Review by Ashley Winchester

Reviewed: 12/10/05 | Updated: 01/27/06

A Pirate's Life

An Ocean of Stars, A Ship of Fools

Sometimes it’s reassuring to know that there is still hope with the videogame industry. In an era of big businesses eating up more and more of the market, gamers watch as ambitious programmers and talented techies dare to be independent and form their own production studio, only to lament over the inevitable shut down or corporate take over. It’s as if you can’t be successful with out a geometrical shape in your name, and if you are, a certain Eagerly Aggressive empire will arrive on scene. Despite all this, Japanese developer Level 5 stands as a monumental success, for in just a few short years it’s gone from an upstart developer to THE future of the RPG genre. Enix had the insight and aptitude to commission Level 5 for its ambitions Dragon Quest 8, the results of which defied any and all expectations and proved that even strict old-school requirements could still reek of polish and panache.

After their success with the House of Blue Slime’s franchise, people began to take better note of the company. Rogue Galaxy (RG) is all the more reason to keep an eye out: a true inter-galactic tour-de-force, that will please gaming fans of all shapes and sizes. Combining the best elements of the Dark Cloud/Chronicle series, as well as creative sparks in games ranging from Kingdom Hearts to .Hack to even Final Fantasy, Level 5 didn’t just enter the Action-RPG genre, they totally redefined it.

Planetary Passage

Although nay-sayers are quick to point out the “benefits” of cell-shading (namely it puts less stress on a console’s specs) when done properly, it'sa fantastic design choice that immediately grabs the consumer’s attention. Some studios opt employing this graphical decision as the sole vehicle for distinction from the myriad of other generic products, yet with Level 5 you get the impression that it’s just part of the package, that the game has so much going for it that its “Toon Rendering” is just icing on the cake, though is absolutely fattening-always evident of the best quality don’t you know.

Even so, graphical nutritionalists will claim that Level 5’s true accomplishment with Dragon Quest 8 was not in the visual style, but in the persistent world that exists, in the geography that the game’s most remarkable accomplishment was the act of truly creating a living world. If said game’s theme was the nuisances of nature, then Rogue Galaxy’s must be the realisation of reality: think back to some of your fondest memories of the PSOne, such as Square’s Final Fantasies 7-9. Now think of what it would be like if those games had been made today. Imagine what it would be like to experience the sights and sounds of Esthar, Terra, Midgar, or any other location in true 3-D; even Chrono Trigger’s Zeal Empire if you want. Through this game it’s possible to experience such a dream, and with brand new, unique locations no less. There seems little room for argument of the selection of products that inspired the looks and locals of this one, however going far beyond expectations.

RG’s massive quest spans not just one world, but an entire galaxy. After the humble-yet-daunting first hour of gameplay, main character Jester Rogue finds himself the newest member of an inter-galactic pirate ship, leaving his dry and arid homeland behind in favour of something greater-rest assured that he’ll see not just anything, but everything else the galaxy has to offer. When put into perspective, this is an amazing accomplishment: Namco’s Xenogsaga centers around a host of generic-looking areas yet claims to be a space-opera, and even Enix’s Star Ocean 3, which did offer multiple planets, suffered from the fact that 80% of the adventure took place on one locale. Level 5 keeps things fresh by limiting the time spent on each world, and making sure that each planet looks peculiar-in the best way possible. Without spoiling anything, rest assured in knowing RG will probably fulfilling the shattered dreams and expectations that now-jaded gamers have convinced themselves will never see fruition. And each planet is truly massive with tons of things to do and see. Not DQ8-massive mind you, but expansive enough that save spots double as warp points allowing for quick travel from region to region; it can take a good 10 minutes to walk from one end of a location to another.

Habitue's Horde

Although RG is an Action-RPG at heart, it’s soul consists of a variable omnibus of parts; it’s quite evident that the staff at Level 5 are big gamers themselves, and actively sought to take the best components out of all their favourite works and creative inspirations to make something wonderful. The end result is a game that is far more than your average hack-‘n-slash Action-RPG, it’s a production that competitors will take note of an inevitably seek to emulate themselves.

