Well, this is it. After a couple years of not being satisfied with RPGs (from The Thousand-Year Door being too easy to Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean being too random (and too easy)), this is the game that finally convinced me that I’m simply not a fan of the genre–not necessarily because of what I didn’t like, but because of how close it came to being one I did like.
First, a message to those of you who play RPGs for the story: this game kinda doesn’t have one. There isn’t really anything urgent going on in the world; you’re just a group of adventurers exploring an uninhabited island (save for one town that has the shop and inn, as well as a few NPCs representing other explorers). There’s a point where the save mascot gets sucked into darkness and you might think “oh, things are starting to pick up in the story department,” but no, it’s just a random thing that happens. There’s no follow up to this event whatsoever; you never see the save mascot again or even learn who was responsible/why it was done/any potential history the save mascot has with the island. What about character development? Nope: everyone is a one-dimensional caricature that never evolves past their description on the character select screen (at least in Meurs’s campaign), with their backstories existing solely as an excuse to get them on the island (for crying out loud, the amnesiac doesn’t even get her memories back or have an arc where she comes to terms with it or anything). Okay, maybe there’s some world-building? Well, as you explore, you’ll come across poems that mention specific events in the island’s history (which basically boils down to everything was fine until the king invaded the queen’s land, then half of the island sank), but that’s about it; you don’t really learn anything about the island beyond that, and you certainly never find out anything about the rest of the world. So if it isn’t very strong on those fronts, what does it have left to stand on? Game-play?
Anyway, combat in this game is your standard turn-based fare. You start by choosing a formation, which can be made outside of battle and determine the characters’ stances (attack, defense, or support). Personally, I see this as an unnecessary extra step since you have to keep up with all the possible formations instead of just being able to use the move you want, but I digress. After that, you’re sent into the more familiar “select which move you want to use” menu; at first it just shows your weapon’s moves, but you can push left/right to switch to defensive moves, healing moves, or spells, assuming you have the necessary items equipped to use them (e.g. you can only use defensive moves if you have a shield equipped). Turn order is usually fairly consistent, though sometimes, some moves (notably the elemental contracts) can have characters move earlier or later than usual. On top of moves having innate attack power, they also have experience meters for each stance and get more powerful the more you use the move in that stance, even leveling up mid-battle in most cases (for example, attack moves start off with higher attack-stance experience, healing spells start with higher support-stance experience, etc.). Outside of battle, enemies are represented by shadowy creatures that go about their business and chase you if they notice you, with different shapes having slightly different ways of going after you. Every map besides the town spawns enemies and sparkles; examining a sparkle can sometimes get you an item, but other times, it results in an ambush, forcing you into a battle. The game also treats running away differently; doing so will send you back to the beginning of the map, which is great for if you need to go back to the inn and heal, or if you got the key item you need and just wanna exit the map. My only issue is that there are some battles you can’t run away from, and the game tends to make these battles the ones where you might not be high-enough level to win.
Sometimes, when you go to use one move, the character will “awaken” another move and use that instead. At first, this is a good thing since it’s a small chance that you’ll learn a more powerful move and use it without spending as much or even any SP. However, the game seems to have a lot of filler moves that aren’t as powerful, but you learn them later. Most of them don’t even have any additional effect, with their descriptions just being flavor text (which is common for most weapon-based moves), and since they have less innate attack and less experience, it usually isn’t worth switching until you learn a move that’s quite a bit more powerful that what you’ve got (same goes for switching weapon classes since you have to start over from the weaker moves, even if the weapon itself has more attack power). Defensive moves have a different issue: when you learn the move that blocks while also preventing damage, or the move that blocks and reflects damage back at the enemy, you might think “wow, those are worth the small SP cost,” but what the game doesn’t tell you is that those moves only have a percent-chance to work; sometimes they activate in the middle of the turn, and sometimes they won’t activate at all, and you just wasted that SP for nothing. On the flip-side, you do learn defense moves that claim to reduce attack damage by more than the standard defend move, and while these moves do work, by the time you unlock them, your normal defend will have enough experience to be just as effective as the new move, once again making it not worth the SP cost.
