Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Review: Alter A.I.L.A. Genesis

Title: Alter A.I.L.A Genesis
Developer: Neok
Genre: JRPG
Program: RPGMaker 2003

If I said that Alter A.I.L.A. Genesis was one of the most anticipated RPGMaker games since Don Miguel originally translated the maker, I don’t think there are many people who would accuse me of being silly. However, when I take that a step further and say that AAG is by far the game I've looked forward to most, people might start thinking exactly that. This is because there are dozens of other games that people would point to instead, games like A Blurred Line and Hero's Realm (feel free to discuss your own choices), but the fact is that no other RPGMaker game has caught my attention quite like this project did. Ever since playing the demo I've been waiting for the day that this game was finished, so much so that I volunteered to help beta-test it just so that I could get my hands on it earlier than expected. Having said all that, I guess you should look at this less as a review and more as an answer to this question:

Does AAG live up to the expectations I had of it?

A Brave, New, Horizontal World

The best place to start would be with the feature that caught my attention most; the side-scrolling area-maps. It’s incredibly rare to play a role-playing game that works like this, so much so that I can’t actually think of any off the top of my head, and this means that exploration can be a bit disorientating because it is sometimes hard to work out how areas are linked together. However, I personally thought that this made exploration more rewarding, as opposed to more frustrating, because it made “small realisations” like "so that's how I get back to x from y" seem really important. By making even the smallest achievement seem like a big deal, AAG ensures that exploration rarely becomes boring, which is a problem a lot of other role-playing games have (cf. Final Fantasy XIII).

Exploration yields a lot of rewards... one of them being this little easter-egg!

AAG doesn’t let this unique method of exploration carry all the burden, though. It still makes sure that the things that are “big realisations” in other role-playing games - finding secret areas, reaching hidden items boxes, solving complex puzzles – are handled well. Take items boxes, for instance, a device that is used in almost all role-playing games to reward players for exploration. AAG ensures that it gets the most out of this device in two ways:

The first is a fairly common way of making the most of item boxes, by ensuring that “hidden” item boxes are visible to you from areas that you can’t yet reach them from. What this does is that it ensures the player is eager to find them and gives them direction in their exploration. You don't wander around aimlessly hoping to find items and end up dissapointed when you don't get any, instead you know exactly where you're trying to get to. As I say, though, this is a fairly common thing to do, so much so that any good role-playing game will almost certainly do it.

The second method AAG uses to get the most out of item boxes is less common, that being the way AAG grades item boxes into two groups: “common” and “unique”. By doing this, the game ensures that know beforehand whether or not you’re looking for something good, which means that it prevents you from being disappointed if you put in a lot of effort and end up with a less-than-great item. The best examples of other games that do this would be the Zelda series; it works really well in those games and it works really well in AAG too.

Essentially, the way item boxes are used in AAG boils down to this; increased anticipation and less disappointment. Where’s the downside? There isn't one, and because AAG applies this logic to pretty much all exploration, the side-view style works really well.

Attack, Attack, Attack-Attack-Attack!

The second thing that caught my attention when I was playing the AAG demo was the battle-system because, despite using RPGMaker 2003's broken default battle-system, Neok was managing to squeeze a lot out of it. Admittedly, some of the features Neok was introducing seemed really gimicky and I wasn't too sure about the difficulty of the battles, but Neok has took the comments he recieved after releasing the demo and crafted something truly spectacular within a pretty limited engine.

However, it is impossible to describe the battle-system without going into how it effects the way you equip your characters and vice-versa, so I’m going to have to tackle both at the same time.

The AP/EX system is the stand-out system that Neok has implemented and it basically dictates how you go about defeating enemies and equipping characters. On the face of it, each skill your characters have cost AP, which can be regenerated by defending and by using items, and EX, which can be “charged” through the use of skills. This seems really simplistic and almost makes battles seem a simple case of “charging” up your best skills over and over until the enemies are dead. However, it isn’t that simple or mundane in practice and this is because the way AP/EX work is dictated by the “mode” your character has equipped.

Modes can slow or quicken the rate at which you get AP/EX, doing so in a trade-off against negative or positive status effects respectively (i.e. earning X more AP per turn may lead to Y% of your HP being removed each turn), so balancing these “modes” – and there is often only one of each mode – to get an optimum damage output is the name of the game. This system adds an incredible amount of depth to battles and also makes equipment a lot more important than “sword A deals more damage than sword B, I’ll equip sword A!”, I was really impressed with how everything came together.

Another system Neok has put into the battles is an element system and, on the face of it, it’s exactly the kind of resistance/weakness system that pretty much every role-playing game since the beginning of time uses. Much like the AP/EX system, though, the reason elements work so well is because they’re used to make sure that setting up your equipment is really important. This is because (pretty much) all the weapons you can equip have an element attributed to them and, as most enemies have a massive resistance to one or more of the six elements available, if you don’t manage to balance elements out properly you’re going to have a really hard time getting all your characters dealing a respectable amount of damage. This is made all the more important because enemies have predictable patterns of resistance based on the “class” of enemy they are, which makes sure you study them carefully to come up with combinations of elements that are unlikely to be resisted at the same time as each other. That AAG makes sure that you’re rewarded for being observant is really important.

You see this guy? He is going to stomp your face if your modes aren't set-up properly!

