Resonance of Fate
While I missed out on the opportunity to review Final Fantasy XIII - arguably the opening quarter's biggest role-playing release - Resonance of Fate represents the third JRPG that's dropped into my lap in 2010. It's been a trying time. In fact, it's been a veritable trudge of disappointment through the sucking, muddy depths of mediocrity. I never thought I'd say this, but I'm honestly starting to miss first-person shooters.
But wait, despite the lingering pain of White Knight Chronicles and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers there's a chance for hope and respite in equal measure with Resonance of Fate from "renowned RPG developers" tri-Ace (Infinite Undiscovery, Star Ocean: The Last Hope). For a start, Resonance of Fate and its dystopian mechanical city of Chandelier represent a steampunk fantasy built around the unconventional gameplay draw of modern day projectile weaponry. How refreshingly simple in a genre weighed down by oversized phallic swords, flamboyant summoning, and elemental spell casting.
Actually, the last thing Resonance of Fate's gameplay can be described as is simple. It may well centre on just gunplay and curing the odd status effect, but the surrounding structure often appears bewilderingly complex and a million miles from simply pulling a trigger while occasionally distributing vials of health-restoring elixir.
My first few hours with Resonance of Fate were akin to being pushed unwittingly into a darkened room crammed with untold riches and terrible perils. Without clear direction I was forced to stumble blindly onward, grasping at fistfuls of treasure in one moment only to be knocked to the ground by terrible foes the next. Repeatedly painful physical contact soon presented a confused picture of my immediate surroundings but offered no clue as to why the room was there, what my purpose was within it, and how progress could be attained without incurring further harm. Confused, I scrambled forwards in search of answers as crippling blows rained down through the darkness. Then, as fear and frustration threatened to engulf my blunted senses, the room was bathed in a glorious light, and suddenly all seemed right with the world.
To help clarify that passage of rambling self-indulgence, to understand - and therefore enjoy - Resonance of Fate players first have to absorb and process page upon page of onscreen instruction describing the game's fiddly turn-based battle system, the confusing world map, and other vital but no less bewildering nuances. While reading and learning the most basic components shouldn't overextend most gamers, to say the more complex instructions are lost in localisation is something of an understatement. With some of the supposedly helpful explanations vague to the point of inspiring an abrupt haematoma, only patient hands-on game time is likely to deliver a true grasp of Resonance of Fate's many finer points.
The game's random and strategic battle system requires that players ready their individual party members against enemies by plotting on-screen attack lines that either flank or dissect the opposition. Once the first attack has been defined, the character launches forward, hurling hot lead, grenades, Molotov cocktails (and even dog poo) at targeted baddies until the end of his/her plotted trajectory has been reached. At this point the next party member's attack can be started/skipped or the game may even interject with A.I. attacks from one or several enemies that have adopted tactical positions during the first assault. That might sound simple enough, but each offensive flurry can be manipulated in a number of ways. For example, players can perform jumps, somersaults and pirouettes to gain obstacle clearance, and they can also choose to hold back a physical attack by allowing a tiered weapon-strength gauge to repeatedly fill until the distance between character and enemy has shortened - thus inflicting much more close-quarter damage.
Testing player approach and immersion yet further, momentum attacks in Resonance of Fate are dependant on the distribution of all-important Bezel shards, which deplete at the rate of one per attack if a character is unable to kill or significantly damage an enemy. And, once completely deprived of Bezels - either through direct usage or because strong enemy attacks have smashed them into pieces - the player's party is thrown into Critical Condition, a massively weakened state that's virtually impossible to escape from and invariably leads to a swift mauling and a stream of spewed obscenities. Is this making sense yet? It is? Let's see if we can change that.
The bread and butter of progression when entering battles is two fold: the Tri-Attack and the Battle Arena. The first is a triangular all-party attack brought into play when any two individual party attacks have crossed paths on the battlefield. The mighty Tri-Attack, which is instigated by the remaining static character, sees all party members attacking while sprinting along the three connected lines, targeting and destroying player-defined enemies and potentially refilling the Bezel shard counter in the process. Of course, enemies grow tougher over time and shards soon become an invaluable resource - even more so because they can only be attained (in quartered pieces) by defeating bosses, tackling the occasional random battle challenge, and through fortuitous treasure hunting on the world map.
If we just go back to Critical Condition for a moment, this exists as the game's not especially subtle way of informing players that their party isn't strong enough to move forward. It usually rears its ugly head during dungeons, which consist of rather bland industrial battlefields, successively more difficult battles, and the inevitable encounter with a testing boss. Yet being whipped via Critical Condition shouldn't be seen as the game merely mocking inability but rather as a painful form of encouragement regarding the application of a little studied betterment through either regular random battles on the world map or through the any-time-all-the-time Battle Arena.
