other spells. At the end you fight a boss, earn some healing items or crafting resources, and then get to set out to a new dungeon and start the whole thing over from scratch. There’s a crafting system for forging new weapons and armor, and you collect artifacts from each dungeon that grant you bonuses like “+2 attack” to make you a little stronger. But overall it doesn’t really ever feel like you’re moving forward, becoming stronger, or building toward dungeons and combat that are more interesting.
Fighting itself rarely feels good either. You can attack on a rhythm to complete a three-hit combo, or hold it to power-up and bash an enemy for extra damage. Otherwise there’s no dodge mechanics, and even defending requires cycling through a menu rather than just hitting a dedicated button. Using magic spells also requires navigating a menu in real time. While it’s nice that you don’t have to worry about managing magic points, and can use any spell you get as many times as you want, the entire system feels slow and clunky, the opposite of what you’d normally want out of a more arcade-y dungeon crawler. These are the kinds of things you’d want overhauled for a re-release in 2020. Crystal Chronicles leaves them intact.
A lot of the game’s annoyances are holdovers from the cumbersome way it tried to handle co-op on the GameCube. Key among these is how you’re required players to carry around an in-game chalice to ward off a deadly “miasma.” Yep, you or a pal gotta schlep that thing everywhere. (In single-player mode you can assign that function to a moogle.) Run out of the chalice’s radius and you’ll slowly die. It’s annoying when by yourself, and the opposite of fun when playing with other people. Despite the fact that Crystal Chronicles Remastered only supports online multiplayer, these mechanics remain in place. If players were sharing a screen I could understand keeping some of these restrictions, but with everyone playing remotely the chalice / miasma thing feels that much more archaic and out of place. I can’t overstate how much of a bummer it is.
One of the big things the remaster does add is a Lite version of the game in which players can try the first couple of dungeons for free. They can also hook up with players who own the full game to play through later areas. But only the host player makes progress in online play, and given how archaic so much of the game remains, the appeal of playing any of it for “free” remains limited. It’s still time from your one life on this planet you’ll never get back.
Meanwhile games like Minecraft Dungeons and Torchlight III are better dungeon crawlers and World of Final Fantasy and Chocobo’s Mystery Dungeon Every Buddy! are better at providing breezy Final Fantasy fan-service. I love unearthing retro JRPGs, forgiving their flaws and cherishing their strengths, but Crystal Chronicles is a flawed game that should remain buried, and the remaster doesn’t do anything to fix it.