Thursday, December 16, 2010

Rogue Galaxy

I don’t normally review video games on this blog, but it’s been a long time since I’ve played a game so outright infuriating (well, actually it was last year when I played The Thing, but that one was so visibly terrible from the start I didn’t waste much time with it) that I wanted the opportunity to properly vent. Some might argue that I won’t be giving the most accurate possible portrayal of the game when writing so immediately after getting fed up with it, but come on. If you want a more positive portrayal of the game, you can go check out the textual blowjob at IGN. Fortunately for you and me, my income is not based on whether or not the video game manufacturers are happy with what I write about them (quite the contrary, they seem to occasionally be taking my income away from me), so you can enjoy this.

I was somewhat eager to play this one, too, as its very concept -- an RPG in outer space, where you fly from planet to planet while still curiously fighting everything with swords because Japan -- is pretty much exactly the kind of thing that I want to see. And yet developers Level 5 (who according to that IGN review also made Dragon Quest 8, a fact I cannot reconcile with what I’ve just spent the last week and a half playing through) manage to screw this up at almost every single aspect. Actually, that’s not completely true. The graphics are pretty nice, and some of the music is catchy if uninspired. That’s about all the nice things I’m going to say, so I wanted to get that out of the way now.

Now, one of the big make-or-break aspects to any RPG are the storyline and the characters. Think of all the great RPG storylines you’ve played through (you know, assuming you’ve played any), and then toss them all out the door and replace them with a thoroughly stock story about how a corporation is trying to create monsters to help increase their profits, and also there’s a secret ultimate evil type enemy that only gets revealed near the end of the game in what would be a big shocker if there hadn’t been one of those since at least way back in Dragon Warrior 2 back in the 1980s. And that is quite honestly the entire plot of the game, aside from some fairly plotless side trips (Example: the second Chapter in the game has your ship get attacked by monsters in space and crash on a jungle planet, where you need to kill a monster that’s been terrorizing a jungle village so you can get fruit to replicate engine fuel with. That’s not even a plot so much as it is a pretense to kill things but this time in a jungle setting). The characterization is little better, with many of your eight characters getting either the most cursory possible personalities, or in at least one case getting none at all. Here, I’ll run through all eight characters for you real quick, getting every detail you would need, and you can determine for yourselves if they have the proper depth for RPG characters, or if they might be better suited for, say, Contra:

- Jaster is our main character, was adopted as an infant by a priest on the desert world Rosa, and has always dreamed of going to space and having adventures. He’s also a descendent of the ancient Star King, but we don’t find that out until more than halfway through the game. His name also makes him sound like a space hillbilly.
- Kisala is the adopted daughter of the non-playable pirate captain Dorgengoa, but don’t expect her to acknowledge being adopted any time too soon. No, instead she just refers to the captain as Dad for most of the game, until it suddenly becomes a plot factor that she’s adopted and is really a princess from a hidden world. Again, you find out all of this close to the end of the game, even the part about her being adopted, even though she herself knows it.
- Zegram is kind of the Han Solo-ish rogue of the group, and is also secretly working against you with the evil corporation. About halfway through the game (have you started noticing yet that nobody has any characterization to speak of in the first half of the game?), you discover that it’s because the love of his life has died and the Daytron Corporation has promised to use an experimental new procedure to bring her back to life if he betrays you guys at a critical moment. This, of course, despite the fact that the corporate heads had no idea we would have any such critical moment when they first hired him.
- Steve is a robot, so instead of having a storyline of his own, his programmer also imprinted his (the programmer’s) dead son’s mind and memories into him, so every now and then while you’re playing through the game you’ll get to a save point and be treated to a cut scene of the programmer talking to his little artificial boy, who (SPOILER WARNING!) eventually destroys his own programming to protect his father and it’s really not the least bit touching. Also, you find out literally just before you go to fight the end boss that Steve wants to be a real boy, for which I’m grateful I wasn’t trying to drink a glass of water when they tried to toss that horrid old cliché at me.
- Simon has a Scottish accent.
- Lillika is -- oh, you wanted more on Simon, did you? Well, too damn bad. They do shoehorn in a little mini story for him (again, immediately before you go off to fight the end boss so you can spend 99% of the game with him as a total cipher) about him being horribly disfigured in an accident and being too ashamed to face his wife and daughter looking like that and that’s why he works on our pirate ship and always wears his goofy face-mask, but I honestly spent the entire game up to that point just assuming he was some weird badger or weasel person or something.
- Anyway, Lillika is a tribal warrior whose mother was killed by a monster when she was little, and who gets cast out of her tribe when we team up with her and help her kill the evil monster that’s been poisoning all the villagers, and who turns out to not only be the same monster that killer Lillika’s mother, but is also the tribe’s god. Whoops. They also force you to use her on the next world for what appears to be no reason at all aside from making sure that she’s there to flip out on a civil clerk and get us all thrown into prison.
- Junip is -- sigh -- a master hacker, who is unjustly fired from his job and has his wife leave him, and decides the proper response is to seize control of the factory he worked at, and after your team goes in and defeats him he decides the best way to avoid the planetary authorities is to join our crew. He ahs the side benefit of having the single most unpleasant voice acting in the entire game (a pretty impressive feat, considering the voice acting is uniformly terrible), and all of his special moves involve him attacking enemies with an electrified yo-yo or him doing a breakdance while a boom box plays next to him or something else so horrible that I did my best to never use him.
- Deego is a dog man from the mining planet Vedan. He used to be a soldier with his best friend Gale until the two are set up to attack a civilian space ship after being told it was run by rebels. Since then, he’s fallen into drink at the bar of the girl he likes, until finding partial redemption in joining you and helping you fight gale, who has turned to evil to deal with his own shame. So yeah, he actually has the most fleshed out character in the game by far, but despite having an axe that’s almost the size of every other character put together, he does very little damage and dies really easily, so I try to never use him when I can avoid it.

