Review by nintendosega

Reviewed: 05/13/09 | Updated: 05/18/09

While it at times re-creates that feeling of playing games during the long-lost Dreamcast era, Rogue Galaxy's sadly sunk by its terrible gameplay.

One thing is apparent moments after booting up a new game of Rogue Galaxy; Level 5, who previously developed Dragon Quest VIII, clearly liked Skies of Arcadia. It was an RPG on the short-lived Dreamcast that was beyond epic, and though not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, it had a very fun sense of adventure and discovery that no RPG I’ve played since then has managed to top. The game centered on a group of pirates who lived in a world of floating islands in the sky. It wasn’t hard at all to figure out that Rogue Galaxy was shooting for the same feeling, but at the time of Rogue Galaxy’s release, I had been so disgusted by Final Fantasy 12 that I decided to greatly reduce the amount of Japanese RPG’s I’d play in the future. Rogue Galaxy didn’t make the cut.

Fast forward to now, 2009: I saw my friend’s copy of the game and decided to check it out. Predictably, it disappoints. What’s so sad about Rogue Galaxy is that it does such a great job of doing what it sets out to do in so many ways, yet falls victim to such terrible game design that it literally feels like this game was made by people who have never played any video games. Rogue Galaxy will charm you almost as often as it will make you want to throw the controller at the TV screen.

What Works

Visuals: First and foremost, visually Rogue Galaxy’s quite impressive. Done in a cel shaded-meets-anime style but with surprising attention to detail, the game carries with it a very unique look. The character designs are great and much of the game is brought to us with very minimal load times. There are many CG cutscenes throughout and done with help from Studio 4C, (makers of Tekkonkinkreet, one of my favorite animated films ever, and the Animatrix) they look dazzling and are very stylish. Cutscenes on the in-game engine are also very nice and there’s plenty of great facial expressions and varied camera movement.

Story Presentation: The game features plenty of cutscenes, and so while it ultimately and unfortunately feels like a CONSTANT dungeon, (much like Final Fantasy 12 did,) this time there’s at least plenty of character interaction to go around. The writing’s about average for the genre, though there are many fun touches to the translation. Voice acting’s almost all top-notch, with each actor bringing a very unique and charming performance to each character. They really tried; there’s an epic sense of fun and adventure in Rogue Galaxy that makes it always a treat to boot up. The story being told is not one trying to break any new ground, but refreshingly, it’s simply a matter of giving us time with a ragtag bunch of space pirates and robots as they have fun traveling throughout the galaxy in search of treasure, and it works.

The biggest problem I had with the storyline of Skies of Arcadia was that it introduced a fun Sky Pirate setup, only to then early on switch gears to a boring “Save the world” storyline. Rogue Galaxy sticks to its guns, leaving any “world-in-peril” scenario for the very end of the game, and it greatly earns my respect for that. There are also a couple solid twists in there, though nothing that will set the world on fire.

Gameplay: Rogue Galaxy centers around a basic “hack-and-slash” style combat system, where an ATB gauge fills up. Once the bar’s full, you’re free to attack the enemy with melee weapons or your laser guns, and while it’s charging you must be on the defensive. The computer AI controls the party members you aren’t controlling but you can switch to someone else at any time. The foundation’s certainly here for a fun combat system and you will have a lot of fun with it. People not in your “big 3” do level up with you, which is a good thing, so you can experiment with different characters at will. The ability system involves putting items and treasures in a grid to unlock new moves. It ends up working much better than I thought it would and makes learning new abilities and stat advances a simple and fun process. There are plenty of save points throughout, and you can teleport back to save points anywhere on the planet whenever you want, which is appreciated, especially when you run out of items. While the game itself should take most gamers in the 30-40 hour range, (perfect length,) there are tons and tons of sidequests here for those interested.

Music; Taking clear influence from the likes of Skies of Arcadia, Rogue Galaxy’s soundtrack sounds very much like Dreamcast-era music, back in 1999-2000 when we weren’t yet quite done with MIDI songs but orchestration was used as an enhancer. It adds a great level of charm and warmth to the game, and the music, (for example, in the Galaxy Corporation building,) was almost always a constant wave of nostalgia for me. Plus, it’s adventurous, it’s epic, and overall it hits all the right notes. Event tracks repeat a bit too frequently for my liking, but it’s usually good so no big problem there.

