Theatrhythm Final Fantasy, Square-Enix’s musical celebration of their franchise’s 25th anniversary, is coming up to a month old, so it seems like a good time to re-evaluate my time with it. And it’s been quite a lot of time, as the title to the left attests; I’ve played this 3DS rhythm-action game every single day since its release date, and yes, I have actually pumped forty hours into it. So far.

And I’ve done a lot so far, too; I’ve completed every game’s mini-soundtrack on all three difficulties (multiple times), I’ve unlocked collectible cards, additional songs, movies, characters, trophies… and I’ve still got a long, long way to go.

The game is structured in such a way as to ease you into everything it throws at you. Basic difficulty really does do what it says on the tin, and if I’m honest, I powered through it just to unlock Expert, which is a much better gameplay challenge. Ultimate is where it’s really at though, and you may well struggle to make the step up from Expert at first. Luckily, by this point you’ll have unlocked your first Dark Note, two-song collections that are, to begin with at least, somewhere between Expert and Ultimate in difficulty (though they scale up to be the hardest challenge in the game – more on this later).

Series mode.

The whole time you’re tapping and swiping through iconic music from the Final Fantasy series, you’ll be earning ‘rhythmia’ (rm), an accumulating total that unlocks various extras at thresholds of 500rm – be it extra tracks to play along to or listen to in the dedicated music player, customization options for your player ID card, and even various coloured crystal shards – collect 8 of the same colour to unlock a new character – and this is one of the main mechanics that pulls you through the game. Playing on to the next rhythmia threshold is surprisingly compulsive, as rewards come fast enough to keep you pushing forwards, eager to see what you’ll unlock next.

The inclusion of RPG-style character levelling and ability and item gathering also keep you swiping along. If you’ve read a few reviews for Theatrhythm, you’ll know that the RPG mechanics are tacked-on. Except that they aren’t. Most reviewers seem to be of the opinion that levelling characters and equipping abilities and items has essentially no bearing on how the game plays out, and while it’s true that this is fundamentally a skill-based game, there’s just no way that you’ll survive your early forays into Ultimate difficulty (or indeed the level 99 Dark Notes…) without any abilities and items. Put simply, anyone that tells you that the RPG mechanics are useless, tacked-on or otherwise unnecessary simply hasn’t played the game beyond Expert. That, or they have superhuman, otherworldly finger dexterity.

Having made a claim like that, I suppose I should at least provide a quick breakdown of how it all works. To begin with, you’ll choose a party of four characters from the initial pool of 13 – one drawn from each numbered series title. I went with Cloud, Terra, Cecil and Lightning. All characters begin at level one, and can rise to a cap of level 99 through exp earned by completing songs. As they level, they’ll gain new abilities (such as Cure, which replenishes your party’s HP, or Omnislash which auto-attacks a boss-level monster in Battle stages), and you’ll gain items by reaching treasure chests in Field Music stages or defeating high-level enemies in Battle scenes.

At the top-right of the screen in any given stage, you’ll notice an HP bar. This represents the sum total of your party’s HP, and is depleted if you poorly time a tap or miss it entirely, and on the harder tracks it’s alarming how quickly your HP can be depleted. This is where your items and abilities will come into their own, as they’ll frequently keep you alive long enough to make it to the end of a tough song. I mentioned before that Theatrhythm is ultimately a game of skill and timing, but at higher difficulties, notes fly at you at such speed that they’re incredibly difficult to parse. This means you’ll need to become familiar with the track’s layout before you even dare attempt them un-equipped, which is the only way to attain the perfect SSS rank, as well as the maximum score of 9,999,999 (equipment caps your maximum attainable score at 7,999,999).

A #99 Dark Note.

I’ve mentioned Dark Notes a couple of times so far, so let’s take a closer look at those. They’re basically collections of two random songs – one a field song, one a battle track – that are ranked by number from low to high – #99 Dark Notes being the most difficult challenges in the entire game. How difficult, you ask? They’re twice as fast as Ultimate difficulty tracks and the arrow notes rotate. Take a moment to think about that: rotating arrow notes that fly at you at double-speed, forcing you make a split-second decision as to which way they’ll be pointing when they reach your side of the screen.

Dark Notes have three ‘bosses’, high-level monsters that hold onto various items and character shards, making them the best place to farm crystal shards for character unlocks. That is, of course, if you can reach, and then beat the bosses. So far, in forty hours, I’ve unlocked seven characters, less than half of the additional character roster. There may be more for all I know – a silhouette of the unlockable character is only added to the roster when you find the first shard of that colour, meaning I may yet be in for more surprises.

On top of this, I still have many ‘CollectaCards’ left to obtain (character trading cards that live in their own card binder and level-up each time you get the same card), I have 11 of the 77 music player tracks to unlock, and one of the movies that play during Event Stages to find, which can be viewed in the theatre without notes obscuring the gorgeous visuals. That’s enough to keep me going for probably at least another twenty hours, and that’s before I’ve even mentioned the weekly DLC tracks, or the 12 unlockable bonus songs, most of which I’ve only played once or twice.

The collectibles menu.

When Square-Enix announced their Final Fantasy 25th anniversary celebration would be a rhythm-action title based around iconic music from the RPG series, I knew immediately that I had to have it. But I never thought I’d have ploughed dozens of hours into it and still be itching for more. And while I was almost certain I’d love it, I didn’t think it would be among the best games I’d play all year. But I am, and it is. Is Theatrhythm perfect? Not quite. Those bonus and DLC songs I mentioned before? I would love to be able to slot them into their respective game’s series and play through an extended soundtrack. Even better would be an option to create your own playlists, and string together a list of your favourite songs to play one after another.

Ultimately, these are but small niggles in an otherwise magnificent package, and one that is absolutely brimming with content. No matter what you may have read.