Sequel to the Japan-only release of Magical Vacation (a GBA title), Magical Starsign is the second in Brownie Brown’s original RPG series. The game was published by Nintendo a week before Square Enix’s Children of Mana, and Nintendo advertised the two simultaneously as cute and quirky RPGs for the DS. I’d played around with the import version of Children of Mana, and it didn’t impress me, so I chose to go with Magical Starsign and see how it fared.
While there have been a number of games that fall into the RPG category, this is the first Turn-Based RPG for the DS that has proven itself to be a worthwhile title.
“He knew all the things that no person ought to know… like who created the universe and to what end. Why we were born and where we are going. Secret knowledge, hidden wisdom.”
This quote describes Craaken, an ancient magician whose research leads to the premise and conflict of this game’s plot. Words as deep as these aren’t often found in games as cutesy and silly as Magical Starsign. Unfortunately, that depth never gets any resolution. I’ll return to this topic shortly…
The game begins with you, the player, naming the protagonist. You have the option of a generic male or female, and you can choose whether they will be aligned with light or dark magic for the entire game (this option does not alter any events in the game, in case you were wondering). From there, you’re introduced to your five companions. They are, like many other people/places in the game, named after edible substances. Your two human companions are the boy Pico, who wields fire, and Sorbet, a master of water magic. Then you have an earth-based robot named Mokka, Lassi (the bunny girl) who has wind affinity, and a nature-loving lizard named Chai.
Learning about these characters from the start also teaches about the game’s world; there are five planets circling the sun, and each is based on a particular element. The game’s five elements are earth, water, wind, fire, HEART! Go, planet! Okay, actually, instead of “heart” we have “wood,” which is the nature-friendly element represented by the color green. The last two elements are light and dark, and the sun manages to exhibit both by going in day/night cycles on its own (while the planets revolve, they apparently don’t rotate).
All this setup happens early on, while you’re still on a planet (outside this elemental-solar-system-setup) called Kovomaka. You’re all happy little school children being taught by your dear Miss Madeleine. From the game’s start, Madeleine is summoned by the school’s principal to go on a mission to stop a wicked magician named Kale. The students learn of this, and due to a potent mix of curiosity and anxiety, the six of you scout around the school until you find some rockets stored away in a “forbidden” area of the school. The six of you hop in each of the one-man rocket ships and fly away.
Of course, each character ends up crashing on a different planet, and it’s up to you, generic male/female protagonist, to reassemble them, find Miss Madeleine, and save the world. I bet you saw that one coming.
So the premise isn’t anything exquisite. No one expected it to be. The big sell for the game’s storyline is its charm. The characters are cute and lovable, even if they are flat, and the dialogue is really translated well. Along with the usual puns and some crazy decision-making on the part of your team (and the enemy’s side), there are moments of seriousness, like the quote I used earlier. However, these points of depth, issues of philosophical importance, never get resolved. The game doesn’t even attempt to posit an answer to the question it sets up for itself. Instead, it takes an almost cliché approach by using “love conquers all” in the most senseless way of all. It is most definitely senseless for the player, who spends 90% of the game tracking down a teacher that you have no personal attachment to. She’s your school teacher, and you run around the galaxy to save her? Clearly the developers are trying to send a subliminal message to our children.
The creatures that populate the five planets of the Baklava solar system are all interesting. There are the spiny moles, the robots, the felins (cats), the otters, the lizards, the potfolk, the dwarves, the luminites, and of course, regular humans. Each planet has its own conflict that you solve, sometimes relevant to the overarching plot, and sometimes not. The almost dystopic earth planet, “Erd,” is populated by a race of robots that are programmed to survive and acquire energy by any means necessary. You can already guess at what happened to their creators, but when it’s set in a cute and happy fantasy world, the contrast within the game is almost startling.
The game was a good length for a DS title, though I couldn’t stand the predictable and short ending to the game. Still, they do say that getting there is half the fun! And really, what’s a good game if it only has a good introduction and conclusion, but no solid middle? This game is the exact opposite of the usual pitfall: weak opening/ending, enjoyable filler in the middle. I’d compare it to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with stale bread. The crusty shell around your tasty treat doesn’t kill the experience, but it certainly doesn’t help things.
Magical Starsign gets standard marks on its storyline, but I wish I could put the 75% in a different color, as if to say “it’s an average score, but this isn’t your average storyline.” You expect it to be whimsical and charming the whole way through, but those surprise moments of depth and darkness are what kept me going through the entirety of the game.
It was only three weeks after Magical Starsign that Final Fantasy III was released in the US. Other than Final Fantasy III, I’m unaware of any other game for the DS that includes CG motion video cutscenes. Final Fantasy III only has its well-known opening movie, but Magical Starsign has a good five to ten minutes’ worth (my estimate) of FMVs scattered throughout the game. The encoding quality is low, so there’s plenty of blurry, pixelated stuff happening on the two screens… which is a shame, because these graphics are beautiful! Characters are put into anime, but everything else is made of an almost claymation-style low-quality CG landscape. Think of the original version of Cyan’s “Myst,” and you’ll have a good idea of what I’m talking about here. I loved the game’s cutscenes, and I’m glad to see that companies are willing to invest putting CG scenes in a cartridge-based game.
