Though Idea Factory learned from Cross Edge's mistakes, Trinity Universe shows they still have some lessons to learn.
However, if you dig deeper down into the dark underground of the hobby you're bound to run into the most despised and vilified group of all.
The gamers who enjoy games like Trinity Universe.
While Final Fantasy 13 may enjoy high sales numbers and Mass Effect 2 may be called the greatest RPG of the current generation, these brave individuals fight through scorn and contempt in their quest to find their next fix. In a world where the JRPG is all but dead and anime-inspired character designs are looked upon as both antiquated and somewhat embarrassing to the rest of the genre, it's these men and women who stand tall against the unrelenting wave of western modernization that continually splashes against the hobby.
While companies like Nippon Ichi Software (Disgaea series), Atlus (Shin Megami Tensei), Namco-Bandai (Tales series) and X-Seed (Everything else) help keep these overly-japanified games coming to the states, there has been one company that even most of these old school JRPG fans can't seem to stomach...
and that is Idea Factory.
To say Idea Factory is beloved by JRPG'ers would be like saying the previous U.S. president was well-liked. While there are many who enjoy Idea Factory's games, there are considerably more who view them unfavorably. Whether it was the hideous localization of 2008's "Chaos Wars" or the downright sloppy and nearly unplayable mess of a game called "Cross Edge" that they released a year later there isn't much they can put on their resume without it making even the most forgiving RPG'er burst out in laughter.
It's probably why Compile Heart, a division of Idea Factory, is more known for its "oppai mouse pads" rather than its "deep, complex RPGs".
As one such JRPG fan I walked into Trinity Universe expecting the worst. I had horrible memories of pink dragons and endless grinding in Cross Edge as well as a fair amount of Chaos Wars dialog clogging up my ear canal as I took the game up to the checkout counter. I felt horrible for caving in and buying it since I was utterly convinced that the game would be every bit as unplayable and tedious as the rest of Idea Factory's JRPGs. Yet the beautiful art and the promise of hearing Sandy Fox reprise her role as Flonne helped me override my common sense and I bought it anyway.
Surprisingly, I didn't regret it.
Trinity Universe isn't a bad game. As much as I was convinced otherwise I have to admit that the game is actually quite fun. While it's certainly not up to par with what Atlus gives us or the kind of JRPGs that Nippon Ichi makes by themselves, it is still a worthy addition to any JRPG fan's collection.
While it's easy to find deficiencies in Trinity Universe's gameplay and design choices, a lot of these are not done out of laziness but because gamers like me enjoy seeing them. Where some people may see Dreamcast-era graphics with very little animation or detail I see a "Tribute" to the RPGs of the previous generation and feel a profound sense of nostalgia whenever I look upon my character's unemotional faces. Where some people see disappointingly small single-level dungeons I see a game that focuses on quick pick-up-and-play gameplay rather than tedious slogs through unnecessarily deep mazes.
Trinity Universe is a relic from the past, and in many ways that is its best strength. Like Skies of Arcadia or the Grandia series, Trinity Universe focuses on colorful graphics and simple yet addictive gameplay to keep retro-JRPG fans happy at a time when western games like Mass Effect and Fallout rule the genre. While it's not the type of game that will sell millions or make huge waves in the industry, it *is* the type of game that those who still play their SNES will enjoy.
The combat in Trinity Universe, like many of its features, seems ripped right out of the old school JRPG handbook. Bearing a very strong resemblance to the first Legend of Legaia game for the original Playstation, Trinity Universe's battle system has you combining a long string of attacks using the triangle, circle and square buttons in order to defeat your enemies. Also borrowed from Legaia is the system of unlocking special moves when entering certain patterns into the command list in the correct order, which will reward you with more damage and a better chance at winning a trophy for a long hit chain.
Trinity Universe's Combat is addicting, easy, and very effortless...Which is a far cry from the needlessly complex and convoluted positioning-dependent battle system that was used in Cross Edge.
Another joyfully archaic addition to the game is, as I mentioned earlier, its retro graphics. Though I'm sure most people poked fun at the screenshots on the back of the game's box, I couldn't help smile whenever I imagined how much they look like they crawled out of my Sega Dreamcast. Maybe it's just me but the character designs are disturbingly similar to Grandia 2 and have the same color and style that I remember from the old Game Arts games. This could be due to some of the Grandia developers having joined Gust software to work on their Atelier games several years ago or it could just be me grasping for straws. Either way, anyone who enjoys that classic look from the early part of the previous decade will find much to like in Trinity Universe. The characters are bright, vibrant and even use the "Active Animation System" that Agarest Senki Zero employed which gives the up close pictures of your characters a wider range of facial emotion then what we normally see from the NIS/Gust/Idea Factory game engines.
In what is a first for any Idea Factory developed game I've played, I can honestly say that its gameplay is by far its best attribute. With a heavy emphasis on loot collection, crafting and free-wheeling dungeon exploration, Trinity Universe can cause drop hungry, item obsessed Diablo-addicted gamers like me to easily lose track of time. I've at times only planned to play for an hour but have stretched it into three simply because a new dungeon "drifted" into the game world and seemed to demand that I plow it for raw materials.
Which brings me to another neat feature of the game: drifting dungeons.
