I really enjoyed this game and enthusiastically recommend it to anyone who likes JRPGs and VNs. It has some issues– mostly in the story and plotting departments– as well as some unexpected positive attributes that leave me with a lot I want to talk about.
First of all, genre. A lot of the time, lately, I’ve been seeing JRPGs advertised as RPG/VN hybrids, which has unequivocally just been the dev’s way of excusing their lack of actual engaging gameplay. Riviera, though, actually is a VN/JRPG. I’d honestly say it’s more accurately a VN with a battle system, as the entire game is navigated via text options, and the focus when you’re out and about isn’t dungeon-crawling, but party interaction.
There’s actually no point at which you can freely control the character– each map has a series of text-based interaction points you use to either move from one screen to the next or inspect your surroundings.
You toggle in between “move” and “inspect” commands using the A button. In dungeons, you only have a set amount of “Trigger Points” you can use to inspect rooms, which you earn from battles and area completion.
Each inspection point has a cost, and not all of them are beneficial. Some of them injure you, some of them straight-up do nothing, but some trigger extra story events and give you weapons and items. The struggle for more TP is real. It’s tough at the beginning when you’re kind of figuring things out to have enough to fully look at everything, but by the end I’d gotten the hang of it and almost always had what I needed to be thorough. I suspect this was planned, and it gives the game replay value.
Inspecting a TP point will always trigger a cutscene, and almost always a set of choices. These choices affect everything, from your relationships with your party members to how you progress through the dungeon to your stats.
The system takes a little bit of getting used to, but once it clicks it makes sense, and the result it that dungeon areas aren’t really about battles or even loot, but about interaction with your surroundings and learning more about your party members. Most battles can even be avoided with the right suite of decisions, though you do want to do as many as are feasible to keep your TP levels up and max out your skills/stats. The whole gameplay experience is incredibly unique and I really loved it.
The battle system is interesting, too. So all weapons except one are limited use, and you can find more weapon-items strewn around dungeons. Each character has certain weapons they can use, and some are better than others. For each use of a weapon, you get a point, and when you max out the points you have on that weapon, you get a finishing attack with it and a stat boost that’s akin to a level-up. There’s no traditional levelling system; you just use as many weapons as many times as you can. There’s a “training” mode you can do to grind without depleting weapon uses, though you don’t get TP from it, so you never have to worry about there not being enough battles to max a weapon.
As you go you find/are given better and better weapons that you continually max out to keep improving your character’s fighting ability. I thought it was a really interesting idea and enjoyed it a lot.
I also really liked the art. It had a kind of sketch-y, hand-drawn style that felt very organic to me and I quite enjoyed. Also worth noting it how great the costuming was:
Everything has a kind of magical-girl feeling to it, and it’s remarkably, impressively unsexualized. In fact, even the female baddies are surprisingly unsexualized. A usually-unfortunate character class like a succubus is drawn with small breasts, no twisted anatomy, and in a pensive battle pose:
The other thing about the art is that it’s very androgynous.
One of these is a woman and one is a man, but you’d be hard-pressed to tell which. I actually got them confused a lot after the second was introduced.
In fact, the art in general was so completely equal and I was so shocked at how egalitarian it was that I had to know why. The answer is both obvious and surprising: the character artist, Tobe Sunaho, is a woman. I honestly wonder how she happened into the job; this wasn’t exactly a doujin release, and we know just how friendly the industry is to women. However she got there, though, it’s a beautiful demonstration of how just putting a female artist in a design position changes the portrayal of characters. Also, everyone should support everything this woman does. She did the design for two of the sequels to this game, among other things, and I can’t wait to see what it looks like.
There’s some evidence that the dev team here may very well have just been really forward-thinking, though, because on a related note, this game is full of women. Important women, powerful women, NPC women, old women, girl children, they’re everywhere. The cast tilts female. In fact, your party members are four women and one dude, and I’m thrilled to say it’s not a creepy harem thing, it’s just how it works out and no one so much as mentions it. There’s even this thing at the end where one of the bad guys who’s a man absorbs another, more-powerful one who’s a woman, and the resulting character is female! And no one cares! It’s crazy. Also, the most powerful character in the universe is female, which is amazing.
On a not-a-harem-game note, the girls were wonderful. I really loved the characters in this game. Ein, the male protag, was a sweetheart, the girls all had varied personalities, and I really loved how the endings– which depend on who you have the best relationship with– weren’t romantic. I decided I liked Serene, and her ending is basically that her and Ein deal with the post-story residual baddies by spending a decade kicking ass and taking names. It has nothing explicitly to do with romance, and I kind of loved that.
