Although Riviera and Yggdra Union weren’t very old, Japanese developer Sting decided to remake them. These games were the first in Sting’s “Dept Heaven” series, and were originally released on the Wonderswan and GBA respectively, so both games got a slight overhaul for their move to the PSP. Among other changes, the PSP ports feature voice acting, enhanced music, a few updated graphics, and bad load times. I was surprised that there weren’t any anime FMVs put into the PSP port of Riviera: The Promised Land. All 88 of the still anime portraits are nice, but they don’t make up for the lack of animation sequences.
In this review, I’ll be recounting what made the original GBA title so interesting for its time, as well as why, in my opinion, this PSP port was unnecessary.
My Angel Without Wings
Ein, the protagonist of Riviera: The Promised Land, is a “Grim Angel.” All Grim Angels are sworn to mete out the judgment and bidding of the gods of Asgard (yes, this game borrows heavily from Norse mythology). However, all Grim Angels must sacrifice something to gain their position. In Ein’s case, he gave up his wings. His traveling companion at the game’s start, Ledah, still has his wings, so we know he gave up something else (it’s supposed to be a surprise for the game’s ending, but a few minutes of interaction with him gives away what it is he lost). The two of them are sent on a mission to prevent the return of “Utgard,” the underworld. This evil place and its demon inhabitants were sealed away a full millenium before the game. Since then, the land that was once Utgard has become “Riviera,” a place where peaceful Sprites and harmonious plants and animals live their lives.
Unfortunately, Ein and Ledah weren’t told that preventing the return of Utgard would destroy this peaceful world. An incident early in the game leaves Ein with a temporary case of amnesia (which is, thankfully, resolved only a few hours into the game) that gives him enough time to live and interact with the Sprites of Riviera. He resolves to protect Riviera and prevent the threat of demons returning to the land, even if it means putting a stop to his master’s dastardly plan of destroying Riviera.
Our hero is probably best persuaded by his team of all-female Sprites. That’s right! After Ein and Ledah split up, Ein quickly recruits a band of four female Sprites. In typical anime fashion, each of these lovely ladies has a distinct personality and a hair color that matches their clothing.
The save-the-world plot, despite being the primary topic of conversation among NPCs major and minor, is overshadowed by the relationships Ein forms with the ladies. In fact, the game has character-specific endings for each of the four female characters becoming close to Ein (not explicitly a romantic relationship, but you get the feeling they are “life partners” in the epilogue). The endings are cute, but they are unsatisfying for someone who may have wanted more fully fleshed out characters and relationships. You learn plenty about each girl, but it’s not nearly as deep as, say, Ar tonelico. The dating sim element is even lighter than, say, Thousand Arms. So, if the dating sim element is light, but it’s also the most powerful part of the game’s story… well… you get the idea.
How one ends up with one girl or the other throughout this simple Adventure/RPG is a matter of making certain decisions and replying in certain ways throughout the game’s linear story arc. Speaking of which…
Let’s Go On An Adventure!
Outside of the turn-based RPG combat, this game is essentially a point-and-click graphic adventure, with two little twists. Twist one: you explore the town and the dungeons in third-person instead of first-person. Twist two: each time you look at special things in the environment (which act as triggers for relationship-building events and/or chances for good loot), you use up a kind of point known as “TP.” TP is earned only in scripted battles, which are limited in nature, and you earn more TP for doing better in those scripted battles. Thus, the adventure component is tied entirely to the game’s combat system. If you’re incompetent in one, you’re forced to be incompetent in the other.
The game progresses through chapters, with each chapter being a different “dungeon” location. Between each chapter, you have time to relax back in Elendia, which essentially acts as a chance for you to trade items you found for weapons and armor. In the dungeons, you go through segmented areas. For example, in Chapter 3, you’ll start in zone 3-1, and after going through a few rooms, you’ll end up in zone 3-2. Of course, you may find a hidden path (or accidently fall down a cliff) leading you to 3-4 or 3-6. It’s usually impossible to backtrack to another zone, and some dungeons have time limits that prevent you from going backwards (one dungeon is a city that’s being flooded, and you must continually climb higher). Thus, having TP the first time you pass through a room really counts. You may end up having the opportunity to pass through the same area twice, but you can’t count on such an opportunity always being there.
The sort of things that you’ll examine that require TP include treasure chests, the ground, doors, windows, cracks in the wall, or anything in the environment that stands out. The game clearly labels these things, and if the text is red, you know it will cost you TP. After checking out whatever it is that you’ve chosen, a variety of things may happen. It could be a dud, which means you have just wasted 1 TP to have people comment on a flower or a sunset. Or you may be rushed into a quick-time event, forcing you to press buttons in a certain order in a certain amount of time (there are three or four variations on these button-pressing affairs, and they’re all fairly easy to screw up until you become accustomed to them). The success or failure of a quick-time event may be the deciding factor in which area you end up at next or whether you pleased a lady. Sometimes, failing a quick-time event will result in permanent penalties to your stats (usually, max HP).
Whether or not the TP-based examination requires a quick-time event, you’ll likely have a conversation with your all-female party about what it is you’re looking into. You may get to see a snazzy still art picture, and depending on the choices you make in a dialogue tree, you may boost affection with particular ladies. There are also times that just choosing to check out a certain object will automatically result in positive or negative effects. In other words, the mere choice of “looking” at the object is a choice that could be good or bad. What annoyed me about this aspect of the game was that the resulting penalties or gifts were, at times, completely unpredictable. Proceeding without a walkthrough is a good way to end up cursing out the game (if you’re a tempermental person, that is).
The Knife of Justice?
Though exploration can be repetitive due to your limited choices, at least the dialogue and the situations presented keep it from becoming too dry. The same cannot be said of combat and character growth. These are repetitious in the worst sense of the word.
