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Dissidia 012 [duodecim] Final Fantasy review: A tale of souls and buster swords, eternally retold

Nathan Grayson

As far as lumbering, big-budget franchises go, Final Fantasy's a bit of an anomaly. Yes, yes, the giant swords, giant-er hair styles, and comparatively small horse birds contribute to that, but indulge me for a moment while I discuss business trends.

In an ocean of same-y sequels where all the major players seem content to tread water, Final Fantasy's willingness to regularly reinvent itself is pretty damn impressive. Well, when it comes to the main series, anyway. Spin-offs, it seems, don't count – at least, if Dissidia 012 [duodecim] Final Fantasy is any indication. So, remember all that intense love/hatred/apathy you felt toward the original Dissidia? That's pretty much what you'll be getting here as well.

Gallery: Dissidia 012 [duodecim] Final Fantasy (2/8/2011) | 5 Photos

For those of you prone to fleeing in terror at the sight of words like "duodecim" or logos that read like decrees from Ceasar, here's the gist: Dissidia plucks heroes and villains from all corners of Final Fantasy's past and forces them to square off against one another. In other words, it's a Final Fantasy diehard's dream come true. So, a goofy title and a frothing herd of day-one buyers, huh? At this point, you're probably adding new segments to your ten-foot pole so you can more effectively not touch this.

Here's the thing, though: the original Dissidia definitely wasn't a simple cash-in, and neither is Dissidia 012. In fact, the series' particular brand of combat is a refreshing, well-thought-out break from the norm that you can still appreciate even if you don't own a Cloud's sword replica letter opener. I'm mostly happy to report that Dissidia 012 does very little to change that. You still duke it out in open, partially destructible arenas, you still dodge and dash about like a zipper-clad Dragon Ball Z character, and you still essentially have two kinds of health bars.

That last part, especially, is key because it completely turns the traditional fighting game rhythm on its head. Bravery points dictate how much damage you can do with an HP attack, so it's best to sap points away from your opponent with bravery before moving in for the kill. As a result, battles quickly become frantic games of cat-and-mouse where the tide can turn in the blink of an eye. Sure, you may be at death's door after getting Aerith-ed (still too soon?) by good ol' Sephiroth, but if you dodge behind and give him a taste of his own medicine, he might decide to re-think his relentless pursuit and get some bravery back instead.

That's not to say combat's completely unchanged, however. Rather, it's been tweaked in ways that – though incredibly minute – are mostly for the better. Foremost, there's now an Assist system, which allows you to politely request that one of your party members take some time out of their busy schedule of watching and gawking to actually, you know, help for a couple seconds. This adds another layer of complexity to what's otherwise a fairly straightforward "dash, dodge, dodge, dash, strike" system, so it's much appreciated.

Really, though, that mostly serves to highlight combat's central problem: there's not a whole lot to it. Sure, it looks damn cool -- what with all the twirly leaping and enough sparkly special effects to distract people from an entire Michael Bay film -- but it's very much an instance of style over substance. Regardless of which character you're playing, optimal fight tactics are more or less the same. Some characters can just execute them better than others.

Also, I always felt a slight-but-irksome disconnect from my avatar, which stemmed from some very fundamental flaws that Square Enix evidently chose to sweep under the rug. For one, the camera -- Square's arch-nemesis since time immemorial -- is easily confused by all the fast-moving action, and it quickly grows tiresome. More damaging, however, is the ebb and flow of combat itself, which focuses on undeniably beautiful animations that tend to take on lives of their own. As a result, if an attack doesn't land, you get to watch your character practice their nice little dance routine for a couple more seconds, and that's a one-way ticket to Unavoidable Counterattack City, where the weather is always cloudy with a high chance of swords.

Put simply, I've read better crossover fan fiction... is, er, what I would be saying if I read that kind of stuff.

You'd think a long, robust story mode would be just the thing to make the combat's flaws less of a bitter pill to swallow, but in Dissidia 012 that's definitely not the case. It's a shame, too, because on paper, the story really looks like something special. An explorable overworld with character-appropriate background music? Check. New items, skills, and equipment ripe for the unlocking? Check. A gaggle of classic dysfunctional videogame characters rolled up into one big Katamari of crazy? Just imagine a picture of Kefka's face in the box where the check should be.

Sadly, in their own ways, each of those would-be bullet points actually ends up detracting from the overall experience. The overworld, for instance, comes off as an afterthought -- content to recycle environments and revert back to the original Dissidia's board game format when anything of real importance is happening. Unlockable character upgrades, meanwhile, fail to provide a sense of progression, as the right level/equipment loadout is more or less required if you want to go toe-to-toe with anything on an even playing field. Otherwise, battles become lopsided affairs that see you backpedaling and making the occasional hit-and-run with full knowledge that each blow could be your last.

And then there's the actual plot. Put simply, I've read better crossover fan fiction ... is, er, what I would be saying if I read that kind of stuff. Yeah, that. Aside from the occasional amusing meeting of the minds, it's pretty much all cryptic pseudo-philosophical babble, cringe-worthy banter, and rehashes of the same themes we've seen explored throughout the main series. Worse still, the large cast -- which has ballooned even further with new additions like Tifa, Yuna, Vaan, and Lightning -- means that any opportunity for nuanced writing gets thrown out the window. It's quantity over quality, after all, but it'd have been nice if Square Enix didn't choose to emphasize each character's most notoriously obnoxious central trait. So Vaan's incredibly whiny, Yuna's passive and wishy-washy, and Lightning may actually be made out of cardboard. The plot itself, meanwhile, lacks any compelling hooks. It actually takes place before the original Dissidia, but it's the same Cosmos vs Chaos song-and-dance as last time, so don't expect any real twists or revelations.

That's not to say, however, that Dissidia 012 is intolerable. Rather, it's just not particularly great. There's fun to be had with its flashy battles and who's-who roster of familiar faces, but if you're looking for depth or longevity, you'll want to start kicking up dirt elsewhere. Make no mistake: this is the best Dissidia's ever been. Problem is, it could still be much better.

This review is based on the PSP retail version of Dissidia 012 [duocedim] Final Fantasy provided by Square Enix. Nathan Grayson is a freelance writer based out of Dallas, Texas. His work has appeared in Maximum PC, GamePro, GamesRadar, Paste Magazine, and VG247. His goal in life is to build a trampoline house, which is exactly what it sounds like.

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