How far can the tortured run away from the ghosts of the past? Drowning grief in the present and basking in the crimson glow of war: how much blood must be spilled before heartaches numb? Can a soul consumed with the fires of vengeance ever hope for redemption? Why does Man seek to impose his will on the unknown, but destroys what he does not understand? These are but a few of the questions players will find themselves asking as they embark on this latest epic RPG for the PlayStation 2, Magna Carta: Tears of Blood.
A collaborative effort between Korean developer Softmax and Banpresto of Japan, localized by Atlus, Magna Carta: Tears of Blood is a tale about the adventures of the swordsman Calintz. RPG fans might recall his first journey in the original Magna Carta: the Phantom of Avalanche for the Korean PC market several years ago. Sadly, domestic gamers missed out on that incredible voyage. However, we still have reason to be happy; Tears of Blood is a chronicle of a much younger Calintz, on a significantly larger adventure for a broader audience. Atlus has even included a deluxe edition of the game which includes a slick combination artbook/strategy guide and an exlusive poster for a mere $5 extra. As the first Softmax developed title to reach our shores, Tears of Blood has some serious competition for your RPG holiday dollars. Do they have a shot at breaking into the big leagues? Let’s take a look and see what we find.
A Tale of Loss
Magna Carta introduces us to the continent of Efferia, a land in perpetual turmoil. Several hundred years ago, humanity’s homeland was overrun by a fatal plague. Many sought to escape this eventual death sentence by setting sail across the sea in hopes of finding a new home untouched by the ravages of disease. Thus they arrived on the shores of Efferia, home of the Yason. While almost identical in appearance to humans, outside of their strange ear shapes, the Yason were masters of the elemental energies of the land, known as Chi. For a time, the Yason co-existed with the settling humans. Mainly staying out of each others’ ways, the humans and the Yason had an initially peaceful relationship. Though, as the humans spread deeper into Efferia, the Yason soon found themselves displaced. The humans would go on to establish the nations of Garute, Maracatte, Bayer and Amabat, leaving the tribal Yason to fend for themselves. That was until the advent of Queen Amila, a strong ruler who brought together the seven tribes of Yason under one banner. Newly united, these tribes would found the nation of Yason-Roven in the south. Between the disputes over territory and natural resources, outright fighting began. These incidents would erupt into a full scale war between the Yason and the Alliance of human nations. Into this conflict we are thrust.
In true RPG fashion, we begin the adventure with a nightmare. A village stands burning in the night; a young boy (the sole survivor) faces his would-be executioner. He is saved by a mysterious swordsman, and is given a choice that would shape his life for many years to come. Thus are players introduces to the main protagonist Calintz, who is brought shockingly awake as these revenants of the past continue to haunt him. Ever since that encounter, this child turned warrior has devoted his life to the arts of the blade. Initially, his sole purpose was to avenge those who died during the Yason raid on his home, but would discover that he was not the only victim of the war. Selling his skills, he eventually joined the “Tears of Blood,” an elite mercenary group dedicated to fighting the Yason. Each of his newfound comrades shares similar feelings of loss in the war, as well as an undying hatred of the Yason.
Shaking off the nightmare, Calintz gathers the other members of Tears of Blood for an important meeting with General Agreian of the Alliance. They are briefed on a mission that could potentially end the war in a single stroke for the human Alliance. The General requests that the Tears of Blood escort and protect a group of mages on a journey deep into Yason territory to summon “Forbidden Magic” against Epentar, capital city of Yason-Revon. With some concerns about using the arcane against the Yason, the Tears of Blood agree to complete the task, and are dispatched with haste. Surprisingly, the operation is completed without much difficulty, but upon summoning the Forbidden Magic, there is an accident. The surge of magical energy meant to destroy Epentar is reflected. The backlash of Chi is catastrophic. The Alliance assumes that the Yason Queen Amila is responsible for the failure of the Forbidden Magic. They suspect that she has unleashed the power of the Magna Carta, an artifact of seemingly limitless power. Dumbfounded and reeling from their failure, the Tears of Blood and forces from the Alliance flee, but are attacked by the Yason elite guards: the Blast Worms. Barely surviving the attack of one of the Four Heroes of Yason, Calintz is separated from his companions.
