For the last few years, the RPG community has long awaited the second-coming of Final Fantasy Tactics. Whether this be the much-wanted Final Fantasy Tactics 2, or perhaps a game from a different franchise, die-hard players of strategy RPGs needed something to satiate their desire for another solid title.
An answer came from developer MaxFive in the form of Hoshigami: Ruining Blue Earth. Fans of the genre were instantly attracted to the similar graphics and gameplay mechanics of Final Fantasy Tactics, yet MaxFive and publisher Atlus insisted that Hoshigami was more than a mere look-a-like. In many ways, this is a very true assertion, with a game full of details and intricacies that affect the gameplay in many ways.
You are a mercenary. . .
In line with most strategy-RPGs, the game's story is not the focus nor highlight of the game. Despite this, Hoshigami's plot is interesting and respectable, facilitating the flow of the game quite nicely. The story is simple enough: You are Fazz, a mercenary involved in the civil war between the (now two) separate nations of the world: Nightweld and Valaim. While Fazz and his friend Liemely begin the game as nothing more than for-hire soldiers on the side of Nightweld, they soon become personally involved when Fazz's home-town is destroyed by Valaim soldiers and are dragged into a situation which is much bigger than they originally anticipated.
While the story never becomes a masterpiece on its journey to the eventual conclusion, it is decent for what it is. To its credit, the translation is nearly flawless, and Atlus has done a wonderful job with the localization. This said, Hoshigami's focus is not the story, but the battles (and preparation thereof), which comprise almost the entire time spent with the game.
Are you SURE this isn't Final Fantasy Tactics 2? It sure looks like it.
While it may be slightly unfair to directly compare Hoshigami to Final Fantasy Tactics, the game tries so hard to emulate it, that it's hard to avoid. The graphics are very…inspired…by Squaresoft's hit, and are about as close to a carbon copy as one could get away with. Everything from the battle fade-effects (the dark brown color diagonally scrolling across the screen,) sprites, and even map designs are eerily reminiscent of those in Tactics.
Not to say that everything from Hoshigami is inspired, however. The game uses many full-screen anime stills during story sessions, complete with different "moods" to go with it. This aspect of the game is done very well, and really makes the game's textual interludes really stand out.
Despite that, however, it is fairly obvious that it was MaxFive's intention to succeed through imitation in the graphical department. Luckily for everyone involved, the gamble pays off, making Hoshigami a very visually appealing game. Whether or not you choose to hold the nature of things against the game as a lack of originality is up to you.
This is the music, so get used to it.
At first listen, Hoshigami's music is respectable and interesting, however it has one serious flaw: duration. The sound effects and general composition of the battle music is just about what you would expect for this genre. Unfortunately, the quality of the songs themselves is much overshadowed by the fact that the songs are absurdly short. Perhaps it is because the battles can be so long, but one will end up listening to the same short themes over and over again as they repeat far too soon. Add to this that there is little variety in the themes themselves, and it means that one of the more common battle songs will probably be repeated for you thousands of times throughout the course of the game--which is NOT a good thing.
Had more effort been put into the compositions to be longer and more intricate, Hoshigami would have been an aural delight. Instead, I found myself getting absolutely sick of listening to the same small blurbs looping for long periods of time. Suffice it to say, if one was expecting the music to be as similar to Final Fantasy Tactic's OST as the graphics are, they should severely lower their expectations.
On the sound effect front, things are a little better off. The samples are fairly generic, and make up the usual blips and attacks sounds that one would expect. Nothing stands out as all that wonderful, but nothing is wrong with them either. Generally speaking, everything in this area is acceptable and works well with the rest of the game.
As always, the Devil is in the details.
Even though the music is less than admirable, the game as a whole makes for a fairly impressive package. The graphics, story, and sound come together very well to create a well-rounded foundation for a potentially great game. Unfortunately, Hoshigami's visions of greatness end here, mired in a slew of both small and large missteps.
To understand where the game ends up going awry, a bit about the system itself. Foremost on the list of things different from the normal strategy-RPG formula is the RAP (Ready-for-Action-Points) meter. During every turn, each character has a RAP bar which can be used in a multitude of ways.
Unlike most games, which simply have movement followed by an attack/defense option, all actions are derived from the RAP system. Moving, attacking, casting spells, and using items all drain the RAP bar, and when the bar is emptied, the character can no longer perform actions. Defending before using up the entire bar will allow you to initiate the character's next turn sooner, while expending more than the bar (the system allows you to perform an attack if you have any bar remaining, no matter if it is not enough to cover the attack cost) will likewise delay the character's next turn longer than usual.
As all actions draw from the same source, moving a long distance will limit your ability to perform any actions, while standing still may allow the character to attack 2 or even 3 times in a row.
