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Legend of Heroes Gagharv Trilogy: The White Witch
Platform: PSP
Publisher: Bandai
Developer: Falcom
Genre: Turn-Based RPG
Format: UMD
Released: US 06/20/06
Japan 12/15/04
Official Site: Japanese Site



Scorecard
Graphics: 96%
Sound: 94%
Gameplay: 80%
Control: 90%
Story: 99%
Overall: 96%
Reviews Grading Scale
 
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Join Jurio and Chris on their pilgrimage.
 
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One thing you can say for the battle system: it's traditional.
 
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When trying to solve a problem, reading is fundamental.
 
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Wyrdwad
Legend of Heroes Gagharv Trilogy: The White Witch
08/26/05
Wyrdwad

Long, long ago, on a system far from mainstream, a certain game saw life in the U.S. under the title "Dragon Slayer: The Legend of Heroes." This game, released for NEC's Turbo Duo, has the rather unique distinction of being one game that simultaneously exists within two different series: it's the sixth installment in the Dragon Slayer series, and it also ended up spawning its own brand new series of RPGs known as Eiyuu Densetsu, or "Legend of Heroes."

The Legend of Heroes series slowly continued growing, from the early 1990s right up to the present day. These games gained some degree of notoriety in Japan, but most were PC releases, with eventual ports to PlayStation, and none were ever considered for U.S. release. The series' U.S. presence seemed doomed to go down with the TurboGrafx 16.

Until now, that is! With Bandai's recent announcement of their PSP title "The Legend of Heroes," we can all rejoice: Falcom's secondary flagship title, right after Ys, is finally returning to our side of the ocean! But what many players may not realize is that this release is NOT a remake of the original Legend of Heroes -- nor is it Legend of Heroes 2, or even 3! It's actually a PSP port of "Legend of Heroes IV: A Tear of Vermillion." So what does that mean, exactly?

Well, games 3, 4, and 5 in this series bear the rather unique distinction of taking place in the same world, albeit on different continents and during different periods of time. These three games comprise what's now known as the "Gagharv Trilogy," named after a giant chasm of unknown origin that separates LoH3's land of Tirasweel from LoH4's land of El Phildin. And while English-speakers the world over will soon be getting a chance to dive into El Phildin and experience anew the wonder this series has to offer, I'd like to take a moment to look at the start of this trilogy: an absolutely breathtaking game that may never be available in our native language, but definitely should NOT be overlooked.

"Legend of Heroes III: The White Witch" began its life as a humble PC game back in 1993, and met with extremely glowing reviews from the hardcore gaming public. Some Japanese reviewers of the time even went so far as to call this game "the most poetic RPG ever made." It has since seen a handful of re-releases, but none quite so grand as Bandai's PSP port, debuting only a few short days after the system's launch. Despite some rather glaring flaws, this port manages to capture the very essence of the original game, and deliver it in the most powerful way possible. Someone at Bandai must really love the Gagharv Trilogy, and it clearly shows.

White Witch starts small, with a 14-year-old boy named Jurio and his childhood friend Christina (Chris), preparing to leave on a very long journey. In their home village of Ragpick, deep in the mountains of the Pholthian countryside, there's an ancient tradition that all children must depart on a pilgrimage across all of Tirasweel when they turn 14. The goal of this pilgrimage is to visit the five elemental shrines in the countries of Pholthia, Menarth, Ambisch, Udor, and Oldos, and gaze into the magic mirrors located therein. Each of the Ragpick residents fondly recount tales of his/her own childhood pilgrimage, and the many unique and vivid visions that were seen in these mirrors -- but Jurio and Chris quickly discover that their own experiences are not to be quite so simple.

From the very first shrine, the visions Jurio and Chris see are ones of loneliness, unease, and destruction. Combined with the general unrest throughout Tirasweel -- armies readying for war, kingdoms splitting up, generally tame sea creatures running aground and leveling entire cities, and other various and sundry circumstances -- these visions seem almost like prophecies of things to come. As Jurio and Chris continue on their pilgrimage, consulting with the townsfolk of faraway lands and learning more and more about Tirasweel's vast and mysterious history, they become even more convinced that the magic mirrors are providing them with premonitions of the future.

