December 05, 2008
RPG’s can often be all consuming affairs that seem determined to suck up your spare time like some kind of malicious vortex and, of course, you can’t mention RPG’s without acknowledging Square-Enix as the undisputed overlords of the genre. While I expect that last statement will generate a lot of criticism, there can be no doubt that Square-Enix have a reputation for producing quality role playing titles that often seem to take on a life of their own. So it’s with a fair bit of excitement that we get to witness their first original offering on the 360. Will it live up to expectations or be banished to a slime infested dungeon (or you can insert your RPG cliché of choice instead).
For many people this title may well be seen as filler material until the next Final Fantasy crops up, but I don’t think they could be further from the truth. The developers have tried to pull out all of the stops in order to give this title its own unique identity, while at the same time retaining a lot of the hallmarks synonymous with that series. So you’ll still get the lengthy cut-scenes, epic battles, dodgy storyline and over the top villains; not to mention the badly coifed hero still in his teens – that’s practically a law. However, in amongst the same old ideas are also a bunch of fresh new ones, such as the intriguing battle system and the toned down exploration aspect.
The story revolves around Rush Sykes and his sister Irina, who is kidnapped right at the start of proceedings (hardly a spoiler when it happens in the first scene). Both of these youngsters have mysterious abilities that evildoers are out to harness, so it’s up to Rush to first of all find his sister and then find out more about his unique attributes. Along the way he'll have to investigate the peculiar Remnants that are scattered around the world as well as stopping the evil Conqueror (winner of the 2008 Bad Name award). I suppose if you were being extremely harsh you could point to the fact that, at its core, the story is yet another involving an annoying teenager saving the world. However, it never seems to come across that way and things seem constantly fresh and interesting regardless of the fact there may be the odd cliché thrown in. Part of the success comes from the different characters and species you’ll come across in your travels as they all have markedly different aspirations and personalities. It’s because of this fact that you’ll soon start to like the heroes and care about their quest, and this, more than anything else, makes the game hugely enjoyable.
Most of the intrigue and conflict surrounds the enigmatic Remnants, which are artefacts from a bygone age that perform a variety of different tasks and functions. Some of them are high powered weapons whilst others are mere treasure chests (but nicer looking). Due to the fact many of them have magical properties there has been a series of damaging battles over their use. Rush stumbles upon one of these conflicts in the search for his sister and, in the ensuing chaos, meets up with the youthful David, Marquis of Athlum, and his generals. Obviously this posse covers every breadth of the spectrum and each of them has their own strengths and weaknesses to bring to the party. If anything though, the fact these characters are the most interesting and toughest in the game is somewhat of a detriment as it means anyone you recruit afterwards seems fairly redundant. It’s a minor quibble really but one that makes recruiting anyone seem rather pointless.
Possibly the main selling point of this game is the quirky battle system, and let me stop right now to say that it takes some getting used to. Don’t expect to leap straight into the game and know what is going on, as you’ll be lost completely. The game does ease you in with tutorials right at the start but I’d really recommend you have a good long look at the instructions first as it will reap dividends. You won’t have to suffer through random encounters either as enemies are visible on the battlefield and you’ll be advised to draw them into combat (via a press of the LT) before they spot you. Fail to do so and they’ll alert other foes to your presence which can result in an even bigger ruckus. The fact you can face off against up to 70 enemies soon makes things interesting.
From there on out things seem to follow a standard turn based system, as you’ll have a number of characters and foes who will take it in turns to beat ten bells out of one another. However, rather than focusing on individual units instead you’ll be in command of up to five unions made up of a number of individuals. The leader of each union will be one of your main characters while the rest of the team are foot soldiers who should be chosen to compliment their leader’s attributes. Each turn you can issue commands for each of your unions to carry out, and it’s here that strategy starts to play a part.
As well as being a turn based affair the battles also have a strategic element to them which revolves around the commands you’ve issued. Attacking a unit in close combat draws them into a ‘deadlock’ situation which drastically reduces their (and your) future combat options. This is obviously a good way to tie up potentially troublesome foes until you have time to bring your big guns to bear. It can also open them up to devastating flank and rear attacks if you pile more of your unions onto the same enemy. There is also an element of timing involved as certain attacks require quick time events in order to achieve success, or at least a more powerful attack. The key to success is making sure you have a good spread of unions and that you use your skills on a regular basis, as the more you use them, the more powerful they’ll become.
