Back in 1998, Sting developed a rogue dungeon crawler called Baroque for the Sega Saturn. It was ported to PlayStation a year later, but for reasons unknown, neither game was released in North America, and remained a cult classic only in Japan. Last year, Sting did a remake for PlayStation 2; this remake was also ported to the Wii. This time, Atlus was nice enough to give North American gamers a chance to play the remake of the classic on April 8. Baroque does not redefine dungeon crawling, but the adventure is an interesting one.
Prior to the time the game takes place, a tragedy occurred. The world was destroyed due to the incident called “the blaze.” Humanity is destroyed and the only beings remaining are called baroques. Baroques are manifestations of a person’s mind that the remains of humanity utilize in order to survive. Some people were able to retain their memories, though their bodies are distorted. Those who couldn’t handle their baroques turned into monsters called meta-beings and now roam the mysterious building called the Neuro tower. The no-name protagonist has a human form, but he has no memories of the events that happened. The protagonist apparently committed a major sin which relates to the blaze. Now he must venture into the tower in order to cleanse his sins and fix the world.
When you start the game, you are simply thrown right into the thick of things, and you are instructed to go into the bottom floor of the tower. Neither background story nor explanation is given. You are simply on your own to figure things out. The story is presented in fragments, and for the first few hours, you’re likely to barely understand what to do or why you are doing all this. As you progress further in the game, you will begin to understand the world and the characters that inhabit it.
The story isn’t simply presented to you when the time is right. You have to find ways to trigger the major plot points, but the game simply does not tell you how. This is something players have to discover through various clues and interests. Most of the story background comes from the various people you talk to in and out of the tower. They share some insight on the world, what is going on, and some reveal bits of information on the main character’s past, though in a vague manner. Some parts of the story or new characters only reveal themselves when you die outside the tower. Simply clearing the tower isn’t enough; players would have to figure out when is a good time to die. It adds some dynamics to the story. The plot remains confusing overall, but putting the pieces together, there are a number of interesting revelations, and some weird twists that involve the protagonist’s past.
What I mainly liked in the story portion comes from NPC interactions. Not only do they shed some importance to the overall plot, but they are also entertaining. Each character has a unique distinction, and a lot of them have their own quirks. Sometimes they spout some nonsense for amusement, but a few give you some information indirectly. The entertainment further amplifies when you attack or give items to certain NPCs where they wind up saying the strangest things. It adds to the surreal aspect of the game, and makes it a more enjoyable experience.
Some characters that stood out to me include the coffin man who is the tutorial guy; he’d rather see you die and he likes to curse a lot. There is also the item collector who learned to experience pleasure when the main character inflicts pain on him, the boxbearer who keeps his dead daughter inside a box, and even more macabre characters. Some characters and all enemies can drop an “idea sephirath” when they die. “Idea sephirath,” what’s that? Those are basically collected thoughts of the character or enemy, and you can get some background story on each of them when giving it to the baroquemonger.
While the graphics did make a big jump in the remake, on a technical level it looks very dated. Throughout most of the game, the screen has a grainy look as a way of making the game feel dreamlike or surreal. The problem is that the grainy look makes it hard to see things sometimes such as the map. The viewpoint is limited, making objects and paths visually obstructed until you are fairly close. There are also some frame rate issues when there are a lot of things going on. There are some positives though. The anime introduction is stylish, and can easily attract the player to the art style. The character and monster designs all look unique and distinctive. As for the dungeon scenery, it’s plain, and there is a lack of variety. It’s a game that has some style going for it, but looks outdated at this point. Sting is very good in the 2D department, but they have a long way to go to be proficient in 3D graphics.
I’ll also note that the Wii version uses progressive scan and is in a widescreen 16×9 format, unlike the PS2 version which was your typical 4×3 aspect ratio. For people who swear by widescreen, this could make all the difference. But no major graphical facelifts were made for the Wii port. No one expected as much, I assume, since the Wii’s hardware cannot support much better than the PS2 does anyway.
The music has also undergone a change, using a different composer this time around. I never listened to the original soundtrack so I cannot comment if the new tunes are better or worse. The music is ambient and it ranges from soft, haunting tunes to chaotic melodies. It sets the tone of the game very well, and while one or two songs stick to me, it is the kind of music that works with the game, but may not be as interesting to listen to outside of it.
