Developed By: Indieszero
Published By: Square Enix
Platforms: PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch
Reviewed On: PS5
Review Copy Provided By Bandai Namco Entertainment Asia
How much do you like your Final Fantasy Experience? For me, it is a beloved franchise since its debut in the 1980s, theming with fantasy and captivating players into its world with its storytelling, epic music grandeur, optional classes, monsters, and unique characters that immerse your attention back to its world. While I do start out and have a particular soft spot for Final Fantasy VII, I have invested in much into other Final Fantasy series/ spinoffs over the years – some are incredible but there are also some which fell short of expectations. Unfortunately, Theatrhythm Final Bar Line is a mix of both because while it does serve its intention to celebrate the franchise through its many songs and have a certain degree of flow and charm. At the same time, it falls short to immerse me back into that nostalgic realm that the Final Fantasy series is well-known for. And here is my reasons for why.
Art And Animation – Acts Just Like Everyone Else
I do like the artistic approach of dolling up all characters and goofy cheeky looking enemies monsters, making them look like those chibi Funko pop/Pop Figures versions of the said characters. Giving them a sense of a pleasant cute distinct alternative look to the series. The design kinda backfired on the animation department because of the minuscule hands and feet of every character, making their actions look small and eventually go unnoticed during gameplay.
Moreover, on a side note, most of the attack in-game animations, idle pose, victory pose, and feedback animations are all but similar no matter which characters you choose for your party. As much as there are some iconic summon spells animations (and Highwind ships) in the game, they don’t have much of an impact and tend to just be a brief appearance. Besides that, I don’t notice or recognize many of the iconic poses, body language, or attacks from characters like Cloud and Squall that would make me nostalgically drown in Final Fantasy’s glory. Most attacks implemented appears visually generic and are followed by a series of jumping attack in groups, with a few unique skills here and there, but they are few and far between.
Moreover, as the gameplay starts, the fields of combat and the environment are generically empty as it is the most missed opportunity to add up recognizable landmarks or in the right portrayal angle and distance to show them more. At times I wish by simply just standing idly during combat doesn’t mean that the background should remain stagnant but rather be peppered with flashback cutscenes or scenic views of riding on a train or a Highwind – changing sceneries as the parties were fighting on it, a missed opportunity of an enhancement experience to me.
Enhancement in the sense of the visual dynamic I needed for ever-changing settings or location of the action, shifting in real-time from one flow to the other for better visuals in gameplay, making it visually less repetitive.
And the NPCs from the series are missing to either fight alongside you, do their normal chores, or cheer you on as you hit the right note to deliver that small sense of rewarding cue, it felt dry in that department as well. On a side note, enemies and allies can be seen running in the background of the field only at the end credits of the game as a cinematic, showing that in actual fact, this can be done.
Over time I felt that I am trekking or standing idly in an empty generic land while facing enemies – until I tune out instead of staying in tune.
From what I observed, Theatrhythm mainly focuses on the cute art aspects style of the iconic main characters, monsters, and bosses, but missed capturing the wholesome essence of what makes Final Fantasy great. In a sense, Theatrhythm misses the opportunity to celebrate Theatrhythm as a whole which should include the NPCs, the people, the sceneries, and the landmarks that also make up the world of Final Fantasy in players’ hearts and minds.
Music And Sound Effects – Sounds Like Distant Memories
For Final Fantasy fans, you will be pleased with the diverse range of music styles featured in the game, ranging from pop ballads, retro, battle themes, and epic orchestral pieces. This Iconic pieces of melodies will transport you to the world of Final Fantasy without any Highwinds and thus evoking many ranges of emotions, taking players nostalgically on a journey through the series setting and stories in players’ minds, and giving you a sense of adventuring with your party.
The problem I have is the lack of voice acting and attack/damaging sound effects in Theatrhythm, making it sound like a one-sided affair. As a result, background gameplay in combat sounds softly bland and mostly non-existent, almost as if they are not part of the game or are rather distant from each other.
On the other hand, the sound effects for hitting notes with the buttons chime in like digital high-pitch drumsticks hitting random objects of glass and cardboard that doesn’t match the action on-screen that comes with sword slash or magic attack. But at times the sound does work with some music stages, but at most times it clashes with the music or is piercingly disruptive with the actions taking place in the background. I wish there was an option to alter the sounds suited to the series, stages, characters, and combat scene by ourselves as players.
