"If its gameplay was as polished as its presentation, Pier Solar would stand on equal footing with the RPG classics of yesteryear."
A brand-new Sega Genesis RPG in this day and age? It's a notion that should make any seasoned RPGFan perk their ears up. What started in 2004 as a small project called Tavern RPG on the website Eidolon's Inn eventually transformed into the full-fledged game we know as Pier Solar and the Great Architects. After six long years of development limbo, the finished product finally made its way into the homes of early adopters. I missed out on the first two prints of the game, but when I heard that developer WaterMelon was preparing a third run in late 2011, I seized the opportunity to see finally what the hype was all about.
First impressions are important, and Pier Solar makes an excellent one. The packaging design is extremely professional and attractive, to the point that it influenced my decision to buy the game. The "Reprint Edition" includes a full-color instruction manual, a glossy poster, a sheet of stickers, and the cartridge itself, all in a gorgeous clamshell case. It's hard not to be wowed by the sheer authenticity of the package, and it's a real treat for collectors.
Unfortunately, as many of us learn in life, our first impressions aren't always correct. Everything about Pier Solar looks great on paper, but when I actually dug into the meat of the game, I came away somewhat disappointed. Some elements are fantastic, like the graphics and music, but poor design decisions in many other areas sour the overall experience. The end result is an ambitious project that doesn't reach its full potential.
But what is Pier Solar about? If you've played a Japanese RPG at any point in your life, you're familiar with the game's plot. Hoston, a young botanist living in the city of Reja, is determined to find a cure for his father's terminal illness. When he hears of an herb that can remedy any ailment, he sets off to find it with his best friends, Alina (the resident healer/mage) and Edessot (the plucky young genius). Things take off from there, and the young heroes are soon sent on a world-spanning adventure. The characters are likeable, if predictable, and develop at an unusual pace. The same can be said of the plot; an early event caught me off guard, and the game hardly gave me a chance to process what had happened before moving on. It's not impossible to follow by any means, but it can be a bit jarring when one is accustomed to more explanation or character reaction.
The game's graphics are bright, detailed, and colorful. Environments are generally pleasant and sport nice touches, like leaves wafting in the forest breeze and bugs scuttling around inside desert ruins. (The dungeon design is another matter entirely, one that I'll address in a few moments.) Key moments in the game's plot are highlighted with emotive full-screen pixel art, not unlike that found in Phantasy Star IV. These are a delight, and I found myself playing just to see more of them. Enemy sprites in battle are unique and well-animated, though their variety leaves something to be desired. The characters do seem a bit squished and awkward at times, but it's nothing I couldn't look past.
Aurally, Pier Solar is great. The music is catchy and evokes the Genesis "feeling" perfectly, despite the repetitiveness of some tracks. I've probably spent as much time humming the main battle theme as I've actually spent playing the game. Even more impressive is the inclusion of an option to burn an enhanced music disc from WaterMelon's website and pop it into a Sega CD for high-fidelity arrangements of every song in the game. The difference in sound quality is astonishing, and the improved music augments the game's atmosphere.
With all of these components put together, what could go wrong? Unfortunately, the developers made some baffling design decisions that sucked the fun right out of my time with Pier Solar. The game's towns and dungeons are ridiculously labyrinthine. One city, Teusa, requires the player to walk through several houses just to reach the inn and item shop. To make things worse, the city precedes an extremely long stretch of dungeon-crawling without any reliable resting point. Every time I wanted to heal or restock on supplies, I was forced to backtrack through the city's tangled streets. This sort of design is inexcusably bad; it's as if the developers paid no attention to the location of the town's facilities in relation to the dungeons around it. Dungeons, too, are mazelike in structure, with mandatory paths often hidden behind seemingly solid walls and switches obscured by objects in the environment. I understand hiding treasure in secret locations, but I quickly grew tired of running at black walls in an effort to progress with the game.
Dungeons wouldn't be so torturous if battles were fun, but I'm sad to say they simply aren't. The game uses a turn-based battle system in which characters act based on their speed, which is fairly conventional. A twist comes in the form of "gathering," which allows a character to spend a turn accumulating energy in order to execute more powerful attacks and spells. The concept is fine, but its execution is extremely flawed. For one, the animation for gathering is lengthy and accompanied by a fair amount of slowdown. Second, gathered energy disappears at the end of every battle, making the process tedious and repetitive. This is further compounded by the high difficulty of normal encounters: a typical battle can completely wipe out the party if the enemies choose to use their strongest abilities. To defeat enemies efficiently, characters have to gather and use their skills wisely. As a result, every battle becomes an exercise in frustration because the player has to choose between sitting through long animations and possibly dying.
Things aren't so bad in the beginning, but when the party increases in size to five characters, managing their energy in every encounter is just a chore. Everything about battling is insufferably slow. One character's attack animation consists of him juggling balls, throwing one into the air, and having it land on an enemy over the span of about seven seconds. It was enough to drive me crazy. To make things worse, there is an auto-battle option, but it's useless. It doesn't differentiate between grounded enemies and flying enemies, so melee characters often spend their turns whiffing. Add in frequent slowdown from battle animations, and you have a recipe for deadly tedium.
Some other issues bog down the experience, too. The aforementioned slowdown occurs not only in battle, but whenever a heal spell is used outside of battle as well. Every cast is accompanied by a long animation that the player has to watch before being able to re-enter the menu and heal again. In addition, it's easy to target the wrong character because they occasionally overlap on the field in tight spaces. Saving is also slightly broken; it can be done anywhere, but will only reflect the player's status as of when they entered the area. I resumed several sessions after staying at an inn, only to realize that my characters weren't healed once I got into battle. While it's fair to place the blame on me for those instances, I feel like the developers shouldn't have let something like that slip past testing.
I'm hard on Pier Solar because I feel it could've been so much better. Don't get me wrong: I'm glad the game exists, especially given its perilously long development cycle. If its gameplay was as polished as its presentation, Pier Solar would stand on equal footing with the RPG classics of yesteryear. It's a loving homage to a system that many gamers remember fondly, and while it's far from perfect, there is still some merit in checking out this 16-bit adventure. Just wait until you're feeling especially patient before you give it a go.