In the late 1990s, the Japanese publisher Square could do no wrong. Back in the era of the original PlayStation, Square released one gem after another: blockbusters like "Final Fantasy VII" and "Chrono Cross," lesser-known masterpieces like "Vagrant Story" and "Brave Fencer Musashi," and one of my all-time favorites, the mind-blowing "Xenogears."
Square hasn't been quite as infallible this decade, thanks largely to the 2001 departure of "Final Fantasy" mastermind Hironobu Sakaguchi. The company never releases a bad game, but since its merger with Enix Corp. in 2003, it's become a little too dependent on spinoffs and remakes of its core franchises, "Final Fantasy" and "Dragon Quest." So when Square Enix releases something entirely original, it's an event that brings joy to the hearts of old Square fanboys like me.
- "The World Ends With You" (Square Enix, for the Nintendo DS, $39.99): One look at this game, starting with the great title, should tell you that you're not in a typical Square fantasyland. With highly stylized, thoroughly modern graphics, "The World" drops you in the middle of Tokyo's bustling Shibuya district. Monsters called "Noise" are wreaking havoc throughout the area, even though most citizens can't see them.
A punk named Neku has been chosen by a shadowy organization called the Reapers to play a game: Accomplish a series of missions within seven days or he'll be "erased." Since only Neku and his fellow players can see the Noise, fighting them seems like a logical place to start.
Battles use both screens of the DS: You use the stylus to control Neku on the bottom, and the directional pad to control a partner on the top. It's confusing at first, but you quickly learn when to switch between characters. It's an ingenious use of the DS technology, and a new skill (like controlling other people's thoughts) seems to pop up in every mission. "The World Ends With You" is one of the freshest games in a long time, and most of its innovations work beautifully. Three-and-a-half stars out of four.
- "Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII" (Square Enix, for the PlayStation Portable, $39.99): Like 2006's "Dirge of Cerberus," "Crisis Core" fills out the back story of one of the supporting characters in the classic "Final Fantasy VII." This time it's Zack Fair, an old pal of "FFVII" hero Cloud Strife, although some other memorable figures from that game also return.
Zack is part of an elite corporate army called SOLDIER, so he gets into plenty of fights. You press the X button on the PSP to attack, and use the triggers to switch between other options, like healing or offensive spells. Occasionally, a slot machinelike device called the Digital Mind Wave pops up; it can give you more powerful attacks, but it's far too random to rely on.
Zack and his partners, Angeal and Sephiroth, are sent on a mission to find out why a number of other SOLDIER operatives have deserted. The mystery provides interesting insight into the events of "FFVII," but you don't need to know that game's plot to enjoy this one. Indeed, "Crisis Core" turns out to have a compelling story all its own, and it's presented with all the visual and aural flair we've come to expect from Square Enix. Three stars.
- "Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates" (Square Enix, for the Nintendo DS, $39.99): "Ring of Fates" has a more familiar "FF" plot, with two very young kids fighting the spread of an ancient evil across a quasi-medieval kingdom. But even if that story makes you yawn, the game packs in enough action to satisfy any fan of role-playing games.
At its core, it's a dungeon crawl, which means exploring mazes and killing lots of monsters. The protagonists fight mainly with swords, while supporting characters excel at long-range combat, magic and, um, summoning urns. (It's more useful than it sounds.) Most of the time, you use the buttons on the DS to control the action on the top screen " but if you switch to the bottom screen, you can unleash more powerful attacks with the stylus.
You'll need to master all your characters' talents to make it through the more complicated dungeons, which are very cleverly designed. "Ring of Fates" is more challenging than you'd expect from a game that looks so cute, but that makes it all the more satisfying.