The Portable Role-Playing Game: an almost oxymoronic term when you think about it. The seemingly incompatible mesh of a genre known for depth and longevity, spliced with a platform designed for short bursts of play. Yet, we’ve seen this vogue work before on the several iterations of Nintendo’s Game Boy, Game Boy Advance and the Nintendo DS. Of course, the vast majority are simply revisions of long-remembered favorites with a smattering of new content. Every now and then, we’re treated to delightfully original adventures like the seminal Golden Sun to shake us out of the reverie.
On Sony’s handheld, the PlayStation Portable (PSP), many publishers are hopping onto the re-release bandwagon with a vengeance, and no genre is sacred. Despite Sony Computer Entertainment America’s strict rules on ports, namely that they must have 20% new or additional content — the sudden appearance of shoddy PSP versions of new console titles within a few months of the original’s release remains the norm. Sadly, this rule has hurt the PSP role-playing fan, leaving us with offal like the abortive port of Ys: Ark of Napishtim and banning the excellent re-releases of Breath of Fire III and Tales of Eternia from America (but not from Europe). As the gaming community looks forward to celebrating the second birthday of Sony’s powerful handheld, RPG fans have to scratch their head and wonder where the love is.
This month, RPG fans might have a reason to put aside their UMD movie collections for the first true, original, anime-styled role playing game for the PSP. NIS America, the publisher that brought us the quirky and amazingly addictive Disgaea, has snatched up the localization and publishing rights to Hitmaker’s Blade Dancer: Legacy of Light. Is this the epiphany jaded PSP owners who love RPGs have been waiting for or just another shoddy excuse for a handheld title? Let’s take a look.
Blade Dancer begins with a solemn narrative retelling the events of an Ancient War in the world of Lunadia. In this time a great evil known as the Dark Lord had much of the world trembling in fear. It was during this period of unrest that a great hero, the Blade Dancer Gerard emerged to challenge the Dark Lord. As the legend states, the Blade Dancer disappeared with the arrival of a new menace: The Dread Knight. Though, strangely enough, both the Dread Knight and the Dark Lord soon vanished from the face of the world without a trace. And so the world went on for a time in relative peace. But the truth behind the legend, as well as the beginning of a new legacy, lay in the hands of a youth who begins his adventure on the mysterious island of Foo.
The tale begins amicably enough, with the scrappy young protagonist Lance arriving in the city of Jade on the island of Foo in search of adventure. His goal? Nothing more ambitious than to test his skill with the blade — until he finds himself caught up in a web of events that will lead him on the path left by the lost Blade Dancer. On the course of his journey he will befriend and travel with a brotherly martial artist, a spastic Empath, and a mysterious girl with amnesia found in the depths of an ancient ruin. Together they will confront a revenant of the past and the resurrection of the Dark Lord. Need I go further?
For an original title, Blade Dancer does nothing to break from the traditional “youth becomes hero — saves world” theme that has been beaten into our skulls for as long as we could hold a controller. Any gamer who has played a single traditional console role-playing game has already experienced the tale woven throughout Blade Dancer. While imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Lineage of Light blatantly rips off themes from every Game Arts title, to the novel Eragon, and makes no apology. The characterization of the central heroes is so transparent and uninspired there really wasn’t a reason to give them new names.
To complicate matters, while NIS has a history of doing an impeccable job of translations, especially when humorous, Blade Dancer is a disappointment. The dialogue is grammatically sound, but the vast majority of the jokes and comedic references are so out of place, and so obviously forced, that one wonders how much creative license was taken with the original content. The entire effect was more brutal than Working Design’s mangling of Lunar II. It is entirely possible that the localization team didn’t have much to work with in the first place, but this stinks worse than last weeks dirty diapers.
Visually, Blade Dancer is a potpourri of sights. Rendered entirely in 3D, Lineage of Light begins with bad clipping and polygon tearing, and concludes with locales that truly show off the power of the PSP, seriously! The entire adventure takes place on the Island of Foo and one of its smaller satellites, which consists of no more than 5 total landscapes, 3 towns and a small smattering of dungeons. The graphic quality of each location improved as the player discovers them, but with the degree of backtracking required, the contrast was so large that I wondered if I was playing several different games.
