Originally published at: Review | THEATRHYTHM FINAL BAR LINE - XboxEra
Once upon a time on a handheld with a less fortunate launch than its predecessor came the first instalment of Theathythm, a rhythm game featuring the many casts and songs of the last decades of Final Fantasy. It did quite well for itself, spawning a sequel on the same system and eventually leading up to Theatrhythm Final Bar. Developed by indieszero Co. and published by Square Enix, this game is an updated collection with all the newcomers to the franchise since 2014 and includes even the mobile games that Square has long since made unplayable, such as Mobius Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy Record Keeper.
Despite the little history lesson, this would be my first time playing a Theatrhythm title and I found myself pleasantly surprised. One might think that game music wouldn’t make for good rhythm game music (and you’d be right to an extent), but Final Bar does an excellent job by not only offering a large selection of songs, a simple to play but challenging rhythm gameplay, and having a fun minigame within those core mechanics.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Seriously, we’ve got 35 years of Final Fantasy to uncover here. Let me set the stage for a better explanation.
One of the first things Theatrhythm Final Bar does is that it plops the user right into its tutorial, where it explains the basic mechanics of hitting notes (or triggers as this game calls it) by simply hitting any face button, bumpers, or triggers for each note that lines up with the circle on the far right side of the screen. Sometimes you’ll need to hold onto the button, sometimes you’ll need to use the analog sticks to swipe in a direction for a note, and sometimes you’ll need to track a note that moves up and down across the stave. It’s easy stuff, you just need to find the right groove on your controller and practise, practise, practise on songs that give you trouble.
For the most part the core rhythm gameplay is really well done. Hitting notes is responsive and each piece of music has a variety of ‘rhythms’ it’ll throw at you to keep you on your toes. Songs have multiple difficulty modes that you can always jump between to get a feel for the music and there are also options to practise or even watch the computer play a title for you. You can play a song cooperatively or even simplify the mechanics if you’re just looking to click to the beat of Dungeon Hero X’s Theme.
What I found frustrating with the core gameplay mechanics was with the sliding notes. These notes require the player to hold down a button and then follow the note’s trail across the stave using the analog stick. Over the course of my playtime I could never really pull these notes off consistently as I couldn’t exactly tell where the circle had to be. Sometimes I’d get it perfectly and other times the circle would be way too far off from where I was leading it, which in turn leads to dropped chains. Pretty annoying, and Bahamut’s blessing to anyone with Joycon drift—you’ll need it. Now on the bright side, this note type isn’t featured in every song and if it does show up, you could play it in simple mode as long as you don’t care for the green checkmark by your score.
Or if you are really determined to beat a song with all the hard enablers, you could build a strong party from the many, many Final Fantasy games of yore.
Lightning and Cloud: One True Pairing?
Final Bar would not be the addicting game I found it to be without the second half of the game: its party and combat system. Each song you tackle is linked to a battleground of baddies including a boss(es). Every time you enter a song, you’ll need to go in with a party. Said party can includes characters from any game (so long as you’ve unlocked them), skills they’ve learned as they level up, a summon of your choice, and cosmetics like your airship and costumes for your Moogle (the plushie-looking floating thingies).
The party set up not only determines how much health you have but how much damage you take from missed notes, the type and amount of damage your party deals to enemies, and skills that get used to weaken baddies or recover your party from ailments inflicted unto them. Beating enemies successfully drops items, which can be used to improve your characters or get new summons with specific stats attached to them. You’ll also need to dabble in this system if you want to take on each song’s quest, which will yield unlockables that you can view in the game’s museum.
This system is a tonne of fun. You’re encouraged to build stronger parties to clear out enemies as fast as possible to get to the song’s boss before the music is over. Buffs and debuffs are important because enemies can weaken or even lock your party members into place, hindering your progress to the baddies with the best item drops. You can build teams of up to five sets with your favourite characters to tackle particular groups of enemies that have special weaknesses such as elemental or physical. So long as your teams are diverse in classes (or not, up to you) you’ll be able to take on quests with ease.
And here’s the best part about all this—it’s entirely optional. Seriously, if you want to simply play along to the music and not care for the combat, you can do that as long as you’re good enough. You help your party fight by simply playing a song well, which will give them boosts to their combat prowess. It’s a game system that compliments the game mechanics you’ll be interfacing with rather than adding busy work and it’s up to you if you want to engage with it. Of course, you’ll need to do so if you want to unlock every collectible in the game, but setting up a party is easy as pie and there is a party optimisation button that’ll get you back in the game as long as you’ve loaded up a set with characters.
But if you’re even remotely interested in Final Fantasy to begin with (well, enough to play a rhythm game about it), I think you’ll find this part of the game to be very enjoyable, too.
Isn’t it Wonderful?
Theatrhythm Final Bar features music from nearly every Final Fantasy game I can think of. One through fifteen plus the spinoffs like World of Final Fantasy, Chocobo no Fushigi na Dungeon, Stranger of Paradise, and more. Playing through one series will net you a key to jump into the next series, unlocking new characters and new music. Through the 300 plus track list, it’s really going to be a matter of taste whether you like the pieces they’ve picked or not. There’s some pieces I’m happy to see (World of Battle, Suteki da Ne?) and then there are songs I am confused about (The Gapra Whitewood, Vivi’s Theme).
So now we need to talk about the Behemoth(s) in the room: whether or not the songs make for a good rhythm game and the game’s art style. Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memories, indieszero’s previous rhythm game, was a fairly miserable experience because like what Theatrhythm is doing for the Final Fantasy series, Melody of Memories tries to take Kingdom Hearts’ discography to make a music game out of it. Problem is, Kingdom Hearts is 90% minute-long ambiance and cutscene filler tracks. Having to listen to them out of context of their scenes is nothing short of dreadful especially when that’s the vast majority of your game and when they’re played offbeat.
The good news is that Final Bar avoids this problem by incorporating a better selection of songs across all the games. Yes, I don’t think all of them make for good rhythm music because of the way the music was originally arranged and how the developers implemented the playable notes that accompany the piece. It doesn’t always come out the way they probably wanted to, but there’s a lot of music here that does work well for a rhythm-based game and it helps that so many pieces span a variety of genres (synthetic pop, progressive rock, bombastic orchestra, etc) thanks to the ingenious work from the likes of Uematsu Nobuo, Hamauzu Masashi, Toriyama Yuji, and so many more. It helps that some songs pull at my heartstrings very hard.
As for the art… I have mixed feelings. I don’t mind the chibi style, heck I usually prefer it. But how Theatrhythm styles characters feels like a makeshift papermache and something out of Line stickers. Some characters turned out fine but some look like they’ve been massacred (poor Vanille). The monsters and bosses such as Behemoth and Barthandelus look like they’ve been hit with a truck, watered down and losing all the charisma their original designs have. Now to be fair, the art style is consistent and it looks in motion. It can be very cutesy too, thanks to the likes of Rydia and Eiko. Ultimately, it’s personal preference but I wish it looked something more akin to Granblue Fantasy’s chibi battle sprites.
Theatrhythm Final Bar Line is an awesome rhythm game. There’s plenty of content to unlock, tonnes of songs to listen and play along to, and the option combat system adds onto the core gameplay mechanics in such a way that doesn’t hinder it but enhances the experience. I love it.
P.S. As a collection of music from all across the series, it’s only natural that you’ll run into spoilers for these games. If for some reason you’ve been still holding off that playthrough of Final Fantasy IV, IX, XI, and the like I highly encourage you to stop browsing social media and get on that, stat.