If anything threatens to destroy the world, it is the unstoppable monster Mediocrity, whose viscous vomit of pulp, shovelware, and other detritus grows weekly with each new media release day. Mediocrity continuously adds more to its heaping bulk, all consuming and never satiated, kept alive by torpid artists toiling under rotten creeds and consumers without discretion. When does it stop? Not with the latest generic JRPG offering on the Nintendo DS, that’s for sure. Sands of Destruction boasts what some believe to be an impressive development team, but evidently their minds have grown tired and dull if their latest game is any indication. SoD is a playable JRPG, but only recommendable to the most tolerant or starved JRPG fans. All others will only see it as the mediocre experience it truly is.
One of SoD’s most immediately remarkable elements is the premise: the world, dominated by tyrannical Beastlords, is one not worth keeping. To the mistreated and practically enslaved humans, the world seems a wretched, ugly place, and The World Annihilation Front seeks to destroy it and end the reign of the Beastlords. Their plans get a boost when Kyrie, a callow youth from a quaint country hamlet, unleashes a mysterious and destructive power after being threatened by questioning and told to “run” by a mysterious voice. The World Annihilation Front sends its deadly ambassador to bring Kyrie into the fight and use him to end the world.
Promising, but the plot consists of far too many fetch quests that amount to nothing, characterization is weak, and the story fails to evoke emotional or intellectual responses. Focusing on destruction, creation, and redemption, the plot never connects with what it means to be human. It instead floats in that realm of JRPGness so irrelevant to the human experience, where elemental guardians and unexplained magic forces replace human emotion and thought. Worst of all, the setting is merely a stage set piece, a 2D wooden cutout used only to provide the faintest sense of atmosphere. In a game about destroying a world, a believable or at least intriguing setting would have been appropriate. Additionally, aimless fetch questing and a general lack of actual plot detail hamper the experience. Fortunately, the story never spirals out of control like so many other JRPGs, but it does the opposite. There really is no climax and barely a plot at all. And, this isn’t a character study.
Kyrie, the protagonist, is the typical JRPG hero we’ve come to know and hate: a real spineless twerp with that all-pervading altruism so common in JRPG land. He’s the kind of kid you’d never talk to in real life, but unfortunately, for the course of SoD, you’re stuck listening to his every word. His companions largely consist of equally hackneyed archetypes: headstrong, frighteningly bitchy female love interest, mysterious girl who could reveal the entire plot but holds her tongue so the game can exist, foe turned friend once he realizes the error of his ways, and the requisite beast with an attitude to boost cool factor. While some of the characters are actually dynamic, they exhibit unrealistic and inconsistent personalities and motives. They’re more developed than the characters of some other recent JRPGs, but they’re just annoying. Fortunately, SoD lacks a major villain, instead focusing on numerous minor antagonists; a refreshing decision.
Plot is average, so gameplay must be the focus, right? Don’t expect it. There are simply too many flaws, especially concerning the battle system. SoD plays out in a familiar town-dungeon-town fashion with a few variations (read: town-dungeon-dungeon). Random, turn-based battles occur inside dungeons, and towns offer shops, inns, and three or four NPCs. Everything is how you remember it from all those other, older RPGs. Unfortunately, the developers didn’t include any extra touches like mini-games, collectables, or optional cutscenes. Outside of the main quest, there are short optional quests to gather the party’s best equipment, but even those included, one would be hard pressed to clock more than twenty hours on SoD. Most gamers will likely play for only 15 to 18.
Outside of combat and dungeon exploration, there’s little for players to do except sit through lengthy cutscenes. Even town exploration is stunted. Each town consists of only one or two screens, and the few NPCs standing about don’t know how to converse, especially since a fourth of the NPCs welcome you to the town like in some JRPG parody. On the positive side, the top screen displays a useful map and players can save anywhere, a feature that needs to be universal on portable RPGs. These conventions continue once players enter a dungeon.
