Kartia: The Word of Fate is a new Strategy/Simulation RPG from Atlus. A collaboration between Cozi Okada, the creator of Persona, Soul Hackers, and the Megami Tensei series in Japan, and Amano Yoshitaka, the character designer most noted for his work on Final Fantasy VI (III in the United States). The combination of wonderful character designs and fun yet complex gameplay make for a unique strategy game with a style all its own.
"The divine letters release the power."
The card which can create anything; that is the power of Kartia. The people of Rebus have lived with the power of Kartia since the beginning of time. The divine letters release the power of Kartia. Kartia fire illuminates the dark, Kartia winds flow through the sea, Kartia earth laid over a bed of seeds, Kartia water nurtured the plants. This was the world of Kartia civilization, a world of peace. The magic made their lives easy, and there was always enough for everyone. For thousands of years, the world of Rebus never knew of war.
But this easy life slowly began to corrupt the people. Jealousy and greed reared their ugly heads in the hearts of man. Such is the nature of man and chaos crept into the world. People took the limited power of Kartia for granted and the destruction of Rebus began.
Kartia tells the stories of two individuals who lived in this time of chaos. Toxa Classico is a gifted young knight who fights for justice. He was born a merchant's son, but chose the life of a hero rather than follow in his father's footsteps. A natural swordsman, he was anointed a knight at the age of 18. He has no master and lives with a distant relative, Count Shinon. He is a reckless youth, and arrogant from living a privileged life. He has a noble spirit, but no focus.
Lacryma Christi is a guardian of the law, a Shrine Warrior. The Shrine Warriors are located across the world. They are protectors of the World Trees, which contain the greatest powers of Kartia. She is the daughter of a great hero, Kainas. It is in his footsteps that she followed to the Shine Knights. The pressure of being the daughter of a hero has driven her to achieve excellence, but has also made her cold and stern. She believes in the absolute power of the law.
There are many side characters that will show up and help wither Toxa and Lacryma in their journeys. Mona Saradiart is a girl of destiny, a druid. Though her life is in turmoil, she has kept a warm and tender heart. Ele Shinon is the daughter of Count Shinon seeking adventure and her personal freedom. Duran Bouquet is a Shrine Warrior who conceals his compassionate heart under a cool exterior. Misty Rouge is a lonely warrior seeking love whose destiny is working against her. Kun Vine is a young swordsman seeking to become a Shrine Knight. Posha Saint-Amour is an innocent spiritual medium seeking to become a stronger warrior. Troy Wreatherling is a self-proclaimed genius with a cynical personality. Alana Il Vanya is a dancer with a strong and warm heart.
At the time of this review I've only played Toxa's story, so that is what this review is based upon. The story is extremely linear. As you play through the game you find that it is entirely made up of story sequences broken up by battles. You sit and watch a sequence that fleshes out the story and leads to the next battle. After the battle is won, you are treated to another story sequence and the chapter ends. The sequence is repeated in each subsequent chapter. There is no exploration or world-map where you choose which area you travel to next. Everything is pre-determined in the game and you just go along for the ride. You don't even make dialogue decisions for the main character whose story you're going through.
Now before everyone gets up in arms over this, you have to understand what the developer's intentions were. This style of storytelling isn't an error or oversight on their part. It is just a different way of going about it. They have essentially taken out the "role" that we're used to taking in these games. Instead of taking control of the main characters actions in and out of battle, we are taking the role of observer during the story, and role-player in battle. Whether this is a good or bad way of handling the story is a matter of preference.
The story itself is very strong. The characters are fully developed and more than one-dimensional. None of them get passed over to focus on the emotional problems of a few. And the character depth goes beyond the surface dialogue. At times in the course of the dialogue the screen will go dark and the inner thoughts and emotions of the characters are revealed. The story is well conceived and keeps the focus on the characters even though it touches on far reaching problems that concern the entire world of Rebus. The loves, losses and dreams of the characters remain important as the larger events twist and turn around them. The story remains complex but it doesn't try to impress you with its complexity. It's simply a good, entertaining story. I've only played Toxa's story which is rather light and humorous because that's Toxa's way. I suspect that Lacryma's story is much more serious as befitting her character. The two stories do intertwine, but I suspect they only have a few events and scenes in common.
The translation is fantastic and Atlus should be commended. The dialogue is well written with no grammatical or spelling errors that I could see. It is easily equal in quality to a Working Designs translation minus that original flair that Working Designs adds.