World Wanderers

Players traverse each of the game’s numerous planets with three members in their adventuring party-one player controlled, the other two governed by an AI. (The game allows you to select a battle strategy for the 2 AI members, more on that later). Exploration consists of walking around a diverse set of locations, where along the way, the heroes can chat with locals (sometimes obtaining helpful items and info), jump and climb on things, and at times solve some basic puzzles. At random intervals, you receive a “Warning” that monsters are about to materialise, and any and all NPCs disappear from the screen, replaced by said creatures-along with some breakable objects. All of this happens seamlessly, however because of a brand new game engine designed exclusively for use in this game. Now you’re n combat mode, which at its heart, entails hack-and-slash gameplay, but which in practice is far deeper. Dispatching of the opposition in any manner desired, a “Victory” screen pops up indicating spoils: experience and weapon skill points, gold, and items. With the press of a button you can then continue exploring, until another random battle occurs. Some times, however, a “Challenge” pops up wherein the game specifies a set condition to fulfill during the course of combat, success rewarding Hunter Points-more on that shortly.

During combat, a “Battle Log” runs across the left side of the screen indicating actions and notes. It’s quite handy for all those instances when the other two party members are off screen and doing their own thing, as it is fitting to have in the first place. It’s also worth mentioning that combat sometimes requires a bit of strategy. There is a breed of monsters that resemble giant flowers, for example, and unfortunately, their pedals are rock solid, preventing you damaging the creature inside. To this end, you or your party members must jump onto their tips, forcing the creatures out of hiding, and rendering them vulnerable to attack. Other monsters require a “charged attack” to damage their defense, accomplished by holding down the “Circle” button for a brief period of time. Still others have specific weak spots, failure to connect with translating to no damage.

Also interesting is that your weapons actually grow overtime, primarily in skill but also in elemental affinities. After maxing out a weapon’s overall handling skill level, your characters then proceed to earn parameter points with each battle, increasing their damage output with regards to specific enemy weaknesses. Say you’re facing a dungeon filled with mechanical robots-because of their inorganic properties; weapons with electric output will “shock” them into submission. It’s quite an impressive little detail, as for once a game actually encourages the long term use of weapons as opposed to tossing them the first second you can upgrade.

Striking Stamina

Unlike most button mashers that are nothing more than repetitive motion disabilities waiting to happen, Rogue Galaxy employs a stamina system. Essentially each PC has a set number of actions they can perform before getting tired out and having to wait a few seconds to regain their strength.
Alternatively, the gauge recharges immediately if you guard while in the process, and block an enemy attack. While recharging, you have the option to lift an enemy over your head (to throw it) so it’s still possible to perform some actions. After the gauge recharges, you can get right back into the fray.

While some gamers might view this feature as pointless, it does encourage some strategy. Too many products now adays are all about mindless action with no pacing or tension in the mix; by imposing a stamina gague, Level 5 manages to create something that does allow for wild button mashing, but also some minute “attack budgeting” in that your item and ability use is also dependant on Stamina. The only real problem is that you can’t recharge manually; rather, the game imposes a restriction that you may ONLY recharge when the bar totally depletes. This might not seem problematic to those reading, but let me assure you: it is. When you’re 1-2 bars away from depletion and your fellow party members are OK at the moment with their duties, it would be nice to quickly recharge and get back into the fray. It’s not a major problem really, but it would be nice if Level 5 could fix this before the foreign territory releases.

Ability Action

Instead of allowing the two AI-controller party members to run amuck in combat, Rogue Galaxy forces you to manually activate their learned abilities, yet it’s the most seamless process ever conceived. Any fan of the RPG genre can no doubt attest to either of the following annoyances:

1. The AI-controlled characters use all of their MP early on, forcing you to either run back and stay at an Inn/recharge point, or else risk dying in a more difficult fight later on. It’s horribly frustrating, because even when the game does allow you player-sponsored AI “suggestions”, the computer still overdoes things (using a final-tier spell against a pathetic Lv. 1 monster?!). This is more typical of Action-RPGs.

2. There is no AI whatsoever, and the game forces you to manually deal with menus in combat when all you want to do is play the game. This is where “button mashing” comes into play with traditional-RPGs especially.

