|Platform:||PlayStation 3, Xbox 360|
|Developer:||Compile Heart, Idea Factory|
|Format:||Download (PS3), DVD-ROM (Xbox 360)|
Idea Factory broke ground in North America five years ago thanks to NIS America. Since then, half a dozen publishers (NISA, Atlus, O3, Yuke's, Ignition, and now Aksys) have taken a gamble by releasing Idea Factory's niche JRPGs in North America. Whether it's yet another iteration of their two flagship franchises, Spectral Force or Generation of Chaos, or something totally different, it's amazing how much this company has managed to proliferate across the Western World in a short span of time.
Personally, I've played over half of the localized titles, including at least one from each of the aforementioned publishers. Aksys made a strong, lean effort with their localization of Record of Agarest War, a 2007 release that had next to no hope of coming to North America. The big question in my mind, and one that should be in the mind of the readers: was it worth the effort?
Looks Good On Paper
The concept behind Agarest War is a clever one: five generations across five continents warring against demons. On each continent, you play as a male protagonist. As you deal with issues of political intrigue and demonic hordes, you also get to interact with three special ladies. At the end of each chapter you choose a lady to marry and mate with. You and your lady friends stay behind, but the rest of the party (most of whom are virtually ageless, via magical trinkets or race) moves to the next continent alongside the son you produce. Rinse and repeat until the final chapter, and then things get very interesting.
Though the voice of the protagonist of each continent is set in stone (they weren't going to record three permutations), the appearance and base stats of the next protagonist are determined by the partner you select. Of course, even having the option to select them depends on how well you impress them over the course of the chapter. This dating sim aspect, despite being played up by Aksys in all their marketing, is actually quite small and quite tame. Keep in mind, the game got a "T" rating. Don't expect any nudity or anything even nearly provocative out of this game. The breeding system, called the "Soul Breed" system by Idea Factory, is basically an extension of what RPG veterans saw years ago in Dragon Quest V, but done multiple times over. You can get a wildly different 5th-generation character from one play to the next; that aspect of the game is worth praising.
Furthermore, as your decisions within each generation increase or decrease levels of affection from the three potential brides, the decisions also affect a light/neutral/dark meter. The decisions made from one generation to the next have a collective effect: where you stand on that meter by game's end helps determine your final path. There's also a hidden "true ending" for those who follow a specific path.
The flow and combat of the game bears a surface-level resemblance to the standard-bearer of tactical JRPGs, Final Fantasy Tactics. You travel the world map, finding yourself having to enter battles on orange dots and being able to shop and do other menu-driven tasks at towns. In combat, Agarest War uses the isometric 2.5D view of a grid, but there is no height range, and turns are broken into move and action phases, instead of having individual units perform both movement and action in one turn. Agarest puts a strong emphasis on combo-building, with potential combos being pre-defined by the game.
Anyone who has played previous Idea Factory titles, particularly Chaos Wars or Cross Edge, will recognize the game's inventory system, user interface, item upgrade/alchemy system, etc. Though the combat systems of these three games are different, these things remain the same.
Regarding said systems, I have to say that I generally dislike them. The alchemy system is unwieldy and would benefit from input from Gust. The "enhance" system screws up item count in shop menu navigation. You see, every weapon, armor, and accessory can be upgraded up to level 5. So let's say I buy a really good weapon and upgrade it to level 5. Next time I go into the shop, it will claim I have a quantity of 0 for that weapon. But wait, didn't I just buy that weapon? But, oh, right, the weapon I'd buy in-store is Lv. 1 by default, so I have no Lv. 1 versions of said weapon. Never mind that the weapon has the exact same name and that the icon showing its level is small and blurry.
Little pitfalls like these in the user interface frustrate me, and it frustrates me more that the same system continues to be used with virtually no refinement. Suffice it to say I'm not looking forward to dealing with this same inventory system when I play Trinity Universe later this year.
Outside of recycling between games, there's also a heck of a lot of in-game recycling, particularly of graphics and music. Example: there are certain areas in the game that are "exploration points." Cross Edge had these too, in the form of tower dungeons (though I should note that Cross Edge was developed and released in Japan in 2008, a year after Agarest, so Cross Edge showed some improvement here!). These traversable areas factor in height, and thus your protagonist can jump. But these 3D areas are ugly, and the control is slow and clunky. Adding insult to injury, some dungeons are just color palette swaps of previous dungeons. You'll also see the same texture block used over and over, rotated from time to time to boost originality. It's lazy graphic work, to be sure. I've seen indie games on RPG Maker look and play better than this.
Another example: every dialogue scene has some pretty background art. Too bad there's no more than about a dozen pieces of that art for well over 100 instances of dialogue in what ought to be a unique location. Every "fortress" battlefield shows the same fortress in the background. Never mind that sometimes the dialogue itself mentions that the fortress is "a lot bigger than the last one" or "in a state of disrepair" -- it's the same fortress as far as I'm concerned. Every king is in the same throne room, small villages look one way, capital cities look another way, etc. If you're going to sell your game on decent 2D illustrations, I'd recommend having more of them. That, or, having less places to go.
