Fantasy RPGs are not often without moments of romance and heartbreak, but few such games released in North America are as sexually charged as Record of Agarest War. Even with a mighty war brewing between the forces of good and evil, there's apparently still plenty of time to peep some supple skin, woo comely maidens, and even make a few babies along the way. But don't expect to pick up this staggeringly lengthy title and find yourself constantly awash in a sea of sexiness. While that does indeed pop up at regular intervals, the real heart of this game is its deep turn-based combat system. For many players, the promise of a little sex appeal and a chance to dish out heaping piles of overkill damage will be enough to spur them toward the end, but uneven pacing, repetition and ample presentation issues present a barrier to enjoyment.
Record of Agarest War's grand 80-plus hour campaign spans five generations of heroes working to vanquish evil on the Lucrellian continent and beyond, which provides the story framework for an unusual but intriguing dating sim element. Throughout each of the game's drawn out chapters, certain decisions you make influence how potential female love interests feel about your hero. As their passions toward you increase, you eventually wind up marrying one of them at the end of the given chapter and produce a unique offspring who grows up to continue the family line as the hero in the next generation of the story. The whole thing kicks off with a young soldier named Leonhardt who rebels against his unjust leaders who've fallen pretty to an evil influence and sacrifices his fate to protect an elf girl. You continue the ongoing saga as the offspring of Leonhardt and whomever he ends up bedding by the end of the first chapter.
Broken up by occasional snippets of character dialogue and story sequence, the bulk of the action comes in the form of a seemingly endless string of strategic turn-based battles that play out on an isometric map grid much like many other popular entries in the genre. Though there are towns to visit that afford a handful of options for improving your characters and acquiring important goods, the world map is a long snaking path dotted with battle after battle to trudge through while working your way from one story event destination to the next. As standard as these encounters initially appear, strategic combat in Record of Agarest War does go a bit deeper than the average turn-based strategy game.
Combatants on the battlefield can take action when it's their turn, and each round your party members receive ability points that can be spent on queuing up attacks and special abilities. How you choose to layout your band of adventurers on the map is crucial, since positioning adversaries in special highlighted squares links them to their comrades. This lets you chain attacks between any number of connected characters, allowing them to attack out of turn, double team opponents, and hit enemies that are otherwise well out of their reach. Your foes can do this too, which leads to frustration and all-out cursing when four enemies gang up to instantly kill your favorite hero at the start of battle. But it's enjoyable when the system works in your favor, since the game makes it possible to deal insane amounts of damage and rewards you with extra experience, gold, and skill points for dishing out overkills.
Queuing up attacks in certain combinations unlocks recipes for higher powered combos, and in certain situations you can string those together to unleash absurdly destructive super attacks that annihilate opponents in a satisfying display of power. Folks who get their kicks by blowing up the entire screen will particularly enjoy uncovering and fiddling with the game's more over-the-top special abilities. Working to power up your party members to crush adversaries in these ongoing battles has a strong enough pull to make plowing through hundreds of such encounters mostly worthwhile. Weapons, armor, and items can be beefed up with points you've earned, new equipment can be forged in towns, and there's even a monster capturing element that lets you use creatures you've trained in battle that eventually becomes available.
The gameplay is strong but grows repetitive over time, particularly when the battles drag on and you regularly wind up fighting through sequences of several very similar combat encounters in a row. This is further impacted by the weak presentation. A general lack of animated cutscenes is disappointing, and story interactions--both sexed-up and otherwise--play out with static portraits, text boxes, and Japanese-only voice work. Character and monster sprites are nicely detailed, though they look fuzzy and seem better suited for a handheld game than a full-blown console release. Also, the battlefield maps are completely flat and drab in design. There's no 3D terrain to work with tactically and no visual elements to break up the emptiness of the landscape. Scenery settings do change up eventually, but you'll slog through numerous battles repeatedly fighting many of the same monsters on the exact same handful of bland backdrops for long stretches at a time.
We also encountered some occasional visual glitches, which were unique to the PS3 version. On the over world map screen, dots depicting battle locations frequently flickered when moving from one spot to another. At one point the entire world map actually flipped upside down while the heads-up display and menu elements remained upright. This was only temporary, as it returned to normal after entering and exiting a battle. Add this to an already sluggish pacing and you wind up with a game that's far more taxing on your patience than it is thrilling. A lengthy game packed with exciting moments to keep you glued to the controller is one thing, but there are numerous times in this adventure where progress moves exceedingly slow--to the point where it feels arbitrarily lengthened without any extra payoff for the hard labor.
Record of Agarest War's relationship building and courtship element is enjoyable and a surprisingly good addition to the formula. However, the occasionally suggestive and sexually charged side of this component is awkwardly implemented and often seems out of place from the larger story unfolding. For example, at one point in the midst of war a gaggle of female party members all saunter off to the local hot springs to lather each other up, chatter about boy toys, and compare breast sizes. Meanwhile, a few of the male characters practice their pervy peeping toms skills. Other static scenes show an abundance of overflowing cleavage, skimpy outfits, and even a female character struggling to scarf down massive hunks of sausage in a suggestive manner. Considering the seriousness of the plot, these moments of naughtiness come across as nothing more than tacked-on depravity.
The adventure could have been a lot more thrilling if the level of attention given to honing the combat had also been afforded to the presentation and map design. The mix of fantasy turn-based strategy and RPG dating simulation is an intriguing combination, though a little less sexiness in favor of more substance to expand on the relationship system would be a welcome improvement. Still, you'll get many hours of gameplay for your money here. Just be prepared to spend a portion of your time fighting off boredom in between the more exciting stretches.