What Doesn’t Work

Storyline; Though I earlier expressed my relief that Level 5 decided to keep these characters as pirates searching for treasure instead of saving the world (for the most part,) the game does eventually switch it up. It happens in the last three chapters or so, and it’s in this part where things become nearly unbearable. Elements of plot become shockingly unoriginal and predictable. I often felt like I could predict the upcoming dialogue in several cutscenes. It’s also during this point that the game decides to throw countless “emotional” moments at you, and it becomes literally difficult to watch. In the first 2/3 of the game I found the emotional moments to be very well-handled and some pretty shocking, but at the end they go completely overboard with the melodrama. The game expects you to be moved to tears over characters that you haven’t known for more than 2 minutes, and it hammers these moments home with an overwrought musical score, long scenes of people crying, and scenes of people yelling names up to the sky in anguish. It’s painful. A couple emotional moments in the last 3rd of the game work, but the vast majority of them do not. And they come one after another. Rather than using subtle storytelling to reveal to us the characters’ pasts over the course of the game, we’re placed in a dungeon that literally makes us spend hours seeing one cutscene after another showing each characters’ past “anguish." Not only is it sappy, forced, and repetitive, but it brings to light the fact that these characters are extremely one-note, written simply to exist as an "emotion" in the collection.

Yup, though we get to see plenty of scenes of these characters interacting, there's no development to speak of. The good characters are all 100% good, the bad characters are almost all totally bad, and there’s no sort of middle ground. Much like Skies of Arcadia, these characters are just too wholesome and good-natured to be pirates, (Zegram aside,) and that’s too bad. Oddly, towards the end of the game, most characters are left out of cutscenes seemingly at the developers’ will, and it gets to a point where Jaster (the main character) and Kisala (the sort of love interest, I guess,) are the only ones appearing in cutscenes. Some characters spend almost the entire game simply standing in the background or out of cutscenes entirely. As I type this I honestly don’t remember the names of everyone in my party. Lilika leaves a small village on a fully-jungle planet and sees amazing technology and cities for the first time, all of which she’s never even imagined, yet she barely reacts. The game totally forgets about her. Jupis is totally annoying and unnecessary, and Kisala is probably one of the most under-utilized female lead characters I've seen in quite some time.

Gameplay: But overall, it’s a good cast of characters and a fun adventure. Yeah, it fumbles its emotional moments and plot in the last 1/3 of the game and never does much for its characters, but the game has a very fun spirit and great plot presentation, and this kept me hooked till the end. The problem is, the gameplay’s a total mess despite nice ideas presented, and Rogue Galaxy’s gameplay ends up being almost nothing but filler held together by a broken combat system.

The game gets off to an amazing start. Once our pirate ship first landed on the jungle planet of Juraika and I began to explore the beautiful scenery, I loved the game. “They’ve made Skies 2,” I thought to myself. Battles are random but feature no load times, and the combat system’s quick and fun. But then I kept walking. And walking. And walking. For hours and hours I wandered through this forest, going on fetch quests to enter a village, getting in countless battles, and hearing the same 2-minute song loop again and again. This is an unfortunate example of things to come. Rogue Galaxy contains a helpful radar that fills itself in as you explore new areas, so you always know where you’re going. So that’s not the problem. There are no tedious puzzles, so that’s not the problem either. The problem is that any time you are in an enemy-infested area like a path, or ruins, or even some towns, (yes, there are random battles in most towns in the game,) you’re forced to walk FOREVER until you reach your locations. The game’s a constant dungeon crawl. It becomes clear that Level 5 was so in love with their combat system that they feel like gamers want nothing more than to be stuck walking MILES AND MILES through a bland-looking factory for hours at a time in a game called Rogue Galaxy.

In a game that should be about exploring the stars and finding treasure throughout the vast galaxy, we find ourselves instead spending most of our time inside factories, prisons, ruins, labyrinth mazes, etc. Some of this is fun, mostly when outdoors. Unfortunately, a vast majority is not. These dungeons are large for no reason whatsoever, and their design is beyond lazy. You’ll literally spend hours wandering through an underground labyrinth at one point and it’ll only take you a few minutes to notice that you’re walking through the SAME.THREE.ROOMS. Over and over again. They just keep cycling. If I didn’t have that radar I’d have had no idea where to go, it’d feel like I was walking in circles. So yeah, we have a radar and we always know where we’re going, but we also know that they’re simply making us spend unnecessary hours for no reason in these lazily-designed dungeons. At one point there are two towers next to each other that you must reach the top of, and I spent some of the more tedious hours of my gaming history reaching the top of one, (traversing through the SAME-LOOKING-FLOORS again and again) only to fight a boss at the top and be told I must now climb the OTHER one. My reaction was to lose all respect I had for the game and it never completely came back after that.

