Loser in Space
Rogue Galaxy is a bland RPG experience that fails to use its “unique” outer space setting to breathe any life into a genre in dying need of it. Actually, it seems that Level-5 was too busy cribbing a tired plot from Dune and Star Wars when it should’ve taken inspiration from Knights of the Old Republic and Xenosaga. Those series already took us to the far reaches of the universe and the games they produced were actually compelling: solid, epic plots, complex worlds with inventive gadgetry, a pantheon of quirky, uniquely developed characters and, in the former’s case, true character customization! This title opts instead for stale planet themes (Desert Land! Jungle Land! High-tech Land!), harebrained technology, and characters that can be described in five words or less.
Rogue Galaxy is sadly more akin to Star Ocean 3 (the granddaddy of tedious role-playing experiences). Sure, there are actually a generous handful of “planets” to jaunt through here, whereas Star Ocean 3 had the impudence to call itself ‘sci-fi’ then plop us on a “primitive” underdeveloped fantasyland for 90% of the game. However, Rogue Galaxy‘s worlds are just about as much fun to explore—which is to say they aren’t, really. Most are extremely linear in design with sparingly few locales. Usually there is some matter of ‘sprawling’ city/village that is annoyingly populated with inaccessible paths (like private homes) you can never visit. These towns branch out into gigantically repetitive natural or manmade dungeons. Instead of creating a number of breathtaking landmarks on each and every planet (and making them feel like living, breathing worlds), the game opts for a few dungeons that cycle the same formula backdrops five or six times, guaranteeing you’ll spend upwards of three to five hours in each.
It’s too bad, because many of these environments, and the characters that inhabit them, are rather interesting visually—at least for the first few minutes worth of screenshots. Level-5 clearly has some talented artists on the payroll, and they are the reigning masters of cel-shaded graphics, but their designs are exploited to the point of overkill this time around. Lacking a Final Fantasy budget to add more locales, they should’ve reduced the lengths of each dungeon. The overall hours logged would take a hit, but the gameplay experience might actually be memorable à la Tomb Raider: Legend, a title with notoriously short, but vividly sweet environments and gameplay.
Alas, this last point rides on the assumption that Rogue Galaxy tells a compelling story with dramatic characters, the other crucial aspect of a strong RPG.
Rogue Galaxy thinks that by setting its tired plot in the grandeur of space, we may be less liable to notice its banality. It begins with Jaster Rogue, a street smart orphan and wanton adventurer limited by the police-state curfews of the low-tech desert planet Rosa (sound familiar?). In come a pair of goofball space pirates: the stout and jovial weaponsmaster Simon and his naïve but well-mannered robot partner C-3P—err, Steve. In a crrrraaazy turn of fate, they mistake Jasper for the galaxy-famous hunter Desert Claw, recruiting the boy onto their advanced pirate ship so the captain Dorgengoa can exploit his mad skills in treasure-hunting. That is after they escape a colossal desert worm, pulled straight from Dune.
In classic J-RPG fashion, the epic save-the-known-universe stuff is stalled when the ship is besieged and crashes onto the jungle planet, Juraika. The crew may be savvy enough to make the repairs, but—big shocker here—not before they first must derive some oil from a rare plant that can only be found by exploring the far reaches of this new locale, resolving the planet’s own immediate crisis and recruiting an Amazonian babe into the party. But wait, there’s a twist! One of the space pirate crew is actually working for the bad guys!
These kinds of trite plot devices continue into the high-tech world of Zerard, home of the Galaxy Corporation, where the Space Pirates must return for a license renewal. On the plus side, it’s on Zerard that the main plot finally begins to take form, as we begin to learn of the sinister Dayton Corporation through its president’s right-hand-woman, the sneaky secretary Norma. The plot is mostly old hat, but it’s the cast of dull characters that really pulls it down.
