What are the toils of man and beast to the incorporeal? Their trifling sorrows may seem superfluous and fleeting to a soul unfettered from the flesh, but for a single soldier, a spirit torn from form, the sorrows of man are paramount. For Reise, the protagonist of Atlus' Tsugunai: Atonement, the woes of the corporeal is a doorway to redemption.
Released in Japan over a year ago to a luke-warm reception, Tsugunai was snatched up, localized and published by the de-facto primogen of all esoteric role-playing games: Atlus Entertainment.
Objectively, Tsugunai: Atonement is a conceptual milestone; a ghostly RPG coupled with an inventive combat system and music by the renowned Yasunori Mitsuda. Tsugunai seemed to hold all the right cards: originality, ingenuity and style, but can this adventure, enshrouded in all its novelty, make for a worthwhile experience? The proof is in the pudding.
Hewn from the same granite of Eternal Ring and the bauxite hues of Evergrace, Tsugunai is a visually bereft and uninspiring affair. Disgracing the potential of the PlayStation 2, Tsugunai renders a world of placeholder polygons and simplistic textures in ignoble real-time. The settings are classically medieval, and as bland and colorless as the Dark Ages. Though not an eyesore by any right, the landscape of Tsugunai strains to maintain a ubiquitous status-quo that reeks of creative laziness.
Throughout the adventure, the player is met with a single, albeit quaint, seaside urbia and the usual suspects: castle, township, graveyard, lighthouse, ruins et al. With such a limited expanse, one would think that the panorama of sights would be impeccably crafted, distinctive and organic. Unfortunately, this was not the case as Tsugunai's visual laissez faire is frightful.
The character models fair better in the eye-candy arena, and are quite passable, if not moderately uninspired. Monsters and humanoids are respectably constructed with a semblance of originality, and are animated accordingly. Though there is a scant few NPC's to be found, many of them are unique, unlike the plethora of bestial archetypes threatening the lands. Truly, the creatures that roam the island are kith-and-kin, and are little more than palette swapped siblings.
The one ray of light in Tsugunai's eternal darkness is the mystical beasts the player can summon into combat. While polygonally simplistic in comparison to their contemporaries, the summoned creatures in Tsugunai are refreshingly twisted. Where else can you command a giant fish, or mystic elephant into battle? Houston, we have originality, I repeat, we have WARPED originality. There is the expected compliment of demons and dragons; while blasť, they are occasionally pleasant to witness.
Tsugunai does a respectable job of creating a polygonal world and characters, but fails to breathe much life into its work. The environmental design and construction is painfully average and disappointingly bland. The humans that inhabit this land are unique but dull, and their tormentors are simply a brood of multi-colored miscreants. To add insult to injury, Tsugunai's only visual saving grace is the bizarre creatures of yore that are summoned in combat.
Though Tsugunai's frame rate is hiccup-free and polygon tearing is at a minimum, this visual famine is virulent.
Graced with the talents of Yasunori Mitsuda of Squaresoft fame, Tsugunai exudes an ambient Celtic grace that has become Mitsuda's trademark over the years. The unobtrusive tapestry of melody that is woven throughout Tsugunai is laden with wind instruments of reed and leather. The lack of a vocal chorus is slightly uncharacteristic for Mitsuda's brand of Gaelic tunes, but Tsugunai is no less blessed.
Despite the quality of the music, there is a significant lack of acoustic variety in the game and the constant repetition of the combat score becomes grating after the several hundredth time. Unfortunately, there are no truly memorable pieces, nor are there anthems of ferocious emotion played with reckless abandon. Overall, the melodies are lilting and overly sedate.
Qualms aside, the musical score is impressive; from strolling around the town to training in the castle catacombs, the music is enjoyable despite small misgivings.
Tsugunai's sound effects are appropriately average and thusly forgettable. Spells sizzle, swords slash, and the world continues to circle ad-nauseum. There are a few human vocal effects during combat, but nothing approaching complex chanting or DBZ-esque human-blitzkrieg announcements.
For an RPG that deals intrinsically with human interaction, Tsugunai is perplexingly devoid of acting. While the text dialog is functional, I feel this tale would have been significantly enhanced with voice-over.
Though Tsugunai has a wondrous, albeit limited score; the lackluster sound effects and absence of oration make an enjoyable acoustic experience, an unmemorable one.
Tsugunai: Atonement is an adventure of the soul. Ordered by his king to retrieve the mystical Treasure Orb (sounds special, doesn't it?), a young mercenary named Reise embarks to a forbidden island. In the company of the king's guard, Reise's assignment is an unwarranted surprise and his presence amidst the soldiers is truly unwelcome.