What makes these dungeons even more frustrating is the sometimes INSANELY high random encounter rate. At times it feels like you can’t walk more than a couple steps before the “Warning” sign appears and enemies suddenly start surrounding you, sometimes in large numbers. At times, battles are fun. At other times, they're a PAINFUL experience. It all depends on which enemies Level 5 throws into a given dungeon. Sometimes enemies have the ability to literally jump into the air and land on everyone in your party, without warning, damaging them all beyond belief. Sometimes multiple enemies will do this every 2 seconds. Your two partner's AI seems incapable of understanding the concept of “blocking,” and as a result, they will get killed and damaged constantly. You’ll revive someone from KO (which fully restores their health) only to see them down to 1 HP in about 2 seconds. I really wish I were kidding.

There are, to my knowledge, no healing abilities in the game, and as a result you will have to stockpile items before every single dungeon. I’m talking 50 HP recovery items, 30 KO revivals, etc. etc. etc. And you WILL run out during the dungeons, presumably the reason you can warp close to an item shop in town from any save point. The game also limits the amount of each item that can be carried at once. The KO revival potions are capped at 30, which is the biggest problem. Save points are well-spaced in general but not always and it’s just not fun at all to be spending battles constantly recovering the HP of your brainless allies. The solution is to spam attack abilities, which does work, though, again, not always. Sometimes enemies will have shields that require you to blast them with a particular gun in order to do any damage. This means you must not only switch your subweapon to a different gun (and then back again afterwards if you don’t want to be stuck with an otherwise useless subweapon) but it requires you to attempt to pick out the shielded enemies in a group of 5, each doing damage to all your characters AT THE SAME TIME with cheap jumping moves, spins, or others that attack multiple targets at once. You know, things that none of my characters seem able to do. Some enemies will require a “charge” shot to remove their shields, which requires you to hold the attack button, freezing your character and leaving him or her totally vulnerable to attack. It’s a mess. A fun battle system for mindless, easy battles but when the developers attempt to “challenge” you, things go from fun to unbearable.

They attempt to spice things up by giving us other subweapons, like guns that make platforms appear on the boss that you must hop onto (an ordeal in and of itself,) ….these are made a big deal of by the game initially but then used a grand total of 3 times throughout. Same with the game making us get a gun that freezes a waterfall and is then only used once. It’s all gimmicky and unnecessary.

Verdict

And so despite its very retro feel and great visuals, atmosphere, voice acting, and fun characters and concept, Rogue Galaxy ends up falling into the trap that so many modern Japanese RPG’s continue to fall into. Ever since “action battle systems,” have become popular in this genre, developers of Japanese RPG’s have simply become too attached to the idea of combat. Back in the days of turn-based battle systems, dungeons were kept relatively short to get gamers to the next plot points quickly. Nowadays it’s all about giving us hours and hours of endless combat and I guess that’s what they think we want but it really isn’t. Level 5 simply feels that “bigger,” always means better and it doesn’t. Having towns that take over 20 minutes to cross isn’t a good thing if there are almost NO buildings to enter. They just feel like hallways. There was no point in making them that big, and that goes for the dungeons, paths, etc. as well. And I am seriously longing for the days when I got to just control my party in regular, turn-based combat. At least then when they died it was my fault and not the fault of some brain-dead AI. To top it off, the plot gets sappy and very lame towards the end (thankfully the ending’s mostly pretty cool,) there’s not much character development, and the battle system can be both fun and a nightmare simply depending on which dungeon you’re in. The game’s not a trainwreck and it’s one of the best “bad” RPG’s I’ve ever played. But please, Japanese RPG developers, we play JRPG’s mainly for story. Leave level grinding to your Western counterparts…at least in those games it’s mostly optional.

Rating: 6

Product Release: Rogue Galaxy (US, 01/30/07)

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