I chose to play this game because I’m a masochist, or maybe because I’m an eternal optimist. I want to believe that developers can improve over time, under the right conditions. And I really do think that, in some small way, Idea Factory is learning how to make their “crossover” titles work for a larger audience.
In the past 3 years I’ve played some of these crossovers: Chaos Wars (PS2), Cross Edge (PS3), and now Trinity Universe (PS3). Of the three, I’ve only beaten Chaos Wars, which is without question the worst of the pack. I did not beat Cross Edge because I couldn’t stand to play any more, while Trinity Universe can only be chalked up to time constraints. What makes Trinity Universe different than the other two, however, is that, if I had had more time, I would have happily finished Trinity Universe: not so much, the others. So, going forward, you know, at least on a general level, where these games ranked for me.
The reason I’m telling you all this is because my friend and colleague, Andrew, scored Trinity Universe a 63%, and included a number of damning statements in the body of his review. The few faithful fans of this title cried out that the score was unjust and unwarranted. I’m here to say that, in truth, Andrew’s opinion was indeed warranted. For a gamer such as Andrew, with his background, I can see how he came to the conclusions he did. That said, I come to the table looking at Trinity Universe as an opportunity for improvement. While it’s still far from the higher quality titles that NIS and Gust have produced on their own (or even those by now-dead company Flight-Plan), Idea Factory is making genuine strides in quality.
Venn diagrams, and other round things
I won’t be able to finish this review without making many, many comparisons to Cross Edge, Chaos Wars, and even Record of Agarest War (which, while not a crossover, is still a collaboration between Idea Factory and RED Entertainment via the new “Compile Heart” group). Thus, the Venn diagram.
So, what differences are there between this Trinity Universe and previous Idea Factory crossovers? First of all, the leveling and combat systems have been drastically simplified. This isn’t even close to being in the realm of a “Strategy” RPG. Instead, battles are straight-up, traditional, and turn-based. The combat reminds me, in a strange way, of Xenosaga II, and while a lot of people absolutely disliked that battle system due to its tedious nature, I have a fondness for it. Yet, whereas Xenosaga II had “high/mid/low” attacks, Trinity Universe has weak “swift” attacks (square button), “strong” attacks (X button), and “magic” attacks (triangle button) which, by default, hit all enemies. Every foe has a particular weakness to one of these three attack types. That factor aside, there is another reason to use the “swift” attack over the “strong”; it builds more hits more quickly, which has a variety of benefits. So, while not simple, it’s a far cry from the needlessly complex systems found in Cross Edge and the rest.
Another aspect I like about Trinity Universe is that, when leveling up, I don’t get thrown skill points to assign. My characters all level up in a way that is balanced. One thing that is similar, though, is the menu and inventory systems. Equipment slots function the same way as in previous Idea Factory titles, as does “equipping skills” specific to the characters and weapons. While there’s a lot to play with, none of it seems to have much impact on gameplay, and I continue to find these systems to be needless and terribly tedious. However, the combat is just so much more engaging than previous Idea Factory titles that I can forgive this oversight, at least temporarily.
One other “useless” thing that Trinity Universe shares with Cross Edge is needlessly lengthy dialogue. I’m fine with long character conversations and having more cut scenes than true gameplay (after all, I’m a huge Xenosaga fan), but if you’re going to do that, you better have something interesting to say. Oftentimes, the characters of Trinity Universe will prattle on for five minutes about nothing of any importance to anyone. They don’t further character development, hardly give us insight into the characters themselves, and aren’t even funny. You’d think that if the developers had access to a bevy of guest characters from their partners’ IPs along with their own characters, they’d be able to write some funny “fan-fiction” scenarios. Sadly, most of the time the result is pretty boring. Fortunately, during the rare moments where someone says something poignant, or I learn something vital about the characters or plot, it’s a very nice feeling. It’s like getting in a 70 degree pool after spending an hour swimming in an ice-cold stream.
The “other round things” mentioned previously, are the visuals. Not just boobies (heh, boobies), but the smooth textures everywhere you turn are so non-jagged that I can’t help but smile. Both the 2D and 3D graphics sport some sweet roundness. The 3D environments (i.e., the dungeons and the battles) are so thoroughly improved over Cross Edge, Agarest War, and their ilk, that it really is like night and day. Compare them to, say, Persona 4 (which was a PS2 title) and you can see that Idea Factory still has room for improvement. But I really have to say, much as I expected the dungeons to be total junk, and the 3D animation to be utter fail, I was surprised to find the execution relatively competent for a low budget game. Meanwhile, the moving 2D portraits are actually impressive. I liked that all of the character portraits are animated: the characters breathe, eyes move, etc., and this applies to all of their “emotional” portraits as well. In particular, I think Violet (from Atelier Violet, or “Viorate”) and protagonist Rizelea look wonderful.
(Seriously, turn the sound off!)
