With the best combat system I've ever experienced, Tri-Ace has not only resurrected the JRPG, they've improved upon it.
...and it's this sad, depressing disconnect with gamers that has caused the modern JRPG to wither and die. While companies like Atlus and NIS obey their fans and do their best to please them, *other* companies openly admit to ignoring them. It's all about what *they* want and what *they* believe works. This has led to a sudden decline in the quality of the average JRPG and has caused all but the most hardcore fans amongst us to stop caring entirely. Racist stereotypes, weak females, effeminate men, horrible voice acting, bland gameplay and poorly planned combat systems have dragged this hobby down so far into the ground that it's nearly impossible to dig it out. Someone, somewhere needed to reverse this downward spiral...
And how poetic is it that the one game that finally restores my faith in the JRPG genre is brought out by Tri-Ace, that very same developer that suffered under the oppressive rule of Squar Enix.
Sadly, like some of the reviewers who have harshly criticized this game, I almost didn't find this out. My first few hours of the game were spent throwing my controller and cursing. I could not, for the life of me, understand the combat system. After a couple dozen embarrassing defeats against the game's first boss (Tar Man), I packed the game back up and planned to trade it in. This was an odd act for me, since I never under any circumstances trade a game in. My anger at the game and my lack of understanding combined to create a whirling torrent of rage that can be seen in the many cracks on my wall from the point at which my PS3 controller nearly made it through the plaster. After all, it had to be the game's fault that I was dying, right? I had beaten Temple of elemental Evil in Ironman mode, went through wizardry 8 twice on the hardest setting, cake-walked through the PC version of Dragon Age and was the guy everyone went to when they needed to make a powerful D&D character build. How could I be at fault?
Then, thanks to a good friend of mine harshly ridiculing me for being unable to beat the boss when nearly everyone else was doing it blind-folded, I violently rammed the disc back into my PS3 and swore I'd sit there until I destroy that boss or die from starvation...whichever came first.
After about five tries, I figured out how to beat him.
Three hours later I finished chapter three.
Two days later I pulled off my 100th "Smackdown" attack in combat.
A day after that I reached my 100th "Bonus Shot" attack.
A week later I was level 55 and on chapter 9, getting roughly 80-100 chips per battle and pulling off 400-500 hit combos like it was as effortless as falling off a log.
It's funny when I think back to how much I hated the game's combat system, since I now firmly believe it is the best of any RPG, Asian *or* western. This includes even the old D&D games I was raised on and my favorite game of last year, Dragon Age.
You could pass Resonance of Fate off as one of those "Let's capture the American market" kind of JRPGs that simply trades in swords for guns and throws magic out the window entirely, but doing so would be an insult to what Tri-Ace has accomplished. In short, what they have done is nothing less than a miracle. Combining the pseudo real time style of movement and attacking seen in Valkyrie Profile 2 with a mind-bogglingly complex system of range/shielding/positioning rules they've managed to make the fights in the game so engaging and addictive that it is, by far, the most enjoyable combat system ever put into an RPG.
Every enemy has various pieces of armor attached to themselves that you need to "Destroy" before your attacks can actually do any damage to them. While you can find ways to circumvent that, you'll often find yourself forced to peel off an adversary's defenses in order to kill them. Many enemies will swivel and turn their armored plates to face you, making your attacks about as effective as throwing a Nerf dart at them. What's so insanely clever about this system is that there are several viable ways to get around this problem.
This is where the "Hero Attack" system comes into play. With these moves you plot a course to run along inside the battlefield and during the entire time you are making this mad dash through the enemy's ranks you can attack as many times against as many targets as you wish. Although you are limited in how many you can do during the game's first few chapters, destroying a piece of the enemy's armor or killing them outright while in this mode replenishes one "point" (Or Bezel, to use the game's terminology) towards your stock of hero actions.
Hero attacks bear a striking resemblance to the old Hong Kong Action movies of the 1980s and look like they came from the fevered imaginations of a John Woo fan boy. This isn't to say that are silly, but actually quite the opposite. They are utterly brilliant and breath taking. The jumps, slides, turn-arounds, mid-air twirls and slow motion acrobatic impossibilities that your characters pull off in combat are simply icing on the cake. The longer you allow your weapon to charge, the more grandiose and flat-out impossible looking your gunplay will appear on screen. Like Fallout 3's slow motion be-headings and the "Kill moves" in Dragon Age, I simply never get tired of seeing Leanne Stop mid gait, turn around, twirl her body, slap in a cartridge and twist her arm around to make a blindside handgun shot to an enemy. It's breath taking every time I see it and always gets a perverse smile out of me. Even 50 hours into the game, I never get tired of seeing these crazy animations.