However, the worst is with spells. First, in order to use the spell, you need a contract with its corresponding element, which means you need to equip the item that lets you make the contract in one of your character’s accessory slots. Okay, fine. Next, since none of your party starts off knowing any spells, you need to equip the item that lets you use the spell in your only other accessory slot. Okay, fine. Make the contract on turn 1, use the spell on turn 2. If you use the spell enough, the character will “awaken” that spell, which lets you switch out the equipped spell for something else (like another spell) while still being able to use said spell. Okay, great. One problem: it doesn’t end there. Like with other moves, using spells enough can have you learn other spells, but unlike other moves, spells have a much larger variety of effects, and more often than not result in something detrimental. Let’s say you’re fighting a boss, and while it isn’t a cake-walk, you’ve got a good pattern going with healing your team and attacking the boss, and you go to use a healing spell (which does eventually get better than the medicine box item) when suddenly, your character “awakens” a debuff and uses that instead (though at least it changes its target to the boss), and since it’s a boss in an RPG, it’s immune to the debuff. In other words, your character doesn’t heal, but rather wastes the SP on a move that does nothing, and now it’s the boss’s turn to attack. Needless to say, it’s pretty annoying when it happens.
Another major part of the game is map making. as you explore the area, the map on the bottom screen will fill in, and if you explore any given room in the area enough, all the rest of the smoke in front of the map clears away and the room is marked as “complete.” Something annoying is that just going down every path isn’t enough since the smoke is grid-based, so you kinda have to zig-zag along the paths in order to get enough smoke out of the way for the room to be considered complete. The whole point of this (aside from finding where to go next) is that you can sell maps to get money; the more parts of an area are explored, the more money you’ll be given for selling the map, which the game stresses heavily. What the game doesn’t tell you is that, once you sell the map, you’ll see other friendly NPCs around said area, most of which simply comment on the scenery, but some will offer to let you rest and heal your party (meaning you don’t have to go all the way back to the inn), so there is a good reason to sell a map early.
When you start the game, you’re thrown right into the first enemy area for you to explore and fight monsters. After the battle tutorial, it seemed like every enemy encounter left my party with just a little bit of HP left, so I went to open the menu to see if I could maybe use the medicine box outside of battle, but none of the face buttons did anything. Okay, what about the Start button?
Nope, that button takes a screenshot. Neat, but I want the menu. Maybe the Select button?
Nope, that button ALSO TAKES A SCREENSHOT. Turns out that, until you beat the first boss, the game won’t let you pause! This might just be the most baffling decision I’ve seen in any game ever. What option in the pause menu would break the introduction? Why not just disable that option instead of the whole pause menu? And on another note, why do both Start and Select need to be used for taking screenshots? Why not just have one button be the screenshot button and have the other one be used for skipping cut-scenes or something?
As for why combat is so demanding, it turns out that your party heals to max HP after every battle (not that you’d know that at first, what with you not being able to pause the game, which would’ve saved me a lot of running back to the NPC that lets you rest). However, if a character dies, said character loses a percentage of max HP until you rest at the inn in town (said reduction is represented by a red number with normal damage represented in white). This means you can’t just breeze through everything like in Final Fantasy XIII-2; if you die too often, you won’t have enough max HP to continue and will have to go back to the inn (or speak to an NPC offering rest if you’re in an area whose map you’ve sold).
One of the first things an NPC tells you is to run away from as many battles as you can. At first, I was like “no wonder reviewers thought this game was grindy; that’s terrible advice!” but as I progressed, it seemed like certain moves only awaken if you fight a few battles in later areas rather than it being your standard RPG level-up fare. In fact, aside from potentially increasing experience for your moves, it’s pretty common for enemy encounters to leave you with nothing to show for them (especially near the beginning):
With that said, I do recommend intentionally fighting the enemies you come across until you get good at defeating them, then start running away when they’re no longer a challenge. Of course, if battles are getting to be too much, you could always heal at the inn, then run away from battles until you get back to the part of the area you haven’t finished exploring in order to finish your map.
