RPG fans who witnessed the PlayStation 2 launch day riots had only a scant few titles to whet their next generation appetites, and among them was an action RPG known as Evergrace. While the game was lackluster at best, the new console frenzy assured astronomical sales. Shortly thereafter, From Software was hard at work on the sequel.
While Evergrace was originally intended as a PSOne title, the game was ported over to the PlayStation 2 in mid-development. This technological discrepancy was appallingly apparent, though the game flew off the shelves at an alarming rate. Unfortunately the overall quality of the game was poor, leading to media assassination of almost legendary proportions.
With lessons learned, the artists at From Software went back to the canvas and began to paint a more platform-appropriate world for gamers to enjoy. Thus was Evergrace II created and released to a wary audience. Despite the poor reputation of Evergrace, the fiscal success of the game assured the localization of this updated sequel. Agetec snatched up the rights to Evergrace II, translating and releasing the game as Forever Kingdom. Will this new adventure from the House-that-Armored-Core-Built make a name for itself, or shall the game be doomed to the fate of a wretched forefather?
Forever Kingdom is a prequel of sorts, taking place several years before the lives of the two crest-bearers, Darius and Sharline, would intertwine. In the land of Edinberry, there once was a great civilization know as the Rieubain Empire, but after the cataclysm, only the kingdoms of Solta, Morea, Seclu and Toledo remain. Solta and Morea have been at war for over a decade over the fate of the Billiana Forest: a magical wood populated by the mystical and life-giving Billiana trees. Solta wishes to clear away the forest to make room for farmland. Morea wishes to protect the forest, and from this disagreement a bloody conflict erupted. The two kingdoms were so equally matched that the war dragged on for years.
Then, one day when there seemed to be no end to the deadlock, an unimaginable event brought the war to an abrupt and destructive end. Soltian and Morean forces were decimated by the onslaught of demons and monsters of ferocious appetite. This disaster would be known as the Eve of Destruction.
Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and as both kingdoms begin to rebuild their militaries in hopes of renewing their enmity, dark forces are surreptitiously at work. Into this struggle a young man called Darius is thrust. Darius lost his family and his best friend to the war when Morean forces butchered his entire village. Darius was taken in and raised in a neighboring kingdom; his thirst for vengeance would drive him to become a master of the sword. Little would he suspect that as a crest bearer, his destiny would determine the fate of Edinberry, though would his tragedy be the only inspiration for his passion?
Drawn into service against the Moreans, Darius, and his friend Ruy would fight against the evil that threatened Solta. Though destiny would have more in store for young Darius than that of a simple soldier, as one day he and his companion would discover the young amnesiac, Faeana. The young woman housed powerful magic in her fragile frame, but she became fast friends with the sword wielding duo.
But, fate would intervene a second time. On the return from an adventure, the trio discovers a young woman being attacked by rouges. Faeana has a moment of brief recollection; she knows this girl. Without much thought she rushed to defend the young lady only to find herself and her companions ensnared in a forbidden spell. The primary assailant was no common thug but the dark sorcerer Darsul. Having been deterred from his kidnapping by the interlopers, the mage places the Soul Bind curse on the virtuous trio, binding their life forces together. Should one of them get hurt, or die, the others would suffer the same fate.
Taking advantage of the distraction, the young girl flees from the scene much to the wizardís outrage. Leaving them to ponder their fate, and in renewed pursuit of his quarry, Darsul and his companion depart. Soul bound and battered, the trio embark on a journey to find the wizard and lift the curse. Faeana is certain that some facet of her forgotten memory lies with the young woman they fought to protect.
Thus, the party sets out on an adventure that would lead them into a questionable future. The answers to long forgotten questions would begin to emerge as these unlikely heroes journey through Edinberry in pursuit of Darsul and the girl. The secrets of the lost civilization and an even more ancient evil will await these entwined companions. They will meet stout friends and fierce foes, brushing elbows with the damned and the divine before their journey would come to an end. Thus we share in Dariusí first adventure.
The quest of Darius and co. is unique, but the execution of the tale left much to be desired. The sporadic plot elements left me wandering the lands waiting for a story event to happen, and though the game is linear to a fault, the fact that I never felt like I had much direction speaks poorly of the overall script design. The translation is acceptable, but there are occasional grammatical and spelling errors throughout the dialogue. Most of the important cinematic interludes are professionally voiced, but the odd phrase and awkward word choice in the text left me scratching my head.
Thankfully, the pacing improves significantly closer to the end of the game, as I was deadlocked until the finale. The shame is that the script took such a long time to get involving. Though the game uses just about every generic RPG plot device imaginable, it manages to execute them without being kitschy.
The story of Dariusí quest is an intriguing tale about comradery, self discovery and revelation. The interactions of the three main characters are tangible expressions of human companionship. Though there are grammatical and spelling errors throughout, they never significantly detracted from the experience. The vocal characterization, plot development, climax and dťnouement are commendable, but the slow pacing and pedestrian execution left a bad taste in my mouth.
