Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII Review

It’s not easy to live up to the Final Fantasy legacy. With twelve entries in its core series, numerous offshoots like the strategy based Tactics games, and two feature length films, Final Fantasy fans expect more than just a high quality gaming experience; they demand emotionally affecting epics, sweeping musical scores, and breath taking visuals that surpass the average video game. Final Fantasy VII is the most well-known and celebrated entry in the twenty year-old role-playing series and anything that carries its name has even more to live up to. Starting in 2004, Square-Enix began the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII project, a series of games revisiting the world of the original 1997 game, that included Before Crisis, a cell-phone only prequel, Advent Children, a CGI movie sequel, and the just released Dirge of Cerberus, an action RPG side story starring Vincent Valentine, a secret, optional character in FF7. Dirge of Cerberus doesn’t quite live up to its pedigree but it manages to be a capable, fun game with polished production values and tons of wantonly indulgent fan service.

Dirge’s story picks up six years after the events of FF7 and one year after Advent Children. Vincent Valentine is relaxing in the town of Kalm when a mysterious military organization called Deepground attacks, kidnapping pedestrians and wrecking up the place. Vincent, being the reluctant but honorable hero type, springs into action with his three barreled, titular gun Cerberus blazing and the resulting adventure has Vincent visiting familiar locations, running into old friends, revealing the details of his shadowy past, and shooting the crap out of bad guys left and right, including the super powered elite soldiers of Deepground known as the Tsviets. The narrative is nowhere near as ambitious as the globe trotting epic in FF7 but it’s engaging enough to keep a player’s attention across the twelve hours it takes to complete the main game. Where it falters is in the pacing of its many non-interactive cut scenes, a problem which has hampered nearly all of Square-Enix’s games since story scenes became fully voiced in Final Fantasy X. Nothing takes the urgency and excitement out of your story quite like when thirty percent of your dialogue based scenes are just characters slowly walking around and spouting out exposition and melodramatic platitudes in-between awkward pauses.

Luckily, these scenes are easy to swallow since Dirge of Cerberus is a great looking game. Tetsuya Nomura’s character designs are rendered and animated very well in both cut scenes and in play, the environments capture the decayed, industrial urban centers from FF7 (though not many of the bucolic landscapes from the same world) in excellent atmospheric detail, and the CGI cinemas are every bit as gorgeous as those in Advent Children. A few of the newer characters however, like sisters Shelke and Shalua as well as the Tsviets, seem out of place in the world of FF7, their design more in line with Nomura’s designs from Final Fantasy X and X-2. Masashi Hamauzu’s score is a highlight of Dirge’s presentation, recalling the themes of Uematsu’s original score without imitating it and still managing to expertly frame the faster pace of an action RPG.

And Dirge of Cerberus is most certainly an action RPG, not a straight action game. The latest in a decade long tradition of Square-Enix action RPGs, in line with the Secret of Mana and Brave Fencer Musashi series and even the Final Fantasy spin-off Crystal Chronicles, Dirge has all the characteristics of the traditional Square-Enix action RPG, melding light, accessible role-playing elements such as stat building and character customization with a more methodical approach to action gaming mores like swordplay and in this case, shooting. Players control Vincent from the third person, moving him with the left analogue stick and controlling the camera or aiming with the right. R1 brings up a targeting reticule and is used for shooting the equipped gun, with up to three different guns available at any time. Vincent has a basic four-hit melee combo that’s effective in close quarters, can double jump despite, cast material based magic, and use items for healing and changing into one of Vincent’s classic Limit Break monster forms for a brief period. The play is satisfying but little variety in the challenges keeps it from greatness. A single stealth mission starring Cait Sith and a cute but needless story level on Cid’s airship isn’t really enough to keep the majority of the game from feeling routine by the end. Dirge has an unusual and very effective stat building system for an action RPG, one that actually necessitates that a player gets better at playing the game. At the end of each stage, the player is given a rank depending on their performance in a number of categories from accuracy to the number of enemies dispatched. Your rank determines the amount of experience you receive to apply towards either leveling up Vincent himself or, if you decide to change the experience points into money, Vincent’s guns. It’s not an especially deep system but definitely an effective and unique choice on the part of first time director Takayoshi Nakazato.

Many of the criticisms leveled against Dirge throughout its development and following its Japanese release this past winter had chiefly to do with the fact that while Dirge of Cerberus had the high production values of other Final Fantasies, the gameplay itself was shallow and broken. Even after Square-Enix went back to refine the action for Dirge’s release in North America, speeding up Vincent’s movement on screen and changing the third person camera to sit farther back from the character model, the enthusiast press maintained that Dirge is little more than a sub-par third-person shooter with adequate FPS style controls in the vein of the Star Wars Battlefront series. While it’s true that Dirge doesn’t have the fluid speedy play of a great shooter, it really isn’t supposed to and to level that as a mark against it is to miss the point entirely. Dirge may not be the homerun that other Square-Enix breaks from the norm like Einhander or Tobal No. 2 are, and it may not be the groundbreaking moment in gaming history its predecessor was, but it does a yeoman’s job of mixing role-play with 3D run and gun action and gives fans exactly what the want: more Final Fantasy VII.

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