It feels to me that Xbox 360 owning JRPG fans have not had the easiest of times lately. Sure, Lost Odyssey was brilliant and Blue Dragon was good (although that's a matter of much contention), but everything else just reminded me of my local all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet: all the ideas were great, but nothing was quite right... or what I expected. Eternal Sonata, some loved but really it was just too linear to be amazing, and Enchanted Arms was again way too linear and distinctly average anyhow. There are the Western-styled RPGs like Mass Effect and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, but that doesn't give you that JRPG fix, does it? In the future, there will be Final Fantasy XIII (hooray I hear many of you cry), Tales of Vesperia hopefully, The Last Remnant and Star Ocean: The Last Hope but what do you do now if you want a JRPG to keep you going? You pick up Infinite Undiscovery, that's what. Does it deserve to be picked up though, or is it simply to fill a gap while we wait for bigger RPGs, well, its a little bit of both in reality.
I've played RPGs for as long as I can remember, which means I've saved the world approximately 372 times, been a victim of mistaken identity on many occasions and been imprisoned while innocent frequently as well. Infinite Undiscovery's story is no different at first. The main character, Capell, is initially mistaken for Sigmund, a liberator against the evil Order who have chained the moon (yes, really) so that they can siphon its power for their own evil doings. To be fair, its a slightly original take on the 'good vs evil, world at stake' theme. The only ones who can destroy these chains are Capell and Sigmund, who bear an uncanny resemblance to each other. Initially rescued by Aya, a strong female lead (for once) you, as Capell, are plunged into the battle to save the world. Capell at first is not the most enthusiastic of heroes, in no way demonstrating the cockiness that has driven me insane previously in other games (Tidus in Final Fantasy X for example), but this brings warmth to the character as he's actually fairly down to earth considering the situation.
However, this warmth and character development does take a while to show its face, as in the early stages, the game is somewhat confusing and not at all appealing. Prepare to fight your way through the first hour or two of this game, as its far from pleasant. For some reason, a game designer somewhere thought it would be a good idea to throw you into a fast-paced chase scene in a prison without fully knowing the controls, then just as you think you're safe, it chucks you into a pitch black wood that you have to traverse before you can really get anywhere in the game. These two segments are briefly interspersed with basic tutorials explaining how to fight and use items, but it really could have been approached better as I certainly felt it was a trial to get through.
The controls and battle system are actually pretty well implemented albeit with some odd design choices. The battle system heavily borrows from Tri-Ace's other hits: the Star Ocean series and Tales of... series, with the action being in full real-time rather than a turn based system that is often used in RPGs. For those of you that have played Eternal Sonata, it is very similar but rather than switching to a separate screen to fight, the fighting commences in the same area that you are exploring. At first, it makes things seem much more exciting but there are flaws to this system. Capell only has two buttons that you can use to attack, essentially a weak attack and a slower, stronger attack. A combination of these two buttons can form other attacks but for the most part, it's all very similar and simply a matter of hammering the two buttons at times. The rest of the party (up to three companions can follow you at any one time) is controlled by the game AI which is a double edged sword. It makes things simpler as there's no need to juggle many characters at the same time during a boss fight; especially as the AI is reasonably good. However, you are also worryingly reliant on them as the commands you can give is limited to pressing the Y button to signify healing is required for one or more members of the party. If you die, you lose that power and have to watch helplessly as your comrades continue to fight, and hope that they revive you within the time limit otherwise it is game over. It can get a little frustrating, although once or twice it did mean I won a boss fight despite being out of action so the AI isn't bad at coping by itself. You can control things slightly more with the D-pad, but this controls aspects such as whether to focus on one enemy or whether to conserve MP (which I found was often the most useful setting). It does work, but it also takes a lot of adjustment, especially if you are more used to the Final Fantasy-style of fighting with menus and turns.
The only true down-side to the real-time system is that the main menu is also in real-time, this being the menu that amongst other things allows you to select healing items during fights. There's nothing more annoying than trying to use a healing item while avoiding blows from your enemies, and hoping that your AI controller companions might cast a healing spell in time to save you. Again, it's something you get used to but I'm really not sure why it was deemed to be a good idea in the first place. The fighting in general can get a little tedious at times, especially as the save points can be a little spread out meaning you have to replay quite large segments occasionally. There just isn't enough variety to the fighting to really be compelling. It also introduces a new element in the shape of Capell's ability to play the flute. One key element this introduces is the ability to reach secret areas that appear to be blocked by walls until you play your insutrument.
Obviously an RPG isn't all about the fighting, and luckily Infinite Undiscovery makes up for what its lacking with an interesting story and side quests. It is a little unfortunate however that sometimes descriptions of where to go next can be a bit vague at times, leaving you a bit uncertain about what to do next, something that really could have been tightened up with better writing. There are plenty of side quests available, as well as cooking abilities and other creation talents that greatly extend the game. The game options in general extend the title's life as we're offered easy, normal, hard and infinity modes, although only easy and normal are available on your first play through. Infinity mode is meant to be especially challenging to complete, and as the game on normal is hardly easy, it provides quite a decent amount of replayability.
Infinite Undiscovery is not a bad RPG at all, it won't convert people to the genre but it provides a great stop gap for RPG fans while they wait for Fable 2, Last Remnant, Final Fantasy XIII, et al. If a few niggles had been corrected such as the slightly dull fighting and vague directions, or the off/on voice acting that makes you wonder if the sound has suddenly cut out (it hasn't, for some reason, only bits of conversations have voice acting), this game really could have been something a bit special. However, as it stands, it's still much like my All-you-can-eat Chinese Buffet; good but not quite right. But that doesn't stop a fan gorging on it, it'll still hit the spot if you like the style. Just don't let the initial first couple of hours put you off... it is a struggle but it ends up being just about worth it.