Due to the sordid lineage of Evergrace, From Software was determined to utilize the raw power of the PlayStation 2ís Emotion Engine© to create a stunning experience and almost succeeded. The polygon count has been improved dramatically, lending to an attractive real-time rendered overworld, visually appealing dungeons and impressive character models. Some of the structures during the later hours of the game are simply gorgeous, with light sourcing and reflection effects aplomb. Forever Kingdom continues the perpetual autumn that began in Evergrace. The earlier portions of the game share the same generic design of drowned orange and brown pastels, leading to a drab florescence.
The character models have been significantly improved since Evergrace, boasting high polygon counts, vibrantly textured mip-mapped surfaces. Despite the attractive models, the character animation is place holder and sadly uninspired. Paradoxically, some of the boss encounters are outright beautiful, exhibiting creatures of wondrous originality, impeccable construction and fantastical animation. It was obvious the artistís priorities were a little skewed. For a game released amid the 3rd generation of Playstation 2 titles, these issues are even more pronounced.
The hybrid PSOne aliasing that plagued the original Evergrace has been reigned in successfully, but some of the frame rate issues were passed onto Forever Kingdom. Simply put, the animation speed is proportional to the size of the current gameplay environment. This makes wandering a large open area a chug-fest, especially if there are several enemies onscreen. Another eyesore is the ridiculous amount of clipping that occurs during combat in tight spaces. Though this problem isnít nearly apparent in open arenas, the poor camera AI lends to inter-model clipping during crowded combat. For a second generation engine, this is simply sloppy.
The spell effects are pretty, espousing copious particle effects with brilliant explosions of luminescence. Though the spells are graphically average, they are plentiful and unique.
The environmental effects throughout Forever Kingdom are pleasant; from blowing fields of grass to gentle snow in an ice cave, these little touches go a long way to improving the atmosphere.
Though Forever Kingdom does boast some attractive visuals, original designs, and amazing monster constructs; the integration of the graphics and animation led to an awkward marriage of motion. The game is undeniably attractive compared to its predecessor, but compared to more contemporary software the graphics appear dated and poorly executed.
The discordant notes that plagued Evergrace return to cause even more violent auricular hemorrhaging. The eclectic score is so wildly undulating that it can only be described as nauseating. Perhaps the need for an exotic score drove the musicians responsible to look to their inner Marquis de Sade for inspiration. The score is akin to playing any superannuated LP from your grandfatherís closet in reverse, then listening to the squalor with an empty fishbowl over your head.
In addition, the sound effects are painfully generic, though the execution of Palmira Actions (spells) leads to a cacophony of meaty impacts and reverberating explosions. Sadly, these events suffer from severe repetition and eventually become amnesiac.
Amazingly enough, Forever Kingdom boasts some of the most professional voice acting Iíve ever listened to in a game. Though not without the random ham, the central cadre of characters is impressively well cast. Darius, Ruy and Faeana are believable characters with established voices. I cannot express how thankful I was that the main protagonist sounded the part of a weary soldier, not Joe from accounting. The main villains, particularly Darsul, are chillingly realistic and delightfully well acted. I actually found myself looking forward to every voiced story driven cinematic, enduring the agony of the swirling acoustic miasma in the interim.
While the score of Forever Kingdom is condusive to defenestration, I cannot deny the quality of effort that was placed into the vocal performances. The contrast of these acoustic elements is simply staggering. If not for the fact that the nauseating soundtrack is omnipresent throughout the game, I would have scored this category higher. Unfortunately, my threshold for auricular torture is limited, so the blessings of a talent voice cast cannot save Forever Kingdom from its quagmire of sordid squelching sounds.
The ubiquitous Dress-Up System and Palmira Actions return to haunt the adventurers of Edinberry yet again. In Forever Kingdom, your party can purchase arms and equipment that are visually represented on the character model in real-time. I admit that this is a very cool feature that most other RPGís should incorporate; Forever Kingdom takes it one step further. The Dress-Up System is a fashion-based reward mechanism that is more of a mini-game than an actual aspect of gameplay. Once you have purchased and donned your gear you may ask the shopkeeper to grade the visual allure of your vestments. If he fancies your attire, you are granted a specific amount of discount for your purchases. These discounts are cumulative, and if your fashion sense is paramount you can shop for peanuts! Rewarding? Yes. Bizarre? Most Definitely! The choices in weapons and armor range from the deadly cooking skillet to chic bunny ears. Iím sure Versace is rolling in his grave right now.
The combat system in Forever Kingdom is both unique in execution and diverse in scope. Due to the constraints of the Soul Bind, Darius, Ruy and Faeana all share the same health meter (Soul Meter). When anyone is damaged, the injury is collectively tolled. As a single player game, you may switch between controlling one of the three characters with the touch of a button. You may then attack with that selected character as well as execute Palmira Actions from any of the trio. The two remaining characters will automatically be managed by the AI, attacking and defending as appropriate, though they will not execute Palmira Actions without your command.
