Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Legend of Heroes: A Tear of Vermillion review

Time go off on another epic quest, this time on the PSP with my Legend of Heroes: A Tear of Vermillion review.

Format: PSP
Publisher: Bandai
Developer: Falcom
Genre: Turn based RPG
Region: NTSC (USA)
Price: £20-£30
Where to buy:,

Like the Dragon Quest series, the Legend of Heroes (also known as Gagharv Trilogy in Japan despite this being the sixth game in the series) hasn't been very popular so far in the west. However, Bandai spotted an RPG shaped gap in the market for the PSP, and decided to localise and release the game in the US. Is it good enough to satisfy PSP owners who are getting tired of all the PS2 ports and generally poor titles, and who just want something with a bit more depth? Personally, I would say yes, though the game isn't without it's faults. Read on to find out what I mean.

Graphics: 8 out of 10

While the visuals in Legend of Heroes are by no means poor, they could be a little better. Specifically the architecture of the buildings in the many villages is rather square. On this evidence you'd almost think that the PSP can't do round surfaces at all, but that's not the case. Maybe this strange style of civil engineering has something to do with the game being an update of a much older game for a much lower spec system. In those days it was quite an achievement to even produce believable villages in a game, but nowadays punters expect a little more.

Character portraits go a long way towards rescuing the situation however. Every time a character speaks, you get a screen-filling hand drawn painting of the character, in various different poses to suit the mood of whatever the character is saying. This is some beautiful art work, really helping you connect with the characters far more than a simple sprite would ever be able to do. If you've ever played any of the Ys games (also made by Falcom) then you will recognise the style.

Other wise, the characters are portrayed by cute 2D sprites, the like of which you'll have seen many times before if you were playing RPG's back in the SNES era. That's pretty much it for the graphics, apart from some quite nifty lighting effects for spells, sun glare and caves which all contribute towards creating the right atmosphere for the game.

An example of the characteportraitsts, with a boxy inn in the background.

Sound & Music: 9 out of 10

This score is pretty much on the strength of the music alone. It's fantastic - there's some really great tunes in here which can help heighten the atmosphere of scenes which depend a lot on their emotional impact. This game doesn't rely on voice acting or glossy cut scenes to get across what the characters are feeling so it's up to the old fashioned techniques of music and the character portraits to achieve this instead. What's more the tunes don't start repeating until well over halfway through the game, and there are several different battle tunes, so you won't tire of them as fast as you can in some games.

The sound effects are nothing special, just your common spot effects for sword swings, spells, etc but they do the job, and there is no voice acting at all - which some would argue is a good thing as at least then you don't have to suffer poor acting or irritating voices for the whole game. So overall, at best you will find the music to be really well composed, or at worst you will find it inoffensive and won't rush to turn the volume down the minute you start up the game. As always though a decent set of headphones is recommended to get the most out of the PSP's audio - the weedy speakers just don't do it justice.

Plot and Character: 7 out of 10

Legend of Heroes features a large cast of colourful, interesting characters. These are headed up by the Hero, Avin, and his lifetime friend, Mile. You really believe in the bond between these two and the realistic portrayal of friendship goes a long way towards sustaining your interest throughout the course of the game. These two characters are backed up by around 10 other characters who drift in and out of the story/your party, but you will almost always have four people in your party. As soon as someone leaves, you can pretty much bet that someone else will turn up. While the supporting characters are interesting, because they never hang around for long it's harder to become attached to them, but I do like the idea of people that can't just drop everything and travel around the world with the hero, and have other commitments they need to attend to. It makes the world feel more real.

Personally, I rather enjoyed the plot. Other reviews I've read have called it cliched, but as long as a cliche is done well it's still entertaining from my point of view. Look how many books have borrowed the basic fantasy template from The Lord of the Rings - many of them are good in their own right and shouldn't just be dimissed because they got the idea of orcs from Mr Tolkien. There were several twist in the game that kept me interested and wanting to know what happens next. Plus the fact that there is such a fast turnover of characters makes you play on a bit longer to see who will join up with the party next.

One area that really lets this game down is the rushed localisation - there are many grammatical mistakes, sentences that stop half way and examples of "Engrish" throughout the game. For example when you level up and gain a new skill, you're faced with something like "Mile has Demon Flash mastered!". However, despite all this I still enjoyed the story, and when localisation was working well it was actually quite entertaining and witty. A bit more quality control would have been nice.