Beaten and bruised, Calintz finds himself in a cave with a strange young woman who manages to heal him. He discovers that she has amnesia, but remembers her name: Reith. After witnessing her healing magic, Calintz assumes that Reith is a priestess of Amabat and promises to return her to her people and hopefully restore her memory. Reith gladly agrees to follow Calintz and thus the wheels are set in motion for a journey of epic proportions. What began as a cross country trek to Amabat turns into a race for survival. The Yason, hell-bent on destroying the humans who have invaded their territory, have taken a particular interest in the amnesiac priestess. Their intent is to capture Reith at all costs, yet no one seems to know why. Without the benefit of her memory of the war, Reith’s outspoken tolerance of Yason eventually lands her and Calintz on the Alliance’s bad side. Even a few members of the Tears of Blood themselves begin to question Calintz about Reith’s motives. By the time players finally reach Amabat, the storyline explodes as we begin to see shades of intrigue within both the Alliance and the Yason. With the beginnings of a romance between the two heroes, we are also thrust into a voyage to gather elemental artifacts, unlock the mystery behind the Magna Carta, the Yason’s Light of Salvation — uncovering Reith’s lost memory among other grave tasks. In fact, Tears of Blood contains enough new plot revelations to make even the most jaded RPG fan’s head spin. To divulge any further would be sacrilege, but there is no doubt that the storyline is sizeable as well as commendable. Sadly, the extremely slow pacing of the storytelling seriously detracts from what is otherwise a very well scripted drama. RPG fans will have to endure several hours of relatively innocuous events before the storyline finally blossoms into fine form, and even then the pace is moderate.
Players are treated to frequent flashbacks of Calintz’s youth to validate his motives, and they do a good bit to lend him characterization, though the degree of foreshadowing within these old memories make some of the most potent revelations quite predictable. The other central characters in the drama aren’t as well-defined, but do have some depth. Atlus has done an impressive job of translating the girth of text, and a respectable job of voice casting the majority of the pivotal plot events. Unfortunately, some inconsistent voice acting takes some credibility out of the script. Outside of the incredibly slow start and progression, Magna Carta: Tears of Blood does a commendable job of painting a world at war: filled with the fears and hopes of a band of people caught between the intrigues of governments vying for supremacy via powers mortals were never meant to possess. Magna Carta: Tears of Blood is a compelling tale of personal loss, prejudice, innocent love and blind ambition —- if players have the patience to go the distance.
Visually, Tears of Blood is very attractive but falls just short of impressive. Fully rendered in 3D, the continent of Efferia and its denizens have been realized by master artists. With character design by a renowned artist, Hyung-Tae Kim, every participant in this drama is lushly illustrated in his unique anime-style before conversion to polygons. The talented In-Jun Jang lends his accomplished paintbrush to the sprawling, almost fantastical landscape that Calintz and company call home. Relative illustration newcomer Kyung-Jin Lee is responsible for the design of the menacing bestiary. Looking at the body of work between these three artists, one might imagine it impossible that the depth and detail of their work could never be completely converted into a 3D world. Surprisingly, the transition from ink and paint to polygons for Tears of Blood is quite good, if not better than many previous attempts, but suffers from several technical flaws. While some characters are very well detailed and animated, others seem to be plagued by complex illustrations mapped on low polygon count models. When static, these characters look great, but when they begin to move, one can’t help but feel disappointed. The lack of anti-aliasing of the PS2 is also painfully apparent as the character models suffer from pixelization and edge-shimmering when the camera is close.
The villages and towns throughout the game are amazingly well designed, lending an international flavor to Efferia. Players will see architectural designs inspired by Asian, Middle Eastern and European themes that are integrated seamlessly. Even the more fantastical locales are vibrantly original. Also, these backgrounds lend themselves to polygons much more readily than characters, so the effect is much more satisfying. Sadly, the one dark mark on this otherwise remarkable design is technical. The camera is automatic and doesn’t allow the player to investigate and appreciate their surroundings. In fact, it doesn’t do a very good job of showing off the territory in many locations.
