Square(Enix)'s attempts to branch outside their RPG pedigree typically range from peculiar to questionably necessary. Einhänder was an exception, but the rule has been defined by titles like Driving Emotion Type S, The Bouncer, and Dirge of Cerberus. Not bad games, per say, but definitely not up to the impressive legacy left by their flagship Final Fantasy franchise. So when Dissidia was announced, my immediate flashbacks to Ehrgeiz (Square's previous attempt at creating a fighting game with a Final Fantasy flourish) weren't without merit. I smelled a fanboy cash-in, and, despite my adoration of 2008's Crisis Core, not much in the way of substantial entertainment.
Hasty generalization, indeed, because it turns out Dissidia: Final Fantasy is one of the best games of PSP’s 2009 lineup.
That's not to say it didn't take me a while to discover Dissidia’s unexpectedly latent splendor. One of the few weak spots lies with the narrative. Not that there was any logical way for Square-Enix to assemble 22 Final Fantasy heroes and villains (one each from I through X, plus two hidden characters), but the end result was clearly a means to an end and reeks of fan fiction.
The story mode consists of each hero character moving through five different game maps (for a total of ten different "Destiny Odysseys"). On each map/level, they'll move around a chessboard of sorts and engage enemies of various strengths and pick up some treasure along the way. A semblance of a plot is sprinkled in through in game cut scenes along the way, and, despite the entertaining mash up of watching Firion help out Squall, or Cecil battle Ex-Death, the narrative support just isn't there. Theoretically all of the heroes are supposed to be taking their own separate path to support Cosmos in her fight against Chaos (and the Final Fantasy villains) for universal domination. And, while the first few stories you try seem to give credence to that plot, it soon becomes clear that each tale is just a copy and paste cliché that always leads to the same end-game. The inconsistency in regard to continuity is alarming as well; Squall, for example, appears to be the same moping one note loner, where as Cloud seems to have some self aware notion that his battle with Sephiroth is something of a Groundhog Day-like voyage.
While I'm sure that won't matter to younger players (whom ironically probably never played the later Playstation entries, thanks DS!), the notion of an implausible narrative comes across as pompous fluff to aged aficionados of the series. I mean, I've dumped hundreds of hours into every Final Fantasy from IV to XII, and my mind and soul are so deeply invested in those games, my brain isn't going to accept a superfluous attempt at an interlocking narrative.
But that's all a moot point, honestly, because Dissidia is so outrageously endowed with endless callbacks, in-jokes, and references to the series' rich nostalgia, the weak narrative is rendered irrelevant. Hearing the battle theme from Final Fantasy X or the overworld theme from Final Fantasy VIII sends me back in time as it effortlessly reminds me of youth spent with those wonderful games. Seeing characters perform their classic moves and watching them come to life again, regardless of the context, nails any longing I may have had for revisiting those titles. The ridiculous abundance of external trivia, from characters from each franchise presenting tutorials to the wealth of unlockables, are the cherry on top for nostalgic overload.
To be fair, the profound focus of Dissidia isn't its narrative, but the surprisingly deep and engaging combat engine. When I saw it in action, and even when I played it at E3, I passed it off as a lame Power Stone knock off, and I couldn't have been further from the truth. True, battles are carried out in complete 3D space, in real time and with a comparatively limited move set, but as the game proceeds and you get a better grasp of what's going on, Dissidia's depth becomes readily apparent. Combat exchanges intense patterns of memorization found in Tekken or frame counting insanity of Street Fighter for a simpler, but equally desperate and energetic, focus on distance and timing.
Which really doesn't explain much, as Dissidia's combat is quite the rabbit hole. Two types of attacks correspond to two different health arrangements. Brave points start out with reasonable equality (that can be augmented with equipment), and all attacks with the circle button reduce your opponents Brave points. Brave points lost are added to your Brave points which, in turn, directly correspond to the amount of damage you can deal with the other attack button. So, basically, knock off someone's Brave points, add them to your own, and unleash hell.
