Sure it’s pretty, sure it’s well animated, sure it’s already legendary among GP32 owners. But Astonishia Story R has a dark side (get the pun here, win points!). This may be your only choice for a classically conceived GP32 RPG, but that doesn’t mean you have to accept it.
I feel that I should tell you what is good about the game before I launch into my tirade. The animation is so beautiful that it can convey the story to a satisfactory degree beyond the language barrier. I’ll admit that I know not a lick of Korean, and yet I feel as though I know these characters, their fears and frustrations. The story is not a new one, but it’s done well enough for you not to care. Plus Sonnori throws in the occasional bit of humor to keep you on your toes.
The atmosphere is one of vibrant life. Towns are alive with activity and incredible detail. Amazingly, you rarely see any given non-player characters recycled with different clothes. There are literally hundreds of sprites in this game, each with its own animations . Even the girls in the bars have different outfits in different towns. Some sprites take up the entirety of the screen, if not more, and the cpu shows no indication of being taxed while fluidly animating these behemoths. For those of you who miss the detailed universes of FFIV and Chronotrigger, you’ll be rewarded tenfold for your patience (though the mood is decidedly lighter). Even the battlefields are varied, and animated by wind, animals and plants. World maps are home to free-flying birds which cast shadows below…
The characters are genuine and intriguing. They call to mind various established roles; Naru Narusegawa from Love Hina. Gatsu from Berzerk. Parn from Record of Lodoss wars. Perhaps this is the reason I keep playing; to discover the lives and loss of such an animated and ‘familiar-yet-different’ cast. But with every good…there is an evil.
The problems begin with your first battle. You wonder: why are two of my characters decently strong, and the rest completely useless? Get used to this, as the battle system is configured in an utterly bizarre fashion.
For all of its classical charm and traditional familiarity, the game sure makes some rookie mistakes. For one, leveling up is not exponential in terms of exp needed. You’ve got the same amount to level up each time, or at least it feels that way with the method by which exp is distributed. The exp is distributed evenly throughout, but a bonus is given to the fighter who gives the most damage. This is inevitably your lead character, unless you’ve a magic user who deals damage across a wide range of enemies via a spell of some kind. This further cements the usefulness of one or two characters, and relegates the rest to fodder. Lower-level warriors take hits for your main character so that he can finish the job.
There are ways around this: do not level up your main character much until you gain a party. It would be a huge mistake (one that I made). Because that mage who’s 7 levels behind you when you get her is still 7 levels behind you 15 hours later. If you can manage to keep your character at about their level, this can be avoided to a degree. But characters drop in and out of your party with alarming frequency, making this a complicated technique. Your only other option is to have your main character walk around with one hp, and kill him off each battle, allowing experience points to be distributed solely among the other party members. But remember that the enemies increase in difficulty depending on the level of your highest ranked character, not the average of your party, so this tactic can work against you if your lead is up there in levels.
Further, there are some enemies who are just not worth the trouble. They’re faster than you (get two turns for your one), hit incredibly hard, and yield next to no experience. On top of this, they’re incredibly difficult to avoid. In the world map you can see your enemies, and avoid several of them as a result. This is a very nice thing, but once you get into a battle, it can be quite tough to get out, depending on the speed of your enemies. These sorts of troublesome enemies are nearly always fast – faster than you. You can spend three rounds commanding each of your characters to ‘run’ and still not be able to leave the fray.
Perhaps my biggest gripe is the fact that your character will miss his or her mark roughly 40% of the time with melee attacks. Now…if I’ve been playing for over 20 hours, I don’t want to hardly ever miss again. But you’ll miss just as much as you missed when you began the game. There are equippable items which can aid you in this regars, but since every character can only use one such item at a time, you might want say…more HP, or DP or something of that nature. It’s a ridiculous thing. Having your characters die around you just because they can’t hit the thing that’s directly in front of them is very frustrating. Enemies miss too, but not with the same regularity. The extreme ludicrous nature of this scenario comes across to the fullest when you fight a race of giants, who have mallets with heads larger than your characters’ bodies. To be hit with a mallet that obscures your entire characters body and *not get hurt* is laughable.
I’ve got tons of other tiny quibbling details I could mention, but I think that the point has been made clear enough. Sonnori, perhaps Korea’s most venerable RPG developer has made the most gorgeous of rookie games here. The huge frustration comes from the fact that I want to play it, and I want it to be good! I’m certain that the story will be excellent upon English release. It’s on the whole a pleasant tale, but one which draws you in with its teeth, not its saccharine sweetness. And there’s something appealing about the visuals that just makes you want to see more of it. The gorgeously animated in-game cut scenes for example. The life-like movements of the characters and the constructed legitimacy of their emotions are without parallel in 2D RPGs. They’re incredibly compelling in that way.
But to boil it all down, I play this game because it’s the only one I’ve got. There’s just no other choice in terms of RPGs until Gransta Chronicle comes along, which looks nowhere near as pretty but may well have a more solid base. There’s not much you can do. If you have a GP32 and you want an RPG, this is what you get.
Brandon Sheffield wishes he could stop saying that.