Dirge of Cerberus: Review

Yesterday I beat Dirge of Cerberus for Playstation 2, the recent Final Fantasy VII spin-off that hopes to use the success of the Final Fantasy VII movie, Advent Children, to make profit. My final play clock was 6:45, so that right there should tell you that this is no normal Final Fantasy game. And let me get that out of the way right now: this game is very far from anything you are used to from the Final Fantasy world.

The game starts off with some cut scenes, like most Final Fantasy games. It is a mix of the regular in game cut scenes and the FMV sequences. The former are surprisingly attractive, considering the age of the PS2’s graphic hardware. The latter, on the other hand, are absolutely stunning, and on par with the Advent Children movie. In fact, the three-dimensional models from the movie for the various characters are used in the FMV sequences, so those who buy the game as a supplement for the movie will feel right at home. That being said, this game’s story has very little to do with the main Final Fantasy VII story or the Advent Children movie, instead creating a completely new threat to the world.

That threat comes in the form of a group of soldiers called DEEPGROUND. Through the cinematic and lengthy in game scenes, you learn about the origins of this enemy and also what they hope to accomplish. I don’t want to spoil anything, but suffice it to say that the world will be destroyed if someone doesn’t stop them. That is where the protagonist of the game, Vincent Valentine, comes in. Vincent, who was only a secret unlockable character in the original Final Fantasy VII game, is the focal point of this game. Through his eyes, you learn about the threats of DEEPGROUND, but also of his past. When you find Vincent in the original game, he is in a cave and very little explanation is given on who he is or where he came from. This game aims to solve that, and it succeeds.

By filling in a background story for Vincent at the same time the DEEPGROUND plot is unfolding, you essentially have two very different stories running parallel to each other. Inevitably the two merge into one, but for almost all of the game you are left to decipher these two different plots. The cinematic sequences, as previously mentioned, can get rather long. There are some that are easily ten minutes long, and just throw tons of details at you. While the story isn’t particularly deep, the first half of the game leaves you with many unanswered questions and you will hardly have any clue as to what is going on. The game doesn’t bother to let you figure anything out on your own, however, as the scenes in the later parts of the game will answer everything for you. And keep in mind that when I differentiate between the “early” and “later” parts of the game, there is really only about a two-hour difference. A dedicated gamer could definitely finish this game in one sitting, but given that there is a definite break (the Airship chapter), it is recommended that you take it in at least two.

Overall, I found the story intriguing. The parts of Vincent’s past have interesting moments that introduce moral dilemmas as well as a profound sense of romance. Similarly, the DEEPGROUND plot line explores more horrors of the Shinra Corporation, which naturally introduces moral aspects. It seems the game attempted to work that into the gameplay in some of the earlier chapters, where Vincent has the choice to save civilians from the DEEPGROUND soldiers. However, the presentation is off, and you never feel any consequences for not saving them, other than receiving less gil at the end of a mission. I’m not sure if there are alternate endings, but it didn’t seem like anything I did had an affect on the end of the game. That being said, the main plot line also revisits the concepts of the Lifestream inside the planet. I don’t know about you, but this was one of the most appealing things in the plot of the original Final Fantasy VII for me. I found it an interesting explanation on the cosmos and life and death, and Dirge of Cerberus only adds to the mythos. It is this diversity in the plot that really makes it stand out. The fact that there are essentially two separate plots going on at the same time, each with their own key characteristics, keeps everything fresh.

The ending, to me, was sub par by Final Fantasy standards. I know this is not an RPG, but the game contained enough story to make it feel like it had a true Final Fantasy story, albeit a shorter and less complex one. Still, as epic as the whole “the world is going end” thing was, the ending just didn’t do it for me. Usually when I complete a Final Fantasy game, the ending blows me away and I just sit there, watching the credits, contemplating the awesomeness of what I just saw. With Dirge of Cerberus, the ending feel cliché, but also just felt too stylistic for its own good. The movie sequences used to portray the ending were nice, but there wasn’t any one-liner at the end that wrapped everything up. The feeling is similar to watching a movie’s ending and realizing that they neglected to wrap things up to make room for a potential sequel. I doubt Dirge of Cerberus will spawn a sequel, but it still feels like there is just this lack of closure. Still, the story was fresh and interesting, and definitely warrants the Final Fantasy name.