Game Mechanics - 6 out of 10

If you're familiar with the two Lunar games on the PlayStation, you'll already feel quite at home with the mechanics of Legend of Heroes. It uses the turn based format that so many others have used with one main difference - the distance you are from your target makes a difference. For example, if you choose to attack an ememy all the way accross the screen and your character is holding a sword, he won't have enough strength to get there and will most likely stop halfway across the screen. If he is a magic user or is armed with a bow, his reach is increasesignificantlyly. This brings some basic tactics into the gameplay - it is often better to defend and let the enemy come to you for example, than it is to get halfway across the screen and get spanked as a result.

Battles aren't random in Legend of Heroes, you can see the enemies wandering around on the map. Early in the game you also get a pet, either a rabbit, a cat, or a dog, and if you feed it and pet it, it will find beneficial items for you during your exploration. This did tend to make things a bit easy, as I never had to buy healing items because my dog was constantly supplying me with them. If you are mean to your pet, it goes beserk and sets loose all manner of whoopass on your foes. So either way, you get something out of the partnership, and there's no sign of an in game version of the RSPCA to haul you off to prison for virtual animal cruelty.

So really the mechanics are pretty much like every other aspect of this game - solid, but nothing new or especially remarkable.

Innovation and Cleverness - 3 out of 10

Now I'm going to give Legend of Heroes a few points here for being the first proper RPG on the PSP. Granted, we now have quite a few to choose from but this game got the first and helped fill a niche during the early days of the console. Apart from that, there really isn't anything particularly innovative about the game. I like the way that it's just one part of a bigger, six part story but even that idea has been used before and it's not as if any of the other games in the series have been released in the west anyway (and nor are they likely to be). I've already compared the game to the classic Lunar series, and ironically it does a far better job of capturing the spirit of that series than the official sequel Lunar Dragon Song for the DS, in which the innovation was actually detrimental to the game. I mean, you lost health if you decided to run, even in towns, for god's sake!

Value and Replayability - 6 out of 10

Although the game doesn't actually keep count of how long you've been playing unlike many others, I'd have to say it took me about 30 hours on and off to finish Legend of Heroes. This might not sound very long especially compared to the recently reviewed Dragon Quest 8, but for a handheld game it's actually very substantial.

Of course, being a console RPG the games is really very linear in nature. There isn't even much in the way of sidequests either, and I don't really think the story is really strong enough to warrant playing through again. It's one of those games which is entertaining at the time, but probably won't be remembered very much about a year down the line.

Overall - 6 out of 10

I'd really like to score this game higher, as I did enjoy it at the time and I was very grateful to Bandai for releasing a half decent RPG for the PSP. However, looking over what I've written above, and taking the competition (Tales of Eternia, Popolocrois, Breath of Fire 3) in mind, I've come to the conclusion that Legend of Heroes doesn't deserve any more than a 6. If you see a preowned copy lying around I would certainly consider picking it up, otherwise go for one of the other three games I've just mentioned - they all have better production values, better storylines, and more innovative gameplay.

Ah, but what you didn't realise is that my monster cart is the new XR3i Turbo-Nutter-Bastard edition!

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King review

It's been a while but finally it's time for me to share my thoughts of Dragon Quest VII: Journey of the Cursed King for the PS2. I am also introducing a new more detailed ratings system with this review and splitting the review into several different criteria. Without further ado, let's get on with the review shall we?

Format: PlayStation 2
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Level 5
Genre: Turn based RPG
Region: NTSC (USA)
Price: Around £10

The Dragon Quest (or Dragon Warrior) series is one of the pioneers of the console RPG scene. Together with the Final Fantasy games in the mid 80's, it set the template for the entire genre that followed. Unfortunately, apart from the occasional US release that was appreciated by fans but pretty much overlooked by everyone else, western gamers have had to go without. At last Square-Enix have seen the error of their ways, as the US release of DQ8 shows. It is actually even better than the Japanese game, due to a soundtrack that has been completely performed by a full orchestra (the Tokyo Philharmonic no less), a brilliant localisation, and improved menu's. Not only that, but Square-Enix recently announced that it is going to be released in Europe, which marks the very first time that we have ever received a game in the series. I beg, urge, plead, beseech, implore you to go out and buy a copy of this game if you are in any way interested in the RPG genre and a PS2 owner. It was incredibly close to being my favourite game of 2005 (and if it wasn't for Resident Evil 4, it would have been).

Graphics: 10 out 10
As you can see from the screenshots, DQ8 looks amazing. After around 70 hours of playing the game though, you will be even more in awe of what Level 5 has managed to produce on the aging PS2. It's the attention to detail that really grabbed me. In other games that feature huge worlds where you're free to go where you want, such as World of Warcraft, the sense of realism is let down by the repetition of the architecture. Every Night Elf settlement is basically made up of the exact same building, for example.