As a side note, holding down a button has an interesting prism-like charging sound effect but unfortunately, it doesn’t have any noticeable impact on charge-up attacks, skills, or summons, nor does it make the character noticeably run faster in the fields, making it look disconnected from the action and environment happening in the background.
The music in Theatrhythm hits many different notes in terms of action, battle themes, and emotional moments from the series, evoking many feelings in the game. But, that alone shouldn’t be the sole factor that holds everything together as other aspects of the game should also contribute to making the overall experience more enjoyable and as visually engaging.
Story, Design, And Gameplay – In A Constant Linear Loop
Theatrythm’s gameplay elements are simplistic, only requiring light button pressing, holding, and separate analog stick movements to trigger circles as they move horizontally to the target flowing from left to right as opposed to Taiko No Tatsujin right to left. This also includes a mechanic of four separate rows of inputs at the top of the screen, depending on the melody, which can be pressed separately or simultaneously at any point in time and could become quite challenging on its own, especially when playing on higher difficulty levels as more buttons tend to pop up at the same time. The gameplay loop in button pressing has a certain amount of flow to the music to make it enjoyable, especially more noticeable and appreciated in harder difficulties.
However, the button pressing action (top) and combat elements are displayed separately (bottom) and thus making it difficult to be given the right attention they deserved as the top of the screen demands a lot of the player’s focus, impeding my full view of the actions occurring below at the same time. To the point that the options menu comes with a removable background combat option, making the RPG action and combat pretty much unnecessary in Theatrhythm.
The thing is, I believe that during combat, the music notes flow would benefit more from being presented vertically, rather than horizontally, to get the right focus point on the actions involved. Conversely, when the party is exploring the field, turning the notes back horizontally would make more sense as the party is moving from the right to the left side. This is feasible since some cinematic gameplay via Music stages mode already utilizes vertical gameplay without hindering the screen’s view.
As I progress through the main game mode called Series Quests, I am presented with Twenty-nine locked series that can be unlocked one by one by finishing one of the opened quests. As I finish one series, awesomely, I am also given lots of rewards, new party members, profile pictures, and a key to choose any other series to unlock. As well as given in addition to extra music stages for individual song playthroughs, including various collections in the theatre recap videos of the series, music players, profile IDs, and card collections.
The theatre mode found in the options menu’s museum section is beautifully made with old recap cinematics scenes from each series – cut and pasted together to tell the story of each series from beginning to end, though it lacks voice acting and some subtitles for context. Additionally, some of the quality of the videos is a bit disappointing as they appear dated with low resolution or frame rate drops, though this is understandable as some of the series are really old.
On second thought, there is no short context or storytelling provided for every unlocked series – even in the unlocked stages and collectible cards. As I don’t play the series and may need a little more help on certain contexts when I play certain stages in the series. This also extends to the character cards which is also beneficial if the character cards I collected had a feature to flip them over and display some level of description.
I also noticed that the tutorials in the options menu are lacking the title in context as they are only labeled as ‘part one’ tutorial, without indicating the specific topic that it is trying to cover. Speaking of tutorials, I would appreciate it if there are options that allow me to playback specific parts of a song, to improve my skills in specific segments of a song. Well, it would be even more convenient and better if there were a time manipulation feature aka Time Materia in the game that has the ability to stop and rewind options to enable players to revisit specific segments as a refresher or training course instead of replaying the entire song from scratch.
Back to the gameplay, each series comes with its own multiple stages that go linearly from stage to stage or sometimes a multiple choice, be it different rewards, buffs, and debuffs conditions on the stages called quests such as an example: don’t get attacked, enemies attack double the damage to the party or don’t break the chain in order to get more rewards. This quest segment should also include a recognizable caravan or NPC of the series that is being visibly escorted and protected in the background at the same time, which would add more depth and purpose to the journey beyond just roaming around as a party.
The fun level does get better as you ramp up the difficulty even more. Furthermore, the multiplayer mode adds another layer of fun challenge, especially with the ability to cause debuffs and confusion on the music screen notes which is also absent in the main campaign. The only downside is that multiplayer may become more frustrating for less skilled players as the difficulty ramps up significantly depending on the choice of the stages and difficulties set by the other players. It would be better if I am given the choice to play the selected song in my preferred difficulty level
Before that, the multiplayer (called Multi Battle mode) experience could be improved by allowing players to preselect their favorite song while waiting for others to join. In context, you have to first select a room and then wait for complete members of four to fully show up and each player then selects a song before the game randomly slot machine-ly selects a song to be played by everyone, including its difficulty – this process does take some time. I would appreciate it if there are ways to preselect the favorite song first and difficulty settings while waiting for everyone to join up the multiplayer room.
