Square Enix pleasantly surprised me in the summer of 2009 with "Dissidia Final Fantasy," a rich fighting game that injected the trademark production values and traditional RPG character progression of Final Fantasy with the real-time fighting mechanics found in "Crisis Core." Then, they went berserk in the most satisfying way possible by adding enormous depth and individuality to each of the 20+ iconic characters. On many levels, "Dissidia" dwarfed even dedicated fighting staples like "Street Fighter" or "Tekken." It wasn’t uncommon to run into people (myself included) who had sunk over 80 hours into the PSP brawler and were still clamoring for more.
With "Dissidia 012 [duodecim]" – a newly released prequel – Square Enix is aiming to satisfy fans of the original, hook newcomers and deliver an even deeper experience. The looming question is: Does this feel like an expansion pack or a proper sequel?
It’s likely that "Final Fantasy XIII" attracted new fans to the long-running franchise, so let’s quickly run down the core fighting mechanics in "Dissidia 012." Unlike most fighting games, you have two individual health meters. Each character begins a match with both Bravery and HP meters. Using bravery attacks depletes your opponent's bravery and adds it to yours. That bravery count is then used to determine how much damage you inflict when attacking with a separate range of HP attacks. This intense tug of war results in a layer of strategy. Will you relentlessly assault your foe with bravery attacks so that a single devastating HP attack brings victory, or will you gradually chip away by alternating both? Combined with a slew of ranged and melee attacks, monsters to summon, an assist character, sprawling level design and several different game-changers like EX Mode and Bravery Breaks, "Dissidia" offers an abundant fighting experience that also comes with a modest learning curve.
Like its predecessor, the plot of "Dissidia 012" is anemic. The masterful storytelling which is normally a Square Enix signature is absent, replaced by dialogue which is saturated with gloomy observations with a melodramatic narrative from Kain, among many others. And, like its predecessor, I could care less. You’ll stay glued to "Dissidia 012" for the beautifully orchestrated mayhem, the ever-present fan service, and the enormous amount of content to discover.
A total of nine new playable characters join the original cast of 22, including Lightning (FF XIII), Yuna (FF X) and Tifa Lockhart (FF VII). Lightning is influenced by the Paradigm system of "Final Fantasy XIII," which allows her to switch between three tactics (and entire move sets) on the fly (Medic, Ravager, and Commando). It took awhile to grow accustomed to her diversity, and you’ll need to invest some time before you feel comfortable with her, but you’re presented with useful battle tips at opportune times during the campaign. (You’ll be learning the ropes for the first several chapters of the story.) Overall, the new characters are well designed and each boasts a tremendous amount of animations, styles and attacks. I especially appreciated the inclusion of the Laguna Loire of "Final Fantasy VIII," who adds some much needed comic relief (and bullets!) to the otherwise dour narrative.
Assists are another new feature. Simple and effective, assists let you momentarily call in an ally to assist in a single bravery or HP attack, based on how much of the assist bar you have filled. These are particularly useful when your opponent is jetting away from you or nimbly dodging your attacks.
At first, the sheer volume of skills, attacks, equipment and magic to master can be overwhelming. Square has thoughtfully added an RPG Mode for "Dissidia 012," allowing timid players to issue commands in a more turn-based approach. For experienced players, however, this is merely an iteration of the game's Command Mode and it detracts from the appeal of the game, which is the free roaming and progressively intense real-time battles.
[Below: The chaotic awesomeness of an EX Burst attack]
Rounding out the new features is an open world map to traverse between chapters, which succeeds in conjuring up some pre-"Final Fantasy XIII" nostalgia. There’s nothing awe-inspiring here, but it does break up the monotony of the chess-board style navigation during dungeon levels.
All told, "Dissidia 012" has just enough new game play elements to make things feel fresh, and I can’t stress enough how much depth there is to learning a single character, let alone the package total of 30. Just as I was questioning the value proposition, I discovered that completing the main story unlocks the entirety of "Dissidia." Indeed, there are two complete games packed onto this UMD (Universal Media Disc). For persistent players who proceed to defeat the original campaign, a third and lengthy secret scenario – basically a playable epilogue – is unearthed. Then there’s the Arcade Mode, and along with that is the ability to create original quests; replays can be viewed and edited, etc. Is it worth the full price? It’s arguably worth more, especially to newcomers. If you only put 40 hours into "Dissidia 012," it’s likely you’ve barely scratched the surface.
Praise aside, I’m lamenting the lack of true online play in addition to the local ad hoc. This is a missed opportunity, and one that Sega rectified with their "Phantasy Star Portable sequel." Square’s refusal to include internet multiplayer matches is inexcusable at this point, especially with the popularity of this series in the West.
Still, with the robust fighting mechanics of "Dissidia 012," stellar production values and numerous modes, there’s plenty here to engage a player like me who poured over 80 hours into the original. While it lacks a compelling story and online play, the rest more than compensates. Even if you have just a passing interest in fighting games or the Final Fantasy franchise, "Dissidia 012" belongs in your PSP (Playstation Portable) collection. Honestly, a 1000 word review doesn’t do the game justice, but I’ve endeavored to at least summarize how exceptional it can be. The rest is up to you.