So how then, can you have a “traditional” approach to the Action-RPG genre? It’s simple really: seamless menus. Whenever an AI-controlled PC wishes to use an ability, they simply ask you for permission. At such a time, a small window pops up near the bottom of the screen listing the desired action as well as the requirements (for example if it’s an item, the game lists how many you have stocked). To grant permission, you simply hit the “L1” or “L2” button depending on which you want (sometimes the PC gives you an option of 2) or hit L3 to end the selection without using an ability/item. Alternatively, you can simply wait for the “time limit” to expire thus closing the action window. Note however, that this feature is not the same as the rigid “pre-mapped” abilities that Namco’s “Tales of” games feature-the functions of the L1 and L2 button literally change in real time, depending on the situation; there is no mapping whatsoever.

Because of this simplistic yet fantastically innovative feature, never again will you experience fits of anger as the game automatically decides to use one of your rare healing items, or waste an exorbitant amount of MP on a trivial foe. It’s pure genius and it’s a wonder no one thought of it earlier. The only thing worth griping about the Ability process on the whole is that you’re forced to watch a short cut scene each with each use. While the game does allow the option to skip it half-way through, there is still the annoyance of having to watch it at all. It’s understandable that Level 5 wanted to highlight these skills as a special attack, but even so, it would be nice to have the option to skip the animations entirely (a welcome addition to the foreign release possibly?)

As a quick note on the Player Character’s functionality, you must manually select your character’s abilities or item usage from a menu screen; as mentioned above there is no mapping whatsoever, and the game does pause while fiddling or choosing. It’s also worth noting that your PC has an additional ability: the opportunity to perform a combo attack on a monster (initiated by two rapid presses of the “Circle” button). Somewhat reminiscent of Squall Leonheart initiating his Renzoukouken Limit Break, a guage appears on screen with a “hit zone” and a moving icon. Press “Circle” when the icon is inside the strike zone (or just before it) and viola, one hit. Repeat another 4, 7, 9 (etc) times until the mode completes and you’ve obliterated the foe. Different weapons have different scrolling speeds, and your proximity to other monsters while unleashing the multi-hit maul can sometimes mean area hits instead of just individual ones; all-in-all it’s not terribly new, but definitely a fresh little battle interruption and a MAJOR help with some of the difficult baddies out there.

Projectile Profusion

In addition to each PC having a standard weapon, they also have a sidearm (or boot in one character’ s case) which allows for long range attacking. Unlike the main weapon which has unlimited usage (so long as the character has stamina), the projectile option has a set number of uses before it must recharge. While it might seem silly given the trivial amount of damage they unleash at the game’s start, as you progress these weapons become more and more powerful, at times even more powerful than the main weapon if they specialize in a certain property (such as electricity and shocking enemies) and hence imposing the recharge delay prevents mass-exploitation. Fortunately the “reloading” period is rather brief, and you can still attack as normal while waiting.

It’s worth spending a bit of time to discuss Jester’s particular projectile weapons however: guns. Not because of their sheer prowess overall so much as the manner in which Level 5 actually incorporated them into the actual game itself. Throughout the adventure, our hero obtains a number of specialised guns which factor into some elementary problem solving. Early on, for example, he receives a “Platform Gun”, a projectile that spits out circular blue platforms on monster’s heads. This is a major component to victory in the first boss battle. Later on, he acquires a Freeze Gun, shortly after discovering a massive waterfall that would seem impossible to climb…but maybe a combination of these two guns will provide a means of ascent…? While the puzzle-solving use isn’t exactly a heavy component of the game, it’s nonetheless refreshing when a minor challenge comes along.

