Final Fantasy VII was perhaps the most beloved and influential JRPG in its day, raising the bar for RPGs to follow whilst earning critical acclaim and commercial success far beyond its loyal but limited customer base in Japan.

Since its 1997 release and subsequent popularity we have been treated – and in some cases, subjected – to numerous FF titles and spin-offs, the list of which has grown longer than Sephiroth’s sword. FF VII alone has spawned a series of games across several platforms, and films based around its characters, setting and story. With the possible exception of a FF VII remake (which would be the icing on the cake for devotees), we’ve pretty much had our fill of it… so is there really room for yet another game built around one particular title in a series that has been done to death? Apparently so.

The game begins in typical JRPG fashion by throwing players into the deep end, dishing out a taste of full-on combat action before allowing some respite. This includes setting the scene for the main story plus access to onboard tutorials which introduce you to the finer points of combat, as well as other vital information. The learning curve is an impressive 10-15 minutes, after which you can expect to be slinging swords and spells with the best of them.

Since Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII is a prequel to FF VII, the storyline takes place several years prior to the events in the older title. Will knowing the eventual outcome affect a FF VII fan’s enjoyment of the game? Isn’t it a bit like reading the last chapter of a book before starting at the beginning? No, quite the opposite; learning how the characters were shaped and how the chain of events is set in motion is quite fulfilling. Newcomers to the franchise may find the plot too deep and complicated to relate to; however fans will appreciate the solid back story which fills in some blanks and fleshes out certain characters from FF VII.

One of these is young 2nd class member of SOLDIER, Zack Fair, whose driving ambition is to get himself promoted to 1st class, and around whose exploits Crisis Core revolves. Zack is sent on a mission to find another SOLDIER operative gone AWOL. We get to meet his mentor Angeal (bearing a very familiar looking sword), and a pre-wacko Sephiroth, both of whom are working for the same outfit. Of course, nothing is as straightforward as it seems, and plot quickly takes a turn for the convoluted, with Zack in the middle of it all.

In addition to plugging away at the main storyline, you can also undertake side quests dished out by NPCs. These are generally of short duration and involve mowing down enemies, taking out a boss and collecting loot. Not an awful lot of variation but perfect for when you have a few minutes to kill.

Gameplay-wise, Crisis Core is markedly different compared to its predecessors. For starters, it’s linear. Rather than the open world environments of previous FF titles, you are pretty much taken from location to location as the plot dictates. This may sound quite restrictive – particularly for players who enjoyed wandering the countryside; however it actually works rather well on the PSP. Practically every aspect of gameplay has been overhauled, simplified and trimmed of unnecessary baggage. Nowhere is this more evident than in the revamped combat system, which flows swiftly and seamlessly from one battle to the next. It runs in real time as opposed to the usual turn-based system, and sadly there are no party members to provide back-up – Zack must fight on his lonesome… Items, physical and magical attacks can be employed during combat, and once you become accustomed to them, the shoulder buttons are an effective means of selecting the one you wish to use.

Boss battles aside, encounters tend to be brief, button mashing affairs which may seem too simplistic for purists. On a ‘pick up and play’ handheld however, you don’t really want long, drawn out battles of epic proportions. Quick takedowns are a bonus if you’re waiting for the bus.

One new feature worth a mention is the DMW (Digital Mind Wave), a fancy 3-reel ‘slot machine’ which sits in one corner of the screen and spins of its own accord during battle. When all three reels stop on identical characters or numbers, a power-up or special attack is bestowed upon Zack. Since the DMW is not under your control a truly random element has been introduced to combat, which is a clever means of ensuring you don’t get bored of the many encounters.

With Crisis Core being a Final Fantasy title and knowing what the PSP is capable of, we expected nothing less than jaw-dropping graphics and we weren’t disappointed.

From the CGI cut scenes with their trademark hyper-realistic character models, to a line-up of impossibly pretty girls - and even prettier boys – dealing to their unfortunate foes in spectacular fashion (summons FTW!). Of course, in-game graphics don’t pack as much ‘wow’ factor, but overall Crisis Core holds nothing back and the PSP delivers without faltering. The accompanying soundtrack makes for wonderful listening, and includes remixed versions of original FF VII compositions by Nobuo Uematsu, as well as some fresh material. One minor criticism here is that Zack’s voice is quite different – more immature than we’d envisaged. Each to their own though; younger

Overall, Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII has something to offer every RP gamer, whether they be new to the franchise or long-time fans. We give it two (very sore... and callused) thumbs up!