Upon landing on the docks of the island, the corpse of a previous expeditionary is soon discovered. Shaken but undeterred, Reise and his escort find their way into a crumbling tower perched precariously over a waterfall. After exploring the structure and solving a few simple puzzles, Reise finds his way into an isolated embankment of the tower. Within, he finds a sphere perched on a dais, glowingly gently amidst the shadows. He is then given a warning, a stern command from an ethereal voice: He MUST leave the orb undisturbed. Ignoring the apparition, he seizes the sphere and is attacked by a demon. Upon vanquishing his hell spawned assailant, Reise and company flee the tower as it crumbles around them.
Several days later, Reise's body and a glowing orb are found on the shores of Walondia. The seemingly unconscious man and troublesome sphere are taken to a monastery close to the shoreline. There, the head monk Rui meets the disembodied soul of Reise, who has come to find himself alive, but not. Rui asks the soul of Reise to be patient as he searches his lore for some answer to his disenfranchised state.
After some research, Rui seems to have found a cause and a solution to Reise's dilemma. Apparently, the Goddess of Light punishes Treasure Orb thieves by spitting their souls from their bodies. In order to atone for their crime, the punished must undergo a trial, but Rui's tomes shed no light on the specifics of this task. Rui states that the damned are aided in this atonement by a Domovoi, or gnome.
Having heard of such a creature living in the village, Rui sends Reise to find the fairy and hopefully a way to appease the Goddess. Upon finding the beer-swilling Domovoi, Navi, Reise is brought up to speed on his plight. His curse is indeed the work of an apparently irate, belligerent and EXTREMELY moody Goddess. In order to calm the celestial brat, Reise must heal the hearts of the people living in Walondia. To accomplish such a task, he must possess the afflicted and manipulate their way to happiness. Only upon resolving the grief of his host can Reise's spirit be set free to "save" another pathetic villager. Thusly, the story of Reise unfolds: saving man, woman, child and canine from an achy braky heart.
Though the quest sounds intriguing, the execution of the tale is rigidly linear, ultimately uninteresting, and at many times, pointless. While the ongoing quest to repair Fiela's relationship with her father is poignant, possessing a stray dog to find his master is simply asinine. The little semblance of plot regarding Reise's fate, the evil encroaching on the island and the involvement of the regent is piecemeal, disjointed and disappointing.
Tsugunai had the potential to tell an engaging storyline of a damned soul's quest for redemption, but falls prey to poor scripting and helter-skelter storytelling. As a conceptual tale, Tsugunai wins accolades for being unique, and periodically interesting, but the plodding nature of the tale along with the unnecessary ancillaries keeps the score slightly above average.
Tsugunai is a very atypical game, espousing an original combat system and several unique gameplay mechanics that enrich the typically ho-hum execution of the average RPG. Combat is a solitary engagement, as there are no additional party members in your quest. Reise, in many of his incarnations must fend off evil on his own. While not all of his hosts are combat capable, the few that are, are unique. Reise, when corporeal, is a swordsman that William Wallace himself would love. Fisela is the village chief's daughter with a penchant for pole arms, Ifem is a comely scarlet clad archer, Ashgo is the clumsy mace-wielding priest, and Raffer is an axe-toting beast with amnesia.
Combat is based upon actual physical encounters, not bastardized randomization. I can't applaud Tsugunai enough for avoiding the bane of RPG's the world-over. Though a lot of the environments are cramped, making enemy-dodging difficult, having the option of avoiding combat is a blessing.
When engaged in fierce melee, Tsugunai appears to be classically styled with a turn-based system. Upon closer inspection there is more to the gameplay than meets the eye. Tsugunai employs an elaborate block and evasion system which is explained after the first in-game combat encounter. The player may employ one of four mechanisms to address incoming attacks. The standard block simply allows you to reduce damage dealt. The parry block allows you to halve damage and counterattack the blow with one of your own. The Strage Block allows you to buffet the attack, absorbing the energy to charge your Strage Meter. The last method is a simple sidestep, used to negate unblockable attacks like fire breathing. Unfortunately, this feint consumes energy from the Strage Meter, and cannot be executed if the meter is empty.
The Strage Meter is akin to Final Fantasy's limit breaks, which once fully charged, can be used to unleash a character's token special technique. The player must prove their hand-eye coordination mastery in a game of "stop-the-gauge-in-red". If your timing is correct, a flashy display of power is exhibited. If you aren't precise, the technique fails, and you simply land a regular blow on your opponent.
