"Agarest War 2 shows that Idea Factory has the potential to create good stuff."
Idea Factory is one of those developers that everyone likes to make fun of. Whether they're making fun of the cheesecake fanservice in their games, the overabundance of conflicting gameplay mechanics that lead to balance issues, or questionable choices in limited edition packaged goods, popular opinion is that Idea Factory games are rubbish aside from their gimmicks.
Enter Record of Agarest War 2. Forget about its fanservice, its silly limited edition pack-ins, and the poor reputation preceding it thanks to prior Agarest War games. Slough off that nonsense, open your mind, and give the game a shot. Perhaps you will then see as I do that Record of Agarest War 2 is actually a decent JRPG capable of standing up on its own merits without any need for gimmicks and baubles.
Speaking of previous Record of Agarest War titles, I am happy to report that prior experience with Agarest War and Agarest War Zero is unnecessary to enjoy this game. Yes, a final game save from Agarest War Zero has carryover data that reportedly proves helpful, but lacking it did not hamper my experience in any way. This is good, because frankly, I couldn't stand the play mechanics in the previous titles and never got very far in either one. The world presented in Agarest 2 is all new, but some series fans theorize that it's actually a parallel universe to the first Agarest game, so while there may be some tenuous interconnecting elements that series fans will pick up, anyone can get into this title.
The plot begins with a cold-hearted warrior named Weiss killing a god almost effortlessly. He is then stripped of all his memories and banished back to earth, where he is found and nursed to health by a young medic named Aina. As Weiss and Aina journey to the nearest town in the hopes of finding a clue about Weiss's identity, they are attacked by an aggressive demon. Unfortunately, Weiss is not the "god killer" he once was, and the two would have been toast, had a scantily-clad mystery woman named Eva not arrived to bail them out. Claiming to be an "Agent of the Gods," Eva informs Weiss that, to atone for his sin of deicide, he must seek out similarly powerful demons to reclaim the missing fragments of the slain god's power and become the god's new vessel. In addition, Aina is one of the "pillars" fated to support Weiss on his journey. Of course, since Weiss's mortal body has a limited lifespan, he also needs to choose a potential mate from among the "pillars" he encounters on his journey. This way, the god's power within him can be transferred to his offspring, who must bear his dear ol' dad's burden of atonement.
The plot spans three generations similar to Phantasy Star III: Generations of Doom. After completing Weiss's quest, players choose who Weiss's mate will be, then play as their child. That child then has to choose a mate at the end of his story path, and then the third and final generation of the game plays out. Some characters remain throughout multiple generations, such as Eva, so there is a binding thread and at least a few characters who won't completely vanish once you've gotten attached to them. I thoroughly enjoyed the first generation, and while the second generation suffered from "middle of the trilogy" syndrome, the third generation came back strong.
I am sorry to report that regardless of which mate is chosen at the end of each generation, the resulting offspring is pretty much interchangeable. The only notable changes for each offspring are cosmetic and statistical (i.e. the better the affection rating between the parents, the better the child's stats will be). The only aspect that changes, plot-wise, is the cutscene showing whether the pairing is a loving marriage, a political marriage, or a forced union. Otherwise, the identity, dialogue, personality, and storyline trajectory for the offspring is identical, regardless of parentage. For example, the second-generation protagonist is a hateful and wholly unlikeable jerk, regardless of whether Weiss and his partner had high or low affection for each other.
Yes, it is possible to choose a mate that the protagonist has a low affection rating with. This initially sounds pretty cool, but is another case of wasted storyline potential, because parental relationship does not influence the narrative. If the storyline is going to play out the same way for each generation, the developers could've at least made each protagonist's personality differ depending on his parentage. If the parents hated each other, then I understand the kid being a cold fish, but if the parents loved each other, then the kid should have some warmth and likeability. This lack of truly branching storylines with is disappointing, because the potential for different plot trajectories through unique protagonists as seen in the aforementioned Phantasy Star III would have made for a more dynamic experience. That being said, there are a couple of different endings (including the "true ending") that depend on what you've done and how much you've done in each generation. Be warned, though, that like with Valkyrie Profile's A ending, getting the true ending in Agarest 2 requires some very specific actions that are not immediately apparent.
