Azure Dreams is the latest Playstation RPG from Konami. The game encompasses a mixture of sub-genres including simulation, action and turn-based gaming. It is a unique game that can be fun to play, but it falls short in too many important areas.
"The Town by the Tower"
Monsibaya is the desert town that all treasure hunters seek. It is located next to the mysterious monster tower that contains unheard of treasures and incredible dangers. Only one man ever reached the top, but he never returned. That man was the greatest hunter of them all, Guy. You play the role of his son K'oh who has just reached the age of adulthood and is now allowed to enter the tower. K'oh is an impetuous and energetic youth whose life dream is to become the greatest hunter ever. It is also his desire to learn his father's fate, help his family and hometown, and to find true love.
The story in Azure Dreams is rather thin. There is no real focus for the main character. Only a series of events and tasks triggered by his actions in the tower or by talking with people. The main thrust of the story, finding out what happened to your father, is hardly ever considered until you're almost near the end of the game. It's almost a surprise when you finally get far enough and the focus returns to your missing father. And whether that conclusion is worth the trip is up to the player but I was rather disappointed.
The characters in town are your basic stereotypical characters whom you've met before with different faces. The different ladies you can woo all fit easily into a category such as tomboy, snob and brain. And the dating simulation aspect of the game is so basic that it's almost insulting. You either have to say the right thing from a multiple choice list (which is very easy to figure out), find the right item or spend the right amount of money. It is very weak and the dialogue is boring and extremely sexist. I hope no guys try to use any of these lines on the ladies because they'll get smacked, or worse. And the girls are treated more like trophies than actual girlfriends. You can "win" all of them and you don't have to choose one. I was really looking forward to this aspect of the game hoping that I could get a taste in English of the intricate simulation games that are so popular in Japan. Instead we get a poorly designed, chauvinistic guessing game that takes no skill at all to win. With all the space available on a CD and the low cost of making them I was hoping for more dialogue. It doesn't have to be Hemingway, but it could at least add some depth to the characters. As it is now, the story is boring and cliché.
I only have one piece of advice for Konami. If you're going to focus the story around a simulation type game, then make it an in-depth simulation or else the story will fall flat. Finish what you begin.
"Haven't I Seen You Before?"
The graphics in Azure Dreams are a mixture of polygonal landscapes and rendered 2D sprites. The town landscape is nice but rather plain. Even when you build it up, most of the buildings use similar textures. The look is very similar in tone and style to Suikoden except that it is 3D. The 2D character sprites are large but horribly pixilated. The character designs are great, but it's impossible to tell what they look like until you begin a dialogue and an anime representation of the character comes up on screen. The sprites are too distorted to display the detail in the character designs. The monster designs are also interesting and quite original, but again much is lost due to the sprite representation. I would have preferred smaller, cleaner sprites to the large blobs that are in the game. Magic spells are uninspired and only use choppy sprite animation. I don't know what is up with Konami's graphics department but I've rarely seen a more inconsistent bunch. From Suikoden, to Castlevania and then to this. I really have to wonder what happened to cause the quality to drop so far.
The bulk of the game is spent in the monster tower and it really shows the weakness of the graphics. While it has nice textures and some cool psychedelic backdrops, it gets extremely repetitive in design. Don't be fooled by the company line about the tower changing every time you enter. While it does change slightly each time, the look and basic layout of each level remains exactly the same. The colors and textures stay, and the set-up of small path leading to large room is repeated consistently. The actual changes are minor and after the third time into the tower you'll know whether or not you're going to love or hate this game. If you can't take the same pattern over and over and over, you better hope you only rented the game. I was truly disappointed to the point of considering Konami's ad campaign to be blatant false advertising. The tower does not completely change every time you enter it. This again is another example of the developers not finishing what they started. A child could have designed the levels. All they'd have to do is draw a line leading to a box and repeat until it all connects randomly. Not quite as innovative as I was lead to believe.
The best part of this game is the music and I would expect no less from Konami who are the best soundtrack makers in the business in my opinion. They never fail to capture the spirit of the game exactly. Everything fits with the mood and the look of the game and is good enough to keep you going despite the repetitiveness. It never overpowers and it will always leave you humming. The compositions are great and use the Playstation's music capabilities to the utmost. The sound effects are there, and that's really all there is to say about them. There are the usual clangs and grunts with no voice or any outstanding effects.
"Enter the Tower."
The gameplay is a combination of a simulation game and a turn-based action RPG. The simulation aspect includes building up the town, courting female characters and raising familiars to take into the tower with you. The role-playing aspect includes exploring the tower, fighting monsters, and earning experience, finding weapons and finding items. Events that occur in one section will have an effect on events in the other.
