This is a heavily flawed jRPG with an oddly unlikable supporting cast and absolutely abysmal, nonsensical ending that I still somehow got some enjoyment out of. I honestly think anyone who just generally likes the genre will get some forgettable fun out of it if they have nothing else to play because the world is interesting and the battles are fun and require thought without being punishing, but it’s certainly not going to convert anyone.
Anyway, let’s talk about the long list of issues this game had.
Well, first, the game itself. More than anything, this game is a travelogue, and I actually think it manages to make the text-heavy format work. The only time I felt it really dragged was during the school sequence, which was pretty… bad. But overall, I played the game for 57 hours according to Steam, and for the vast majority of them I felt the pace worked. The world was so full of flavor text that there’s always stuff to explore, and there’s tons of sidequests and fun achievements to go after. Why play an RPG if not for the non-story content, but I did think the pacing of the story quests themselves was well-done, and despite being text-heavy was interspersed with enough activity to work.
The game is set in a kind of steampunk fantasyland that wasn’t anything too special, but was designed well and has some nice visuals. The general setting is that the current society is built on the ruins of a hyperadvanced ancient one, and although they have no idea how the old society worked or what brought it to its sudden end, they piggyback on the technology, which runs on special minerals called Quartz. Quartz has energizing properties, and when harnessed correctly different kinds of Quartz can be used to give people access to elemental powers.
So that’s the general setting.
The battle system was interesting, if not a bit difficult to figure out. It was actually pretty similar to Chrono Cross, where the characters didn’t have their own magic attacks, but instead you have Quartz that you can equip in whatever combination you want and the combinations result in elemental attacks. I liked it overall, but it was a bit tough to figure out exactly what attacks you would get with what combinations. There was some weird counter on the screen I never divined the purpose of. I liked the idea, and the battles worked well, but the specifics of it needed to be refined.
Let’s talk about female characters.
This game was first released in 2004, and considering that it does remarkably well. The cast is very well-balanced, though it probably tilts male, but almost all of the important characters are female. The female characters are mechanics, melee fighters, etc., and the costuming is generally really good, fitting the character and the situation.
That’s the protagonist, Estelle, next to the male secondary protagonist, Joshua (Joshua’s design is unremarkable, except that he hits so many bishie-look tropes that coupled with Estelle, I wonder if this game wasn’t originally targeted at women). I like Estelle’s design a lot. I like the bike shorts, which are practical, and the lightness of her outfit doesn’t bother me since none of the characters, male or female, wear armor or anything. I like that she’s drawn muscularly, with almost masculine proportions, and that the focus in the image on her arms — which makes sense for a pole user — and not her boobs or waist. Her shoes are practical flats and I think the pose reflects her fun-loving-yet-battle-ready personality. (Unfortunately, as I was looking for this picture, I found that the sequels fall into a more generic design for her, which is really, really disappointing, and I wonder if it happened on the heels of the game being successful and Big Marketing wanting it to have more “appeal.”)
Estelle was really likable overall, and I think the game really nailed how to do a female character who was still coming of age and finding her footing without making her incapable, reliant on male charcaters, or How Do You Emotions. I also thought she nailed the whole “boisterous girl” stereotype without falling too far into anime cliche, and so much of her plot arc was her learning that she was already strong and capable and finding confidence of her own accord.
I was also a huge fan of Kloe, Maybelle, and Schera, and was really glad to see the game went out of its way to ensure each major plot role had at least one female representative, though as I said they tended to default to male (I wish there had been more female footsoldiers, for instance). The game was also generally really excellent about female friendship. There were some female characters who didn’t like each other, but there were enough who were totally cool that it was able to be about the characters themselves and not about all women being competitors.
So overall things look really good. Something… interesting happens, though. While the game is totally willing to put women in any role, it simultaneously engages in negative stereotypes… which doesn’t make sense. For instance, despite the fact that we meet a ton of female bracers (bracers being the equivalent of like police, I guess? Somewhere between mercenaries and cops), and one of the most famous bracers is a woman, Estelle constantly gets the, “A woman, a bracer? LOL!” thing, even though it makes no sense in the setting. This happens over and over, with sex-based stereotyping showing up despite the fact that the world, as far as I can tell, is incredibly egalitarian. It’s like the creators could imagine women being capable, but didn’t understand how the rest of a society would change if women weren’t marginalized. Sure, women can be excellent fighters, but the idea of the “women are weak” stereotype not existing in a world where it’s empirically wrong doesn’t seem to occur to them. The weird recurring thing of making fun of Joshua for wearing dress costumes is another thing. In a world where, seemingly, there’s no stigma on being female, why would there still be one on a male playing a female role in a play?