The battle system is not without its flaws though and the most obvious of these is the crippling lag that can take effect when you’re facing off against a horde of foes. It’s not guaranteed to happen every time but when it does (usually during special attacks) the game slows to an extremely painful crawl. It makes the decision to use the Unreal Engine seem like a strange one as it’s almost as if they weren’t entirely sure how to get the best out of it; it’s mainly irritating due to Square-Enix’s record of producing sumptuous looking titles and this seems like a bit of a letdown. If you install the game to your hard-drive (assuming you can) then the problem goes away completely but that’s not the point, the issue shouldn’t be there at all and if the engine couldn’t cope with so much happening at once then it surely wouldn’t have hurt to make the battles happen on a smaller scale. It’s also rather odd that each turn you’ll get different commands popping up, rather than having all of them available. This means that you may not be allowed to heal when you want to or that special attacks never arrive or come in groups. It’s a puzzling system and probably the one truly bad idea linked with the battle system; that being said it does make you plan every move with precision which is kind of the point. My only other gripe with the battle system would be the steep learning curve - as you’ll be tossed in at the deep end with little idea of what to do and can soon find yourself outmatched. Give yourself some time to learn the nuances though and this becomes less of an issue, but this is not a game for an RPG newcomer.
Outside of battle the RPG overtones have been reduced significantly, as you can wander between the towns and areas you’ve discovered so far but only actually explore certain areas. It seems strange that an RPG would curtail your freedom to some extent but it does mean less time wandering around doing thankless tasks or searching through random bystander’s cabinets for loot (or good underwear). Each town has a smattering of shops and guilds, which can be approached if you wish to undertake side-quests. Quests can range from finding specific treasure to eliminating certain beasties, and a lot of the rarer foes and out of the way areas can only be found be agreeing to go on such quests so it pays to listen to your adventurous spirit. That being said you are never quite sure what you are letting yourself in for, as the quests difficulties can vary drastically. You’d have thought they could have assigned each quest a rating in terms of your level or just left the tougher tasks until later in the game, but instead you could find yourself getting destroyed in short order and having to try again later. It’s a petty annoyance but one that could have been easily avoided.
Saving the game takes place, as you would expect on the map screen or when you are in towns but you’ll struggle to save once you’re in a prolonged battle or a long dungeon where you could be ambushed at any moment. This can be a cause of consternation at times as you can be tossed into a battle against multiple foes, only to be killed at the last hurdle after battling for half an hour. Repeating the same fight over and over again can soon get pretty boring and some kind of temporary save option would have been a godsend. The loading screens that pop up far too often are also a bit of an irritant; enter a town, a building or a battle and they appear. Most of the time they only last a few seconds but surely they could have been removed altogether or replaced with something a bit more pleasing on the eye.
The graphics, as previously mentioned, are an extremely mixed bag and one that could put most people off. While the cut-scenes and battles all look beautiful and dynamic, there is an element of texture pop-up and in some cases extreme lag. You can avoid these issues but you really shouldn’t have to, especially considering the developer involved. Thankfully the problems only occur sporadically, or they did for me at least, and to be honest, don’t detract from the overall experience. The voice work is of a pretty good quality but is only available in certain scenes, which is a bit of a let down. I also have to say (as I’m English) that some the extremely posh accents made me laugh out loud, though I’m sure most people won’t have an issue with them. The soundtrack is pretty good though and makes events seem all the more dramatic.
The achievements here are a pretty poor selection and possibly one of the worst in an RPG game. You can probably pick up a few hundred points just by playing through the game but having two secret achievements (each worth 200 points) just smacks of laziness. If the rumours are true then you’ll be required to complete the game with out letting Rush die once and complete it without using the revive command on ANYONE. Good luck with that...
The main issues with this game are all of a graphical nature and that’s the one thing you wouldn’t have thought would be a problem with a Square-Enix title, but if you can put up with the occasional slow down and bouts of pop-up, then you’ll find an engrossing title underneath. The combat system is a nice change of pace from the standard system and actually requires some thought rather than just selecting attack each and every turn. The more time you invest in this game then the more you’ll come to appreciate it, but don’t be expecting an easy ride or any easy points for that matter.
Solid voice work and a pretty decent score. The whole thing is marred by some laughably posh accents though and the fact that a lot of the dialogue is text based.
Looks great in places but the lag in battles and texture pop-up is unforgivable. There is a way to fix it, but gamers shouldn’t need to fix the developers mistakes for them..
The combat system is deep and gets better the further into the game you go, it’s a shame that exploration has been toned down but the epic battles make up for it.
A solid RPG rather than a spectacular one, but the storyline is engrossing and the characters are more than just by the numbers clichés. A few tweaks to the save system would have been welcome though...
A poor list and one that will probably require a few plays through the game. Considering the number of side quests it seems ridiculous that three achievements are worth more than half of the points, and two of those are secret.
This game falls just short of greatness mainly due to unacceptable graphical problems and a few poorly implemented ideas. If there had been less loading screens and more choice about battle commands, then this would have been the ideal game to tide us over until Final Fantasy XIII emerges. As it is though, this game is perfect for the RPG fanatics of the world but may be a harsh introduction for novices and those who can’t look past the wonky graphics.