"Flowing and Graceful"
The game's graphics are driven by Amano's unique style that is as always flowing, loose, graceful and quite unique. I suppose his style would best be described as a cross between traditional Japanese line art and nineteenth century European Art Nouveau. It is easily recognizable amidst the current crowd of Japanese manga art and American comic art. His drawings are rich in character and his portraits are astonishing and beautifully capture the characters and their emotions. This aspect of his art is extremely important in Kartia because the portraits are used for every piece of dialogue in the game and there are as many as 10 different portraits per character to show every emotion the story requires. The portraits are large and during some story intervals in the game you're treated to full body drawings of the characters and the manual contains his character sketches. His style has greatly progressed since his work on the Final Fantasy games and is even more striking now then it was then. If you are a big fan of his artwork than you cannot miss Kartia. He is truly allowed to display everything he has to offer in this game.
Unfortunately, the game graphics are very weak in comparison. It is a combination of 2D character sprites and 3D polygonal landscapes. There can be over 20 characters on the screen at once, but they are very small with little detail and almost no animation. The landscapes are very large and well designed but quite the eyesore with low polygon count and limited textures. These problems arise from the Playstation's limited RAM. They obviously wanted large battles with many characters and in order to achieve that graphical extras had to be sacrificed. It is nowhere near as attractive as Final Fantasy Tactics, but the battles can be up to four times as large. It's a worthwhile sacrifice in my opinion and you have to take what the hardware can give you. I almost can't believe I'm saying it, but a better compromise may have been to use polygonal character models instead of 2D. It would have enabled them to keep the battles the size they wanted while adding many more battle animations to the characters.
The magic spells in the game push the Playstation's transparency capabilities to their limits. Simple spells may only consist of small transparent flames or icicles, while the later spells and combination spells are huge summon type spells with large transparent sprites and elemental effects. Some spells effect the landscapes and will cause the ground to raise or lower which is quite a sight.
The opening FMV is top quality and shows off the phantoms and the cities in which the story takes place. The FMV is quite beautiful and very cinematic. There are also short FMV sequences at the beginning of each chapter of the story. These FMV usually depict where the story takes place or an important object in that part of the story.
The music didn't seem to get that much attention from the developers. The main theme during the intro FMV is wonderful with full orchestra and chorus. The composition is moving and matches the FMV perfectly. It's worth hearing every time you begin playing the game. The in-game music though is simplified and of lower quality. It never really catches you emotionally nor will it keep you humming after the machine is turned off. This is good and bad because in battle, especially in strategy RPG battles, you don't want music that is annoying or sticks out too much. Battles make up the majority of the game and the music should be a mild accompaniment, not overpowering. But something more complex and emotional is definitely needed during the story sequences. There is little variety between themes and they basically come off as mood music. There is triumphant music, sad music, mysterious and mellow which all sound like variations on the main theme at different paces. There are times when the music needs to be more than a minor accompaniment and should step up and further express the story's emotional content.
The sound effects are rather simple and I found them to be quite similar to those used in Tactics Ogre. I wouldn't be surprised if they were exactly the same. No voice is used, just simple midi grunts and clangs. They are perfectly adequate, but there is definitely room for some improvement.
"The Card That Can Create Anything."
Kartia's gameplay is strategy at its simplest. The best comparison would not be to another videogame, but to an odd game of chess. Power balances against power and how you maneuver your pieces is the key to winning. It is turn based in its most basic form meaning that you move all of your pieces or as many of them as you wish and then your opponent moves all of their pieces. This allows you to play aggressive, which is recommended, or to wait and counter your opponent which can make things more difficult.
Before battle begins you have a few options at your disposal. The first of which is to check out the entire map and your opponent. This is key to winning battles because you have to set your allies in the proper position to place the balance of power in your favor.
The next thing to do is make phantoms. Phantoms are the cornerstone of battle in Kartia and having the right ones in battle is vital. Phantoms are monstrous foot soldiers that are created with Kartia. Specific human characters can only create phantoms, and there is a limit to how many you can make before battle begins. You can make more during battle but it will cost the character that creates them their turn in battle. Each type of phantom has different strengths and weaknesses. Some can attack from a distance, some are strong against magic, and some have better movement. Which ones you decide to make will depend on those phantoms that the enemy is using. Some phantom classes can only be made after you find the proper letters that can be used on the Kartia to create them. Letters can be found in treasure chests, parts of the landscape you destroy or on human enemies.
There are also three main types of phantom and each one is strong against one type and weak against the other. The three types are common, doll, and shadow. Common is strong against doll, but weak against shadow. Doll is strong against shadow, but weak against common. And shadow is strong against common but weak against doll. Now all this could be quite confusing but Atlus provided a secondary system to help the player know who is weak against whom in the form of a simple game that I'm sure everyone has played at least once. The game is rock, scissors and paper. Common represents rock, doll is scissors and shadow is paper. And each phantom has a small picture that represent rock, scissors or paper to help make it easier to know which is stronger against which. So instead of trying to remember common, doll and shadow all you have to remember is that rock smashes scissors, scissors cuts paper and paper covers rock. It makes it a heck of a lot easier to remember and allows you to more easily focus on strategy. Phantoms gain experience and will become stronger with time. They can carry over from battle to battle, but once they are killed they are gone for good and your new phantoms start at level one. You can delete carried over phantoms before battle as well which allows you to make more new ones.
