James Stephanie Sterling
Theatrhythm: Final Bar Line - Vinyl Fantasy (Review)
Theatrhythm: Final Bar Line Released: February 16, 2023 Developer: Indieszero Publisher: Square Enix Systems: PS4, Switch (reviewed)
I love Theatrhythm.
I love Theatrhythm to a dangerously compulsive degree, as both a fan of rhythm games and an admirer of the frankly brilliant soundtracks featured across decades of Final Fantasy. It does require both caution and preparation on my part, as I genuinely struggle to stop playing once I start, caught in the trap of claiming “just one more song” as I complete track after track after track.
Recently, Theatrhythm’s 3DS incarnation had been taking up a lot of my spare time as I got back into it after almost ten years. These past few weeks I’ve been obsessively absorbed in tapping my stylus along to such tracks as “Let the Battles Begin” and “You’re Not Alone.” Funnily enough, I’d somehow not known that a new game was coming and became subsequently delighted to suddenly learn my current obsession was getting a sequel some eight years after Theatrhythm: Curtain Call came to 3DS.
Theatrhythm: Final Bar Line is pretty much what I’d expected - more of the same in a bigger package. While a grimly predictable sprawl of DLC is coming (it’s Square Enix, after all), the base game’s 385 songs is admittedly extensive, covering every beloved and laudable Final Fantasy game as well as Final Fantasy XIII. Further music pulls from a whole bunch of spin-offs such as Tactics, Record Keeper, and Final Fantasy VII Remake, but music from games outside of Final Fantasy such as Nier and Octopath Traveler are going to be dripped in as part of several season passes. I suppose I’m meant to be grateful they’re not governed by microtransactions or a sickening subscription service.
Despite all the music available, there’s still no “Jesters of the Moon.” That this hallmark of audio artistry from Final Fantasy IX continues to go unrepresented is a travesty.
Final Bar Line plays out very much like its 3DS predecessors, though this time there’s no stylus input on offer. In a typical stage, “trigger” icons scroll across the screen from the left and players need to input the correct command when they reach the target zone. Triggers are activated by either pressing a button, holding a button, or pushing the analog stick in an indicated direction, with the correct inputs indicated via each trigger’s visual representation. There are subtle differences between “battle” and “field” stages, with the latter featuring triggers that follow a meandering path that’s followed with the analog stick. There are also “event” stages that scroll the triggers from top to bottom while a montage of related video clips plays in the background.
The lack of 3DS touchscreen gimmickry is accounted for by way of slightly more involved button controls. Some triggers, for example, require both analog sticks to be pushed at once, sometimes in different directions. On harder difficulties, hitting multiple triggers with different inputs is a regular requirement. Overall, finger dexterity is a far greater asset in Final Bar Line than in previous games, which I suppose is good or bad news depending on how dexterous your digits happen to be.
It took me a little adjustment to go from the comparatively rudimentary 3DS stylus to a full suite of buttons - it was intimidating, in fact - but having gotten hours of practice I can say my time with the game has been a total blast. You’re lucky this review has even been published because as I write this, all I can think about is stopping to play “just one more song.”
Theatrhythm has always added to the musical experience with a party building system and simulated RPG battles. Before tackling a song, players put together a group of four characters from across the Final Fantasy series, all rendered in an adorable picture book art style. As players successfully activate triggers, their chosen characters fight an ongoing cycle of enemies ranging from humble goblins to mighty endgame bosses like Ultimecia and Safer Sephiroth. Missing triggers deals damage to the party, while certain conditions, such as performing a chain of successful hits, will activate the spells and abilities you’ve equipped your troupe with.
Various forms of loot will be amassed as tracks are completed, from consumable items like potions to Summonstones that call forth one of several familiar monsters during battle. These Summonstones come randomly attached with up to three passive party bonuses of varying rarity, and stumbling upon rarities is probably the largest loot incentive. Additionally, players can unlock costumes for the Moogle that accompanies one’s party, as well as Collectacards, a bunch of digital trading cards that often grant stat boosts upon collection.
As the party levels up, their collective HP increases and they become better at damaging enemies, which allows for more monsters to be defeated per song. Final Bar Line has simplified things from Curtain Call, replacing its points-based skill allocation with three ability slots into which any unlocked skill may be slotted. This is a far better system than fiddling with math to keep everybody’s skills under a strict point limit. Each member can equip up to three abilities acquired through leveling, and everybody has a useful power unique to only them - a rather cool feature considering the sheer volume of potential party members.
