Across a barren wasteland, twin towers stand. Heavenly light opposes a fiery hellscape as two gods prepare for battle by summoning their soldiers. Legendary warriors from across time and space appear, and the fray is joined.
The opening cinematic for Dissidia Final Fantasy NT is as pretty and polished as fans of Square Enix’s long-running RPG franchise should expect. The lavish detail in the characters and environments speaks to a high level of care, while the flashy visual effects are designed to entice. Market-leading cutscenes are a hallmark of the series, and this newest title adheres to that incredible standard, setting the stage for what seems like a must-have game.
OnlySP’s time with the the upcoming title did not offer a glimpse at the story mode or other single-player offerings, but still included a look at all of the gameplay elements.
On the surface, Dissidia Final Fantasy NT seems to be the game that Square Enix’s spin-off series truly deserves. Cutting-edge hardware and a development team with a wealth of experience in fighters promise a host of updates and changes that should make the project one of the premier brawlers of 2018. In the moment-to-moment gameplay, that assumption holds true, but the spin-off series has always been about much more than just fisticuffs, and this third entry falls short thanks to its unwillingness to engage with those ancillary elements.
Although combat was the primary means of interaction in the PlayStation Portable entries, those games also incorporated a robust suite of RPG elements, including ability unlocks via levelling, clothing sets to provide buffs, and items that would activate under certain conditions and turn the tide of battle. With Dissidia Final Fantasy NT being designed primarily for competitive play, those ideas have been jettisoned, leaving the only real customisation as the ability to choose between ability sets for each character. While having the option to select a suite of skills is welcome, it lacks the granular level of control that made the earlier titles so appealing.
Instead, the new development studio, Team Ninja (Dead or Alive, Ninja Gaiden), has focused on instituting a sense of balance so that players are able to understand the reasons for their wins or losses. A key part of this goal of evening the odds comes from a new class system that assigns each character a battle style, with strengths and weaknesses based on a rock-paper-scissor triangle. These changes have been necessitated by the alteration of the core gameplay structure to a 3-vs-3 dynamic, whereby each side has multiple characters on the field at the same time. As such, ensuring that the team of fighters is capable of shoring up each other’s weak points is vital to success and has the flow-on effect of forcing players to explore and experiment with characters outside of their favourites. The new match structure is tailored to the multiplayer experience, but solo players will still be able to control full parties of three by switching between characters while the others are controlled by the AI.
The fast pace of battles may make frequent switching disorienting, but the developers have worked hard to ensure that matches are always readable and fair. As such, although long-range magic users may appear to have an advantage, given their ability to rapidly create distance, their attacks usually take more time to charge than physical strikes, giving melee fighters a chance to close the gap and interrupt. Furthermore, landing a blow often results in a momentary stun state that can allow rapid follow-up attacks.
Knocking an opponent into a wall or the floor also induces a temporary stun state, and this effect means that environments can also contribute to strategy. Although Team Ninja has jettisoned the more tightly-cramped locales of earlier games to allow bigger playgrounds for more characters, some stages, such as the one based on Final Fantasy VII’s Midgar, feature jutting artefacts that play to the strengths of strikers. These qualities help each arena to feel distinct, but they are unable to match up to the design diversity on offer in the PSP games, which almost demanded that players learn the ins and outs of each stage to be successful.
Despite the widespread changes, Team Ninja has opted to retain the unique damage mechanics from the earlier titles. As is typical, the goal of each battle is to wear down the opponent’s HP gauge. However, each character has only one HP attack, the damage of which is determined by their Brave level. Up to seven Brave attacks can be equipped at a time, and strategies must be built around them, as landing attacks results in the Brave number increasing, while receiving strikes sees it reduced. Delivering a HP attack resets the counter to zero, putting the attacking player in danger of entering a Bravery Break state, which rewards the other player with a massive boost to their strength. The system seems convoluted, but is surprisingly straightforward and encourages users to experiment with their playstyle in a way that most fighters do not.
The Brave system was inventive on the PSP, but with a team more experienced in brawlers at the helm, it takes on new life in NT, as does much else. The visuals are as lush and lurid as modern hardware allows, but the most welcome change comes from the controls. Although much remains similar, the addition of a second analogue stick for easier camera control feels like a revelation, as the PSP’s single nub was particularly ill-suited to control in a fast-paced 3D fighter. However, all of this polish comes at the expense of personality, and the removal of some of the in-depth RPG mechanics leaves the single-player experience feeling flat.
Dissidia Final Fantasy NT is a thoroughly competent 3D fighter made incredibly appealing by the Final Fantasy branding. Team Ninja has honed the balance to a fine hue to make the game suitable for both fun and seriousness, but the result is a diminished entry to the spin-off series that lacks levelling, consumables, and purchasables. Final Fantasy could hardly hope to have a better fighter, but as a Dissidia game, NT is rendered obsolete by its predecessors.