Combat is, to put it in one word, brilliant. The fast paced "enemies don't move unless you move" rule it abides by helps keep it quick but also allows it to become a thinking man's combat system. Resonance of Fate has found that illusive middle-ground where both real time and turn-based converge to form a system that is slow when you want it to be, yet fast when you need it to be. As a matter of fact, if you're like me, you'll be so skilled with the game that by chapter 5 or 6 you'll be instinctively queuing up hero actions and weaving through enemy bodies so effortlessly that you'll never stop to think about what you're doing until a hundred or so gold and silver chips litter the ground and your last selected hero's victory pose fills up the screen.
One of the greatest combat moments I had within the game was in chapter 8, I believe, when I was given a "Bonus fight" challenge that involved killing three level 73 "Mad Goliaths". These metal monsters were too high to leap over, too wide to run around, and would deal both scratch and direct continuous damage with their wide-range poison shell attack. I tried many times to beat them, but the best I could do was kill two before my late level 40s party ran out of Bezels and were stomped into the ground.
After much strategizing, I found a way to defeat them. First, I stretched the terminal effects from the previous floor down to the current one, this would lower the chance of status ailments making the poison effect a non-issue. Then I crafted toxic padding that absorbed 30% of all poison damage. Finally, I equipped one of my characters with Armor Piercing rounds and gave it another try. To my surprise, this planning worked and I wiped them out in one round. This is how a combat system is done.
Since I consider myself a combat-a-holic when it comes to my RPGs, I could easily spend the entire review discussing the battle system and never once mention the rest of the game's features. While amusing to me, it wouldn't make for a very thorough review. So rather than drool over the intricate battle system, I'm going to talk about another facet of the game that bucks recent trends and injects a healthy dose of integrity into the modern JRPG.
The voice acting.
Tri-Ace's next generation efforts have been a bit weak in terms of voice acting and character expression. Anyone who played Star Ocean 4 knows what I mean when I say that the game's tender moments were handled very awkwardly. You can see shades of that in Resonance of Fate as well, especially during the scene involving Cardinal Barbarella and the oldest of the three main characters, Vashyron. Her bouncing chest and his incredibly infantile gyrations would, if we saw this sort of thing done by the same localization team that did Tri-Ace's games under the Square Enix banner, have us covering our faces and shaking our head. Instead, Nolan North's hilariously well timed dialog saves the moment and turns it into one of the funniest scenes I've ever witnessed in an RPG.
Whoever localized the game obviously took it very seriously, because the other two characters Zephyr and Leanne are voiced by Scott "Lloyd Irving" Menville and Jessica DiCicco respectively. Though I've never heard of Jessica DiCicco before this (Apparently she's done a lot of minor characters in several games over the past decade) she does an incredible job selling Leanne as an the typical innocent but courageous young girl. Menville, as usual, works his character expertly. He seems to enjoy playing the brooding teenager role (Robin from Teen Titans as well as Symphonia's Lloyd), so this isn't exactly a stretch for him. Still, all three help Resonance of Fate rise above the typical "silliness" that these games always bring over with them from Japan.
One thing that really drives this fact home is the inter-party bantering that goes on. During missions, before the start of each fight in a dungeon, your characters will make snide remarks to each other about their current quest. Some are funny, some sad, some are hilarious and many times borderline perverted. All of them, however, are delivered expertly by three supremely talented and well taught voice actors. I cannot stress enough how great of a job they have truly done on this game's English localization.
As good as the voice acting is, I'm sorry to have to say that the story which holds it together isn't as strong as I'd like it to be. For the first six chapters you are mostly in the dark about what is happening or why, and all of your missions are done for rude, elitist rich snobs who make you do their grunt work. In chapter seven you get the past of one of your main characters revealed to you, but only in small bits. The story, though deep, is delivered in tiny little bits between chapters that are given to you with very little explanation or back story, which results in a muddled narrative for the first half of the game. Eventually, things start to come together but if it wasn't for the earth-shatteringly awesome combat engine and the professional level voice acting I'd probably have shelved the game by then.
