[12 May 2009]
Like most people, I have my vices—three of them to be exact. All are as deadly, addictive, expensive, and time consuming as each other. In order of dangerousness, they are: women, cigarettes, and erm…Japanese role-playing games.
Show me an RPG aping Star Wars or Tolkien, and I’ll pass. But show me a game with an extravagant anime or manga art style, and I go all weak at the knees like a teenage girl at a Zac Efron concert. And I’m not even a fan of anime or manga, and I definitely don’t like Zac Efron! Nevertheless, ever since Tales of Symphonia (the first RPG I completed), I’ve been hooked. Exploring the net for my new Symphonia, my search has brought me such jewels as Persona 3 and The World Ends With You.
Sadly, though, as any JRPG fan will tell you these treasures are few and far between as the genre is so often bogged down by tradition, clichés, decade old staples and a general unwillingness to change with the times. While the days of JRPG’s never reaching Western shores seem to have ended, still the ratio of great games to lousy ones is unfortunately in favour of the latter. As most of the next gen efforts RPG’s have largely been a let down, it has been up to the DS, the new home of the JRPG to feed my addiction, taking over from the JRPG king that was once the Playstation 2.
Konami, which has arrived pretty late to the ball have finally decided to bring over one of their premiere franchises to the DS, Suikoden in the form of its new spin-off Tierkreis. Spin-off is the key term here as many of the staples of past entrants are absent, such as large scale army vs. army battles, a grown up story, duels or any returning characters. Instead, you have a Suikoden experience streamlined for the DS tiny boppers. As a result, that means a Sesame Street-style story, goggle eyed characters with super deformed hands (yes, I said hands and not heads), an overly simple combat system, no over world map to explore and generally a complete lack of the options found in most other RPG’s.
The plot follows the tale of an unnamed orphan child approaching his 15th birthday, he’s unaware and does not care about his past because he is plucky, scrappy, dogmatic, fearless, heavy handed, yet remarkably brave, strong, and wise for one so young. *Phew.* Again these characteristics could describe any lead from any RPG from the last two decades but somehow this lead becomes endearing in an underdog kinda way. The hero is on a mission to stop the ascent of the “One True King” and halt the plans of his subordinates, “The Order of the One True Way,” who believe that the future is already predetermined and that a future that is already decided is a future free of war and agony.
The game boasts themes concerning utopia, dystopia, prejudice, religious zealotry, the worship of false idols, the pursuit of happiness (regardless of its reality), the manipulation of people through propaganda and force, and even a dig at Capitalism. While these are all interesting themes, they’re never really fully engaged as a result of some of the worst storytelling imaginable.
Firstly, the voice acting (of which there is a surprisingly large amount of for a DS game) is ear bleeding bad. Seemingly voice acted by the Z-list of anime voice actors (all with their twee, high pitched, screeching, or simply inappropriate deep voices – some of them are meant to be voicing teenagers), the players immersion in the world is utterly ruined. An option allowing for listening to the original Japanese voice work would have been better, but such an option does not exist presumably because of storage concerns.
Secondly, despite its interesting themes, the story suffers from another staple of the JRPG, poor and often unintelligible dialogue. Whether it was a case of dialogue being lost in translation or that the translator lost interest, there is no excuse for a script with lines that are so convoluted. It becomes impossible not to dread every cutscene as they don’t move forward the story, they’re not amusing, and they don’t help with the characterization at all.
Thirdly, the best stories in games are often the simplest. Here, though, complication and convolution disconnects the player from the narrative. Plot twists and the back and forth nature of the dialogue and plotting tend to elongate the game’s length for no clear purpose. Less is often more and going on about “parallel this” and “infinite that” undermines and confuses what might have been the more interesting human elements of the plot.
But for all its shortcomings in the narrative department, the game’s real downfall is in its gameplay, which could have been ripped out of any JRPG from the 1980’s. The formula is pretty basic: explore town, talk to NPC’s, explore dungeon, fight boss, and level up. 35+ hours later, you’ve reached the end of the game.
Randomized battles have been largely relegated to the past in modern RPG’s. Here, though, they’re back with a vengeance. Relentless in nature, every few steps leads to a bright white screen and the same looping music. In the instances that you have to backtrack to previously explored areas after reaching much higher levels, enemies that you kill often take one hit and only offer the odd experience point or two. Such experiences remind the player why such randomized battles have become a thing of the past.
Another side effect of the constant encounters is a feeling of disorientation. Whether you’re exploring the narrow corridor of some dingy cathedral or a vast open area, you inevitably forget where you are and where you need to go as a result of being launched regularly into battle. Furthermore, it kills any desire to explore.
The lack of a map on the top screen of the DS has never been missed so much. Instead, all that the player is provided with is a pre-rendered image of the party’s current location. Yes, the image is very pretty but also very unhelpful. Such a lack of orientation is compounded by the tendency of dungeons that tend to open up and contain multiple paths (yet remain linear as they push towards a fixed end point). These “multi-linear” paths often simply lead to dead ends, but the player feels the need to explore them thoroughly just to make sure no item has been left uncollected.
This acquisition mania induced by traditional role playing conventions seems related to another cliché, the need to level up to stupidly high levels. The game is by no means hard, however, weapons, armour, and items are all pricey. So, if you want all the latest toys, you need to grind. Success in battle leads to the acquisition of items that can be sold, but the pay-off isn’t significant enough.
The combat is also a fairly straightforward and familiar turn based affair. The only complexity comes from choosing which of the 108 characters that you plan to take into battle. That is, if you can find them all. Of course, you can only take five of these characters into battle at any given time (four will fight while one serves as support on the sidelines), which begs the question of where everyone else is in the army of heroes that you been collecting? If the world really is about to end as the numerous cutscenes keep telling me, shouldn’t all these concerned heroes want to get their hands dirty?
Unfortunately, the only thing that Suikoden Tierkreis really has going for it is its gorgeous graphics and beautiful score. It seems that this focus on updating the aesthetics of what is otherwise a very retrograde RPG might conceal weak gameplay and story elements that most are unwilling to put up with any more. Well, the strategy hasn’t worked.