King Trode’s Treasure

Ah King Trode…that cursed little monster was so helpful with his Alchemy Pot, and even more so when he tinkered with it allowing you to combine 3 items at once, as opposed to the standard 2. The end result was, of course, fantastic equipment and supply that were otherwise impossible to find. And that Yangus…always arguing with him. Fans of Dragon Quest 8’s item creation system will revel in delight at the prospect of revisiting it once more. During the course of events, Jester and Company make acquantiances with a talking frog named Mazeru. This agreeable amphibian serves as a makeshift “alchemy pot” for your equipment: by feeding him any two weapons (provided their Skill Level is at maximum), he will devour them and spit out a brand new one. Throw in the ability to swap out one of the weapons with specialised items and the possibilities become even greater. Also like DQ8, you can find various recipes throughout the game that list some outstanding combinations-however it’s far more rewarding to experiment yourself since just about every mixture works.

Fantastic Factory

Those upset at the alchemic prospect’s limitation to weapons exclusively need not fret. A few months ago, Tim Burton gave moviegoers a new look at the wacky world of Willy Wonka. Who would think that some half-a-year later, Level 5 would also get the “koujou kraze” and implement one in its game. Rogue Galaxy allows you to create weapons and items…by actually making them. After the game formally begins and you’ve been cleared of a certain “crime”, Jester soon finds himself with an entire manufacturing plant at his disposal. Kind of like the Dark Cloud’s Georama system on acid, the Factory lets you combine various items to produce a more potent product, the likes of which can be used to make better items, to make weapons, or to make who knows what. In addition to following the recipes given by NPCs, players are also charged with the task of assembling the various machines and parts so that they can adequately process the raw materials. It’s a bit like Kingdom Heart’s Gummi Ship design feature, but simplified, and for an actual purpose.

Specifically Sphere Speaking

There are some who contend that the only excuse for redoing something is if you can make it better. It’s also contended that emulation is the sincerest form of flattery. What happens, though, when someone puts both outlooks together? Well, for one thing, Rogue Galaxy’s Ability System, that’s what. Obviously influenced by a certain “spherical” grid popularised some years ago, those smitten with a case of “flashback” will be relieved to note that this company’s take is far better implemented. In light of the seemingly infinite barrage of items, many of them actually have a two-fold purpose as they not only assist in battle but also in character development.

Each character has an “Ability Board” consisting of many different squares arranged in clustres. Each square, in turn, contains a picture of an item. Simply put, you need a specific item to activate the square “node”; after activating the entire clustre the character gains an ability (attack, status parameter boost, etc). It sounds terribly simplistic to be sure, but since when is that a bad thing? Many people complained over the “broken” nature of Final Fantasy X, because the game let the player choose the character development path but that it could also spell trouble if you later regretted the decisions. By removing not only the randomness and shared grid components, Level 5 essentially used the trappings of the Sphere Grid system to create a streamlined yet rewarding method of character growth, and-more importantly-of item hunting.

Hunting (Sometimes For Bugs)

There are loads of “lesser” elements to the gameplay as well, such as the Insector Battle feature. Kind of like Pokemon but with insects, once Jester acquires a bug kit (through natural game progression), you may begin seeking out little critters, initially for mulling over, but eventually for all-out brawling! In the game’s third world rests a gigantic Insector Coliseum which is kind of like Morrie’s Monster Arena meets Luca’s Sphere Dome meets Pokemon’s Elite Challenge Centre. After purchasing a license to do battle, you can then take your little critters to the floor and have them do battle with all sorts of opposition. Additionally, the facilitiy also stocks tons of accessories and items you can buy to catch better insects. It’s truly a game-in-a-game and while completely optional, will no doubt be the epicenter of hours of lost time for some

Another optional-yet-interesting component of the game is Jester’s Hunter Rank. Similar to the system employed in Eternal (Skies of) Arcadia, Jester has an ongoing ranking in the galaxy, evident of your proficiency in battle. While completing Challenges is the best way to earn points, there are also special monsters and missions you can seek out to reel in some major achievement boosts. As you progress up the "ladder", Jester earns special licenses allowing him to buy additional and exclusive items at stores throughout the game.

