"...My favorite Aldorlea series to date."
Millennium is an original IP from Aldorlea, the prolific indie developer best known for the Laxius Force series. Millennium is being released episodically much like Final Fantasy IV: The After Years and Aveyond 3. This grand project features a lush soundtrack, original artwork, custom environment graphics, and traditional JRPG gameplay. Millennium is an episodic RPG consisting of 5 planned episodes with one episode being released every few months starting September 2009. The game's moniker may be far from original, but it has quite a bit of original content in the art direction, soundtrack, environmental textures, and storyline. True to Aldorlea form, it is also a robust and often challenging game that will easily keep players busy far longer than many of its peers. This is easily Aldorlea's most aesthetically pleasing, accessible, and refined effort to date.
Graphics and Sound
A first impression counts for a lot, and the title screens for each episode make very good impressions. I'll come right out and say it: the heroine looks hot in Episode 2's title screen. The beautiful artwork and the complementary music made me want to hang out at each title screen for a while before getting started. These appealing aesthetics continue in the graphics and music of the game proper.
There is no doubt that this game is an RPG Maker XP game, but it is a very beautiful XP game. Many environments have custom textures in the tiles that look great. Some dungeons, like the mountainous Rocky Path, feature backgrounds that are almost photorealistic. The lovely character art during battles and in the flash, title, and Game Over screens looks very refined and reminds me of the stylized European cartoons I watched as a child when I lived over there. The enemy art is 100% original as well and even the basic monsters look good. I found the art a very nice change of pace from the usual Japanese and American styled art I've seen in so many RPGs and I found myself picking fights just to look at the character art more often. The majority of NPC sprites were default XP sprites with some unique ones for the playable and/or important characters. The sprites look fine and integrat well with the environments, but do not do justice to the character art.
The original soundtrack is quite varied. Many songs have an airy feel and utilize various Asian instruments and themes. Other pieces are reminiscent of western music styles, such as various kinds of classical, downtempo/ambient electronica, and even heavy metal. Seriously, I was headbanging the first time I heard the boss theme. Some pieces even have vocal clips in them, like the "ahhs" in the Green Grass village theme, the south Asian style chanting towards the end of the overworld theme, and the various kinds of chanting in the monastery theme. Speaking of voices, two of the characters even have a few battle grunt-type voice clips when doing martial arts moves. The sound is on point, and I hope to hear more from this talented new composer.
Rather than talk about the story as a whole, I shall offer brief summaries of each episode. A running log of episode summaries will be augmented into this section as each episode releases.
Episode 1: A New Hope: In the impoverished land of Myst is a heavily walled city called Mystrock where the wealthy 5% of the population enjoy a lavish life with 95% of the wealth. A peasant from the village of Green Grass named Stanislas pounds on the walls of Mystrock every day to appeal to the Mystrock political machine, led by Lord Dragon and Lord Borgon, and fight for the rights of the downtrodden. During one of his solo crusades, Stanislas is gravely injured and tasks his teenage daughter Marine to carry on his fight. Marine initially doesn't understand why her father does what he does and would rather he stay home with her and her younger sister Merline like a regular daddy, especially since their mother is missing from her life. Marine is told of a clause in the Mystrock political ledger that anyone who wishes to challenge the government must gather an army of 13 warriors to fight each of the Myst government's warriors in hand-to-hand combat on election day; but election day is only a month away! Marine half-heartedly embarks on this small-scale-Suikoden type journey, but as she travels to other impoverished villages she better realizes why her father fought the power the way he did and becomes more invested in her quest.