Like nearly all games that NIS America bothers to localize, you have the dual audio option for voice acting. The Japanese audio is generic; pleasing, but generic. You’ll feel as if you’re watching one of the average, multi-season TV anime that’s saturated the market of late. As for the English VA, it’s clear that for many characters, the actors were working in a vacuum, completely devoid of context. The result was repeated mistakes in emphasis and inflection which, if you play JRPGs, should be familiar. Two of the male characters, Kanata and Lucius, seem to be especially guilty of this – I caught them both making the same mistake over a dozen times. It’s painful to listen to, and happened so many times in the course of Trinity Universe that I eventually gave up and switched to Japanese audio.
In addition to the VA, the music’s pretty weak as well, particularly given the context of the game. I praised Idea Factory’s in-house composer, Kenji Kaneko, in my soundtrack review last year. However, in the context of the game, the good music rarely gets a chance to breathe, and we’re overwhelmed with saccharine-sweet garbage. What do I mean by “getting a chance to breathe?” You have, say, 40 songs written for a game, but 95% of the time you play the game you hear 10% of the music, and it happens to be the crappiest 10%. I’m sure you’ve experienced this before in other games. It happens here as well, and that’s … well, tragic.
Now it’s time for me to do something I dislike. First, since I don’t want to go into detail describing the game’s plot or mechanics any more than I have to, go read Andrew Barker’s full, detailed review. Having done that you’ll be ready for what follows: I disagree with Mr. Barker about a few nitpicky points, and I want to make those points clear.
First, a disclaimer: I only put 10 hours into Trinity Universe. That’s about the bare minimum you can get away with at RPGFan. As stated earlier in the review, I didn’t complete this game solely due to lack of time (I actually intend to finish the game with Rizelea sometime in the future.) Maybe, just maybe, the latter half of the game would have worn me down so much that my opinion of the total package would have changed and I’d be more in line with Andrew on the quality of Trinity Universe. That being said, I think it’s unlikely. Here are some reasons why.
Though, earlier, I did state that there is a lot of pointless dialogue in Trinity Universe, there were parts I rather appreciated. For example, the tried-and-true NIS (Disgaea) humor! While Andrew thought that the jokes were overplayed and a bit juvenile, I thought the jokes were fine and in-tune with what we usually see in games like Disgaea. The fun here is in the anticipation, the expectation. It’s like watching Rocky Horror Picture Show and saying all those now-scripted responses. You expect Prinnies to say “dood” and explode. You expect someone to inadvertently enrage Etna by pointing out her cardboard-like torso. The question isn’t if it will come up, but when, and how often. I actually thought this level of humor was lacking in the previous crossover title (Cross Edge): that game was simply watered down with too many characters from way too many source titles. There wasn’t enough time for Prinny to get his game on because generic character B from Idea Factory SRPG we never heard of was hogging the spotlight for whole chapters at a time. So I say, cheers to Etna and Prinny!
Let’s also consider the combat system. It’s worth noting that Andrew completed the game with Kanata, who is stated up-front as being, essentially, the game’s easy mode. By the third full dungeon in Rizelea’s story, I found myself getting the game over screen multiple times when I was forced to defeat one particular boss in five turns or fewer. It was then that I had to start thinking strategically about how I fought, and from that point forward I didn’t stop. While level-grinding did help from time to time, I couldn’t rely on it exclusively if I wasn’t paying attention. Resources, particularly healing resources, are limited during battle, so it’s important to play smart and defeat the enemy as fast as possible.
Andrew’s critique was essentially that the player’s skill did not determine the outcome. Personally, I found the opposite to be true. Perhaps the difference between Kanata and Rizelea really is that big? I cannot say for sure, but for anyone interested in Trinity Universe, I’d recommend that unless you’re a JRPG novice, you jump ahead to the Rizelea path.
Final point: TV anime and TV “tropes.” Many times throughout his review, Andrew made the statement that Trinity Universe didn’t even bother trying to appeal to a larger audience than its “fan base.” He may well be right. But I ask, what exactly is that “fan base” comprised of? Andrew never defined the scope of this fan base. Does he mean people who enjoy Gust and NIS games? Did he mean fans of JRPGs? Fans of crossover titles? (Is there even such a niche group of gamers?)
Whatever it was you, the reader, think he meant, this is what I’m almost sure he has to mean: fans of Japanese TV anime. If cookie-cutter anime characters make you sick, then you’d best run far away from Trinity Universe, a good portion of JRPGs (see: Tales series), and probably sites such as RPGFan. In this framework, I’d argue that there is a relatively large “fan base” for Trinity Universe – at least potentially. There are a lot of people who get a kick out of nonsense anime plots, so long as there is something intriguing about the gameplay and the visuals and/or audio are somewhat appealing.
So really, while I’m not standing here wholeheartedly recommending Trinity Universe, I do not see it as a failure. In fact, I see it as a kind of success. It is an improvement for Idea Factory, and let’s face it, “crossover” games aren’t easy to do well. It’s good to see improvement, and while I don’t necessarily relish the opportunity to try Idea Factory’s next crossover JRPG, if it’s even better than Trinity Universe, a strong positive trend will have been set. Maybe, someday, they could actually be “the next big thing.” I doubt it, but hey – I dwell in the realm of possibility (with Emily Dickinson).