The one character I did not get at all was Rose. On top of finding her incredibly annoying, I just didn’t understand the point of her as a character. If you remove her from the story you lose absolutely nothing, and this is related to the plotting problems this game had, because who the hell even was she? Like, okay, she’s Ein’s “familiar” but what does that mean, practically? Who is she to Ein? To the other angels? The girls obviously don’t know (and never find out) who/what she is, so what’s her purpose on a cosmic scale? Why didn’t she seem to care at all about Ein betraying the other angels? What was her investment in the plot? The world? And then the whole bonus ending where she animorphs into a person was just really weird.
That brings us to the plot of the game, which was just a complete mess. The micro-plots and interpersonal interactions were good enough to really carry the game — save Riviera, save the girls, okay, got it– but the large-scale plot was just nonsense and there was basically zero worldbuilding. Farla would have had an apoplexy.
I think the biggest issue was actually that the writers had all this lore they’d come up with and they couldn’t find a way to clearly and concisely work it into the game. They attempt to give you a rundown in the opening cinematic, but it’s already buckling under its own weight, using terms it hasn’t defined, and covering too much material in too short a time to make any sense. Without that basis, we can’t possibly know what the situation is in the rest of the plot. We don’t know what the stakes are, who’s being saved or protected, and why. Fuck, I still don’t really understand what Grim Angels are, and Ein’s whole motivation is that he is one.
Basically the higher-up in the universal hierarchy you go, the murkier everyone’s motivations, purpose, and position become, so it’s just not possible to care about the plot, even if you really want to. I was invested in the well- being of Riviera itself because I cared about the people there, but I didn’t know what it was, how it was effected by the events of the prologue, why it was being attacked, or what my immediate goals would do to prevent that attack. The discrete motivations were obvious enough, but as soon as you ask about how the world functions there are no answers. What is a Diviner? Why do you have to give up something to get one? Who qualifies for one? What are angels? Are they good or evil? What are demons? Where did they come from? What’s the mortal plain? Is this all the same world? No of these questions have clear answers in the game.
As a result, the game doesn’t quite seem to know what it wants to say. The plot, as it is, is that Asgard– heaven, presumably– has decided to nuke Riviera from orbit, but Ein decides to stop them when he meets the people there and sees how good they are. But who in Asgard is making these decisions, and why? How mutable are they? Who are Hector’s superiors, and is he acting against them or for them? There’s this point near the ending where it looks like you’ve failed and Riviera is going to blow up anyway, and Rose shouts something along the lines of, “Do we really have any control over our fates? Is this all Asgard’s will or not?” and… well, is it? You can’t introduce a question like that out of the blue at the end and then just forget about it. If this was the story of mortals pushing up against fate as decreed by the gods, that needed to matter more than a throwaway line.
Somehow, though, at the same time, the little interactions are enough to carry the game. I wanted to save Riviera because I, like Ein, liked the people there. The rest of the stuff didn’t really matter (though it should have) because I was invested enough in just seeing them living, and the journey was fun. But the plot was a complete and utter mess.
A couple more things:
First of all, if you do play this, the intro level is a long, nasty grind. The bad kind. There’s no way around it, the characters lampshade it, and you’ve just got to push through. The tutorial is way, way, way too long and somehow still manages to not explain the more complex mechanics while elaborate on the obvious ones. Mercifully the rest of the game isn’t hand-holdy, but god is the intro a nightmare.
Additionally, this game came out in 2002, and as with most games from this era, the voice acting is uniformly awful and hammy and screechy and just unpleasant. You all chide me for not playing with the sound on enough so I tried, but man it sucked. You had the option to swap to the Japanese voices (which, incidentally, why don’t more games have this option?), but it only helped so much. It was really obnoxious, super early-PSX-jRPG stuff.
So! Overall, I really got a lot of enjoyment out of this. As luck would have it, the sequel, Yggdra Union, came up on my gameswap site a few days ago, and I’m excited to get into it, even if it’s more a tactical RPG than a VN like this one was. (I also, a while ago, managed to get my hands on the other two games in the series.) It’s a really interesting game that’s heavily flawed on the worldbuilding and lagrer-story fronts but has great characters, lots of women, nice art, and a fun, unique gameplay. Check it out!