And the music, oy! I actually enjoyed this soundtrack when I imported it years ago. But that was just one or two listens through the music. Playing this game (which took me upwards of 50 hours, on Easy mode!) had me listening to the same battle and event music over and over. At that level of repetition, I couldn't stand the soundtrack anymore. Kenji Kaneko's work stands well out of context, but in the context of this game, there simply needed to be a higher quantity of music. That, or, decrease the size of the game. Which conveniently brings me to the next topic at hand...
Is Your Game Too Small? Enhance Length With Our New Product!
To date, my favorite Idea Factory title is Generation of Chaos V (released in the US on PSP as Aedis Eclipse: Generation of Chaos). Part of what made this game so great was that it was of sufficient length to be enjoyable and different, and it didn't overstay its welcome. Record of Agarest War could've been a better game had it not overstayed its welcome.
The battle system itself isn't bad. It isn't great either. It lacks the depth and complexity I'd like it to have, and it relies almost exclusively on heavily chained combos to deal any level of sufficient damage. Having experienced a fair bit of challenge on Easy mode, it's safe to say that, like most JRPGs (Strategy RPGs chief among them), this is a numbers game. If I played on hard, all that would have meant is that I would have had to do even more grinding than I already did to be able to tackle the big boss at the end of each chapter.
But even if the battle system had been top-notch, I would've been miffed with this game because of the sheer number of lengthy battles I was forced to go through. Between each and every tiny dialogue event, you'll have to go through a couple of "dots" on the world map that represent battles. And major event battles? That's just a string of normal battles with no option to heal in-between. This game is battles, battles, battles, a little reading/listening, then more battles. And it's the same strategy every time, with a lot of very similar enemies, and little to no reason to ever swap party members. No one outside the active party earns experience, so why would I ever switch them up?
Now, the game does feature an auto-battle system. Hit a button and walk away. But, if you're not able to take down the enemy, you might return to find a Game Over screen or half your party dead. The auto-battle AI isn't so smooth. The AI generally puts one massive combo on a single target, which means the number of turns required to finish a battle is greater than or equal to the number of enemies on-screen – even if those enemies are extremely weak.
In summary, anyone who thought Final Fantasy XIII was frustrating because it was just a string of all-too-similar battles (with a lot of auto-battle action) punctuated by the occasional dialogue scene should acknowledge that "they never had it so good," at least not in this console generation. Because Record of Agarest War takes that boredom-inducing formula and builds on it, with more boredom. Throw in a side of cookie-cutter anime stereotypes and some clunky menu navigation, and you have yourself a full course meal of mediocrity.
What's There To Love?
With all the complaints effectively out of the way, please allow me to use a little bit of space to talk about what I did enjoy about the game. First of all, Aksys did a bang-up job with the localization. I heard about the European version, which had a localization that nearly met the low quality standard set by O3 in Chaos Wars. But Aksys really did great. Earlier in the review I said their localization efforts were "lean," and I meant it. Why? Primarily, because there's no English voice acting.
Yup. You heard right. Despite an industry-wide mandate that Japanese games with VA get English dubs (particularly from the Sony camp), Aksys somehow overcame that requirement and made this a Japanese-voice-only release. You think that's lazy? I think it's smart! Let's face it: this game caters to Japanophiles anyway. If you don't play JRPGs, you aren't going to play this game. Beyond that, because the developers didn't have to expend effort on voice talent, they were able to focus entirely on the text translation during localization. And here's where they really shine. They put a medieval flair to the tone, and it really comes out strong. The dialogue is only cheesy when it makes sense for it to be. Otherwise it's decent writing, and I think other industry up-and-comers should take note of this title as an example of how to do good text-based localization. Seriously, I am impressed.
Another win for Aksys is the packaging. Now if you get the PlayStation version, that's a download-only affair (and be prepared by having a solid 18GB free on your hard drive to download and install: yeah, I know, that's a pain). But if you get the Xbox 360 limited edition, you get a mousepad, a pillowcase for a body pillow, and a promotional soundtrack release. Good stuff.
And as much as I have a problem with it at times, the auto-battle feature was a great way to get stuff done while getting a snack, using the bathroom, whatever. For people who want to ultra-grind their characters in a battle they know they can win, all you have to do is stop in every few minutes to start a new battle. And since you can turn off battle animation, this can have a pretty quick turn-around time. The ability to quickly skip text is also appreciated (and, of course, is the standard among graphic adventures in Japan).
Truth In Advertising
Some people were offended by Aksys' marketing campaign for this game. I'm one of them, but not because I thought it was tasteless. I really thought it was hilarious. My beef with it is that this game isn't nearly as "exciting" as they made it out to be, no matter how you slice it.
I understand a prequel (Agarest Senki Zero) was made in Japan. If that game cuts the number of battles down a good 80 to 90 percent, and increases the number of possible interactions to change affection levels with the ladies by about 100%, then they'll have a balanced game that I would enjoy playing. Beefing up the battle system and fixing my gripes with the UI would be nice too.
But if that doesn't happen, I hope and pray that said game stays in Japan. Aksys gets a gold star for effort, but Idea Factory gets a thumbs down for artificially lengthening a game with an already-boring combat system and for letting the "interact with the ladies" aspect of the game fall to the wayside. I don't need it to be an eroge, but I do need it to be engaging. See Sakura Wars as a recent example of things done right.