Episode 2: Take Me Higher: Marine has now proven herself to two potential warriors who have agreed to fight for her cause. Her cousin Benoit, who we met in the first episode, is still reluctant about this whole affair, but continues to stick with Marine. She's family after all. After the two recruited warriors part ways to further train for the final showdown, Marine and Benoit head back to Green Grass to check up on Stanislas. There, Marine finds a mysterious letter with hints to the whereabouts of her mother, long since thought to have been dead. Benoit thinks this letter is very suspect and would rather Marine focus on recruiting more warriors for her "liberation army," but Marine insists on following this lead and Benoit dutifully tags along. Although this episode's story is primarily about the search for Marine's mother, Marine does find some new companions and Benoit develops further, slowly becoming a favorite character. In addition, cutscenes featuring Lord Borgan and Lord Dragon's interactions are present; their wildly differing views on Marine and the state of their future political agenda becoming a source of tension.
Episode 3: Cry Wolf: After a serious bombshell is dropped during Take Me Higher's ending, Marine seriously begins to doubt herself and her quest. The Mystrock elections are just around the corner, and she's still short seven warriors. Mystrock's higher-ups scoff with a veil of arrogance, but are probably running scared since two of them saw fit to trick Marine into an ambush and give her a taste of their might. Amidst the mocking laughter, Marine journeys eastward and liberates a village troubled by orcs. She then helps two cursed people find cures: one is a young man slowly turning into a werewolf and the other is a young woman slowly turning into a mermaid. The question raised here is whether Marine's overwhelming selflessness to help people in need hinders her quest.
This chapter was not as story-driven as prior chapters and was thus my least favorite installment, story-wise.
Episode 4: TBA:
Episode 5: TBA:
Millennium's gameplay is traditional JRPG gameplay with towns, dungeons, an overworld, turn-based combat, a main quest, and plenty of sidequests that aid in worldbuilding. Progression is fairly linear, but there are plenty of secrets, sidequests and opportunities to venture off the beaten path. Keeping track of quests is easy with Marine's quest journal, and a "talk" feature like the one found in Phantasy Star 4 is a quick and easy way to remind players of what their main objective is. To further aid convenience, saving can be done anywhere and anytime outside of battle. Depending on how much time and effort players wish to invest in each episode, completion of an episode can range anywhere from 10 to 30 hours.
As with any given Aldorlea title, many dungeons are vast, lengthy, and may have players pulling their hair out. Personally, I liked being delightfully lost in the dungeons and enjoyed the challenge of exploration. Episode 2: Take Me Higher incorporates the "Pathfinding" mechanic from Asguaard where the easier difficulty levels contain guide arrows in the dungeons telling players where they should go. Another issue resolved in Episode 2 is that if Marine has to backtrack to get to the next location and a dungeon was between point A and point B, she did not have to fully traverse the dungeon. Episode 2 has a shortcut feature that Episode 1 did not have. Episode 3 takes exploration further by incorporating more expansive side-scrolling environments with rudimentary platforming.
Completion of one episode yields a carryover save for the next episode. When I loaded my endgame save from A New Hope to Take Me Higher, items, equipment, and skills were carried over. Character levels were reset to 20, gold was reset to 1000, and the cool titles earned at various shrines in the land were rescinded. In addition, Marine's questbook started fresh, meaning that any sidequests from Episode 1 could not be revisited in Episode 2, which had its own set of quests. In other words, if you made yourself a millionaire in Millennium: A New Hope, then spend all that money on trinkets so they will carry over. At the beginning of each episode, players can choose one of four difficulty levels. The main storyline can be completed at any level, but the harder difficulty levels contain more hidden uber-bosses called Animal Kings.
RPGs are harbored by battles, and Episodes 1 and 2 allow players to select their random encounter rates. Episode 2 even allows players to change the encounter rates on the fly so players can have lots of battles when building levels or few battles when exploring. Episode 3 takes this a step further and offers players a choice between visible or invisible (random) encounters at the start of the game. Nice!
Millennium is without a doubt my favorite Aldorlea series to date. The art is gorgeous, the music is great, the gameplay is fun, and the characters make me want to journey with them. Games such as this one and Rose Portal Games' Whispers of a Rose are raising the bar on the kinds of production values players will soon come to expect from commercial RPG Maker titles in the areas of customized visuals and sound. Anyone who has been hesitant to take a chance on an Aldorlea game should definitely give Millennium a look.