“Late to the Party” is my caption for media reviews, mainly of video games. I rarely acquire games on their release date, so by the time I get around to buying and playing through them, they’re old news at best. Even so, games sometimes make such an impression on me that I can’t help but write about them! Thus, late-to-the-party reviews.
Dissidia 012 for the PlayStation Portable is an expanded edition of the original Dissidia, a Japanese-style action RPG with fighting-game stylings involving characters from across the main Final Fantasy franchise. When the first was announced, Square Enix was careful not to bill it as a fighting game, referring to it instead as “dramatic progressive action,” and I too would hesitate to put it in a category that brings to mind Street Fighter and BlazBlue. You will not find here the sort of intense competitive environment known to those games, where players one-up each other with new and inventive techniques and split-second stratagems. You will, however, find a highly entertaining and addictive action-RPG with easily hundreds of hours of playable content.
Stripped to its basics, the system is thus. Two characters plucked from their respective FF games go up against each other one-on-one. Each has a “Bravery” score and an “HP” score. They have two different types of attacks at their disposal, corresponding to these scores. If you hit with a Bravery attack, your Bravery score increases while the opponent’s decreases. If you hit with an HP attack, the opponent loses HP equal to your Bravery score, and then your Bravery resets to its starting value. A character loses the fight when their HP reaches 0.
Upon this basic chassis, the game layers countless additional tweaks, manipulations, and options, introduced one after another as you progress. You get equipment that modifies your BRV and HP scores, and which affects how much BRV damage you give and receive. You can dodge and block attacks. You can move around the arena environment, running up walls, skating through the air, and destroying scenery to achieve a better tactical position. Getting an opponent to 0 BRV inflicts “Bravery Break,” which gives you a surge of extra BRV and prevents the opponent from accumulating any for a time. As you fight, you build power in an “Assist Gauge,” which can be expended to bring in a second character to make an attack, and an “EX Gauge”, which can put you into a mode where you do extra damage and can tack a QTE super-move on to a successful HP attack. You get “Summonstones,” which use the powers of bit-part FF characters to manipulate BRV scores, like copying your opponent’s BRV over to yours or causing yours to rise steadily for a time. And so on!
Learning and mastering all these pieces would be quite fun on its own, but the game gives you the option of putting these to use across a number of different play modes as well. The meat of the game is in the “Story Mode,” where you move characters across a world map and through gameboard-like dungeons, fighting enemies, collecting loot, and watching cutscenes. But you can also play an arcade-style sequence of battles with fixed stats and equipment, unlock mini-story “Reports”, or venture into a “Labyrinth” with a branching series of randomized battles and a tense lose-everything-on-Game-Over progress scheme. There’s always something else you can do to change things up as you level your characters or search for a piece of loot you need.
And there’s plenty of leveling and searching to be done. One of the first things I noticed about the game is that there are a ton of different things to grind for: XP for levels, stats, and moves, Gil to buy equipment, trade goods to swap weak equipment in for better, PP for collectibles like background music, and more. The game definitely rewards a completionist mentality; you will never see everything it has to offer without learning and exploiting the most arcane of the game’s features (like “Original Rules,” tweaks you can make to gameplay that I never even scratched the surface of) and, of course, spending many many hours at it. To its credit, you don’t need to indulge much of that to complete the basic Story Mode and see the ending; there are even rewards built in for having your characters underleveled vs. what you might have if you were dedicated to grind.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a few things I considered to be flaws in the design. The world map, for instance, feels like a missed opportunity. During the main Story Mode, you’re restricted to a tiny chunk of the map at any given time, making it nothing more than filler between dungeons. You get access to explore the whole unfettered map post-game, but at that point it’s populated with over-the-top high-level challenges for the hardcore endgame player, meaning a more casual gamer never gets to experience the “map” part of it at all. And even if you do enjoy the endgame, it’s not much of a “world.” There are no towns, no NPCs other than the moogles who sell you powerups, no indication whatsoever that the landscape serves any purpose other than to make you cover ground between plot points. It’s a sad thing; if they’d taken the game seriously as an RPG, rather than “progressive action” whatever, they could have done the same sort of world design as they’d put to any other FF spin-off, and it would have been a huge boon to the game.
The story, too, feels like something of an afterthought. It’s paper-thin crossover work, a skeleton upon which to hang the conceit of veteran FF characters showing up and battling one another. There is an interesting amount of worldbuilding going on in the backstories of the setting’s gods and goddesses, revealed in pieces in the “Reports” and the latter part of the main story. Beyond that, though, it’s one platitude about friendship and courage after another, coming out of the mouths of decently skilled voice actors playing the parts of beloved but stripped-down characters.
I sank around 70 hours into Dissidia 012 before I felt like it was time to move on. Not bad at all for a game you can easily get for $20! It makes a nice end-cap to the life of the PSP as a handheld console, and lovers of action RPGs, collectathons, and fan fictions alike will find much to love here.