Jaster Rogue’s big-dreaming, chosen hero is the oldest cliché in the book, followed closely by love-interest Kisala, the tough daughter of pirate captain Dorgengoa. The rest of the cast includes the hard-hitting warrior woman Lilika, brash and cynical sea pirate Zegram and Rogue Galaxy‘s answer to Jar Jar Binks: a whiny alien scholar named Jupis. Most only have one-note personalities at best and few have arcs of which to speak (beyond the old betrayal-and-redemption), yet somehow they all manage bucketloads of meaningless dialogue (particularly when spewing trivial comments about the weather every few seconds as you explore the monotonous dungeons). Some of the villains are marginally more interesting, but thanks to weak line deliveries from the majority of the cast, they’re never as menacing or comical as they’re supposed to be.
The voice actors in general won’t make you want to sew your ears shut (see: Star Ocean), but you will still probably long for the age of subtitles. None of the characters are very interesting to begin with —- particularly after recently experiencing Final Fantasy XII -— and the talent behind the dialogue seems to have graduated from the Dobby the House Elf Academy of Voice Acting. Considering the dearth of quality vocal thespians in recent J-RPGs, I can almost understand Nintendo’s continuing refusal to integrate them in Zelda.
In Rogue Galaxy‘s defense, it’s not a complete disaster; it’s just not Final Fantasy. The environments are huge, the item farming is addictive (in a MMORPG-lite sort of way) and completion-freaks will have a ball hunting down extra costumes and cooking up über-weapons with the Factory system. It’s a shame when the mini-games and extra content trump the core aspects of a game, but it’s a sad reality in a genre infamous for finding ways to artificially extend running time in order to boast of “more than 100 hours of gameplay” on the jacket.
The gameplay itself is a middling pastiche of other mechanics we’ve seen here and there, but it mostly works. Combat is a real-time hybrid of Star Ocean, Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy. Basically, you run around the field button mashing either your short-range or long-range weapon (usefulness will vary based on the individual character and the enemies you are facing), while pausing occasionally to bring up a menu to use a restorative item or launch an elemental all-attack or party buff. Each of the eight characters fights with two different styles of weapons, and between them all, there is a surprising degree of variance (beyond visual design). Some ranged weapons fire a quick barrage of bullets, while Lilika’s arrows are launched more slowly and can be charged for extra damage and Simon’s guns unleash a continual burst of fire.
There are also special utility weapons that let you create jumpable platforms to access big enemy weak spots or ones that will momentarily freeze them or break their otherwise impenetrable barriers. Some of these are also unfortunately used on the field, which trigger special events if you use them at the ironically named “thinking circles”, mini puzzles requiring the brain power of an average ape.
Characters learn new stuff via the customizable “Revelation Flow” system, which resembles the License Board from Final Fantasy XII, or the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X. The difference is that you must find, purchase or invent weird items and spend them to unlock each character’s individual abilities. The characters all have an elemental preference (not that it seems to matter in most cases), a bevy of unique buffs, weapon power-ups and flashy “Burning Strikes,” Rogue Galaxy‘s equivalent to Limit Breaks: multi-hit combos that resemble Tifa’s button-coordinated punch-fests from Final Fantasy VII. The all-attack abilities are insanely overpowered, and simplistically designed (really, they’re just palette swaps for each character) and I would’ve liked a little variety within those Burning Strikes, but the system is admittedly well-implemented, and rewards players right up until the end, especially if gamers take advantage of those scores of minigames.
Rogue Galaxy‘s sci-fi shtick might have stood out if it was released on the original PlayStation. The space-pirates swing on the age-old RPG formula was kind of fresh when Skies of Arcadia debuted on the short-lived Dreamcast. But since then, we’ve returned to the outer reaches of the galaxy with varying degrees of success, and Final Fantasy XII‘s Balthier and Fran now own the title of coolest airborne pirates. Rogue Galaxy is really just a mediocre, mildly entertaining entry in the overcooked lineup of PS2 RPGs. If you can settle for mediocre, feel free to take the plunge.