Monday, 25 Sep 2023

Theathythm Final Bar Line Review – Da Da Da Daa Da Da Da Da Daaah

When you’re gauging whether or not to buy a rhythm game, the songs are the make or break. When you’re dealing with a game that spans a series so beloved as Final Fantasy, you want to be sure you’re in for some primo nostalgia bait, and Theatrhythm Final Bar Line is extremely confident that it knows what you want. It features at least five different versions of Battle on the Big Bridge. For some, that will be endorsement enough.

Gameplay is largely what you’d expect from a Theatrhythm game but with some added interactivity thanks to the inclusion of a second analogue stick. There are three different types of notes to hit during songs, becoming more complex at higher difficulty levels. The patterns are well-mapped to the rhythm and feel natural to play through. You’ll often find yourself getting into a Zen-like state of flow as you play, becoming absorbed by the beat. On more than a few occasions, I found my mind wandering, thinking about the most random things while still nailing every note with the best rating. Tap, tap, tap, slide, slide, what shall we have for tea tonight, hold up, chicken probably, hold down, release. It feels incredibly natural, and the simplicity of the game’s roster of triggers makes it easy to see where you go wrong, with your skill growth being both perceptible and satisfying. To begin with, I struggled specifically with held notes that end with slide triggers, but now they come as easily as anything.

Difficulty ranges from the incredibly easy to the impossibly hard. While every song in the game has three separate difficulty levels, allowing you to dip your toe in the waters of higher difficulties using songs you know well, some of them have a fourth ‘Supreme’ difficulty. These can get ridiculously challenging, and I’ve only managed to beat a few of them. However, this isn’t a frustrating experience. I know that there is a Practice mode that lets you zip back and forth between sections quickly to learn a song, should I feel the need to completely 100 percent the game. The mere fact that you can pick the easiest difficulty for each and every song and suffer no in-game downsides is also a testament to how accessible this game is, it’s a Final Fantasy game first and a rhythm game second; anyone should be able to experience it from front to back.

Final Bar Line also does what no other Theatrhythm has been able to do before now and manages to implement engaging RPG elements. In past games, you could safely ignore them. In this game, levelling up your characters is no longer just a way to boost your health bar and last longer in the harder songs. The Series Quests, which are the main way you unlock new songs as you play through individual titles, will have you setting up specific parties to take on certain enemy types and bosses to take advantage of elemental weaknesses or status ailments. If you’re just here for the music, you can ignore this, but as Final Fantasy fans are overwhelmingly likely to enjoy RPG elements, making many of these optional quests impossible to complete without proper planning feels like a very intelligent move. While it feels granular at times, it adds a sense of purpose to the hordes of characters that you unlock, all of whom have different skill sets.

Apart from Series Quests and the basic song selector, Final Bar Line also features an Endless Mode that unlocks after you’ve completed a fair bit of the game and seen the credits roll. This adds more engagement to the typical postgame – instead of picking random songs yourself, you can let the game do it for you, with quests of increasing difficulty that you’re not allowed to ignore. Endless Mode solves the issue of creating a competent postgame that keeps the RPG elements relevant long after you’ve completed all the regular quests. Add to this the inclusion of both couch co-op and online multiplayer, and you’ve got a game that will last years.

When you’re making a game about music that covers a series with thousands of songs to choose from, song choice is important. Even with almost 400 slots to fill, narrowing down the classics, the must-haves, and the fan-favourites couldn’t have been an easy task. With five different versions of Battle on the Big Bridge, it’s obvious that these were the right people for that task. Final Bar Line covers all the usual bases – the games with the highest numbers of songs are FF7 and FF14, naturally, but it’s nice to see lots of songs from the games with the stronger OSTs, like FF9 and FF5. Particularly endearing are the impassioned efforts to include some of the spinoffs and lesser-known entries – Record Keeper, Mobius, and Mystic Quest all have Series Quests to play through, for example, with the former getting to show off its wonderful arrangements and the latter two having supremely fun soundtracks. There are a few odd decisions, like ignoring Final Fantasy Tactics Advance entirely and not giving the incredible World of Final Fantasy soundtrack more attention, but no one could argue with the final result.

The love for Final Fantasy shines through most when you notice the smaller but still impressive details scattered throughout the game. Song backgrounds are almost always incredibly relevant to the tune at hand – the Battles of the Big Bridges take place on bridges, for example, and there is a staggering variety to these backgrounds that replicate even the slightest details from the games. Every song has its own little icon featuring the scenes and characters of the game at hand in the cutesy Theatrhythm art style. Every single pixel of this game is a celebration.

Theatrhythm Final Bar Line is the platonic ideal of fanservice. There are plenty of people who would have been happy with a port of Curtain Call or simply bringing All-Star Carnival over to the West, so it’s a delightful surprise to see just how much effort and care has been poured into a title like this. It is endlessly charming, bursting with content, and treats its content with reverence. This is a game built with love for Final Fantasy, and that expression of love is resplendent, infectious, and mellifluous. I love this game with my entire thesaurus.

Score: 4.5/5. A PS5 code was provided by the publisher.

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