by Marty Demarest

There are games (like Everquest and Starcraft) that earn their nicknames ("Evercrack" and "Starcrack") because they're addicting. So let me start by christening Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles as "Crystal Chronic."

The Final Fantasy series has always distinguished itself by delivering a solo-player game that wraps an epic fantasy story into a series of eye-candy battles and fateful encounters. Crystal Chronicles, however, allows more than one player to play at a time, using Game Boy Advance units (single players need only the GameCube's standard controller). This arrangement gives players personal screens on which to manage their inventory and characters.

On the main screen, cooperation reigns. You and your friends set out to find myrrh, which grows on trees deep in dungeons. The myrrh keeps your home village safe from the deadly "miasma" that pollutes Crystal Chronicles' world. On your journeys, a chalice of myrrh protects the adventurers. Anyone who leaves the area is immediately damaged. This means that, in addition to the usual battling monsters and hunting for treasure, players need to coordinate their movements with each other and communicate their actions clearly.

Fighting is similarly social. Players can combine their attacks and spells to yield spectacular assaults, or go free-for-all. This has the potential to be messy, particularly since combat takes place in real time. But because Crystal Chronicles' combat system is similar to that found in the computer game Diablo II (just point and click), battles become exhilarating team events.

True to its roots, the game is gorgeously detailed. The magical world looks like a storybook map drawn on a globe. Each dungeon, from a luminous mushroom forest, to a sprawling city built on bridges, is beautiful and distinct. The music is the best that I've heard in a game for years. And the monsters and characters are enchanting.

Still, some people will complain that Crystal Chronicles is either too easy (if you play solo), or impractical (if you're trying to have an ongoing multi-player experience). But video games are not utilitarian devices, meant to be mindless amusement for everyone who can plunk down $50. Crystal Chronicles is a masterpiece of interactive storytelling, made for people who want to lose themselves in a new world. If you don't like fabulous aesthetics or playing games in which the challenge moves from the game-world into the real-world, skip this. Or better yet, try it. You'll probably get hooked.

Publication date: 02/12/04

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