After making phantoms you can make and equip weapons and gear. You can also equip during battle but it will again cost you a turn. Weapons and gear are either found or made with Kartia and the proper letters. There are 3 types of each and each is stronger depending on the height of your character in relation to the enemy. The three types of weapons are axe, sword and spear. Axe weapons will do the most damage when you are attacking an opponent that is at a lower height than yourself. Swords are better when you're at the same level and spears are best against opponents higher than you are. Gear is the same way with helmets best for attacks from above, armor for attacks at the same level and legging for attacks from below. You should check out the map before battle and equip properly based on the terrain and your plan of attack. And it is always possible to raise and lower certain landscapes with magic in order to gain an advantage or take away your opponents advantage.
You are also able to save before battle and at the end of each chapter. Saved games will take up two memory blocks on your card.
The computer's artificial intelligence is very weak in this game. You can easily outmaneuver it and set it up to walk into your traps. You can usually make them attack whom you want them to and this can be to your advantage. By sending out one or two phantoms as decoys you can make the enemy bunch together to attack your phantoms. When your turn comes again you have the enemy all lined up for big magic attacks by your human characters. This baiting technique is very similar to the one used in Shining Force 1. The enemy will only move after you've reached a certain point on the map. You can have them outmaneuver themselves to an extent.
This is very basic AI and I was a bit surprised at how easy it was to win battles. The game is very easy overall and doesn't have to be nearly as complex as the instructions would indicate. Balancing the strengths of your phantoms is the only thing you really need to do before battle. Equipment rarely comes into play. You can make things more complicated in terms of equipping everyone, but that just seems like overkill considering the difficulty level. The game is well balanced and no characters or spells are overly powerful, but the opponent is just too stupid.
The game has a tutorial that covers everything you need to know in order to jump right into the game. If you position your allies properly and don't give the enemy phantoms a large advantage, winning the game is a breeze. While this will make the game more appealing to those that aren't familiar with strategy games of any kind, veteran strategists can get bored pretty quickly especially with the lack of variety in weapons.
Magic is the only distance attack of human character. Magic is created with Kartia and the special letters placed on them. There are three different types of Kartia. Silk Kartia is commonplace and used for weaker spells. Mithril Kartia is somewhat rare and can be used for stronger spells. World Tree Kartia is the most powerful and is made from the world trees that are the basis of the religion of Rebus and are protected by the Shrine Warriors. Letters that are placed on the Kartia determine the nature of the magic. The more letters you find the more magic spells at your disposal. Your supply of Kartia is limited and you lose the Kartia once you cast the spell. Letters can be used repeatedly, but you have to keep an eye on your amount of Kartia.
Kartia are rewarded at the end of each battle depending on how many phantoms you lost. You can only lose phantoms because the game is over if a human character dies. So it is advisable to hold them in reserve and use their magic from a distance. You can also gain Kartia by finding it on the battlefield in chests or other objects, or you can win some in the Arena. You are able to fight in the Arena after every chapter is completed. You gain no experience in the Arena battles but with each victory you earn Kartia as well as rare weapons and gear. Arena battles are also usually tougher than the regular battles as you can only fight with the phantoms the computer gives you. You cannot make your own or make more during the battle. You can use magic in the Arena and you will not lose any of the Kartia used to make the magic.
There is also a two-player mode that is fantastic and a welcome addition to the genre. Two players can load their characters off of memory cards and play against each other on 6 different pre-made battlefields. There are also different conditions to winning each battle and one player may only have to survive or defend a castle while the other has to wipe out their enemy. One player may have a numbers advantage in order to balance things out. This two player mode gives infinite replay value and adds real appeal to strategy purists who are looking for the kind of challenge they've only been able to get on the PC over a modem.
The game takes 20 to 30 hours to finish, times two different stories. It is a basic strategy RPG with a great story and wonderful characters. Anyone can play it without being overwhelmed and strategy fans will be able to tolerate it in order to get at the two-player mode. Atlus has quickly become one of my favorite developers because they really seem to care about the player and they really polish off their games. Not every aspect is perfect, but no aspect is left unfinished. They are also one of the few companies besides Working Designs that really cares about packaging and appearance with their games. Kartia has a full color, 86 page manual, and they listened to Amano's fans and put his artwork back on the cover. It's one of the few times we get a taste of what the Japanese players get to take for granted. Kartia is a love it or hate it kind of game. Because of the use of phantoms, you don't get as personal with the battles. The linear story allows for focus but it takes away from the role in role playing games. These are not necessarily bad things but they are something that could turn someone off to the game. I can only give a cautious recommendation to Kartia. Atlus put everything into making the game a finished product and almost nothing is really poorly done, but the appeal of the game may be to a much narrower audience than they had anticipated.