Review – THEATRHYTHM FINAL BAR LINE
I have been playing video games for more than three decades now, and the effect games have on me comes and goes. There are titles that positively captivate my attention with ideas and presentation, and ones that simply raise an eyebrow in terms of tenacity and innovation. There are games that have bored me to tears, deeply disturbed me, and generally offended my sensibilities through good taste and social climate. But for me, and for many people my age (I imagine), there’s never quite been the same feeling as dropping into a game from your earlier days. The adolescent thrill of a title that completely immerses you, permeates your consciousness, till it’s all you think about, and you even fake sickness to come home early and play more. Those were RPGs, and, more specifically, those were the Final Fantasy titles.
THEATRHYTHM FINAL BAR LINE, the newest title from Square Enix regarding the Final Fantasy series, is more than just a rhythm game. Sure, it’s definitely the next incarnation of the THEATRHYTHM games, and it’s also the first to be available in the West in nearly a decade. But it is a shining beacon of representation for Final Fantasy during the 35th anniversary year, and, from my perception, it’s a loveletter that is impossibly beautiful as it is tragic. For at the center of everything – from Garland, Chocobos, and Cid, to Genji Armor, Lightning, and Astrologian classes – is the music. The music has been a cornerstone of these games since inception, and the iconography of the composition and execution cannot be overstated.
If you’ve never played THEATRHYTHM, the idea is as such: you are treated to a screen of four chibi versions of Final Fantasy characters (at first). A song plays from one of the games, and you need to keep in time with the targets as they appear on the screen. Whereas the original incarnation of the games were on the 3DS and thus relied on touchscreen reactions, THEATRHYTHM FINAL BAR LINE is all about button and joystick response. Hit the button at the right time, flick the correct direction, hold down the button…it’s all pretty rudimentary in comparison to some rhythm games that incorporate shoulder buttons.
In fact, the initial learning curve is fairly simple, so almost anyone should be able to pick it up. Square Enix knew what they were doing by releasing an unlimited demo for players to try out: their core audience already knew they wanted it, but letting newcomers get comfortable with the concept was key to drumming up more interest, especially in a year where Final Fantasy diehards have their eyes set on the horizon and the future of what will be coming this summer.
So what sets this apart? Obviously, the soundtrack, but we’ll get to that in a moment. The first thing is that it’s an RPG as much as it’s a musically driven game. You get to pick the characters that show up on the screen as you play, but you could, theoretically, not care about who you choose. After all, you’re just mashing buttons in time to music: why should I care if Locke, Butz, or Tifa are on the screen?
Well, each character levels up as you succeed in the songs, and leveling up unlocks abilities, which are CRUCIAL for achieving quests and doing well in later songs. Sure, you can just achieve an SSS run on The Sunleth Waterscape, but if you don’t do 390 damage in a single ability, you won’t unlock the Spring Bunny costume for the Mog who is always conducting your party! And, guess what? The boss is resistant to fire, so it doesn’t matter that you have Vincent at level 99 already, you gotta get someone with a better magic spread!
Which brings us to the next, natural pull of THEATRHYTHM FINAL BAR LINE: the grind. Not just for leveling, no. See, if you want to really plumb the depths of what’s been baked into this game, you need to be willing to go all out and try, try again to completely get a bite of the pie. So when you do a song the first time on your Standard difficulty, you get a feeling for it. However, the notes and layouts are totally different when you move to Expert, or even if you get to the subsequent two difficulty levels (which not every song has).
Although, if you want every single Memory Card (snapshots of games past in a gallery), Mog costume or bonus character, you gotta get through it all. You want to add Kefka to your party? Then buckle up, you need to do at least nine songs successfully from Final Fantasy VI in order to get him. In a game where it’s so, so quick to roll credits (about four hours, by my count), it’s dozens upon dozens to actually see everything the game has to offer.
The arrangements themselves have been handled with such love and care that I sincerely appreciate, if only because many of them are untouched. Take, for example, the soundtrack to the original Final Fantasy, which dates back to the NES/Famicom era. You have an equal number of tracks that are orchestrated remasters as tracks that are the original chiptune versions that you would have heard in the original game.
