When it comes to GBA RPGs, most gamers might have problems finding any entertaining material nowadays. With DS development ramping up, it’s natural that the GBA is losing the attention it once had.
That’s not to say that you can’t find a truly entertaining and, dare I say it, original title for Nintendo’s fading handheld. Take Riviera, for example. While not exactly released to great fanfare and hype, it manages to be fun and innovative, proving that the “little handheld that could” still can.
The game’s intro features a series of well-drawn stills that explain the history of the world. A thousand years ago, the gods of Asgard fought the demons of Utgard in the battle of Ragnarok. When it looked as if the gods would be defeated, the 7 magi created the grim angels, fierce warriors with magical weapons called Diviners. Using the grim angels, the gods sealed away the demons, called Accursed, and turned the land of Utgard into a beautiful paradise, renamed Riviera.
As you start the game, you’re introduced to the main character, Ein, and his partner, Ledah, both grim angels. They are ordered by the Magi, Hector, to descend from Asgard to Riviera to initiate the Retribution: a purge that will destroy Riviera and all the demons awakening from slumber. As you travel through the tutorial area, you meet your cat-like familiar, Rose, and eventually encounter Riviera’s protector, Ursula. After a fierce fight against a summoned demon, Ursula removes Ein’s memory, and sends him to Riviera, where he is found by two Sprites, Lina and Fia, who take him back to their village of Elendia.
After getting his bearings (and realizing he has no memory of his life as a grim angel), Ein agrees to accompany Fia and Lina to a far-off island to discover what has become of the Arcs: a group of Sprites who Elendia have lost contact with. Ignoring their grandfather’s prohibitions, they travel to the island, and thus begin a journey which will take them across Riviera in an attempt to save it from the Retribution and the demons that ail it.
While Riviera’s story is fun, it is not particularly original or dramatic. The few plot twists thrown in are easily predictable; and from some pretty sad foreshadowing, you have a good idea about how the story will turn out… and there are no surprises, here.
Fortunately, what the game lacks in story, it more than makes up for in character interaction. Party member, NPC, and even enemy dialogue is delightfully written, and really gives a sense of distinct personality to each. I loved getting to know my party members and they truly endeared themselves to me. This aspect is doubly important because Riviera is also a dating sim. Aside from Fia and Lina, Ein will meet two other party members on his travels: the scarlet witch, Cierra, and the Arc, Serena. Depending on what options you choose in talking to them and during trigger events (more on that later) you can either endear them to you or make them angry. While the effects of your wooing can be subtle for the most part, depending on which one likes you best, you will receive a different ending, giving this rather short title decent replay value.
Of course, the friendship aspect is only one of the key gameplay elements that make Riviera shine. Two other features also contribute a great deal.
First, we have the trigger system. Riviera takes place on a series of isolinear areas, somewhat similar to the old games Solstice and Equinox. There are two things you can do in a screen, move and look. Moving takes you from one screen to the next. Some screens will have multiple exits, or one, or just be a dead end. The other things you can do is look. In most screens, when you enter look mode, options for things to examine appear on screen. These options can be anything from opening a chest to shaking a tree, to making a long jump across a chasm. Sometimes an event will lead to another event or present you a choice of what to do. Often, these options require the use of a trigger point, which are earned in battles. If you don’t have any trigger points, you cannot activate the option.
While I sometimes found myself frustrated by the lack of trigger points early on in the game, towards the end, you find yourself with way more than you need, making the trigger system much more interesting. In addition, some trigger actions require the player to complete mini-games, such as inputting the right sequence of buttons, or stopping a moving cursor on the right space. These mini-games can be a little difficult, and I frequently found myself resetting the game so that I could try again. However, my lack of coordination should not throw other players off from this charming and well-thought-out gameplay system.
The other nifty, yet slightly less original system regards how you improve your characters. Unlike most games where you level up by obtaining experience, Riviera works a bit more like the SaGa games, whereby the character’s mastery of items through use results in increased stats. Most items in the game have little experience tics: for each use of that item, you fill in one of the tics. Once all the tics are filled in, the character has “mastered” the item, unlocking an overdrive move and gaining HP, vitality, and what have you. However, some characters don’t have much of an affinity for certain weapons or items, and thus cannot level up or unlock overdrive moves using them. In addition, certain characters get different overdrive moves or stats from mastering the items, so there’s no fear of creating a party of clones.
