02 September 2010

RPG Week — Atlus Presents! Crimson Gem Saga & Hexyz Force

Today I'm going to look at two different RPGs—Crimson Gem Saga and Hexyz Force. I'm grouping them together because they both happened to be Atlus USA releases for the PlayStation Portable, and in some ways they're kind of similar. It's worth noting that Atlus did not develop these games, they only translated and localized them for American audiences. Crimson Gem Saga was developed by IronNos / SK Telecom while Hexyz Force was made by Sting. That said, Atlus is well-known for its excellent localizations, and both of these games showcase that level of quality.

Crimson Gem Saga

Crimson Gem Saga is actually called Astonishia Story 2 in its home country of Korea, but was renamed elsewhere due to the fact that the two stories are only vaguely related. I must say I have never played Astonishia Story, but as I understand it, it also plays very differently and is, in fact, a strategy RPG. Crimson Gem Saga is a classic style RPG through and through, and while it's not particularly innovative in that regard, it is a lot of fun to play.

Oh, where to begin. The characters in this game are just bursting with personality. The two best are the main characters—Killian and Spinel.

Killian is a fresh young graduate from a military academy who has the problem of always coming in second place. Whatever he does, there's always someone else who does a little bit better, and the worst offender is Herbert von Guterrian. In their graduating class, Herbert got Valedictorian, while Killian was merely Salutatorian. See, Killian is the sort of guy who makes it all the way to the Olympics and wins a Silver medal, and instead of being happy about it, he beats himself up for not getting the Gold.

Spinel is an elven thiefmage who loves to steal. In fact, the only thing she seems to like more than larceny is giving Killian a hard time, and the two of them are constantly squabbling. She kind of reminds me of Haruko from FLCL in that they both exhibit a certain silliness-bordering-on-insanity.

Oh, and she also runs around the whole game in a bikini, which is either sexist or sexy depending on who you are. Sexy/-ism aside, she provides plenty of humor and the interactions between her and Killian can be quite entertaining.

The rest of the cast all have their distinct personality and style and their interactions provide a lot of character for the game as a whole. The writing is exceptional, and it's not afraid to play with RPG tropes. Characters and events will frequently poke fun of RPG standards. For example, in one interchange, Killian chastises Spinel for stealing, to which she replies with something to the effect of "What do you mean! You just waltz into people's houses all the time and take their stuff!" This same trope is also played off as a joke at the player's expense in one home filled with cupboards with food items. You can take all but one, but if you take that last one the house's resident says something like, "That's it! I was just gonna let you take it, but now I won't have anything to eat. Do you want me to starve? Give it all back!"

Compared to the characters, the story is somewhat generic. It follows the old style of RPG storytelling that pretty much amounts to "we need to go to the next location to find some item/person/whatever to progress the plot." The overarching goal is to find something called the Wicked Stone, some old artifact that is so old that no one remembers what it's even supposed to do anymore. But hey, it's really old, so it must be valuable! Right, Spinel?

So Spinel wants to find this Wicked Stone, and Killian is indebted to her and must be her bodyguard. They both end up fugitives and the rest of the party joins on cuz, hey, they're fugitives too. Might as well all stick together, right? There's some added conflict in the rivalry between Killian and Herbert, and some moments of deceit and so forth, but as far as RPGs are concerned, it's pretty par for the course.

I wouldn't say the plot is great on its own, but the text is extremely well written and fun. It's not what happens that's great, it's how it happens.

Attack, Skills, Item, Defend, Escape. Sounds familiar? That's cuz it is. But it does it well and though it doesn't mix things up too much, it does keep it fun. For one, critical hits don't just do more damage. When it hits, an X flashes on the bottom of the screen and if you hit the X button at the right time, you can get in additional attacks. Usually it's just two extra, but Spinel can hit up to six times. That said, though she seems rather small and spritely, if you focus on improving her strength and critical hit percentage stats, she can become a complete powerhouse.

The equipment is probably the weirdest in that pieces of equipment have slots where you can attach special items in order to improve its stats. Once attached, you can't unattach them, which means that newly acquired weapons or armor will generally be weaker than those currently equipped, and you'll have to improve them first by attaching items.

Honestly, the equipment system would've probably been best if they'd kept it simple, but it's not bad and the rest is pretty much old school RPG battles done right. And I'm more than okay with that.

The music is what it is. I suppose not every game can have Yasunori Mitsuda or Nobuo Uematsu composing, huh? But it's not bad. The graphics have a bit of an old school flare in their 2D sprite work, and the larger hand-drawn sprites are quite beautiful. The game looks pretty good, actually.

Best is the voice acting, though. I mean, really. The voice is amazing. Atlus got quite a team of voice actors for this one, with the shining star being Laura Bailey, who really brings Spinel to life.

Overall, the game is fun, plain and simple. It never takes itself too seriously, and I like that.

Hexyz Force

When I first heard the name of this game, I though it was a puzzle game. But nope, it's an RPG. And a pretty competent one at that. The big thing with Hexyz Force is that it's "Two epic RPGs in one." I took that straight from the back of the case.

Essentially, there are two stories you can play through. One in the light world of Lustrous Berge and one in the dark world of Dark Berge. After you beat both, there is an additional dungeon or something in which both sides join forces to defeat the ultimate villain and reunite the world of Berge into one.

So far, I've only played the Dark Berge story, but I feel I have a decent understanding of the game to discuss it in general. Maybe when I beat it fully I can write a little extra.

Perhaps its because both games were localized by Atlus, but the characters in Hexyz Force remind me a lot of Crimson Gem Saga. Not in a "She's just like Spinel" kind of way, but in that "They seem like they could easily get along" way. The two games could combine casts and it wouldn't really fell that amiss.