Okay, so I’ve brought up quite a few issues, but I did also mention something about liking parts of this game? Yeah, this game actually addresses a major complaint I have with a bunch of other turn-based RPGs by making the combat actually require some strategy, even from the beginning. There are quite a few places where you can be wiped out with relative ease, but with the possible exception of optional bosses, there’s always a way to overcome it and win. Is there a common enemy that has a multi-attack spell that can devastate your party? Focus all your attacks on that one enemy to kill it before it can use the move. What if there’s a bunch of enemies with powerful moves? Activate an elemental contract and use a shield spell. If an area or boss seems too hard to deal with at the moment, go explore another area and come back later. Even the semi-final boss, which actually had me stop playing for awhile, ended up being quite feasible when I realized “wait, why don’t I just do this?” and the final boss fell not too long afterward.
Unfortunately, even this has its issues, because part of the reason the game seems so difficult at first is that the game has a bad habit of not telling you stuff. Not only is there the fact that you can’t pause at the beginning (among some other things I mentioned earlier), but it also extends to the combat. That shadow enemy that’s slightly larger than all the other shadow enemies and doesn’t chase you? Turns out you can’t run away from that battle, and you won’t know that until after you enter the battle. That enemy I mentioned that has the powerful multi-attack spell? You’re not gonna know that it has that move (or even that the move exists) until after it kills your entire full-HP party in a single move, making you lose all progress you’ve made since your last save.
Note: this is only the third area; you have less than 200 max HP at this point. That’s how I learned you should quick-save often (at least once per room): you never know when the game will screw you over with something you didn’t expect.
This even extends to things like basic progression. As you explore, you’ll come across stone structures labeled with a “check” icon (to differentiate them from sparkles). Sometimes, examining them will make them glow (and sometimes activate something that either lets you progress or makes it easier to progress), while other times, examining them simply tells you that they stand motionless. After getting to a point where I couldn’t figure out how to get 100% of a room explored, I looked it up, and it turns out that some structures only activate if you have the corresponding elemental shard, rather than being a binary thing. It’s not even like the structures are color coded to their element before being examined.
But okay, even if that part doesn’t seem that obtuse, the game explains nothing about how the elements work. If you look at the description for the elemental shards, it just says “forms a contract with X element.” Um, okay, but what does that do?? The descriptions for spell shards are similarly copy/pasted (something that would be much easier to show if screenshots included the bottom screen); instead, you have to rely solely on the spell’s name for information. While it isn’t too hard to figure out that “recover” is a healing move and “water shield” is a defensive move, it’s far less obvious to distinguish attack moves from buffs and debuffs since they have similar names; the only way to know is to equip it and try it out in a battle. Furthermore, elemental contracts have effects outside of letting you use the corresponding elemental spells, and even though these effects become a crucial part of not dying later in the game, of course, the game never even hints to any of this. If you have a water contract, you heal a percent of your max HP each turn, and if you have a wind contract, you regain more SP each turn, with their effectiveness corresponding to said elements’ percentage in the atmosphere (shown on a dial on the bottom screen). Something else the game never points out is that using the item to form an elemental contract will slightly increase the percentage of said element in the atmosphere, and certain elements have bonus effects on top of increasing the effectiveness of their spells. For example, if wind has the majority, all physical attack damage (on both sides) is cut in half. If the shadow element has a majority, all spells (including your own healing spells) have their effectiveness increased. As for the fire element, that does…honestly, it could do nothing for all I know; I tried forming a contract and giving it the majority, but nothing seemed to change. If ever there was a game that made a good case for keeping instruction manuals around, it’s this one.