Cast of Charisma

“Cheers” are in order for the Japanese: even when opting for a less “anime” design, character designs still have these little quirks and components that retain the country’s unique fashion sense and striking attention to detail. While Rogue Galaxy won’t be fostering any Dragon Ball double-takes, the art still has a distinctive look and feel to it as to make it unique. The main character, Jester Rogue, fits the build of “hero” perfectly, with his light-weight gear, huge sword, and staple birthmark/tattoo. Bad-ass pirate Zeguram looks like Eternal Arcadia’s Vyse after hitting puberty and getting a masculine makeover, complete with an eye-patch to hide…who knows what. Kisara works perfectly as the heroine looking a bit like Yuna in a previously unreleased Dress Sphere, yet at the same time, quite different and all her own. Steve is a charming robot that would give 3-CPO a run for his money. There are a number of other playable characters-8 in all-but why not save some of the surprise.

As a special side note, additional “props” are in order for the NPC designs and personalities, specifically two in particular. Although it might escape the collective funny bones of those unfamiliar with Japanese culture, Level 5 included a hilarious depiction of a certain “type” of person, who have “licentious” obsessions. MIO and her admirers are so true-to-life it’s not even funny, yet it is.

Striking Sounds

Back in the early days of gaming, music was more of a distraction than anything else. While many people found the 8-Bit MIDI tunes catchy and creative, anyone unimpressed by the gaming art (namely parents) probably had less than choice words to offer about it: “cacophony”, “garbage”, “annoying”. To this day the general population still believes videogame music to be an onslaught of “bips” and “boops”, as evident by the required “noises” whenever a director opts to include a videogame in film. Because this is still 1982 and the latest craze remains Pong. But seriously now-how in the world could anyone put music like that of Rogue Galaxy into their movie when the GAME’S compositions are no doubt better than the Hollywood blockbuster’s?!

RG’s music is both fitting and fantastic. It’s amazing how a composer (a talented one at least) can simply just look at pictures or read a description then go off and create a soundtrack. Every single track of this game’s score reeks of unbelievable quality and creativity, it’s literally impossible to envision anything differently. Town music sounds like town music; cut scene music sounds like cut scene music, battle music sounds like battle music, yet all of it fresh. It’s almost impossible to explain just how it feels walking around a bustling, futuristic city with absolutely perfect background music accompanying each step; like a gaming-orgasm really. Equally impressive is how the music seamlessly changes as you enter each new location-thanks to the aforementioned load-free game design. One second you’re trekking through a jungle wilderness, then next lounging to the tune of a primitive village. (It's impossible to appreciate how fantastic this lack-of-loading issue is without actually playing the game; it makes waiting PERIOD just plain obsolete and paints 99% of the other companies out there as plain lazy.)

Of equal importance to the modern videogame, voice acting is a major issue. Developers always want talented and renown names associated with their product, both for the attention and for the reassurance that the ADR itself will be a quality production. Rogue Galaxy features some of the best voice-overs in recent memory, as well as some of the most fitting. Each character sounds like they should, from the cocky and courageous Rogue to the snide-yet-cool Zegram. Best of all, perhaps, is a certain talking cat. One thing that truly stands out is the “Live Talk” feature, something that a number of other gaming companies might want to take a look at the next time they want to include “Skits”. Rather than forcing the player to push a button and watch a glorified cut-scene as characters exchange dialogue, Rogue Galaxy implements a feature that lets the active party members speak their mind in real-time: they’ll comment on the location, on people, on events, on whatever. Even better, if the banter ever grows tiring, a simple tweak on the Configuration menu turns them off.

”I’ve Been Around the World, and I’ve Seen it All”

Rogue Galaxy might not win any awards for most original game of this era, but it sure deserves some for structure and meticulous design. It’s strange, but despite a limited experience in the game industry, Level 5 can already imbue its products with a distinctive “feel” and a clear cut sense of cohesion. Everything about RG comes across as being well planned and thoroughly implemented, and in the end that’s all one can really ask for. Those who didn’t much care for the random dungeon crawls of Dark Chronicle, and especially not Dark Cloud, will be pleased with the same level of production, yet applied to a much more structured and focused game. There are some who might argue that it’s the bane of creativity to make someone else’s ideas come to fruition (i.e. Enix’s Dragon Quest 8), but in the case of this particular developer, it seems that their foray into Yuji Horii’s world only strengthened the team’s own ambitions. Congradulations on a job well done, and here's to hoping the future will see much, much more from this talented studio.

Rating: 7

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