The promise of truly branching pathways may be a facade, but the scope of the story is actually pretty epic and the fantastic narrative's earnest nature gives the story a sense of gravitas few JRPGs can match. Aksys did an excellent job with the dialogue, and though characters fall into archetypes, they play those archetypes exceptionally well. I also like how some of the classic JRPG tropes are viewed in a slightly askew fashion. For example, the "amnesiac hero" is not hell-bent on unearthing his past. Weiss is convinced that it's pointless to get lost in nostalgia, and that he should focus on what is and what could be rather than what was. Thus, his focus is on making the most out of what he can
control instead of worrying about what's out of his control.
Although the storyline is surprisingly engaging thanks to the visual novel-style presentation, plot direction is sometimes vague and there are a few occasions where it is far too easy to skip over vital plot points and events. For example, had I not been severely underleveled for a certain boss fight, I would not have revisited a previously completed area, stumbling upon a major chunk of plot and a key playable character! It was a serendipitous find, but the result was out-of-order story progression. I'm okay with hunting for optional events that flesh out characters and enhance world-building, but main and relevant plot points, destinations, and objectives should be clearly given. I don't particularly enjoy running around in circles not knowing what to do next.
A quest log to keep track of main quest and sidequest objectives would have been helpful. What would have also been helpful is if the monster compendium mentioned where monsters were encountered, because it's sometimes difficult to remember those locations when seeking out particular monsters for sidequest item drops. Thankfully, the game has no dungeons, so "pixel hunting" for plot-relevant hot spots in various locations is not so bad. Full-range movement is limited to the overworld, and sub-areas are point-and-click. This makes backtracking less of a hassle, and because the game is more narrative-driven than dungeon-driven, I am perfectly fine with this design choice.
The game offers three difficulty levels to choose from, but even easy mode has the potential to kick your sorry behind if you're not careful. The game initially seems easy enough, even in hard mode, but sudden and severe difficulty spikes throughout the game can potentially turn the higher difficulty levels into monotonous grind fests. Don't let the relative ease of the first generation fool you, because the second and third generations up the ante big time and will require some grinding, even in easy mode. Therefore, I recommend playing in either easy or normal mode to preserve your sanity, unless you're okay with purchasing various DLC booster packages.
Battles are turn-based and put the hero and enemy parties on separate 6x7 grids, similar to the battle systems in Enchanted Arms, Radiant Historia, or Naruto: Path of the Ninja. In other words, it's turn-based battling with a mild "tactical positioning" component that's one of the more intuitive and user-friendly aspects of the game. In terms of battling itself, combat is very similar to that of Valkyrie Profile's system of creating multi-character combo attacks for maximum and efficient damage, which is really fun. Despite reminding me of Valkyrie Profile, I actually found myself approaching battles like a Megami Tensei game where the key to victory lies in exploiting enemy weaknesses with various party members' strengths. Therefore, the swap-out command during battles will become your greatest ally. It is best to select the right party for the situation rather than play favorites.
Button commands during battle are not immediately intuitive, but you get used to them after a few battles. Like many Idea Factory games, there are a lot of esoteric "points" to keep track of that aren't immediately intuitive, but everything is more streamlined than normal and the play mechanics are often less complicated than they're made out to be. There is an overabundance of information to keep track of in the menus, but the interface does its best to be ergonomic; larger menus with larger fonts would be nice, though, particularly during battles. Further on in the game, extracting skills from books and equipping enhancements into slots on weapons and armor are simple enough concepts, but the interface makes them appear more obtuse than need be. It negatively reminded me of Final Fantasy VIII's cluttery Junction system and made character building feel unfocused and time-consuming.