Not surprisingly, this visual evolution occurs with the game’s bestiary. Players will have to drudge through several different re-used monster models with different paintjobs until the halfway mark when the much more impressive and diverse enemies begin appearing. Despite this irregularity, the character animation on both the player’s party and the enemy was crisp and smooth; however the game did suffer from intermittent pauses while the game accessed the UMD during battles.
Surprisingly, the game allows the player to look about in a first person camera view, which showed off some impressive lens flares from the sun and the cycles of the seven colored moon among other details. Many small touches weren’t lost to the trained eye, but due to the small scale, many players might have a problem picking them out.
Acoustically, Blade Dancer won high marks for enjoyable orchestrations and atmosphere, but failed miserably in voice over. I thoroughly enjoyed the score, particularly the opening theme song which was retained in native Japanese, and the haunting melody of the Forgotten Prison dungeon. The combat music only came in two themes, but was full bodied with a gladiatorial flair. The little touches like the sound of flowing streams in the forest and the perpetual windstorm of the desert really enhanced the experience, but suffered from the poor quality of the speakers on the PSP. Listening through headphones, however, yields much more robust sound quality and is highly recommended.
In the footsteps of most contemporary RPGs, Blade Dancer tells most of its main plot points through character stills and voice acting. While the anime portraits are awesome, the acting is just short of painful. NIS America has done well in the past with hiring some of the most respected names in anime dubbing for their console releases, but with Blade Dancer: Lineage of Light, something went horribly wrong. The primary problem isn’t bad scripting, and while that is an issue — the main aberration is the game actors trying too hard to be anime actors. This leads to a grating over-personification of each speaker.
The main character, Lance, takes the concept of scrappy young anime warrior to the nth degree. Not only is he overzealous, his voice gets so high-pitched when trying to convey excitement, my man parts cringe. In fact, he’s scripted so badly that he comes off more like the loud punk on the bus to school you always wanted to hit – rather than the hero of the day. Think DBZ’s Goku on a bad hair day.
Tess, the amnesiac mystery girl, has an affect so flat I kept checking in-game inventory for her stashes of lithium. Felis, the spunky young Empath, was so bubbly, that with every line of spoken dialogue my blood curdled. Imagine if you will, Sailor Moon wrapped in a cocoon of cotton candy with only Red Bull to sustain her… intravenously… for a week. Then have her eat her way out without breathing, and give her a karaoke microphone, and only then can you begin to fathom the horror that is Felis. Then there is Gozen; the contemplative monk is this casts saving grace, but he still comes off a bit lackluster. The villains are completely forgettable in the light of the psychotic main characters, which is a shame because they aren’t half bad.
At this point, you might not wish to continue reading, but there is an aspect of Lineage of Light that simply knocks my socks off: the gameplay. For starters, Blade Dancer attempts an ambitious goal of a single player role-playing game that exists entirely in real time. What exactly does this mean? Aside from having night and day cycles, combat is entirely real time, with no exceptions. Inputting commands are turn-based, using a familiar active time battle system dubbed the Lunar Clock, but the action doesn’t stop regardless of menu selection. Players have to stay on their toes, because the enemy is relentless. Players can also strategically assign their party in the front or back of the battle line, which affects the speed of their Lunar Clock as well as their attack accuracy. You can even set the party leader during exploration, which affects several factors: the number of enemies on the field, boosted attack power, frequency of rare items from enemies etc.
While real-time turn-based systems aren’t new to the genre, the fact that this extends to the overworld is completely new. Thankfully, encounters aren’t random: the player must come in contact with floating skulls that represent enemies to initiate combat. The catch is that these skulls can hunt you, even if you’re trying to sort your inventory. There is no pause in Blade Dancer, no respite from the onslaught just because you have the menu open. As such, there is no safety except within the confines of towns. Save points are also sporadic. At first I thought this was an annoying oversight, especially coupled with the rapidly re-spawning enemies.