And all throughout their travels, in every town, city, and village, there are stories of a white witch with silver hair who followed the very same path as these two little pilgrims, nearly twenty years before. Her origins unknown, and indeed even her name unknown to most, this white witch left behind a single fortune -- a single line of prophecy -- everywhere she went. Back then, magic had not yet become commonplace in the world, so this young woman was naturally feared and despised by the vast majority of the people she spoke with. Indeed, she was even accused of cursing them, should the fortune she speak ever come true.

And come true, they do; the pilgrimage of our two protagonists begins to take on new meaning as they realize that every last one of the white witch's premonitions is just now coming to fruition, as are the visions they've been seeing from the magic mirrors. More than just journeying now, Jurio and Chris begin to seek out every piece of information they can about the white witch, and do everything in their power to change the fate of those whose futures are grim.

As the story progresses, the prophecies become more and more urgent, while the long and mystical history of Tirasweel begins to slowly unravel. And throughout all this, the identity and fate of the white witch is gradually revealed. What began as a mere pilgrimage turns into a masterfully-written epic tale of fate, mercy, sacrifice, and love, featuring some of the most hauntingly powerful scenes ever to appear in any video game.

Perhaps the greatest aspect of White Witch is one that most gamers generally don't even consider, and that's character banter. The dialogue between Jurio and Chris alone is simply marvelous, clearly revealing how well these two childhood friends know one another as they reminisce about the past, make fun of each other's unusual character quirks, and otherwise bicker like two married adults. One scene even has these two randomly fighting with one another over the proper way of coughing!

Add to that a huge cast of equally well-developed and well-written supporting characters, both of the story-advancing villager and travel companion variety, and you have what may be one of the most charming and memorable casts in RPG history. Whether it be the small-town boy Lodi (whom Chris seems to find inordinately attractive due to his "half-pants"), the quirky old gambler Roule, the tragic folk hero Dursel, or the bumbling thieves Sharla and Goose (who, as Jurio notes at one point, seem destined to go through their lives as good people, never successfully stealing anything), White Witch never fails to endear its characters to the player, on both sides of the struggle. The white witch herself epitomizes the game's fantastic writing, as we find ourselves truly concerned about her fate, and share Jurio and Chris's perception of her as a sort of guardian angel. Despite never actually meeting her during the course of the game, the white witch may very well be one of its best and most moving characters -- and that's not an easy feat to pull off!

When one sets the story and characters aside, however, White Witch begins to show its weak points. All load time issues aside, and even discounting the jerky framerate of the game's otherwise nice-looking anime cutscenes, it's fairly obvious that the actual gameplay of White Witch is more an afterthought than anything else. I can't say I've ever seen a more linear RPG in my entire gaming experience. For example, 90% of this game is literally non-diverting paths leading from one town to another. There are really no dungeons to speak of until the very end, when we're suddenly given the most convoluted, overly labyrinthine final dungeon in recent memory -- a huge contrast to the game's otherwise extreme linearity. There really aren't even any treasure chests to discover, as healing items and other usual suspects for treasure fodder are randomly found and brought directly to you by your pet, who is constantly following you during the course of the game. Exploration is not only unnecessary, it's largely impossible, since the game basically takes you by the hand until the very end -- then suddenly lets you go, and runs off laughing.

The battle system, too, while reasonably fun, is underwhelming. Enemies can be seen right on the map, and will either aggressively chase you or run away depending on your level. That's nice, at least. Once battle begins, though, you basically just sit back and let your characters fight on their own. Fortunately, however, there is some degree of strategy involved: at any time, you can interject to issue new orders to one of your four party members, including but not limited to a change of target, a spell, or a special deathblow technique.

Since the battles do take place in real time, and on an actual battlefield where running up to your opponent is necessary before you can deal any damage (except in the case of Sharla, who fights with a bow and arrow), this allows for what is probably the most tactical and fun aspect of fighting in this game: spell interruptions. If an enemy has started casting a spell, you can quickly interject, and have the closest person to that enemy immediately target it. If he/she can land a blow before the spell is cast, it will be interrupted, and the enemy will have to start all over again. The same applies to you, however, so distancing yourself from enemies before casting any spells is the key to... well, not the key to survival, since this game is extremely easy -- but definitely the key to making battles more interesting!

