Review: Dirge of Cerberus

(Note: This review originally appeared at in 2006.)

The audience for a video game sequel is often limited to people who played the original game. But, by deviating from its predecessor’s standard Role Playing Game format, Final Fantasy VII: Dirge of Cerberus could have an even more limited audience. It might be the first shooter game for RPGers.

For the follow up to the original PlayStation game, FFVII, and the recently released feature-length film, Advent Children, Square Enix opted to continue the story of Cloud and his buddies in a third-person shooter format. But this time, Cloud took a backseat to everyone’s favorite undead sharpshooter, Vincent Valentine, an optional character in the original game.

A year after the gang dispatched the last batch of Shin-Ra baddies in Advent Children, another group of materia-made mutants threatens to destroy the planet. Vincent is deemed the most well-equipped guy for the job, especially considering his background as a member of Shin-Ra’s hired guns, the Turks.

Story and Gameplay:
The game’s tutorial is set decades in the past, and players learn the controls as a young, still-animate Vincent undertaking his Turk training. It took just over half an hour to master the camera controls and become familiar with Vincent’s melee attacks and three primary weapons: handgun, machine gun, and rifle. There’s also training for sit-down turret guns, which show up throughout the game for use in optional missions.

After the tutorial, gameplay occurs in the present, with the occasional flashback cutscene. The game is broken into small stages, most consisting of one primary objective, several optional missions, and a boss battle.

The boss battles are exciting, but most of the action leading up to each of them is a series of close-quarters fights, which rely heavily on handgun and melee attacks. Except for the big fights, there’s not a whole lot of strategy that goes into completing a stage. Just run around, dodging and shooting enemies, praying you have enough bullets. Only a few battles require different tactics, like using magic attacks or a sniper scope.

Vincent does have some really cool, acrobatic attacks, during which he leaps hundreds of feet, fires rocket launchers, and navigates the skies on a hoverboard. Unfortunately, these moves are shown only in cutscenes and pre-rendered movie segments. When the player is controlling Vincent, he’s usually stuck on the ground and has trouble leaping over barrels. He can save the world, but he’d never beat Donkey Kong.

Still, what the gameplay lacks in variation and spectacle, it makes up by being fun and forgiving. For shooting game newbies like me, there’s an auto-targeting option for Vincent’s guns. You won’t always lock on the exact enemy you want, but at least you’ll be hitting someone! And while there’s often the threat of dying throughout the game, it doesn’t actually happen too often. That’s thanks in large part to the frequent shops, which sell healing items familiar to fans of the Final Fantasy series: Potions, Ethers, and Phoenix Downs.

If Vincent does die during a stage, he keeps all of the items and experience earned up to that point in the stage, giving you the chance to replay with better stats than before. And, at the end of each stage, you can choose between keeping your experience points or converting them to money for weapons upgrades.

One of my favorite features has nothing to do with Dirge’s gameplay mechanics. Though the game automatically saves after each stage, there is a “Tempsave” feature that allows you to save at any point during gameplay. No more staying up an extra 90 minutes because you had to find a save point or finish a mission before shutting the game down for the night. The Tempsave allows you to pause your game until the next time you start up. You restart the game at the exact point that you saved, and the Tempsave file is erased. This is an excellent feature that I hope becomes more commonplace in all genres.

Even though there were many locations from FFVII that could have been included in Dirge, the game’s designers limited the action to a handful of familiar locales and several new ones. While the ruins of the slums under Midgar are stunning, most of the action takes place in near-identical, cramped hallways, so it’s hard to appreciate the old haunts from the original game.

The story Dirge of Cerberus presents is far too large for a shooter game. There are a lot of new characters introduced, including the latest group of villains determined to destroy all life on the planet. (Aren’t there any bad guys who just want to rob a bank, anymore?) Except for Yuffie and Cait Sith, Vincent’s pals from FFVII play only bit parts in the drama.

Vincent’s backstory does nothing but confuse the main plot. We learn a little more about his relationship with Lucrecia, the scientist who birthed uber-villain Sephiroth in the original game. There are some connections between past and present, but what we learn is fractured and hardly illuminates Vincent’s character or the crisis at hand. It seems the amount of information the creators wanted to cram into the game would’ve been better suited for an RPG or another movie.

I finished the game in approximately 12 hours, and that was despite my marginal skills and frequently futile attempts at all of the optional missions. With better accuracy, or by skipping the optional missions, the game is easily beatable in less than 10 hours. If you’ve especially enjoyed the gameplay, 45 additional missions are available once you’ve completed the game, adding dozens of extra hours of fun–or frustration, depending how good you are.

Graphics during gameplay are good, but the real draw is the movie sequences. They’re animated beautifully, in the same style as Advent Children, and they are the only times you get to see some members of the old gang, like Cloud, Tifa, and Barrett.

Music is similar in style and quality to other Final Fantasy titles, if not quite as memorable. The ending theme by Japanese rock star Gackt is great, and there’s a chance you’ll spot him in a bonus sequence. The voice actors from Advent Children all return for Dirge of Cerberus. If you liked them in the movie, you’ll probably like them here. Personally, I’m a fan of Cid and Tifa.

Dirge of Cerberus will appeal to most FFVII fans who enjoyed Advent Children and want to try something new, but that’s about it. It may be too remedial for most hardcore fans of shooters, and the story doesn’t stand on its own enough to bring in new fans. Dirge of Cerberus isn’t a bad game, just one with limited appeal.


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