Characters in this game are a lot less consistent than the story. There are excellent fleshed-out characters like Vincent himself, who has this profound back-story and seems to grow as a person throughout the game, but then there are some empty characters, particularly the bosses. The DEEPGROUND soldiers have an elite group inside them called the Tsviets. These are essentially the bosses that you will fight in the game (occasionally you fight a mechanical soldier or helicopter gunship, but the Tsviets are your primary bosses). They each have names and cool abilities, but they just seem to be “there”. You never learn about their stories, and their actions are never explained. The result is that you the boss fights don’t seem like anything at all, just a stronger version of a regular enemy. It is like you are disposing of nameless, faceless enemies on your way to the end of the game. In contrast, the original Final Fantasy VII and all other Final Fantasy RPGs, have these archrivals that are completely unique. We all know Sephiroth all too well, and his story was aptly explained during the Final Fantasy VII game. There is no such thing in Dirge of Cerberus.

Vincent also has various allies. Yuffie and Cait Sith from the original game make appearances, but aren’t explained all that well, nor are they focused on. The Reeve character, who is the mastermind behind the resistance group that Vincent fights for (the WRO), seems somewhere in between the empty shells of the bosses and the well-thought-out characters like Vincent. He has some moments that show that he is more than a character on a screen, and also delivers intelligent dialogue (in contrast to characters like Yuffie who seem to babble mindlessly). One character that stands out, however, is Shelke, a young girl who grows exponentially throughout the game. Without spoiling anything, I will just say she has a lot of things to work out with her sister, Shalua. Shelke starts as an empty shell, but then becomes filled in as the game goes on. The subplot involving her and her sister, which eventually intermingles with the overall plot of the game, has strong hints of gaining identity and other deep philosophical ideas. Shelke is personally my favorite character because, as the game goes on, she seems to become human, slowly but surely. She, with Vincent, is an example of how characters are meant to be done, and reminds you that the people behind this game are indeed very talented.

I don’t want to make it sound like Square Enix screwed up with the boss characters and some of the others. After all, this game is hardly trying to equal the original Final Fantasy VII (that would be quite a task). Still, with such a talented crew behind this game, having such empty and seemingly worthless enemies damages the immersiveness of the game. What happens is that you start to feel like you are fighting an idea more than a particular person or organization. The game can throw words like Tsviets and DEEPGROUND around all it wants, but what it all comes down to is that you’re saving the planet, and will kill anything that stands in your way. The few excellent characters in the game save it from what would be certain failure, and you as the player will not feel completely surrounded by lifeless beings. It is just that this game could have been so much more epic and could have felt so much more real, if only the enemies were more clearly defined, and some of the characters were explained better.

The gameplay itself is what sets Dirge of Cerberus apart from its other Final Fantasy siblings. It is not an RPG at all, but rather a shooter, or at least that is what Square will have you think. The game controls much like a console shooter, with the right analog stick aiming a crosshair and the R1 button shooting. That is essentially what it boils down to, as the levels are very linear. All you do is point and shoot, and occasionally check your map to see if you are heading toward the orange dot that signifies the location you should go towards to advance the game. As you move through the various maps in each chapter, you discover missions. For example, the first chapter of the game will have you save civilians. You can ignore the mission and simply proceed to the orange dot, but simply by killing everything in your path you usually complete about 50% of the mission, even if you don’t try to. Not completing the other half of the mission doesn’t really penalize you at all, save for giving you less gil at the end of the level. I confess that I didn’t really take these missions seriously… if you failed most missions, the game was not over, and so there was no real incentive to complete them. This sort of takes away from the validity of the missions at all, making them seem like an irrelevant diversion from the normal procedure of killing everything you see.

