Reviews: Echoes of Time is an echo of last year's Crystal Chronicles adventure
It's hard to believe that Square-Enix, in less than one year, has already released a true sequel to one of its fairly major franchises, the Nintendo-exclusive Crystal Chronicles spin-off of the Final Fantasy series. Keep in mind that later this year, in Japan, the company will also be releasing Final Fantasy XIII as well as Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: the Crystal Bearers, two games announced during E3 2006. Coming so shortly after its predecessor Ring of Fates, Echoes of Time is a familiar feeling game. However, being similar to a good thing can often times be a good thing.
Evil and immortal James Carville look-alike Larkeicus has tricked you into destroying the town crystal when all you wanted was some medicine. Now the villagers that have raised you since birth have disappeared and it seems like the only way to bring them back is to gather a band of adventurers and retrieve the crystal fragments from across the land. I'll admit I'm not the biggest Final Fantasy fan and I've certainly not played the majority of them to completion but it seems to me like the storylines are all starting to blur together. The NPCs are rounded and interesting enough, especially the mysterious catgirl Sherlotta, but the characters you create and control are essentially blank slates as opposed to the Cloud Strifes or Squalls of the franchise. The plot itself has the occasional twists and turns, particulary the bittersweet meaning of the title ?Echoes of Time?, but it never rises above being standard JRPG fare. Luckily, and somewhat atypical of Square, the story segments are plentiful but brief, never getting in the way of what truly matters, the gameplay.
Echoes of Time plays a lot like a refined version of Ring of Fates, which in turn took some inspiration from games like Secret of Mana or even Diablo. This is an action RPG so combat is about actually attacking enemies as opposed to cycling through menus. There are four classes with varying attributes to choose from based on the four races of the Crystal Chronicles universe. Pre-set members can be recruited from around town but if you choose to create one or more of the four members of your party, you will find that they are very customizable. In addition to gaining new types of weapons ranging from swords to bows as they level up, characters can also take advantage of all of the loot dropped by fallen foes. The combat itself is fast and responsive but using a d-pad to control 3D characters on an isometric plane can be a bit awkward despite the two different camera options. What's also awkward is the spell-casting system which requires you to hold a button and guide a reticule to the desired target. It works fine on flat ground, in fact there it can be fun combining multiple spells, but the game has a hard time getting the spells to reach enemies on higher levels. This is also a problem in the numerous platforming segments where judging distances and lining up jumps quickly become frustrating. Your best bet here is to use the Selkie class, which can jump twice, and then magically teleporting the rest of your party to your current location. The game works best as a straight-up dungeon crawler and this really comes through in the new online multiplayer that feels almost Phantasy Star. Here, coordinating attacks against large-scale bosses is easier and multi-person puzzles can be completed without having to baby-sit moronic AI. DS players can also team up with Wii players, although the Wii version doesn't quite stack up to the DS version. With the first Crystal Chronicles game and Ring of Fates, Square began to create a loose template for its action RPGs and Echoes of Time is quality continuation of that design. It's a lengthy game, and even after beating the story the amount of loot to collect and tweaking that can be done to your characters encourages you to go through dungeons again so it's a good thing the dungeons are fun to go through in the first place.
You can also count on Square games to have high production values and Echoes of Time is no different. The cut scenes are well done and use tricks like viewing the action from your character's perspective. The voice-acting is surprisingly clear and abundant, the stand-out being the way Larkeicus sinisterly replaces his ?w's? with ?v's?. The music is festive and jaunty and most importantly, the graphics are sharp and colorful. Square's new Pollux engine puts out some nice 3D characters and environments for a DS game. The levels themselves have standard themes like fire or graveyard but they are so pleasant to look at that their generic nature is forgiven. The degree of control you have over the appearance of your party members is reflected nicely in their models and the spells like fire and lightning have appropriate graphical effects for their meaning. Echoes of Time, like most Crystal Chronicles games, uses the more classical fantasy style of past Final Fantasy games unlike the guns and motorcycles found in later releases. The style comes through quite nicely through the visuals of Echoes of Time.