I have fond memories of the Dissidia games on the PlayStation Portable. They weren't amazing fighting games, but they were good enough for lil' ol' me, an intrepid Final Fantasy fan. They utilized three-dimensional arenas instead of horizontal stages. The maps often operated vertically, requiring high jumps and gliding for players to get the most out of it. The second game in the series, Dissidia 012 Final Fantasy, introduced Final Fantasy XIII's Lightning to the series and even had its own unique single-player quest line.
What made the Dissidia games stand out on the portable console is that it operated more like an action-RPG than a fighting game, from the progression to how the game felt to play, and it was steeped in fan service to the Nth degree. In the sequel, after you beat the game's single-player mode that introduced a world map for the first time, you unlocked the original game's campaign too: which was newly outfitted for the map. As someone who had played the original game already, it came as a surprise, and I remember thinking, "Why don't more sequels do this?"
When news arose a few years ago that Dissidia was making a comeback, I got a little excited. And then two years ago I played it within a smoke-filled arcade in Japan. I realized that it wasn't the Dissidia that once played out interactive fan fiction on the PSP. I chalked up feeling lost in it to it being in Japanese—a language I am not fluent in. Maybe, if this game ever leaves Japan and is localized, I thought, I'd comprehend it.
That comeback game finally released stateside earlier this week on PlayStation 4, and it's called Dissidia Final Fantasy NT. It's an enhanced port of the same arcade game from Japan, with a few tweaks. It's nothing like the Dissidia we once knew.
Instead of singular 1-on-1 duels, it's chaotic 3-on-3 battles. Instead of vertical oriented maps, it's all horizontal and mostly flat (save for walls and trees you can run up). The User Interface (UI) is kind of a mess, and it's hard to understand it without a few matches under your belt first. Playing it feels clunky; every hero we're familiar with starts out with the same two "EX Skills" on default, while the moment to moment of building up to those moves (and the equippable "HP Attack") varies from character to character. (Cloud from Final Fantasy VII is best when he closes in distance to swing that big sword of his, for example.) The maps are mostly dull, even when they shift visually in the midst of battle, where even Midgar amounts to just an array of industrial-looking blocks.
The goals of matches are relatively simple: dwindle down the opposing three-person team's Team HP meter, and emerge victorious. Getting to that breaking point is where it gets complicated. Players can whack away at other players, but where their priorities should lie is on the Summon Crystals that pop up across the map during the match. Smashing these crystals helps build up your Summon meter, and depending on the god-like creature at your behest, eventually you'll be able to Summon them down to rain upon your foes, effectively changing the tide of battle. It's a lot to keep track of though, with yourself, two teammates, and three opposing players. The maps are wide enough that sometimes it's easy to get separated from your pals and left alone and vulnerable. If the complicated UI is anything to attest to, Dissida NT is a game that demands your full attention at all times.
I wondered if Dissidia Final Fantasy NT might find its footing outside of just its online battles, which are resigned to Custom Lobbies or Ranked solo and team modes. Offline play, meanwhile, is trapped within a slightly obtuse tutorial (you select what you want to learn via a menu, read about it, and then are dropped into a scenario to utilize what you read about; there are no on-screen prompts to guide this, only reading comprehension from what you read before) and Gauntlets, where you and two AI allies face off in a series of matches that are tiered in difficulty (Silver would be easier than Platinum, and so on). I spent most of my time playing a few Gauntlets and testing out the game's characters. From Ultimecia to Zidane, I bounced from villain to hero, unlocking more abilities, music tracks, player icons, and "memoria" to unlock Story Mode cutscenes along the way.
The saving grace of this could have been at least a beefier Story Mode, like Dissidia 012 Final Fantasy introduced to the niche series way back when. Instead, Dissidia NT's Story Mode amounts to nothing more than cutscenes that you unlock as you play the game's other modes, receiving "memoria" as you play which are used to unlock the clips. Eventually, you get to cutscenes that include in-game fights against familiar Summons; but mostly, you're just watching things like Kefka skip along goofily while Sephiroth sneers in the background. The cutscenes still offer the same silly-minded fan service of all these characters from other worlds interacting with one another, but with the lack of interaction on our part, it often feels like just watching a CGI movie like Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, and not participating in a video game.
The problem is, even with probably the most inoffensive loot box system in recent memory (every match you win nets a "treasure," where you receive a random selection of cosmetics), there's not much to Dissidia NT. If servers were shut down in a pinch, about half of the game would be wisped away. Even with the currency you're constantly earning—Gil, of course—and the opportunity to always buy cosmetics that you could otherwise get in loot-like boxes, the cosmetics are hardly exciting. Music tracks, of which you can construct your own custom playlist either per character, or for all characters, have been what I've been most pining for when I open the treasures after matches. Otherwise, Noctis from Final Fantasy XV has a skin that makes him kinda look like a Victorian-era vampire, and that's about the coolest thing there is.
Considering this is an embellished port of an arcade game, the lack of customization depth—both in the way of only being able to equip certain attacks and skills but not widely so and cosmetics—isn't too surprising. Even then, comparatively last year, the port of the Japanese arcade game Hatsune Miku: Project Diva Future Tone released with hundreds of songs and cosmetics alongside it. It wasn't a fully-featured Project Diva game like the console and portable editions, but with the sheer breadth of songs available from the start, it was worth the price of entry.
Dissidia NT does not share that, and ends up feeling like the opposite approach to an arcade port, even being rebuilt for the console. While the game has a season pass and will introduce new fighters as time goes on, there's potential for the game to come into its own in a year or so, like Street Fighter 5 has. With a lack of offline modes and more-casual-leaning online mode (Ranked is all you get, or surfing through D.I.Y. Custom Lobbies), Dissidia NT is only really catering to the idealized hardcore audience right now, and no one in-between.
At least, the pace at which you unlock new abilities and cosmetics is relatively quick. The default special abilities are more interesting to customize once you have a broader array of choices. The characters feel different enough from one another, even if getting a handle on each has a bit of a learning curve. After hours and hours of time spent playing Dissidia NT, both online and offline, I wasn't left reflecting on its ideas, like Dissidia 012's reimagined original's campaign; I was instead left wishing for a better game.