There is something special about the 16-bit era of console RPGs. In a time before expensive cinematics and expansive scripts, they managed to tell beautiful tales of suspense, romance and adventure. These new worlds and characters were confined to two dimensions, but felt alive to those willing to share in them. It is no wonder that many gamers yearn for that time and therefore it is no wonder that many developers yearn for it too. Mystic Chronicles, developed by Kemco and published by Natsume, eagerly takes inspiration from the classics and hopes to refine it into a new form. Unfortunately a lack of care and conflicting design elements hold it back from inspiring those feelings of nostalgia.
What stands out immediately in Mystic Chronicles is how standard the story and gameplay are. Before the game gives you a third party member, you have two orphaned heroes, a few mysterious pasts, an evil church and a friendly rival. Likewise the first-person, turn-based combat offers few deviations from the norm and the sub-quest system offers mundane tasks like killing 5 worms in the forest for gold.
Simple stories and generic tropes can be used to create masterful experiences. Sadly, in Mystic Chronicles, this is not the case. Things might be excusable if the story was told with the brevity and charm of the older titles that inspired it, but Mystic Chronicles never fully commits to the 16-bit style. Taking inspiration from more modern RPGs, characters in Mystic Chronicles talk constantly without saying anything of substance and towns are a series of menu options that feel cramped and lack a sense of place. Simply put, Mystic Chronicles is a game you’ve already played, with a cast you’ve already met, set in a world you’ve already explored and is boring and expected rather than comfortably familiar.
The turn-based battle system attempts a swapping mechanic where characters can be swapped in or out at the start of a turn to enable combo skills and give access to the items in their individual inventories. Unfortunately, this type of strategy is only required for boss battles. Boss battles in most games are major obstacles to be overcome, but in Mystic Chronicles they serve as the only obstacles. Large portions of the game can be beaten while under-leveled and under-equipped, stumbling through random encounter after random encounter by simply pressing the auto-battle button and taking a nap.
The most intriguing gameplay aspect is the Guardian Beast system. Guardian Beasts are spirits that can be equipped to any character and the longer they are equipped the stronger their abilities get. Like characters in their own right, they have their own stats, but during battles they’re controlled by AI with three settings: offensive, defensive and healing. Any item (be it equipment or consumables) in the game can be used to modify a Guardian Beast’s stats and skills, giving an incredible amount of customization.
Progress in the main story gives access to sub-quests — menial tasks that involve grinding enemies and drops for money. The only way to keep up with the leveling curve is to do all the sub-quests in an area. Skip too many sub-quests and bosses become roadblocks that can only be overcome by either doing those overlooked sub-quests or by old fashioned grinding.
The workshop system is the leveling curve’s ugly twin brother. In the workshop, you can purchase and upgrade weapons and armor as long as you have the required materials and cash. Mystic Chronicles provides plenty of materials for one set of equipment, but upgrading more than one piece of equipment for each character is prohibitively expensive in both monetary and material cost. Taking advantage of the equipment in Mystic Chronicles is an uphill battle, one that involves grinding the whole way.
It is possible that these systems exist as a throwback to grinding in classic JRPGs, but it is more likely that they exist as a way to get you to purchase DLC like increased experience, gold and material drop rates in exchange for real world money. The game is beatable without ever touching the DLC, but it forces the player to make a devil’s bargain. Do you grind and inflate your play time or do you pay for Mystic Chronicles to respect your time?.
Speaking of time, the last few hours are the most peculiar. The content is not only challenging, but it takes advantage of Mystic Chronicles’ good design ideas. Choosing the right equipment and skills for characters and Guardian Beasts begins to matter. Enemies start to emerge in unique groups and facing off against these groups forces the strategic use of items and special moves. Auto-battle is no longer an option. As the game comes to a close, there is a feeling of risk and reward but it’s too little too late.
Laziness is Mystic Chronicles’ biggest fault, finding its way into the environments, music and localization. Environments in Mystic Chronicles are dull, utilitarian and add nothing to the atmosphere or storytelling. The music is acceptable within the game, but is stale and emotionless on its own. There are only a handful of songs that are heard frequently. Too frequently. There are times when the music remains exactly the same when transitioning from the map to a dungeon, and that is annoying.
Although it features a new localization by Natsume, Mystic Chronicles has a number of spelling mistakes and translation errors. One of the more humorous goofs is the Loon Grave, which, disappointingly, is not the tombstone of a goose. No, it is a Rune Glaive — a weapon for the spear-wielder in your party. Enemies are given the wrong names, dialogue often repeats, some text is not formatted properly, and myriad other mistakes. Considering the throwback nature and budget price, some of these elements seem justifiable. However, when all of these elements combine together, it demonstrates a lack of respect for the product.
Mystic Chronicles isn’t all bad, though. The character artwork and the sprites are colorful and endearing. They are like a constant ray of sunshine in the dull environments. Enemy sprites are good quality as well and have some neat animations. Mystic Chronicles also has some great usability features like the ability to save anywhere, while still retaining save points as boss markers and a means to exit dungeons with the press of a button. You’ll rarely dive into a dungeon more than once, but the ability to minimize backtracking is excellent.
It can be said, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that the failures on display in Mystic Chronicles come down to laziness. The final hours of the game held a shred of potential, but failed to make up for the remainder of the game and, quite frankly, were infuriating. That being said, it’s pointless to bother being angry with Mystic Chronicles. It’s not a terrible game per se, but it regrettably uses the veneer of 16-bit nostalgia as a license to simply not care.