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Note: this review opens with a semi-lengthy history of the series and its key players. If you want to get to the review proper, skip to the first italicized subheading.
When I saw Glory of Heracles being showcased at E3 2009 as an upcoming release, I couldn't hide my smile. You see, the Glory of Heracles series is one of a select few series of Japanese RPGs that fit both of the following two criteria: 1) none of its games had come to North America, and 2) they are really good games. Many JRPGs fit #1 (import-only), but fail on #2. Many RPG series are better left un-localized.
But I had known about Glory of Heracles for years. I first discovered it via my personal hunt for obscure Japanese game music. Then I read up on plot synopses and gameplay mechanics, and would eventually sink a significant amount of time into Glory of Heracles II (Famicom) and IV (Super Famicom).
The series, which until now played much like Dragon Quest clones in a mythical ancient Greek setting, had some interesting names behind it. The series was developed and published by Data East, which went bankrupt nearly a decade ago. The series stopped at Glory of Heracles IV, so this property lay dormant for a good 15 years. Why? Well, if I dare to venture a guess, I think Final Fantasy VII had something to do with it–that, alongside Data East's growing financial troubles.
The first two Glory of Heracles games weren't anything too amazing, especially in terms of plot. Their peers, the early Famicom Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest titles, weren't all that interesting either. But Glory of Heracles I and II laid the foundation for the plot-heavy Glory of Heracles III, a story about a nameless immortal with amnesia. Guess who wrote the scenario for Glory of Heracles III? Kazushige Nojima did. The same Kazushige Nojima who wrote the scenario for Final Fantasy VII.
Kazushige Nojima would go on to not just write the scenario, but actually direct Glory of Heracles IV. Soon after that, Nojima jumped ship to work with Square: first on Bahamut Lagoon for Super Famicom, and then on the wildly popular FFVII. And since then, Glory of Heracles disappeared while Nojima worked hard as a Square employee until shortly after the Square Enix merger, at which point, he went "freelance." He still does work with Square Enix, including "scenario concept" work for Final Fantasy XIII.
But Nojima also got a chance to work with a developer named Paon in an effort to resurrect the series that got him started on RPGs. Paon itself was essentially a remnant of Data East that formed shortly after Data East went bankrupt, and they had obtained joint rights to the Glory of Heracles franchise in 2003 alongside Nintendo. Plans for a sequel rose and floundered, but over time, something solid eventually took shape. That solid thing was Glory of Heracles on the DS, released for Japanese consumers in May 2008. Kazushige Nojima is credited as director and scenario writer for this game.
Then there was the news at E3 2009 that this DS game would come to America. In the few months leading up to the January 2010 release, we also learned that the North American version had significantly streamlined battles: spell animations could be skipped, and the mini-games to power up spells and skills were made optional. The game now suited the RPG player-on-the-go perfectly, and it sported a competent dev team, including not just Nojima, but also music composer Yoshitaka Hirota (Shadow Hearts series composer).
There's your history lesson. Now to the review proper.
The new Glory of Heracles opens much like Glory of Heracles III. We see some characters during an in-game cut scene (who turn out to be the game's protagonists). The last of these five is a young man with dark hair laying on the beach in a full suit of armor. He has a memory of himself being addressed as "Heracles," and being instructed by someone to step into some sort of device. So he has an inkling he might be the mythical Heracles himself. Minutes into the game, some Nymphs confirm that they sense Heracles' spirit, but that this guy doesn't look anything like Heracles. So, yes, amnesiac protagonist is one of the plot points that drives the plot forward. Cliché? Maybe, but guess what comes next.
Generic amnesiac hero meets a girl named Leucos, who also happens to be immortal. She can't quite remember much from her past either, at least to a point. She knows that her father threw her off a cliff once, to prove to her that she was immortal. Other than that, it's all a blur. Not long after that, nameless hero and Leucos bump into a strikingly handsome, somewhat narcissistic young man named Axios. Guess what? He's immortal too! He didn't know he was immortal until recently, though. You see, all the mortal girls are irresistibly attracted to Axios, whether he leads them on or not. One of those girls had a very jealous boyfriend. Jealous boyfriend stabs Axios in the chest. Axios doesn't die. Hence, he's immortal. When asked, "Wouldn't you have figured out this immortality thing at a younger age, or wouldn't your parents have known?" Axios admits that he can't remember back more than a year or so. Are we beginning to detect a pattern?
Nameless hero gets a name of your choice (one character suggests "Pit," perhaps as a nod to the Nintendo franchise Kid Icarus, or perhaps a very strange form of foreshadowing). In any case, you give your hero a "nickname" for the time being since you don't know your true identity. Then you meet a loud, obnoxious, ever-laughing, extremely buff guy who claims to be Heracles. He admits that he, too, has had a recent bout of memory loss. But he does have some memories of being called Heracles. One such memory is the very one that made nameless hero think he was Heracles. However, Leucos and Axios don't have those memories: their backgrounds seem to be completely different. That makes for four amnesiac heroes. Is there room for one more? You bet your sweet calloused thumb there is!
