Sunday, August 04, 2013

Review: Lunar Wish: The Orbs of Fate

Title: Lunar Wish: The Orbs of Fate
Developer: Lustermx
Genre: JRPG
Program: RPGMaker VX

Lunar Wish: The Orbs of Fate is not a game that tries to deviate itself from other JRPG titles through the means of a premise that we’ve never seen before. Instead, it is very reliant on a scenario we’ve seen countless times within the genre, the idea that crystals somehow prevent the whole of the game’s world from descending into chaos. It’s actually a bad joke that so many games within the genre seem to revolve around crystals (or in this case, the titular Orbs of Fate), the result of which is that any newer title wishing to walk down this well-trodden path should probably dispense with walking altogether and instead try something slightly more eye-catching like cartwheeling or moonwalking or waltzing. In some senses, it's completely redundant to make such a statement as it's ultimately true that any game in any genre will benefit from adding flourishes to common tropes and formulae (assuming you execute and present these flourishes well), but I also feel like this is multiple times the case in a JRPG genre that is already so full of cliché. 

However, this is also not a game that tries to deviate itself from other JRPG titles through the means of unique gameplay features. The developer has clearly chosen to follow common JRPG tropes to the letter as I didn’t personally manage to notice a single exception or deviation; if they’re there then they’re definitely not obvious. In and of itself, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing when all those common clichés (your random encounters, your turn-based battle systems, your map-by-map exploration and treasure hunting, and your dungeons involving lots of switches and other such puzzles) are executed in a competent manner, because it's very hard and very harsh to criticise a developer for managing to produce a game that replicates all the tropes and systems they intended to replicate. It's even harder to criticise a developer when none of these major gameplay elements seem flawed, imbalanced, or annoying. At the end of the day, the JRPG genre would’ve never taken off so spectacularly if these gameplay elements weren’t fun to play through. However, though it may well be hard to criticise a developer who competently replicates the features they set out to replicate, it's also very, very hard to commend them when competence is all they achieve. None of the features included in Lunar Wish: The Orbs of Fate struck me as achieving a level of excellence that deserved recognition, a problem compounded by the lack of distinction the game's general premise brings to the table. 

What I've basically described thus far is a game that makes few mistakes in replicating the feel of a traditional JRPG, but also does little to amaze or excite the player beyond what mere competence allows. I suppose what I'm trying to say is that this game is average in every way I’ve covered so far, leaving me with little to criticise and little to praise, and the fact is that such games are common in the RPGMaker community given that they're exactly what RPGMaker engines are designed to produce. The problem is that an engine can only take you so far, and one thing that they definitely can't do for you is to write likable characters the player is going to relate to and care about. It is this point on which this game falls apart, and I'll spend the rest of this review telling you why. 

The game starts at the Applon Academy, which is essentially an academy for heroes that instantly reminded me of Balamb Garden from Final Fantasy VIII. Although it may be a little harsh to compare an amateur game to what I consider to be the best Final Fantasy game, such a comparison allows me to quickly point out the biggest problem with the characterisation in Lunar Wish: The Orbs of Fate. What Final Fantasy VIII does to make this setting work is to ensure that the range of characters you meet have instantly distinguishable personalities, whilst also striving to make sure these traits play off against each other in an entertaining manner. A good example would be the bickering between Seifer and Zell throughout the course of the Dollet mission, which gives you a reason to care for Zell (by portraying him as an underdog) whilst also giving you a reason to dislike Seifer (an eventual antagonist). Another good example is the way Quistis' interactions with Squall foreshadow the deeper feelings that she has for him, which makes the revelation of these feelings much more believable and gives you a reason to feel for Quistis after Squall reacts. Ultimately, creating links between different characters by having their personalities bounce off one another allows a writer to reveal much more about their characters than they'd be able to do through the use of other methods, and it's really the interactions between the characters in Lunar Wish: The Orbs of Fate that make them so rapidly easy to hate. Simply put, nearly all of the children who study at the Applon Academy have cancerous personalities; they're constantly bickering, making snide remarks, making hateful comments, and playing practical jokes. 

For example, in one scene a character kills a fellow student's pet rabbit, kicks the carcass into a body of water, and then neglects to tell them about it. In the process of doing so, they show far less remorse for having done this than they show concern about being found out. This wouldn't be so bad if this character went on to be an antagonist, but they instead go on to be the focus of the main character's affections and thus a character we're supposed to care about. I suppose that it also doesn't help that the character to whom the rabbit belongs is the only person at the Applon Academy who seems to be a caring, likable character, a fact that I find incredibly telling and incredibly ironic! 

A later example of how callous the characters at Applon Academy are is a scenario that has the headmistress of the academy split the students into two groups in order to go through a practical assessment. The assessment is a competition between the two groups, with the winning group receiving what is made out to be an important honour. To ensure their safety, two older students are sent to supervise them over the course of this exam. Throughout the course of this assessment, several distasteful things occur:

  • One of the students who isn't in the player's group does not enter the assessment area with her own group, instead deciding that it's better to fight the player's group in an attempt to prevent them from being able to complete the task first. This action simultaneously shows her complete disregard for her own safety, the safety of her own group, and the safety of the player's group. 
  • The supervisors fail to supervise the task properly because they are too busy making out (an action that is heavily inferred and heavily foreshadowed, despite never being seen). This clearly shows a complete disregard for the young students they're supposed to be protecting, which is despite the fact that some of the students are related to the supervisors. 
  • After being saved by the player's group, members of the other group show no gratitude whatsoever and instead try to steal completion of the task for themselves. They're only stopped from doing so by the sudden appearance of the supervisors, who "saw the whole thing" and yet didn't attempt to help out. Not only does this add to the second point I made, it also shows what awful people the members of the other group are. 
  • The headmistress decides to award the whole class with the honour she was keeping for the successful team, something that she presumably chooses to do after hearing everything that happened.
Basically, the whole of this scenario is sickeningly terrible and, given that it takes up the period of the game that's supposed to hook you in by giving you a reason to care for the characters, I almost stopped playing the game immediately after its conclusion. I didn't stop immediately, though, instead deciding to play a little bit further. I suppose what I was hoping was that things might change once the party starts to meet older, more mature characters. I probably should've realised this wasn't going to be the case given how badly written the "headmistress" and "supervisor" characters were, terms that I now put in speech marks as their actions are far displaced from what their titles might suggest. 

What eventually made me stop playing were the very first exchanges that you have with a character named Gummi, who is referred to as a very famous inventor. This scene, a scene in which said character shows no regard for her dead bodyguard, no regard for her knocked out bodyguard, and shows no sympathy towards the party for helping her (going as far as to snap at them after she goes back on her offer of giving them one of her gadgets for free), made it clear to me that I was never going to care about the heroes in this game. 

Despite realising that this guard is dead, the characters don't seem to react in a very caring manner, which is strange given their age. Moreover, they make no attempt to awaken the knocked-out guard, who will presumably be killed by monsters shortly after the "heroes" leave.

Characterisation clearly isn't everything in a videogame but, given that the rest of the game is merely a JRPG that doesn't really try to stray away from tried and tested formulae, the lack of a likeable cast or meaningful storyline means that this game really isn't worth playing. 3/10.

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