[A short note before we start: At the time of writing Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles is roughly seventeen years old and I feel fair game to discuss freely without dancing around any particular themes or plot points… however it’s also just a few weeks away from receiving a HD “remaster” (try not to mind the absence of local co-op in a game built around local co-op) and if you’re aiming to go in completely fresh and un-spoiled then this is probably-definitely not the blog post for you – but please do come back when you’re done with the game, OK?]
Imagine a world where the air alone is poisonous enough to quickly kill any human walking through it without protection, monsters build grand arenas for their own amusement, and the remaining survivors of once-great civilisations huddle together in scattered towns and villages which are themselves faint shadows of barely remembered former glories. A setting like that has all the hallmarks of a very serious blockbuster with a shoehorned-in skill tree growth system and player morality tied to “Kill the puppies”/”Save the puppies” dialogue choices… but this is actually how people live in the incredibly beautiful Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles, it’s just cunningly hidden underneath all the disarmingly serene rivers, rolling green hills and fluffy moogles.
So with this knowledge fresh in hand we adjust our assessment of Crystal Chronicles’ world and perhaps view it as more of a post-cutepocalypse style RPG – a severe and unforgiving world where a small band of heroes bravely stand up against the evil blighting the land and start to set things right. Um, no. There is no malicious empire or zealous church to rally against, no cloaked villain to loathe, no specific source to aim for. I’d say it’s more accurate to think of Crystal Chronicles as more of a fairy tale, the old and dangerous sort where children are abandoned in a famine, thorns blind the eyes of noble princes, and little girls are eaten whole by wolves for their naivety, never to be rescued. The total loss experienced by these people was so overwhelming and so long ago this awful state isn’t something any of the game’s inhabitants even consider feeling any anger or injustice over; this world, where life is lived one cherished year at a time, magical beasts gather in abandoned places, and crystal caravans cross the land for the sake of their distant homes is simply how things are.
The key to their suffering is miasma, the deadly air that allows monsters to thrive and cannot be hidden from or driven away with a sword. The only protection against this deadly vapour comes from Final Fantasy’s omnipresent crystals – some large enough to cover an entire village, others small enough to be carried. But even a great crystal’s protection will wane if not annually rejuvenated by a chalice filled with magical myrrh, gathered drop by village-saving drop from trees that only grow in the darkest and most dangerous places in the land. To further complicate an already perilous journey these mysterious trees replenish their supplies slower than the annual harvest requires, forcing caravans to travel further and further afield to gather the three precious drops needed to keep the village going for another year – to keep the monsters and the miasma at bay. During these long journeys you’re likely to pass other caravans, encounter not-so-threatening bandits, and even a few forgotten souls along the way – and your thoughts and memories of all these events and the places you visit are recorded for posterity in your caravan’s diary…
Some of the locations your caravan travels to are welcoming but fading remnants of what were once bustling trading crossroads, others are secretive towns requiring outsiders to find special passes to enter or vast fields tended to with great care by hardworking farmers – there are even cozy moogle homes dotted across the land if you know where to look. For all the many differences between these places one thing is always the same: wherever you go people are making the best of what they have and always happy to see a friendly face arrive from far away, because if you’re here with your caravan then it’s safe to assume your village hasn’t become another Tida.
Tida isn’t a village – not anymore – it’s a battleground brimming with gigantic spores, armoured skeletons and vicious mutated vegetation. On your way to the myrrh tree you’ll walk past the village’s still-legible welcome sign, fight next to the dilapidated homes people used to live in, and tread on the barren field where they used to plant their crops.
Tida village is what happens when a caravan doesn’t make it home.
And yet for all this devastation:
“It is said that not a single one of them tried to escape.
All stood fast, waiting for their caravan, hoping to the very end.”
Tida’s destruction – faced with not anger, defiance, or even morbid acceptance but hope (another notice, surrounded by death and decay, reads: “Three days until the caravan returns! Let’s give them a warm welcome!”) was so awful the final boss, the architect of all the world’s suffering for so very long, remembers savouring their despair and sorrow in particular with glee. Ultimately Tida’s unshakeable faith in their caravan gave rise to this now cursed place’s myrrh tree, helping people they will never meet to keep their own villages alive.