There is only one aspect of the battles that doesn’t have a massive influence on your equipment and, ironically, its the one I like the least: Field effects. Field effects are things like all units having their HP healed by a little each turn or all units having reduced defence, little changes that are supposed to have a big influence on how battles pan out. You are able to induce these with items and bosses can induce them repeatedly and, when it comes to boss fights, they’re fairly clever because they add another level of strategy. However, because boss fights are pretty much the only time you’re really going to use or encounter them, they feel a little underused. I would’ve personally liked to see them applied in a lot more fights in order to give certain areas more flavour (a field effect that “poisons” everyone would’ve worked well in sewer areas, for example) but this didn’t happen. Their under use doesn’t really drag the game down in any way, but I would definitely consider it a missed opportunity.

To summarise so far: Exploration is really good, the battles work really well and equipment is actually important. Where’s the catch? Well, there really isn’t one as far as the gameplay goes. Everything about the gameplay links together really well and, aside from the under implementation of the field effects, I don’t have a bad word to say about AAG in this respect. The game really delivers when it comes to its gameplay so, if we go back to my original question, you’d have to say that AAG lives up to my expectations thus far.

What about the writing?

One thing that I was really interested in was how Neok was going to twist the multi-path storyline of the original Alter A.I.L.A into a more traditional, linear storyline without making everything about the story seem forced. By replacing sequences that required the player to make decisions with sequences where the characters make decisions for themselves, I thought that Neok was running a rather fine line and that he was going to have a really difficult task making the characters, especially the main character, seem natural. Basically, I thought there was a big risk of the storyline falling flat without the player-based interactions that drove the plot of the original Alter A.I.L.A. forward. However, the storyline that Neok has come up with is brilliant and I don’t have enough praise for it. The twists and turns from start to finish are well timed, well plotted and never manage to seem (too) forced. The game manages to grab you early on and then makes sure you keep playing through what can only be described as a roller-coaster ride. I loved every minute of it.

The dialogue is also good and I loved the exchanges between the characters as the twists the storyline took changed them from allies to enemies and back to allies again. One particular monologue that Erin directs at Scott (those who have played the game will probably know which one I am talking about; I won’t say more so that I don’t spoil anything) was particularly excellent, but the truth is that there are tonnes of enjoyable cutscenes scattered throughout this game.

As for the characters themselves, it is definitely true that the characters are all massively stereotypical and do little to step outside of those stereotypes. However, for the most part, Neok manages to make you care about them anyway. You will end up feeling a real connection to these characters by the time you’ve finished playing and will no longer care that they are “only” stereotypes, something that I think Neok achieves by showing us the flaws of his characters instead of just their strengths, a problem that stereotypes usually perpetuate. I have to admit that this isn’t true for all of the characters and there are definitely some that could’ve been fleshed out a little better (I’m looking at you, Dread!), but those characters who are central to the storyline are generally well written. I have very few complaints.

Basically, the storyline in AAG hooks you and, aided by entertaining dialogue and a cast of well-written characters, doesn’t let go. For the second time in this review, I have to come to the conclusion that AAG manages to live up to my expectations. In fact, that’s selling it a bit short, because in this respect it has surpassed my expectations. I always thought that the gameplay would be brilliant after playing the demo and the full version doesn’t disappoint, but I was never too sure about the writing and AAG amazed me in that respect anyway!

Pretty Things...

I’ll just come out and say it: This game looks spectacular. I shouldn’t need to write anything about the graphics in this game because you don’t even need to play the game to know that they’re spectacular, all you need to do is scan through a few of the screenshots.

No clever caption needed.

As for what is most impressive about them; that honour has to go to the comic-styled cutscenes that the game uses. Not only do these cutscenes look amazing, and it must’ve taken a long time for Neok to come up with them all, they add so much to the dialogue. It's much the same as the way the character animations in Final Fantasy VI added to the script in that game. Being able to see the facial expressions and body language of the characters is something that people take for granted now that it is the norm in high-definition games, but it is far from the norm in the RM* world and it really makes a massive difference.

Another part of the graphics that I found really amazing were the in-battle character animations. Despite the RPGMaker 2003 engine being terrible for creating battle-animations, especially when it comes to character animations, Neok has managed to create animations that look really smooth. I was incredibly surprised with the range of animations displayed by the characters and, having tried to do similar things in my own games, I’m still not quite sure how Neok has managed to get away with it.

As for the music, it’s equally as good. I also didn’t recognise much of it, which is always nice. A special mention should go to the frantically paced battle music, a track that I never got tired of throughout the whole experience, but I really don’t think Neok did anything wrong with any of the chosen pieces. I quite often play videogames with my own music on in the background, at least for a little while (grinding usually induces this when it comes to RPGs), but that didn’t happen once with AAG because there really wasn’t any need.

You can't hear it, so just trust me when I say that the music in this battle is as immense as the battle looks.

The Final Score

I’m aware that this probably reads less like a review and more like rampant fanboyism and, in that respect, I’m (almost) sorry. There’s nothing I can really do about it, though, because there just isn’t much to criticise in this game. I found the battles to be well-balanced and entertaining, I loved the in-depth customisation available through the equipment system, I thought that exploration worked incredibly well, the storyline gripped me, the dialogue is emotional and entertaining, the graphics are amazing and the music is well chosen. Downsides? None at all.

This is it, this is the best RM* game. 10/10

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