“What’s my motivation?”
An action game doesn’t typically have this problem. You play an action game because it’s a game — you finish it in the span of 10 hours or so, rarely thinking about the question of why because it passes too quickly for the player to seriously consider putting it away before it’s done. An RPG has to offer some motivation, which it typically accomplishes by offering the player an intricate story in exchange for the 40-plus hours or so that it’s going to take to finish it.
Throw an “S” in front of that “RPG”, however, and even a good story might not cut it. The typical SRPG can last for over 100 hours before it’s good and beat and even a great story might not cut it when it comes to keeping the player interested. You need something else. You need a hook. Maybe even two hooks.
Well, Record of Agarest War has two hooks. One’s a gameplay hook — a tweak to the battle system that subtly separates it from the tried-and-true turn-based battle system that we’ve been using in SRPGs since, oh, Fire Emblem and Shining Force. During the battles, moving characters to certain spaces in relation to other characters will “link” the two characters together. Navigate the links with a little bit of skill, and you can almost always link every single one of your up-to-six party members together, which allows every single one of them to unleash attacks — including devastating combo attacks — on the same hapless enemy before said enemy gets a chance to fight back. It’s a nifty mechanic that gives low-leveled allies a fighting chance against difficult baddies, but after 20 hours or so, it’s easy to start to wish that the placement of allies wasn’t really the only thing to worry about on the battlefield.
The other hook, of course, is the one that’s fed into the ridiculous and insulting publicity push for the game. Yes, embedded in all the “strategery” and epic tale-weaving is nothing other than a dating sim.
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 was ruinous for those games who would dare to follow in its footsteps. By featuring such an engrossing simulation of the high school experience alongside all of the dungeon crawling, Persona 3 allowed for the sort of character development rarely seen even in the most wordy of RPGs. This was a character that we developed, after all, integrated seamlessly into the story. Not only was there dating, but there was also befriending and class-taking and some good old fashioned exploring.
While it would be folly to say that Record of Agarest War is even attempting to offer a respite to the constant angst and battling that is anywhere near the level of that in Persona 3, the shallowness of what’s here is still distressing. This is a dating sim that essentially puts the hero in a modified episode of game show The Dating Game, in which three attractive ladies compete for the affections of one befuddled hero. Based on the hero’s response to various questions from said ladies and the occasional strategic decisions he makes throughout the game, the affection that the ladies have for the hero goes up or it goes down.
The reason all of the women are in competition for the man is explained early on as part of a story element, so at least it’s not merely attributable to the undeniable animal magnetism of the angsty-if-well-meaning protagonists that guide us through the game. The story goes that the heroes’ descendents must also be a part of the saving of the world to seal the five Pillars of Life or some such fantasy-laden hooey, so in order for those descendents to come into existence, the hero must, of course, procreate.
At its base, it’s an excuse to stick high resolution drawings (and aside from a few three panel “animations”, that’s all they are) of scantily clad girls at odd intervals throughout the game, the presence of which pretty much defines the entire “dating” aspect of the game as an adolescent power fantasy. Frustrated teenage boys will be joyous when they see that getting a woman’s clothes off is as easy as, say, letting her go into town and do a little shopping.
The selling point of a game like Record of Agarest War tends to be its length. There’s simply so many battles, some of which can take upwards of half an hour, that you have no choice but to spend weeks (if not months or years) beating the game. A long game is made longer by the presence of weapon modification and creation, the capturing and combining of monsters to create new items, and even free DLC that introduces new dungeons — short, explorable sequences that mitigate the presence of random battles with that of rare treasures — to each one of the continents. Those buying this game with the expectation of pulling in all of its trophies/achievements should plan on setting aside 200 or so hours to get all of them.
To some players this no doubt sounds like paradise, an excuse to get lost in the world of a game for weeks on end. Still, do you really want to expend that much energy in a game whose immediate draw is that of scantily clad anime girls? Can you really tolerate battles in which the sense of good vs. evil strategy is all but removed for 200 hours? What if you’re attracted to men? Is play for the sake of play enough to push you through a game like this?
If it is, you’re more devoted to the genre than I.
That said, misguided marketing push aside, it’s hard to fault Aksys for bringing something like Record of Agarest War to the states because its genre alone (regardless of quality) does make it a very desirable property in the eyes of genre fans. It’s always a treat to have a chance to play something that wasn’t likely to ever see the light of day on local soil. The problem is that it’s a game too easily criticized; it’s a game that simply doesn’t have enough going for it to court anyone who hadn’t already considered importing it. It’s a game that’s probably not going to sell well enough to justify the localization of other presumably less flawed games. Unfortunate as this may be, it’s impossible to recommend Record of Agarest War. Wait for something better.