Afterpatch Review: Theatrhythm Final Bar Line
Developer: Indies Zero
Publisher: Square Enix
Available On: Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4
Review Console: Nintendo Switch OLED
TAP, TAP, PASS! - Introduction
Throughout the years, Final Fantasy has ceased being a mere franchise. It's become a Goddamn dynasty these days. Several spin-offs have been created off the back of the Grand Papi of JRPGs. However, the success rate isn’t batting a hundred, and it has duds - like this odd 3D shooter. On the other side of the spectrum, however, there are those in genres that simply work, with the end product being a wonderful addiction - like any in the rhythm space.
Growing up, I was hopelessly obsessed with Guitar Hero. I can remember spending countless hours trying my best to master the Expert difficulty. Once I hit my stride, continuously getting Five Golden Stars, I’d proudly utilize my agile fingers as a pick-up line. That wasn't as effective as I thought, but hey, semantics. The pleasure of riffing on a hunk of plastic was ecstasy enough. It’s hard to articulate properly, but there’s something truly alluring about button-mashing along to songs, and when the iconic tracks of Final Fantasy are thrown in, you best get the towels. The question is if Theatrhythm Final Bar Line is a winner or a flop.
WHAT WAS THAT!? - Writing
Sadly, there's no storyline in Theatrhythm to speak of. Nothing meant to motivate me to the credits or encourage me to conquer quests exists, which is a crying shame. In a title that spans several Final Fantasy entries, from I to XV, I thought it would’ve used a multiverse sort of plot. With Cosmos and Chaos, this universe's Gods, being playable, it would have been awesome if everyone coalesced to vanquish a common enemy. It doesn’t need to be some grand tale of revenge. As long as it moves gameplay forward, it’s all rainbows and butterflies.
There are, however, tiny quips made by the characters. Now, I should note that they’re pretty much as generic as generic can be. Moreover, it never fits into the canonized personality that has been established throughout the history of the series. These one-liners are here solely to add flavor text to the sprites. Still, I’m highlighting this aspect since it did bring laughs. Sure, it’s unintended, and it hinges entirely on a player’s sense of silliness, but for what it’s worth, I giggled. For instance, how can one not snicker quietly as Yuna declares an encounter painless while the party is bloody and beaten?
I’M ON A MISSION! - Gameplay
Any game huddled underneath the majestic wing of Final Fantasy is guaranteed to have those JRPG elements that it helped to pioneer. Smashing nodes might be a focal point, but there are also a few side-quests. It’s a nifty incentive devised to coax into replaying a song repeatedly, even if that’s realistically not required. The goals they have me accomplishing aren’t extensive, either, ranging from survival with a certain percentage of health to massacring a specific amount of enemies. The rewards earned after a success vary, from mainstay items like Potions to those distinct to Final Bar Line like Mog Amulets.
Speaking of side-quests, there’s some challenge mixed into the pool of egregiously simple to complete tasks. For example, a couple of them demand inflicting a particular number of damage, such as 8,500, to advance. To make it tougher, they may include the caveat of only registering if an ice, fire, or dark spell does it. The immediate assumption is that by grinding every warrior to level 99, it’ll render this facet a cakewalk, but no, sir. I currently sit with several of my little fighters at their peak and am still coming short. Thankfully, it’s possible to ascend further into what’s known as Star Ranks. The thing is, these aren't easy to obtain. For that very reason, I can’t say how helpful they are.
All in all, beating these side-quests is a sublime combo of being effortless to having to retry a fair bit. Even then, it’s never promised that I can do it. This idea tosses an interesting wrench into the arcade style of play. It provides thrill seekers with hurdles to slyly weave through but is a source of aggravation due to difficulty. Regardless, thanks to the spectacular music, I can push aside the strife that creeps into my psyche. You know, I was genuinely surprised by how engrossed I got. The memories of my youth came flooding in, and I was once again a teenager tapping away.