Attacks can be augmented with abilities, which can be won, typically, by leveling up. Adding a directional push can create an alternate means of performing an offensive attack, where as basic attacks, like the ability to guard or air dash, can be earned and mastered as you build your character. Characters level up and gain experience by both deal damage and winning the fight, which also nets you a distinct amount of PP points (which I'll get to later).
A wrinkle is added in the form of the EX Gauge. When full, this gauge will allow you to perform an EX Burst (think of it as a limit break) that typically deals an outrageous amount of battle-ending damage. It usually requires a timed button press or quick Simon-like pattern to maximize its potential, but it's always a devastating attack none-the-less. Lastly, filling your EX gauge is made easier by the random appearance of the EX Core, which appears at a random spot in the level and typically initiates a mad dash from both parties.
After about an hour with the game, I assumed Dissidia was going to follow the lead of Crisis Core and make me do the same thing 300 different times. With Cecil, all I seemed to be doing was mashing the attack buttons over and over again, with each mach lasting somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty seconds. Again like Crisis Core, I was being rewarded handsomely for my efforts but, I thought I was uncovering a shallow, mash-happy brawler. Only later, when I played as Terra and gained an appreciation for distance or Warrior of Light where I learned the patience of leveling, did Dissidia begin to reveal its incredible depth. Battles went from quick and easy to methodical and daunting. Low HP opponents were playing keep away, aerial specialists refused to engage me on the ground, and the dedicated melee fighters wouldn't leave me alone. Lump all that in with the incredible visual presentation and you're left with a searing and intense fighter that easily dismisses any notion of shallowness.
Fights are spread out over four distinct modes. Quick Battle can be used for leveling your story characters up, whereas Arcade Mode is an experience-free infinity brawler. The meat of the game is in the aforementioned Story Mode, which in itself contains ten unique Destiny Odysseys for each character. Once all ten are completed, the game gives way to a new mode, Shade Impulse, which, aside from being incredibly hard, serves to wrap up the narrative. Ad-hoc battling is also available for all of your human friends, but there is no true infrastructure mode. Lastly, a Coliseum Mode can be unlocked.
By far the most surprising feature of Dissidia is the complete overindulgence of unlockable content. Unlocking abilities from experience is nothing new, and being able to master those abilities shouldn't come as a shock, but the excessive quantity of everything else is amazing. "Accomplishments" act as persistent achievements, giving you 150+ goals to work and build towards completing, and doing so rewards you with an equipable item or accessory. If those goals aren't enough, nearly every story mode battle comes with a prerequisite goal for bonus DP. Unlockable summons are everywhere, and the lengths you'll have to go to get characters to drop rare equipment are immense. PP points can also be acquired throughout various corners of the game. These can then be spent to buy alternate costumes, voice data, music, level caps for the CPU, the ability to use items across different modes, increase skill slots, unlock the villains as playable characters, and a litany of other unlockables. Penelo's journal, the museum, battlegen, chocobo bonuses and, of course, leveling up your characters to the maximum potential will also compete for your attention. I was unlocking stuff every other battle, and at times it almost felt like the main game was an accessory to the never ending goal of accomplishing the game's intrinsic, but not exactly overt, content.
The visual package flex's Square-Enix technical muscle quite well. Despite the PSP's increasingly noticeable lack of poly-pushing-power, Dissidia still looks fantastic. The textures do a fine job of mimicking grooves and lines, while the swaying hair and dangling clothing erase any qualms about a potentially static landscape. Backgrounds could have benefited from some additional detail, but, with a few exceptions, they mainly exist to serve the combat. Particle effects are all over the place and the constant frame rate keeps things fast, which is essential for a game as fast paced as Dissidia. Voice acting is hit and miss, ironically with James Arnold Taylor's Tidus being a strong point, but the hokey dialogue doesn't to the voice actors any favors. Lastly, the music combines a few original tunes with rearranged beloved themes, but they did manage to sneak a few unaltered tunes in as well (The Man with the Machine Gun!).