The execution of blocking and avoidance is one of the most engaging yet damnable aspects of Tsugunai's gameplay. Certain enemies have attacks that are unblockable and must be side-stepped. The rub is that most of these attacks initially resemble standard blockable actions. To add insult to injury, many of these monsters travel in packs, attacking in succession with frightening speed. This leads to frantic button mashing akin to the most frenetic Rhythm-Dance-Action games. Learning to closely watch your opponent's animations and strategize your counteractions in a very fast paced combat setting is exhilarating.
Unfortunately, as the game progresses, your encounters will reveal beasts of increasing power and speed, necessitating the need for skillful reaction. Later in the game, there are enemies that will kill you with a single blow should you fail to block or sidestep, making the gameplay nauseatingly challenging. Eventually the novelty wears thin to the point of complete disenchantment, as your character is butchered for simple misjudgment or a mistimed block.
What RPG wouldn't be complete without an intricate magic system? Tsugunai doesn't disappoint in this arena. Using a system that resembles FFVII's Materia System with a dash of Jade Cocoon, Tsugunai manages magic in a most unique fashion. In the world of Tsugunai, magic is born from enchanted multicolored stones that were originally used by fairies. Mankind learned to harness the power of these stones by distilling them into crystalline runes. By placing these runes onto amulets, spells could be cast.
Throughout the kingdom of Walondia, these magic stones can be found and collected. The player may take the stones to the clergy to be converted into runes for placement into the several amulets scattered throughout the land. Each amulet imprisons a beast of legendary power, and unlocking each creature is a challenge indeed. Each rune that is crafted requires very specific amounts and combinations of magic stones, but the selection is quite limited at first. As you progress in the game, forbidden manuals can be found that allow the priests to create even more powerful, unique runes using more esoteric combinations of magic stones. Also, each rune has a specific geometric shape and can only be placed into an amulet with a compatible vacancy.
When an amulet's rune design has been completely filled, Reise may then summon the creature imprisoned in the amulet into combat. The player can have 3 active amulets equipped for spell casting, and may have 2 summoned creatures with him at all times. Once summoned these beasts attack automatically on their turn and remain alongside the player as long as his MP endures or they are dismissed. Unlike Final Fantasy X, the summoned beasts do not take damage, and the player may still fight alongside them.
Tsugunai sports frantic twitch-based combat with an amazingly diverse, almost puzzle-based magical system. While initially revolutionary, the combat system drowns itself from overuse and self-exploitation. The originality of the magic amulet system is refreshing, lending to a unique and fiendishly addictive experience.
For a game that requires a quick eye and even faster reflexes, Tsugunai manages to throw sand into your eyes and deliver a swift roshambo. Wandering the countryside is simplistic enough, but the entire experience of Tsugunai is wrecked by horrendous loading times that rival the evil Ephemeral Phantasia. Walking into a house, leaving an area, entering an area, engaging in combat, leaving combat, looking for lint in your belly-button, every simple action will leave you staring at the dreaded "Now Loading" notice so often you'll swear your PlayStation 2 was really a PC-Engine CD-ROM masquerading in black.
Tsugunai's evasion mechanism requires some deft button pressing, but more often than not, your character is so slow to respond, that you end up getting mauled through no fault of your own. Even after days of honing my timing skill and developing a respectable callous, I was ready to throw my Dual Shock 2 into my WEGA after the first dozen cheap hits in the final hours of the game. Gamers who choose to brave the depths of Tsugunai may want some Valium close at hand. The small consolation of true analog control in a functionally standard GUI is fleeting compared to the sheer nightmare that awaits unsuspecting adventurers.
Tsugunai's control resembles the flu: initially nagging, but manageable. You do your best to keep moving on despite having to take frequent rests, but you cope as well as you can. Finally, after trying to cope with it for several days, it manages to knock you on your ass, sucking the last bit of strength from your feverish body until the virus runs its course. I suggest ample doses of Devil May Cry and Final Fantasy X to nurse you through this affliction.
Tsugunai: Atonement strives to break into new territory but does very little to excel in any arena. While the storyline is novel, its haphazard nature of delivery is unappreciated. For a game released in the second year of the PlayStation 2's lifetime, Tsugunai is visual dirth and can only be described as "passable". The real shame is in the fact that the game had some truly stellar points. The score was wonderful, if limited, and the combat and magic concepts were solid; though poor execution has severely hampered even these accolades. With the sheer quantity and quality of RPG's released this holiday season, I can see very little reason to recommend the pedestrian effort that is Tsugunai: Atonement.