About halfway through the game, something clicked inside my brain, and all of this became brilliant. Namely, the skulls (color coded based on enemy difficulty) began to run away from the party if they perceive themselves outmatched. But this was merely a ruse. The little beasts would float and bob away, only to seek out company. Together, they would combine with other lesser monster packs and produce boss-quality enemies that would hunt the player relentlessly. The more skulls that merged with this juggernaut, the further up the food chain the encounter would become — likewise the rewards reaped if you emerged victorious.
With that said, let’s look at another important facet of the combat system — dubbed “Lunabilities.” In Blade Dancer, each character can learn a multitude of special melee and magical skills, but to use them requires lunar power. This is where the “Lunar Gauge” comes into play. Every successful attack on an enemy, or damage received by the player’s party will build this singular bar. It is from this gauge that all of the parties “Lunabilities” are used. There is no individual statistic for magic or special attacks; the player must devise his strategy for all four characters using this single resource.
But wait, there’s more! The enemy can also draw from your Lunar Gauge for their specialized attacks and spells. So each battle is not only a race for time, it’s a contest over a single resource. To spice this up, any player character or enemy attempting to use a Lunability can be cancelled by an attack or attacks doing sufficient enough damage. This in turn will return the point value of their cancelled ability back to the Lunar Gauge.
To add even more depth to this mix, is the fact that the player must manually select the character to use their combat options. This is regardless of their turn via their Lunar Clock. Amazingly, it still doesn’t just stop there! Aside from the standard set of Lunabilities, each character can perform a series of Group Lunabilities that increase in power based on how many active party members are available to contribute based on their turns. The player can even boost this damage even further by timing a button press with the expanding magic circle that begins these devastating attacks.
Even with all of this resource and time juggling, players also have to contend with weapon durability. With each physical attack a character delivers or takes, their currently selected weapon has a little life shaved off. If this durability is depleted, the weapon breaks and is gone forever. Long excursions away from towns require players to be well stocked with replacements. With all of these concepts in mind, battles become extremely tactical: point and counter-point. Each encounter becomes an engaging challenge akin to a lightening game of chess. Of course, should the player desire a greater challenge, they can make sport of coaxing the lesser lights into melding into the greater fiends for a real match of wits.
Aside from this incredibly refreshing and fast-paced battle system in a real-time world of constant danger, there are several core elements that enhance Blade Dancer even further. With regards to weapon durability, and the pain of being caught unarmed in a bad situation, there is respite. Crafting is a major staple of keeping Lance and party protected, healed and combat ready. As the player comes across new weapons, equipment and items they have the ability to reproduce them. By taking an object to an Appraiser in town, the item is broken down into its components, and in many cases the components can also be broken down into more mundane ingredients. The player is then given back the parts and permanently learns the recipe for that item and its components (if they are also compound). The player can then, at any time, bring up the crafting menu and recreate the item if enough of the components are in your inventory.
But be careful; like several MMORPGs, crafting isn’t fool proof. Failed synthesis is possible with the loss of one or more of the ingredients, likewise, the player can have a critical success with crafting compound ingredients resulting in large batches. Some recipes even require an elemental affinity that is player character specific. Thankfully, the entire party shares the same crafting recipe pools and the player just need to specify who doing the crafting.
Not only is crafting fun, but it’s a requirement later in the game when even the average vendor armor is incredibly expensive. Players will find themselves buying one set of new equipment to analyze, and then buying the components to reproduce them for the others. The process can also be used for profit, as reselling crafted items invariably carry a higher resale value than their ingredients. Since there is no discrimination between the characters in regards to armor (they are only picky with weapons), this is relatively painless. Sadly, this equates to an abnormally long time updating party equipment when the team increases a few levels.
As convenient as crafting sounds, there is a fly in the ointment. Many of the legendary weapons found throughout Foo cannot be analyzed, and must be used judiciously. If they break, they are gone forever, with one weapons exception. Thankfully, most of the garden variety gear components are well stocked at vendors in each town. Unfortunately, the amount of materials for crafting is limited by inventory space, and close to the end of the game, I found myself throwing out a lot of my spare gear to make room for new ones that haven’t been appraised, or rare components that can only be found off enemies. Also remember that catching a safe moment in a hostile area to craft a replacement weapon is fleeting.