The game's special deathblow techniques also deserve some mention, as they provide what are certainly the coolest-looking and most effective attacks in the game. Functioning similarly to the famous limit breaks of Final Fantasy yore, each character has a power meter that gradually fills as he/she either takes or deals damage. Once it's full, that character is able to use this amassed power to unleash what is typically a very flashy and almost TOO effective attack, which might as well just be a "kill" button for any enemy of your choice. These deathblow techniques become the key to victory during the game's handful of boss battles, and generally wipe away any challenge the game has to offer -- until the final dungeon, when enemies aggro mercilessly, restorative items run low, and the last boss is at least 10 times harder than anything else leading up to it.

The linearity and lackluster battles really don't detract very much from the experience at all, however, since the meat and potatoes of this game lie in its absolutely fantastic towns. Boasting a total of twenty-one different towns, and just as many border checkpoints between the game's eight countries, this is one RPG that actually manages to garner its funfactor almost entirely from townsfolk chatter, of all things. The townsfolk in this game are absolutely wonderful, and brimming with the sort of life that really pulls you into the game's world. Each town feels different from the last, and in the process of learning all about the townsfolk and their history, you also learn a lot of subtle details about Tirasweel's past, and the pilgrimage of the white witch. And with the game boasting a weighted experience system, you may find yourself all but ignoring battles entirely, rushing to get to that next town and see what awaits you there.

Where the PSP installment of this game shines above all others, too, is in its presentation. The graphics are absolutely top-notch, easily showing off the PSP's power by packing every screen with more detail than any other handheld RPG has ever dreamed of. Whether it be the subtle shadows of clouds moving overhead, or the amazing sense of depth achieved by the game's ever-so-slightly tilted overhead camera angle, the world that comes alive through good writing comes alive even moreso through its absolutely breathtaking scenery. Dialogue, too, while unvoiced, is accompanied by beautifully-drawn character artwork that literally takes up 1/3 or more of the PSP's giant screen -- and as the character's mood changes, so too does his/her expression in these still images, sometimes in such subtle ways that you may not even notice. Think of the full-screen stills from Disgaea, in the palm of your hand, and you should have an idea what I'm talking about.

And the music in this game, unsurprisingly, is just plain spectacular. Rather than using the original soundtrack verbatim, Bandai instead pulled songs from virtually every White Witch and Gagharv Trilogy arrange album Falcom has ever released (and believe me, there are quite a few!), carefully picking the absolute best versions of each of the game's wonderful tracks. There are even a large number of original arrangements featured in this game, never before appearing on any arrange album at all -- not to mention the airy and uplifting opening and ending vocal themes (which are actually repeated in LoH4, so American gamers will be able to feast their ears on them soon!) Given the game's age, this is a welcome change, since most of the original songs contain beautiful melodies, but somewhat poor instrumentation by today's standards. With the new music, White Witch manages to enhance its already powerful story with one of the most awe-inspiring RPG soundtracks you'll ever hear.

The sound effects, however, really don't hold up as well. While some ambient noise, such as birds chirping, flowing water, etc. is handled beautifully, the system effects that you hear most often become rather grating over time -- especially the xylophone swipe that plays every time you choose an option from any menu in the game, and the old-school RPG "digital typing" sound that occurs while text is being written. The latter can be turned off, however, and the others really take only a few minutes to get used to, but the game still loses a few small points in the sound category for what is obviously a largely overlooked aspect of an otherwise heavily-detailed game.

White Witch completely deserves its reputation as the most poetic RPG ever made: it's simply one of the most powerful, engaging games I've played in recent memory. No matter how good the Legend of Heroes game we're getting may be, I simply can't imagine myself growing as close to its protagonists Avin and Mile as I did to Jurio and Chris, and I definitely can't imagine myself feeling the same sense of urgency to see what happens next that prevailed throughout almost every second of White Witch.

If you can read Japanese at a near-fluent level, you owe it to yourself to import this game, and experience what may be one of the RPG world's greatest masterpieces. If your Japanese isn't up to the job, though, there's really no reason to get this: without its story, the game has very little to offer. Still, if ever there was proof that a good story and characters can turn an otherwise mediocre RPG into something praiseworthy and magnificent, truly this is it. And while I'm overjoyed that we English-speakers will soon be able to play a Legend of Heroes game in our native language once again, I do regret that many of you may never get to know the White Witch, or accompany Jurio and Chris on their amazing pilgrimage. There is no doubt in my mind that you would enjoy it.



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© Nihon Falcom Corporation
© BANDAI 2004 All Rights Reserved.



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