March 25, 2008 - Given the space constraints Nintendo has imposed on WiiWare developers, we were a bit concerned that games for the service would be quick experiences that you play in between the real Wii games. That may not be the case, though, judging by our first couple of hours with Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles, which launched with the service in Japan today.
As we've noted in past previews, this new installment in the Crystal Chronicles series, subtitled My Life as a King and not to be confused with the full Wii Crystal Chronicles game, is a major change of pace for the series. While Square Enix calls it an RPG, it's actually more of a simulation game, where you attempt to build a city, constructing houses and shops and luring residents (also known as tax payers) to your growing kingdom.
The game begins when you and your party arrive in an abandoned, barren town. You stumble upon a large crystal, which gives you "Architecture Power," or the power to construct things. You decide to use this ability to build this new town into the image of your old home town, which was destroyed in the original GameCube Crystal Chronicles.
With your new powers, you're able to build your first home, selecting its positioning in your town, and its facing direction. After that, you simply press a button, and a few seconds later, you'll have a fully constructed home, and a couple of new residents inside, one of whom becomes your town's first soldier.
On its own, the architecture skill isn't enough to build up your town. To actually use the skill, you need spirit power, which can only be found in the dungeons and caves surrounding your town. You don't actually go out into these dungeons, though, instead entrusting hired soldiers to do the dirty work. Hiring these soldiers and sending them out on quests takes cash, which you get through taxes collected from your residents. To get more residents, and thus more taxes for hiring soldiers, you need to build new homes and shops.
It's all a big cycle, but the Crystal Chronicles experience can be broken down into two parts: building up your town and managing your soldiers.
At the start of each day, you choose the quests you'd like your soldiers to perform that day. Doing this is as simple as selecting dungeons and caves from a map, which grows throughout the course of the game to include new, tougher locations. Initially, you're limited to assigning a single quest per day, but this limit is cleared as you advance.
Once you've selected a set of quests, these get posted to message boards around town. Your first bit of activity after leaving the castle is usually to head to these message boards and assign the quests to individual soldiers. When determining which soldier goes on which quest, you need to consider the soldier's level, class and weapon set, as some dungeons may be impossible or difficult for some characters to clear.
We were able to send all our soldiers out on any given quest, although only one character actually manages to get through to the end of the dungeon and clear it. That may not take place within the limits of one day, though. Some dungeons take multiple days to clear, forcing you to reselect the same dungeon each day until the job is complete.
While you're not in direct control of them, the game does keep you in touch with your soldiers throughout the day. You receive notices when your warriors arrive at their intended locations, when they begin engaging in a fight with a tough enemy, and when they reach their goal. It's actually quite satisfying to learn of an soldier's impending arrival back home following a quest, and waiting to greet them at the town entrance. This meeting is actually recorded in the soldier's report that you get to read at the end of the day.
Your party of adventurers grows as you advance through the game. Each time you build a new home, one of the residents is sure to be a young warrior in training. This character will eventually approach you near the castle gates and ask that you take him or her into your employ, something that requires a hefty amount of cash.
As your soldiers are off fighting, you run around town interacting with your citizens and taking part in your building duties. Your big concerns with creating new structures is building up your town's population, keeping your townfolk happy and, keeping your adventurers well equipped. You start off with the ability to build nothing but houses, which takes care of your need for tax payer and adventurers. A bakery is added rather quickly to this, and seems to be used to keep your citizens happy One character whose house happened to be next to the bakery came up to our king and said how happy he was to be living next to a bakery.
Eventually, you learn how to build a weapons shop, which takes care of your need for weapons for your soldiers. However, even if you've built the weapon shop, you'll find it stocked with exactly zero items. To get some items, you have to hand over cash for weapons research.
All this has made for some compelling strategy so far. There's plenty to consider when deciding on new buildings and quests, and a growing list of options that should make things even more interesting for those who get far enough.
And for those who get really into it, the game could expand even further. Square Enix has provided some provisional details at its website on upcoming downloads for the game. Examples of content include additional houses which, when combined with clearing a special dungeon, unlock new character classes for your soldiers. Also planned are clothing downloads for your king. Pricing is expected to range between 100 and 300 points.
It may take up just 200 blocks of space, but Crystal Chronicles doesn't seem like a marginalized experience in any way. The simulation portion has kept us hooked for our couple hours of play time, signaling a good start for Nintendo's new downloadable games initiative.