Another aspect of crafting that was engaging was the fact that observant gamers can look for patterns in the evolution of recipes and reproduce the trend. You can actually throw together well chosen components to create stronger than average equipment, and get the recipe for free to boot if successful. At level 50, I was able to discern most of the basic recipes for level 90 weapons, which were not available in stores. Too cool!
Another interesting caveat is that Blade Dancer also supports a multiplayer wireless ad-hoc mode in which 4 players can venture out into dungeons and collect new and interesting equipment. Sadly, we were unable to test this mode due to our single review copy — but the concept appeared intriguing.
Last, and sadly the least of this mélange of innovation is the quest system. Borrowing again from the MMORPG genre, Blade Dancer allows players to tackle quests in any specific order they chose, keeping them recorded neatly in the mission menu. These come in three flavors: fetch quests, monster hunts, and the main storyline. While many of these quests are completely optional, each successful mission not only nets an item or money, but increases the capacity of the Lunar Gauge. Complete them all, and you will have a tremendously significant advantage in battle, but then again, so will your foes.
Sadly, there are two major drawbacks to this system: obtuse quest eligibility and vague mission log. Since there is no indicator if an NPC has a quest for you or not, you have to talk to every single NPC in town after every story event, or completion of a series of quests, if you have any desire to complete the several dozen missions throughout the game. To make this even more painful, some missions are dependent on the time of day, and some mission NPCs are hidden in the depths of dungeons in out-of-reach places. Since the mission log allows a very small amount of text, players will only have a cursory summary of what they’re expected to do. In a chain of smaller quests tying together a larger mission, there are no additional footnotes added, which leads to a great deal of confusion. In many cases, a mission giver will ask you to speak to another NPC or find something in a specific place, but won’t repeat themselves if you’re inattentive, and the mission log is even more unforgiving. This has lead to many time-consuming goose chases and a great deal of frustration. Paying attention to NPC dialogue is a premium for this aspect of gameplay, and even then there are problems.
With this said, we arrive at the brass tacks of the game, the control. While the PSP is an amazing little system, the fact that the device was not designed for ergonomic use for extended playtimes is painfully apparent. Blade Dancer does allow several configurations of the controls, but falls short of ideal. Players can choose to navigate with the analog stick or the direction pad, with the first person camera being controlled by the other. Unfortunately, use of the shoulder buttons to rotate around the main character is only available if the analog stick is selected for movement. If you chose to use the D-pad, the shoulders merely center the automatic camera panning, which isn’t fast enough to keep up with the player.
Thankfully, navigating the menus both in and out of battle can be accomplished with either analog stick or digital pad, regardless of configuration. I enjoyed playing the game with the analog stick, and found the controls very easy to learn and responsive, but had much better success with navigating menus with the digital pad, which was especially important with the brevity of the battles. However, due to the design of the PSP, any extended play with the analog stick lent to extreme cramps of the thumb and hand. For a title that will take even the most avid RPG fan 30 hours to complete the main quest and an additional 15 for the optional, hand cramping is a serious offense. Hopefully with the rumored redesign of the PSP, enjoying Blade Dancer won’t be so physically demanding. As an aside, I found the soft rubber analog stick replacements by Nyko to be a thumb saver and come highly recommended.
Embarrassingly, I feel the need to put my foot in my mouth on the topic of enjoying an RPG more for its storyline and aesthetics than for its gameplay. Blade Dancer stumbles in many arenas, and for a week I wouldn’t recommend the experience to my worst enemy. But, given a little time to handle the learning curve, I found the greatest enjoyment in actually playing the game instead of pondering the prose, and isn’t that the point of a handheld title? I can attest that while plotline purists will firebomb my inbox for that statement — I’ll stand behind it. I haven’t had this much fun beating on baddies since Grandia II.