"...a brightly futuristic world with a style all its own."
Sherman3D is an indie developer with a nice resume of credits, particularly notable for their 2D sprite and pixel art. Having worked on games that include Scribblenauts, Drawn to Life, and Lock's Quest, their logical next step was to create their own game. They originally planned Alpha Kimori to be a 3D polygonal RPG with its own proprietary engine, and the trailer on the official site even shows prototype 3D cutscenes. That iteration wasn't meant to be, but Sherman3D did not give up on the IP and decided to present Alpha Kimori as a 2D RPG using the RPG Maker engine. RPG Maker games' overabundance really hurts their reputation, but Alpha Kimori is not a "me too" RPG Maker game, and it reminds me of the 8- and 16-bit Phantasy Star games, with a hint of Xenosaga. Sadly, the boundaries of the RPG Maker engine occasionally feel as though they are holding back Alpha Kimori's ambitious vision.
Alpha Kimori is set 50 years after Earth was invaded by aliens and the Alpha (God's ship) transported the human survivors and seven Angel-class RICA battle mechs to the planet Kimori. There, the humans divided into two warring factions: the Bidarians and the Jinrians. The Bidarians want to forcibly reclaim Earth and exploit the Ki crystals in Kimori's flora and fauna to fuel their civilian and military technology. They've even found a way to infuse humans with these crystals to create superhuman warriors called Kimorians, who pilot battle RICAs. By contrast, the Jinrians believe that Kimori is the promised land and their rightful home now. They've severed their attachments to Earth and prefer to commune with nature. Their elite warriors have developed the ability to transmutate into the apex predators of the natural world.
Episode 1 introduces us to a young Bidarian warrior named Rick who questions the Bidarian cause and the life he's been groomed to follow since birth. He doesn't enjoy destroying and exploiting Kimori's ecosystem, but reluctantly follows the dutiful path his high-ranking parents have laid out for him. Rick's best friend Vanessa doesn't quite understand why Rick resists the Bidarian way, and Rick's rival Daygan sees Rick's wavering doubt as cowardice. Further complicating Rick's predicament is the constant memory of the winged Jinrian girl who planted a seed of doubt in his head when he was a child. Of course, people and the status quo are never what they seem, and Rick soon finds himself in a myriad of personal and social conflicts that challenge everything he's ever been taught.
The story presented in Episode 1 may not wow gamers over its 5 or so hour duration, but it does provide a solid setup for future episodes. I became invested in both the playable and non-playable characters in this saga and want to know what happens next to them (e.g., how will the love triangle play out?), as well as what the new characters I'll meet in future episodes will be like. The potential for sideswiping plot twists and red herrings is wide open, and I hope it's realized.
Speaking of potential, Sherman3D's experience at crafting in-game art, particularly sprites, is readily apparent in the aesthetics. The title screen is one of the most striking I've seen in an RPG Maker game, and the Japanese vocal song played over it is pretty sweet, even if it's not mixed as evenly as the in-game music. The in-game music is catchy 16-bit style music, but it has a richer sound format than most. I particularly liked the Bidari town theme, which reminded me a bit of Phantasy Star II's music. My only issue is that I'd prefer a wider variety of tunes.
Speaking of Phantasy Star, the in-game graphics really make me nostalgic for the classic Phantasy Star games, especially the graphics for the town of Bidari. It is like a Phantasy Star II town on steroids. The original sprites are all large and impeccably detailed, especially those of the mechs. I also loved the creativity of the enemy creatures. There is also a good bit of custom tilework, but some dungeons (like the caves) do not completely veil the game's RPG Maker roots. Astute players will also notice a few stock icons peppered throughout the game and the Aveyond II-style menu interface. Another minor complaint is that although character designs are solid, I don't like that some key female characters have midriff-exposing outfits. I'm sorry, but no self-respecting female warrior should have her vital organs unprotected. Also, if you have an older PC, the highly customized graphics could cause some slowdown, particularly the special effects during battles. However, when all is said and done, those are minor complaints in light of the fact that Sherman3D created a brightly futuristic world with a style all its own that stands out from the pack.
Considering how dynamic Alpha Kimori aims to be, the limitations RPG Maker imposes upon it are most apparent in the battle system. Battles are visually impressive, but they're still the basic RPG Maker turn-based fare. During battles is where I really would have liked to see Sherman3D realize their greater vision with a proprietary engine. This game's spiritual predecessors, Phantasy Star IV and Xenogears, had two of the more dynamic, combo-driven, turn-based battle engines out there and I wonder if Alpha Kimori wanted some of that spice in its formula. At the very least, a few multi-person skill combinations like in Lilly and Sasha: Curse of the Immortals would have given more of that Phantasy Star IV feel. Maybe some factor to make the few mech battles feel different from on-foot battles like in Xenogears would have added variety as well.
When push comes to shove, I can live without those bells and whistles; but I cannot live without an escape option during battles. When my characters are low on health and/or I just don't want to fight because even normal battles run long, I want to be able to escape. It would also be nice because hostile areas are overrun by creatures. Sure, they're much easier to avoid than they seem, but there are still too many of them out there. It's fortunate that players can get away with minimal grinding, because fighting every battle in sight would be a tedious nightmare. I definitely think the number of encounters could have been cut in half to keep things more manageable.
It doesn't matters that progression requires a lot of backtracking through previously trawled areas, where getting into scuffles with low level monsters proves a nuisance. I also was unable to procure items to teleport me between dungeons and towns, and my lazy carcass does not want to always have to hoof it back to town, especially since there is no dash button.
I know it sounds like I've bagged on Alpha Kimori here and there, but it's got it where it counts, and every complaint I have can be remedied. I enjoyed the 5 hours I spent with this game and look forward to Episode 2, which should reportedly drop in early 2012. Alpha Kimori could also be a light snack to tide over North American players until Xenoblade for the Wii hits stores. Alpha Kimori may not be Phantasy Star V or Xenogears II, but it may be that fantasy/sci-fi hybrid JRPG you're itching for.