Resonance of Fate
Returning to Resonance of Fate, after previewing it last August, was like having a good time with an old friend I didn't realise I'd missed. Tri-Ace's steampunk fantasy continues to hiss, puff and chug out a universe that, whilst familiar, is continually endearing.
I immediately sense excitement towards the game from key members of Tri-Ace, but they're also free to confess a concern regarding the little matter of Final Fantasy XIII: the obvious worry is that gamers might not be keen to invest in two expansive RPG time-sinks within three months of one another. In our still-dodgy economic climate there's a good chance they're right.
But in many respects Resonance of Fate sets itself up as the antithesis of Final Fantasy XIII. Both games are trying to tinker with the JRPG mould, but whereas Square Enix's latest blockbuster trims away the towns to create a character driven plot, Tri-Ace's effort seems to have its characters play second fiddle to their environment.
It's a gamble that looks like it could pay off. Basel - a jutting behemoth of an air purifier which the whole of society have built their cities around - smacks of the kind of conceptual charm that makes it instantly feel like a cult property: the quirky Logan's Run to Final Fantasy's flashy Star Wars, if you will. Logan's Run was a better movie, for the record.
Seeing as it's a JRPG I'll wager a few twists to the tale, and a storyline so expansive you'll need to be checking up its finer details on Wikipedia to work out just exactly what's going on. What is known is this: Basel, where the upper class citizens live in lavish palaces at the very peak of the structure, is starting to malfunction. It might even end up as an allegory for global warming. Who knows? We'll leave it at that for the time being.
So far, so standard - though it would be wrong to criticise Tri-Ace for producing a JRPG-by-numbers. The studio, now working with Sega (with this as their first title) after a split from Square Enix, have been looking to score a hit this generation, and a big part of the game's development is in tweaking the genre's familiar tropes and jazzing them up with something altogether newer. If that saves us from another Infinite Undiscovery I'm all for it.
Take the world map, for instance. What is usually a jaunty sprint from one town to the other over rolling green hills becomes a grid puzzle in Resonance of Fate, the world map is split into a myriad of hexes - it looks a lot like a honeycomb - over multiple levels.
These hexes start locked, and must be opened by placing an assortment of four-hex pieces obtained by completing missions and winning battles, with potential head scratching opportunities arising when realising said pieces aren't allowed to hang off edges or overlap.
Growing a fearsome collection of hex pieces, alongside loot, currency and bits and bobs to fiddle with each character's extensively customisable appearance, gives a convenient reason to grind through the various missions and sub-quests doled out at the mercenary HQ - the quest system will be immediately recognisable to fans of Final Fantasy Tactics. As an example we were treated to an ever-familiar fetch quest, grabbing a shiny necklace for a distressingly gaudy character with a basin haircut and neon green attire.
But it's in the battle system that the game makes its most distinctive mark, though it comes complete with a humongous tutorial to wade through; so make sure you've strapped yourself in and have a cup of tea at the ready. Maybe even fill up a Thermos in advance.
Battles, fought in either instanced dungeons or random battle mini-areas, revolve around the three characters taking turns to spend whatever action points they've been dished out. These points are used to select a target, take aim and fire. And also to move about.
There's more. Dish out a bit of damage and you'll be rewarded with Hero Points, which collect themselves in a series of nuggets at the base of the screen. Spend one of these and your character will run in an invincible straight line, funnelling the essence of John Woo to explode in a balletic fury of slow-mo gunplay. Flash. While there's an initial impulse to conserve Hero Points (if you run out you lose the game) it's these actions which make up the bulk of combat.
Still with me? Run your character through the other two characters and you'll notch up a Resonance Point, which can be used to initiate a spiffy Tri-Attack. Each Resonance Point will allow each character to run a single path to the other, making a triangle, and if you cleverly arrange that triangle to have a few enemies in the middle, and spend multiple Resonance Points to keep them running laps, you'll do ridiculous amounts of damage whilst getting dizzy from all the ballistics.
That's not all. There are two damage types, Scratch and Direct. Scratch, dished out primarily with SMG's, chips away at armour and leaves enemies wide open to suck up the most amount of Direct Damage, which they'll receive from another character's polished handguns. Your characters can also dual-wield, for more damage, but in doing so they'll forsake the ability to use healing items or buff their attacks with special bullet types - both of which I found quite useful in clearing out an early dungeon.
It's horribly complicated on paper, but fluid and manageable when the controller is in your hand. The UI is fairly helpful, although the nine weapon attributes in the game are represented by icons instead of text, which meant I had absolutely no idea what any of them meant. Enemy health is clearly indicated - no need to Scan here - and turns are long enough to ensure a little thinking time before committing to an action.
There's plenty more battle features, such as Leader Attack, Aerial Smackdown, Gauge Breaking and Overcharge moves, alongside targeting specific body parts, but by the time you're forced to consider those features - in the actual game instead of the tutorial - the player will supposedly be more than ready. We'll have to wait and see if that's true, although I found myself quite content testing my tactical prowess on the game's low-level monsters: a well-designed collection of eerie clown heads on springs, sentient target boards and legs poking out of barrels. There must be something fish in Basel's water supply.
Resonance of Fate is certainly a lot to take in, but I was left with nothing but enthusiasm after seeing a couple of the game's fancy sights and decking it out in an early dungeon. The problem for Sega and Tri-Ace is in getting people to take notice, something which will undoubtedly prove a challenge with such an immediately forgettable title and a release window perilously close to Final Fantasy. For the game to get lost in retail would be a shame, as what initially strikes as another me-too JRPG might just turn out to be one of the most exciting entries in the genre for years. It means, despite being a proud owner of a plush Moogle, I find myself anticipating Resonance of Fate far more than I do Final Fantasy XIII.
Resonance of Fate will be released on the 360 and PS3 later in the year.