The word Theatrhythm, if it isn't obvious, is a combination of "theatre" and "rhythm." Theatrhythm Final Fantasy is a mixture of dozens of animated sequences from thirteen different Final Fantasy games, against which is set a sublime music-matching rhythm game.
Going into it, I knew I was going to need to do something in time to music. What I didn't fully comprehend was the depth of the meta-game that wraps around it. This depth, while it becomes clear eventually, is presented in typical Final Fantasy fashion; that is, the game dumps screeds of information on you all at once, leaving you very confused.
There's actually very little of it that you need to know straight away; just pick your four favorite characters, and head into the game. There's plenty of time to pick up on the nuances of the meta-game later on. It's also completely unnecessary to know anything about Final Fantasy in order to enjoy it.
The basic game is a mix of three types of rhythm game, with a fourth "failure has no consequence" mode chucked in from time to time. In each, while the presentation varies, the core concept does not; tap, swipe, and slide according to the on-screen prompts, exactly in time to the music. Keep doing this well and you'll proceed through the game; start to fail and your characters will take damage; take too much, it's game over time. To get a good idea as to how it works, check out the game's launch trailer:
There are a few different modes, including one that lets you go through each of 13 Final Fantasy games in turn, tapping out key tunes from each game as you go. If nothing else, this mode will make you fall in love with the incredible music of the series; even from the very first (which was 25 years ago), the music is haunting and beautiful.
Once you've cleared the series mode, there are other - much more difficult - modes to keep things interesting. In them, in addition to massive challenge, you'll find yourself earning loads of XP and bonus items, which help improve your capabilities in the meta game. Leveling and unlocking characters gives you bonuses every time you play, and thinking about which of the various options you choose to use when you come up against a tough track adds fun and depth to proceedings.
Throughout, the game takes you by the hand and guides you steadily forward, gradually increasing the complexity and difficulty without any painful spikes along the way. Yes, you can choose to jump into a seriously hard challenge should you choose, but there's always plenty of manageable options to choose from too. Chances are, by the time that hard thing is the only thing left, you'll be more than a match for it.
Genius, too, is the interconnectedness of the mechanics and the music; I've played a lot of these types of games before, but never have I felt so in tune with the soundtrack. The swipes, taps, flicks and other motions you'll need to make leave you feeling less like a gamer and more like a conductor, as each touch is set expertly to the underlying music. Since, as previously mentioned, that music is also utterly wonderful, you'll find yourself tuning everything else out to simply enjoy the musical ride.
Theatrhythm also supports downloadable content. Right now, there are about a dozen tracks you can buy, each of which will cost you about $1.90, and which are selected from a wide range of Final Fantasy games. There isn't much you can do with them (other than hit them in the challenge mode), and there's no preview possible; if you want to hear them, you'll need to front the cash. Still, the investment is slight, and if you find yourself wanting new songs because you love the game so much you've thrashed it, it's pretty hard to argue the value proposition.
About the only downside to the game is the fact that, while present, the impact the RPG elements actually have on the experience is minimal. It's still fun leveling up your party, and the items you can equip them with certainly can make a difference once you get to to harder content. The fact that it hints at something more than it ultimately is, then, is both high praise and slightly disappointing.
Theatrhythm Final Fantasy is a superbly polished game that benefits from having 25 years of amazing material to draw from. It's fun for everyone, and so good that fans of Final Fantasy that are yet to pick up a 3DS have now run out of excuses for not jumping in to Nintendo's handheld. If you're unfamiliar with Final Fantasy, don't be put off; the music is gorgeous, and the gameplay mechanics layered on top are great fun. It's a top-drawer game, and one that will no doubt go on to become an all-time classic.
Platform: Nintendo 3DS