Some players will take to the somewhat unfocused skill system, but I prefer the simplicity of characters each having more individualized classes and specialized skill growth, so it's more intuitive for me to keep track of whose skills would be most effective in which battle. The narrative assumes a certain class for each character, but the gameplay is more along the lines of "every character can potentially learn everything." For a truly immersive experience, I feel that the character growth system should coincide with the storyline rather than oppose it. If a character is written as a black mage, s/he should play as a black mage and not be eligible to learn white magic, right? A more rigid class system would have kept things streamlined so I could spend more time experiencing the game at large and less time shuffling back and forth between menus.
I would be remiss if I did not talk about the "cheesecake" component in the game, since most Idea Factory RPGs are known for their *ahem* fanservice. In this game, there are some bath house mini-games like giving oil massages to the heroines, but these feel tacked-on and are surprisingly difficult to access. There are also optional event scenes that put the heroines in intentionally perverted positions. Some of these are funny, but others definitely border on creepy. I think the game is capable of standing well enough on its own merits without gimmicks, but sadly, it still falls back on them. Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom did not have silly gimmicks, and I still think it's Idea Factory's best release to date. However, the core fanbase would probably argue that the polarizing nature of the cheesecakey fanservice is what makes these games special and that I'm a fool for asking the leopard to change its spots.
As amusing as the fanservice may be, it pales in comparison to the giddy dance pop music video sequence following the game's prologue. This leads me to the best part of Agarest 2 – the music! Seriously, the music in this game is excellent across the board. Idea Factory's soundtracks can be hit or miss, but this one nailed it. I enjoyed the rocking combat music (particularly the Gai Desert battle theme), the standard opening vocal song, the "dance pop" vocal song following the prologue, the other "Easter egg" vocal songs peppered throughout the game, the shimmering save/load music, all of it. Each piece of music offers the right ambience and is arranged quite well. This game is long, so the surprisingly complex nature of the music makes it such that I never got tired of it and often heard something new every time a piece played. The only way the music could have been better is if the standard battle theme was different for each generation, but it's so good that it didn't matter much to me. The sound effects are solid too and since the game only has the convincing Japanese voice work, purists will be pleased.
The graphics may not be flashy, but they have style. The polygon environments during overworld exploration are clean and get the job done, but the best polygons are used for the giant boss enemies. The 3D modeling for these are super smooth; probably some of the best 3D modeling I've seen in an Idea Factory game. The HD sprites during battles look fine, although I wish the sprites for the heroes and smaller enemies, like bugs and bats, were larger. Special attacks are delightfully over the top and lengthy, but a flick of the right analog stick speeds battles along.
The best graphics are reserved for the large visual novel-style anime portraits of characters during cutscenes. These portraits smoothly and subtly animate and change expressions during dialogue. A few animations here and there are a little odd, such as Eva's belted-down bustline unnaturally bouncing in slow motion, but the animations are generally fluid and the character designs are very appealing to look at. The backdrops are pretty easy on the eyes too, though some are recycled (i.e. Aina's house and the Kokuriko Inn in the town of Frensberge use the exact same backdrop). The bottom line is that the game may not have the production values of the latest Square Enix RPG, but it has a distinct sense of style and I think it's one of Idea Factory's most aesthetically pleasing RPGs to date.
Idea Factory continues to pleasantly surprise me this year. I absolutely loved Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom and found Record of Agarest War 2 to be one of the more original JRPG experiences I've had in a while. It has its flaws and plenty of room for improvement, but so do most of the heralded JRPGs people hold in higher esteem. If you have shunned Idea Factory RPGs in the past and/or found the previous Agarest War titles a chore to play, this one's marked improvement may sway you slightly. I recommend at least giving Record of Agarest War 2 a rental because it shows that Idea Factory has the potential to create good stuff.