Final Fantasy 7 was a big deal in 1997 which was the first Final Fantasy game to have a PC version in the west. It has been ported to all types of platforms since then, PC again, and redone (which we hope to see on PC in 2021). To celebrate its 10th anniversary, Square Enix even made a set of sequences and spin-offs, including a mobile game, the film Advent Children, a strange third-person shooter and an action RPG for the PSP. The latter, Crisis Core, was the most well received of the group: he starred Zack, the cool guy whose identity Cloud stole, swinging his Buster sword in a game that looked ridiculously good for the PSP hardware. Thirteen years and a major remake of FF7 later, Square Enix did not touch Crisis Core, leaving it in the dark. Then, some modders decided to apply the HD remastering treatment on their own.
“I saw this as a chance to learn a new skill and have fun during coronavirus outages,” said Evan Qualls, who has spent the past nine months working on the FF7 Crisis Core Upscale project in his spare time. Qualls works in telecommunications sales and has continued to work as an “essential worker” throughout the year.
Modding Crisis Core quickly became a distraction from the stress of working during the pandemic. “It was nice to have something to do at home to distract me from questions like ‘Have I been exposed to the virus today?’”, He says.
While many modders take on projects to enhance their favorite games, Qualls has never actually played Crisis Core, or even owned a PSP. But after playing the new Final Fantasy 7 Remake, he decided he was interested in learning more about Zack’s story. Even playing Crisis Core on an emulator, however, it was clear that some parts of his presentation, like the text, were not supported on a larger, high-resolution screen.
“While playing it, I was paralyzed somewhere and looked for a YouTube video and realized that the text looked better and the creator mentioned that he was using a text mod,” says Qualls. “So I researched and saw how the mod worked with the PPSSPP emulator. Then I remembered the FF7 Remako mod with AI boost and the FF9 Moguri mod and thought, ‘Why didn’t someone just pour all the textures into a PSP game and use AI to automate your scaling up? ‘The next thing I know is that I was learning Python on my own and the project just started there. “
Unfortunately, scaling up an entire game is not as easy as feeding a bunch of AI jpgs and letting it do its magic. After trying the popular ESRGAN model, Qualls opted for Topaz AI, which is faster and better documented. But he says that both tools are built for RGB images, rather than RGBA images – the ‘A’ is the alpha channel used for transparency. And Crisis Core has many textures with transparency.
“These tools don’t handle transparency very well,” he says. “In fact, they remove the transparency channel and enhance it as a separate image before merging them again. Unfortunately, this has resulted in some very poor enhancements.”
This meant that much of the work on the Crisis Core Upscale Project had to be done by hand. Fortunately, Qualls was not going alone. He made his project open source, and two other members of the Qhimm.com forum, which hosts a series of Final Fantasy modding projects, came together to help. Working with Qualls, the modders Devina and Zakkura improved something like 6,000 textures to 4x their original resolution, sometimes creating textures from scratch if the original source couldn’t upgrade well.
“I felt that Crisis Core was overlooked,” says Devina, who is still actively working on the Crisis Core Upscale Project as a texture artist. “I want people to feel like they’re really in Midgar and the game world, so I don’t want blurry textures to remind people who are playing what was originally a handheld game with system limitations. I hope that when people use our project, they’ll see something like a PS2 game, at least, since many of the game’s textures are very similar to the Nintendo 64 ”.
Devina pointed out that Crisis Core textures include some strange choices or omissions, like writing Nibelheim “Mibelheim”. They have corrected this type of error, but mainly try to keep their HD version of Crisis Core true to the original. “We had to make some artistic choices because they lacked the original PSP textures or hid the system’s shortcomings, so not everything in the project will be a perfect representation of the original, but I like to think that most of our decisions won don’t bother most people, “says Devina.
That direction was a deliberate choice by Qualls, who said after playing Crisis Core, he didn’t really love the game. But some Final Fantasy fans do. After posting some early work on the Qhimm forum, he realized how much it meant to some people and decided to keep it as sophisticated as possible from the original.
Devina made some original additions to liven up the game world, such as creating readable textures for signs that were previously unreadable bubbles. The result is great – like the AI-enhanced mods for Final Fantasy 7 and 9, Crisis Core’s upscale looks better than many of Square Enix’s own ports. Installing the high resolution texture pack is also easy, thanks to the PPSSPP emulator. After downloading the files from Github, you simply open the PPSSPP menu with the game running and configure it to replace the textures with the ones you downloaded. The emulator will insert them on the spot.
Qualls and Devina estimate that the project has already completed about 90 percent, but the last patch could last a long time. “I still have a lot of work to do with the characters and I feel that this is a kind of situation where you find a speck of dust on the floor, but then more dust close to something you’ve already sucked in,” says Devina. “I am always finding things to improve.”
Still, even before finishing, this will probably be the definitive version of Crisis Core for years to come. It seems like an obvious choice for Square Enix to port to newer platforms along with the FF7 Remake, which I told Devina.
“I used to think so too (why can’t Square just remaster this game already?), But having looked at the files and how the internal logic works, I can see why it would be difficult for them” Devina says.
Qualls agrees – both think Crisis Core was divisive enough to discourage Square from making an effort in what would probably be a complete remake. A port would have to deal with some of Crisis Core’s strangest design decisions and the limitations of the PSP hardware, such as its single analog stick, which looks strange today.
The emptiness of a modern door gave these modders a way to get past 2020, something Qualls is especially grateful for. He hopes that a few more people will be interested in helping to finish the Crisis Core Upscale Project, or use the tools he created after learning Python on his own. They help organize poured textures and generate the file that PPSSPP uses to find them. Downloading the mod, tools or getting involved is as simple as accessing Github.