There’s nowhere in Crystal Chronicles that isn’t steeped in similar sacrifices and the history of travellers that went before you: Conall Curach’s another one, a dense marshland where the only path through was laid down by Selkies long ago as they searched for a new home, their progress marked along the way by stones written in the ancient Selkic language. These begin bold and upbeat, always certain that their new land was just around the corner even as they went deeper and deeper into behemoth infested territory – until the final one, which reads:
“To those who follow: I am the only one left. I can build the road no more.”
Even then, alone and exhausted after seeing their entire people die along the way, this unnamed Selkie remains hopeful for the future as the same message continues:
“Be steadfast in your path. Find a place we Selkies can call our own!”
You do eventually reach the end of the marsh, a place presumably only seen by that last weary Selkie, but you don’t find the home they dreamed of – no Selkie or indeed any other race ever made a home in Conall Curach – the only thing to greet you is a giant dragon zombie more than willing to tear any passers-by to shreds. Afterwards your caravan note in their diary that the myrrh tree there “…drooped mournfully, as if it marked where the Selkie’s dreams were buried”.
These details and stories within stories not only flesh out the setting and give these specific areas a reason to exist beyond being a monster-filled place for your team to run through but also add a tangible sense of danger and loss to the forgotten mines and windswept caves – all these little traces of what they once were lying crumbling and broken, lurking on the fringes of collective memory. It all feels very far away from your home village of Tipa – and serves as a constant reminder of what will happen to all those smiling faces preparing to celebrate your return should you fail – of what will happen to anyone if their caravan fails. It’s an all-encompassing yet almost undefinable fear that touches even the grand city of the Lilties, Alfitaria:
“They all wear the same hunted expression, as though something is chasing them down.”
Anguish layered upon centuries of death and despair to the point of it becoming normal could drag even a game where the postal service is run entirely by round balls of enthusiastic moogle down into an inescapable one-note pit of sorrow where nothing you achieve can ever matter because whatever happens is probably going to go wrong and involve somebody dying. This doesn’t happen – can’t happen – in Crystal Chronicles because for all the suffering swirling around the people within they are never defined by anything other than hope.
These people – your people – see boundless optimism and new bonds in everything and everyone: They plant seeds after shared picnics, wish you well on your arduous journeys, and freely offer gifts or share knowledge as they pass you on the road. So it’s only appropriate that you – the player – should make an effort to behave in the same generous way. Crystal Chronicles is a cooperative game in all ways (I must stress the game does – and made the point of playing it to completion alone before writing this post – remain an enchanting adventure even if played solo) and it all works out for the best if you keep your character’s family as well as your travelling companions in mind and distribute your resources accordingly: Everything from packages home to food to end-of-area stat increases to spellcasting are more effective if you coordinate your efforts. Diversity and teamwork are your greatest strength: different races bring their own skills to the party, enabling you to open doors you would otherwise have to wait to go through or read signs written in an uncommon language, or have other caravans view you more favourably. Cooperation is not some cute idea here, some obvious moral tale about being nice to others, people in this game – including the players themselves – cooperate with the rest of their group or everyone relying on them dies – all of those voices silenced and memories lost.
Those memories – whether created, cherished, faded, or burning too brightly for any outside force to touch, play a central role in Crystal Chronicles: There’s a reason why “Memories” is listed as a stat right underneath strength, magic, and all the usual lot – they’re the true power in this world, the source of everyone’s difficulties and happiness, and your shining strength against the being behind it all – treasured memories quite literally have power in Crystal Chronicles. The game is ultimately a game about hope and warmth and friendship, and how these things are given meaning, perspective, and enable personal growth through our memories of the past – good and bad. It’s for this reason Mt. Vellenge – the final dungeon – opens not with a fearful tale of the danger ahead or a courage-boosting rage against the night but a simple letter to your mother, filled with home and hope and care. It’s utterly heartbreaking, highlighting how there is nothing left for anyone other than the wish they will meet again:
It is long since I have seen you.
How have you been?
Each dawn reminds me of home, and each sunset gives me hope.
There has been much hardship, but every time I reach a summit, splendid sights stretch out beneath me.
That is what keeps me moving forward.
Please take care.
I will write again.”
Crystal Chronicles is a game-long exhortation about the need for balance, respecting the past for its wisdom and guidance while still readily embracing the uncertainties of the future, all wrapped up in a sweet-looking game about little people in a little caravan from an equally little village. Like nostalgic summer simulator Boku no Natsuyasumi 2, Crystal Chronicles takes great care to drive home the message that being “special” is nothing to do with destiny or parents or fate but choosing to notice and treasure the life you already live, and the person those memories have shaped.