The whole effect is very bizarre, as though the NPCs you meet are completely unaware of how their own world functions. For me more than anything else it was immersion-breaking, in addition to incredibly frustrating.
While we’re talking about characters, the game had some… just really, really weird characters. I wouldn’t call it an ensemble cast, but I was happy to see that even side characters got a lot of development. However… a lot of the characters are really, really unlikable. To the point that a recurring gag for multiple characters was how much everyone hated them.
The game seemed to think this was highly amusing, and I can’t understand why. If every time a character come onscreen the protagonists groan, why would they not realize that is going to translate to the player? And so many of the characters were unlikable, not just to me but to Estelle and Joshua. Olivier, Dorothy, that Duke guy… the game seems to have been purposefully stocked with assholes and obnoxious idiots, and I have no idea why. It’s easier to list characters I liked than those I didn’t (for the record: Schera, Tita, Kloe, Maybelle, Estelle… that’s it).
Joshua was particularly annoying, not because anything was wrong with him, but he was so damn bland. His two modes were “inoffensive with no personality” and “purposefully mysterious just to try to fake out the player,” and neither of those things are endearing (I’ll get to his ending in a little).
There was enough time spent with the few good characters that overall it wasn’t as big a deal as it would have been with a smaller cast, but the whole thing was weird and there were times you had to be around really awful characters for long stretches.
And the shitty, shoehorned-in romance! So the story is that Estelle’s father brings Joshua home when the two of them are about ten years old. The game takes place six or seven years later. The two of them spend the entire game insisting to people that they are just siblings, but worse, they spend the game acting like siblings. Aside from the fact that they call the same man “Dad,” which is so damn creepy in a romance, dev, jsyk, they have absolutely no romantic chemistry and come off as really well-done siblings. The whole romance suddenly shows up at the very end, is integrated terribly, and makes no sense, which kind of makes me wonder if it wasn’t added in after the fact because Everything Must Have Romance. It wasn’t even bad enough to be annoying, it just was completely nonsensical.
You know who the real couple of this story was? Kloe and Estelle! The two of them had so much chemistry, and the constant hugs and handholding and how excited they always were to see each other was so cute. I ship them. I dare you not to ship them. They were wonderful.
The plot, overall, was interesting and kept me pretty engaged, though it wasn’t hugely shocking or original or anything. It was a little villain-of-the-week and the events, though connected, were a tad more discrete than they probably could have been, but that wasn’t a massive issue. Like the rest of the game, I suppose, it was just good enough to be interesting without really ever being more than mediocre.
The real problem was the game’s ending, which was batfuck insane.
The game was divided into chapters, and as the one called “last chapter” or whatever was winding down, I started to wonder how the game was going to tidy things up. The last dungeon was pretty good, though, and I thought after the final boss went down I was in the clear and things would wrap up.
Instead… the boss gets up somehow, and then a character who was literally been absent the entire game shows up and killsteals you, everyone acts like this is great, it turns out the guy you just killed wasn’t the real final boss, but we don’t find out who the real final boss was, but everyone acts like you won something anyway even though the person behind everything is clearly still at large, and then you find out that apparently Joshue McBoringbland is secretly a trained assassin — oh, also, this society has trained assassins and an infamous group of them that has literally never come up before — who murdered tons of people and then he drugs Estelle and leaves and somehow this means she has to leave to find him and all of this happens within literally the last half-hour of gameplay and it is just completely so beyond anything we’ve been led to expect at all.
Also, just as an extra kick in the ass, the ending notes that the first boss escaped and is once again at large, which is how the game started, so you end the game having accomplished like a sum total of nothing.
I mean, it was explicitly a sequel hook, but 1) the first game in a trilogy still has to have its own plot that comes to a conclusion in addition to an overarching one that carries into the other games and 2) IT WAS BATFUCK INSANE. The plot of the second game has to come naturally out of the first, you can’t just shove random shit into the ending on the first game to try to get people to want to play the second, it has to make sense! Nothing about this made sense. It was so out there.
It was so bad it completely overshadowed everything else about the game for me. For most of the time I was like, “Okay, this is super generic and flawed but I’m enjoying it,” but all I can associate the game with now is that insane ending.
At first I was going to check out the other games in the series, especially the later ones, because one would think that 11 years later the dev probably streamlined things a bit, but… nope. Not after the clusterfuck that was the ending here. There’s no saving a trilogy where the first game is plotted this badly, and going back in the continuity is not likely to improve things.
So… yeah. If you’re got literally nothing better to do and really love jRPGs, you probably will get mild enjoyment out of this? But it’s got such an awful ending. Such an awful, awful ending.