Another major addition to the standard array of features is the Session system. This works hand-in-hand with the "Shoot" option you have when attacking an opponent which, if it connects, will do minimal damage yet push your opponent back 2 to 3 squares on the map.
When a character chooses to end their turn, they have an option to either defend or enter an Attack Session. When in a Session, a character is more vulnerable than if they were to defend, however it allows them to engage in a potentially devastating combo attack. If a teammate Shoots an enemy into a character currently in a Session (as indicated by a special icon above their head), they will be hit by the person in the Session, as well as pushed away 2 squares in the direction that the character is facing. Session's can, and should, be comboed as well, resulting in huge damage to the opponent, as well as the chance to steal items that they may have had equipped at the time. In order to utilize the Session system, much thought must go into the placement and order of your team, but with it you can reap huge rewards in terms of demolishing the enemy.
In replacement of any kind of job-system, Hoshigami employs Deities as a method of character development. Characters can be affiliated with any of the elemental Deities, which will influence what abilities they are able to learn, as well as their strength/weakness toward certain spells and opponents on the battlefield. In addition to experience points, characters gain advancement points for their selected deity. When they reach the 100-mark, they may then learn the next skill in the progression of abilities affiliated with their current deity. Additionally, certain deities will boost or lower the character's innate stats, and the affiliation can be changed at any town's temple.
As there is no job system, per se, spells are also handled quite differently from the norm. Instead of learning spells, a character may buy or find, then equip Coinfeigm, or "coins" for short, which will allow them to cast that spell. As there is no MP in the game, the usage of coins is also quite original. Each coin has both a casting cost and a total reserve of casting points.
For example, a 20/40 coin will allow you to cast the coin twice in a row, while a 20/30 coin will allow you to only cast it once at first. Also, each turn by the holder will replenish the coin's supply slightly.
In addition to the base coins, you may buy and find orbs on your journey that may be used to power up your coins. Each orb will have a certain effect on a given spell, affecting its range, casting cost, casting points, speed, etc.
Almost all of Hoshigami's basic mechanics are handled in a fairly standard way, and there are fairly few surprises. Unfortunately, the honeymoon ends there, and the gameplay soon begins to collapse under its own weight. While the general premise of the game as described above is, in theory, quite workable, the actual execution is tragically flawed.
One example of a huge misstep is the amount of weight put on the alignment of deities on the damage scale in battle. For comparison-sake, Final Fantasy Tactics employed slight damage modification based on both the zodiac sign and gender of opposing characters. In Hoshigami's system, however, "compatible" or "incompatible" alignments can have a grand-sweeping effect on the damage done in battle. It is not uncommon to watch a character do 200 points of damage on one enemy, then 16 on the next, if they can hit them at all. In instances of incompatibility, hit % dives into the basement along with damage. In the case of spells, a compatible mage casting a compatible spell can, much to my chagrin, kill a character in a single blow. On the other hand, the spell could do hardly any damage whatsoever.
Another rather unfortunate gameplay element is that of death. When a character falls in battle, it is for good. There is no way to revive a character either during or after a battle. The end result of this is that hours of work put into a character can go down the tube during the course of any battle. Sadly, this leads into Hoshigami's other tragic flaw: the difficulty.
Battles seem to place you in situations that force you to sacrifice your secondary characters in order to survive. Coupled with the "feature" mentioned above, the game engages itself in a brutal cycle of building characters up, only to inevitably lose them during an upcoming battle. Instead of engaging the player in a difficulty that is both challenging yet fun, Hoshigami takes the route of constantly pounding your forces into the ground battle after battle, forcing you to rebuild your team many times over.
Rejuvenating your party involves the boring and tedious Tower of Trials scattered across the world, and available to you at just about any juncture. Unfortunately, as the tower is really nothing more than a small, gray, square with a row of foes opposed to you, the only real thing it tries is one's patience. Despite the fact that these battles are both boring and uninspired, you will probably spend as much, or maybe more time in them than normal battles. The process of rebuilding new characters to replace your fallen ones is a slow and tedious one, and must be constantly engaged in to progress through the game.
In the end, all the glaring flaws in Hoshigami make one wonder how a game with such huge potential and a solid foundation could end up so poorly executed. Sadly, it seems as if the over-zealous effort to make the game "deep" ultimately obfuscates the gameplay to the point of tedium instead of fun. After roughly the third battle, the game throws the fun-factor out the window, replacing it with frustratingly weighted battles and hours of mindless leveling. While the Session and Deity systems were good ideas, the complication they bring to the already RAP-modified system only serves to drown the game in the depth of its own complexity.
The bottom line is this: unless you are either very desperate for a new strategy-RPG, or take a liking to repetitive level-gaining, keep away from this game. It is always unfortunate to see a game with so much potential turn out so poorly, but almost all of Hoshigami's shining aspects are hidden beneath layers of unnecessary complication which, in the end, ruin the game itself.