Hexyz Force is the latest RPG from Sting, who has graced gamers with such quirky, yet delightfully fun games as Riviera, Yggdra Union, and Knights in the Nightmare. Although these games may have had some traditional JRPG motifs, they were anything but conventional, making them memorable to both fans and critics. Hexyz Force may be Sting’s most straightforward and accessible title, but it is also a fun and refined JRPG that is currently my favorite PSP RPG for 2010.
Most RPG players claim that graphics aren’t important in RPGs and that it’s the story, gameplay, music, heart, soul, mojo, or whatever else that really matters. However, with story-centric games like Final Fantasy XIII and Heavy Rain sporting genre-defining graphics, it is becoming harder for a less good-looking RPG or graphic adventure to get noticed. That’s not to say Hexyz Force looks bad. It’s more akin to the girl who looks like a plain Jane but has a vibrant personality that makes her irresistable.
Technically speaking, Hexyz Force looks like a top-shelf 3D DS game, albeit with higher resolution and a richer color palette. The backgrounds and dialogue portraits look clean, but the somewhat chibi polygonal characters look a bit jagged, particularly during close-ups. The graphics get the job done, and they certainly don’t look bad, but they don’t look great either, save for the anime FMV cutscenes peppered throughout the game. Those look lovely and have decent English voice acting.
The music is lovely as well. Stylistically, it’s the kind of orchestral fare with occasional modern touches that players expect from a fantasy JRPG. I found all of the music quite enjoyable to listen to. My favorite piece was the theme that played during the Altair dungeon. Sure, the pieces don’t pass the “remember the melodies” test, and I did not find myself humming the tunes while doing chores around the house, but they serve their intended contexts in the game very well. A really nice touch is that some themes, like the battle themes, are different depending on which protagonist’s story you decide to follow.
Like many RPGs, Hexyz Force employs a dual protagonist system. I like dual protagonist systems, because it allows the game world to be showcased through unique perspectives. Some dual protagonist games, like Star Ocean: The Second Story, have the two protagonists meet early on in the game, then journey together toward a common objective. Others, like Kartia, give each protagonist a divergent storyline where the two only cross paths once in a while. In Kartia, players chose to follow the story of either a foolhardy knight named Toxa or an earnest shrine maiden named Lacryma. Both had distinct storylines with completely different parties and only crossed paths every once in a while.
Hexyz Force is just like Kartia in that regard, and the two games share other similarities as well. Players can either follow the story of a knight named Levant or a shrine maiden named Cecilia. Each protagonist follows a wildly different path, recruits unique party members, and only crosses paths with the other occasionally. Levant is the more earnest character, with a darker storyline, whereas Cecilia is a slacker with a more lighthearted storyline. I completed Cecilia’s storyline in about 25 hours and have spent a few hours in Levant’s storyline as of this writing. Each protagonist has a couple of endings depending on actions taken and decisions made in the game, and completing both protagonists’ storylines yields the ultimate ending. The really cool part is that dialogue choices made in one character’s scenario are represented in the other character’s scenario.
The overall plot is basically a “chosen one and his/her companions visit a bunch of ancient shrines to restore balance to the light and dark sides of the world” story, but the refined storytelling keeps it from falling into the mire of mediocrity. Atlus has delivered another excellent localization, and the lengthy narrative cutscenes flesh out the two protagonists very well. Levant and Cecilia were both believable, and I could feel their frustration as they were suddenly thrust into situations well outside their comfort zones and had to come to grips with being in the unfamiliar “deep end.” Both faced similar kinds of crises, yet their opposite personalities lent unique perspectives to those parallel scenarios. This was a nice change from the average JRPG story where characters immediately take to situational upheavals and unexpected responsibilities like fish to water.
On the other hand, anyone who has played a turn-based JRPG will take to Hexyz Force like a fish to water. The smooth interface and traditional gameplay are pretty direct, and though there are some tiny deviations from the norm, there is nothing superfluous or gimmicky. Even aspects I normally dislike in RPGs, such as breakable weapons and a lack of shops, are done so well in Hexyz Force that they are strategic, streamlined fun and never a frustrating nuisance. That a game can turn aspects I dislike into tolerable, even enjoyable gameplay elements deserves serious praise.
Players will need to get very friendly with the easy-to-use item creation system for all of their equipment needs and, thanks to enemies being generous with drops, players will always have item creation options. Characters can equip up to four weapons with built-in skills. These weapons have a durability statistic, meaning they have limited uses, though key characters have special permanent weapons that cannot break and can be upgraded. Players will need to create the right weapons, equipment, accessories, and advanced item components for every situation using the raw materials earned from felled enemies. Enemies possess rock-paper-scissors traits, so the right tool for the job will mean the difference between victory and death, especially since they have a limited number of uses. Normally, as I mentioned, I loathe breakable weapons in RPGs, but I found it strategically fun in Hexyz Force. Go figure, huh?
Another strategic component is that since traditional recovery items are unavailable and cannot be used in battle, players cannot rely on the crutch of stockpiling potions. Thus, equipment infused with healing skills needs to be created and used judiciously, and with only four equipment slots per character and limited-use weapons, a balance between offense and defense is paramount. Along with experience and raw materials, players gain FP (Force Points) in battle, and FP are the in-game currency redeemable for item creation, weapon upgrading, and even fully restoring party HP on the fly. Imagine an RPG where you have access to shops and an inn any time you want merely by accessing the menu. That’s Hexyz Force. The streamlined gameplay systems make progression throughout the game very smooth.
Contributing to the smooth progression is that dungeons are never cumbersome to traverse and, thanks to an automapper, players can easily figure out their way from point A to point B and even plan detours for treasure. Enemies can be seen on the field, and the encounter rate is quite manageable, making for pleasurable exploration. Battles can be challenging if players are careless, though, and the many boss battles in the final two chapters of the game spanked me pretty hard.
If I had to lobby any complaints, one would be the lack of a quicksave feature. Save points are fine and all, but since Hexyz Force is a handheld RPG, a quicksave feature should be mandatory. The other would be that outside of story elements, little was carried over in the clear data from one scenario to the other. Thus, the second playthrough is not an easy ride. Still, to end this paragraph on a positive note, the fast-forward button for battles and cutscenes is a very nice convenience.
The game’s minor deviations from JRPG norms may seem a little complicated at first, but it’s very streamlined and easy to pick up and play. Unlike in Xenosaga II, I hardly noticed the lack of shops, nor did I miss them. I was even cool with the breakable weapons. Who would have thought that normally crummy RPG ideas would translate into something enjoyable in Hexyz Force? This is like making brussels sprouts palatable to young children, and it showcases Sting’s strength as a developer.
My final verdict is that I enjoyed Hexyz Force a lot; even more than my scores would indicate. The game was really good, no doubt about it. Not only was it fun and refined, but it made normally detestable gameplay features delectable. That’s a notable feat in my book. The game was “unputdownable” for me, and I think it’s a fine addition to any PSP owner’s library. Sure there may be better RPGs out there that are more innovative, forward-thinking, creatively designed, or employ more unique ideas than the fairly traditional Hexyz Force, but when a game tickles my mojo, it tickles my mojo, and Hexyz Force definitely tickled my mojo.