Friday, June 8, 2012

A look back: Record of Agarest War

I really had no idea what to expect going into Record of Agarest War.  I had seen a few screenshots, and then eventually one short review that proved to be less-than-flattering.  The anime art style caught my eye right away, and then the more I began to read about it, the more interested I became as I learned about the various strategy, RPG and even dating simulation elements.

I first played this on the Xbox 360 when I borrowed a friend's copy.  Then, I wound up getting it for the PlayStation 3, where it is only available for download.  Shortly after, I came upon Record of Agarest War Zero, which is this game's successor while it's story actually serves as a prequel.  I will review that game soon enough, but in the meantime I would like to take a deeper look into the original.

The storyline starts simply enough as you take control of a character named Leonhardt that comes to the rescue of a young high elf.  In doing so however, he sets himself - and his future generations - up for a much larger adventure.  The storyline is not going to be the selling point for most people, but more often than not I found it to be pretty enjoyable.  There are plenty of quirky, otaku-friendly moments ranging from Winfield's efforts to catch the women bathing in hotsprings to plenty of stilted, almost silly sexual references to one of the characters eating obscenely large, cylindrical pieces of meat.

Despite some of the sillier points in the storyline, you do have the dating simulation aspect of the game where your choices often lead to changes in approval (both for the better or the worse) with women in your party.  Sometimes these choices are pretty obvious (help this girl or follow this one, and whichever you choose will go up a bit) while others are pretty obtuse (choose to go a certain direction and two of the three girls drops in approval, even though they've given little to no context to this point as to why they would have a preference).

These approval ratings are very important however, because at the end of the first generation, Leonhardt will choose one of three potential female companions to marry and have a child with.  This child then carries on your legacy - as well as some weapon, skill and statistical preferences based on how strong your relationship to the mother was as well as taking their abilities into consideration.  In total you play through five generations in this title, so you have ample opportunity to experiment and see how your choices affect character development on replays.

The game also carries with it quite a few standard RPG elements.  You gain experience and currency (currency comes in a few forms like TP and Gold for unlocking different things) and levels.  With levels and PP (another form of character currency, for lack of a better phrase) you can improve your attributes in areas such as strength, vitality and luck.  You can earn yet another type of currency called EP that allows you to enhance your armor and weapons - which all start at level one but can be advanced to level 5 (or at that point converted to a material item if you choose).

There is even a bit of a collectible aspect as there is a skill called capture you can use if an enemy is under 5% of their remaining hit points, but still alive.  This is mostly based on the luck stat, but if you can capture a creature you can add them to your party.  This can look cool at times, but the primary reason for grabbing monsters is to take them to town and either combine them to create newer, sometimes much more powerful monsters, or trade them in for an item.

Additional RPG elements include choices in the comic or anime-like dialog sections, the ability to craft items, weapons, armor and even skills (the skills are a bit odd as they are almost like equipable items in and of themselves).  There are 'quests' along the way, which change the game's mechanics slightly.  The majority of your battles will be triggered by moving around on an over world map one node at a time.  At each node, you generally have a village, event or battle to fight.  Quests are a little different, because they are represented by nodes on the over world map as well, but once you enter them you are moving around in an isometric dungeon like you would in an RPG title, equipped with a basic jump ability as you navigate the passages.  Random encounters spring up, like they might in classic RPG games, leading to a new battle.

How the battles play out is where the strategy portion of the game comes in.  You can have up to six characters on your team at a time, and they have different alignments you can set them to in the menu.  When combat begins, they are placed on the map as are their enemies (there is a chance for a 'surprise' attack, which greatly scrambles things up and tends to annoy me greatly) and then you move around on a grid first, and perform actions based on remaining action points.  Attacks can be chained or even combined for some ridiculous hit and damage values, and some of the most powerful attacks in the game have a sense of over-the-top flair that seem right at home with ultra-powerful magic-like attacks found in many anime shows.

So, I've beaten the game a few times now - and it is safe to say that Record of Agarest War grew on me the more I played it.  For one, I'm a sucker for RPGs and also turn-based strategy, so it hits something of a sweet spot for me.  Some of the RPG elements are a bit frustrating - like how difficult it is to see how your choices may be received, however.  Even some of the strategy aspects feel a bit lacking as things like terrain play no factor in the combat and some of the fights feel like you are simply biding time as a fleshy punching bag until you can unload a series of combined super attacks.

There are a handful of songs on here I like quite a bit, but there are quite a few that are only average at best, and at worst feel completely out of place.  There is also voice acting, but it is all in Japanese.  The written localization is pretty solid, though I get amused at some of the shorthand used on some monsters or skills (the two that come to mind are the Jumbo Cockatrice, which is called Jumbo Cock.  Also, the Atomic Hole skill shows up as A-Hole).

The characters during dialog scenes are well-drawn, but the combat characters are somewhat rough-looking sprites.  Also, there is a lot of stagnation in the visuals as character images in dialog scenes don't actually animate.  They have a lot of variations for different characters, and they are drawn well and are quite expressive, but they switch from image to image without animating.

Probably my biggest complaint though is the notion of the perfect ending.  If you take one look at the Wiki for this game, you can see just how much work goes into getting that perfect ending.  There are a great many things you have to manage along the way, such as your light vs. darkness rating, certain relationship levels, the number of turns it takes you to reach the end and even how to deal with a particular enemy that you are not supposed to kill.  Record of Agarest War Zero has this same principle, but they have softened up the requirements quite a bit (though even 1 or 2 bad decisions can again prevent you from seeing the ending after dozens of hours of playtime, and you have no way of knowing until you have reached the end.)

And if you beat this game, you will put dozens of hours into it.  Maybe even a hundred or more.  My first play was probably about half the time of my next time through when I sought out the perfect ending.  Not only did I have to play the game on its hardest level to access it, and make sure I went mistake-free through five generations, but this unlocks an additional set of battles and some extended storyline - which was a cool surprise and added some playtime to the story for me - but I had completely missed it and been unaware of it the first time through.

All in all, I would have to say that this game has proven to be a lot of fun for me.  When I first played it and reviewed it elsewhere using different criteria, I came down on it pretty hard.  Subsequent time with Record of Agarest War however, has led me to find that I thoroughly enjoy the game (no doubt I have well over 200 hours into it in total now) that is stronger than the sum of its parts and has led me to the game I am currently playing: Record of Agarest War Zero.



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