Speaking of the elements, even if you awaken a spell, you can’t use it if you don’t have anything from its corresponding element equipped, and since water is the first elemental shard you get, it’s best just to keep using water spells since the other elemental spells don’t seem to have any particular advantages.
However, the worst example of this has to do with the first area: after you beat the first boss, you’re sent into town (and can finally pause) and are given access to another area to explore. If you go back to the first area and finish exploring all three rooms, you’ll notice that the map still only has a three star rating when you go to sell it (a fully-explored map has 5 stars). This is despite the fact that there isn’t anything with a “check” icon or any arrows on the map indicating a new path. Well, it turns out that, for this one map only, if you go back to where the boss was and hug the wall, an “examine” prompt will appear in the corner, and examining it will spawn another path leading to two more rooms, one of which has a key item you need to progress. In every other instance, a path between rooms is indicated by an arrow the moment you explore that spot (including if the map is considered 100% complete even if you haven’t actually stepped foot on the path with the arrow), no examining required.
I would like to point out something else I like about the game: there are no revival-specific moves, so normal healing moves will work even if the target party member is dead. In other words, if you’re about to heal someone, and the target of your healing gets killed before the healer’s turn, the move will still heal (and, by extension, revive) said character, unlike other RPGs where the move fails and you end up wasting that resource.
Although, with all that said, I think the part I disliked the most about the game is how it handles status effects. Obviously, things like poison, stunning, and confusion aren’t exclusive to this game, and like with all status effects in all RPGs, they have a percent chance to fail and inevitably get used against you (though I don’t know how many of them you get to use against the enemy, if any). Confusion is especially bad because if your attacking party member gets confused and the attack is redirected at another party member, said member more than likely gets killed in a single hit, forcing you to run away from the battle and being sent back to the start of the area in the process. What makes this game worse than others in this regard is that you don’t really have a way to counter certain effects. There’s an equip-able item that prevents sleep, but aside from maybe being able to use the spell that cures all statuses on the next turn, there isn’t anything you can do. Maybe you could go to the only store in the game and see if an item that prevents confusion is sold, but even if such an item exists, the items in the store are randomized. Don’t forget that battles in this game are strict to the point where if anything goes wrong, you don’t have much chance to recover (even being stunned for one turn in the early-game can be enough to throw off your plans), so adding randomly-successful status effects that certain enemies can randomly use at any point in the battle just means you can randomly get screwed over with no way to prevent it, mainly regarding confusion.
Oh, speaking of randomness, there’s a small chance that one room in the area you’re in can be covered in darkness; not only does this prevent you from finishing your map if it’s still unfinished, but it also spawns a late game enemy that can chase you, and since you’ll likely be under-leveled for that particular fight due to the fact that this can happen at any point in the game, you just have to run away and rest at the inn so that the darkness goes away.
Overall, this is a hard game to recommend. If you’re like I was and you want an RPG that has challenging combat, this might be one of the closest games to reach that ideal; just know what you’re getting yourself into. If you can forgive game-play faults for a good story/atmosphere/whatever, I don’t think this would be a very good choice due to the aforementioned lack of story development (but then again, I’ve never been a very good judge in that regard).
P.S. To add insult to injury, not only do the different formation possibilities have to be set up before battle (even though there are only three and have no benefit being mismatched to other moves), but renaming the formations is also made more annoying than necessary. Not only are you unable to use the stylus for quick-typing due to the keyboard being on the top screen,
but common shortcuts like “back = delete” and “letter = forward” aren’t present, so if you want to use a different name, you have to navigate to the letter with the D-pad, input the letter, then manually move the cursor to the next space, then navigate to the next letter and input it, etc.
P.P.S. Bosses in this game, especially in the late game, have too much hp. Even though turns last less than a minute, it can take nearly an hour to chip away at their health with your most powerful moves and your strongest weapons equipped. Who knows, maybe there’s something else the game never explained to me.