[15 March 2011]
Trinity: Souls of Zill O’ll feels like a “role-playing game” and is in fact the latest entry in the turn-based RPG Zill O’ll franchise (a franchise heretofore never given a North American release), but there’s really very little role-playing to be done. Exploration is all but nixed from the equation. The player is reduced to observer when conversations occur. Towns are entirely menu-driven. The only area of the game in which the player truly inhabits the characters on the screen are in battle sequences, long stretches of labyrinth exploring and looting that just happen to involve blowing up hordes of very disposable bad guys.
That Dynasty Warriors developer Omega Force would be behind a production like this makes the approach less surprising. This is a developer that has made its name on hacking and slashing at untold masses of enemies for the express goal of hacking and slashing at bigger enemies, all leading up to the hacking and the slashing of the biggest enemy. Now seven games into the Dynasty Warriors series, hack ‘n slash is a subgenre that Omega Force has reduced to a science. To expect them to mess with a good thing just because they’re working with a different franchise would be folly.
What Omega force manages to do with Trinity: Souls of Zill O’ll is play to its own strengths rather than try to accommodate the franchise it has been handed. It’s as if once the combat engine was in place, Omega Force then spent the rest of its effort making concessions to those who might have been expecting a little bit more traditional role-playing and a little bit less blocking, dodging, and flailing.
Given that one spends a good 80-90% of the play time doing battle in Trinity, it helps (even if it’s not surprising) that the battle engine is very well implemented. RPG battle tends to be a slow and sluggish affair even if it’s not turn-based, and managing a party of characters in a real-time environment is often cumbersome and confusing. Trinity dashes these preconceptions with a surprisingly visceral feel for battle that offers some surprisingly good ideas in its AI.
As one might expect given the game’s title, most of Trinity is spent traveling as a party of three. There is quite obviously a “main” character, a half-elf with daddy issues named Areus who is the central protagonist of this story, but a big beefy warrior type (Dagda) and an athletic mage type (Selene) are both there to alternately protect and antagonize the self-centered “hero”. While Areus’ companions work just fine as devices for advancing the fairly simplistic plot, they’re mostly here to fight. And fight they do, though perhaps not in the way that one would imagine. If you happen upon a horde of enemies (and you will, especially if you’ve been walking for 10 seconds uninterrupted), you’ll find that if you’re controlling Areus, it is Areus who will do most of the work in slaying those enemies. Likewise, if you’re controlling either Dagda or Selene, it is whichever one you are controlling that will do most of the work.
In other words, try to leave the fighting to your companions and very little will get done.
While one may be tempted to call this a failure in A.I., the apparent inability to fight off aggressors is something that the player comes to appreciate as the game wears on—it feels more like an intentional choice than a poorly-realized implementation.
What your pals represent here are tanks. When you are not controlling them, they actually draw the attention of the enemies without doing a lot of killing them . . . or getting hurt by them. The presence of two additional “players” in the field of battle actually simplifies the experience, particularly when the number of enemies becomes overwhelming. Trying to stay alive when a swarm of bats is coming from one direction and scorpions are creeping up from the other direction is much easier when those enemies are dividing their attentions between three good guys rather than mobbing one. This, then, allows the player to take care of attacking enemies, and then going and helping out the other allies. Not only is it good from a strategy standpoint, but it also gives the player a sense of agency, of being the one responsible for the successful battle. Because you can’t hang back and expect your compatriots to get the job done, you have to take responsibility even as you can usually trust them to not get killed while you’re taking care of your own business.
Unfortunately, having such a successful cooperative battle engine translates to a terribly frustrating experience when you’re fighting on your own. When the enemies converge on Areus and only Areus, it quickly becomes clear that their attacks can be devastating and quick; staying out of the way when a large enemy is using surprisingly quick attacks is difficult when that enemy is concentrating all of those attacks on you. The player quickly comes to miss having allies around, and combat quickly becomes a frustrating bother—particularly when you go it alone for long (sometimes very long) stretches at a time. The “Game Over” screen becomes a familiar antagonist when combat is reduced to one against many.
In a game that spends long stretches offering allegory after allegory for race relations, this frustration might well be intentional—in a game whose overriding theme may well be “why can’t we all just get along?”, a dash of “we need each other to survive” isn’t all that surprising. As a message goes, it’s a good one, but the lonely sections that drive that message home make an already long game feel much longer and not in the good way that RPGs particularly strive for.
Trinity: Souls of Zill O’ll is a surprisingly solid and addictive game, especially given Omega Force’s approach of fitting a Dynasty Warriors-shaped peg into a JRPG-shaped hole. Despite the almost necessary repetition facilitated by the game’s structure of accepting quests and venturing to locales that become all too familiar as the game stretches on, there is an addictive quality to the rewards you get by completing those quests, not to mention the loot that you pick up while on the quests. Combined with the sense that when you’re part of a team, you can do anything, that mechanic makes Trinity: Souls of Zill O’ll a game worth putting 40-50 hours into. This is especially true when you know that in the times that the game is at its worst, it is most certainly going to get better.