Record of Agarest War tries to do something a bit different as well though, mixing in something of a ‘dating sim’ aspect. Your lead character winds up in a potential relationship with one of three female characters. The layout is an overworld map that you can traverse where you have towns, battles, quests and events occur. The events are usually cut scenes that help to advance the storyline along, and it’s during these cut scenes where you sometimes have to make decisions . Sometimes it is just a matter of answering someone’s question, other times you make decisions on a path to take. These choices can affect things such as available routes, the affections of the three women you can romance and affect a light/dark gauge.
Let’s break the game down a bit and see how it all plays out.
Graphics – 6:
The artwork of the characters during scenes is nice, and the maps themselves have a nice, painted look to them. Until you realize that they are completely static and that there is not much variety in them. The quest modes have a nice feel to them as well, again continuing with this hand-drawn look, but sometimes there is a lack of clarity as to where you need to go. In the first cavern you visit, for example, the far left upper edge is black and that leads to more of the cavern. This could have been larger or perhaps had more attention drawn to it in some way, because it really did not look much different than the rest of the cave, so I found myself running around in circles for awhile before ‘bumping’ into that spot and being whisked off to the next section. The sprite-based combatants during combat are okay – kind of fuzzy and they feel like they would be right at home on a DS, but they feel a bit underwhelming on the much more powerful Xbox 360. The biggest problem for me is just the lack of variety. Even some sort of parallax background, lighting effects or smoke/fog effects to add some visual interest to the combat fields would have helped a lot.
Music & Sound – 4:
I really liked a handful of the tunes, like on the overworld map and when you start the game. Some of the quest exploration tunes are at least catchy if nothing special. So why the low score? I generally hate most of the battle music. The overworld map has such a full, orchestral sound to it and then you get into the battle maps and it’s less Lord of the Rings and more garage electric guitar. It’s quieter, and it completely feels out of place with the rest of the game’s theme. Additionally, there is a fair amount of voice to be heard during combat – but it’s all in Japanese. They never localized the speaking parts to English, which is a bit grating at times. The sounds are repetitive enough, but the inability to know what they are saying just adds to the frustration. Half the time I played this, I had music playing on my computer instead.
Gameplay – 8:
It seems like there is a lack of explanation at times as you play through the game. There’s just small things that are not explained real clearly or at all. That said, once you have the hang of it, the game is pretty easy to control, the menus are fairly easy to navigate (though would it have killed them to make a ‘page up/page down’ using bumper buttons when going through long lists of items like Titles or Shop Inventories?). There’s a nice fast-forward feature for cut scenes you don’t want to sit through (especially if you’re on a part that has a lengthy dialog before a big fight you have to do over again), but the option to hit ‘start’ and skip those ones that don’t require you make choices would have been quite nice (or a start that takes you to your first choice).
The strategy aspects are pretty good, but not perfect. There is an emphasis on what direction you are facing, because there are blocks that can ‘link’ you to another player – allowing for combined attacks. You don’t get this fundamental early on, but it is really helpful later. However, there is no flanking or backstab damage, so the impact of unit direction is somewhat minimalized. Also, all of the combat takes place on these painted backdrops with flat ground. As far back as there have been strategy games, there have been things impacted by terrain such as damage/defense and range, but there is none of that here. This coupled with the lack of terrain/graphical movement make the maps feel small and somewhat lifeless.
My last real complaint is the dating simulation. The questions can be a bit vague at times – you answer them expecting different results quite often, and that’s fine I guess. It keeps you from metagaming for the best possible results. That said, at the end of a generation, you automatically pick the woman you have the most ‘affection’ from. There is already a system in place where the stronger the bond, the stronger the next generation’s character will be. So why not let the player pick who they want to marry, for better or for worse? Still, the overall impact of this system is pretty cool, and it reminds me of the often underappreciated Phantasy Star III: Generations game I played repeatedly on my Genesis once upon a time (to the point where I had seen all possible endings). There are five generations handled in this fashion, where your relationship with who you marry affects your child not only statistically but with skills and weapon type.
