If you think the PlayStation 2 is finished now that its hulking successor is on the market, you'd better think again. With over 100 million units sold worldwide, Sony is understandably still throwing its weight behind the ubiquitous system with games like God of War 2, coming in 2007. Stalwart PS2 owners also have at least one more epic role-playing game to look forward to in Level 5's Rogue Galaxy, which was recently pushed to an early-2007 release. Eager RPG fans are likely still sinking their teeth into Final Fantasy XII for the time being, and when they hear about all the changes and improvements being made to the US release of Rogue Galaxy, they probably won't mind waiting a few extra months anyway.
But let's back up and detail what the game is all about. You'll take the role of Jaster Rogue, a 17-year-old orphan who was raised by a kindly priest on the backwater desert planet of Rosa. After a series of calamitous events involving a gigantic dragonfly-like monster, Jaster is whisked away to a life of adventure by Simon and Steve, respectively a squat, tough-talking alien and an effete, British-accented android. That might sound a little too Star Wars for you, but there are a few twists thrown into the mix. For one thing, just before meeting this dynamic duo, Jaster encounters a mysterious warrior who gifts him with an epically powerful sword. Steve and Simon subsequently use this apparently legendary sword to identify Jaster as the Desert Claw, a famous monster hunter. So Jaster joins the pair's ragtag crew of space pirates under false pretenses, which we're pretty sure will lead to some sticky situations down the road.
Fans of previous Level 5 masterpieces like Dark Cloud 2 and Dragon Quest VIII will likely find themselves feeling right at home when jumping into Rogue Galaxy. For one thing, the game simply looks a lot like those other games, with its mix of artfully designed, cel-shaded characters and detailed background environments. The game's combat feels like a Level 5 trademark, too, what with its interesting mix of traditional turn-based RPG trappings and action-oriented attack structure. There's also a healthy dose of item-based character customization through the "Revelation Flow" system.
You'll encounter enemies in the same environments that you explore and interact with NPCs in; the camera doesn't cut away, but rather the enemies simply fade in when a battle begins. At first, Rogue Galaxy seems like an action RPG, since you can jump, swing your melee weapon in combo attacks, and even use a long-range sidearm like a pistol all in real time. But all of your combat moves will deplete your action meter by a small amount, and when it's emptied you'll have to wait for it to refill before you can start attacking again. In this way, the game's combat feels a little as if it uses a turn-based real-time system (as oxymoronic as that sounds). You'll control only one character at a time out of a party of three, but your other two characters seem to do a good job of taking care of themselves. Our favorite thing about the artificial intelligence companions is that rather than wasting all your healing items, they'll actually ask permission before performing a heal move, and you only have to hit a shoulder button to confirm the action they want to take.
The Revelation Flow system reminds us a little bit of Final Fantasy X's Sphere Grid. Each character has a unique grid of squares laid out somewhat like a board game, and a particular item must be inserted into each square to open up surrounding squares. When you unlock certain squares, you'll get a new special attack, a buff to one of your stats, and so forth. Some abilities require multiple items to unlock, so the more powerful abilities will likely take a good amount of work to acquire, but at least you can choose which path you take through your grid to tailor your character's advancement to your taste. On the upside, each battle you complete usually yields a pile of random items, so it won't be long before you can start plugging the right ones into your grid and start unlocking new powers.
Rogue Galaxy has actually been out in Japan since December of 2005, when it received a respectable score of 36 out of 40 from Famitsu. But that hasn't stopped Level 5 and Sony from spending the last year improving on and adding to the game, to make it closer to what the team originally envisioned. (In fact, so many changes were made that Sony actually sent over a page-long list of what's new.) A new, fifth planet will be available for you to visit, and while it's entirely optional, it'll impart some extra items and so forth for your party. The combat has been rebalanced and enhanced with new special moves and an improved interface, and the presentation has been spruced up with new outfits for the characters and more animations.
But wait, there's more! The original game's insectron tournament minigame, in which you collect and pit tiny combatants against each other, has been almost totally overhauled with new insects and a bunch of new features. As you'd expect, more weapons and monsters have been scattered throughout the gameworld as well. Finally, the game will now ship on a dual-layer DVD, effectively doubling its storage capacity over the Japanese release. This has allowed the team to include higher-quality versions of the numerous impressive video cutscenes, as well as a full English voice track (the quality of which has ranged from decent to very good, from what we've heard so far).
Spend a few minutes looking at Rogue Galaxy and you'll realize that even as a "last-generation" machine, the PlayStation 2 has a lot of life left in it. From what we've played so far, this is one of the nicer-looking games we've seen on the hardware. The cel-shaded characters animate in the typically expressive, exaggerated style you'd expect from a Level 5 game, and the game engine is even pulling off some impressive effects like high-dynamic-range lighting and so forth. Obviously, the PS2 can't stand up to the more powerful new consoles now on the market, but for a 6-year-old machine, it's doing a pretty impressive job of holding its own with games like this.
Rogue Galaxy has been impressing us so far with its variety of unique gameplay, good looks, and appreciable level of charm. Will it hold up to scrutiny once its presumably grandiose adventure is done? We'll have the final verdict on that when the game hits shelves early next year.