by MARTY DEMAREST & r & & r & Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates & r & Rated Everyone 10+; Nintendo DS & r & 3 Stars & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & F & lt;/span & our years ago, I set out to save the world with a pair of friends and about $700 worth of equipment. We followed no narrative. Clustered around a single TV, we ventured into a polluted, miasmatic environment and cleaned it up in our own fashion. The game we played, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles, was a rare hybrid -- an offline, real-time, free-form, cooperative role-playing game -- and it remains one of my most memorable videogaming experiences.

This time, I set out alone. Unlike its predecessor, Ring of Fates is centered on a single-player storyline that is far from personal. In contrast to most role-playing games, I can't determine my characters' innate characteristics. I'm free to select their equipment, which confers minor strengths and weaknesses. But as for designing individuals who express my self in the game's world, I'm stuck with what the story gives me -- a few apple-cheeked fighters and a stick-figure spellcaster.

Ring of Fates does import the first Crystal Chronicles' real-time system of combat and magic. Battles are dynamic fights that rely on action and reflexes instead of patience and tactics. Increasing the challenge is the game's straight-edged design. Platforms and paths usually skew to a 45-degree angle from DS's cross-shaped control pad. During basic dungeon exploring, moving feels as simple as playing a rudimentary platform-jumper. But when monsters begin moving freely, aiming and evading become tricky and occasionally frustrating.

Since I can only command one character at a time (in a game that often gives me four), I must rely on the DS to guide them. It does this by getting them killed or lost as quickly as possible. The problem could have been solved if Ring of Fates had implemented Crystal Chronicles' greatest feature: cooperative multi-play. But instead of questing, my friends and I are limited to playing a series of clever, unrelated missions or exploring dungeons I've already delved during the single-player story. It undermines much of the imaginative unity of Ring of Fates, making it feel no more fantastical than a fractured videogame.

THE GOOD: Players and critics faulted the original Crystal Chronicles for needing hundreds of dollars' worth of equipment for multiplayer gaming, as though videogames were utilitarian devices expected to amuse at a fixed rate. I contend that videogames are works of art, and I don't dispute the cost if they're original or inspiring. This game's requirement that each player have only a $150 DS and $40 game should allow those who seek interactive pleasures on a budget to enjoy Ring of Fates' somewhat lesser pleasures at a somewhat lesser price.

THE BAD: In Ring of Fates, snow lays on the ground in straight-edged patches. Mountainsides are built from blocks stacked pyramid-style, more like Q*bert levels than slopes. When characters run through water, they churn up the same dust that rises from dirt paths (even as the sound changes from thuds to splashes). Square Enix's other recent DS game Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings proves the system can display twisty dungeons, dynamic lighting, intricate textures and subtle effects. They just got sloppy this time.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Ring of Fates invigorates a stale story with real-time role-playing action and an appendix of amusing but unaffiliated multiplayer missions.

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