The in-game special effects are well done, but nothing that gamers haven’t seen before. Speed lines, lens flares and motion blurs are par for course for anime-styled RPG combat, and the formula hasn’t been altered in any form here. The designers have placed a background blur in areas players can see far in the distance, which clears when gamers get closer. This effect is novel, but causes some unsightly pop-up because NPCs aren’t included in the blur. This leads to people literally popping into existence from thin air as this effect veil is pulled back.
Overall, the artistic talent placed into Magna Carta: Tears of Blood rivals even the most accomplished RPG production houses today, but stumbles over big feet due to technical limitations. Perhaps the aging architecture of the PlayStation 2 is to blame, or Softmax’s inexperience with the hardware in comparison to the PC. Who knows? Despite these small flaws, the visuals are well-done and inspired, but fail to hold the same impact of the original design illustrations.
Songs of Wonder
Acoustically, there is a lot to love about Tears of Blood. However, I will warn players to ignore the amateurish ’80s soul singer in the opening cinema. While it made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end, it is in no way indicative of the quality of the game’s soundtrack.
Even without a score performed by a Philharmonic orchestra, the music in Tears of Blood is nonetheless inspired. Taking lessons from the artistic melting pot of the locales, players will experience a many tiered soundtrack with heavy emphasis on wind and string instruments, highlighted with deep percussion and guitar when events get tense. In a genre where we’ve seen the same musical styles perpetuated ad nauseum, Tears of Blood is a fresh melody in a cacophony of tired tunes. Sadly, even though the score is new and refreshing, the game lacks a memorable cornerstone melody. There is no “Liberi Fatali” in this experience, and this is something of a disappointment. Ah well, we can’t have everything, can we?
To further along the dramatic presentation of the game, many key storyline cinemas feature full voice acting. Sadly, the disparity between voice actors is only rivaled by some awkwardly written lines. Most of the central characters like Calintz are impressively personified thanks to top-notch voice work, but supporting characters suffer dramatically. The muscle-bound Haren, for example, is so badly performed that I was tempted to club myself repeatedly in the head until I lost my sense of hearing. Even Reith, who is a pivotal character in the game, goes from demure to babbling idiot in a matter of lines. One has to wonder if it is the actress or just the script writers who are bi-polar. While there are some very well-done interactions, many of them seem so awkward and forced that perhaps the dialogue should have been left in Japanese and simply subtitled.
In summary, Tears of Blood has an enjoyable score, which, while missing a singularly powerful anthem, still maintains a freshness RPG fans have craved for years. The voice-acting, however, is like a box of chocolates: some sweet, some bitter and some simply nutty.
A Lifetime to Master
With dramatic artistic direction and an original score, the real fruit of this experience lies in the plethora of gameplay mechanics within Tears of Blood. In this aspect, Softmax and Banpresto have to be commended for bravery. Their attempt is nothing short of literally re-inventing the wheel.
The first dramatic gameplay change we see in Magna Carta is how players engage the enemy in the overworld. While most games rely on random battles or visual representations of the encounter, Tears of Blood fuses the two and mutates them into the Detect and Dash system. Once players are in a dungeon or traveling on land between locations, they can choose between two stances. The Dash stance is the default, which allows you to run through the map, but limits the radius of your enemy detection (shown as a faint pulsing transparent gold bubble around Calintz). So while you have the benefit of speed, you are more likely to run face first into an enemy. The other stance is the Detect stance. With a single button press, Calintz draws his sword and the radius of his enemy detection expands enormously, but his movements are a much slower, steady battle-ready pace. In Detect mode, enemies will appear not only on screen, but on your mini-map with a Metal Gear Solid-style range of vision. If Calintz can approach an enemy without being seen and slashes his sword across them, the party gets a surprise attack when the battle begins. Likewise, if Calintz is seen before he can either escape or attack in Detect mode, the enemy gains an attack of opportunity when the battle begins. With this change, players will have to take traveling and fighting with a more cautious approach. While this element of strategy is refreshing, it slows the pace of progression dramatically. Unfortunately, the loading time between battles is quite long, and the transition of maps even longer, which makes this unique caveat somewhat embittering. Also worthy of mention is the Rest Mode. With the touch of another button, Calintz will kneel on his sword, and the health of the entire party will gradually regenerate to full. This can be done anywhere outside of towns.
