Square first established themselves as a quality action-RPG programmer with the release of Seiken Densetsu for the Nintendo Game Boy in Japan. American gamers were also able to witness Square’s brilliance when Seiken Densetsu was released in the US as the Final Fantasy Adventure. After Square further solidified their reputation as great action-RPG programmers with the releases of Seiken Densetsu 2 (released in the US as The Secret of Mana) and Seiken Densetsu 3, it was only a matter of time before Square developed a quality action-RPG for the Sony PSX Despite taking a step back with the decidedly mediocre Chocobo’s Mysterious Dungeon, Square rebounds nicely with Brave Fencer Musashi, one of the best 32-bit action-RPGs released so far.
In Brave Fencer Musashi, you play Musashi, a legendary warrior who is summoned by a kingdom under siege at the beginning of the game. Musashi’s first order of business is to retrieve the legendary sentient sword Raygund. After returning from his first mission, Musashi sees the princess of the kingdom kidnapped right in front of him as he has to tangle with a boss character. So, as many of you can guess by now, we are blessed with a storyline containing the ever-pedestrian end goal of saving the princess (how many times have we seen this tired premise?).
The story is somewhat salvaged as the game progresses, however. Musashi meets many characters along the way and must help or oppose them, so the story gets deeper than just saving the princess. BFM is also a departure from typical RPG storylines in that the mood of the game is pretty humorous and light-hearted. Musashi is only three feet tall and must endure countless humorous references to his short stature, which pretty much drives him up a wall. His humorous cockiness is somewhat endearing as well. However, the supporting characters are not very well developed at all, though the wacky female villains in the game are somewhat interesting.
What separates BFM from the rest of the admittedly small action-RPG pack on the PSX is its brilliant gameplay. The layout of the game is absolutely ingenious, and playing through the game was a lot of fun. Like most other RPGs, Musashi has to complete many small missions on the way to his end goal. While this is in itself nothing spectacular, the way in which he accomplishes these missions is. Among other objectives, Musashi gets to go on search missions for people and items, shut down a steam reactor to prevent a meltdown, and rid a town of zombies. Unlike most other RPGs, where a boss fight would be prerequisite to the accomplishment of each of these goals, the boss encounters are few and far between in BFM, which provides a good change of pace from standard RPG fare and also makes the game less predictable.
In addition to the great layout, BFM presents some gameplay features that aren’t overtly common in games of this type. In addition to an HP meter, Musashi has a BP meter. Musashi can gain a supplementary attack to his regular sword and the Raygund sword by “gating in” enemies that he encounters. This is accomplished by charging up a meter and absorbing an enemy (and its powers). One enemy power can be possessed at a time, and each use of it costs BP. The BP also drains periodically in small increments as Musashi walks around. If the HP meter isn’t full, each small draining of the BP meter replenishes the HP meter by a small amount.
Another relatively uncommon gameplay feature is the inclusion of fatigue as a gameplay factor. The longer Musashi goes without staying at an inn (or sleeping outside), the more tired he gets. Fatigue is tracked terms of percentages, with 0% being completely full of energy, and 100% being completely drained (I don’t know if it ever actually reaches 100%; I never bothered letting it get that far). The more fatigued Musashi, the weaker he is. For example, when a certain fatigue level is reached, Musashi can’t run at all, and can only walk around slowly. Sleeping at an inn completely replenishes Musashi, while sleeping outside brings the fatigue level down depending on how long he sleeps. There is an advantage to staying in inns (other than the obvious one of having HP and BP refilled). Musashi’s fatigue level can never go down below 20% when sleeping outside, no matter how long he sleeps.
The weaknesses in gameplay are few and fairly insignificant. One pet peeve of mine is something I call the “Ninja Gaiden Syndrome.” I’ll explain exactly what this is. In BFM, when you kill an enemy, if the exact location that the enemy first appears in is just off of the screen, as soon as you get the location back onto the screen, the enemy reappears. There are also many cases where the enemies reappear as soon as they are killed off, even if the exact location of their appearance is on the same screen as you. This feature is highly irritating for me, and to me, it detracts from the gameplay (I call this the Ninja Gaiden Syndrome because Ninja Gaiden on the NES was a game that took this phenomenon to illogical extremes).
Another weakness in the gameplay has to do with the layout of the game. There is only one town of note in the entire game. While this might not bother fans of games like Zelda, where towns are few and far between, it became rather boring for me to constantly have to go back to the same underdeveloped characters for a new mission objective.
The graphics in BFM are for the most part excellent. The game consists of polygonal characters in a 3D polygonal environment. The backgrounds are very detailed, and use many colors, as well as colors that are pleasing to look at. The magic effects are nothing special, but the bosses are very impressive. They animate very well, and some of them are absolutely huge.
Unfortunately, however, the graphics are not quite perfect. The polygonal characters, with the exception of Musashi, lack detail and animate clumsily. They also look really bad up close and during story cut scenes, where they get blocky and look like the characters from the Twin Bee RPG. Objects in the backgrounds (especially trees) tend to look out of place, because they look very 2D while the rest of the backgrounds are 3D. Also, the character designs and character art are quite poor (the noseless wonders from Final Fantasy Tactics are back).
The sound is also done quite well. Sound effects in the game are quite robust, and the presence of a good sound system is quite evident through out the game. The music, however, is a mixed bag. The main theme is brilliant, and most of the more upbeat tracks are excellent as well. However, the slower songs tend to be pretty atonal, and while they set the mood pretty well for the locations that they are placed in, they still get really annoying to listen to after a while (they tend to occur in locations where you have to spend really large amounts of time).
Control proves to be the weak point of BFM. In terms of making large movements (running around in a field, etc.), the control is quite good. But making small movements, such as trying to get Musashi to face a certain direction, is a royal pain. Musashi just isn’t responsive to small movements, he tends to overreact to your commands. He also runs around at a pretty good pace for exploration purposes, but in the heat of battle, he’s a little slow sometimes.
Movement isn’t too bad in BFM, but the jump control is absolutely horrible. First of all, in many places you can’t even tell where Musashi can stand for optimal jumping distance without going the trial and error route. Also, there’s an annoying lag (not a big one, but noticeable) whenever you try to get him to jump. Musashi really doesn’t jump high enough for the purposes of the game, and the double jump (when you learn it) is really unresponsive.
Manual camera control is present only in the town in BFM; you can freely rotate the camera there. The rotation is somewhat clumsy, but it serves its purpose well. You can’t manually control the camera outside of towns (the computer automatically does it), and this gets really annoying at times because you can’t always see Musashi on the screen. You can zoom in and out on 2 discrete levels, but I didn’t really find any utility in this feature; I kept it set in the far view.
Brave Fencer Musashiden, despite its many minor flaws and one major flaw, turns out to be a quality action-RPG, and definitely one of the best ones available on a current generation machine. With the game released just a few days ago, I strongly recommend all action-RPG fans to pick this one up.