Building an efficient party can be a game in and of itself. Characters are split into a number of broad types such as physical attackers, healers, and summoners. These types describe someone’s basic role - hunters, for example, can improve the loot gained from monsters, while defenders reduce incoming damage. Despite the typing designation, characters can still provide individually varied roles - one magic type may focus on slinging offensive spells, while another can amplify the magic power of the overall team.
An optimization command can automatically assign the party’s best powers, though it’s focused almost solely on battle - if you want to use a hunter type’s treasure hunting skills, you’ll likely keep needing to add them manually as optimization prioritizes offense over utility. This is also true of Summonstones, which don’t allow you to optimize via experience gains or loot drops, but focuses solely on the passive abilities’ rarity and power.
The potential for maximizing a party’s effectiveness is huge, especially since Final Bar Line adds so many characters. Alongside the series’ many heroes, the principal villains of each game are also unlockable party additions. This means I get to hang out and play my silly music game with Kuja all day, and that’s brilliant.
Despite battles being a largely automated affair governed purely by rhythmic button presses, I’ve become engrossed with tinkering. If that kind of management doesn’t sound fun, however, it’s perfectly valid to just pick your four favorite characters and march into battle. Even if they’re all the same type, there’s likely enough variety among them that they’ll complement each other, and who cares anyway? You want Rinoa and Judge Gabranth to be buddies? You do you. As much as I like making an efficient party, it doesn’t take precedence over picking characters I actually like, such as Kuja. I don’t know if I mentioned already that I enjoy being able to use Kuja.
Kuja is the best boy, because he has amazing fashion sense and hips almost as good as mine. We’ll conveniently ignore all the warmongering and planetary destruction.
Musical stages themselves are opened up by playing through each individual game’s soundtrack arranged to form a little “campaign” of sorts. Completed songs become freely playable at any time. Songs played during a campaign offer optional challenges in exchange for loot, tasks such as hitting 60% of triggers perfectly, or defeating listed boss creatures. Some of these challenges are really quite a demand, especially when you’ve got four characters at level 99 that are still unable to kill the designated monster.
I’m surprised at how much I’ve gotten into Final Bar Line’s online component. Multiplayer battles pit four players against each other, each one competing for the highest score on a selected track. A “Burst” feature allows players to randomly assail their opponents with various hindrances such as a Fat Chocobo that obscures the screen. These bursts are often incredibly annoying, even if they do potentially turn the tide, and many of the lobbies I’ve seen have them turned off. It’s the sort of thing that’s great if you’re lagging behind, but feels unfair if you lost first place because a Burst froze your score acquisition a few seconds before the end.
Whether Bursts are active or not, I very much enjoy the competitive element, not least for the fact that players can equip a Summonstone to their profile that every other player gets a copy of. Plus everybody gets to pick a Collectacard, with the winner choosing first. That said, if you do partake in multiplayer, I strongly advise you go into the options and set your Moogle’s voice volume all the way down to “off.” If it’s allowed to talk, it will squeal useless battle updates incessantly and yell “kupo” literally every few seconds. The sheer depths of that little bastard’s annoyance is indescribable, and I’m so thankful there’s an off switch. It’s baffling they thought it ever needed to be on.
Oh, and while you’re in the settings, do make sure you experiment with the input timings. It took a lot of faffing around between the game settings and my television to make it playable outside of handheld mode, mostly due to latency issues. I eventually got it perfect, but by default the lag was atrocious.
Final Bar Line adds some settings to increase accessibility, including a “simple” control style that reduces the need for intricate input and only requires good timing. The size and speed of triggers are also customizable among other useful tweaks. While I appreciate the options, I’d have liked a more nuance - I have physical coordination issues in which I struggle to make my hands do different things at once. As a result, any difficulty level above Expert is way harder than it ought to be, but the only way to combat my problem is via the simple controls that turn any difficulty into a cakewalk. All I really need is for the conflicting button presses to be reduced a bit.
Basically, as is true with any game, things would be improved with more accessibility options!
Theatrhythm: Final Bar Line is a delight, and a massive time sink that I don’t regret spending hours on. From its colorful visuals to the excellently presented music and the simple yet challenging rhythm action itself, there’s a ton to love about the latest game in a series I was already hooked on. The massive collection of characters to unlock and loot to gather enhances the game tremendously, while the rewarding multiplayer is just a lovely extra on top. If the DLC wasn’t so vast I’d have almost nothing to criticize outside of a desire for more considered accessibility settings. Even then, the base game truly does have more going for it than the majority of mainstream games charging twenty bucks more.
Still distraught over the lack of "Jesters of the Moon" though.