Wednesday, October 31, 2012

GOT 'IM - Rogue Galaxy

It's that time again!  I beat another game on my list and wrote another review.  This time it's the PS2 cult classic Rogue Galaxy. 

Rogue Galaxy is a game about a ragtag crew of space pirates searching for a legendary treasure.  Boom.  Sounds great.  Already sold on the concept.  To be more specific, the protagonist of Rogue Galaxy, Jaster Rogue, is accidentally picked up by pirates when they mistake him for a legendary treasure hunter, and soon Jaster is swept up in multiple galaxy-spanning conflicts, conspiracies, and legends.  And bonus - it's developed by Level-5 (Dragon Quest VIII, Professor Layton series).  Sounds pretty solid, right?  Right.  So let's talk about it. 

First, let's make a few distinctions as to what Rogue Galaxy is and isn't. Rogue Galaxy is not Mass Effect - from a visual perspective it's more weirdo steampunk heroes and less space marine (the pirate ship looks like a flying galleon with a forcefield and rocket boosters), and Rogue Galaxy is quite linear, with loot hunts and sidequests abound if you don't mind a little backtracking.  It reminded me much more of Skies of Arcadia or Final Fantasy XII than any western RPG - unfortunately, there are no spaceship segments, just six planets with specific objectives to accomplish on each.  

Rogue Galaxy takes this multi-planet treasure hunt and organizes itself into thirteen distinct chapters.  Twelve of these chapters each represent one medium-sized dungeon sequence and associated towns and plot events, while one mid-game chapter has you backtrack to three previously-visited planets for large, new dungeons (that chapter, chapter 8, was about quadruple the length of an average chapter).  Like Mass Effect 2 (but not 1), almost every non-commercial area in the game is organized into corridors, without the open-area exploration of the first Mass Effect or even Final Fantasy XII.

The environments themselves were deceptively weak, I feel.  Really, the only things to discover in each map are treasure chests and items related to specific sidequests (more on those later).  The variety of areas is nice indeed, with several types of ruins in addition to desert, jungle, forest, urban, seashore, and DARK FOREBODING FINAL CANYON areas.  There's a nice, helpful mini-map there for you, but ultimately Rogue Galaxy's different zones feel kind of manufactured and uninteresting.  It helps that there are fast-traveling, full-healing save points strewn out liberally in each dungeon.  It doesn't help that several of the dungeons are so long and drawn-out that I was about ready to yank my hair out at times during Chapter 8, Chapter 9, and Chapter 12. 

Rogue Galaxy is an action RPG.  You control a party of three characters, each of which possesses a main attack (usually melee), a secondary attack (usually ranged), and a myriad of skills that work like traditional RPG magic.  Performing any action drains from a character's stamina meter, which will require an action-free recharge period after it empties completely.  Any character can work out multiple combos, items, or spells from a single meter, although powerful spells usually drain the whole thing.

Rogue Galaxy's combat is a highlight. Balancing melee and ranged attacks with smart blocking is key, and random battles remain challenging enough to keep players on their toes through the endgame.  Certain character skills are adept at just WRECKING random battles (looking at you, Missile Squall); that and the abundance and ease of healing items make Rogue Galaxy random battles easy enough to not be of much concern eventually, even when the damage and defenses of certain enemies ramps up in the endgame. The random battles don't appear as organic, already-present enemies like Final Fantasy XII, but there is no cut-away arena; you fight them in-environment right as they appear.  It's a good way to do it, but I sort of liked FF XII's combat better. 

There 's additional variety in combat with Rogue Galaxy's cast of characters.  Jaster never leaves the party, which is fine because he's really strong in both melee and ranged attacks, but usually relies on teammates for damaging skills (eventually you learn multi-character skills that are even better than usual at sweeping the field of enemies).  Your other characters each feel a little different to control and your party composition can dramatically affect your combat performance at times.  This works very well if you control characters other than Jaster (not necessary, but fun on occasion), but ultimately isn't as important as learning the basic motions of gameplay - the AI for your allies is poor indeed, and your teammates do very little in terms of tactics or survival unless you control them manually - I would've killed for FF XII's gambits or Dragon Age's customizable AI.

So while the characters fit into different combat roles nicely, the character designs themselves are a mixed bag.  Jaster is a serviceable main character, but the main heroine is about as weakly-written as they come and a few characters have backstory motivations that are referred to twice in the entire game (hinted at upon joining, dealt with and resolved in Chapter 12).  From a story perspective, my favorite characters were the taciturn mercenary Zegram (probably my preferred character to control other than Jaster) and the helpful robot Steve (who is clearly See-Threepio combined with Astro Boy).  All of the characters have appealing base designs and artwork, but the cast isn't terribly deep or interesting in the long run.  I used all eight characters roughly equally, except Jaster (who can't leave your party) and Jupis (who sucks).

Rogue Galaxy isn't a loot RPG like Diablo or Torchlight, but holy hell does it have a lot of loot.  RG has big, colorful treasure chests that look different in each dungeon (a nice touch indeed) that got my carrot-on-a-stick instinct going, and loot ranges from healing items to dedicated skill items to factory components to weapons and armor that change a character's persistent appearance (a very cool, uncommon thing for an RPG of the PS2 era).  The loot hunt in Rogue Galaxy is kind of hilariously all-encompassing.  You find items for skills, items for healing, items for luring out bounties, items for building new items in the factory, and items for fusing weapons.  Lots of items.  But skill items?  Factory components?  Let's talk about Revelation Flow.

