Is it neo-retro or retro-neo? Pier Solar and the Great Architects HD is a curious thing; released as a brand-new Sega Genesis game in 2010, cartridge and all, this indie RPG emulated heyday classics like Lunar while distinguishing itself through a strength-gathering mechanic central to its turn-based battle system. My 2011 review of that ambitious, unlikely title criticized flaws in its balance and dungeon design, but I felt that Pier Solar still had something special at its core. When developer Watermelon launched a Kickstarter for a high-definition remake of the game in late 2012, I viewed the project with renewed enthusiasm, confident that fan feedback would contribute to Pier Solar HD realizing its true potential.
Regrettably, my faith was misplaced.
After nearly two more years in development, the really-I-promise-this-is-my-final-form version of Pier Solar has arrived, and it’s prettier than ever, but it shows the developers’ tragic lack of understanding of why the game fell short in the first place. All of the smooth textures and clean art in the world can’t make up for Pier Solar’s inexcusably frustrating dungeons and time-wasting battles. The game’s beautiful presentation and charmingly straightforward narrative steadily give way to unrelenting tedium, as frustrations outnumber meaningful moments twofold. Pier Solar HD is a squandered opportunity to revisit the original game’s problematic aspects, leaving me feeling like the victim of a protracted bait-and-switch.
“Why did I have to run through a black wall to progress through a mandatory part of a dungeon?”
Overly-straightforward dungeons have sabotaged many an RPG, making exploration a bore, but Pier Solar goes in the opposite direction and makes it a chore. (I swear I planned that rhyme from the get-go…) Its meandering caves, forests, and temples lead the player astray at every fork in the road: inexplicably user-unfriendly things like searching for invisible paths and looping around a map in circles are compulsory for progression. I’ve been around the block, so I know pretty much every kind of trick RPGs can employ to stall the player; but even armed with that knowledge, I had several “how could I have known to do that without a guide” moments that speak of a bygone approach to game design — an unwelcome holdover from the “classic” era. Some may appreciate the challenge of untangling Pier Solar’s obtuse dungeons, but they tried my patience to the limit.
“How could I have known to walk behind that pillar to step on an invisible, floating platform?”
Compounding the frustration of Pier Solar’s dungeons (aside from an irritatingly high encounter rate) is an unexpected problem with the way its visuals are rendered. The HD version uses beautiful, crisp art for all of the backgrounds, but it’s hard to distinguish which areas are actually traversable. I’d often run for what looked like a path just to have my characters bump into an invisible barrier; conversely, many genuine routes are obscured by oddly-placed, overlapping terrain — or, like I said above, pure blackness. Fortunately, an option exists to toggle between HD assets and the original Sega Genesis graphics, which is a fantastic addition and actually makes it a bit easier to visually parse the game.
“Do I really have to waste the first turn of every battle watching long energy-gathering animations to perform efficient, effective actions?”
Failing to address the slow, tedious nature of Pier Solar’s battle system is a critical oversight. Encounters feel slightly rebalanced in terms of enemy strength, but they still take ages longer than they should thanks to drawn-out animations. If I’m going to spend 30+ hours with a video game, I’ll be damned if I’m about to spend half of that time watching the same repetitive actions play out ad nauseam. The game continues to waste time outside of battle with the same laughably long healing animation as before. It’s perhaps a second or so faster without the Genesis version’s slowdown, but it’s dreadful nonetheless. I should also note that glitchiness sometimes occurs if the player tries to move while advancing textboxes, and a bug with the ladder-creating spell Liane caused me to lose over an hour of progress. Talk about salt in the wound.
“Why is this game’s audiovisual presentation so at odds with its gameplay mechanics?”
When they aren’t actively confusing the player, Pier Solar’s visuals are a retro-inclined RPGFan’s dream. The team at Watermelon clearly spent their time reworking every area into something to behold. The pixelated character sprites mesh well with the high-resolution artwork and create a novel aesthetic. The soundtrack, too, remains a faux-nostalgic treat. Players can toggle between the original FM soundtrack and a high-fidelity version that was once available only via an optional disc for the Sega CD.
“Are there any notable additions aside from the new graphics?”
The game’s script has been expanded somewhat, with a few extra story sequences, but I truthfully couldn’t pick out what was significantly different from when I played the Genesis version a couple of years ago. It’s written awkwardly in places, although not to such an extent that I couldn’t follow the action. There are also some ho-hum minigames, accessible from the main menu once they’ve been unlocked during the course of the story. These bonuses are nice for fans of the original game, but its initial run found such a limited audience that everything will likely blend together for newcomers.
“Why am I not just playing Lunar 2? I’m gonna go play Lunar 2.”
Yeah, that’s probably for the best.
It’s not that Pier Solar HD is an irredeemable piece of garbage; it’s hardly the worst RPG I’ve ever played, but (especially when compared to its original version) all I can see is wasted potential and and abundant user-unfriendliness. It’s a remake fixated on an audiovisual overhaul that wasn’t needed in the first place. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: considerable patience is necessary to fully enjoy everything Pier Solar HD has to offer.