Video games based on anime in Japan are often quite similar to video games based on big-name movies in the US. In other words, they are often weak games dressed up in a popular license. So, it was with trepidation that I popped Magic Knight Rayearth into my Saturn. Thankfully, my fears were put to rest; while Magic Knight Rayearth doesn't break any new ground in terms of gameplay, it's a solid action RPG, and bucks the trend of big license games.
Loosely following the storyline of the anime, Magic Knight Rayearth revolves around the lives of Hikaru, Umi, and Fuu, three Tokyo girls attending separate middle schools. One day, while their schools are all together on a field trip at the Tokyo Tower, the three protagonists are mysteriously transported to the magical land of Cefiro by a mysterious man named Clef. According to Clef, Cefiro had prospered under the protection of Princess Emerald. However, Princess Emerald has been kidnapped and imprisoned by Zagat, her former most trusted advisor. Without the watchful eye of its princess, Cefiro has subsequently fa
llen into ruin, as monsters have invaded it and made it a dangerous place. So (once again), it's off to save the princess and restore peace to the land.
Despite such a pedestrian premise, Magic Knight Rayearth fares really well in the storyline department. A major reason for this is that the three main characters are developed really well. Hikaru is a carefree and effervescent girl who displays many subtle facets to her personality throughout the game. Umi is sarcastic, direct, and somewhat haughty, but matures and shows her heart as the story progresses. And Fuu is a shy girl who comes into her own during the trio's arduous journey. Although the supporting characters aren't very well developed, they show a good amount of personality (even the villains), and much more than in your average action RPG. There's also an interesting plot twist at the end of the game.
The dialogue is also excellent, in general. In typical Working Designs fashion, the dialogue flow is significantly better than that of the overwhelming majority of RPGs out there. In addition, grammatical errors are nearly nonexistent (another WD trademark), and the dialogue has a lot of personality to it. Although the dialogue gets a little bit childish at times, let's not forget that the main characters of Magic Knight Rayearth are essentially children. There's even a diary feature that sums up the events in the game from each character's individual viewpoint. The diary is updated often throughout your quest, and not only is it well-written and entertaining, it gives the player additional insight into the game's plot and characters.
There are a few minor problems here, though. Pop culture references still rear their ugly heads once in a while, though WD seems to be improving on cutting down the number of such cheap jokes. The language in the dialogue is often too colloquial as well. WD seems to acknowledge this, as one of the running jokes throughout the game is Alcione's inability to understand the girls' "Earth slang." But the premise of the joke collapses, because in many cases Alcione will turn around and use her own Earth slang with considerable facility right after having no idea what Hikaru, Umi, and Fuu were just talking about.
Visual presentation is another strong suit of Magic Knight Rayearth. The graphics in Magic Knight Rayearth are some of the most beautiful that I've seen in a game to date. They consist entirely of 2D hand-drawn maps, with nearly no noticeable pixellation and one of the finest color palette choices around. The characters are superdeformed and don't look as nice as the backgrounds, but are reasonably detailed. I really liked the character designs and art, too. The in-game animation of Hikaru, Umi, and Fuu is generally very smooth.
The graphics unfortunately also have some more forgettable moments, too. The anime FMVs aren't among the most impressive that I've seen. Though some of them are better than others, I found most of them to be grainy and the animation to be somewhat choppy. The spell effects, while certainly not laughable, didn't really impress me. And while the large bosses look really good, they animate clumsily. Even the smaller enemies don't tend to animate that well.
Magic Knight Rayearth doesn't break any new ground for action RPGs in terms of gameplay, but it does what it does quite well. Characters move through area maps fighting enemies in real time. Hikaru uses a sword, Umi uses a slightly different type of sword, and Fuu uses a bow and arrows. All three characters are with you at all times, and you can freely switch between them and use whichever one you want at any time. Thankfully, the 2 characters you are not controlling are invincible to enemies (no more of that crappy computer AI getting your characters killed when you're not using them).
Magic is also a part of the trio's arsenal. Hikaru's magic is fired-based, Umi's is water-based, and Fuu's is wind-based. None of the characters start out with magic, but over the course of the game, each will obtain 3 different power levels of their brand of magic. I generally found the spells to be most useful for healing and for bypassing obstacles. In other words, I didn't use them a lot during battles.
Although Magic Knight Rayearth executes pretty well, there are some problems with the gameplay. The game is overall very easy, and the action never gets that exciting, even when you fight the big bosses. The game is also short, and there seems to be a rushed feel to the game structure. In addition, load times, while fairly infrequent, are relatively long.
Control proves to be the weakest point of Magic Knight Rayearth. Although the characters move at a brisk pace in 8 directions, they respond sluggishly when you try to make big movements (such as getting out of an enemy's way). At the same time, they tend to overreact when you try to make small movements. In addition, the collision detection is off, so not only do you often take damage when not touching an enemy, placing your character in prime position to attack an enemy is prohibitively difficult. The jumping is also relatively unresponsive, and your characters are such weak jumpers that it's a wonder the feature was even included in the game.
Magic Knight Rayearth does fare well in the sound department. The sound effects are fairly weak, but the voice acting is generally above average (for a US game). Some of the voices I didn't like (such as Innova's), but some of them, such as Alcione's, were excellent.
Rayearth also presents a solid soundtrack. The music is extremely varied in style (from classical to modern dance), and although it doesn't rank among the best, it remains catchy and pleasant throughout. My only complaint is that it gets kind of repetitive, as several of the repeated tracks tend to accompany areas that you spend a lot of time in.
Magic Knight Rayearth is a solid action RPG, and, taking into account the relative lack of quality action RPGs on 32 bit systems in the US, definitely one to consider. Though it won't blow away anyone other than perhaps die hard fans of the anime, it makes a fitting swan song for the US Saturn, as it allows the system to go out on a positive note.
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