I solemnly swear not to spoil Crisis Core for anyone reading this who hasn't played it. But I won't even hesitate to spoil Final Fantasy VII, lol.
Before I purchased it, I thought Crisis Core was a really strange idea. While it's clearly a prequel to Final Fantasy VII, the protagonist is a character who never actually appears in Final Fantasy VII, other than a few brief flashbacks (the longest of which is optional). In fact, the protagonist of Crisis Core dies before Final Fantasy VII even begins. Anyone who's played VII (which is, like, everyone in the freakin' world) knows that.
And yet, it was the idea of Zack as the main character of Crisis Core that intrigued me the most and convinced me to buy the game. In Final Fantasy VII, almost everything about Cloud is a lie. Almost everything he says is a lie. He can't be trusted, because a series of events has caused him to believe he's someone he isn't. In FF7, we learn about Zack through the schizophrenic delusions of the protagonist, so I was excited to have the chance to meet Zack Fair and find out what really happened, not what Cloud's muddled mind thinks happened.
That said, Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII is an awesome game. I loved it. It was intriguing, it was fun, it was exciting, it was well-paced, it looked great, it had a great soundtrack, it was emotional, and just all-around lovable in every way possible. What's more, Zack himself is incredibly lovable. There are only one or two scenes in Final Fantasy VII that allow us to meet Zack, and it was clear in those scenes that he was a bright, sunny, optimistic young man, even when he was faced with the most horrifying experiences imaginable. Spending twenty hours getting to know Zack in Crisis Core... it's awesome.
What intrigued me so much about the game was how it managed to reel me in and sink its claws deep into my gut. I'm a huge fan of suspense games like the Silent Hill series, which draw in the player and chew at their psyche by leaving them in a state of worry over what will happen next. But the brilliant strategy behind Crisis Core is to unnerve the player through the suspense of already knowing what's going to happen. It's like an out-of-body experience, where you can watch what's transpiring but you can't change it... you can't fight it... the pieces are already in place and the inevitable is slowly creeping upon you. There were several scenes in the game where I realized what was coming because of what we already know from VII, and I was clutching my PSP going, "no, no, no...!"
What I'm trying to say is, Crisis Core, as a prequel, impressed the hell out of me. Prequels are hard to do. There has to be a delicate balance struck between what we already know, and new material to keep things from getting boring. I was skeptical going into Crisis Core because I knew there would be new characters and I didn't trust their ability to fit into the formula Final Fantasy VII's had in place for almost fifteen years. But it worked. I think it worked because the characters were all so interesting, and endearing, and had great voice actors. No one was more shocked than me when I realized I actually adored some of the new characters and truly rooted for them. In a way, Zack is also a "new" character, since we know next to nothing about him from Final Fantasy VII.
It was fascinating to watch Zack "grow up." The Zack we see in Final Fantasy VII is older. He's a 1st Class SOLDIER and he's seen a lot in his day. And he's dead. The Zack we meet in Crisis Core is young and enthusiastic and ready to take on the world. The player already knows Zack will face indescribably painful trials and ultimately perish in an attempt to save his friend, so watching him grow up is fascinating, but also very hard. Zack's death always lingers on the horizon. A fierce battle waged in my mind for most of the game... There was the part of me that wished I could change what was happening - what would happen - and let Zack live. The other part of me knew his death had a purpose - that it was the catalyst for Final Fantasy VII's story to begin. The game is extremely bittersweet in that respect. Crisis Core has a great sense of humor at times, and it has some very sweet scenes, but it's also incredibly sad. I'm not one to get too emotional while playing a video game, but Crisis Core genuinely made me sad. But that's not a bad thing! I think it's incredible that the game was able to move me so much!
Something else I loved about the game was that it does something very few games seem to be doing lately: it uses the mechanics of being a game to tell its story. Yahtzee of ZeroPunctuation once explained that he loves Silent Hill 2 because it tells its story in a way that requires an "interactive medium." He says Silent Hill 2 couldn't just be a "book" or a "movie" or a "zoetrope" (haha) because interactivity is required for the game's spooky atmosphere. Something similar could be said of Crisis Core. For example, Crisis Core uses a strange combat system that revolves around the DMW (Digital Mind Wave). In essence, the player can glimpse into Zack's mind while he battles and see the people and events that motivate him and give him strength. The system works kinda like a slot machine. It seemed strange to me at first but, as Zack's world grew and he met more people who influenced him, his character and his struggle became that much more real. And it made the inevitable that much harder. Towards the end, the game threw in some of the most incredible displays of interactive story-telling I've ever experienced, but I won't spoil any of that here.
Also, the man who voices Zack in English is brilliant. Rick Gomez, I salute you. Normally, I'm a stickler for keeping voices in their original format. I always watch foreign films and anime with subtitles, not dubbed, but there's no getting around the dub in a video game. However, having seen Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children and Last Order -Final Fantasy VII- in Japanese, I'd have to say Rick Gomez is actually the superior Zack. The Japanese voice actor is fine, but Gomez's portrayal of Zack is perfection. He sounds so fun and boyish, swapping constantly between joking around and being serious. Gomez also actively matures Zack's voice as the game goes on. The way Rick Gomez portrays Zack, he's real. His voice contains the subtle nuances of kindness and sadness that are necessary to make the player care about Zack and to sympathize with his struggle.
Also, I loved the soundtrack. I've been loyal to Uematsu Nobuo in the past, and I still think he's great, but Ishimoto Takeharu really came through. He combined catchy new tracks and hardcore rock tracks with remixes of memorable numbers from Uematsu's soundtrack for FF7. Ishimoto did a great job flushing the right emotions out of 7's classic pieces. I would dare say Ishimoto's rendition of Anxious Heart (the music that always plays in the town of Nibelheim) is actually more haunting than Uematsu's. Comparison for those curious:
The Crisis Core version, called The Locked Village:
I dunno, the Crisis Core version is just beautiful. When I first got to Nibelheim in Crisis Core, the song made me shiver.
I'm not really sure how many more ways I could say I loved the game. I don't want to review the game or anything because there are a million-and-a-half reviews out there and most of them are positive. Let's just say the game made me feel sentimental in a way no game ever has before. Part of me didn't even want to keep playing because I felt like I was slowly marching poor Zack to the gallows. But, again, that was the magic of the game. People can say what they want about Final Fantasy's story-telling... some of the games are good, some are bad... and a lot of it depends on the player... but Crisis Core is just good. Plain and simple. For fans of Final Fantasy VII, the game is an absolute must-play.