By the time your favourite band’s fourth album has come around, you may know what to expect from them – they’ve got all that experimental stuff out their system, they know what their strengths are, they know how to write a crowd-pleaser, and there’s still enough creative fuel left in the tank to surprise you.
But maybe, just maybe, your pop-rock favourites have used all their gimmicks up at this point, and what’s left is a sonically pleasing, perfectly serviceable release: safe, predictable, and taking no risks. That’s pretty much what Square Enix has done with Final Fantasy Theatrhythm Final Bar Line.
And that’s no bad thing, of course. To save you scrolling down to the bottom to check, this game is getting 4 / 5 here at VG247 – that’s better than average, good, a recommendation from me. It’s a great package, featuring some incredible songs, buckets of love for the core series, and some really aesthetically pleasing presentation, to boot. The rhythm action RPG somehow crams over 385 playable songs and 104 playable characters onto your Switch cart or PS4 hard-drive, and gives you multiple ways to play through the symphonic catalogue.
Whether you want to take to ‘events’ (FMV sequences that you play along to), ‘battles’ (RPG-style fights where your team of heroes and villains piles damage onto assorted series enemies), or ‘fields’ (travelling songs where you’re tasked with traversing as far as you can in a limited time), Theatrhythm Final Bar Line has plenty to offer you. ‘Fields’ and ‘battles’ now have a fusion of gameplay features from previous instalments, if you’ve played them, and the ‘events’ have been simplified so that you can see that movie behind the note map – which is the point, after all. The Feature Drive mechanic from the 3DS games has been removed, as have all the swipes and tactile inputs. More on that later.
Say Final Fantasy 9 is your favourite – good taste, by the way. You will be given a key at the start of the game that will unlock the series, and its 18 or so songs. You will also unlock its characters, a smattering of favourites from the game (in this case it’s Zidane, Vivi, Garnet, Eiko and Kujo). Then, you’ll need to play through the songs sort-of in order to then unlock them in free play. En route, you’ll level up your heroes and will need to solve some light RPG-style puzzles in order to clear quests.
One boss, let’s say Silver Dragon, might need you to have Garnet in your party when you beat it. Easily done; switch out Squall from FF8 and, boom, Cid’s your uncle. Done. Others are more tricky – needing to off a boss after beating nine enemies, for example, is hard. You’ll need to fight through more games and more stories, unlock more mages that know ice magic, and level them up enough so they can bring down loads of enemies before the battle music runs out. It’s good brain food, and low-key enough for the grinding to not really get too aggravating.
It’s just that the inputs and note-mapping aren’t consistently good enough to keep you caring about all 400+ tracks. And that’s fair enough, really: making One-Winged Angel as good as that once incidental track from Final Fantasy X-2 was always going to be a tough ask. But there’s a big disparity in the tracks that feel good to play, and the ones that feel like filler. Going back to that analogy up top, it’s like sitting through your favourite band’s latest album in order to get to the singles. It’s worth it as a package, but you know in a few listens you’ll be skipping tracks four through seven.
Then there’s the inputs themselves; it plays well enough on both Switch and PS4, but I have found myself missing the stylus achingly. Swiping the notes away, or coming out of holding a note with a big swipe up felt right – like you were a mini-conductor, ordering troops about whilst summoning the swells and rises in the music. Relegating that to a little nudge of the thumbstick is less satisfying, more finicky, and not as grand.
Holding two notes and swapping between them quickly as melodies arpeggiate feels really good, though. As does doing two little nudges of your thumbsticks for a big final note to really finish things off. So, though you’ll find yourself wishing for some phantom stylus as you play through Man With A Machine Gun, doing Dancing Mad with the new inputs is fine. But maybe that’s just me, doing my Theatrhythm version of ‘I liked it before it was cool’.
This is a top-tier rhythm action game that’s pitched as a love letter to the Final Fantasy series, brimming with content and packed with love and care. But – like some of the more ambitious double-albums out there – it sometimes feels like quantity over quality, as you trudge through some of the less well thought-out note maps in order to get to the ones you know will inspire you. Some will have more patience for that than others. Given that I’ve already played through Blue Fields about 20 times, I’ll leave you to figure out where I land on that.
Final Fantasy Theatrhythm Final Bar Line launches for Nintendo Switch and PS4 on February 16, 2023. This review is for the Switch version of the game, with a code supplied by the publisher.