Which is a shame, since the game world is actually quite original in its design and situation.
Basel, the tower in which the main characters live, is actually a four thousand year old device created by the current inhabitant's ancestors that constructed it in a failed effort to purify and reinvigorate the rotting uninhabitable land below. With thousands of years of lost records and lost faith, the tower and its people became separated by class and social standing, resulting in an upper half populated by the rich and powerful and every level beneath being filled with violent crime and urban decay. Your three main characters scratch out a living by doing odd jobs for the local Hunter's Guild, though most of these missions are done either for or on behalf of the upper class whose inbreeding has caused most of them to become completely insane. Your quests for these "Cardinals" reflects this insanity, and even the main character Vashyron acknowledges this by continually making mention of the fact that he just does it for the money and will never "question his betters".
During the story you'll run up and down the tower of Basel, cutting a pathway through the streets and thoroughfares in search of treasure, random fights and quest goals...but it's the end of each chapter that actually furthers the story along. While it's a new approach to JRPGs that takes a while to get used to, I ending up liking the fact that I could stay in a "chapter" and do optional side quests before continuing with the plot. It didn't rush me or force me to go forward like so many other games. If I wanted to explore a dungeon that wasn't part of my quest or go farm some materials from an enemy to modify my guns, I was allowed to do so.
Which leads me to the final and perhaps greatest part of the game. The guns.
Since there is no magic and swords are virtually worthless (Though a few guards use them) in this post-apocalyptic steam punk world, Resonance of Fate requires that you buy, maintain and modify your firearms to stay competitive against the ever increasing hordes of nasties that you'll be encountering. Collecting materials from treasure you find on the map or junk left over from battle can be fused to form scopes, sights, extended clips, specialized bullets or additional gun barrels that can be slotted into your weapons. Scopes increase charge speed, magazines increase your bullet count, longer barrels raise the rapid fire rate and grips prevent the bullets from spreading away from the target. It's a simple, but logical system that at times had me going from the item scrapper to the item combining merchant for an hour until I had everything I wanted. Though it may sound tedious, I found it addicting. There's something magical about taking a normal gun with a charge speed of 25 and then modifying it until you get that number up to 103. Especially when, once you're in combat, you can build up about 30 charges in 5 seconds. It's such an exploitable system that levels are made mostly worthless by the halfway point and you are basically relying on newly unlocked gun parts to help you outclass your enemies.
Though I'll admit the story is extremely slow to start, The remaining portion of this game is utterly breath taking and brilliant in every way. The witty banter delivered by skilled voice actors, the refreshingly new combat system, the battle music that changes in tempo according to your actions and condition, the take-no-prisoners difficulty...this is what those of us who angrily left the JRPG hobby have been waiting for since Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. An RPG that is truly original and hardcore. A Japanese Role Playing game that doesn't insult our intelligence by dumbing itself down or worse yet, bore us to death with saccharine sweet story lines and bland "blink-and-you-miss-it" combat.
As good as it is, Resonance of Fate isn't the type of JRPG that your average player will enjoy. It's a game meant for the hardcore types that left the genre and have been waiting for something fresh, original, and daring enough to shake up the hobby. The combat, which is all of these things, fits that requirement perfectly.
In a year full of RPGs both Asian and Western (Mass Effect 2, Divinity 2, White Knight Chronicles, Final Fantasy 13, Arc Rise Fantasia, Trinity Universe, Fallout New Vegas, Alpha Protocol etc.) I'm beginning to think I've already played this year's best. I've bought several games this past month and most of them are RPGs...unfortunately, Resonance of Fate's combat is so amazing that these RPGs, which shall remain nameless, now feel very empty to me when compared to this game. Resonance of Fate is one of those rare RPGs that I can't really think of anything bad or annoying about it. With little things like being able to suspend play then resume at any point in the story and having the ability to pay money to replay a battle you lost, you have to dig really deep to find a gap in this game's thick armor. While it does possess a very steep learning curve, it also doesn't hold anything back either. Unlike other games that gradually trickle your powers down to you at a slow and laborious rate, Resonance of Fate gives you every ability and attack you'll need right from the very first fight. Granted, even after viewing the tutorials you probably won't have it all down, but eventually you'll cross that bridge and learn to love it as so many others have.
Then, at that very moment, you'll probably wonder why it took so long to finally get this genre right.