The building aspect of the simulation section involves earning enough money in the tower to pay the carpenter his fee for building new places or expanding existing ones. You can expand your own house and your monster hut to raise more familiars. And you can buy items like wallpaper and rugs to furnish your home with. Talking to people in town will add more options to the list of things the carpenter can make and also open up some mini-games to play like bowling and horse racing. Some are just for fun and some can be used to make extra money. New buildings will also open other important parts of the simulation game including new girls for you to "date". This building simulation is a welcome addition to the game, but it could have been done so much better. Again they took the simplistic route rather than making it a full-blown simulation. All you need is the money and to talk to people. You don't have to get into any of the details like location or design. It's neat, but it only becomes a minor portion of the game because of the lack of detail involved.
The dating simulation as I said before is very thin. It's very easy to know what the right things to say and do are. The only difficulty is in finding enough money and finding the right items in the tower. There is no real depth to it and becomes more of a chore than an interesting or thought provoking simulation. It can be fun, but once you get all the girls you're done. There is no replay value to it because the solutions to the problem are so blatantly obvious. And the fact that it is so blatantly chauvinistic and unrealistic will turn off a lot of gamers. It's less a dating simulation and more of a treasure hunting expedition. Again, the developers didn't follow through on what should have been an important aspect of the game.
The entire simulation aspect of the gameplay lacked any kind of innovation or depth, and it makes up one half of the game. And considering the repetitive aspect of exploring the tower, it really needed to be much more in-depth to make the game worth playing more than once.
Raising familiars is slightly more interesting. By finding eggs in the tower you can hatch new familiars in your monster hut. You can change the nature of the familiars to one of the four elements that will also effect the nature of their magic attacks. Certain elements are stronger against certain monsters so experimentation is necessary to move through the tower more easily. You can also fuse monsters to make them stronger and less vulnerable to specific attacks. The familiars use up the main characters magic points when they attack and they can only regain hit points with items found in the tower. Your main character regains hit points by walking around but familiars need special items or else they will return home when their hit points are all gone.
The main character fights in typical RPG fashion but it is almost a real-time battle in that other creatures are still moving around while you battle. You are able to move freely through the tower until you come within a certain distance of a monster. Then it switches to a turn based style of movement. You are allowed to move, then the monster moves. You keep taking turns until one is dead and then it goes back to normal free movement. But while you are fighting one monster, another can move in and attack at the same time if it is close enough. Battles can be tricky because you have to time your movements properly so you can get the first attack in and be finished with one monster before another can get close enough. This is very confusing at first but once you learn the controls and the timing you'll feel very comfortable with it. Your character gains levels in the tower but will always start at level one when he re-enters the tower. Familiars on the other hand keep all the experience they gain in the tower. So raising the experience of familiars is much more important than raising the experience of the main character until you plan to move very high up the tower in one trip.
You can find various swords and shields throughout the tower and each has their own strengths and weaknesses. The attack or defense power isn't the only thing you need to worry about. And attack and defense power of a specific sword or shield may be raised with some items that you find. So you're better off finding weapons that are good all around and making them stronger through items rather than changing weapons as you move higher up the tower. Your main character can only use magic via items found in the tower. Magic balls are located in random spots throughout and can be used a limited number of times. Familiars are your main weapons, but building up your character's items is important to be able to reach the top of the tower.
When you are killed in the tower, you will fall asleep and wake up back home. You will lose all the items you had found which can be a major pain in the butt. In order to leave the tower without losing what you found you need to send a certain item that can transport you back to town such as a wind crystal. You can't leave the tower any other way. Also, you can only save in the tower between levels. You need to find the elevator and save your game there. You also have to quit playing there because if you turn the power off at any other point in the tower, you will lose everything and start the game back at your house. I don't know why you can only turn the power off when they tell you too, but that's the way it goes. Make sure you don't forget this while you're playing the game because you will be one unhappy camper when you start the game the next day expecting to be at the top of the tower and instead finding yourself back home with nothing in your inventory. I had this happen and thought it was an error with my memory card. Then I read the manual a little more closely and realized my error. Don't start playing if you don't think you can reach that save point before you have to stop.
There are traps hidden throughout the tower with varying consequences. Some will ruin your weapons, others confuse you and others will paralyze you. Some can really end up hurting you while others may have no effect depending on your equipment. They can really ruin your day so be careful on later levels when moving around. If you attack one square ahead of them you can trigger them safely so you may want to try that. It takes some time but you'll be much better off in the long run.
Azure Dreams had a lot of potential as a ground breaking role-playing game in this country. Many aspects of the game have been exclusive to Japan for a long time and it could have lead the way for some new genres to make it to these shores. But instead we get an unfinished game that doesn't carry any of its aspects to even half of their full potential. The simulation aspect needed more variety and a lot more control and depth to them. The action portion needed much more variety and better control. I will admit that I enjoyed playing this game but when I view it objectively it really falls far short of its potential. I really expect more from Konami and I highly recommend renting this game or playing someone else's copy before buying it. It can be fun but it is not a game that can stand next to the best in either the simulation or role-playing genre.