SKILLS, SKILLS, SKILLS! - Gameplay
A mechanic I’m stunned was picked apart critically is the abilities. Like a standard JRPG, everyone has a big laundry list of techniques they can learn. These are then harnessed to gain an advantage in two of the three modes in Theatrhythm. BMS, or Battle Music Sequence, sees your group confronted by the denizens of evil. Each note translates to an attack. Depending on how precise I am with my timing, the lethality of the hit changes - Critical, Great, Good, Bad, or a Miss. That last state also has the negative effect of leaving me vulnerable to retaliation.
The second mode is FMS or Field Music Sequence. It consists of everyone taking a leisurely stroll through the wilderness, periodically stumbling into combat. Apart from the battles, it’s an otherwise serene departure from the other options. Altogether they both sound direct, I’m sure, but a hidden complexity rears its ugly head when weaknesses and resistances have to be considered. Suddenly, those abilities are crucial to steamrolling forward. I must concentrate on switching out, not only magic but adapting my party to any situation. It provides a slice of experimentation to toy with, and I appreciate that.
TRADING CARD GAME?! - Gameplay
The rumor is that Theatrhythm Final Bar Line is set to be the last of this miniature franchise. If that’s true, Square Enix is determined to ensure it goes out with a bang. The railway sirens ring loudly as the gravy train rolls into the station. The sheer volume of content that’s here is staggering but welcomed. Between the health drinks and temporary stat boosters that drop after a level; I can also obtain trading cards. I especially adore that these aren’t pointless collectibles - their inclusion isn’t meant to pad out the lifespan of this romp.
See, acquiring them grants a juicy bonus to aid in the grind. Any experience gained is increased and given to whoever’s portrait graces the front of the card. For instance, if Rikku is there, then she’ll get a nice boost. The only catch is they must be within the active group, for if they aren’t, they receive nada. I’d imagine the colorful cardboard is important to achieving the mythical Star Ranks. Of course, I can’t say with certainty, even after a 75+ hour session, since I’m still missing a large quantity of them - oh, there are that many characters. I reckon that’s also why I’ve not surpassed the ceiling of 99 - I'm always interchanging my line-up. Sure, this huge investment might be a red flag to some, but it’s dyed green due to the fun factor.
ONE FOR ALL! - Gameplay
Unlike Theatrhythm’s counterpart on the 3DS, there’s no interactivity with the touchscreen. I can’t lightly knock on the OLED to the beat of a track. It’s a strange exclusion since the Nintendo Switch is more than capable of emulating that. Regardless, every prompt is tied to the buttons in this go around, and, you know, it’s the reason the engagement I felt was so prominent. My attention was constantly fixated on the notes. My fingers occasionally tripped up, specifically when an absolute tsunami of nodes torpedoed at me.
I definitely concede that wielding a stylus did make sections simpler. As someone with huge hands, I also regularly found their natural positioning on the console didn’t allow for a quick pivot to the analog sticks. Sometimes, when I tried maneuvering over, I would freeze up, or I fell short when reaching, costing me a Perfect Chain. I was curious to see if perhaps playing on a controller would suffice. After sliding the Hybrid into the dock, I can confidently say it alleviates some strain. While accessibility in this instance is mint, in handheld, brisk motions feel a tad awkward.
Still, despite the minor complaints concerning the deviation from touch, I’m of the belief that the whole ordeal of figuring out how to situate my hands felt like a mechanic in itself. By altering the way I held my console, I managed to make the portable sessions slightly less cumbersome. It assuredly became problematic again as I subconsciously shifted my grip back to how it was, but for a brief moment, it felt better. In other words, this isn’t foolproof, but I never got to a stage of unbridled rage.
Tailoring the configuration of my fingers to hold the remote on a song-to-song basis better is, again, quite engaging. If, say, a specific track focuses on analog flicks, I’d ensure I could easily hop over to the sticks. As for the four separate rows of nodes, they aren’t actually linked to individual inputs - the first doesn’t only trigger with A or the second with B. It’s a free-for-all, and pressing Y exclusively can still win. Well, unless there’s a green double note incoming, then I must mimic it.
