"Chantelise is a fun indie RPG that just needs a good polish."
Chantelise: A Tale of Two Sisters is... well, a tale of two sisters. Whether the title refers to the two eponymous characters Chante and Elise is up to you. You may recognize the names EasyGameStation and Carpe Fulgur from their recent game, Recettear. It's the one where you play as the debt-ridden girl Recette, who is abandoned by her father and forced into running a shop for the avaricious fairy, Tear. Regardless of its position on child labour laws, Recettear turned out to be a surprise hit, and it has made the world cast an inquisitive eye towards Carpe Fulgur and their newest title, Chantelise. Now that they have our attention, is Chantelise a worthy successor to Recettear? Let's find out.
On the night of a red moon, Chante feels compelled to venture outside into the nearby forest, despite her mother's warnings about a witch's curse that is closely associated with the red moon. Overwrought with worry about her older sister, Elise follows behind her. It is then that she witnesses the dark silhouette of the witch transforming Chante into a fairy. This is the beginning of the two sisters' long adventure together, hunting down the sinister witch to make her turn Chante back into her human self. During their quest, the sisters come across a small town (aptly named "Town") that may hold the key to the answers they are seeking. With the help of a few townspeople like Elma the fortune teller and Aira the shopkeeper, Chante and Elise are given the opportunity to discover the horribly convoluted answer to their current predicament.
Chantelise's story is certainly not going to be the selling point if you ever try to convince your friends to play it. The plot is very similar to a low-budget anime, which is appropriate given that EasyGameStation caters to that market. However, nothing really stands out as obviously bad until the scene between Elma and the local priest just before the final dungeon, which I found particularly poorly written. Whether it makes more sense in the original Japanese I do not know. I am not bashing the localization; in fact, I have to give extra points to Carpe Fulgur for breathing life and charm into a script that easily could have been dry and witless. I wouldn't consider it as good as Recettear's dialogue, as there is not a single utterance of "yayifications" or "yeperoni" to be found. There are quite a few memorable moments from Chante, though, and her unadulterated hatred for peoples' shins. No matter who Chante is dealing with, messing up their shins seems to be her go-to solution for any problems they pose. As a way to get the player to explore dungeons and fight monsters, the plot does a serviceable job, and I wasn't expecting to be amazed going into Chantelise, so I can't say I am disappointed.
Battles in Chantelise are fought in real time, and although you generally control Elise, her sister is never far from her side. When Elise slices up enemies with her sword attacks, they sometimes drop coloured crystals. Picking up these crystals allows Chante to cast elemental magic. While the spells she casts are initially pretty straightforward, Chante is soon able to combine the crystals together to make more powerful spells. I found this aspect to be the most interesting part of the battles, and it added an extra layer of strategy to what could have been just a hack'n'slash style of game. In addition, Elise can equip special kinds of crystals to imbue her sword with elemental damage. These crystals also give her a unique power that depends on the type of crystal equipped. For example, the Dark Crystal can drain enemies health. (Aside: with a name like Dark Crystal I'm a bit disappointed it didn't summon a Skeksis. Stupid copyrights.)
Areas of each dungeon are separated by a magic barrier that only dissipates when all the monsters in that area have been defeated. There are roughly six areas to explore per dungeon, including a challenging boss battle at the end. While the idea of having to defeat every single enemy is rather old school in approach, it is done well here, and I never found it monotonous. If you return to an area after you have cleared it of monsters, you are free to simply walk straight to the exit. This is significant because when I got my first Game Over screen and returned to the dungeon where I had fallen, I noticed that I could select any of the areas I had completed before I died. I thought this was a very good thing, as I could simply continue where I had left off without having to go through all the areas that came previously. Unfortunately, this turns out not to be the case. Once you clear an area, choosing it again allows you to play a "practice" version of the area. It is timed, and you cannot change equipment while in the area, and once you clear it, you are simply taken back to the world map. To progress through the game, you have to return to the beginning of the dungeon and walk through the areas you have already cleared to get back to where you died. When the game has a difficulty level like this, it is hard not to get frustrated.
Oh, have I not mentioned the difficulty yet? Most of the difficulty of this game comes from the fact that there is no way to level up, at least not traditionally. The only way to grow more powerful is to sell loot dropped by monsters and found in treasure chests to the shopkeeper, who will then sell you potions that will increase your maximum health. Stats are only customizable by equipping items. Gloves will raise your attack power, wands will increase your magic, etc., etc. While this is no big deal on its own, the facts that all items are expensive and that loot is very hard to come by make for a very grindy experience, as you try to get enough money together in order to get the next health drink. The game only gets easier once Chante is able to heal you, as there are no consumable healing items. Thankfully, there is no penalty for dying; you just return back to town. It's like they knew you were going to die a bunch of times while you figured out how to beat that one enemy.
There is one part of the gameplay I want to give special mention to, and that is the level design. Each individual area of a dungeon is constructed with care. While the objective is always the same (kill everything from here to the horizon), a lot of imagination obviously went into the design of each level. My favourite part was rotating the camera slightly to notice that in one area I had been fighting on top of a gargantuan dead insect the entire time. I should also mention that every single area of a dungeon has a secret treasure chest that you can unlock by doing something specific. If you can't figure out how to unlock a chest, the local priest will give you a clue in exchange for some of your health. If that is a metaphor, I don't want to know.
Graphically, Chantelise would not look out of place on the original PlayStation. You can see the pixels in the 3D animations, and the character portraits are drawn in that anime style where the characters' hair is the only thing that distinguishes one character from another. However, I am not going to judge the game too harshly, because after all, it is an indie title. While I fully respect indie developers, they simply do not have the resources to keep up with modern big budget titles and cannot be judged with the same level of scrutiny. Let it be said I have seen far worse graphics from an indie game.
You may have noticed that I have given the highest score to the game's sound. More specifically, I gave the score based on the game's music. All spoken dialogue in the game is in the original Japanese, and since I don't speak the language, I find it hard to judge what is good voice acting and what is bad. The music, however, is phenomenal. I am glad there is an item you can find in the game that unlocks a "jukebox" on the title screen. I particularly enjoyed the music that plays in the "Aquan Ruins," but the music always made me feel immersed in the game, and it suited the situations perfectly. Good job to whoever was in charge of that!
Now that I have given you my highest score, let us talk about my lowest score. The control system blows if you use the keyboard. Perhaps it is because I am not used to using a keyboard for an action game, but I quickly discovered that I did not have enough fingers to fight properly in Chantelise. Rotating the map was the hardest part, as battles are so frantic that I really did not want to remove my finger from the attack button in order to make the camera go where I wanted it to be. My experience was drastically improved when someone told me to use a gamepad instead, and I recommend the same to you. Locking onto a single target is also a pain, as enemies have a tendency to gather in swarms. This means you have to cycle through all the other enemies in your way before you reach your true target. In my opinion, the least amount of thought was placed into the game's control system.
I completed Chantelise in roughly thirteen hours, although you could easily add another few hours to that if you wished to hunt down every secret chest, play the fishing minigame, complete the extra Survival Dungeon, or try to beat your best time on Practice Mode. And now for an answer to the question I posed to you in the beginning: "is Chantelise a worthy successor to Recettear?" The short answer is no. The long answer is that Chantelise is a fun indie RPG that just needs a good polish. It does not have the original, addictive gameplay that Recettear had going for it, but I do consider it to be a good example of a well-made action RPG. I have a feeling we haven't seen the best yet from EasyGameStation and Carpe Fulgur. Keep that eye fixed on them!