The game's story basically revolves around one of the two characters (The Demon Dog King Kanata and the Valkyrie Rizeala, whom I played as) who find themselves rushing to remove the dangerous space debris that is inexorably drawn to the game's center world. Discovering that they can eject the matter back into space by destroying the gravity cores within them, these two equally maladjusted heroes have to find a way to clear the skies and prevent their world from being crushed by giant slippers or road cones. The most amusing part of this is that some of these drifting items contain dungeons, and these dungeons are where 90% of the game takes place.
Like a some kind of turn-based version of Diablo, you enter these dungeons and search out loot drops and hidden treasures all while avoiding random monsters and the occasional super random bosses (called "lurkers") that attack you out of nowhere. It's certainly not the most original of gameplay devices but it has a tendency to get very addictive if you're like me and grew up addicted to Nethack, Falcon's Eye or any of their dungeon crawling derivatives. What the game lacks in depth it more than makes up for in uncanny addictiveness.
Last but not least would be Trinity Universe's voice actors. I know much controversy surrounds NISA's voice over work and it ranges from very good (Disgaea 2/3) to downright abysmal (Cross Edge) and everywhere in between, but in my opinion I think they really hit the ball out of the park with their work in Trinity Universe. While the dialog is extremely sweet and sugary (Violet whispering "puni puni" and Mizuki trying to sing) it's actually everything I expect an NISA published game to be. Yes it's very corny, yes it's very sweet and yes it can be annoying to people that aren't used to it, but for me it was pure bliss. I could have done without Recit's southern drawl but the rest of the cast was pure gold. With Michelle Ruff doing Etna and Sandy Fox coming back as "Galaxy Witch" Flonne, it wouldn't have taken much to please me voice actor wise. Still, they managed to do so and wowed me with the huge 180 degree turn they made from the forgettable voice acting in Cross Edge.
As good as Sandy and Michelle are, I think Mela Lee walked away with the best performance. Having most recently played some bit parts in Fallout New Vegas you probably wouldn't expect this woman to come out and deliver such a convincing performance. I thought she really did well in capturing that fine line between ego and insecurity that bi-polar Rizelea seems to exhibit at every turn. Though it seems not too many fans agree with me, I'm sticking to my guns and calling her character the best acted of the bunch. Which says a lot, considering what a huge fan of Sandy Fox and Flonne I am.
By now you're undoubtedly wondering where the "...but" section of the review comes in. Well, wonder no longer.
Trinity Universe may be a fun retro romp through a metric ton of randomized dungeons but it isn't without its downsides.
Even if you find the low-fi, low production value graphics to be charming, there are still several hurdles to bypass in order for you to find enjoyment out of the game. Among the hardest of these to get past would be the immense amount of palette swapping done during the game. At best there are probably only a dozen or so monster models in the entire game and they are endlessly palette-swapped until they all blend together in one nauseating blur. Even the ultra-hard "lurker" bosses that reside in each dungeon are just palette-swapped versions of normal monsters you encounter elsewhere. Almost every boss in the game is just a slightly different color than the normal enemies you fight on your way to reaching him. It takes a lot of the thrill from finally reaching a boss and did leave me with a sour taste in my mouth upon finishing the game. Nothing screams "lazy" more than palette-swapping, especially when you realize that the game was PS3 exclusive and had full permission to use the entire space of a Blu-Ray disc to store information. Why Idea Factory didn't use it to create a larger pool of monster models to fight I simply have no idea.
Another shortcoming for this otherwise fun and light-hearted JRPG would be the repetitive music. While I enjoyed the opening theme the first time I heard it playing, it didn't take long until I dreaded its arrival in my speakers the way old married couples do their in-laws. It plays non-stop throughout the entire game and never once eases up on you. Couple that with the very small selection of music played during your dungeon trips and I can't say I'd blame anyone for turning their sound off. I'm no audiophile but a good soundtrack can make or break a game...and Trinity Universe has brought me as close to the edge of insanity as a game soundtrack has ever taken me. Though I enjoyed the tracks, I didn't enjoy hearing them repeated endlessly for 50 hours.
Which brings me to my final gripe, the long hours of grinding you have to do.
Trinity Universe makes two very big mistakes when it comes to the way experience and levels are handled. First of all, characters that are not currently in your four person active party do not gain experience. Secondly, all new characters you enlist join your party at ridiculously low levels. This combines to create scenarios where you have to spend in upwards of 5 to 10 hours just getting a new party member to a point where they won't die in one hit. While this sort of thing was expected back in the 80s it's one of the few features my retro-loving self never again wants to return to. It unnaturally stretches your play time out and makes the game feel more like a chore. If I wanted to spend 75% of the game power-leveling I could just go out and play an MMO, I don't have to get it in a console RPG.
That being said, the good and the bad tend to cancel each other out and what you're left with is a decent if not slightly addicting classical JRPG. With a charming cast, a craft-heavy loot system, tons of random dungeons and a pleasing retro-feel to it, Trinity Universe is the kind of game that NISA fans and Disgaea diehards will find very little seriously wrong with. It's a solid JRPG that while repetitive at times still manages to easily eat away at your free time and perhaps your sanity as well.
The best compliment I can give Trinity Universe is that it seems Idea Factory (And its subsidiary Compile Heart) seem to be improving with each game. This title is nowhere near as frustrating or grind-heavy as Cross Edge and that alone is cause enough to celebrate. Perhaps this bodes well for the upcoming Hyperdimension Neptunia, which comes out in a few weeks from now.
If they are indeed improving with each game then I'm eager to see what Idea Factory has in store for the Playstation 3 later this year.