Summer has passed, and now is that time of the year where the gaming market floods us with all sorts of nifty games, especially for RPG fans. Companies both big and small publish loads of RPG goodies and Aksys is no exception. The publisher gained fame for releasing the critically acclaimed fighter, Blazblue, but they want to expand their horizons in other genres. Their previous RPG releases were less than stellar, but they are giving it another shot by releasing Hero’s Saga: Laevatein Tactics, a DS Strategy RPG by GungHo works. What does Hero’s Saga have to stand out amongst the increasing amount of handheld SRPGs around? Nada. Hero’s Saga had some potential, but many things went wrong, and steered this game to mediocrity.
The game takes place in the continent of Yulamecca where we are introduced to the nation of Valencia. Valencia is a small nation that managed to maintain its independence after the war against the Galian empire fifteen years ago. Our hero is Ernesto, the second prince of Valencia who has a tendency to stab first and ask questions later. The story starts off with Ernesto heading off to the border fortress where the head guard, Pablo, failed to submit his annual report so it’s up to Ernesto to set things straight. Upon arrival, Ernesto sees Pablo getting attacked by the undead and winds up cowering under them. It all changes when a mysterious, fully-armored girl named Valerie notices Ernesto’s situation and offers him a special weapon known as Vaettier Arms. Though wary of the girl, he takes the weapon and manages to defeat the undead. Valerie supplies the Valencians with more Vaettier Arms to defend themselves from future threats, and Galia eventually takes notice. Galia demands that Valencia unconditionally surrender the prince, their Vaettier Arms, and become a part of Galia or else. Clearly, the people of Valencia don’t take kindly to these unreasonable demands and, with the power of the Vaettier Arms, Ernesto forms a band of rebels to take down the tyrannical empire once and for all.
The story does build up nicely throughout its progression, until the end botches it all up. Characters get introduced at the last moment and several revelations come out of nowhere, causing a messy and rushed finale. Though the main story gets done and most loose ends are tied up, there is a small post-game event containing the true final scene that can only be shown after you do the most mundane task imaginable: collect all 168 Vaettier Arms. This takes forever to do and there are no story segments to ease the pain. This is a truly slimy way to artificially lengthen the game for an unrewarding scene that only lasts a few minutes, but at least it’s optional.
Despite the clichés and screwy endgame, there are some positives. The characters may be one-dimensional, but they do have some chemistry and amusing party interactions. On top of that, I like how some of the villains are decently moral fellows who suffered tragic circumstances. It’s a step up from cookie-cutter villains who act evil for the sake of being evil. I also like the historical nods throughout the game and that each nation has its own European dialect, such as Valencians speaking with Spanish accents. Aksys might have not done a strong localization, but they did try to spice it up a little.
These positive points are still not enough to save the plain plot. There are slight twists present, but it still remains the same ol’ plot archetype of an underdog nation taking on a mighty empire, and does little to make it engaging. It sticks to the tried and true plot devices too closely and plays it too safe with familiar character archetypes. Hot-headed teenage protagonists, mysterious girls, and power-hungry empires are clichés we know all too well, but even those can work if the execution is well done. Unfortunately, there is little to make Hero’s Saga’s plot to stand out from the rest, even among cookie-cutter stories.
The game plays out like any other strategy RPG with some minor tweaks. Stages take place on 2D maps where the goal is usually to kill all enemies; or sometimes just one but you still end up killing all enemies anyway. You control a group of characters to plow through your foes and capture bases to heal up your units when needed. Each character has a skill they can use a few times per level and a passive trait exclusive to them. Despite there being over 20 stages, they all play out the same, containing no unique twists to spice things up. To make matters worse, the game plays out very slowly thanks to snail-paced movement and long waits for the AI to its move. The bases have their uses, but they’re inconveniently located and don’t heal very much. Bases are upgradeable, but because upgrading takes so long to do, you’re better off just finishing the stages.
The battles are squad-based where you have eight soldiers and a hero at your disposal. Each battle plays out in three turn bouts where the objective is to take out the enemy leader. You have three types of attacks (each with their own strengths and weaknesses), and one method of defense. After selecting your method of attack, you can choose to target the soldiers to weaken the squad or attack the leader, which usually includes killing off all the enemy soldiers anyway. Long range attacks only allow you to attack for one turn but the enemy cannot counter back. The battle animations are immensely slow, but fortunately you can speed them up by holding down the A button.
These are the basics of combat, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. Elemental strengths and weaknesses are present where fighting an enemy who is weak to your element grants you attack and accuracy bonuses. The opposite applies when things are the other way around. The element you have is determined by the weapon equipped, and its strength is determined by the proficiency your character has with the element. Also, each character has a Valhalla gauge that fills up during combat, and when it’s maxed, you can unleash a powerful Einherjar attack capable of destroying an entire squad. As a twist, the enemies also have a gauge that works the same way.
A class system is present, but it’s quite shallow. Like elements, your class is determined by the weapon equipped and each character is limited to certain weapons. Each class also provides you with a unique skill you can use during a stage. While it gives you some flexibility with strategy and character play styles, it does not get too deep. You never gain new abilities or traits, and stat growth does not change with different classes. In addition, there is little variation in melee classes and some classes aren’t particularly good due to lame skills. This is customization without the actual customization of building up classes of your choosing.
Even with all these faults, I do give the game credit for providing a challenge that actually forces you to be strategic. It starts off easy enough as you learn the ropes, and gets gradually harder as you progress. The enemies will begin to outnumber you and have an array of long range units that can safely strike you. All enemies, especially bosses, have a high HP pool that will take a while to whittle down, and the threat of their Einherjar attacks always remains. Unlike a lot of RPGs, elemental properties do make a major difference in the outcomes of battles. Regardless, the game isn’t overly difficult and any stage can be beaten with a good strategy and a little bit of grinding.
The graphics are one of the game’s stronger points, but even those aren’t great. The world and battlefield maps are plain, but that’s the only major downside. The sprites look fine, especially during battle sequences where they get close-ups with good amounts of detail and animation. To top it off, there are a variety of characters with their own unique looks. Despite slow battles, the attacks themselves look cool, especially the Einherjar ones. Last but not least, there is some good artwork present in some scenes and character avatars, but they strangely look a little bleached out.
While the graphics may be decent, the audio is easily the game’s greatest fault. The most obnoxious part is that there is only one battlefield theme that plays during every single stage, and it’s not even a good song. The rest of the music isn’t as cringe worthy, but they’re all forgettable pieces. At least the synthesized, orchestral music fits well with the medieval tone, but it’s just bland all the way through, featuring a redundant battle theme that I truly hated.
Hero’s Saga has some good points such as actual, strategic challenge and some pretty visuals, but the game as a whole is weak. It features an unengaging story, slow and boring combat, lame “customization, and the blandest musical score I’ve heard in a long time. If you want want a challenging SRPG for the DS and somehow don’t mind the flaws, give Hero’s Saga a whirl. For everyone else, feel free to pass it up for one of the many better games out this season.