Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Echoes of Time is the second installment in the Nintendo exclusive offshoot series to grace the DS. This time around the title boasts an all new original story and enhanced multiplayer options including cross platform play with the simultaneously released Wii version. A dungeon crawler at its core, Echoes of Time manages to incorporate simple action oriented role-playing elements with great design that begs it to be played via four person multiplayer, either online or off. That’s not to say it’s a great game because along with this adventure come some unfortunate technical and design setbacks. Following an interesting new concept, Square Enix opted to release indistinguishable versions of this game across both Nintendo platforms; of the two versions the DS is definitely the one to buy.
The game starts by having you select your character from one of four classes of warriors, before whisking you away to your home village. From the onset the story is reminiscent of traditional JRPG affair as your hero must complete a trial to signify the coming of age on their 16th birthday. This leads to your first interaction with the combat system and basic dungeon crawling mechanics of the game. The controls are solid: the A button strikes, B jumps and X is used to cast magic. Movement is controlled by the D pad which can be configured to your liking. The style of combat best suited to the player is determined by the warrior class chosen. Clavats are your master swordsman who specialize in melee based attacks and are adequately capable when it comes to performing magic. Yukes are your mage class who make up for their paltry melee skills by being extremely adept at magic. Selkies are the agile warriors who move faster and jump higher than the other classes, which come in handy during some of the touchier platforming sections. Finally the Lilties are short creatures who prefer heavier weapons such as axes and spears over swords. Each class plays uniquely enough to keep things interesting; and don’t worry about your original class choice stopping you from playing as the other classes, because that opportunity is available once you assemble your party in the single player.
After your initial trial in the forest the story begins to reveal itself when a young girl from your village falls mysteriously ill. Newly christened an adult, your character is tasked with retrieving the antidote by traveling to a nearby town and completing quests for a shadowy scholar. From there the story takes the appropriate twists and turns to keep you interested in a plot that involves the secret past of your village, sinister immortals who roam the land, fragmented crystals and the origins of our silent protagonist. Yes, it’s all familiar JRPG fodder, but its decently crafted fodder and the script can be downright witty at times.
All of the 3D action takes place on the top screen and graphically the game looks good. The environments and art direction are crafted with an appropriate layer of detail which inspires a sense of curiosity for the onscreen objects. The inhabitants of the world - human, monster, or otherwise - also rendered well, albeit appearing blocky. Because this is a Square Enix game, fully rendered 3D cut scenes are used to convey important story scenes. Though there are quite a few of them they too look blocky, making them fall a bit short in impressiveness even when compared to those of fellow DS title Metroid Prime Hunters. The game is technically sound except for occasional slowdown which occurs more often the further the game progresses. The first few times it occurs it's negligible but as its frequency rises, so does your impatience.
In regards to audio, the game fares about the same. The cut scenes feature full voice acting which is a mixed bag of good performances and a comically bad German accent. The music is pleasing and stirring throughout, and even though it comes through well enough out of the built in speakers, it requires a decent pair of headphones to be fully appreciated. The sound effects for combat and magic wielding are equally notable.
In relation to its DS predecessor, Ring of Fates, Echoes of Time does address a few of that game's problems. Most noticeable is the streamlining of the magic system. No longer are you required to possess special items in order to pull off magical command because the faithful MP bar returns and can be replenished with potions. Other improvements include better looking dungeons, swimming and water based combat, and a more stable local multiplayer experience. On the downside, a sizeable percentage of this game's enemies are recycled from Ring of Fates.
The role-playing mechanics are simple and intuitive for both newcomers and veterans alike. Your skills increase as you level up and can be customized by altering the equipment and attire of your character. If you plan on playing through the game by yourself, as opposed to through multiplayer, you are granted a certain amount of freedom when assembling your party. By going to town you can customize your party to your liking, choosing up to three members from any of the classes who you can control on the fly simply by tapping their icon on the touch screen. The computer AI controls the rest of your party and can be set to instruct them how to act with options such as 'Just Follow Me' and 'Go Nuts With Magic'. Yes, the game is a bit light when it comes to role-playing which makes you wish there were more choices and options available, but what is here serves its purpose.
In spite of everything else, it’s the classic dungeon crawling feel of the gameplay that makes Echoes of Time notable. Once the main game begins the dungeons come at you nonstop one after another, the only breaks being to replenish your supply and restore your condition by going back into town or heading back to your village for story events. The dungeons follow familiar themes: forest, sewers, ice and fire, but are still fun to traverse. They all follow the same basic rubric of clear a room of enemies and puzzles to advance to the next room until you eventually find a key to the dungeon boss. The combat feels satisfying as does collecting the items left behind by fallen enemies. Fighting actually feels quite similar to Square’s Kingdom Hearts series as you hack, slash and cast magic (mostly cure). Casting magic is accomplished by simply pressing the X button and guiding the cursor ring to the intended target. Magic is very useful during combat and essential to completing puzzles whether by freezing water so you can walk across, or setting fire to explosive barrels to clear pathways.
This game features enemies that are both insidious and aggressive. They pose a fair threat at times requiring a certain amount of strategy to defeat. The bosses aren’t quite as shrewd because most if not all of them can be defeated easily by hacking and slashing at their backs repeatedly. Sadly though the computer AI is the weakest found in the game. No matter how well you configure them they perform stupidly in action. They will often get in the way of completing puzzles and will be the first to die leaving you to clear the dungeons by yourself, deeming it not worth the effort to revive them. For the most part the dungeon exploration is enjoyable, the only drawback being that the puzzle types become too familiar early on and the camera can sometimes get in the way during segments requiring well timed platforming.
The adventure only lasts about 15 hours which feels a bit on the lean side, but is supplemented by plenty of available side quests, secrets and unlockables. Thanks to multiple difficulty levels and multiple areas to explore the game holds up through a second play through. Additionally the game features some robust multiplayer options giving a good incentive to keep playing.
Either online or locally, you can team up with other players to clear through the adventure mode. Once you have your party of like minded players gathered the game really hits its stride. Echoes of Time was meant to be played in multiplayer and it shows. Freed from the shackles of dimwitted AI, dungeons become more straightforward and entertaining to complete. The entire game can be played this way by either visiting the worlds of other players or inviting them to your own. Any items, experience or skills you attain stay with you after returning to the single player mode. Communication is key and quickly accessible presets, like those found in Super Smash Bros. Brawl, help keep the lines of interaction open. Lag is sometimes prevalent and can mar the experience of the online multiplayer if it persists.
As stated above, an identical Wii version of this game is available. The DS and Wii connectivity is fully utilized between them. DS gamers can play with Wii gamers and vice versa either through Nintendo Wifi or locally and the experience on the DS stays the same. Compared to the Wii version the DS version of Echoes of Time is better thanks to appropriate scope and sharper control. The game just feels more at home on the handheld it was originally built around.
The DS suffers no shortage of RPGs, and though Echoes of Time is a fine addition to the library a few drawbacks keep it from being a must own. There are a few technical drawbacks, and the story and some gameplay elements leave a bit to be desired. Still this a fun dungeon crawler reminiscent of some great classic RPGs of old made even better by strong co-operative multiplayer.