"Vay is a cult-classic RPG that deserves to shine, but SoMoGa took this underdog and kicked it in the ribs rather than groom it into the awesome animal it is."
When I think of the term "cult classic," Vay for Sega CD is one JRPG that comes to mind. It's not as popular or "cool" as platform poster child Lunar, but it maintains a select group of dedicated fans who think it's totally hip. Published by Working Designs in 1994, Vay sported a distinctly shoujo art style and nifty animated cutscenes. If Lunar was the "popular cool kid" on the Sega CD, Vay was the quirky nerd who, while interesting, was only cool to his/her small cache of misfit friends. I always like rooting for the underdog, so I was pleasantly surprised to see this cult classic get adapted to a modern platform. Unfortunately, SoMoGa's treatment of Vay has rendered this "quirky nerd" more awkward than before instead of uplifting him/her to the "rock star cool" status the game's loyal following sees.
Prince Heibelger (whom you may remember as Sandor) is about to marry his beloved Princess Elin in a poignant ceremony attended by various dignitaries to promote the realm's peace. Unfortunately, the Danek Empire crashes the wedding with weapons of mass destruction that the people thought only existed in legend. Heibelger's home is razed, his family murdered, and his lady love kidnapped, leading him to embark on a classic RPG quest to find the magical orbs to restore the legendary Vay armor from millennia past so he can overthrow the evil empire and rescue the princess. Of course, Heibelger cannot undergo a quest of this magnitude alone, so he accumulates some delightful companions along the way such as Pottle, the wisecracking apprentice wizard. The story does not break any new ground, but it is a classic RPG tale done rather nicely.
It should be noted that many characters' names reflect the original Japanese kana and are different than what you may be familiar with. For example, P.J. is now Nina, Rachel is now Feilong, and as I mentioned, Sandor is now Heibelger. Another change, for better or worse, is the updated dialogue scripting. The dialogue is delightful and often witty, but without some of the toilet humor associated with Working Designs. I rather like it. The dialogue has personality without puerile elements.
Although the dialogue is a step forward, the music simply stands in place. The soundtrack has a decent variety of music, but I would have liked a greater number of tracks. The overworld theme has a suitably heroic sound. The dungeon themes fit their environments but are often recycled, which feels repetitive over the long haul. The worst is the town theme, which is annoying the first time and gets more annoying with every town you visit. The combat themes are suitably upbeat and have more of a techno vibe than a "classic" vibe. The standard battle theme, for example, would not be out of place in a Phantasy Star title.
The graphics generally look like the original game, and the few times they don't only represent a small step back. The overworld and dungeons have vibrant colors, but the simple tile-based environmental textures lack variety. In this game, if you've seen one cave, you've seen them all. This can get tiring over the long haul, especially since you will visit several caves. The cutscenes look a little rough by today's standards, but their fully animated glory was pretty cool back in 1994. Field sprites look functional, and many NPC sprites have a distinctive style I haven't seen in other JRPGs. Battles have nice, if pixelated, monster sprites and pleasing, if simple, backgrounds. The updated hi-res battle sprites for player characters almost seem pasted on; they look out of place among the lo-res backgrounds and enemy sprites. In addition, these updated protagonist sprites have a style like something out of Kingdom Hearts with big, floppy cartoon feet. Heibelger's battle sprite looks like a long-haired Sora, and that style simply doesn't fit Vay. There is an option to use the classic battle sprites, though.
Speaking of style, the updated character art in the status menus is downright hideous. The characters look like they were drawn by a first-grader. Where is the distinctive shoujo art we knew and loved when we first played the game? Only in the cutscenes, and that is a shame. Heibelger, for example, looks like a scrawny, socially-awkward preteen in the status screen rather than the confident bishounen prince from the cutscenes and original 1994 art. When I think Vay, I think shoujo art style, and to have that torn out of the game and replaced with first-grade scribbles is an unjustifiable tragedy.
The biggest steps back for this update lie in the gameplay and interface. The general gameplay formula is sound — it's difficult to go wrong with classic town-dungeon turn-based JRPG gameplay, especially since the battles play out faster than before. I have no issues with battles except the occasionally high encounter rate and erratic difficulty spikes throughout the game that require level grinding. The game offers a normal mode and a hard mode (hard mode basically being the original 1994 difficulty), but even in "easy" mode, level grinding is necessary since many boss fights are battles of attrition thanks to their high HP.
My real issues with the game lie in the control and interface. The control scheme in this game is atrocious. The idea of a "point and click" style interface telling the character where to go seems like it would work well for an RPG, but it's poorly calibrated here. I would touch where I want Heibelger to go and he'd take it as an optional suggestion of where to go, meaning he'd end up in that general area... if he even decided to move at all. Sometimes I pointed to a door I wanted him to enter, and he'd just stand there unless I held his hand and guided him around NPCs and other obstacles. This game absolutely screams for a virtual D-pad so I can smoothly move my avatar along without having to babysit it. The bad control scheme makes an otherwise good RPG an absolute chore to play and does nothing to enhance Vay's image.
The menu interface is almost as bad as the control scheme. Instead of using Vay's classic menus, SoMoGa opted to use a practically default iOS interface that looks hideously out of place. Navigating the menus is more complicated than it needs to be, and when shopping, there are no adequate indicators of whether a piece of equipment will increase or decrease a character's stats. It doesn't help that the touch response in the menus is so slippery that I often bought things that I did not wish to buy.
Another issue I have is that in order to change the game's configuration settings, I need to exit the game, go into the iOS device settings button on the home screen, and access the configuration options from there. It would be so much easier and more logical to have the configuration options in the in-game menu so I'm not taken out of the game to tweak them. Whoever at SoMoGa thought these design choices for Vay were a good idea needs to have his/her head examined.
It honestly pains me to give Vay such low scores. However, the game is an absolute challenge of your willpower to play beyond 30 minute stints, thanks to a clunky interface with slippery controls and field movement with unresponsive controls. Couple this with hideous character art in the status screen, and you have an iOS adaptation that absolutely reeks of rushed design. It is an absolute travesty that a terrific RPG like Vay has been reduced to garbage thanks to poor design choices that SoMoGa should be absolutely ashamed of. Vay is a cult-classic RPG that deserves to shine, but SoMoGa took this underdog and kicked it in the ribs rather than groom it into the awesome animal it is.