The game has full voice acting, and the voice actors themselves fit with their respective characters. They aren’t packed with emotion, and some were a little awkward with their lines, but it remains interesting. Since the script tends to get weird, it adds more flavor on the way the voice actors conveyed these obscure lines.
The controls tend to be a little clunky, mainly in combat. The combat is simple because you only have two attack methods, but the attacks feel slow and a little unresponsive at times, especially when the protagonist fights bare-handed. There is a lock-on function, but it does not make the camera automatically face the enemy. The interface is solid, but has some inconveniences. You can throw items, open up the map and use a lock-on with the press of a button, but you have to go through the menu to equip gear and use items. While most buttons are used, there could’ve been ways to utilize them all for the sake of efficiency. With the Wii version, you have the option to use the remote/nunchuck or the “classic” controller. There are no gimmicks with which to exploit your Wii-mote.
As for the gameplay, the concept is relatively simple. The only dungeon is the Neuro tower, and in each floor, you start off in a random part of the floor and look for a portal to get to the next floor. In each floor, there are enemies you can fight or avoid, and a bunch of random items you can utilize. The objective is to simply get to the bottom of the tower, but the length varies. The tower expands as you trigger key story moments, making the objective more and more difficult to complete.
As simple as it may sound, the game is brutal. Your character lacks a block ability or a sidestep to quickly evade attacks. He can only use two kinds of attacks, throw objects at an enemy to cause damage or status effect, or simply run away from attacks. The enemies hit hard and are generally stronger than you. Your primary weapons are swords, and while they’re effective, a few are too clunky to handle. You also get a gun, but it only has 5 bullets to save for the right moment or emergencies. In addition to worrying about your HP pool, you also have vitality (VT) which slowly depletes, but heals your HP. If you have no more vitality, then your HP begins to drain. You can recover vitality by eating hearts.
The game also incorporates a nasty death penalty. When you die, you start outside the tower, and lose everything you have. You also lose all the levels you have earned too. It may sound annoying, but the game has some forgiving moments. You can level up quite easily, and with some hard work, you can gain a level or two on each floor. The game is also generous enough by allowing you to save after getting on a portal.
In order to excel in the game, it ultimately comes down to trial and error. Learning what your enemies can do and how you can defeat them is one of the essentials. There are also a lot of items you can get in the game that may seem useless or give you some disadvantage, but using them in tandem with other items brings new possibilities. The enemies also have elemental weaknesses that you can exploit to take them down easier. In order words, there is a good amount of strategy you can utilize to survive as you venture deeper into the tower.
You are also able to store your items by throwing them at devices called consciousness orbs. They are scattered through various floors in the tower and can only transfer one item from each orb. After you are dead, you can beat up the item collector to get your items back. Initially, he can hold up to five items, but can be upgraded to hold more items by giving him items he never identified before.
Despite fast leveling, item storage, and a generous save system, it can get tedious repeating the same floors over and over again. It won’t seem as repetitive when playing in small doses, but the main issue comes from completing objectives. Some NPCs give you some ideas on what you should do to progress. Some objectives are told in a vague manner, and some tell you clearly, but no instructions are ever given as to how your objective can be reached. It is up to the player to figure it out. The tasks themselves aren’t hard, but they can be easily missed. Since some NPCs or areas do not reveal themselves after you die, the only way to figure out what to do is to go through the tower over and over, exploring every nook and cranny. With the tower expanding as you progress, and enemies getting stronger, the trips can feel frustrating after a while.
Upon completing the game, there are some extras. There are several bonus dungeons you can go through, and you can unlock the hardest difficulty for those who really enjoy a challenge.
The game has its share of flaws and tedium, but I enjoyed it. The gameplay can be cheap, but it does have a good degree of challenge. Technical aspects are weak, but there is some style going for it. For a subgenre that tends to lack decent plot and character development, Baroque was quite good, especially the NPC dialogue. I do recommend giving this a shot at the very least, but it is not for everyone. Only those who truly appreciate rogue-like RPGs will be able to get the most enjoyment out of it. Baroque failed to leave a good first impression, and it will gladly punish the weak; but if a player is willing to invest some time in this game, the rewards may outweigh the flaws.