At one point or another, (like in my review of Gungnir), I talked about how I loved all things RPG. This includes, for the most part, the subgenre of Japanese RPGs. Many of these games are so niche that, even when you’re into the genre, they’re incredibly hard to like.
Enter Record of Agarest War 2, developed for the PlayStation 3 by Idea Factory and Red Entertainment, and published by Aksys Games, Record of Agarest War 2, like previous games in the series (I’ve read: I’ve not played them myself), tells a story over multiple generations, which, in theory, is an interesting concept. As you may be able to guess from the wording of that sentence, the game itself doesn’t manage to live up to the setup it creates.
I’ll give you the summary of the story I was able to follow: Weiss, a soldier of some description, takes up a magical sword, and kills Chaos, a god. The resulting catastrophic event, known as the Day of Light, sees strange creatures released upon the land, and the central continent going completely quiet. An unspecified amount of time later, Weiss wakes up, having lost his memory (though he still remembers his name), and is informed a short time later that, having killed a god, he has become the vessel of that god’s power, and must gather it all in order to recreate the fallen god, or… the world will end, I think.
It’s a pretty cursory description, but that’s really all I know. The problem with this game, (and it took me quite a bit to figure out what exactly it was), is that it lacks any real drive. It seems that the writers weren’t sure where exactly they wanted the story to go, so it goes nowhere. There isn’t a sense of urgency, motivation or desire from any of the characters. And when the characters in a game aren’t invested, it’s difficult for the player to be.
Let me back up just a bit, and try to explain this properly. Saying the game has a lack of drive is all very well and good, but if I can’t explain why there’s no drive, then I’m not doing my job properly.
Part of it is the way the story is told. It’s all done through still CG images and text boxes, which, in itself, isn’t necessarily bad. Games like Persona 3 Portable and, once again, Gungnir create engaging characters and craft well-structured, properly paced narratives. Unfortunately, Agarest War doesn’t manage this, partly because the chosen dialogue is extremely poor. In trying to give characters personality, the writers detrimentally impact the story.
For example, at the game’s opening, you meet a character named Eva. Her role is as some kind of divine messenger: basically, it’s her job to ensure that the Vessel reconstructs the god’s power properly. However, she’s also extremely cold, and refuses to tell characters more than she feels they need to absolutely know at that moment in time. The result isn’t a stoic, somewhat enigmatic guide, as one might have hoped for, but a lack of comprehension in the party’s motivation. Is it my job as Weiss to recreate the god’s power, or just to make one of the females in my party like me so that our child can then do something about the god?
There are other examples, ranging from boring to completely off-putting, but the central problem is the same: poor characterization, which, given the way the story is told, leaves you wondering just what you’re supposed to be doing. It also means that the key features of any narrative: levity, drama, tension, are absent, because the characters aren’t well-crafted or engaging enough to convey them. I suppose there must be moments where they’re intended, but I honestly couldn’t name any.
The mechanics of the world map don’t help. It’s your standard RPG affair: characters appear as tiny sprites on a map showing off the features of the continent you’re on, and you must walk from point A to point B, possibly getting into a few battles on the way. However, since you’re never really given much motivation in the dialogue, you’re not always entirely sure where you’re supposed to go. There are also many instances where you’re told what your destination is, but not how to get there, so the world map sections (and when I say sections, I mean sole moments of player control, aside from combat and symbol maps) become a game of ‘hunt the green dot.’ Green dots symbolise ‘events,’ which usually translate to ‘next location or key battle.’ Again, not very engaging.
Now, one could argue that hunting down just where on the world map the next green dot is located could be part of the fun: after all, exploration is part and parcel of RPGs, right? Here again, usual convention falls flat: running around the world map is the only exploration you get. There’s no further locations to really explore, not even something as mundane as a dungeon to navigate through. Instead, transitioning from one area to another is done through ‘symbol maps.’
If you’ve ever played the first Final Fantasy, you’ll get what I’m talking about. In that game, the world map was covered with little symbols: some being towns, others dungeons, others little battlegrounds. You moved your sprite from one to the next to advance in the game. The thing is, those dots meant something. A dungeon to explore, a town to navigate, enemies to fight, something. Here, symbol maps simply mean combat.
Basically, what you’re given when you reach a symbol map in Agarest War is a background – if you’re crossing a plain, the background is a grassy field, if you’re traversing a forest, it’s trees, etc. – with little dots on it. Each dot represents a battle to get into, and perhaps an item to get when the combat is finished. When you win the battle, another dot appears, and you then select that one, get into a fight, win the fight, and move on to the next dot that pops up. This repeats until you reach the dot that signifies the exit to the area you’re in, and the transition to another part of the world map.
It really leaves no reason for exploring: you’re not going to discover any hidden niche or secret treasure. Everything you can do is symbolised through a pulsating cluster of pixels on your screen. So, with story and exploration unengaging and uninspired, what are we left with? Combat.