So there you are. Eight characters, and only one of them has anything approaching the depth you’d expect to find in, say, a Final Fantasy, or even a Disgaea. That’s even without really going into the voice acting, which starts at poor and gets to truly horrific. The game even defaults to having the characters you’re not playing as shout at you every few seconds about what you’re supposed to be doing and how much more miserable they want to make your playing experience, but thankfully you can turn that off in the options menu.

Of course, bland characters and plot can still be saved (yes, even in an RPG) if the gameplay is good enough, so how does that stack up? Well, the combat is a lot more real-time and action-based than for a standard RPG, in much the style of Kingdom Hearts, but in an attempt to add more depth (which was admittedly rather lacking in Kingdom Hearts’ combat system) they throw in two main changes. One is that lots of enemies are protected from you just whacking away at them, and depending on the enemy you have to either a) jump up and hack at their head, b) hold down the attack button to charge up your attack and break through their shields with it, or c) change Jaster’s gun to the Barrier Break gun and shoot at them to break their barriers before you can hack away at them. All three are goddamned annoying. The guns all reload absurdly slowly so that you can’t just run across the room from the enemies and just fire away at all of them until they die, but when you outright need to hit them first with your gun before you can do damage to them, you can easily find yourself in situations where you’re stuck getting pounded on by enemies you’re physically unable to damage for half a minute while you wait for your gun to reload, particularly since it doesn’t reload between battles either. The ones you just need to use a charged attack on would be fine, if not for how when you first press the X button to start charging it, it has you swing wildly once before you start charging, so your options are to either get next to the enemy, swing at it once and have your character recoil after bouncing off the shield, and hoping you can charge up and attack again before it hits you, or else start charging up while at a distance and then very very slowly creeping toward the enemy and hoping none of the other enemies attack you while you’re creeping. The ones you have to jump at are the worst of all, though it’s not entirely the fault of the enemies themselves. The problem here mainly comes from how the enemies you need to do this to generally tend to be much bigger than your character, which means I frequently found that, do to the terrible camera I often couldn’t see my character, or in many cases anything at all when an enemy backed me against a wall. By the way, not being able to see a damn thing during a battle because the camera is deeply broken is a common occurrence with this game, so if you decide to play the game, you have that to look forward to.

