So here we are at the end of the so called 'compilation of Final Fantasy VII' experiment by Square-Enix that began with the shallow(But spectacular) film Advent Children, continued with the so-so Dirge of Cerberus and a couple of mobile phone games that those of us outside Japan will never play, and finishes here with a surprisingly excellent prequel centred on the most under developed and explored character in the original FFVII: Zack.
Firstly, if, like me, you're going into this expecting a JRPG, then forget that right away. Core Crisis is an action title through and through, having far more in common with games like Kingdom Hearts and Rogue Galaxy(Minus the jumping) than Final Fantasy games. The levelling up and stat building is mostly outside your control, being almost a case of luck, as they use the always in action during battle 'DMW' or 'Digital Mind Wave'(Glorified fruit machine reels basically) to determine when you get a level up or a bonus status boost or some such during fights. It's pretty random to be honest, and seems a touch unnecessary to me, but you'll spend all your time focusing on actual combat anyway, with the real time nature of battle requring some nifty thumbwork at times(This game is no pushover). Sadly, it does have random battles, but being on a handheld and looking as good as this does, I guess it was unavoidable, and the real time nature of the fights coupled with no 'in area' loading times does help a fair bit. The game is a lot of fun to play, but the battles lack variety unless you make the effort to experiment with materia use and fusions and such.
Of course, the story is the real reason we're all here for this one though, and far moreso than Advent Children or Dirge of Cerberus, the story in Core Crisis delivers AND manages to stay true to the spirit of the original game at the same time.
Taking place several years prior to FFVII, you assume the role of Zack Fair during his days as a 2nd class SOLDIER member desperate to reach 1st class status under the training of his mentor and friend Angeal in the middle of a crisis of SOLDIER members going missing on missions, most notably a friend of Angeal's called 'Genesis'(Remember the winged guy from the 'epilogue' ending to Dirge of Cerberus? That was Genesis, this is where you finally get the back story on what that was all about), who appears to have been cloned into an army that is intent on wiping out SOLDIER.
As the story unfolds, you're treated to all manner of wonderful tie ins with FFVII's story(The 'Nibelheim flashback' is gloriously recreated here perfectly) and tons of little easter eggs and bonuses you can discover if you look hard enough in addition to Core Crisis telling it's own separate story that gives a great amount of depth to Zack's back story to boot. The game explores the significance of Cloud's 'Buster Sword' and Aeris'(Or Aerith to give the new translation of her name) relationship with Zack which was barely touched upon in FFVII and even shows the early days of Turk leader Tseng's career, Sephiroth's days with SOLDIER when he was an actual 'good guy', and also provides some explanation as to what those 'Loveless' posters you saw all over Midgar in FFVII were all about. The game is just jam packed on the story front, and almost entirely manages to avoid the usual tiresome emo pifalls so many RPGs fall into through the simple act of the central character being a genuinely upbeat, optimistic, wise cracking hero type, something you don't see enough of these days. This game has the characterisation of familiar characters down pat, when Advent Children and Dirge of Cerberus seemed to just forget the events of FFVII entirely on that front.
The game is also a visual feast, with strikingly detailed character models that are animated really well, and look just stunning during the cutscenes(There are some of the usual lovely CGI cutscenes here too of course). The locations are nice too, but a lot of familiar FFVII locales have been changed around a lot to accomodate the new full 3D nature of the visuals, while some(eg. The Shinra building's lobby in particular) are perfect recreations. It looks excellent.
The soundtrack is of course fantastic, providing updated, sometimes amazing revamps of Nobuo Uematsu's most enduring game soundtrack of all time, with most of the old FFVII tunes covered(Tell me that Nibelheim theme doesn't send a shiver down your spine) and a really nice ending vocal song(In Japanese, with no translations though), this game is a major nostalgia trip.
Lengthwise, the main story alone is around 17 hours long, with an extensive array of side quests, missions and hidden stuff that will easily push the game over the 40 hour mark if you want it to. It'll certainly last you a while, and the multiple difficulties and new game+ mode offer some replay value.
Overall, this is a must buy. The sole complaint that I can think of is that the combat is too samey from a fairly early stage. Beyond that though, you get a great little adventure title and a glorious nostalgia trip to boot for your money.
Even if you didn't like other FFVII spin offs, you will like this one, it goes right where the others went wrong.