The last member of the permanent party is a little girl named Eris who recently experienced some tragic circumstances. The entire town of Corinth exploded recently. It was believed to be punishment from the gods, as Corinth was using a piece of "forbidden technology" known as a Taphus to harness ether to make life more convenient. The Taphus was destroyed, and everyone in town died. Everyone, that is, except Eris. Eris has no memory of who she is, who her family was, what she was doing in Corinth, nothing. However, it's clear based on the fact that she survived the explosion that she, too, is immortal. She joins your merry band of forgetful-yet-unkillable folk, since everyone agrees that sticking together may be the best way to learn the truth about themselves.
Rest assured, everyone does learn the truth about themselves. Some characters have their whole identities revealed all at once (Axios is first, and there's only one secret behind his identity). Other characters have layers of secrets to be revealed. And there are NPCs throughout the story who have either forgotten their true identities, or else are masking their identitities for reasons both foul and fair.
As hackneyed as it sounds to have multiple amnesiac protagonists, let me assure you that this doesn't hurt the plot in Glory of Heracles. In this case, there's a very good reason for why memories are being lost. Remember, this is a story steeped in Greek mythology. The larger plot revolves around old gods (Titans) vs. new gods (Zeus and crew). Yes, I know, God of War has done a fine job making up revisionist mythology and maybe you're not interested in seeing it twisted yet another way. I promise you this: if you give Glory of Heracles a chance, you will enjoy what they do with the plot, because it is more than just five puppets being led around by Zeus and company.
A quick note about the dialogue and localization: it's excellent. Nintendo did a great job. The script editor for the English version was Crispin Boyer, so I'm not at all surprised by the quality now that I know this key fact. The dialogue stays witty and fun without the consistency or excitement of the plot ever being compromised. For a DS RPG, it's really a great script, on par with the DS Dragon Quest remakes.
I've talked to a lot of people in the last few weeks who had reservations about this game just from looking at a couple of key screenshots. They saw a 4x5 grid and thought "that's it, grid-based combat, count me out." This is fairly deceptive. Basically, the party side and enemy side are split down the middle, and then each side gets a front and back row. For the party side, there is no "stacking" allowed (no two people can be in the front and back row of the same column). Enemies, however, can stack, so a "full battle" would be five party members versus ten enemies. The column lines aren't important: you can be on the left-most column and attack an enemy all the way on the right. All that matters here is front row and back row.
The commands available to your party of five are as follows: Attack, Magic, Skill, Item, Retreat, Wait, Advance/Fall Back (change row), or Auto. Of those eight commands, two of them (magic and skill) result in performing an optional mini-game. You can skip it, which will result in the attack doing base damage. But if you choose "stylus," you will have the option to complete a mini-game. These mini-games are learned at the same place skills and magic are obtained (temples and Prometheus statues), and they generally revolve around tapping circles with Roman numerals in them. I found a fair amount of variety to these mini-games; some test accuracy, others memorization, still others speed and timing. The latter mini-games obtained are slightly harder than the early ones, and the repetition at the beginning can be annoying. Generally, completing the mini-games is worthwhile, as you'll be able to get damage bonuses of double, or more, the base amount.
All five of your characters wield one main weapon type, and for a sub-weapon can either hold a shield or a second weapon. If the second weapon is a bow (Leucos and Axios), you can attack from the back row and reach the enemy's back row as well. For everyone else, equipping a second weapon in place of a shield will greatly increase attack (and result in a severe defense reduction), and give them access to weapon-specific skills.
Magic is easily the most powerful and convenient method of dispatching enemies (particularly groups of enemies). However, the criteria for casting magic is very interesting. Along with expending MP, there is an ether pool (like a mana pool in Magic: The Gathering) associated with the area you're presently in. This ether pool is broken into five elements: fire, wind, earth, water, and darkness. Your party and the enemy share this pool. Each spell is one of six elements: the five aforementioned, plus light. Light uses up all four of the non-dark elements equally. Whatever magic you use will create a by-product of opposing ether (basically, dark produces non-dark, and non-dark produces dark). It's a balancing act, and when you face a series of enemies of the same element, you cannot continue to use the same spell over and over, because the specific ether you need will quickly run out. So, generally, it's important to use dark ether spells to replenish the other four ether pools.
If you want to cast a spell when there's insufficient ether to cast the spell, that's fine. The game will allow you to do it. But the "balance" is made up for via the character's HP. This phenomenon is called "ether reflux" in the game. And the more powerful the spell, the more HP you'll lose per lacking ether point. For example, casting Fulgarum (a fire-based spell attacking all enemies, requiring 666 fire ether) when you only have 200 fire ether will probably result in taking 10,000+ HP from the person casting the spell. In other words, it's guaranteed death. There are times when the sacrifice is worth it, but then you need to be ready to get that person back up before the battle is over if you want them to reap the rewards (experience points).
Being immortal brings an added bonus to the game. If your party falls in a random encounter, there is no real penalty. You'll all get back up right where you left off. However, any items you used during the encounter are still gone; and considering each character has two "pouch" equipment slots where you can equip auto-use items, you're liable to lose all 10 of those items and still lose the battle, hence the items are wasted.
