"Record of Agarest War Zero is a lackluster title that does not bring much to the table for gamers who are not devoted followers of the series."
Record of Agarest War Zero is a prequel to Record of Agarest War, both of which have been licensed by Aksys Games and brought stateside. The game is a traditional "tactics" RPG with a twist: the story of the game takes place over two generations, and the strength of the second generation's protagonist is determined by the stats and skills of the first hero and one of the female heroines. The game's central and unique focus is that in addition to fighting countless battles and leveling your party as you normally would, you court various female members from your party through visual novel-style sequences. On paper, this sounds like an interesting diversion and counterpart to the traditional RPG portion of the game, much like high quality titles such as Persona which integrate "social" elements into the game. Unfortunately, the visual novel element plays a relatively small role, so the repetitive, lackluster RPG gameplay drags the entire experience down.
The story of Record of Agarest War Zero takes place centuries before the original Record of Agarest War, in an age of myth marked by a war between the gods of light and darkness. Each half of the pantheon has various "larva" on their side: mortal beings imbued with power from the gods that often serve as army leaders. You take the role of Sieghart, a loyal human soldier of the light who, along with his unit, has established a reputation on the front lines. Sieghart dies at the hands of an enemy larva, but is revived by a mysterious girl with strange powers. This sets into motion his quest to collect 4 artifacts for the purpose of forging a key that can free an imprisoned larva that will, according to Sieghart's superiors, finally end the long war between light and dark. It is at this point that that story takes a particularly boring turn as you and your party are tasked with traveling along a linear story path through the world, collecting the artifacts and fighting various monsters and guardians along the way. The plot picks up somewhat in the second generation, but the overall core narrative is cliché and does not drive you to want to see what happens next.
Of course, another portion of the story is told in the "visual novel" segments where you can converse with members of the party and try to build up Sieghart's affection level with the women. There are not many startling revelations here, and only minimal character development, as most of the episodes are comedic in nature or involve menial chores. The primary platform for these interactions are "Vacation Days," which occasionally appear on the map and give the player a finite number of turns to visit various party members about town. This forces the player to ignore some members and favor others, shaping his eventual offspring for the second generation.
The combat in Record of Agarest War Zero is fairly traditional. Battles take place on a grid where up to 6 members of your party are deployed in one of several formations, each of with has advantages and disadvantages. Turns in battle are divided into the move phase and the attack phase, allowing for all characters and enemies to position themselves before unleashing skills. Positioning is particularly important because of the "Extended Attack" system: an area around each character which links him or her to the other characters in the area. All of the characters linked in this manner can chain their skills together, provided they have enough action points, allowing for more devastating attacks in a short interval. Moreover, certain skills used together can form new and more powerful skills which can be then learned. Each character also has powerful and unique special moves that can only be used if the battle drags on or if party members die. This leads to a fairly viable strategy of letting party members die in a difficult battle and then reviving them for a devastating counterattack. Sadly, the combat quickly becomes repetitive and boring, especially when enemies chain together upwards of 5 skills and drag even simple battles out into longer slugfests. Furthermore, although the games initial battles are easy, seemingly random difficulty spikes pop up at various points in the game that require a decent amount of grinding or luck to pass.
Outside of combat, you move around a map with various "battle points" that must be overcome before you can get to the next story location. Dungeons open new, smaller maps littered with battle points and various pathways that lead to a boss or to dead ends (which often provide items). Towns are filled with various institutions to help you out, including a traditional item shop, a blacksmith to create and enhance items, an adventurer's guild to learn new skills, and a shop that can convert monsters that you capture. In fact, the bulk of the game's depth is found here, in its item synthesis and enhancement system. There are many books of craftable recipes to obtain, and weapons each have varying properties, such as skill slots where you can equip different skills to make them usable by the character equipped with the item. This allows for a wide variety of customization beyond just choosing who to put in your party, and characters can be fine tuned to create various skill combinations.
The graphics in Record of Agarest War Zero are disappointing. The in-battle sprites look like they are barely upgraded from PS1 graphics, and there are no special cutscenes for signature moves. The battlefields are also bland and boring. In the visual novel portions, the backgrounds are still pictures, many of which are used in multiple scenes. The only graphical elements that stand out in Record of Agarest War Zero are the "living portraits" of the characters in these visual novel segments; they are a step up from the usual unmoving anime-style portraits common in JRPGs, and they allow the characters to be presented in sharp detail with ever-changing facial expressions and breathing animations. It is a nice graphical touch in an otherwise backwards graphical experience.
The sound in Record of Agarest War Zero is entirely unremarkable as well. None of the music is catchy or will leave you wanting to listen to it outside of the game; it fades into the background, but not in a good way. The voice acting is high quality enough, as Aksys decided to keep the game's voices in Japanese and translate all of the text rather than dub the game's rather lengthy dialogue sequences (all of which are fully voiced). The controls are always explained on-screen, but they are all standard for this kind of RPG, so it is easy to pick up.
Overall, Record of Agarest War Zero is a lackluster title that does not bring much to the table for gamers who are not devoted followers of the series. The graphics and sound fail to impress, the story is riddled with clichés, and worst of all, the gameplay is repetitive and boring. Put these elements together into a reasonably lengthy game, and you have a fairly dismal experience. Even in the smaller niche of strategy RPGs, there are far better titles out there to satisfy fans of the genre.