The combat itself is pretty interesting with a fairly decent range of skills and spells of varying ranges. There is also an SP counter that goes up over time when you attack, are attacked or a team member dies. Enemies do have an annoying habit of teaming up on a single character and killing him or her before you can do anything about it, but this allows your chars to return the favor from a powered-up standpoint. Also characters can link together, otherwise attacking creatures that would have been outside of their range, or creating combination attacks – like two double strike attacks equal a quadruple attack that both characters perform together at the same time.
Intangibles – 8:
I already touched on the dating simulation aspect and the varied children you can have as a result. It would be cool if this was somehow more impactful on the storyline. In Phantasy Star III it actually gave you completely different views on events and storylines – in one of the instances if I recall correctly, you could even wind up with twins. The impact here is a bit less as the new character each generation is a neat mix of the two parents, but somehow feels more like a skin to an existing storyline. There are other systems though as well that really help to add to the value.
There is a monster capturing feature as well that feels like a missed opportunity. If you lower a creature’s health far enough (less than 5%) and you have a character with the capture skill, you can attempt to finish the creature off by capturing (notice I said creature – not humanoids but wolves, skeletons, mummies, etc). You can combine monsters to get new ones (sometimes), and you can trade them in for items. I usually do the latter. Their function if you don’t trade them in, is that you can add them to your group as a leveling party member – and here is where I feel like maybe it was a missed opportunity. I have not felt the urge to replace my existing party members with one of these less interesting monsters. It might have been more fun if you could summon them for a few rounds or use them as spells – something that doesn’t take away from your group configuration. Hence, why I trade them in.
Gear can be purchased, found and crafted from various components. The gear can also be enhanced using a type of combat experience exclusively for this process and it improves the stats. There are a wide variety of items, equipment and spells/skills to be created, improved and equipped and I enjoy it quite a bit. These smaller systems all help add some variety to what is a very long game, and without these systems the game could become quite a grind. I have heard a lot of people complain about the length of the game and how repetitive it was, but I guess these side items help add some value to it for me.
The leveling system is nice as well, because you gain points you get to put into different statistical areas. Not all areas are created equal for each character though – a magic user might need only 2 points to improve intelligence, but 4 points to improve vitality. So while you are certainly herded into certain directions, you are not restricted to them and it is a nice bit of customization you can apply to your characters.
All in all, there is quite a bit to do to keep you busy, and it’s capped off with a kind of new game+ for people who want to replay again. You can replay and keep your stuff, and play it again at that difficulty or less (so for example if you opt for normal difficulty (there are 3 to start) – you can do a new game+ on easy or normal – but not difficult).
Overall – 6.5:
It depends on what you want from the game. I’m willing to forgive a game like this for lower quality graphics and sound than I might be a first person shooter where the environment is a big part of the gameplay. Here it is more about tactics, storyline and loot.
I’ve sunk a ton of time into this game already. I’ll probably give it a new game+ just to try out different combinations of decisions, romances and so on. I’ve always been one of those people who can grind and grind and level up with sometimes ridiculous efficiency in both roleplaying and strategy games, and this one feeds into those interests of mine rather nicely. However, there are flaws in this game as well. The music and graphics are substandard overall, and the lack of localized voice just feels lazy. There are a vast number of subsystems, but if you find that you don’t like them or use them often, then the combat could start to feel pretty repetitive. A little variation in the landscapes both visually and strategically would have carried this game so much further and maybe helped edge it into the realm of classics like Shining Force or Final Fantasy Tactics, but instead it lags a bit behind them and it is a shame because I definitely want to see more games like this in the near future.
If you are a fan of turn-based stategy games in fantasy settings, this game might be for you. If those subsystems sound like fun, then you should find plenty to do and the game definitely gives you some mileage - I've read comments from players saying they've gone well over 100 hours on it. However, if action is more your thing and none of the above premises particularly grabbed your attention, then there is not enough technical achievement to probably interest you either as graphics and music have certainly been done better elsewhere. Also, the game does come with a teen rating, so while the sprited characters are cute enough and the gameplay relatively easy for younger players to pick up, there are some alcohol references, mild fantasy violence, mild language, and suggestive themes.
My review was for the Xbox 360 - I've read that there is some additional content out there for the Playstation 3 version but I can't say as I've tried any of it so I did not weigh in on that. All things being equal, I believe that they perform equally (albeit averagely) on both system so if you have access to both, it may be worth getting it on the PS3 (my acquisition price was considerably smaller on the 360 however).