Since combat takes place in real-time, switching between characters is imperative and adds a good amount of variety to the game. Each character varies in weapon style, speed, skill and strength; you must master all of them in order to complete the game successfully.
Spells in the world of Forever Kingdom are called Palmira Actions. These special techniques are obtained by equipping enchanted jewelry or artifacts. These skills are executed once a character has gathered sufficient Palmira energy. This energy is gained from striking and damaging enemies. The more successful your attacks, the more energy levels you gain and store. Executing a Palmira Action consumes one energy level.
Since you can store this energy, you would think it useful to save Palmira Actions for boss encounters. Unfortunately, the precious Palmira Pieces that are used to upgrade weapons and armor are gained from killing any enemy with a Palmira Combo. Palmira Combos are repeated strikes of different Palmira Actions. When an enemy his been hit by a Palmira Action, a luminescent gyroscope appears around them. If they are struck in succession with another characterís Palmira Action while the gyro is still visible, the combo chain has been started. This refreshes the presence of the gyro and gives the player another opportunity to strike with an additional Palmira action, contributing to the combo. The continuous barrage of Palmira Actions landed in a Palmira Combo grants exponential Palmira energy. If you donít miss your mark, you can theoretically expand the combo ad-infinitum until all character Palmira levels are depleted or until the enemy expires. If an enemy is slain during a Palmira Combo, this is an ďOverkillĒ, which grants a great deal of Palmira energy as well as the invaluable Palmira Piece.
The Dress-Up and Palmira Combo systems are refreshing new additions to the genre, adding quite a bit of depth and dexterity to the gameplay of Forever Kingdom. Though learning how to use Palmira Actions in an effective and efficient manner requires time and practice, the Dress-Up System is immediately accessible, though painfully expensive.
Even the best laid plans can result in rot and ruin; sadly Forever Kingdom remains true to its roots. The control issues that plagued Evergrace return to haunt this latest incarnation. These problems are not only numerous, they are completely debilitating. Though the game uses the analog controller for movement, the characters react with completely digital responses. The Dual Shock 2ís rumble feature is used throughout, though sparingly, and doesnít leave much of an impression.
The control is adequate, but when the animation dips below 24fps, your characters seem to slide around in combat. This is not only disorienting, it makes gauging control of your characters difficult. The collision detection is also inaccurate; in many instances of combat I would swing in mid air, yet connect with a creature inches away from me.
The in-game intelligent camera: the 3D adventurerís best friend, is dyslexic and leads to even more combat hijinks. The lack of a lock-on system makes combat even more frustrating since the camera chooses to spin and tilt into the most awkward positions at the worst times. The onscreen chaos that ensues due to these control inequities is simply embarrassing. Couple this with the clipping that occurs in most enclosed areas and you have a mess that makes the finished game look like an Alpha.
The playerís control of the camera is limited to switching between 3 views: distant, close, and up-your-nose. You may re-center the camera behind your character with a touch from one of the shoulder buttons, but attempting to reorient during melee is an exercise in frustration; the camera convulses trying to obey your command while attempting to keep up with the action. The end result is an experience that, while not completely unplayable, is not enjoyable.
Combat commands are executed without a minimum of fuss, though the status ailments of the game are not clearly defined and it can take precious seconds for you to identify the problem and rectify it. Perhaps the sparse GUI is to blame, as some of the status icons that appear are small and archaic, blending easily into the gameís environment. The menu GUI is simplistic and easily understood, though some of the menu font is a little too small for quick reading. This makes shopping for new items a laborious affair as you compare statistics while squinting.
Overall, the game seems to make every effort to impede your progress through sloppy control, horrid cinematography, and a poorly designed GUI. After these mistakes were brought to light in the previous game, From Software has no excuse in ignoring these crucial aspects. The game is playable, but the sheer agony of dealing with these glaring manifestations of slipshod design is abysmal.
After enduring the gaming nightmare of Evergrace, I had higher expectations of the sequel. Though From Software addressed the aesthetic issues, they were undeniably laissez faire with the rest of the game. The visuals are a distinct improvement from Evergrace, though the overall beauty pales in comparison to contemporary PS2 titles. The music is still a noxious emanation of warped acoustics, though Iím happy to see that Agetec cared enough to bring trained voice talent to the project. The grammatical and spelling errors throughout the written dialog were disappointing, especially from an established localizer. The incorporation of a new combat system was refreshing, but all of these accolades are pointless if the game is a chore to play.
Forever Kingdom is the perfect example of brilliant ideas marred by shoddy implementation and pathetic execution. Had the developers taken the time to thoroughly play-test the game, they might have realized the injustice they had wrought upon a potentially amazing title. At best, Forever Kingdom is an average game on impressive hardware. Those who enjoyed Evergrace will more than likely find the game accommodating. Those hoping for an enjoyable new action RPG may be better served looking elsewhere, as this one needed at least another 6 months to cook.