HITTING THAT GRIND! - Gameplay
Something I failed to discuss adequately is how the girthy cast can erect fears of lethargy regarding the grinding. It’s a smorgasbord of characters that’s a bit overwhelming to anyone looking in, but I want to dispel any fears. During my session, I never felt the inherent repetitiveness that should be baked into having a 100+ roster to work through. One of the key proponents of that is thanks to the special items meant to grant a multiplier for a single run. It’s possible to reach the 99 threshold within an hour or two. See, during a song, I could be bolstered by five, eight, or even 25. It’s generous, entertaining, and staves off monotony.
The genius of Theatrhythm lies in its simplicity. I couldn’t begin to describe the sheer delight swallowing me with every minute spent. The powerful sense of nostalgia that rumbled in my tumtum distracted me from the redundancy of the gameplay loop. It necessitates my complete and utter attention to attain that coveted Triple S Rank. It might sound stupid, but having a counter in the upper corner tallying my score helped to sell itself to the portion of my brain that always strives to improve. By proxy, it injected me with happiness, unleashing a flow of pure endorphins.
What appeals to me most about rhythm games is progression. In an attempt to break the 4th wall, I'm in love with the idea that I’m also becoming stronger. Now, in reality, it’s just the betterment of my muscle memory, contributing to my being successful. When I approach from that perspective of self-leveling, it paints a dead-on picture of why I’m so addicted. To feel a gradual improvement is a satisfaction that tickles my fancy. Whenever I achieved a high grade, I had a sense of pride. I felt accomplished, especially when I dominated a hurdle, so to speak.
Let me tell ya; this game isn’t shy about testing your mettle. Aside from Expert, which isn’t much of a breeze, there are two other settings. The first should be familiar to anyone that’s been a long-time fan - Ultimate cranks up the speed, at which point the notes barrel across the screen. It also adds a fair chunk while placing them closer together, demanding faster reflexes. Then there’s Supreme which, let’s be frank, is sadistic. The knob is turned to eleven, and my fingers are left paralyzed. I couldn’t tell you how often I was left in awe as I stared blankly. Yes, it sounds like a barrier for the casual audience, but thanks to accessibility, it isn’t.
EASY FOR YOU AND ME! - Accessibility
A common facet that gave me grief was a node that not only requires a tap, but is followed by a trial, or tail, if you will, that I ride. The length is never static, fluctuating from short to long, depending on the track. Honestly, these don’t pose much of an issue when they’re far apart but close the distance, and I’m fumbling like crazy. Don’t get me started when those that demand toggling in a certain direction are included in the musical stanza - it’s a major headache. Normally, I’d usually give up, but thanks to a handful of useful tweaks, I don't need to. Whether you’re a beginner, intermediate, or master, Theatrhythm Final Bar Line embraces everyone.
Suppose reactionary time isn't your forte, though; well, multiple methods aid that. For starters, a mode called Simple nullifies a need for analog sticks, replacing them with a single tap. Sliders also receive a change. I no longer have to hold inputs to glide along the tail because, again, one press suffices. This modification transforms those rigorous songs into a doable affair. Granted, they still pose a challenge, but it’s nothing compared to what it once was. Now, if the speed remains too much, I have the capability to adjust that by diving into the settings.
Furthermore, and this may come as a surprise, couch co-op is not only viable, but it slices the field in half. I mean, as we know, there are four rows to watch. However, if I have a partner in crime that’s slashed by two, I fixate on the top pair while my friend does the same with the bottom. Sure, the general structure isn't messed with, and the intricacies are intact, but thanks to having a second person, the difficulty spike is dramatically reduced - it's also great for team building.
Believe it or not, the available accommodations do continue. If, like me, you have a rough go at being exact when smashing notes, finding there to be a slight delay, that can be adapted. It doesn’t matter if I’m responding to a trigger half a second late. By hopping into the gear icon, I can revise the latency to complement my abilities better. After making the switches I need, I go from hitting a sequence of Great to a continuous stream of Critical, thus inflicting a ton of damage in FMS and BMS.