With the encounter system explained, we now look at the central aspect of combat, the Chi system. While most RPGs rely on simple statistics like mana points (MP) or some other kind of ability currency, Tears of Blood uses the elemental attributes of a location to define what you can and cannot do. In summary, there are eight elemental aspects of Chi, both complementary and opposing. The individual attacks of your party require a certain type of Chi before the special move can be performed. Enemy attacks also follow the same rules. The complication is that both the player and the opponent draw from the same pool of eight Chi. Once depleted, moves that require that kind of Chi cannot be performed until the energy levels are allowed to regenerate. The specific amount of Chi available is determined by the location. For example, mountain regions will be very rich in Earth and Mountain Chi, perhaps a moderate amount of Wind Chi, and probably very little or no Water Chi. Likewise, in a swamp, we might see extraordinary levels of Water Chi, some Wind Chi, but never Fire or Light Chi. Needless to say, the environment determines your strategy and character lineup because certain characters are adept in specific kinds of Chi-based attacks.
Now, there is a work-around to this limitation. Players can use certain items called Talismans to increase specific kinds of Chi in battle, but due to the complementary and opposing nature of Chi, it can dramatically affect other kinds of Chi. For example, boosting Ice Chi in battle will severely deplete Fire and Light Chi available. This rule also applies to the Elemental Lanterns scattered about each area. These powerful sources of Chi can be changed by the player to regulate desirable Chi on a much larger scale than in single fights. Changing the element of a Chi Lantern will affect the entire area held by the device. Players will have to be careful not to alter the nature of a Lantern too greatly, as using certain opposing elemental talismans can outright destroy a lantern, which depletes that elemental stock permanently.
With this explanation of how Chi is the decisive factor in which abilities will be available to a player, we can discuss the Trinity Circle, Trinity Drive and Combat Styles. The Trinity Circle determines the success or failure of an attack. Resembling a hybrid of the Judgment Ring from Shadow Hearts and the Deathblow System a la Xenogears, the Trinity Circle requires players to hit combinations of buttons in a specific timed rhythm in order to successfully perform an attack. Successfully hitting the correct combination of buttons as their corresponding symbols spins around and reaches the apex of the wheel will result in the performing of that attack. Miss the timing or the button, and the entire attack fails, losing you the turn and subtracting that amount of Chi from the elemental pool. To succeed, failure is not an option, ever. The major issue with this is that players have to have a good degree of hand-eye coordination in order to succeed. There is no auto-attack outside of the Trinity Wheel. Failure to master this skill means players will never see beyond their first fight. The Trinity Drive is an Overdrive system, which builds when the player perfectly executes his moves. When unleashed, it acts as a damage multiplier for the next attack or spell used. If you fail in the Trinity Circle at any time, the Trinity Drive percentage drops to zero.
Regarding Combat Styles, we begin to see how the Trinity Wheel fully develops as the core of the combat engine. When the game begins, each character in the player’s party starts with one combat style containing one move. As they fight, assuming they perform their moves perfectly (the trinity wheel grades successful button presses) they will perceive new moves in that school, similar to Xenogears, and add to their repertoire. These skills will sometimes require different kinds of Chi, but usually complementary Chi. Because of this, certain characters are better battle partners for different situations in the beginning of the adventure. As the game progresses, players will learn new styles for each character which effectively broadens their combat scope. Thankfully, each style concentrates on specific schools of Chi, and can be swapped out easily in battle. In the first few hours of the game, the Chi system really limits combat options until new, more diverse styles are learned. However, not all styles are easy to come by. Many are learned from scrolls dropped by bosses, but several key styles are learned from Dojo Masters. In order to learn their styles, you have to defeat them.