Dungeon exploration ranges from rewarding to frustrating. There are two main types of dungeons: those requiring thought and those requiring no thought. The former revolve around some sort of puzzle, and these are hit or miss. Some require far too much backtracking (the final dungeon is an example of the absurdity of this), while others are more interesting. Backtracking wouldn’t be such a chore if the battle system wasn’t terribly broken. SoD hosts a basic turn-based battle system with the addition of battle points, which determine the number of actions a character can take. Both X and Y buttons generate basic attacks, but of different types. Special attacks are also present, and players can upgrade all attacks using a simple, yet effective, point-allocation system. Leveling up is rapid and upgrading skills fun. It’s all quite satisfying. But then something happens about four hours into the game. The battle system breaks.
Astute gamers will quickly learn that the game can be defeated by continuously pressing the Y button in addition to occasional healing (but, only for bosses). All one needs is a little bit of upgrading. Even if the player characters didn’t deal enormous amounts of damage with every attack, most enemies eventually deal one damage, and even some bosses die before they can act. Only when the game prevents chained attacks by forcing characters to use air strikes to hit flying enemies does SoD even approach difficult. The effects of the Y button mash buffet are evident: equipment, the weapon upgrading system, and even most special attacks are rendered useless and combat grows boring. Thus those backtrack-heavy dungeons poison the experience all the more. There are other flaws too such as the inaccurate turn-order meter and an inability to predict initial battle points.
The battle system just falls apart under the weight of so many problems, the worst of which is the ease of success. Players don’t need to pay attention to most of the battles. For the majority of the game, battles are boring. Even boss battles are tedious and frustrating since most bosses take a turn after every player character’s action. And, some of those turns consist of up to eight individual actions. Truly a world worth destroying.
Graphically, SoD is not innately flawed, but the graphics aren’t used effectively and art design is questionable. The 2D sprites feature various animations out of battle, but they’re grainy, especially when the camera zooms in for effect. I enjoyed the indecisive camera otherwise. That sort of cutscene direction needs to proliferate to other titles in the genre. Environments, in 3D, range from nondescript to pleasant to simply garish. Towns tend to look worse than natural environments, but neither are engaging, even if the graphics are passable. The color palette is deep, but warmer colors tend to be eyesores.
In battle, character and enemy animations are stiff and choppy. Palette swapping reaches new depths, and enemy design is uninspired. I think there are fewer species of scorpions on Earth than on SoD’s world; more interesting ones too. Furthermore, pedestrian animations accompany special attacks, including ultimate attacks, which I assumed would look impressive. The sprites being attacked don’t even appear amidst the little RPGMaker-like effects. They don’t do much damage anyway.
SoD’s character designer obviously lost his muse before starting work on this game. And, perhaps his mind. Even if Kyrie’s personality wasn’t contemptible, his appearance would remedy that. And, what in God’s name was the inspiration for the Beastlords? Surely not the animals they are meant to mimic. I’m quite sure all the elephants, bears, and cats I’ve seen have eyes.
If SoD has one redeeming quality, however, it is the soundtrack. Note that I did not say “sound;” that encompasses a lot of garbage that will be illuminated later. The soundtrack is above average (gasp!), almost always pleasing to hear. Mitsuda’s work has his signature, so much so that there are several tracks that almost mirror those of Xenogears. The music does not surpass Mitsuda’s early work, but it represents some of the best in recent memory. There are a few forgettable tracks, but SoD’s soundtrack belongs in a better game.
The remainder of the sound? Garbage. The voice acting is cringe-worthy at best, insultingly amateur at worst. From the very first spoken line in the very first cutscene, the voice work is so noticeably flawed it detracts from the storyline. The characters simply cannot be taken seriously. Not a single character excels, although some are tolerable. Kyrie’s voice only corrodes his likeability further, and the Beastlords beckon players to skip cutscenes. Perhaps worst of all, however, cutscenes play out impossibly slowly, with pauses between almost every line of dialogue. I found myself using the DS as a mirror to fix my hair during cutscenes. At least the game builds in time for snack breaks.
SoD could have been a profound tale about anarchy and the need for creation after toppling ideologies. Or, it could have at least been an above average JRPG akin to its predecessors. But, it’s even below that. In the game’s defense, SoD is playable. There are no game-ruining problems, and everyone that starts the game will most likely finish it. For undying JRPG fans, SoD might be another great experience, but overall, it is another meal for Mediocrity. And, here I thought it was getting full from JRPGs.