Square Enix's "Final Fantasy" video-game franchise is celebrating its 25th anniversary. And while the series has stumbled a bit over the last decade, fans of role-playing adventures can all cite their favorite moments. From epic battles to romantic interludes, heroic sacrifices to shocking betrayals, the creators of "Final Fantasy" have sought unabashedly to yank the full range of reactions out of their players.
What makes those emotional moments so effective? No small credit is due to the series' lavish orchestral scores, which are so popular they've become the foundation for concert tours around the world. "Theatrhythm Final Fantasy" ($39.99, for the Nintendo 3DS, theatrhythm.com) is Square's own tribute to a quarter-century of terrific game music.
The action will feel familiar if you've ever played a rhythm game on the DS. You respond to on-screen cues by tapping or sliding the stylus on the touch screen. There are three slightly different types of stages, but the essence is always the same: If you miss too many notes, you fail.
"Theatrhythm" lets you mix characters from 13 "Final Fantasy" releases. Each time your characters survive a level they become stronger, so they're able to take more of a beating if you decide to hike the difficulty. The role-playing element here is thin, but the character growth -- not to mention a huge assortment of collectible goodies -- provides motivation to master all the game's 40-plus tunes. It's a great package for "FF" fans, and it will make you want to play any games in the series that you may have missed. ★ ★ ★ out of four.
"Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance" ($39.99, for the Nintendo 3DS, kingdomhearts3dgame.com): Square's "Kingdom Hearts," now 10 years old, was a successful attempt to join characters from "Final Fantasy" and Walt Disney cartoons into one epic adventure. Over half a dozen sequels, though, the "Kingdom Hearts" mythology has gotten so convoluted that the lighthearted fun of the original has largely disappeared.
In "KH 3D," you alternate between two heroes exploring a series of "sleeping worlds" based on Disney movies, including "Pinocchio," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "Tron: Legacy." The worlds are filled with two kinds of "dream eaters": nightmares, who want to kill you, and spirits, who will join your cause.
The spirits comprise the major new addition to the franchise, a "Pokemon"-like game-within-a-game in which you can pet, feed and train a menagerie full of monsters. You can have three spirits join your human hero in battle -- but, unfortunately, no matter how much you power them up, they don't help much.
The combat is otherwise entertaining, with a gimmick called "flowmotion" that lets you bounce off walls and spin around enemies. But it doesn't mesh well with the critter-collecting element, and the story is flat-out baffling. There's a lot to do in "KH 3D," but I was never sure why I was doing any of it. ★ ★
Square's "Heroes of Ruin" ($39.99, for the Nintendo 3DS, heroesofruin.com) has nothing to do with "Final Fantasy," but it does try to bring a different kind of role-playing experience to the 3DS -- specifically, the hacking, slashing and loot collecting of "Diablo."
The nexus of the game is a city called, well, Nexus. It's home to a dying sphinx named Ataraxis, and your goal is to find the cure. You can play the adventure alone or join forces with up to three other players, but the missions are generally the same: dive into a dungeon and kill everything that moves.
That may be enough if you're just looking for a portable "Diablo" clone. But the story and characters here are pedestrian, the dungeons are predictable and the rewards -- all those bits of armor and weaponry you loot from your victims -- are boring. "Heroes of Ruin" is technically competent, but misses the spark that could make it special. ★ ★