Saturday, September 21, 2013

Review: Phantom Legacy

Title: Phantom Legacy
Developer: Nightblade
Genre: JRPG
Program: RPGMaker 2003

Phantom Legacy is the sequel to the highly-rated Demon Legacy, with a story that is set more than a decade after the original game and that largely focuses on a fresh bunch of playable characters. Although some of the playable characters from the first game play crucial roles as the storyline develops, I largely agree with the developer's claim that players don't need to have played the first game to understand what is going on. Of course, given that I played the first game, I'm not exactly perfectly poised to make this judgement, but I do feel that the game does a good job of recapping important events or characters from the first game when such knowledge is required.

The plot itself is a twisting tale that focuses on several different entities attempting to manipulate (or destroy) the main protagonist in order to further their own schemes. Throughout all this, the main protagonist is attempting to learn more about their past, their powers, their history, and how significant a purpose they're supposed to play in the schemes those around them are trying to execute. This results in a storyline where the group of characters you control are usually less important than the non-playable characters who are scheming in the background, which in-turn results in a storyline containing a lot of plot-twists and surprises since you don't see everything that is going on behind the scenes. It's sometimes said that an over-reliance on plot-twists isn't a good thing, but I feel that Phantom Legacy pulls it off really well as it definitely kept me on the edge of my seat throughout.

On top of this edge-of-your-seat storyline is a cast of characters that are really vibrant and that are well differentiated from one another. I don't think I once felt that a character's motivations were disingenuous or unexplained, even if they weren't obviously apparent from the get-go. Even characters present only for comic relief, or present only for minor roles, felt like they were differentiated well enough from one another that they didn't immediately feel like filler characters. The breadth of characterisation on display led to a really enjoyable experience no matter whether the current focus was a life-or-death situation or a situation as benign as attempting to sober up a drunken sea captain; and every interaction seemed appropriate as the characters very rarely broke away from what you'd realistically expect them to do. Given that the cast is so large and features so many different sides, this is no mean feat.

What really amazed me about the storyline and characterisation in this game is the way that the developer managed to avoid the straight up "good vs. evil" situation from occurring for such a long period of time. Despite having so many different sides vying for power, and despite having returning characters from the first game that you'd expect to quickly fall into the "good" or "evil" category, the main character has a hard time rooting against any of the other characters until quite deep into the game. What this does is reinforce how clever the major characters are when it comes to hiding their true intentions; given that the main character essentially starts the game as a blank canvas, it makes a lot of sense that the major characters would operate in this way so that they can try to manipulate the main character to their own end. Even when it becomes more apparent who the "good guys" and the "bad guys" are, the lines are still very blurred because there are several characters who seemingly have noble intentions and yet are prepared to use quite nefarious means to execute them. The only exception to this is a particularly crazy bastard who very quickly falls into a role that I can only describe as an imitation Kefka. The amusing thing is that this particular character is constantly mocked and ridiculed for possessing that archetype, even by those that are considered to be working for them. It's probably completely unintentional on the part of the developer, but it almost feels as if the developer is saying, "This is how stupid you look when your bad guys are bat-shit insane from square one". I kind of appreciated that and, even if it wasn't intentional, it certainly made me giggle!

There's even time to take a shot at some other highly rated RPGMaker games!

When it comes to the gameplay, the most important part is without doubt the battle-system. Encounters in this game occur by bumping into enemy sprites that chase you down on the area-map, a notable factor being that these encounters do not re-spawn and so can only be encountered a single time. What this means is that there is a limited amount of experience on offer, which in turn means that all players should be at more-or-less the same level at any given stage of the game. This results in a very well-balanced experience, were nearly all battles manage to feel challenging without ever bordering on insane levels of difficulty, all because the developer has made it very easy for themselves to balance the game because they know exactly what stats the heroes should have at any given stage. It's a cool trick, although it does run the risk of disappointing those whose generic response to "challenging" battles is to go and grind out more levels. This isn't the only cool trick on display, as there are a tonne of battles that utilise a range of different gimmicks in order to keep things interesting. Enemies that constantly summon wave after wave of weak cannon-fodder, enemies that utilise shields and barriers to prevent themselves from taking damage, enemies that change their attack-mode and resistance once they lose something important (like a tail or other appendage), enemies that carry items that are important with respect to their ability to deal and block damage, as well as a bunch of other gimmicks that I've probably missed. These gimmicks serve to keep the battles interesting, and they're a welcome addition to the game. 