Aside from the worthlessness of the missions, I found the game to be pretty fun. The shooting and general gameplay kept fresh, as you constantly are faced with new enemies. Vincent has three different guns: a machine gun, a handgun, and a rifle. I used the handgun for the entire game, and only switched to the rifle when required (some enemy snipers were too far away to kill with the hand gun) and to the machine gun for boss battles. You have to pay to upgrade your weapons, so if you choose one or two weapons to focus on, you will be able to put all your money into them. I had the handgun and all its accessories maxed out just after the halfway point, while my machine gun and rifle were still near their original stats. That being said, the game does offer a fairly in-depth customization system for the weapons. You can change the barrel to long, for accuracy, or short, for quicker firing rate. You can also add various add-on accessories that boost Vincent’s stats or make the weapon stronger. Also, you can add materia. By drawing energy from Mako spots around the map, you gain MP. When aiming at an enemy, pressing the L1 button as opposed to the normal R1 to fire will activate the materia. This launches a powerful magical attack at the enemy. It is effective in boss fights and also to clear large groups of enemies (for example, the fire materia makes an explosion that damages many enemies at once), but becomes much more powerful later in the game when there are enemies that block normal gunfire. The customization takes away from the monotony of simply shooting everything, and really does become pretty fun trying to make a cool new feel for your same old weapon.

The levels themselves, as mentioned above, are linear. I found myself backtracking maybe once or twice. Simply put, if you look at the map often, you will never get lost. In one sewer level you had to press two buttons to open a gate, but aside from that you are essentially just moving forward and killing whatever you see. The problem I had with this is that Vincent can double-jump and also crouch. You almost never have to use these abilities of his, especially not the duck (which I didn’t even know was an option until in one of the last levels I had to duck under a pipe to proceed). The worse part about the jumping is that it doesn’t work as expected. You cannot jump anywhere, and there are these invisible walls everywhere that hinder even simple jumping. The end result is that you jump primarily in boss fights to avoid being hit by their fire, but other than that it is largely unused. I would have much preferred if the game had a more platforming feel to it, where you were forced to use some of the jumping to go places. Many third-person shooters have these types of things, like, for example, Tomb Raider. Even Half-Life 2, a first person shooter, has portions where you have to jump from platform to platform. Especially since Vincent is jumping all over the place and doing fancy acrobatics in the cut scenes, I think it would have added a different dimension to the game to have something to do other than run and gun. Aside from this issue, and the linear layout of the levels, the maps are still cool. It is always fun to visit old places that will be familiar to players of the original game, such as the Midgar train graveyard and the Shinra Mansion.

The gameplay is, in simplest terms, fun. However, the missions don’t seem to be very rewarding, the levels are linear, and all you do is run and gun. By the final levels of the game, you start to be glad that this is a short game. One of the biggest problems with this game, beyond all the “minor” problems discussed above, is the pacing of the gameplay. At the beginning and end of each chapter there are cut scenes to give you more of the story… that is to be expected, and even welcomed, by any fan of shooters or RPGs. However, during each chapter, there are also cut scenes. I know in RPGs this happens all the time, but keep in mind that this is NOT an RPG. Dirge of Cerberus is a shooter, but sometimes it seems that Square Enix forgot that. For example, the “save the civilians” mission I keep talking about shows a cut scene every time you actually save a civilian. A cut scene, meaning it cuts from the gameplay. The screen literally fades to black, there is a few seconds of loading, and a fifteen second scene of the civilians thanking Vincent is shown, the screen fades back to black, more loading, then you’re back to the game. The loading isn’t the problem, but rather the face that there is even a cut scene at all in a situation like that. If you are familiar with shooters like Half-Life or Call of Duty, you will know that occurrences like these are not handles by cut scenes, but merely just happen. When a game, especially a fast-paced game like a shooter, interrupts the gameplay just to make someone say “Thank you”, it takes away from the immersiveness completely. In Call of Duty, for example, going up to civilians you save will trigger an in-game event that will have the civilians thank you and run off to safety. The key is that there is no cut scene. Dirge of Cerberus’s tendency to break up the gameplay like that really makes things feel disjointed. What it all eventually feels like is that Square was confused as to what kind of game they were making. At times, when you are gunning away at dozens of enemies in some of the later levels, it definitely feels like a shooter. It is fast-paced and you are running, gunning, and jumping behind cover like crazy. But when you get interrupted and are forced to watch a fifteen second scene in the middle of saving the town of Kalm, it feels like an RPG. The developers really should have made up their mind and focused on making a shooting game.

