(PlayStation Portable Review) Dissidia 012[duodecim] Final Fantasy

Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Genre: Fighting / Role-Playing Game
Players: 1-2
ESRB: Teen
Reviewer: Marcus Way

Overall: 8.5 = Excellent

Bewildering. As a newcomer to the series, there’s just no other way to describe Dissidia 012[duodecim] Final Fantasy. With over 20 fan-favorite characters, a meandering, expansive storyline, and a deluge of extras, features, and menus, it’s easy to become overwhelmed in the Final Fantasy-ness of it all. Fans of the franchise will no doubt find themselves right at home with all of the in-jokes and references, but even those who don’t know their Tifas from their Lightnings should take note of Dissidia 012.

As a prequel to 2009’s Dissidia, Dissidia 012 sets up why certain characters are absent from the first release and why the god Cosmos is weakened in the 13th cycle of her war with the god Chaos. While that is a fairly easy summary to understand, the way the game breaks up its different storylines, with its often stilted dialog, make coming to grips with the details a trying affair. More often than not, the narrative seems to follow the path of gussying up a fairly basic plot with extraneous monologues, franchise references, and rambling conversations. Not that that’s necessarily bad, as long-time fans are sure to enjoy a lot of the in-jokes and anachronistic interactions, but newcomers and casual fans will be hitting the ‘Skip’ button frequently.

Each of the warriors during the 12th cycle gets their own time in the spotlight, with Final Fantasy XIII‘s Lightning leading the charge. In addition to Kain, Laguna, Tifa, Yuna, and Vaan, there are also Reports that can be unlocked and played between chapters which feature additional character. The Reports follow several characters as they waffle about switching sides (Cloud, Kuja, Terra, and Tidus), and allow access to several cutscenes that fill in the narrative gap between the cycles. While the initial playable Reports are immediately available, others must be opened by unlocking the character that the story focuses on. The extra missions can be somewhat short, but they are a nice way of building up from the prequel to the original, as well as squeezing even more characters into the already bulging lineup.

Despite the game’s limited move list and Power Stone-style approach to fighting, Dissidia 012 is a dense game. Instead of going for a move-heavy combo system, Dissidia 012 instead opts to focus on modifiers. The damage done by the three ground-based and three air-based attacks is heavily augmented by battlefield conditions, equipment worn, and summons chosen. Battlefields often have destructible elements whose debris reveals power-ups, floating platforms that make for chaotic arenas, rails of light that can be skated on, and structures that can be ran up and along. Fighters can also be slammed into walls for additional Wall Rush damage. A successful Dodge or Block also leaves the aggressor vulnerable to additional damage, though I often found dodging to be the better of the two by far. Then there is the option to chase down enemies, which has one fighter blazing after another and landing a hard attack with a properly timed button press, with the follow-up being a repeat of that sequence or a miss and smack to the face as enemy gets a chance to retaliate—the zipping about and back-and-forth between hits and misses is all very dramatic.

On top of all that, each character also has a set amount of Command Points (CP) that are used to assign moves and special abilities. The CP level is determined by the character’s level, with the higher the level, the greater the amount of overall CP. Each ability requires a set amount of Ability Points (AP) to assign, with the required amount of AP being lowered through having multiple of an item equipped or constant use of a skill. By using a skill a set number of times, it becomes mastered, and mastered skills require less CP to equip. Not only are attacks unlocked and assigned in this method, but other abilities as well, such as auto recovering from Wall Rushes and a backwards dash. This allows for a great degree of customization, as new items are constantly being unlocked and added to an ever-growing list to assign. With so many ways to enhance a character and tweak their style of play, experimentation is a must.

EX Mode (Breaks and Revenge) returns, allowing players to unleash collected EX Cores for stronger attacks and counters. EX Breaks knock an opponent out of EX Mode and Revenge now not only stops an attack, but it also slows down the attacker to allow for a thorough beating. New to the series are Assists, which calls in an ally to lend a hand with attacking or defending; however, there is a trade off as unleashing EX Mode will drain the Assist Gauge. But there are also accessories that reduce impact damage, increase damage when done at a certain percentage of health, and also automatically trigger EX Mode when certain conditions are met. All of these supplemental offensive and defensive capabilities are always in play, which adds some role-playing stat-crunching flavor to the fights but also makes them very confusing for beginners.

