Easy Game Station might not be a household name, but the Japanese indie developer scored a hit last year with a unique fusion of simulation and role-playing in Recettear. Hot on the heels of that game's success comes Chantelise. One of the development team's earlier efforts, Chantelise offers a more traditional style of action/role-playing gameplay than Recettear and is reminiscent of games released almost a decade ago. Regardless, despite a few hiccups here and there, Chantelise manages to challenge and entertain with its own distinct brand of charm.
Chantelise tells the story of two sisters who have been placed under a mysterious curse by a witch. The eldest of the pair, Chante, has been transformed from a human into a tiny fairy. Chante's younger sister, Elise, must help her find a way to lift the curse and return home, and with the aid of the townsfolk in a local village, they get a few leads on what to do. But such stories are never quite as straightforward as they seem, and the siblings soon find themselves embroiled in a much larger quest to stop the ebb of creeping evil forces across the land.
The game is styled in a classic action RPG vein. Elise is a capable swordfighter who can do simple but effective slashing combos, as well as jump from place to place and perform a swift, life-saving dodge/close-in maneuver. Chante acts as a flying, advice-dispensing fairy companion, but she frequently engages in combat as well, performing powerful spells by using colorful magic gems found on the field and dropped by foes. The controls and core combat mechanics are easy to pick up, and after the initial combat tutorial, Chante and Elise sling swords and spells like pros.
It's a good thing the controls are easy to master, because Chantelise's cute exterior belies a challenging game. The sisters must explore several dungeons throughout the course of the adventure, each with a big, nasty boss at the end. The dungeons are separated into several sections, each of which contains enemies, obstacles, and a hidden treasure chest that generally holds an expensive artifact or high-quality gear. In fact, one of the most fun elements is searching for the hidden treasures in each section. While some chests are fairly easy to find with a bit of investigative camera rotation, others won't appear until you perform a specific action or solve a puzzle. If you need help finding a chest in a certain area, the priest at the village church can give you a hint in exchange for a fraction of Elise's maximum health.
But health is an extremely valuable commodity, because combat can be a challenge. Getting through dungeons involves eliminating large mobs of enemies to open doors to new areas. While many of the more brain-dead foes are easy enough to take out, there are trickier monsters with nasty attacks. Some monsters can only be defeated in certain ways, such as using magic or attacking them from behind, so both Elise's sword skill and Chante's magic powers need to be invoked frequently and skillfully to properly put down foes. You also can't stockpile healing items--instant-use restorative items are quite rare and can only be found on defeated enemies--so any health you lose can be difficult to recover if you aren't lucky. Bosses are particularly tough, with damaging attacks and gimmicks that require some quick thinking and dodging to overcome.
While the game is tough, it's far from brutal. Even after you're defeated in a dungeon, you return to town with all the money and loot you've earned, making it easier to buy better equipment. Gear is vital in Chantelise because Elise doesn't level up like in a typical RPG--most of her stat boosts are gained from equipment and the purchase of maximum-HP-boosting medicine. Since gear slots are limited, you sometimes have to make temporary sacrifices to one stat to boost another--for example, removing attack-boosting gloves to equip a talisman that increases magic defense when fighting a powerful spellcasting foe. Once you get the hang of this strategy, the game becomes easier. You can also easily get back on your feet in a dungeon after a loss; though you have to restart from the entrance, all doors you have unlocked remain open, allowing you to rush past enemies to get back to where you were. You also have the option to do a practice run in any area you have been to (even if you haven't finished it), and you get to keep all the money and loot you find there, though you won't advance the story any. Unfortunately, many of these game mechanics aren't well explained, leaving you to discover them for yourself, assuming you don't get frustrated and give up at the first (of likely many) game-overs. The constant revisiting of certain areas and the fairly limited variety of attacks can also make things feel like a repetitive grind.
Chantelise isn't a particularly attractive game, either. The game's 2006 vintage and low development budget are evident in the simplistic visuals, which layer 2D characters over 3D backgrounds. While the in-game portrait and character sprite art is attractive, backgrounds and enemies often look crudely rendered, with low-poly models and muddy textures. The background music is similarly uneven: some tunes sound fantastic, while others are overly loud and obnoxious. On the plus side, Chantelise doesn't have sky-high system requirements, so it's easy to run it on a less-powerful PC.
Despite its dated presentation, Chantelise is a game with a great deal of charm. The localization by North American publisher Carpe Fulgur is a superb effort, with funny dialogue bits and clever quips that make the game's cast more interesting and memorable than the genre's typical sullen teenage heroes. The story is sweet, and the relationship dynamics and conversations between Chante and Elise are consistently entertaining. There are some aggravating issues, such as the lack of proper explanation for its numerous gameplay eccentricities, but Chantelise manages to overcome many of its flaws thanks to a blend of enjoyable characters, a tough but fair challenge, and fun loot-hoarding, treasure-hunting action. You're likely to encounter some moments of frustration as you play, but it's hard to stay angry at these two sweet sisters for very long.