The in-game stuff is fun, colorful, and well animated. The point regarding animation goes particularly towards the battles, which have excellent graphics compared to other RPGs on the DS. I’ve never been happier with 2D animation, and some of the tricks the developers used were amazing! For example, a few of the boss battles include interactive backgrounds, where the boss will use a special attack where he somehow works with the background to attack you. The best of these was an enemy who jumped up onto the top of a mountain (at the top-left of the top screen) and then whirled and spun incredibly fast down a spiraling trail through hills and valleys to eventually show up at the bottom screen and run your whole party through! I was really wowed by this sort of graphical creativity, as few developers show it anymore these days (instead they just rely on the prowess of their sharp images…)
Even if you’re not a fan of all the bright pastels sported in this game, the cutscenes and battle animation should help you get through, should you choose it. These graphics get a 90% from me.
Magical Starsign’s music comes from Tsukasa Masuko, a composing veteran who earned his name by working for many older titles in Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei series. Masuko-san sported some catchy battle themes for the game, but that was about all that stood out to me. Town themes were standard, event themes were dull, and character themes didn’t really exist. The soundtrack is relatively small for the scope of the game, but like I said, the battle themes (as well as the variety of battle themes) actually make up for it!
The game’s sound effects are spot-on, and there are plenty of them throughout the game, for both exploration and combat. There is no voice acting, but characters do make the occasional yell or grunt in battle, giving the fights a very “next-gen” aura.
All in all, the sound department was solid, but not to the point where it stands out or is something I would remember the game for. It gets an 80%.
To date, only a handful of Turn-Based RPGs have been released for the DS. The two screens, the stylus, and the touch screen tend to attract more adventure, strategy RPG, and action RPG titles than the more traditional turn-based game. Off-hand, I can think of Lunar Dragon Song, Final Fantasy III, and a Pokémon game; otherwise, it’s all RPG-ish, but not the “real deal” so to speak. FFIII worked primarily off of one screen (especially during battle), and Lunar Dragon Song was a failure in nearly every aspect. Magical Starsign, ladies and gentlemen, is the first Turn-Based RPG on the DS to really “get it right” in terms of gameplay.
The team is made up of six characters (maximum). Each characters takes his or her turn at a time, with enemies interrupting when it is their turn (all of this depending on one’s agility). Despite having seven different basic commands during battle, the majority of time your characters will be casting magic. In this game, magic is the staple form of attack, with physical attacks holding more of a “reserve” function for special occasions (“I’m out of mp!”, “this enemy is immune to my magic element!”, “none of my spells are hurting this guy!”) Other commands include changing rows (which is very important in this game), guarding, running away, using items, and the handy “repeat” command (do whatever you did last time).
Like I said, magic is the mainstay option. Each character learns five spells exclusive to their element, but they can also learn element-neutral spells with varying effects. The first spell, for instance, is “Celestial Swap,” an important spell that can determine the outcome of a battle. See, there’s this “astrolog” that shows the current location of the five planets. This map is broken up into five portions, each portion corresponding to one of the elements. When the fire planet is in line with the fire element’s section, all fire characters (friend and foe) “power up” and do double damage with fire attacks. If you’re attacking an enemy that’s weak to fire, you’re actually quadrupling damage; so you can see how this strongly affects gameplay (light and dark turn on and off based on day/night patterns, so it’s always one or the other for your protagonist).
So, not only is the timing of a battle important in terms of how the planets are aligned, but there is also a “timed attack” feature involved. Found originally in games like Super Mario RPG and Final Fantasy VIII, the “timed attacks” allow for a critical bonus by hitting a button the moment an attack is executed. In this case, however, you can do it with magic, and you can do it only by using the stylus to tap the character the moment prior to the spell being cast. It’s a tricky move, but once you master it, battles become much less stressful. Timed extremely well, I suppose there are some bosses in the game that can go down in one hit, given it is the perfect hit.
Some other complex features of battle mechanics are the rows. In the front row, you are more susceptible to all forms of damage. However, your magic attacks are stronger and focused on single enemies in the front row, and you can use physical attacks as well. Back row has the benefit of defense, but they cannot melee at all, and all their spells are automatically “grouped” instead of singular (depending on the spell, the “grouping” can vary from “six random hits to various enemies” or “hit all enemies equally in a spread”). The same goes for healing magic, and it’s a no-brainer that you’ll want to put your main healers in the back row. Sometimes, there are battles that will require some row-swapping. For example, if your foe is weak to the element of a character in the back row, said character may want to move to the front row to cause massive damage (I had to say it). Likewise, another character who proves useless in the battle may want to fall to the back row and focus on healing and support since their attacks are ineffective on this particular enemy. The elements determine a lot of how one ought to play the game… though one can win simply by level-grinding and paying no mind to strategy.
