"If I do accept a second date with this series, then it had better bring its A-game because I won't be as forgiving the next time around."
Prodigy of the North: Akatori is the debut title from new developer Gamer Fatigue. From what I've been told, this game is half of a two-part tale that was originally supposed to be one game, but had to be split. This two-parter is also reportedly a piece of a greater saga that will span multiple games. Unfortunately, since Akatori didn't leave the greatest first impression, I'm iffy about continuing the series.
The first trait to note are the stock RPGM VX graphics featuring the new Samurai Pack add-on with sprites, portrait art, and tiles inspired by feudal Japan. Having played so many RPGM VX games, the visuals don't impress me much, and, from what I've been told, part two will have these same visuals. However, future installments will reportedly utilize the new RPGM VX Ace engine and promise to feature more customized visuals. I look forward to seeing what kinds of unique graphics Gamer Fatigue can come up with in the future, particularly regarding the sprites, tiles, and character art. The stock visuals, particularly the cute little squat super-deformed sprites, don't reflect the generally "un-cute" vibe present in other aspects of the game.
The story presented is merely the first chapter in a longer saga. It takes place in Akatori, a fantasy realm reminiscent of feudal Japan. The emperor and empress are on opposite sides of a civil war over opening the country's northern border. The emperor wants to keep the border closed and retain Akatori's isolationist stance and imperial structure. The empress, on the other hand, wants to treat with the Northern countries and open up the border for trade, commerce, and exchanging cultural ideas. The emperor has greater military might, but that doesn't stop the empress from strategizing in an attempt to thwart the emperor's army.
Caught in this struggle are two elite warriors: Misaki (the main character) and her brother Masajun. Misaki vehemently supports the empress whereas Masajun is loyal to the emperor, so whenever the two meet, it's as foes. The story here follows Misaki and her party as they find out if there is any truth to a legend that could give the empress the upper hand. The tale is a very slow burn, too slow in my opinion, but the twist at the end does make you wonder what will happen next.
As far as Misaki's party members go, I didn't get a vivid sense of their personalities, despite there being brief moments to subtly flesh them out. Even if a character is potentially short-lived, I still want to feel like I'm adventuring with an emotionally complex person rather than a mere talking head. This is why it's sometimes better in the JRPG medium to create exaggerated personalities rather than more subtle ones better suited for novels. I do see potential in the relationship between brother and sister, however, and that theme deserves to be stronger and more fleshed out.
Storytelling is just as important as the story itself, and Akatori's writing flows well and doesn't have too many spelling, grammar, or syntax errors. It's nice to see an RPGM script that reads like proper English and not a mangled mess that makes the English minor in me cringe. I disliked the comic relief scenes, however, because they feel shoehorned in and simply aren't funny.
This game almost lost me early on with the music. In the first half hour or so, I heard more stock pieces of music than original. Luckily, something in my brain told me to look past that because despite there being only three or so stock pieces used in the game, the rest of the music here is original. Because the game takes place in a fantasy world reminiscent of feudal Japan, the music reflects that medieval Japanese feel through the lens of more modern JRPG music. The music itself is good, if not particularly memorable, and a few striking pieces show up toward the end. There are a couple of hiccups such as noticeable pauses at the end of pieces before they loop back again. The volume is also inconsistent in that some pieces are noticeably louder than others. For example, the battle theme isn't too loud, and yet the victory theme is screaming loud.
The gameplay is basic turn-based JRPG fare with a few perks. Besides the obligatory HP and SP meters, characters also have a Chi meter that builds up as characters give and receive attacks. Some of the Chi-based special moves that become accessible can mean the difference between victory and defeat. The Chi meter resets for every battle, so don't be stingy with those moves. Another perk is Ki, or skill points. Basically, characters earn Ki points along with money, EXP, and items following a battle, which they can then allocate toward special moves or passive skills like HP-Up.
The battle engine is the "new" version of the VX engine, and battles look like those from the first Lufia game, with the characters on the bottom of the screen and the enemies in the middle. Personally, I think this new interface looks cluttered. Aesthetically speaking, I prefer the older system that looks like the old Final Fantasy games: characters on the right, enemies on the left, and the menu layout on the bottom of the screen. At least the interface offers the option of turning off battle animations to speed fights along.
One addition I like in the overall interface is the radar, like in Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, that changes color depending on how close you are to getting into a random encounter. Unfortunately, the encounter rate is too high for my tastes and makes the already lengthy dungeons feel obnoxiously long. The game only lasts about 5-6 hours, but it feels longer than that due to copious battles padding out the play time. A few dungeons also have rudimentary puzzle elements, but they are too simplistic and add almost nothing to the overall experience.
Prodigy of the North: Akatori may not be the worst RPGM game I've played, but it's also not the best. I can see hints of potential, but the first impression was flat until the very end. Perhaps Prodigy of the North could grow on me over time and become more than just a mere dalliance. If I do accept a second date with this series, then it had better bring its A-game because I won't be as forgiving the next time around.