Aside from the major issue of pacing, there is a similar issue in the voice-overs. I have no idea if this was a conscious design decision by the voice actors or whoever, but much of the dialogue seems just as disjointed as the gameplay. For example, on the air ship, Shelke will say something to the effect of “This feeling. Is this what you meant by doing something for someone you care about?” The way the voice actor says it, it comes out as follows: “This feeling… Is this what you meant…. By doing something… for someone you care about?” This may not illustrate the point well, but keep in mind that you will undoubtedly notice it. The scenes from Vincent’s past seem to be pretty good, but many of the scenes in his present have this issue. Again, I don’t know if there is a reason for the pauses, maybe to emphasize certain points, but even common phrases are split up. It isn’t a huge issue, but takes away from the seriousness of the dialogue, and sometimes completely ruins the mood. “We must… save… her!”

One last thing I would like to briefly mention is the music. I found it very cool, and followed Advent Children’s lead in combining metal riffs with techno beats, and throwing in some classic Final Fantasy goodness. I do, however, have some qualms. The music, for the most part, is well placed. However, during the boss battles there isn’t much of anything. If there was, it was very low and unnoticeable. I don’t know about you, but I love to hear some of those techno beats while fighting a boss, especially in a shooting game like this where you aren’t merely ordering the players what to do. Shadow Hearts, for example, is excellent in this respect… they have the coolest boss battle music I’ve ever heard, and it truly sets the mood. Again, I know Square Enix wasn’t trying to make this into an RPG, but if you are going to have good music, at least try to use it in scenes where it will be effective. All in all, though, the music was well placed, save for the boss battles. A final issue I had is that the theme song didn’t seem nearly epic enough for the game, and when it plays during the final credits you don’t really feel that sense of accomplishment inside. Maybe this was more attributed to the fact that the ending was weak, but I felt that maybe a stronger song would have elevated the game’s ending to the higher level where it should have been. I just love to get that feeling after I finish a game that something was accomplished, and I as the gamer had something to do with it. Dirge of Cerberus does not do this.

In conclusion, Dirge of Cerberus is a great game. Most of the problems come when you compare it to the previous released from Square. Final Fantasy VII, the original game, clearly redefined role-playing games as we know it, and still acts as a benchmark for other RPG developers. Dirge of Cerberus, however, is simply a good game… it will not turn heads, and certainly won’t give you the sense that your life was meaningless before you played it. It has its issues, primarily with empty enemy characters and disjointed gameplay.

I think all of this is attributed to the fact that Square Enix is used to making role-playing games. When creating a shooter, they stuck with what they knew sometimes, but threw it out at others. I wouldn’t mind a disjointed shooter if all the characters were fleshed out and interesting. Likewise, I wouldn’t mind a super fast-paced run and gun shooter with some platforming aspects that had a cast of empty characters. It seems that Square couldn’t pick sides… they wanted a shooter, but at the same time they wanted an RPG. The problem is that they weren’t consistent and didn’t deliver on either side, and it leaves the game, in its current state, in shambles. I hate to make it sound so horrific, because this game really does entertain and it was a fun seven hours for me. It just lacks the qualities to make it a game that you keep going back to and enjoy for years to come. To top it all off, the ending, which I think can be a redeeming quality in any decent game, was sub par and failed to wrap everything up in a nice package.

The Bottom Line: Dirge of Cerberus is a short, yet entertaining shooter. However, hardcore shooter fans will be disappointed by the disjointed gameplay. Likewise, hardcore RPG fans will be disappointed by some of the weak characters. The story really is amazing and I think the game most definitely deserves a play through by anyone who is mildly amused by the Final Fantasy VII universe. Just don’t expect to want to replay the game a couple times, and definitely don’t expect the same quality that Square Enix is known for. I rented this game, and I recommend you do the same thing. This game certainly isn’t worth a purchase, as there is no reason you would want to play through it again.

OVERALL: 7.5 / 10