In DQ8 though, every town has been created thoughtfully by hand, so each inn, church, shop, or whatever looks different to all the others. Even decorative items like paintings, carpets, and flowers blowing in the wind have been painstakingly placed down, which makes the world feel real, and makes you want to explore the world all the more to find out what surprises lie around the next corner.

There is also a wide variety of monsters to encounter, ranging from the creepy to the silly, and each one has their own range of attack animations. Really and truly, the graphics is the main area that DQ8 differs from all the other games in the series. Everything else about the game has been left intact, but Level 5 has brought the series visually right up to date at the cutting edge of what you can achieve on the PS2.

Sound and Music: 10 out of 10

Yes, that's right, another 10 out 10. Get used to it folks, this game really is that good. To be honest though, you may not agree with me on this one if you absolutely hate classical music. That's not to say I'm a classical fan boy, but when it is appropriate and done as well as it is here, a composition of a more symphonic nature really enhances the overall product. Noisy death metal or hip hop just wouldn't have worked. The music does tend to repeat a little bit (which is hardly surprising given the games length) but personally I never got tired of it.

Square-Enix went above and beyond the call of duty when they localised DQ8 for the American audience. Whereas other lesser companies may have been content just to translate the text (sometimes extremely badly), S-E not only enlisted the talents of the Tokyo Philharmonic to rerecord the score, but they also hired the UK studio Side. Thanks to Side's commitment to delivering quality voice work and finding new voice talent for each project, the characters in DQ8 really come alive. My particular favourite is Yangus, who kind of sounds like a seedier version of Bob Hoskins. The only voice that can tend to grate after a while is King Trode, but by the end I even found him quite likeable.

As for sound effects, Level 5 took the clever approach of keeping the classic effects from the old NES and SNES Dragon Quest games, which helps cement the feeling that Level 5 haven't just created an RPG and slapped on he Dragon Quest name, but they've really looked at what made the old games so special and somehow managed to capture the essence and reproduce it here in this game. This feeling is present in every aspect of the game, from the monsters, the music, the wondrous world, right through the menus and battle system. It really is one of the greatest 2D to 3D transitions the gaming world has ever seen (up there with Zelda Ocarina of Time, Super Mario 64 and Metroid Prime in my opinion).

The amount of detail present on the character models still impress today despite the prevelance of HD.

Plot and Character: 8 out of 10
only has four playable characters, which is considerably less than most modern RPG's. However, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, far from it. What is allowed Level 5 to do is focus more on those characters and give them enough depth for the player to form a connection with them. Alongside the hero, Yangus, Jessica and Angelo are King Trode and the princess, however. These two characters are the catalyst for the whole plot - when the kingdom of Trodain is cursed by the jester Dhoulmagus, they set out to try and track him down and reverse the evil effects of the curse. These include turning King Trode into a green toad-like thing and the princess into a horse, as well as covering Trodain Castle in vines and turning the population into stone.

The main character is a member of the royal guard and the only other person apart from the King and Princess not to be turned to stone. He valiantly agrees to continue to protect the royal family on their journey across the world, and reformed criminal Yangus decides to go with him. Yangus has a habit of calling the main character "Guv" all the time, and it is clear that some event in the past ties the two together. Along the journey the party will encounter Jessica, a spirited and "well endowed" young woman who is adept at magic, and Angelo, an orphaned Templar Knight.

While the plot is rather traditional and it doesn't really hold that many surprises for experienced RPG players, the colourful characters are more than enough to sustain your interest. As well as the main six I've already mentioned, you will also meet people like Morrie (owns a Monstrous Pit) and many many others throughout all the towns you will explore. There is definitely something of a storybook charm to the plot, it's like a lost Grimm Fairy Tale.

Game Mechanics: 8 out of 10
sticks with the tried and true random encounter model for initiating battles, which some players can find rather tiresome but I don't really have a problem with. The only time it can be a nuisance is when you need to go out or go to bed and you're trying to get back to somewhere that you can save, and the pesky monsters keep attacking you.

The battle system itself initially seems rather basic but the further you get into the game the deeper it gets. It's a traditional turn based set up whereby you tell each character what to do and then sit back and watch as both parties take turns whacking each other. As the characters level up you have to decide which of four areas you want to level your characters in, which differs depending on the character. For examples, Jessica has Whips, Fists, two other weapons which I forget... and Sex Appeal. I personally spent half of my points in a particular weapon proficiency and the other half in each character unique ability - in this case Sex Appeal. As her sexiness got higher, more and more monsters would simply stop and stare longingly at her instead of attacking. Brilliant!