Despite all the tricks, the most interesting thing about the battle-system in this game is that it's almost entirely centred around the main character, and becomes more and more so over the course of the game. The reason for this is the main character's "Reave" ability, which allows them to completely refill their mana bar at the cost of a single turn (assuming there are enemies remaining with enough mana to allow it). This is important because the main character is also the main healer of the party, so battles essentially become a case of using other characters to dish out damage whilst the main character focuses on healing the party over and over. The importance of this ability is reinforced later on in the game when the main character learns a skill that allows them to sacrifice a small amount of their own mana to fully replenish the mana bar of a single ally, as that allows you to constantly spam the most powerful spells that you have available to you, without which some of the final battles would be very drawn out affairs! What this ultimately serves to do is to reinforce the importance of the main character to the game as a whole, as they're constantly the focus no matter what you're doing; even when you're battling!

You will use this ability more than any of the other abilities that the main character learns...

Dungeon exploration in this game is largely focused around labyrinthine maps, and you'll spend most of your time looking for keys to locked doors and other such mechanisms that are blocking your way. It's a relatively simplistic gameplay model as the exploration mechanic itself is hardly groundbreaking, but this doesn't end up being such a bad thing. The reason for this is that the maps themselves are beautifully designed; the best way that I can describe the dungeons is to say that they felt incredibly fluid from end to finish, which meant that they never became frustrating to play through regardless of how bad my luck was with the mazes. The developer does occasionally switch things up by throwing in some puzzles, with teleportation and switch-based puzzles being the most frequently encountered. However, these puzzles are largely based on trial-and-error instead of being logic-based, which makes me think that there wasn't a lot of thought put into them. They still serve their purpose, which is to make the player do something other than wander around looking for a way out, but it would've been nice to see some more difficult puzzles being thrown into the mix! I would count it as an opportunity missed, but it isn't really a negative point against the game either.

You're right, it lies with RNGesus.

Another thing that the developer managed to do really well when designing their dungeons was to keep things interesting by making good use of elements other than walking/running to give different dungeons their own flavour; examples being a forest area that requires you to climb up cliff faces, a decaying dungeon where you're forced to leap over holes in the long abandoned foundation, and a dungeon flooded with water that actually slows you down as you splash through it. Although these elements are nothing more than alternate animations applied to the same maze-like gameplay mechanic, they were welcome additions nonetheless. Speaking of the aesthetics, even though the graphics are "shamelessly ripped" (to use the developer's own words), the use of them is absolutely exquisite. The dungeons, towns and other environment all look amazing, which only adds to how well designed those environments tend to be; the little tricks used to add flavour to the dungeons are obviously a good thing for the reasons already given; most of the cutscenes have animated sprites that add a lot of depth to the storytelling; the battle-animations at times border on awe-inspiring; and even the world-map has a very clean design that ensures things are kept simple when you're moving between different areas.

Given that there are no random battles in this game, this type of world map works best in terms of both gameplay and aesthetics.

That isn't to say that the graphics were perfect as there were some mapping issues present, mostly in the form of passability errors resulting in the player being able to go places that they shouldn't be able to. Fortunately such errors were incredibly rare, so you definitely couldn't tag them as game-breaking. Another minor problem I had was with maps that had multiple apparent exits when only one exit was actually usable; this is a pet peeve of mine when it comes to RPG mapping as I really don't see how it's so hard to have the character turn back the other way and say something like, "We don't need to go that way right now". Ultimately, both of these issues are incredibly minor and appear so infrequently that they didn't really affect my enjoyment of the game, but I figured I would bring them up regardless.

(Top) Pretty sure that I'm not supposed to be standing in the middle of an abyss. (Bottom) Why can I stand at the edge of this map if it's not going to teleport me somewhere!?

This game has incredibly polished dungeon-based gameplay; makes really good use of the graphics available; has a solid storyline that will keep you guessing; has a cast of genuinely believable characters; and has a well-balanced, challenging battle-system based around an array of interesting gimmicks...

... but more importantly, despite some areas lacking a little bit of polish, this game possesses such an amazing amount of synergy between all its different elements that this game is far greater than the sum of its parts. Given how much I enjoyed playing this game. there's only one score I can realistically give here. 10/10.