While random battles often mean wandering and waiting, most players are likely to glean a more immediate and rounded sense of the game's overall structure and demands by facing the Battle Arena trials. Here, the party pays an entry fee to take on enemies ranging from Level 1 to Level 50 in difficulty, facing 10 different level combinations in Level 1 before graduating to Level 2, and so on and so on. Dying in the arena results in the party losing only its entrance fee, while each victory is marked with extra cash and experience points along with the award of Bronze, Silver or Gold coins that can be horded and traded for improved weaponry, status-boosting accessories and other helpful items. A grind-happy proving ground in every sense, if Resonance of Fate's dungeons are repeatedly chewing up your party and spitting them out (and, trust us, they will), then the slightly more forgiving Battle Arena is where you need to be.
How's your confusion so far? Brain not bleeding yet? I'm clearly not trying hard enough. So, on to the isometric world map, which contains a multitude of destinations spread across the tiered levels of Chandelier that are separated by an unusual colour-coded hexagonal floor plan. With the majority of hexagons inaccessible to the player at the beginning of the game, clear and coloured Power Hexes must be collected from downed foes and placed onto the map in order to pave specific areas, unlock new places and unearth treasure chests (and Bezel shards). Initially convoluted and annoying, the hexagon-based world map quickly becomes an extremely important weapon in the player's armoury - almost like an unseen fourth member of the character party.
This happens because of special Terminals scattered across the game world, all of which deliver status boosts during battles that take place on connected hexes of the same colour. Moreover, an opened terminal can be linked to a dungeon through a chain of same-coloured hexes, which instantly channels the terminal's power into all of said dungeon's rooms - thereby granting the party a little extra muscle during battles. Adding yet another layer to the use of Terminals, if the player has gathered enough of the right hexes, they can even chain link Terminals through Chandelier's many elevators, spreading status effects from one platform to another and taking their hard-earned advantages with them.
In-game weaponry is based around regular handguns and compact submachine guns, the former of which doles out permanent damage, while the latter causes temporary 'scratch' damage (essentially whittling away an enemy's shielding) that magnifies the effect of subsequent handgun attacks. As with most things in Resonance of Fate, available armaments are not what they seem, open as they are to a dizzying array of customisation through scopes, extended magazine clips, handgrips, and silencers. Firmly embracing its fantasy roots in this respect, the game allows the player to (dual) wield vastly enhanced firepower by slapping multiple accessories onto a single piece of hardware - an unflattering blueprint bastardisation that thankfully isn't carried over into the gameplay action. But just because the visual evidence of weapon customisation doesn't appear on the battlefield doesn't mean players won't still lose themselves for hours ('cos you will), messing around with collected resources in order to fashion, purchase and connect the next outrageous attack-boosting scope or silencer.
In terms of presentation and narrative, it takes well into double-digit game hours for the story to make any sense whatsoever, offering the player scant little more to hold on to other than a trio of wise-cracking Hunter mercenaries tasked with completing missions for Chandelier's incessantly demanding population. The audio and music in Resonance of Fate are a welcome change to the usually dire offerings emanating from the JPRG genre, with both its American character acting and orchestral score impressing throughout. This is thanks, in no small part, to Nolan North's performance (as Vashyron) and the composer's clear penchant for all things John Williams (or should that be Dvorak?). Considering the environmental standards set by Final Fantasy XIII, the mechanised surroundings that serve as the visual lifeblood in Resonance of Fate are a stinging disappointment. That being said, it's fairly obvious from the outset that tri-Ace's latest creation is a tinkerer's delight, a game geared wholly towards the JRPG hardcore that doesn't place much importance on aesthetics or plot pacing but rather on grinding, customisation and the irresistible thrill of Tri-Attack flourishes that can last for minutes at a time.
Given the head-smacking insanity of all you've just read, it's not difficult to appreciate just how polarising Resonance of Fate is likely to be with the gaming audience. For example, for every gamer pushing past the nonsensical text explanations to discover a genuinely rich and inventive JRPG, there will be hundreds turning tail due to the user-unfriendly delivery, the uninspired in-game visuals, a storyline that takes an age to unfold, and a strategic battle system that mercilessly penalises poor decisions.
The sad truth is gamers have become lazy and complacent, anaesthetised by developers that guide every move, present easy wins, and offer quick progression to create the instant but undeserved sensation of character invincibility - a state of play so often gifted yet so rarely earned. A game such as Resonance of Fate will ultimately stand (and fall) alone in the JRPG genre. Not because it's radically different in structure, but because it demands patience and rewards perseverance while punishing the gung-ho approach that serves so well in games where shameless handholding and cheap thrills are preferred to layered challenge and a genuine sense of accomplishment.
To that end, Resonance of Fate is quite simply one of the best games you'll never play.