Whenever the Final Fantasy series is mentioned, the genres that immediately spring to mind are RPGs and tactics. After kart racers and pinball sims, quite possibly the last genre that the franchise evokes is 2-player fighting games. That didn’t stop Square Enix from releasing Dissidia Final Fantasy, a 3D head-to-head fighter in the vein of Power Stone. While it provides plenty of fan-service, the core fighting mechanics and game structure leave much to be desired.
Drawing from every core Final Fantasy game from the original to Final Fantasy X, Dissidia pits 22 characters (12 unlockable) against each other to finally answer the questions of “Who Would Win In A Fight?” Battles take place in fully 3D levels, many of which include destructible elements and vertically varied environments. In addition to commands for jumping, running up walls, dodging, and blocking, Dissidia features two entirely different attack types. Attacks mapped to the circle button sap your opponent’s “Bravery,” a stat that determines how much damage your square button attacks do. As you sap Bravery, your Bravery increases, allowing you to do more and more powerful attacks. Once you actually land a damaging attack, your Bravery returns to zero. This makes fights play out as oddly paced tug-of-wars, the outcomes of which can sometimes be determined by a single attack. Slowly building up your Bravery, only to suddenly lose because of a few fluke attacks can be extremely frustrating. Likewise, destroying your opponent in seconds because you happened to land the first few shots makes victories feel cheap and meaningless. These pacing flaws may have been excusable if the fighting engine itself was well executed. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. The camera is unreliable, and the relatively shallow fighting mechanics are often unresponsive. Implementing any sort of strategy can be extremely difficult due to some sketchy collision detection and levels that seem far too large for a two-character fight.
The saving grace of fighting is the variety of powerful, insanely dramatic special attacks. Every character has multiple specials, and almost every character’s special attacks are based on those from their original game, further enhancing the game’s fan-service appeal and keeping each character true to their roots. When these attacks are initiated, they are followed by a button-pressing mini-game (different for each character), and then a spectacular in-game cut-scene showing the attack carried out, and feature incredible light and particle effects. They are easily the game’s most impressive feature.
RPG fans will be happy to know that Dissidia features a robust upgrade system. Tons of weapons, armor, and new attack types can be unlocked or purchased, and even shared between characters. These upgrades, including fighters’ overall experience levels, carry over to the online versus mode. In a tight-knit group of friends who all have PSPs and all have Dissidia, this could be an awesome thing. Unfortunately, that accounts for about 0.01% of the gaming market. The rest of us will likely never use the feature, but at least it seems to work well for what it is.
Arcade mode pits players against a pre-set lineup of opponents, while Quick mode allows you to choose your fighter, your opponent, and a few options like opponent level and behavior, but the meat of the game is in Story Mode. Each heroic character has a unique story arc that addresses the paper-thin plot of the game at large, which is played out through in-game cinematic scenes between levels. If you’re a fan of Final Fantasy’s particular brand of angsty, melodramatic storytelling, Dissidia’s mopey soul searching should be right up your alley, but many gamers will likely skip the overwrought scenes. Rather than simply presenting a series of fights, one after another, Story mode plays out through board game-like levels that employ the faintest hint of strategy. These level layouts feel a bit dinky, but add a welcome element of strategy.
For all its faults, Dissidia Final Fantasy is a very nice looking game. Character models, including alternate costumes, are highly faithful to the characters, and each fighter moves and fights the way fans expect them to. More importantly, the varied, over-the-top special attacks are some of the most impressive effects ever seen on a PSP screen. It’s a shame that the environments are so sparse and underwhelming, because otherwise, Dissidia would be one of the most visually remarkable titles on the system.
Dissidia Final Fantasy offers an enormous amount of content for Final Fantasy fans, but fails to deliver an engaging or satisfying fighting experience. It feels like if Square Enix had taken some cues from other successful fighting franchises instead of trying to do everything their own way, and included their own excellent upgrade system, Dissidia could have been an unforgettable fighting experience. Instead, it feels like the publisher did everything they could to flout convention, creating a unique, but deeply flawed game that feels more like the grinding sections of Final Fantasy games than the epic boss fights. There’s more than enough fan-service to please even the most hardcore “Chocobites,” but everyone else will find a game that, based solely on the strength of its gameplay, is average at best.