With Sony Computer Entertainment's first handheld platform, the PlayStation Portable (PSP), being outsold by Nintendo's DS in Japan, few Japanese third party publishers have bothered to develop high-profile games, let alone RPGs to make use of the sleek handheld's high specs. Square Enix for instance has so far only released updated versions of its popular PlayStation title Valkyrie Profile and its board game Itadaki Street for the platform. However, with a new version of 1997's strategy RPG classic Final Fantasy Tactics, and Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, the new year gives PSP-owning RPG fans a few more options to look forward to. This counts in particular for Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, the highest profile RPG to make its way to PSP so far.
Being the fourth installment of Square Enix's commercially successful Compilation of Final Fantasy VII, Crisis Core is developed by the company's first production team. Tetsuya Nomura and Kazushige Nojima, two Final Fantasy VII, veterans are responsible for the game's character designs and scenario. Producer Hideki Imaizumi and composer Takeharu Ishimoto might not be so well known to the general public. A veteran arranger, Ishimoto only recently began working as a composer. In addition to Crisis Core, he is also scoring Final Fantasy Agito XIII, and has previously worked on Last Order Final Fantasy VII and Before Crisis: Final Fantasy VII. Having worked on Final Fantasy X and X-2, Imaizumi is no stranger to Square Enix's flagship series either. Last but not least, Hajime Tabata, director of Before Crisis: Final Fantasy VII is serving as Crisis Core's director.
If the screenshots and trailers shown to the public so far are any indication, Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII will become a showcase for the PSP's capabilities. In fact, the development team has pushed the envelope so far that Crisis Core could easily be mistaken for a PlayStation 2 title, if it wasn't for the small screen. Both the character models of familiar faces, such as Zack, Cloud or Sephiroth, and the game's backgrounds look incredibly detailed. Furthermore, the game's engine is very well capable of throwing double digit numbers of enemies at you. Event sequences are sometimes displayed in real-time and sometimes in the impressive CG which have become a trademark of Square Enix and the Final Fantasy series since Final Fantasy VII.
For Crisis Core, Square Enix opted for a real-time battle system. Similar to Final Fantasy XII, battles take place on the field map, meaning there is no transition between exploration and battle mode. Unlike Final Fantasy XII however, enemies are not visible on the field map. Instead, players are thrown into random battles every now and then. In battle players have access to a command bar. By pressing either of the two shoulder buttons, a command from said command bar can be selected, and subsequently executed by pressing the X button. Magic in its many forms is available, too. Zack however can not only attack, but also dodge incoming attacks by rolling to the side or blocking. A roulette-like gauge in the upper left corner of the screen will occasionally provide Zack with power-ups, even though it is not entirely clear just yet how this feature works exactly. Whether Crisis Core will make use of the PlayStation Portable's WiFi features remains to be seen as well.
Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII will shed light on the few remaining mysteries of Final Fantasy VII's universe. Therefore players will assume control of Zack. The dark-haired member of Shinra's elite unit "Soldier" was introduced in Final Fantasy VII as Cloud's friend and Aeris' fiancé. An optional event scene accessible in Final Fantasy VII highlighted his tragic end at the outskirts of Midgar, but otherwise little light has been shed on this elite combatant's history. This will change with Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII. Featuring appearances by Sephiroth, Cloud and Aeris, among many familiar faces, the game will not only explore Zack's job as a member of Soldier, but as the title suggests, also deal with the infamous showdown at Mount Nibel's Mako Reactor.
Originally scheduled for a 2006 release date in Japan, Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII is now set to hit Japanese retail store shelves later this year. Whenever that might be, PSP owners will finally receive an (action) RPG that pushes the system's considerable hardware power to its limits. Now one can only hope, that it will be the first installment in the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII that lives up to the high standards set by the original game.