DL…SEE, THAT’S PRICEY! - VALUE
Let’s discuss the monetizing schemes because they’re lukewarm. They baffle me, especially concerning Deluxe, Premium, and the other editions I can purchase. Plainly, I don’t understand why they’d lock musical tracks, one of which is iconic and, dare I say, the cornerstone of Final Fantasy X, behind dropping an additional $30. It’s a smack to the face, and the practice feels gross when DLC packs composed of seven or eight songs exist and cost $10.
While on that topic, I’m honestly not offended by charging a tenner to experience the delightful music of other Square Enix franchises, like Secret of Mana - it's an affordable price. If that is troublesome to folks, I don’t think there’s even a need for them, as the base game already has a staggering library of 350+. Still, I can’t necessarily argue the novelty of having the Chrono or Xeno series playable - if that isn’t convincing, how about the most stupendous Goddamn twosome - Friggin. Nier.
LOOKING…A BIT MOBILE!! - Presentation
Such a stink has been made about these sprites and how they look like they belong in a cheap mobile romp, likely with gacha elements. I concede that from a visual standpoint, it’s not immaculate, but I think it fits perfectly into the cartoony aesthetic Theathrhythm is going for. Okay, the monsters have lost their grotesque appearance, and Sephiroth looks low-key adorable as opposed to intimidating. I’ll give y’all that, but this game has never been about breaking minds with graphic fidelity. It’s about creating a joyous romp that promotes big smiles and giddy expressions, and it succeeds.
That's not to say Final Bar Line doesn't bring the prettiness because it will be with the third and final mode called EMS, or Event Music Sequence. Here I'm confronted by key moments from the various Final Fantasy entries. Sure, the quality may not match with the Playstation 4, and I did notice a bit of blurriness, but taking into account that I'm playing on a friggin handheld device, it's forgivable. Not to mention that a tiny screen means pixels are crunched, giving it a faux pristine look.
MY EARS ARE HAPPY! - Sound Design
Man, I’ve already said it, but it warrants repeating. If only y’all could’ve seen the cheesy grin on my face when I played through Balamb Garden from FF8 or Terra’s Theme from FF6. No joke - I reckon it was spanning the entire circumference of my head. I was full of gleeful memories of when I was a younger lad, surrounded by papers possessing the many locations of every Ultimate Weapon in the game. It’s without exaggeration when I say Theatrhythm is a love letter to fans.
It’s a roller coaster of emotions, and it tightly held my hand as it guided me through my childhood. I could practically smell the Codfish cooking as my parents prepared a classical Portuguese dinner. Each piece of musical genius is like a time capsule for me. It's impossible to understate just how amazing it feels to have such a wonderful collection in the palm of my hand. I urge you to play this title and listen to the orchestral musings on a device that can access bass - it’s worth it.
AND THE MUSICAL VERDICT IS…
Theatrhythm Final Bar Line is a masterpiece. I pride myself on being incredibly stingy when giving a ten because I believe that should be a tough metric to reach. I’ve tried finding flaws in the mechanics here, such as the highest difficulty cramping my fingers, but even when I was readying myself to criticize, my complaints were quickly eradicated by the excellent accessibility. Square Enix has crafted such a fine-tuned and tight package, making it tough to knock points.
The main priority is clearly to welcome all degrees of skill. It doesn’t discriminate if you can’t keep a beat to save your life or if flicking isn’t a strength. This title has become my chill escape from the hustle and bustle of life - one I indulge in when my brain is fried from writing. I firmly believe it's unfiltered joy and something I can see myself returning to throughout the years. The bliss I feel is soaking my britches. I can unequivocally say you should've purchased it yesterday.
THEATRHYTHM FINAL BAR LINE IS A MUST-BUY!
Special thanks to Square Enix for the review code used to write this coverage.