Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles was a game primed for player choice. Players could become one of four unique races, prioritize certain weapons and statistics, play together or separately, and head off and explore the world in any direction that pleased them. Its first sequel would have to take the foundations of the first game and attempt to improve them. The most obvious addition would be online multiplayer, and the second would be more expansive character customization.
The only problem is that Ring of Fates did neither of these things.
In many ways, the first of the two DS Crystal Chronicles games were a step to the side rather than backwards or forwards. Local multiplayer did exist, allowing players to team up as one of the four races, although the character models were directly based upon their story counterparts. The single player story, on the other hand, was an epic, sprawling adventure set long before the events of the first title – meaning timeline shenanigans would start to become a prevalent issue in the series moving forward. Before we rail too hard on the game for what it isn’t, however, let’s talk instead about what it is:
Ring of Fates tells the story of twin Clavats, Yuri and Chelinka, and their journey to shed light on the past as well as the fate the Red Moon holds for them. Red is generally a bad color in Crystal Chronicles, so get used to it. The narrative in Ring of Fates is surprisingly adult, featuring some grisly murder, tragedy, and loneliness, though there is a fair share of lighthearted humor present made to counterbalance this. As the two travel throughout the world, searching for answers, they are accompanied by members of the other three Crystal Chronicles races, each having their own unique characteristics and abilities.
In true Nintendo DS fashion, the party is able to utilize a number of touchscreen gimmicks, such as drawing in floating blocks, or stirring an alchemy pot. However, the party’s artificial intelligence is more than a bit weak, which can often lead to unintentional deaths and health loss on their part that the player will have to make up. A number of the game’s dungeons feature traps and tricks that are easy for the playable character to navigate, but any party members following close by will usually fall into pits, fail to outrun spike traps, and make a general mockery of themselves. Hey, what can you expect from DS AI?
The dungeon design in Crystal Chronicles is actually quite nice, however, presenting a variety of environments and combat scenarios that force players to approach with caution. While the majority of these are linear and feature a number of switches that open specific doorways, others offer several paths and player freedom. The amount of unique environments and their storyline significance is impressive, however a few feel somewhat forced, like the prison island that is volcano themed because… well, the game needed a volcano biome. The enemy diversity is excellent, however, with a number of animals appearing in areas that are contextually sensible, while others feature as minibosses or otherwise simply due to their stature and level of danger. The game’s item acquisition system doesn’t push for inventory management while inside dungeons, saving any and all materials gained for the end of the ordeal, allowing players to take what they want. The magic system is a bit less than stellar, however, limiting usage of magicite to the amount of slots held by a specific character. These slots can be expanded only by purchases in the central hub, but its relatively low maximum limit prevents mage-centric characters from maximizing their area of expertise.
Ring of Fates has a narrative filled with dramatic revelations, odd ties to parallel dimensions, and the like, but the story and its characters never reach a point where the emotional payoff feels justified. The strangest aspect of all of this is that, although the single player campaign has its fair share of odd humor and characters, the local multiplayer mode has a great deal more charm due to its strange rebranding of most of the characters from the main narrative. There’s much more witty dialogue in the multiplayer mode, as well as a meaningful indicator of progress in the form of the central hub’s population slowly regrowing. The multiplayer mode shares all of the boss battles and environments of the single player narrative in the same chronological order, but it allows players to exploit the game’s economy a great deal due to focusing on a single character rather than four. Sadly, the game’s only online feature was the ability to doodle moogle faces and exchange them via wifi, which means that the multiplayer served mostly as a way to replay the game with more specific builds in mind, breaking the equipment system due to a stronger focus on grinding for a specific character.
The game’s greatest strength is its three-tiered difficulty system, where players can restart and replay both game modes on higher difficulties, which in reality means stronger enemies and higher rare material drop rates. This means the game feels replayable multiple times over due to the steadily increasing challenge, with some of the New Game Double Plus enemies being extremely difficult to overcome. This is also facilitated by action-based combat that allows for a number of weapon styles and charge attacks in addition to the magicite ring-lock system, an ability carried over from the original, albeit more difficult to achieve here without multiplayer. There is only one essential question that remains regarding Ring of Fates, however, which is: is the game worth playing when its sequel executes a number of ideas just as well, if not better, than it? Echoes of Time has features that are sadly absent from Ring of Fates, one of them being online multiplayer.
Without discussing some of the major differences that make Echoes of Time an objectively superior game, the key appeal of Ring of Fates will almost always come down to the narrative. While I have strayed from mentioning a great deal about this narrative, it is essentially more serious in tone and features a core cast that has a great deal more dialogue. Though it might seem a bit strange to play what was initially conceived as a multiplayer-centric dungeon crawler for its single player narrative, Echoes of Time’s online multiplayer is no longer functional unless utilizing emulation and several other tricks, which puts the games on a more equal playing field. However, if you only plan on playing these games solo, their multiplayer modes are more or less similar with some slight variations in mechanics. While I personally prefer Echoes of Time’s more absurd narrative, should your preference come down to more fantasy-oriented and fable-like storytelling, Ring of Fates tends to echo the original game in tone and style a bit more.
Of course, a sequel to this game would eventually arrive, and its variety of playable formats and thoughtful addressing of the core mechanics of Ring of Fates would result in one of my personal favorite DS titles. Next time, we’ll explore the wacky and delightful Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Echoes of Time.