Many veteran RPG players have complained about the relative lack of difficulty in the game's combat. I personally lost two or three random encounters and one boss battle. And though I did take down the last boss on my first try, it was a very close fight for me. If you choose not to level-grind, and always use the item "Sibyl's Balm" to reduce random encounters on the field and in dungeons to nearly zero, you will definitely find the game challenging. And even if you don't, there are so many interesting concepts in the battle system, that it's worth checking out. I haven't even talked about the overkill system or how each of the five main characters interact to balance one another out, or even the guest party members that join you, or the New Game + option, or how some of your main characters "transform" later in the game, making them better in battle. The rest, I leave for you to discover.
Towns and Exploration
I haven't played a game as linear as Glory of Heracles in a very, very long time. There are no "subquests" to speak of in this game. Why? Because generally, you can't backtrack, and you can't freely roam in a forward direction either. In either case, if you go onto the world map and try to go somewhere other than your expected destination, you will usually hit a programmed "wall" which prompts one of your party members to remind you what the current situation is, and where you ought to be going. This was fine with me, as I was enjoying the game primarily as a linear adventure, I wasn't interested in an open world. But I wanted to address this as a word of caution for anyone who would be disappointed in a lack of exploration.
There are many towns in the game, and they offer great opportunities for character improvement. Almost every town has a statue of Prometheus in the basement of a particular shop (Sorcery or Alchemy shops), where you can learn new magic. In or near almost every town is also a temple dedicated to a particular god, where you can learn new skills. Then, each town has the usual weapon, armor, and item shops, as well as an inn and tavern. Some towns will also have one or more of the following shops: bakeries, polishers, blacksmiths, sorcery shops, or alchemy shops. Polishers take "rusty" items found along the journey and, for a few drachmas (the in-game currency), will reveal their true form. Blacksmiths can create new weapons or enhance previous weapons into even greater forms using raw materials found in battle. Alchemists are my favorite shops, though. Each and every piece of equipment has the potential to have unique skills, spells, or passive traits built into it as an augment. For a price, an alchemist will add these things to your equipment. Now, you don't get to choose what augments go on what equipment: the limitation is already built in, designed for each piece of equipment. But they certainly have their uses. And smart players will think twice about simply swapping out a weapon for the next weapon (for greater STR or INT) when there's an augment on the previous piece that cannot be put on the new piece.
As far as town exploration goes, the only thing I dislike about visiting a town is getting around. Glory of Heracles is another one of those games that does DS controls right: you can use the stylus, or you can use the traditional buttons, for pretty much everything in the game (the sole exception is the stylus-specific optional mini-game thing for boosting skills and spells). However, even though they were smart to offer both, it's only worthwhile if you make both control schemes work well. In this case, going from one place to the next is surprisingly easy with the stylus, but a bit of a problem with the d-pad. You can only move in one of eight directions (45 degrees separated), but the camera can and does rotate 360 degrees. So which way will I move when I press up? Will my character move up-left, up-right, or straight up? Sometimes I'll hit up and the character on screen will move primarily to the left, but slightly upward. The mapping just didn't work out, and it's because they limited movement direction to only eight ways on the d-pad. The alternate solution would have been limit the camera to the corresponding eight angles.
In dungeons, the camera is locked, so it's not as big a problem, though again we're working on an isometric 45 degree angle, but all four directions will move along that 45 degree angle instead of "straight" up, right, down, or left. I generally don't like using the stylus, but for this game, I found that it was better to move around with the stylus because I would always get to where I wanted to go without any second-guessing.
Speaking of dungeons, I would like to point out that there are some fun switch/block puzzles in the later dungeons. Honestly, I enjoyed them. They were short but challenging.
Graphics and Sound
Other than an opening anime FMV, which I thought was beautiful, the graphical style of the game is strange. Everything animates well, but the still images are this sort of weird low-res pixel-blur cel shading. I don't even know what to call it. It's like a pseudo-3D in a world of 2D images. Again, everything animates smoothly, but if the still image itself is lacking in quality, then what are we to do? There was more than one character I met in the game where I thought, "what exactly is that thing I'm staring at?"
Musically, while I wasn't necessarily "impressed," I did enjoy the music quite a bit. Penned primarily by Yoshitaka Hirota, the soundtrack offers enough music for the size of the game, and some of the tracks do stick out in my head (temple music and boss battle music was excellent). The game sports zero voice acting, of course, but the game's sound effects are many and they get the job done.
I worry that many RPG fans will pass over this game when, in actuality, they would really enjoy it if they gave it a chance. This linear adventure is relatively short (took me 20 hours with generally under-leveled characters). It's just the right size for someone who wants to experience a neat game and a new revisionist take on Greek myth. Cliché or no, the five amnesiac heroes plot works great, and the script is excellent. Plus, there are plenty of neat little things to discover about the combat system as you go forward. I approached this game with cautious optimism and was rewarded for giving it a chance. I would ask that you do the same.