The only downside to this system is that every weapon and item, aside from Ein’s Diviner, has a set number of uses, after which it breaks. Since leveling-up requires repeated use of weapons and items, this can make the situation a little awkward. Thankfully, developer Sting realized this and set up an option to fight Practice battles where you can use your weapons and items as many times as you want, and they don’t deteriorate. The drawback is that you don’t gain trigger points from these battles and can only gain A-rank items (more on that later), but it solves an issue that could have become a potential problem otherwise, as all the gear you get is found, not bought.
Speaking of the battle system, Riviera’s is nifty. Every now and then, when you enter an area or activate a trigger event, you’ll encounter demons. If you agree or are forced to fight, you are given lots of options. First, you can check out the enemy, including their stats, formation, weaknesses, and receive some handy hints on tackling that particular enemy or group. Next, you choose the three party members that will fight the battle and what formation they will take. Finally, you get to choose four weapons/items to take with you into battle. This can sound limiting, but it’s really not that bad, and it forces the player to implement a strategy, rather than just hack away with whatever they have on.
As the PCs and enemies trade blows, gauges fill up. The enemies have a “Rage” meter and when it fills up, the next enemy to attack will use its Max move, which can be pretty damaging. Fortunately, as they attack, the enemies use up part of the Rage meter, thereby staving off the threat of a Max attack. As you kill off enemies, the Rage meter shortens to a maximum of half its original size, making it easier for the enemies to get Max attacks.
The other gauge is the three-level Overdrive meter. As mentioned before, mastering certain weapons/items unlocks an Overdrive move. When the players give and receive damage, the Overdrive meter fills up. If the meter fills up enough, the character can use an Overdrive move linked to one of the weapons/items you took into battle. These can range from powerful attacks to cooking, but are always very helpful; doubly so because finishing a battle with an Overdrive move, combined with the amount of time it took to complete the battle, helps increase your rank for the battle. Higher rank results in more trigger points and better loot.
All in all, I really enjoyed the battle system, as it provided a lot more strategy than I expected from the game when I picked it up. Bravo Sting.
Fortunately, Riviera doesn’t simply shine in the gameplay department. Graphically, the game does a good job. I can’t say it’s excellent, mostly because certain elements are lackluster. While the anime stills are extremely well drawn and the level designs have excellent artwork, the character sprites are kind of bland and the item designs just don’t cut it. Stylistically, I enjoyed how the game presents its characters in their character portraits, as they have multiple expressions based on their emotions. Although I was expecting a lot more expression, based on what hype I had heard about the game, I was pleased nonetheless. Sunao Tobe, the game’s artist, did a phenomenal job with the anime artwork for the game, and it really helps set the mood of the scenes.
Riviera is also bolstered by its soundtrack. While not incredible or prolific, the game boasts a soundtrack that is both memorable and varied. Composer Minako Adachi’s pieces range from the mysterious string intro scene to the upbeat, silly themes when the characters are fooling around; and every piece fits the situation perfectly. I don’t recommend picking up the soundtrack to the game unless you’ve played it, as I listened to it beforehand and was not impressed. However, if you have played the game, by all means pick it up, as it’s worth it.
Of course, what would a look at sound be without a look at the sound effects and voice acting? Yes, there is voice acting in the game, though not a whole lot. Characters give a little introduction to high-level overdrive attacks, and often speak before and after battles. Each of the characters is voiced properly, and not one sounds out of place.
The sound effects were decent, though nothing you haven’t heard before. They do the job nicely, and are never grating or unappealing.
One thing to note, however, is that, if you’re playing Riviera on a Player, make sure to use the D-pad when doing the mini-games. The analog stick is too imprecise most of the time, and the game will misinterpret your button presses, making you fail. Other than that, though, the control is up to snuff, and you shouldn’t have any problems.
Overall, Riviera is an enjoyable and innovative title for a system that probably won’t see many more in the future. While it won’t make game of the year on most people’s lists, it’s still a worthwhile purchase. And, while it’s a short game (I put in maybe 15 hours max in my first playthrough), the option for multiple endings and accessing trigger points you missed the first time through gives Riviera a decent replay value. So pick it up; Riviera might just be the GBA promised land you’ve been waiting for.