[28 October 2013]
Agarest: Generations of War works—the buttons do basically what they’re supposed to, the story is reasonably sensible, pursuing objectives is compelling even if only by a Skinnerian interpretation—but not much more can be said about it. There are truly inspired concepts that fail to be executed and there are woefully tired clichés given fresh new life, but most of this turn-based tactical JRPG is just bland but okay. There is an alternate universe version of Agarest that is a hallmark in roleplaying games, but considering how infuriating and problematic it often is, settling on functional but unremarkable is an acceptable compromise.
The game begins with the camera slowly panning across a worn parchment map, while text explains that a forgotten war between the gods of light and darkness created the world of Agarest. Eons later, the gods of darkness arise to reclaim the world and a chosen hero must blah blah blah… It’s a JRPG. Clichés notwithstanding, the anime aesthetic applied to a Tolkien love-letter does create an intertextual harmony that many JRPGs have attempted but few have pulled off. Still, as interesting as this blending of Japanese art direction with western fantasy tropes is, leaning so heavily on clichés does give the game something of an identity crisis. A touch more originality would have fleshed out its personality, especially regarding the premise alluded to in the Generations of War subtitle.
Agarest’s biggest gimmick is actually where its greatest potential lies. The player character, Leo, is ordered to attack a small country of elves resisting Leo’s power hungry king. When he sees the devastation that his army causes the local population, Leo turns coats and is defeated by a colleague. As he bleeds out, Leo is visited by a sexy angel in bondage gear who promises to restore his life if he swears to serve the gods of light against those of darkness. The catch is that his servitude will pass on to his descendants. Leo agrees and is revived.
Numerous design choices stem from that choice. For one, the game is split into five chapters that each focus on a new generation of Leo’s family (all of Leo’s descendants are men because, well, video games). In each generation, the player must win a different war on a different continent, usually in the role of a traitor to an oppressive empire. Also, the hero of that generation must choose from three monogamous, heterosexual relationship possibilities to continue Leo’s bloodline and his sacred duty. Each child then inherits the stats, class, and attributes of their parents.
This creates enormous narrative potential that is never lived up to. For instance, none of Leo’s descendants rage about the burden that their great-great-grandfather cursed them with, none of the prospective romance options discuss how they feel about their celestial marriage arrangement, and nobody questions the ethics of the quest they’ve inherited. Characters just go through the motions of completing their determined objectives with barely a moment’s reflection. It isn’t that this creates any plot holes, but it’s disappointing that such a deep well of human drama is only barely explored.
Moreover, the dating simulator packed into the game, while a great idea, does not live up to its potential. A three-option multiple choice question will occasionally pop up during a cutscene and the player’s response will help prepare one of the women in the roster for childbirth. It’s a hilariously inhuman approach to romance considering that love and family are literally tied to the game’s plot and structure. Finally, the game privileges heterosexuality and monogamy as the only natural forms of love. What’s worse though is that erotically and behaviorally, female characters are clearly set up to appeal to juvenile male desire.
The game’s portrayal of women is particularly abysmal. Female characters, while in abundance, are sexualized and infantilized in the same breath. Would-be brides go into heat the moment the player character starts collecting relationship points, at the expense of any personality they might have developed, and they’re damned by the typical “girly” RPG support or ranged classes. Finally, they’re just badly written. When they aren’t pining for a male babysitter, they’re tripping over one another in their competition to out-wife one another.
Romance has long been a staple of role-playing games and including it as a central part of the game is a clever premise on both mechanical and storytelling fronts. However, by demanding that the player only explore hetero-vanilla relationships set up to serve a presumed male player’s hentai fantasy is frustrating when it isn’t just exhausting. The idea deserves better.
That isn’t to say that there isn’t anything going for Agarest. Some of the fantasy political drama starts to get interesting when class and race issues emerge from its war narrative, but, again, it’s often stronger in concept than in execution. In most generations the narrative props up the status quo, offering the tyrant redemption and expecting the oppressed to find a place in the systems that oppress them. Furthermore, even though the player is always on the side of the scrappy underdog, they never seem like they’re fighting steep odds. Progress is always guaranteed after completing a string of manageable challenges. Lastly, the purple prose—which could be more the fault of the translators than the Japanese writers—makes the characters sound nauseatingly unnatural.
Most of the exposition is shared by emoting still images of up to three characters at a time over a backdrop. During combat, the player commands six soldiers against no more than ten enemies. As much as the game is concerned about war, the player never participates in anything bigger than small skirmishes. That said, the skirmishes are well designed. The player coordinates their squad on a grid of squares, some of which offer buffs or penalties. The most unique battle mechanic is in how space on the field is used. Positioning allies in certain formations allows them to attack in unison, combine attacks and unlock secret, hidden abilities of greater power. As the team learns more attacks, fighting becomes exponentially deeper as new skill combinations become possible. The risks and rewards associated with experimenting keep the fights interesting, even if there are more of them than are necessary.
Still, the amount of grinding it takes to stay effective is just tedious. There are three different currencies used to acquire and gain abilities and equipment, including the experience rewarded after battles, points to improve statistics, and a crafting system. As a result, there are just too many resources to keep track of, especially when most are difficult to collect. It’s the sort of game that boasts a 120 hour campaign while necessitating several hours of small-game hunting to climb levels, not to mention the cumbersome menu systems that compounds more and more wasted time. It’s a shame, because encountering challenging new enemies requires active thought and strategy, and testing new skills and equipment is rewarding even if it’s an arduous wait. Between grinding sessions, battles are challenging and stylish enough to be compelling on their own.
The animations for the different attacks are appropriately flashy, and the animation and the sprites and backgrounds look great. Agarest doesn’t look any more technically demanding than games from the first Playstation era, but the retro-aesthetic helps it considerably. In its best moments, that aesthetic suits the game’s style and reinforces how much more art direction matters than graphical power.
Agarest: Generations of War could be so much more if its strengths has a bit more room to breathe, but with all its weaknesses, being tolerable seems almost like an accomplishment. There are plenty of JRPGs that do what Agarest does. For deep, squad based tactics there’s Fire Emblem, for political drama there’s Exit Fate, for the anime aesthetic there’s Persona. Agarest tries to do all of these things and too rarely succeeds.