I've read that the Dark Berge storyline is "darker" and more "serious" than the Lustrous Berge storyline. If that's true, Lustrous Berge must be one happy, happy place. I don't mean that everything is smiles and sunshine in Dark Berge. In fact, the sun literally does not shine. However, the characters aren't all Emo McAngsterson. The story can be genuinely funny at times, and there are plenty of happy moments.

I see the difference between the Dark and Lustrous stories like the difference in mood between Persona 3 and Persona 4. Both have elements of comedy and drama, but Persona 3 is generally darker and more serious while Persona 4 is generally lighter and more comedic. I mean, their primary colours were dark blue and bright yellow respectively. Actually, now that I think about it, the same seems to be true for Dark and Lustrous Berge... Hrmm...

Anyway, I think the character in Dark Berge I've taken to the most is the raucous, overly confident Griek, who is a Lygar (half-man, half-beast). But the rest are pretty cool too, and there's a lot of fun dialogue between them. Levant and Irene probably have the most developed relationship, having been childhood friends. Irene is, unsurprisingly, a little tsundere and actually shouts "He's not my boyfriend!" at one point. But it generally avoids becoming too clichéd. There relationship is more complex than, "We've always been friends and now I kind of like him/her."

Overall, the plot is more complex than Crimson Gem Saga. It has more weird terms to learn like Halbmensch and Hexyz, though it never breaches into, "Is their a glossary or something so I can figure out what's going on?" territory. The world is a little strange and hard to understand when you first jump in, but you figure things out soon enough. And in the beginning, the party is supposed to be just as confused as to what exactly a "Hexyz" is as you are, so you all kind of learn that one together.

Otherwise, I think the split worlds thing is a nice twist. Yeah, it's been done before, but I don't think it's been overplayed. Not as two separate playable storylines, anyway. I mean, honestly, the only other example I can think of is Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages and Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons, though their may be lesser known games to use this gimmick as well. And while Zelda did it first, I have to thank Hexyz Force for not pulling that Nintendo "You have to buy two separate games to get the full experience" bullshit. It's on one UMD. You buy that one UMD and you're good. Thank you for that, Sting. (Don't get me wrong, I love the Oracle games, but you have to admit that Nintendo likes to pull the multi-game gimmick a lot. *coughcoughPokémoncough*)

Although the gameplay of Hexyz Force is based on the old school RPG mechanics, it is certainly playing with the conventions a lot more than Crimson Gem Saga did. For one, there is no straight up "Attack" command. Did I just blow your mind?

You are actually able to equip up to four different weapons at a time. Each weapon has it's own set of magic skills to choose from (and some of them are purely healing).

Now, there are artifacts that can be used infinitely, though using their abilities consume MP. Otherwise, each piece of equipment has a certain durability, and every time you use it one of those durability points is lost forever.

Normally, durability on equipment is just frustrating, but it doesn't really get on your nerves here. Why? Well, because when it comes down to it, the "weapons" with durability are essentially like consumable items in most other RPGs. Most people don't complain that when you use a Potion, it goes away. In the same way, you don't mind so much that a Stitch Orb breaks after a few uses.

So in this way, the artifacts are like your actual weapons, and rather than buy new ones, you simply level them up. The breakable "weapons" are a dime a dozen, and just like those Potions in other RPGs, they tend to accumulate rapidly in your inventory.

But you have to realize that there is still no "Attack." There is no way to deal damaging without loosing some kind of point(s), be it MP or a durability point. There is no "Attack." However, I've never had much of a problem with this, as each artifact has a basic move that only costs 1 MP to use, and if you are running low, you can defend to recover a few points. So that's kind of your "Attack." You just have to be a little more careful watching your MP.

Oh, also, each ability has a colour, and if you chain the colours together in the proper order, you can build up a multiplier in gathering Force Points that can be used to unleash devastating attacks. However, your enemies use the same chain, so they can add to it, break it, and if its a boss, possibly use its benefits. In general, though, they don't really pay attention to it. They just do whatever their innate colour is, so you can kind of predict how the chain is going to play out.

All in all, the battle system works pretty well. Furthermore, the alchemy system to get new items is fairly straight-forward and avoids becoming too tedious. There are a few other gimmicks thrown in, like being able to scan the environment for secret items as well as areas that can be periodically harvested for raw alchemy materials. But for the most part, you're just running around dungeons fighting monsters and saving the day, and isn't that the way an RPG should be?

The game looks good, but as with most games using 3D sprites, I can't help but wonder what it would look like in 2D. The music is catchy at times and works well for what it's supposed to be. The game is pretty charming, really, and it's hard to not fall for it a little.

Honestly, I think the ambience and gameplay of Hexyz Force is a little better, but I like Crimson Gem Saga's writing a bit more. Crimson Gem Saga can be delightfully meta and humorous. Both games avoid taking themselves too seriously and, if you can't tell by now from reading my blog, I admire that.

So which do I pick as the best of the two? I'm not sure. Maybe I'll have a final answer when I finish playing them both. Until now, I'll just say that they're both solid RPGs.

If you're a fan of the genre and you own a PSP, it may be worthwhile to track them down. Between these two and then Persona 3 Portable, the PSP is starting too look pretty good in terms of RPGs. And it only took it, what... five years?

Oh, also Half-Minute Hero. Because who doesn't want to beat an epic RPG in under a minute? I'm not reviewing it this week, but you should get it. It's awesome. (That little shout out was for you, Pooplos.)

Of course, it seems like handhelds in general are becoming an important platform for new and old RPGs alike, and the Nintendo DS is certainly no exception. So tomorrow, I discuss Dragon Quest IX.

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