Once all the moves in a particular style are learned, the ultimate ability of that style is learned. This comes in two flavors: Combo or Counter. Combo allows players to execute an extremely devastating special attack on par with Final Fantasy’s Limit Breaks. When a combo is started, players will first complete a simple 3-button combination to start the Combo Wheel. In order to successfully complete the combo, players will have to hit every symbol as it reaches the apex (between 8 and 21 symbols) accurately. If even a single symbol is missed or mis-timed, the combo fails completely. The challenging part is that the Combo Wheel spins twice as fast as the Trinity Circle. Counter is even more challenging. This move allows players to counterattack an enemy by guessing the button presses of the enemy’s attack. When this is enabled, a Trinity Circle shows up when an enemy attacks, but the symbols are unknown, so the player must guess the correct symbols as the buttons spin to the apex. Sounds frustrating? It is, but with practice, it becomes manageable but is never easy.
The next new concept introduced in Tears of Blood is that of Leadership. As combat takes place in real-time, the progression of time is shown in the Leadership bar (similar to the Timeline Bar in Grandia). In battle, players have the ability to switch between characters in their party and move around freely in battle until a notch in the enemy or player Leadership bar is reached. This denotes the capacity to perform an action: either an attack, using an item, switching styles, or running away. While switching styles does not forfeit an action, all other abilities do, and thereby deducting progress along the Leadership bar by a fixed amount. Running around the combat field will freeze the progress of your Leadership bar, but not that of your enemy, unless he is also in motion. The amount of notches in your Leadership bar, i.e. the amount of actions you can take, is determined by the Charisma of the character vs. the Charisma and number of your enemies. As more enemies are slain, the notches in the Leadership bar for each of your characters increases. To add to that system, there are Talismans that can increase party Charisma or decrease enemy Charisma, which can turn the tides of even the most difficult battle.
On the subject of Talismans, they are not only important tools in combat; they alsohave many other uses. While we’ve discussed how they can alter the flow of elemental Chi and give the upper hand in combat with manipulation of Charisma, they are also the healing agents and curative items in the game. Talismans can be used to resurrect fallen allies, cure poisons, or boost statistics temporarily, among a host of other uses. Talismans drop off of monsters, are found in chests, or are bought in stores, but the rarest are player-made.
Players can visit Fortune Tellers who will allow you to combine Talismans in hopes of creating new, rare Talismans. While only two Talismans can be combined at a time, the finished product is determined by the order in which you choose the ingredients. While this system really adds a great deal of customization and flexibility, the sheer number of Talismans in the game makes tracking combinations difficult. Players will be able to view all inventory Talismans in detail, but the game does not track combinations on its own, which makes recreating many of the Talismans a chore unless you wrote them down previously.
The Fortune Tellers aren’t just limited to combining Talismans; they can also tell your fortune for a price. These bestow certain benefits or penalties in battle. Fear not, as unfavorable fortunes can be erased for a price, but cannot be retold for some time. They will also be able to appraise many mysterious items that you discover along your journey.
On top of the already diverse and deep systems found within the game, there is also weapon customization. During the adventure, players will meet several renowned blacksmiths who will offer their services for a price. Many weapons can be bought outright from their stock, but the more industrious players will want to complete their quests. Completing a blacksmith’s quest usually involves handing over several combinations of rare items found in certain areas plus a lot of money. This usually results in receiving one of a kind weapons and equipment. These quests can only be done once, so players should take advantage of them. Also, they offer upgrade services for many pieces of equipment, usually the ones they sell. The upgrade process involves finding several items such as ores and talismans, which will permanently upgrade your current weapon etc. into something completely new. The upgrade system can be repeated for each piece of equipment that particular blacksmith is capable of improving as long as you have the money and the reagents.
Last but certainly not least, we come to the Trust System. This mini-game allows Calintz to have conversations with his fellow companions at Inns and Save Points. Depending on his responses their faith in him will increase or decrease. This results in certain bonuses in battle. Over time, Trust will return to default levels, so players should take every opportunity to build trust as often as possible. If conversation doesn’t seem to please a particular party member, you can resort to giving gifts to boost their trust. Unfortunately, gift items can be expensive at vendors, and are frequently required in blacksmith quests and upgrades. Also, there is a degree of randomness as to how effective a gift will be, if at all. Likewise, attempting to give the same gift over and over again will more than likely decrease trust than improve it.
