Friday, June 07, 2013

Review: Star Stealing Prince

Title: Star Stealing Prince
Developer: Renove, Diedrupo.
Genre: JRPG
Program: RPGMaker VX

Star Stealing Prince is a JRPG that's best described as being incredibly traditional. I certainly wouldn't say that it attempts to do anything I haven't seen before as all the mechanics and gimmicks used throughout the course of the game are things that experienced JRPG players will have seen before in other titles. However, this fairly generic gameplay is just a framework upon which a very compelling storyline is built, as in this game it's definitely the storytelling that is the main focus.

It's obvious from the get-go that the developer has put a lot of effort into creating a world that is both entertaining and believable. A brilliant example of this are the NPCs, as even the most meaningless NPC in this game's world will have something interesting to say, an item to help you along your way, a piece of knowledge that will make things easier, or interactions with the titular Prince - who is the main character of the piece - that expose features of his character that couldn't be better highlighted using any other method. Pretty much all of these interactions, short in duration though they are, go a long way to fleshing out the game's universe, and this should be respected as maintaining such interesting NPCs throughout a whole of a game is something that's really difficult to do.

That I choose to talk about world-building first shouldn't take anything away from a storyline that, even without such elegant world-building, would still be deeply entertaining. The plot moves forward at just the right pace, using well-developed characters that never step over into farcical melodrama, and using devices that are sensical, readily believable and, most importantly, entertaining. The storyline will grip you very early on and manage to keep you entertained until the very last.

 The storyline is often told through images such as this, which really adds something different to the piece.

That the storytelling grips you so early on is fortunate, as without the storytelling it's likely that I would have given up on this game before it could properly get started. This is because many of the early gameplay elements are very frustrating.

The place where this is most prevalent is in the early-game battles in the game, and this is mostly because of very jarring jumps in difficulty level between the first few areas you encounter. The main problem is that being able to swiftly dispatch enemies in one area doesn't always necessarily mean that you're ready for the next area, which makes it very difficult to judge when you should move on. This is exacerbated by the fact that you often can't backtrack early in the game, which makes it impossible for you to go back and grind weaker enemies ready for more difficult encounters.

What makes this problem worse is that the start of the game features only a single party member for an extended period of time, and so you often lack the breadth of strategy required to overcome enemies that are stronger in terms of raw numbers. This is obviously an easy error to make as "developer difficulty" is a common problem in the amateur community, and it isn't as if these areas are completely unbeatable, but it can be incredibly frustrating to deal with. 

Speaking of only having one party member, another annoying thing about the start of the game is the way that several enemies are capable of dealing status effects like "Stun" or "Sleep", effectively leaving you with no course for redress. Given a bad run of luck, it's possible to lose fights against such enemies without getting a single attack in, and that's definitely not good design. This may have only happened to me once or twice, but that's once or twice too many times as far as I'm concerned and, were I not already hooked by the game's world, I could've easily given up on this game very early on.

Admittedly, after the initial hiccups the battles do get a lot better. They remain very challenging, and do still tend to jump in difficulty quite erratically, but once you've gathered more party members there are enough strategic elements available to you that you're usually able to overcome them. This is especially true of the boss battles, which deserve a special mention as they're legitimately amazing; these battles will test even the most hardened JRPG veteran and that's definitely a good thing as I've encountered far too many games where toothless bosses spoil the drama surrounding their appearance. Truth be told, the depth on display is quite impressive as far as traditional JRPGs go, and it's a shame that the early-game spoils what does become a very well developed battle-system.

As I said at the beginning of the review, this game tends to rely heavily on gimmicks that have been used elsewhere, and this isn't a problem when these gimmicks are used properly. After all, there are only so many ways to skin a cat, so we can't expect every single gameplay mechanic used within a title to be a new invention. When gimmicks do become a problem, however, is when they're used far, far too often.

A good example of this is the way that the game makes extensive use of "hidden passageways" to lead the player to new areas. This is all well and good when these passages are used to lead the player to non-crucial treasures, or when crucial "hidden passageways" are hinted at in some way, but when these passageways constantly form the basis for solving puzzles or navigating through areas then it can become very annoying. It's incredibly frustrating to have to bump your character into every single wall whenever you can't find a more obvious solution to a puzzle as such an inelegant solution doesn't give you a feeling of joy or accomplishment the billionth time around; the only thing I can't decide is whether it's more frustrating to find a passageway ("This again? Really?") or not to find anything at all ("I just wasted my time doing that and I'm no closer to solving this puzzle!").

These problems are somewhat outweighed by several elegant, thought-provoking dungeons and puzzles that make up the rest of the out-of-battle gameplay. They range from simple switch-based puzzles and labyrinths to puzzles of a more complex nature, and they're usually very entertaining... when they aren't broken up by secret-passages!

Every. Fucking. Time. This is one of the more obvious ones, and it is quite early in the game, but it was already older than old.

As for eye and ear candy, this game is definitely pretty to look at and nice to listen to. That both departments are exactly what you'd expect from a JRPG does take away a little in terms of originality, but this isn't a problem since this game isn't really trying to revolutionise how a JRPG should look or sound. You'd have to be incredibly harsh for penalising a developer for achieving exactly what they set out to do, and I don't think any frequent JRPG player will be disappointed with the graphics and the music unless they were being ultra, ultra picky (and even then it would be difficult). Special mention should be given to major cutscenes as these often take place in a beautifully illustrated still-frame format that neatly breaks up the use of an otherwise standard 3/4 viewpoint!

Overall, this is a game that has been very competently put together by the developer and its one that should manage to keep a hold of you through the use of very good storytelling and characterisation. Unfortunately, there are several problems with the gameplay that can't be overlooked, especially early on. This makes it difficult to rate this game as it is hard to tell just how many players are going to be put off by such problems. For instance, if it wasn't for the storyline and because I knew this game had won several awards, I'm not sure I would've bothered to stick with it and that's clearly not a good thing. At the end of it all, I am glad that I did stick with it and I heartily recommend that other players do the same.

An ambitious effort deserving of all the awards that it won for storytelling, world-building and direction, and if it wasn't for the early-game battle problems and annoying gimmicks then it'd be damn near perfect... but it isn't, as any game that almost drives you away before it has a chance to get going doesn't deserve that accolade. 7/10

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