Then there is the tension gauge, which can be increased up to 100 and muliplies the amount of damage you can do to an enemy. Combined with Jessica's Oomph spell this can be devastating, and is a great help against many of the bosses. Don't think you can simply use the same technique all the way through the game though, as quite a few bosses have a special move which wipes out any positive status effects on your party in one go.

Before buying the game I had heard how tough it is, and it very nearly put me off buying it. I'm glad I put my fears aside however, as while the game is indeed difficult, it is fairly so. This means that as long as you don't skip battles, keep your equipment up to date and keep your wits about you, most battles can be won without too much hassle. Don't be lulled into a false sense of security however as even some of the lowliest monsters have abilities than can kill your party members instantly.

One thing that did irritate me about the mechanics of the game though is the menu and inventory. I just found it a bit cumbersome do use and not as well designed as it could have been. Apparently it has already been improved since the Japanese version, but on this evidence not quite enough.

All in all Dragon Quest VIII is very much a traditional RPG under the hood. There are a few new ideas to help give the old formula a bit of spice but most of the mechanics can be traced back all the way to the first game in the series. This is by no means a bad thing, as it helps the game keep the feel of the series that has made it so special to fans over the years. It may be a bit harsh for those just starting out in the world of RPG's however.

All four playable characters: Yangus, the hero, Jessica, and Angelo

Innovation and Cleverness: 7 out of 10DQ8 doesn't score all the highly on the innovation front - like I said before most of what you can find here has already been done elsewhere in the genre, or even the same game series. What makes DQ8 unique though is the sheer polish and attention to detail the developers have lavished upon it. It runs throughout everything - the graphics, the music, the voice over work, the length of the game, the plot and its side quests. A Final Fantasy game may look pretty, but it can't compete with the professional job done here. These things considered I believe DQ8 deserves a 7 in this category, not because it's particularly innovative, but because of the clever way it pulls everything off.

Value and Replayability: 9 out of 10
DQ8 took me 73 hours to complete. 73 hours! I can't remember a game that took me that long before (Skies of Arcadia comes close at around 60 but still doesn't quite match DQ8 for sheer size). Now if half of those hours were spent wading through tedious gameplay, then the game may as well have been half as long. However, for me at least, DQ8 managed the difficult task of remaining fun to play all the way through to the end (and beyond).

This 73 hour run did include some side quests, but I'm fairly certain I didn't do all of them. The main side quest in the game is the Monster Arena, where you can defeat certain special monsters in the overworld and recruit them in your personal Monster Team. Like in other RPG's that feature a monster arena (Arc the Lad 2 for example) you don't have direct control of the monsters themselves, so you just have to sit by and hope that the monsters are strong enough/clever enough to defeat three other teams on their own. Moving up through the ranks gives you various benefits, including many specials items, and the ability to summon your monster team in regular combat, which can be very useful indeed against the more vicious bosses in the game. The owner of the Monster Area, or Monstrous Pit as he refers to it, is one of the most colourful character in the game, and even side characters like him are given the full voice over treatment.

Then we have the Mini Medals, which have been a staple in the DQ series for many years now. You can find these things every where throughout the world in chests, pots, barrels and bags, and you can trade them in for special equipment at Minnie's Castle. This encourages you to thoroughly explore the game world (as if the beautiful graphics weren't enough encouragement) and seek out every last one. Trust me, the later items really make the task worthwhile.

While this is truly an amazing game, one of the best the PS2 has ever seen, whether you will come back and play it again is debatable. This is mainly down to the huge size of the game. Maybe in a year or two you will come back and play it again, but personally I hardly ever play the same RPG again, unless it's one I really love (Skies of Arcadia and Shenmue being examples).

Overall: 9 out of 10
While there are a few niggles with the menu's and the challenging, lengthy nature of the game could well be off putting for some, I have no doubt that this will be remembered as one of the crowning glories of the PS2 era. The quality of Final Fantasy X doesn't even come close to this game. So what if it doesn't really shake up the classic Dragon Quest formula? That's not what fans of the series want. Level 5, Yuji Horii and Square Enix have worked miracles with this game, producing breathtaking visuals and sound, backed up by deep and absorbing gameplay. If you're looking for a quality quest for the PS2 to get your teeth into, there are many choices available, but Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King should be at the top of the list.