Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Preview: Cast Aside

Title: Cast Aside
Developer: Anaryu
Genre: JRPG
Program: RPGMaker XP

Cast Aside is a game that, in its current form, focuses heavily on its gameplay, both in the form of combat and puzzle-solving, and not so much on its storyline. This isn’t to say that character development is pushed to one side as the characters are very well written; it’s just that the current demo isn’t really long enough to introduce the storyline properly. In fact, the current demo is only really long enough to properly introduce you to two of the playable characters you’ll encounter throughout the demo.

Fortunately, the dialogue between these two, main characters, especially at the start of the game, is really good. It helps you identify with their pasts immediately and manages to integrate you into the setting. Their characterisation is consistent and the chemistry between them is brilliant; they clearly have crushes on each other but the awkwardness with which they deal with these emotions – conveyed clearly through their dialogue – makes the fact that they are maturing teenagers rather than experienced heroes obvious. The “teenage protagonist” is definitely a cliché that is prevalent throughout roleplaying games, but it is a cliché that is usually done badly; usually the age of the heroes is rarely referenced, usually their actions don’t match their age and usually their dialogue doesn’t match the fact that they’re still maturing. In Cast Aside, these “usual” problems are not present.

But the focus of this demo isn’t really the dialogue, it's the gameplay, so let's talk about that.

The combat in Cast Aside is a mish-mash of “tactical” and “real-time” mechanics, the tactical side of which contains many of the “traditional” elements we’re all familiar with: The battles happen in confined areas, these areas are made up of tiles you need to navigate your characters around, you need to be next to an enemy to strike it, being behind the enemy makes your attacks more effective and your spells have an area-of-effect etc. All of these features are well executed, but it isn’t these “traditional” elements that are the focus of this system; the focus lies squarely on the features that differentiate this game from other tactical RPGs.

The first of these is the aura system, a system that allows you to “power-up” tiles on the battle map in order to gain an advantage over the enemy. For example, you can use an aura that makes it so you deal more damage whilst stood on a tile. This sounds simple, considered on its own, but trying to combine this with the different kinds of attack your characters use and the direction you want to be facing the enemy whilst attacking is the trick, not to mention that auras can be exploited by your enemies just like they can be exploited by you. It is a good system, but what makes it truly effective is that it blends really well with the “traditional” tactical combat that is otherwise present.

The second feature that helps this game stand out is the fact that combat will often contain puzzle-elements. One battle, for instance, has you guide a cart around the map whilst fighting off a horde of zombies. Only by directing the cart to three different holes in the ground can you stop the constant flow and zombies and win the battle. As with the aura system, these puzzles add another level of complexity to the combat and also blend with the “traditional” combat features quite well. They’re a welcome addition.

These things are just small changes compared to the “real-time” side of the system. Instead of using a turn-based system like most tactical RPGs (cf. Final Fantasy Tactics), this game has everything happening at once. You can control your characters in any order, assuming they have the stamina required to act, the monsters move around constantly and attacks, spells and aura changes are flying around everywhere. This does not blend well with the “traditional” tactical combat that is otherwise utilised throughout the course of this game because, generally, tactical battle systems work best when the player is given time to think through each action they take. Despite this, the battles are still entertaining and, to be honest, what hampers the battles most isn’t the real-time system: It is the lack of an instruction manual or read-me file. There are a lot of things to take in, they’re only explained to you once and it is easy to forget things when you’re having a lot of different systems explained to you. For instance, the game told me that I was able to "pause" combat but I simply couldn't get it to work (or I'd forgotten how it was supposed to be done); having a read-me or instruction file would've been really helpful at this point because it wasn't like I could just re-watch the tutorial - or was I supposed to be taking notes?

It is even easier to forget things when you spend most of your time trying to solve some pretty complex puzzles. The puzzle design in this game is really exquisite (in the sections that are currently playable, anyway) and they will really get you thinking. You are able to control all your party members independently of each other and this feature lies at the heart of most of your puzzle-solving. You’re going to have to think hard to get the right combination needed to solve some of the puzzles in this demo and making the player think is the mark of a good puzzle. What makes the puzzles stronger is that they’re integrated into the levels and setting really well. They don’t seem like arbitrary road-blocks placed in front of you just to make a dungeon longer; they feel like they’re a natural part of the dungeon you’re in. The mine-based puzzle, for example, is really well thought out, works well with the setting and is very thought provoking: I was really impressed with how the many different elements of that puzzle came together and it really helped make the mines seem like a living, breathing place. To be honest, in terms of level-design this game can’t really be faulted; at least not from a gameplay point of view (there are a few technical errors and glitches present, but none of them are game-breaking and none of them really annoyed me).

The level-design can be faulted from a graphical point of view, though. There are several instances where you’re able to walk on tiles that you’re not supposed to (up walls, into the middle of chasms, over the top of big rocks) and I really dislike it when you’re able to walk to the edge of a map without anything happening (especially when there isn’t anything to mark exits from the map, cf. Visions & Voices). Admittedly, the latter problem wasn’t that prevalent (even if it does still irk me) but the former problem is something the developers really need to work on because this isn’t just the odd tile, it is a problem that features on nearly every map! It is a shame that this is the case because, aside from these errors, the graphical side of the mapping is really good, as are the graphics used in other areas. The pictures used to represent each character are detailed, convey their emotions clearly and look really neat; the menu system looks slick and is really simple to use and; the graphics used for the battle-menu are really clear, which is exactly what they need to be. The music used isn’t anything special and neither are the sound effects used, but they’re not that bad either and they don’t take anything away from the rest of the game. From an artistic standpoint this game is fairly solid.

Overall, this demo has a lot of potential. The battle-system could be explained a little bit better through the use of an instruction manual or read-me file (you shouldn’t expect the player to remember everything, nor should you expect them to be taking notes) but, despite the apparent mismatch between real-time and tactical systems, the battles themselves are really fun; the level-design is immaculate; the puzzles are both thought-provoking and in-keeping with the setting and; the graphics are, aside for some mapping issues, really neat.

I hope that this project isn’t cast aside: 8/10

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