Speaking of, the leveling system in this game is excellent for a handheld. It’s a simple 100 experience points to go from one level to the next, and the points are handed out relatively based on the level of the enemy you defeated (much like, say, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance). In 20 hours, my characters were at level 50. You generally level up every 3 to 4 battles, so it keeps you feeling like the game progresses quickly.
Alright, so that’s all I wanted to say about battling and growth. The only pitfall I found with this game was the burden of moving the plot along through exploration. Let it be known: I hate generic fetch quests. “Hey hero from another world, can you bring me the canteen of watery goodness? I seemed to have dropped it in yonder ridiculous dungeon, and if you don’t get it, I won’t tell you where you need to go next!” I don’t know how many times it’s been used in RPGs over the ages, but there are plenty of ways to make good, lengthy RPGs without ever resorting to this cheap trick! Every time it happened, I turned off the DS and came back after cooling down to actually complete the inane task.
It’s good that these fetch quests didn’t happen too much in the game, or I likely would’ve quit the game instead of finishing it. That said, there are a few of these quests, and they’re no good.
Exploration in general has its ups and downs. They balanced the annoying “go here go there go everywhere” of fetch quests by incorporating a warp system, allowing the party to easily hop from one part of a planet to another (given you had previously visited and handed some random item to a guy named “Pizza”). They also have plenty of HP/MP healing pots around dungeons, and the “save anywhere” feature (which ought to exist in every DS RPG by now) made me a happy player. What didn’t make me happy? Generally, not knowing where to go next was a frequent problem. That problem is slightly more nagging than the problem of forgetting to save (because the game is generally easy) and then running into one nasty boss unexpectedly and dying. I’m not asking for RPGs to get any easier than they already are, but for a game that’s designed for a younger audience, I think a “try this battle again?” option (for boss battles only) would have saved me and other players a boatload of frustration. Brownie points to the developers who do, because Brownie Brown didn’t do it. No Brownie points for Brownie Brown!
One final issue I had, which I’ve had with plenty of DS games, is the “Wi-Fi only bonus.” If you have some friends who own Magical Starsign (you probably won’t), you can link up with them from time to time to find, raise, and hatch eggs. These eggs end up being different characters that randomly show up during battle to help out your team. I myself never experienced them because, of course, I didn’t know anyone else who owned Magical Starsign. It’s a neat idea, but it’s simply too much of a hassle!
All in all, the heavily strategic battles and linear plotline made this RPG a joy to play. It could have used a few touch-ups, and if people were as perfect as I apparently am (I know, it’s hard for we reviewers to be humble), I would have graded the game slightly higher. I can’t say the gameplay was “excellent,” but it was definitely on the upper end of “good.” Let’s give gameplay an 86%.
The controls are forced into a stylus-heavy mode. The “A B X Y” buttons on the right do the exact same things as the D-Pad on the left; they move your characters around. This immediately accommodates both left-handed and right-handed people without having to ask the player, “are you left-handed or right-handed?” and then adjusting buttons accordingly. L and R have a few functions, but I don’t recall Start and Select doing anything relevant in the game. Menu navigation is stylus only, as are battle commands and the “timed attacks” and gimmick spells within battle. You are constantly using your stylus, and if you can do without the D-Pad for movement, you can play the entire game without touching a single button. Indeed, it seems the developers were trying to encourage just such a method of gameplay. I wish menu navigation had been made more button-friendly, but I suppose they were trying to flaunt the DS’s assets.
And flaunt they did! I had virtually no trouble playing this game. The timed attacks were, admittedly, difficult to master, but once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty easy to execute time and time again. If your DS (particularly the touch screen) is worn out, that would make playing this game a problem. As for me, I was playing on a shiny new Coral Pink Nintendo DS, and the game ran so smoothly, I was in handheld heaven.
It took some getting used to, but the control scheme and user interface for Magical Starsign are very sleek and very fun to use. I award the game’s control an 88%.
The highest review I’d given a DS RPG yet was a 90%, and that went to Taito’s LostMagic, an interesting RTS/traditional-strategy/action RPG hybrid. Magical Starsign does an excellent job at taking the classic Turn-Based RPG formula and turning it into something fun for Nintendo’s new handheld device. Brownie Brown succeeded where others failed, and that’s something we can all be happy about. If this review, or perhaps the game’s artwork, strikes you as something worth investigating further, know that I do recommend this game to people that already feel a bit of interest for the game. Skeptics may as well stay away: you probably won’t enjoy it as much as we easy-to-please, perpetual-youth gamers do. I’m ranking Magical Starsign as “good” on the scale of “excellent” to “poor,” and the game earns an overall score of 83%. I anxiously await what the guys and gals at Brownie Brown have in store for us next; hopefully it doesn’t go downhill from here.