Naturally, there are folks out there who would have loved to hear a symphonic version of every single song, but I believe the true homage to all of these games lies in recognizing how evocative and moving the music was even when it was done through suboptimal digitization. Trying to fool you and move something into the realm of uncanny memory with “almost but not quite” would destroy the effect, and Square, wisely, left this alone.
The gameplay itself is wildly addicting as well. I wanted to have my review for THEATRHYTHM FINAL BAR LINE finished by the end of LAST week, but I kept getting pulled back in. Every time I thought I was ready to write, I thought of something I wanted to confirm, fired up my Switch, and got sucked right back in. The intuition of moving to the notes, half notes and off tempo notes keeps your fingers dancing, and I even started pivoting my Switch as I was playing, like I was trying to make things move faster or better like when I was a child.
I actually got to fire up the online multiplayer, where I battled against players already better than me in a roulette track choice to claim supremacy, get a higher rank and unlock additional Memory Cards that you might not find elsewhere. Everyone wins a prize, even if you suck out, so keep trying even if you’re trash!
What keeps me absolutely floored by THEATRHYTHM FINAL BAR LINE is the love that permeates throughout. This isn’t just some cash grab where you dump a bunch of IPs together and call it a day: this is a living, breathing museum to everything that made Final Fantasy, and JRPGs in general, great. The music is given so many opportunities to shine, and is slotted to the correct stage typing. When a song reminds you of travel and exploration, you get the FMS where there’s more movement and flow amongst the notes.
The fighting music gets BMS where you’re more likely to need to attempt fast button exchanges and will curse for getting a great when you needed a critical. The crown jewels are the EMS, where famous events from games are given a special background and treatment, with beautiful animations and a more Guitar Hero looking note patterning. This isn’t some bullshit nostalgia trap, this is a real, gorgeous, emotional game.
And yes, the songs. If Super Smash Bros is for fighting games, then THEATRHYTHM FINAL BAR LINE is for music games. It’s not just the mainline Final Fantasy titles. It’s got Tactics. It’s got Mystic Quest. It even freaking has Record Keeper, and I abhor Record Keeper, but have to admit the music is fun. It has almost every Final Fantasy title I can think of, and I only say that so, if some obscure offshoot was forgotten, I don’t want people saying I’m wrong.
Hell, the basic, no-DLC version has 385 songs, which, most importantly, has THEATRHYTHM songs in the game! Yes, we cannot forget that this franchise is, in and of itself, a musical game that should be recognized. When I got to the final “world” and found out that music from All-Star Carnival, the arcade THEATRHYTHM cabinet I could never find, was included, I wanted to weep. They didn’t forget themselves in making sure they didn’t forget anyone else.
With nintey songs on the horizon in season pass DLC, and me still needing to unlock a few different soundtracks (I never did play Final Fantasy XIV, but I bet the music is great), I am in awe and glory of what has transpired here. As we look upon THEATRHYTHM FINAL BAR LINE, we should note the key word in the title, “final.” A series of games sometimes needs to know when it has reached the end, and, for indieszero, they must sense that another will not be coming. This isn’t just the last one we’ll see on the Switch, but it very likely might be the last we see for another full generation.
So everything is being given to fans here. As many songs, as many characters, as many different ways to play and enjoy and remember as possible. This may very well be the swan song for THEATRHYTHM, but it is an impossibly wonderful last act. My only hope is that we might, someday, see a PC port so that fans can continue to keep it alive and, perhaps, give justice to the songs that were forgotten (Gau and Shadow, I’m sorry). But, as it lies right now, there is nothing left to give but a standing ovation.
A vibrant mixture of fixed battles, rolling screens and memorable videos, I adored the design for both the stages and the character sprites. Only complaint is that there aren’t enough EMS to revisit, and the ones from FFVIII show their age a bit.
While it takes a second to understand how some of the gameplay works, the simple approach of rhythm gaming comes quickly, and the multilayered RPG grind takes a bit more. It’s everything from both worlds working out wonderfully.
There can be no other way to approach the soundtrack here other than in shock that everything, everything is here.
Fun Factor: 10
The movements feel natural, the layouts are grand, the difficulty scales so wonderfully and it brings joy to me over, over and over. This has dominated my downtime in Switch gaming, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Final Verdict: 10
THEATRHYTHM FINAL BAR LINE is available now on PC and Switch.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
A copy of THEATRHYTHM FINAL BAR LINE was provided by the publisher.