The core component of the fighting system, and the easiest of which to understand, is that attacks are broken down into two types: Bravery and HP. Bravery attacks do not harm an enemy, but successful hits both siphon their Bravery while strengthening the player’s own. The stored Bravery, a base of which is required to actually do damage, can then be unleashed as a health-draining HP attack. Fights become gambles, with victory swaying wildly depending on an underlying factor of chance. Players who end up attacking too soon risk missing and being hit for an assault that leaves them Broken, which means their Bravery has reached zero and that their attacks will be severely weakened while the enemy’s more damaging. Waiting too long to unleash an attack can result in an opponent landing successive blows and draining what Bravery had been stored, adding the insult of undoing a round’s worth of hard work to the injury of landing devastating blows. Since some of the moves can be fairly cheap, including a few that both suck in opponents while repeatedly dealing damage, it becomes vital to know when to hold back and when to go for it. This is actually a pretty cool system as it allows for dramatic reversals, with fights beginning with low health ending in nail-biting victories after a few well-played moves.

The areas are a mixture of the original Power Stone‘s smaller, cluttered areas and the sequel’s more open battlefields. Those in Dissidia 012 can go from being a sprawling level set on a castle floating in a void surrounded by multiple floating islands to a smaller room of columns crisscrossed with light rails. The addition of so many external factors, from obstacles to environmental hazards, makes knowing what to do and how to do it all the more difficult. The limited move list actually ends up being a boon when taking all of the external factors into account, as too much more would be unwieldy even for the most patient fan.

There is a problem in regards to the areas with ceilings or large stairways and arches, though, and that is that the camera cannot always keep up with the action. There are several options for controlling the camera, such as auto-targeting enemies to have the view pan towards their location, but slamming headfirst into the bottom of an arch or getting stuck in a corner with a view of nothing but two walls and a close-up of a character is still a common occurrence. So much of the game is spent in near flight, through constantly hoping while in the air, as well as rolling, sliding, and running about that the camera manages to do a decent job overall given the screen size and action; however, it only takes one or two hiccups during a bout to work up an exasperated “Come on!”

The same reaction is also common throughout the single-player modes because of the game’s uneven AI. Whether it is in a Story Mode battle or one of the fights in a Battle Mode, the AI exhibits behavior that ranges from confounding to near omniscience. Computer-controlled enemies will do anything from spam the same ineffective attack to dodge and block nearly everything thrown their way, and retaliate with ruthless precision. While the level of the characters might account for some of the computer’s behavior, it doesn’t always: a lower-level enemy that was an unquestionable killing machine in one round is felled by the simplest of combos in the next. Since many of the matches in Story Mode are timed, earning those who win in under 90 seconds extra Kupo Points (KP) to buy super sweet items from wandering Moogles, having what should be a solid or easy match turn into a route because of the opponent’s spike in ability is frustrating. The spamming of moves in particular is annoying, even if they are easy to dodge or do little harm, simply because it makes for a boring match. This is especially true if the enemy pulls out a move that requires the circle button to be tapped to lessen the damage (tap within a range to reduce damage, with the meter going too high resulting in additional damage and not too low in no protection), since the system’s buttons simply were made for rapid tapping (at least, comfortably); if I could get away with it, I would just set the system aside during these sequences as they were lengthy, poorly timed, and too much of a bother to mess with. Human opponents through the game’s online component offer more reasonable challenges, but a more consistent AI would’ve been nice.

Taking into account all of the characters, stages, and modifiers, it should come as no surprised that some balance issues also crop up. However, overall balance is much better than I would have imagined. That’s not to say that the game is the watermark for brawlers, as there are certainly some characters that fare far, far better than others, but for a system that’s all about fast action, big projectiles, and squeezing in near two dozen disparate characters, it’s not too bad. In the end, it’s more about expectations. I think “brawler” is a truer description of Dissidia 012 than fighter, as the latter implies the sort of rigorous balancing done in traditional fighters, like a Street Fighter or Virtua Fighter, to whereas brawler carries a more carefree connotation, as with a Power Stone or Super Smash Bros., in which spectacle is paramount, with the bigger and brighter the fights the better.