There are a limited number of “real” battles in the game. They are scripted, they offer substantial rewards (including TP), and although you can “run” from some fights, many of them are mandatory. Though the battle system itself is an interesting one (weapons with limited durability, only four weapons/armor/items brought into each battle, front and back row with rotation and flipping), the key strategy for victory is quickly learned. And once you learn it, it’s rinse and repeat for the rest of the 20+ hour game.
Both your party and the enemy’s party have an overdrive gauge. Your gauge is filled based on damage dealt and received, but the enemy’s gauge is filled only based on damage they receive. The enemy’s overdrive bar also falls naturally between each turn the bar will decrease a little bit. Unless you’re afraid that the enemy is strong enough to wipe you out with an overdrive attack, though, you can let it fill to max and let them attack. Their strong attack is guaranteed to fill your bar (which has 3 levels). Once you reach the desired level, have at it. With the exception of some elemental immunities, there isn’t much else you have to pay attention to in battle. When you think the enemy is near death, you can have Ein attack the enemy by “breaking” the overdrive gauge. With a broken overdrive bar, you cannot do any more overdrives for the rest of the battle, so it’s smart to save it for the “finishing move.” Depending on what level the bar was filled to (0, 1, 2, or 3) when it was broken, the strength of the attack will be increased.
If that sounds bad, it only gets worse. Characters do not level up by any sort of traditional experience-gaining. Instead, they level up based on weapon, armor, and item usage. Almost every weapon, armor, or item in the game (with a few notable exceptions) has skills associated with one or more of your party members. An incremental bar shows how many times you have to use the item (anywhere from 2 to 10 uses) to unlock the skill. Unlocking the skill will give HP, strength, magic, and/or vitality bonuses to the character.
The catch, of course, is that you’re using up the item’s durability while leveling. The solution to this is a “practice” mode where you can choose one of a few select battles (usually scripted battles from the previous chapter) and fight without any durability cost to your equipment. One caveat: some enemies have attacks that drain durability on the items you have with you in battle, and they will use said attacks in practice battle. In my opinion, they should have removed this ability in practice mode, because you may go in with a low-durability weapon to skill up and be shocked to find that it breaks during a practice battle. Yes, that happened to me.
I wasn’t entirely upset by the “in-combat” inventory limitation of four pieces of equipment. That added to the need for clever strategy. But the game’s full inventory only holds about 20 items! This presents a humongous problem and requires you to throw out items left and right. As a result, it’s imperative that you go through practice battles to make sure all relevant characters unlock skills and level up before throwing out an item the moment you get it, before you have to throw it out. The real catch 22 comes when an item drops with new unlockable skills during practice mode, and you have to decide whether to toss that item or some other item in your inventory. Even if you’ve mastered all their skills, it’s important to have at least one of each weapon type, as your five characters have different weapon specialties.
At first, I enjoyed the novelty of the game’s leveling system, but for the entire second half of the game, I was very frustrated with the tedious work of leveling my characters with each new item I found. I got excited each time I found a new item, but I was also frustrated by the thought that I would be spending the next 10 to 15 minutes in repetitious practice battles, just so I could keep up with the difficulty of upcoming bosses.
In-game visuals have been improved over the GBA version, but that’s not saying much. The sprites and the environmental art do not impress me. Battle animation is also standard fare. The only interesting visuals are the hand-drawn art stills. There’s some risqué content in here, too: play your cards right, and you can catch a whole bunch of sprites (including half of your party) bathing naked at the spring in Elendia. Of course, the “private parts” are covered by hair, hands, and rocks, but they obviously put the art into the game for cheap thrills. Disturbing fact: one of the naked girls bathing with the rest of the adults is a child.
The voice acting, the most obvious change from GBA to PSP, is strong. The Japanese voices (which are still accessible in the US version) are what you’d expect for an anime-character-style game. The protagonist Ein, though male, is voiced by a female in Japan (cheers to Goku!). The English version has equally strong expression to the Japanese version. A few lines are delivered in tones that don’t match the context of the conversation or are over-the-top, but for the most part, the voice acting is solid.
One thing that annoyed me about the dual-language feature, however, is that you have to restart the game each time you want to switch. There’s a pre-opening screen where you select your voiced language option, and you cannot change it in any other options menu. I assume this was done to simplify programming, but it still frustrated me.
Riviera’s soundtrack is solid. Shigeki Hayashi and Minako Adachi really nailed the “classic JRPG” sound, but with the best in sequenced music technology as their tools, some of these looped tracks sound lifelike. It’s a perfect blend of music, and among all of the soundtracks in the “Dept Heaven” series thus far, my favorite is still Riviera.
The Promised Land, Remade
I was happy to finally get around to playing this game, but my personal feeling is that if you played the GBA version, there’s not much reason to give this remake a try. However, if you’ve never played the game and want to give it a shot, I’d highly recommend going for this PSP version over the GBA. Its only drawback is the constant loading (the “reading off disc” noise can be heard before each and every bit of voice acting, and the noise is almost constant during battles). Load times in and of themselves aren’t awful, but you get the feeling that they should’ve programmed it so that more cache memory was stored on the system at a time so it wouldn’t have to jump back to the UMD every five seconds.
Regardless of version, I think Riviera: The Promised Land is a decent JRPG, and it marked a great comeback for Sting. After Treasure Hunter G and the original Baroque, it was unlikely they would ever find a game upon which they could build a franchise. That said, I also think the series has progressed over time, and in terms of gameplay, Knights in the Nightmare was a far more interesting experience than Riviera. Yggdra Union, though it may not be as “unique” as other Sting games, was also a stronger game than Riviera in terms of fun and challenge.