As for party customization, the options button in the stage selection lets you edit your party members. You can choose characters from the unlocked series ranging from different classes of attackers, defenders, healers, or more. However, leveling up also grants skills to each characters, and it’s a shame that there are only three skills slots in each character and only one summon slot available, making it difficult to fully utilize them. Alternatively, you can stick with the characters you’ve leveled up and are familiar with.
Overall, the RPG elements in Theatrhythm seem half-baked and underwhelming, with limited skill, one summons, and no equipment slots which didn’t add much to the gameplay. In terms of combat, actions such as attacks and magic choices are done so automatically, leaving the player feeling like a passive bystander rather than an active participant. There is also the absence of visible damage UI or enemy/bosses HP bars, along with undefeated enemies and bosses running away when the song timer ends, making the game’s focus solely on the music, overshadowing the RPG elements.
In the main menu, it’s worth mentioning that sometimes the Theatrhythm encounters a rare hang-up bug issue during loading that is just stuck for a prolonged period of time, even though the PS5 is still running and no crashes were reported – which is a real bummer, and the only solution may be to force-close the game. Including occasional long connecting screens status in the main menu.
What I Liked About Theatrhythm Final Bar Line
- Songs – Multiple song lists with lots of range of emotions and stages. Best played in higher difficulty to get the flow of things.
- Cute In Designs – Alternative look at your favorite characters in cute doll-like figures.
- Options menu (MS Settings) – Optional to adjust trigger speed and BGM timing to make the gameplay slightly easier.
- Endless World Mode – A fresh mode that unlocks after completing a certain amount of series completed, allowing players the opportunity to tackle stages continuously. But failing to meet quest requirements will result in losing one out of the three lives remaining which will eventually conclude the entire run.
- Multiplayer – Adds challenges and sees debuffs on your screen (only applicable in multiplayer).
- Rewards – A number of goodies, cards, stages, and theatre recaps of the series.
What I Wished Was Better
- No sound effects – In attacking and spells. Making the actions on the screen appear more distant.
- Similar Animations – The doll-like design has small arms and legs, making attacks and spells cast mostly go unnoticed. Also lack of iconic animation poses and attacks of your favorite characters in the series.
- Gameplay Layout – Music and combat are divided, the top requires more attention, impeding the view of actions combat below. Optional to close off the combat screen in the options menu.
- Lack Of Words- More context is needed in the writing of summaries for the series, stages, collectible cards, damage UI, enemies health bar health, and concise tutorial stages.
- Limited stuff to place – Only three skills slots, no equipment slot, and one summon spell of choice. Making the actions needed in combat rather limited.
- Multiplayer selection flow – Felt the process is a bit longwinded and could benefit from a more streamlined approach.
- Main menu bug – On PS5, in some cases, the game may experience prolonged connection screens and occasional rare freezes without crashing may occur.
- Level Design – Looks generic and flat, needs more scenes/cutscenes on the side to be transitioned to noticeable landmarks of the series, including with NPC’s on the side. To make the levels more wholesome and dynamic.
Verdict – A Symphony Of Celebration With Shallow Depth
Any Final Fantasy fans and rhythm-based game enthusiasts will definitely find much joy to be playing Theatrhythm, even more so if you are good or an expert in music rhythm games. But those who fall somewhere in between like myself will definitely want to hold off on a purchase in consoles as this is a game solely made to celebrate the music made in Final Fantasy. Personally, I believe this is best played with your fingers tapping or a stylus on the screen device such as mobile or Nintendo Switch (if it has a touch screen option available) as playing it on consoles by in-game design can feel detached over time.
In terms of music gameplay, Theatrhythm has delivered what it intended by design, with an impressive range of music selections and charming doll-like character designs that are sure to please the fans. To me on the other hand, many other elements seemingly portrayed on screen fall short or are rather mediocre in providing visuals, more cohesive experiences, and fully realized RPG elements that define the franchise in the first place.