I am pretty picky about rhythm games. Maybe it’s from being a Dance Dance Revolution fiend back in the day and a Rhythm Heaven fan now, but whenever I play something from the genre, there are some design standards I’ve come to expect.
From having a visual indicator of the the song’s pace to the player’s actions adding their own groove rather than rigidly following the song’s melody – I find attention to detail like that helps make playing a rhythm game feel musical, rather than just pressing buttons on command.
The mouthful that is Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call has attention to detail in spades, but it’s invested almost everywhere but the actual play experience. Weirdly, I don’t mind that so much.
A musical history of magic users
Curtain Call is the definitive edition to Theatrhythm Final Fantasy, released in 2012, taking all the songs from that release and piling on even more, for a total of over 200 tracks.
Created as a celebration of how far-reaching the Final Fantasy series has been and the wonderful scores that accompanied them, Curtain Call features a large scoop of songs from each main series Final Fantasy title, with some side appearances from the likes of Lightning Returns and Final Fantasy Tactics.
It’s a very thorough selection – if you have a favourite Final Fantasy game, you’re sure to find some tunes you fondly remember. As someone who prefers the soundtracks to the newer games (headed by Masashi Hamauzu, instead of the more well-known Nobuo Uematsu) it was interesting to discover the tracks in older titles; the music in Final Fantasy III is startlingly good.
Battle of the bands
The controls are stylus-focused and simple enough; cues to tap the screen, swipe in a direction or hold the stylus down scroll in from the left, with the additional trick of sliding the stylus up and down in Field Music Stages or the cues being split across four separate rows in Battle Music Stages.
Why split up the cues like that? Because you’re actually playing as four people! This is a Final Fantasy game after all – taking on dome RPG trappings is a given.
Outside of musical performances, you assemble a party of four characters featuring across the Final Fantasy franchise. The cast size is massive, but not exhaustive. You’re guaranteed to have the male and female leads of each game available, but if you’re a fan of FFIV‘s Edward or FFXIII‘s Sazh (as I am), you’re out of luck.
Along with Field and Battle Music Stages, there are also Event stages that play over a key cutscene from their respective game.
They play out like a Battle stage with a single row of cues. High accuracy is crucial; too many mistakes will lock out the final section of the song, throttling your high score.
They’re unlocked as progress rewards, but due to their scarcity and somehow less dynamic feel, it’s easy to forget these songs are even available.
Picking party members isn’t arbitrary, each character has stats that affect both how heavily punished you are for mistakes and the rewards you get for playing well. Characters level up as you complete songs and even learn special skills, further mitigating missteps and boosting rewards.
This creates a strange dynamic where being good at rhythm games is at times almost secondary – if a song is too difficult to clear, high-level characters can mitigate your errors. It’s even possible to construct a party that will survive a stage without any input from the player whatsoever.
I initially thought such a design would feel annoying or cheap, but it does a good job of balancing out overwhelmingly complex songs and the none-too-accurate control system.
The timing of what counts as a successful hit on a cue is actually rather wide, but the inaccurate nature of stylus controls makes occasional mistakes feel inevitable.
There are alternate control schemes if you dislike stylus use; you can use the buttons and the circle pad in conjunction with the stylus – but the circle pad lacks the precise motion needed for some of the tasks asked of you.
Addicted to the Theatrhythm
Progression in Curtain Call feels strangely similar to a mobile social game – almost all of the songs are available to play right out of the box, but as you play stages the game unlocks its more intricate features at a steady drip.
Quest mode (Challenge courses with branching paths and a final boss at the end) are quickly revealed to you, and put the RPG system to solid use by not having your life meter recharge between songs. You’re encouraged to shoot for harder and longer paths for greater rewards, with the risk of an embarrassing game over should you bite off more than you can chew.
It’s the best way to earn items, in particular the rare coloured crystals that unlock new characters. Quests are unlocked at random, meaning linking up with other players and doing their favourite quests makes getting the right crystals much faster.
The final gameplay mode is a Vs Battle, against either the CPU or other players both local and online. Naturally, only the Battle Music Stages are available, and although players fight standard waves of monsters instead of each other, they compete for score, throwing periodic attacks to scupper progress.
These randomly selected attacks range from speeding up the movement of cues (no big deal) to making the timing for cues more strict (annoying, but survivable) to making the swipe commands spin as they approach (absolutely infuriating).
Completing songs in any mode will reward you with Rhythmia, a kind of global progress tally that will unlock additional characters, sound effects and other incidental options as you play.
The mixture of levelling up characters, the random chance of items when you clear stages, and a steady feed of rewards as you finish songs means it’s really easy to get dragged into long play sessions, even if the actual moment-to-moment feeling of playing isn’t particularly polished.
There are some stages that I’ll happily play over and over because I love the song or the cool rhythm of the cues, but for the times when the song isn’t my thing, or the stream of cues is a chaotic mess, I’ll press on to get my team of Lightning, Balthier, Paine and Auron up another level.
While the actual rhythm game experience here isn’t all that strong, design decisions elsewhere has made Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call really compelling regardless. It’s a game that has learned useful lessons from the world of social games – making the experience compelling and easy to come back to, but without succumbing to the greed of micro-transactions.
That said, there’s still DLC – additional characters and music to try. The base package is already so robust you can have a great time without spending any extra cash, but if you want to make this definitive Final Fantasy music collection just a little more complete, opening your wallet wouldn’t be a waste.
In a way, it makes me think what other game series would enjoy a collection like this. I would totally play a Pokémon version that used the gameplay of Harmoknight. I should should Game Freak an email…