To me the main problem with the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII so far is that it's been too far detached from the lore of Final Fantasy VII. Before Crisis features little of the characters from the game, Dirge of Cerberus focuses on a new villain and secret character Vincent and Advent Children is simply eye-candy.
Enter Crisis Core - a game set chronologically before the events of FF7 but overlapping with several key moments that appear in the game via flashbacks. The events of Crisis Core are arguably the most important events in the FF7 universe, so those hungry for a relevant in-universe expansion are in luck.
Crisis Core tells the story of Zack who at first glance might appear to be a black-haired Cloud lookalike. He's the man who Cloud looks up to and eventually bases himself off when he loses his memory, so he'll be instantly familiar.
He's no Cloud clone, though - where Cloud was either being self-doubting or cool and tough, Zack is an excitable, life-loving soldier who is determined to climb through the ranks and become an honored, respected hero. It's a nice change from the often brooding heroes in Square Enix titles, and Zack is a lead who by the end of the game I'd truly connected with.
Crisis Core is an interesting game because of its heritage. Its combat is that of an action-RPG, specifically based off the combat in the popular Kingdom Hearts series while the storyline, iconic locations and magic and ability system are all almost directly ripped from the original, turn-based FF7.
It's an interesting combination, with Materia equipped to Zack just as it was in FF7 but now available in real time. You only have to worry about controlling Zack, too - there are no party members in this title.
Everything feels more simplistic than it was in FF7, with leveling up Materia clearly explained and combat played out by selecting attacks from your menu and hitting X to execute them. Like in Kingdom Hearts the menu isn't prohibitive of the action style, with controlling it handled by the shoulder buttons here, a perfect position to allow easy changes on the fly.
The description of Crisis Core as more simplistic isn't entirely true - a better description would be more focused. As the entire game revolves around Zack and his personal story every other aspect of the game is pulled into sharp focus, with everything becoming more compact, tight and polished as a result.
Less of a sweeping story means less locations to visit, and the linear nature of Zack's journey within ShinRa means a world map is unnecessary. These may sound like negative points against Crisis Core until you consider how Dirge of Cerberus and Advent Children both struggled trying to top the events of FF7 - Crisis Core achieves an epic storyline by going smaller rather than larger.
All these things help to make Crisis Core a better portable title, too. While other portable FFs are identical to their console counterparts, Crisis Core provides storyline and cutscenes in short bursts with regular save points as if the development team were painfully aware that many fans would play this game on the train or on their lunch break.
In addition to the short story there's a plethora of sidequests, all found via the in-game email and accepted right there in the menu. Accepting transports you right to the sidequest area and no quest should take more than a half an hour to complete - everything in this title is bite-sized.
There are negatives to this format - side missions become very repetitive later on in the game as they all have to follow the same rough layout to remain within a decent timing, but the rewards for sidequests are often so good they're difficult to refuse. Everything in Crisis Core is relatively linear compared to the FF standard, and this sometimes feels like a negative but sometimes feels like a positive.
On the whole though Crisis Core is a great gameplay experience and has done a fantastic job of translating all those old Final Fantasy tropes into the real-time action arena. Zack is a versatile hero, and through Materia Fusion can essentially fill any of the traditional FF roles be it healing, offensive magic or swordplay.
The worst thing about Crisis Core's gameplay is the added random element in combat - the DMW. It's confusing, difficult to understand and frustrating. While fighting there's essentially always a slot machine turning and the results could harm you or help you. I openly admit that many times I was saved by a health-heal thanks to the DMW, but it's so random and unpredictable that even when it helps it feels almost like you've cheated.
Even that isn't all bad - towards the end of the game the DMW is used to incredible effect to aid the storyline along, and it helps the tragic ending become even more effecting.
For fans of FF7 this is just one of many loving touches that will make the plot of the game moving, exciting and interesting despite the fact we all know how it ends. Areas of the plot are flawed and some of the new characters - Genesis in particular - may make you shake your head, but generally it's all good.
Crisis Core might even be a good option for non-FF7 fans and has been set up so it'll serve as a perfect entry point for those wanting to get into the FF7 universe. It doesn't expect anything of you in terms of knowledge and tells you everything you need to know.
Those people will merely see Crisis Core as a good game - but FF7 fans will see it as so much more, a game designed to play on every fanboy-like urge in your body that playing a classic like FF7 instills. Zack is a fantastic leading man and the FF7 universe is presented with such style and clarity that it's arguably better presented in some places than the original game.
There are flaws, but combine addictive gameplay with pretty graphics, a moving plot and a clear feeling that this game was treated with as much love and care as any main-line Final Fantasy, and you've got your first classic FF7 spinoff.