There’s also the maddening problem of the frequent cut scenes, which tend to drag the game to a complete halt anytime you actually progress in this bland story. You’ll frequently reach a plot advancing point, and have to sit there and be subjected to five or ten minutes of cut scenes that you can’t control at all while the voice actors (seriously, I hope they were paid in box wine for the effort they put into their work) grate heavily on you, and then you’ll go back to controlling your characters, and maybe you’ll be permitted to, say, walk out of the room, or perhaps five feet forward, before being subjected to another several minutes of cut scenes. It’s that kind of lovely start-stop-start-stop-start momentum one normally associates with someone learning how to drive stick. While most RPGs I’ve played have allowed you to skip past a page of text once you’re done reading it to help speed things up, or at least let you substitute the Japanese voice actors for the dreadful American ones, you get neither option here. You have to just sit there and watch both the text on screen and the characters very slowly and torturously speaking all the text -- including all of the drawn out sighs and grunts -- and too damn bad if you don’t like it. You can’t even get up and go make a sandwich or pee or something in the meantime, as a couple times I decided to do exactly that, only to come back and find a Game Over screen staring at me because the cut scene had abruptly devolved into a boss fight while I was away.

The boss fights are mostly fine, as these things go. They usually aren’t very exciting, though since they’re usually pretty decent they manage to become by default one of the best parts of the game, to the point where one of the game’s many bonus features is the ability to rise up in Hunter rankings by tracking down special optional bosses and killing them. Of course, lest we become too eager to go after all the bosses in the game, there are a few that are just completely obnoxious. The first of these hateful bosses comes when you’ve just acquired Deego and are fighting Gale to help redeem them both somehow. Gale’s inside a giant battle robot, because Japan, and after a somewhat lengthy but not too difficult fight, you manage to defeat him. Except not really, you just took out the robot. Gale himself now needs to be defeated, and instead of letting your default three characters fighting him like you’ve done for just about every other fight in the game up to now, Deego decides this is something that needs to be done one-on-one, so the fight is just Deego vs. Gale. Sounds okay, right? Well, not your first time fighting him it isn’t, because the very first thing Gale does when the fight starts is pull out his guns and shoots you half a dozen times and kills you in less than five seconds, sending you to the Game Over screen (By the way, the Game Over instead of an instant continue? Really fucking aggravating). See, what you’re supposed to do is spend the entire fight holding down the guard button so all the shots he fires at you only do one point of damage each, and then you just get in a few hits when Gale pauses to reload his guns. Not that they ever tell you to do that, you can just have the fun of figuring that out on your own. Hope you saved recently!

Of course, that pales in comparison to the aggravation of the end boss, where the developers evidently decided that what this RPG really needs is to throw in some nice precision jumping during the goddamned end boss. And to cap it off, you also get a camera that’s planted in the distance and aimed right at your back, to help ensure that the whole time you’re jumping from platform to platform you have no real way of knowing if you’re going to land on the next one or just fall into lava. Of course, the whole time you’re doing this the boss is hitting you or shaking the room around to make you fall off, to the point where I got so pissed off that I just turned the game off rather than face the prospect of playing any further. According to Gamefaqs, this is actually just the first end boss of -- wait for it -- TEN GODDAMNED END BOSSES, the last eight of which are one on one fights with a different one of your characters in each. And with no chance to save between any of them, so if you lose one you have to do all of them all over again.

So yeah, this game can feel free to fuck itself. It’s impossible to play for any real length of time without wanting to stab the developers, and I honestly feel like I’ve been conned by all the positive reviewers. I cannot think of a way for that IGN critic to have given this such a glowing review, unless due to his deadlines he wrote up the review before getting too far into it (at least the positive review the game got on -- yeah, enjoy those ads there -- makes it clear that the main reasons for the positive review are how it starts off like Star Wars and the graphics are really pretty, two things that are certainly true, if somewhat irrelevant in my opinion to the game‘s actual quality). As for myself, I’m stopping at the end bosses, not because I don’t think I can beat them, but because it’s the exact opposite of fun to try. There are so many quality RPGs for the Playstation 2, I can’t fathom how anyone could think this was one of the better ones, or really even an acceptable one. If I were trying to keep in the spirit of the game’s awfulness, here’s where I’d close with a joke about hwo you should travel to a distant planet just to avoid this game, but really, the game’s already sapped enough of my energy without that.

Rating: ½ *

P.S. In the video below of the start of the game, notice how the battles keep stopping every few seconds to give you advice. That should have been my first clue. Also, as I write this I see that it’s currently on sale at Amazon for $7.99. That should have been the price it debuted at.

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