There's a problem with modern Japanese role-playing games. They're not modern at all. They're stuck in some 90's time warp, unable to break free from the conventions and designs that saw the genre dominate a decade ago. Put simply, western role-playing games, aka RPG shooters, the Mass Effects and the Fallout 3s, have moved things forward, and JRPGs are trailing in their wake.
tri-Ace, creator of the Star Ocean series (kind of like an anime Star Trek), is as guilty as any Japanese developer of failing to innovate. Last game Star Ocean: The Last Hope was a significant improvement on the instantly forgettable Infinite Undiscovery, but it still suffered from similar problems: clichéd storyline, teenage angst-ridden characters and endless, endless grind. Oh, and it had a silly, nonsensical title.
Don't misunderstand. We want to love JRPGs again. We want to feel the same feeling we had when we played Chrono Trigger for the first time, or Final Fantasy VII, or Vagrant Story, or Dragon Quest VIII. JRPGs will always have a well-made bed reserved in our hearts for whenever they decide to get their sh*t together.
It is with this hope that we stroll along London’s busy Regent Street to a tucked away West End club to see tri-Ace’s next game, Resonance of Fate, shown off for the first time by new publisher SEGA – this is the first tri-Ace game NOT published by Square-Enix. What we see is promising AND troubling, a game that’s designed to appeal to a western audience as well as an eastern one.
While the game retains fantasy and sci-fi elements, Resonance of Fate is steampunk through and through – “neither future nor past”, says localisation producer Jun Yoshino. The game is set on a gargantuan mechanical clock-like tower called Bazel. It was originally designed to purify the environment of poisonous layers of gas, but over time civilisation began to form around it, to the point where it’s become so integrated into the world that it essentially governs all things that live within it. The elite live in luxury at the top of the tower and the unfortunate rest live in squalor down at the bottom under threat of monsters (JRPG cliché alert).
We see a party of three – Zephyr, Reanbell, a female, and Vashyron, a tall bloke who acts as an older brother and leads the trio. They’re Hunters – like mercenaries – taking on dangerous missions given to them from the upper class. The main character is running about a ramshackle apartment – the camera is fixed, showing their HQ in good detail.
Outside the apartment the camera is again fixed, showing what looks like a rundown junk town that wouldn’t be out of place in Fallout 3’s post-apocalyptic Washington DC. The difference is the existence of cogs - more cogs and moving mechanical bits and bobs than you’d find up Big Ben. It’s here Resonance of Fate reveals itself – main missions, side missions, experience gain, items, loot. From the Abel City Guild Building, the first building you’ll encounter on your search for side missions, quests are picked up from a notice board. They tell you what NPC to get the mission from and what the mission details are. The NPC in question is just outside, and has an exclamation mark screaming above his head – walk up to him, talk, take on mission. So far so very JRPG.
But wait. Jun zooms out, we see the world map view, and Resonance of Fate all of a sudden surprises. The clock tower is in view – it’s split into different, interconnected layers. The very bottom level is an impressive sight in the distance – a huge sprawl of lights and huts. Where we are though, just one floor, is odd. A level plane stretches out from the tower, and it’s divided up into hexagons. Yes hexagons.
The idea is this: to move about the game world you need to first unlock grey hexagons you wish to explore. To do this you have to collect different “fragments” – these take the form of hexagons attached to each other in various shapes, an S-shape for example. You’re able to twist and turn the fragments to fit the desired area, but you’re only able to unlock areas that touch previously unlocked areas. It’s a bit like Tetris crossed with a barmy anime board game.
Normal white fragments are collected by killing bog standard enemies, but rarer, different coloured fragments will be required to unlock certain same-coloured hexagons. These are dropped by bosses or given to you after completing critical missions.