RG's skill system is a set of wacky flowcharts called Revelation Flow, which I'll just call RF from now on.  Each character has an RF, which has blocks representing each of their skills as well as a variety of passive effects (i.e. Fire Defense Up, Attack Up).  To unlock and activate a block on the RF, you need to place items on it.  You want to unlock Jaster's Supernova skill?  You need to unlock the space for it by learning Shooting Star, then place a Sealing Sunsphere, a Mirror Unit, a Diamond, and a Flame God's Stone in the Supernova block.  Then poof.  Jaster learns Supernova and unlocks the space for Supernova 2.  Now imagine that, but with maybe eight skills and ten passives for every character, with most of those blocks having multiple versions.  Each character has the Burning Strike skill (kind of a limit break that has you playing a rhythm minigame) and several of the passives are shared between characters, but each RF is different and allows you to invest only in your favorite characters if you prefer.

And factory items?  Well, near the end of Rogue Galaxy's first half, you get your own factory.  In a complicated factory-building minigame, you can build weapons and complex items by creating an assembly line out of factory components under the guidelines of specific blueprints.  You can get a lot of good equipment earlier than the game intends by using the factory, but it's complicated as hell and gave me uncomfortable flashbacks to the Dark Cloud series (which was also developed by Level-5, natch), which was too Minecraft-y for my own good.  You don't ever need to use the factory, but I guess it's nice to have there if you want it.

You can get strong weapons on your own without using the factory.  Each character has two weapon types (I mentioned this earlier), and can make stronger weapons by fusing two of the same type together.  You need to use a weapon for 12 battles in order to "season" it enough to be fused.  Weapons have a level (48 is the max), and if you mix two weapons together, they will NEVER result in a lower-level weapon.  If you want some level 48 crap, you can technically do it with 50-60 level 1 weapons, but I'd advise against that.  Higher level weapons will fuse into better ones, and with shops, chests, and some lucky fusions I got best-in-game stuff for every character except for Jaster and Kisala, who have special weapons that are stronger than their level 48 standards according to the internet (and I still got two of Jaster's Ten Awesome Optional Swords).  The weapons each look different and appear persistently equipped on characters outside of battle as I mentioned earlier, and it's totally dope.  I liked the weapon fusion.

Armor can't be fused and is quite rare in general.  One of my characters kept his starting armor for the entire game (and it was Simon, a character I liked to use!), but it's not a big deal.  By the endgame, characters will have defense values in the 300-point range, and the difference between starting armor and the best armor is around 10-12 points.  Really, armor changes are for esthetic reasons only, but they're still neat.  From my estimation, each character has five or six armor choices, but most of them are pretty well-hidden.

So I've been through story, characters, combat, environments, equipment, skills, and item creation, so what's left... oh!  Sidequests!  Rogue Galaxy has the most robust selection of optional content in any game I've played this year, with the possible exceptions of Red Dead Redemption and the Mass Effect games.  And those are a full generation newer than RG.  Rogue Galaxy has special objectives to increase your bounty hunter rank, an insect battling tournament, an optional sidequest planet with a sizable map to explore, a number of bounties you can hunt ("quarries" activated by specific items because everything about Rogue Galaxy has you looking for items).  On top of that, there are two special post-game dungeons that are terrifying in size and difficulty, but reward you with Jaster's best sword and some of the best equipment for your other characters.  I read about them, but didn't try them out.  There are others that I'm probably forgetting, but the insect battling alone can add a bunch of hours to gameplay and has some pretty good loot as rewards.  Rogue Galaxy is probably a 40-hour game for veterans (it took me right around 45 hours), but it can easily hit the 60-70 mark if you indulge in most of the sidequests. 

So Rogue Galaxy is a Japanese action RPG with good combat, great implementation of items and equipment, and a smorgasbord of optional content.  Its characters, cel-shaded visuals, and RPG soundtrack are appealing enough, but its environments and dungeon pacing make the game feel slow.  Rogue Galaxy has a cult following, and I totally understand where the cult is coming from.  It's a very good RPG with a lot of depth, but it's held back by its pace and the lack of any special, unique element to make it stand out.  I enjoyed my time with Rogue Galaxy, but if I were to replay any Level-5 game for fun right now, I'd rather it was Dragon Quest VIII. 

Games Beaten: 2012 Edition
1. Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins
2. Radiant Historia
3. Mass Effect
4. Mass Effect 2
5. Breath of Death VII: The Beginning (Hard mode)
6. Grandia II
7. On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness - Episode 2
8. Mass Effect 3
9. Journey
10. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
11. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP
12. Star Ocean: Second Evolution
13. Red Dead Redemption
14. Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3
15. Persona 3 FES
16. Final Fantasy XII
17. DeathSpank: Thongs of Virtue
18. Super Mario Galaxy
19. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
20. Fire Emblem: Fuuin no Tsurugi
21. Torchlight II
22. Rogue Galaxy

Targets: 8/12


Do I have a real shot at beating my four remaining targets in two months?  I'm starting to feel pessimistic about it.  Anyhow, I'm going to try Atelier Iris next and hope for the best. 

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