With all of that said, Magna Carta: Tears of Blood overflows with new and innovative gameplay concepts the likes of which most RPGs never see. While this is a phenomenal achievement, sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. The complexity and skill required in mastering the combat system takes time and a lot of practice. This is not a game that you can simply jump into and play. Though there is an in-depth tutorial for most of these gameplay additions, it can be overwhelming at times. Likewise, due to the depth of these concepts, there is no intuitive feeling, which will likely be a turn-off for the more casual players. Also, many of these systems slow down the pace of the game dramatically. While I can appreciate the ideas put into them, they aren’t integrated well enough to allow for ease of play. I believe that Softmax had the best intentions with the gameplay design, and some aspects work very well, but overall they make the game too complex for its own good. Had they streamlined them and sped up the execution, then we would have seen a complete revolution in the way we play RPGs.
Tripping Over Your Own Feet
Even with the benefit of fantastic art design, a novel score, and complex gameplay, Magna Carta: Tears of Blood stumbles awkwardly in fundamental control. The Graphic User Interface (GUI) is simple enough, but can provide too much information too quickly in the real-time battles. Players trying to keep track of Chi levels of the area and requirements of attacks while monitoring the Leadership Bar and swapping between characters is unnerving for the first few hours. To counterbalance this, we have agonizingly long loading times between fights and areas. The camera is especially atrocious. Softmax opted for an automatic camera which has been used with great cinematic success in other RPGs. Sadly, the camera follows too close in many situations, completely obscuring the surroundings and enemies. Also, with the frequent changes in angle between areas, the camera tends to favor the most dramatic positions, which makes movement an exercise in frustration. Heading north, only to have a scene shift in which the camera has completely reversed itself so that while you are still heading north on the map, will result in you moving south on your screen. The controls stay fixed when the scene shifts, so you aren’t rezoning into the previous area, but the constant need to reorient my controls was maddening.
To complicate matters even further, the enemy tracking system is so tied to the mini-map, which does not rotate with the perspective, that the sense of control disorientation is overwhelming. In many dungeons, the camera follows so closely that you have to steer via the mini-map, because every twist and turn is obscured out of view, which only serves to aggravate the situation. Even in battle, the camera is frequently too closely zoomed that you have to actively search the combat field for your opponents. The problem isn’t game breaking, but coupled with the other technical problems, one has to wonder if the game was ever play-tested.
In conclusion, there are a great many accolades and a good number of curses I can utter for Magna Carta: Tears of Blood. The storyline contains enough riveting content to keep fans glued to the 50+ hours of the adventure, if they can stomach the painfully slow progress of the first half of the game. Visually, the game has an artistic pedigree that is second to none, but loses something in the translation from easel to screen. Acoustically, the score is a refreshing new voice in a tired old choir, but lacks the conviction of a seasoned singer. The voice-acting contains gemstones as well as rocks, so players will have to enjoy their thespians while tolerating the ham.
The true core of the gameplay is solid and inventive, but the sometimes overly complex collection of systems detracts from the enjoyment. The combat is well-conceived, and entirely skill-based, which is extraordinary for the genre; but it requires a degree of resource management and hand-eye coordination many players simply do not have. Sadly, the glue that binds all of this together leaves much to be desired. With frequent and mind-numbingly long load times and a frustrating control system marred by a near-sighted camera that has no regard for gameplay, one has to re-evaluate the worth of this title.
Plainly, Magna Carta: Tears of Blood is this season’s diamond-in-the-rough. Players with the skill and a great deal of patience will see the adventure through to the end and appreciate the creator’s grand vision, despite the shortcomings. Players who don’t will be caught in the mire of the journey and curse the game until the end of their days. For the hardcore RPG fan, there is much to appreciate about Tears of Blood, even through its flaws. For the casual player, caveat emptor.