Or maybe brawler-RPG is a more apt description. In addition to leveling up, characters also wander about a Final Fantasy XII– and XIII-styled world, in which enemies roam, treasure chests lay about to be looted, Moogles appear to sell their wares, and gateways offer a means of advancing. There aren’t too many enemies, and they offer more of a distraction than anything else. By getting the first hit in, they start the fight at a disadvantage, and once defeated, the player’s character regains all of their health. One of the biggest benefits to the world map is collecting the Light Orbs that are littered about for use in the gateways. Once four orbs are collected, they automatically create a chain skill that can be engaged on the grids within the gateways. The grids are of a checkerboard-like design, as in the original, but are frequently broken up by dead ends and are more of a linear A-to-B layout. Enemies are represented as icons and the player as the lead character, or the lead character of the party if in the last chapter, which engage the enemy once they are moved onto the enemy’s square. The chains allow for encounters to be strung together for bonus KP, by engaging enemies in turn in a variety of attack patterns; other chains switch around Bravery stats, power-up the player’s character, and so on. The enemies encountered are somewhat strange in that they can be a few levels above or below the player’s character, which can make for a string of easy victories and a tough-as-nails capper.

Most areas have at least one gateway for grinding and one for progressing. The difference between the two is that, aside from the first being open for replaying, the one for progressing is the only one that features an actual opponent. Throughout both gateways, the standard enemies encountered are Manikins, crystal copies of the various Final Fantasy characters. Despite having all of their counterpart’s moves, they have none of their personality. To progress, an actual character is encountered, often bursting with aggressively pointless dialog (save for the always pleasant Kefka), whose defeat unlocks the next area for play. While the world is pretty bland, it does a serviceable job of linking the various gateways and boss encounters together for a more traditional Final Fantasy experience.

Completing the story is just the beginning. In addition to the Reports that are unlocked throughout the way, the original Dissidia is also unlocked once the 13th cycle is complete. That’s right, the original is included as a bonus; and not just that, but it’s been revamped and updated for the new world map and also has its own Reports to unlock. Then there is the Battle Mode, which includes both one-versus-one and party battles; a traditional Arcade Mode with a three-bout fight with random settings, or a five- or ten-bout fight with custom settings and selectable characters; and Labyrinth. The Labyrinth is actually pretty interesting, as it is a seemingly endless dungeon that is explored through fights and cards: a set of cards are selectable in each area, with one being chosen as that area’s action. The options the cards offer tend to break down to who to accepting a fight, adding someone as a party member or as an assist partner, gaining magic, advancing to the next room, or opening a chest. Medals are rewarded for fights, with more given for tougher fights (higher-level characters with custom encounter rules), which can be used to put towards the treasure chests to unlock goodies or saved to turn in whenever the Labyrinth is exited.

Regardless of which mode is chosen, victory not only levels up the character, whose level and loudout (both gear and ability) are persistent throughout all modes, but rewards with Player Points (PP). These points are spent in the PP Catalog to not only unlock characters, but also stages, rule sets, level-preset characters for Arcade and online play, icons for the player’s card (viewable by online players), an increase in item drop rate, and much more. They can also purchase additional boosts to Calendar bonuses. Calendar bonuses are perks that are given depending on the day of the week and what mail has arrived from various Moogle correspondents, with the first day of play staying as the player’s special day (can be changed to another date, if desired) and give multiple perks for the entire day—it’s piling incentives on top of incentives. Then there is the ability to save replays, create quests to share with friends, fight with friends online, and check out unlocked cutscenes, music tracks, a summons compendium, and a detailed record of what’s been done during play. “Feature rich” only comes close to describing Dissidia 012.

To top off the experience, this is one of the best looking and sounding PlayStation Portable titles to date. The system itself might lend to some of the awkward camera angles or accidental moves (damn stiff analog nub), but it certainly delivers in the production department. The generated cutscenes and battles look great, and hearing the classic Final Fantasy victory tune always makes an encounter feel all the more awesome. Fans of the franchise will definitely get a kick out of the cutscenes and models while the rest will appreciate the spectacle of it all.

Overall: 8.5/10
When the AI wants to buckle down and get with the brawling, Dissidia 012[duodecim] Final Fantasy is an amazing game. But even when the enemy plays the dunce or demigod, the encounters are still a lot of fun. The action is so over the top that, along with the destructible stages and a roster jam-packed with franchise alumni, longtime fans and newcomers alike will find a lot to enjoy. However, the game does have a steep learning curve and will require some patience and practice—don’t let the retro graphics and colorful tip font fool you, things can get rough—but it’s worth it. For gamers wanting to bash someone about a floating arena with a massive sword rather than frame count their way to a perfect reversal, look no further. This is the second Square Enix game this year that has lavished the PlayStation Portable with a degree of attention that it hasn’t seen in years, and system owners are all the better for it. If only more companies were the same, maybe I wouldn’t have to keep putting the system back on the shelf.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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