Symphony of the Origin

Technically, since this is Android-only, you’ll find it as RPG Symphony of the Origin even though "RPG" is more of a descriptor than part of the actual title just for visibility purposes. Long story short, this is a game I found seeing just how dead my Razer Forge was after I realized Razer was no longer selling them. Short answer on that, Cortex is toast, but Google Play was still accessible and the Play TV section was particularly useful, if small. It is a paid game, but the cost is a reasonable US$8.99, and I will say there are worse ways to spend less than $10. Unfortunately, the game seems to have been de-listed from Google Play as I come back to this review later than I’d like to admit, so while I’d still like to talk about it, unless you already made it a part of your library, it’s unlikely to ever come back.

The game supports on-screen controls, controllers, and Android TV, which I guess is just a fancy way of saying it supports controllers and also you can put it on a larger screen. I’ll say the on-screen controls are a bit rough, and playing with my MOGA on my phone handles much better despite it forcing you to run, but who walks in a JRPG anyway? The Forge does okay as well, but to be honest, the controls feel a bit more awkward than the MOGA, and seeing as you can’t take it with you everywhere, ironically, this is one I bought for a console and prefer on phone, though since I lost my save probably in my last phone upgrade, I’ve been re-taking some progress on Forge since there’s literally nothing else I can do with it at this point due to it losing the ability to log into my Google account. Well… a couple other things, but only what I downloaded previously, none of which has my current attention.

So let’s dig in.

First impressions

The first thing that’s evident when booting up the game is that it breaks convention a bit by having an anime-esque opening, though this is done with rudimentary animation of fading and sliding static figures and backgrounds. The art is gorgeous, though, and the theme song is pretty amazing. Seriously on the level of a Tales of game. It’s the first hint this is a Japanese game (the vocals are Japanese, as is all the voice), but that definitely doesn’t work against it. If it had English voice, it could have been mistaken for a Western copycat, but ultimately that wouldn’t change the quality a bit. If anything, while the opening shows a hint of budgetary or talent or maybe data limitations, it was clearly made with love and also shows they were striving for quality. This thing is actually from Kemco, which sounded strangely familiar. A quick trip to Wikipedia later and I knew why; I recognized it from the Shadowgate port for the Game Boy. I also realized I had downloaded a couple other games from them that I haven’t played yet and bless them, they seem to have become pretty prolific mobile RPG makers over the past few years, though to say they have a varied style is an understatement. I won’t say I’m fully on board with their extensive library, but I’m definitely on board with this one, and if others caught my attention, they must be doing something right. For what it’s worth, their lowest rated game is a solid 4.1 stars.

You may also notice your phone (and especially TV) stretches the pixels a bit on the intro video. I chalk this up to saving data, and to be fair, video isn’t exactly small regardless of format, and a new or small-fry IP statistically can’t afford a large download since users will simply refund it. Before you even boot up the game, you may also note that it was built for a prior version of Android, and specifically was last updated in 2014. Neither of these issues are a real problem; it works just fine and I didn’t notice stretching in-game, or at least not anything distracting, though text could be sharper on a TV. I chalk this up to them probably using images to design their own font rather than using a real one, which, honestly, suits me just fine, since the Android default font everything else seems to use is as soulless as they come to the point of being distracting. This one does its job and blends in nicely.

The main character designs and pixel art both have a very Western vibe to them. When I bought it, I fully expected it to be an American game by its appearance. The art has that same inexplicable vibe of that one white guy in high school who was really good at anime-style art, but mostly drew white characters so it would seem cool rather than geeky. Apologies for the flashbacks, especially if you were that guy. That doesn’t mean the art lacks quality. It was one of the main things that attracted me to it, because a lot of the time you get pixel art games that try to ride the nostalgia train as a cheap way of attracting attention with minimal effort. The market is positively saturated with the things, which actually made me wary of this one until I decided it was worth a gamble based on the quality they threw into it. If anything, this is the most beautiful pixel art I’ve seen in ages, and I don’t say that lightly. Frankly, the production values are high pretty much all over. The voice work is high-tier; the pixel art only really stumbles in that shadows are done by tile instead of being more organic; and the music is, well, for the most part it’s game music. That’s not really a problem, per se, but the theme song set a high bar. Like most game music, its job is to act as background to set the mood, and while it ascribes to a strong melody approach, it’s mostly forgettable, though if you hear enough of a tune it might stay with you, and you’ll have nothing to complain about. It might cause some annoyance in that it doesn’t loop seamlessly and wasn’t written to. Each song has a break in the loop that the melody was written around and it’s obvious the song is supposed to end and start over there, which I think could have been avoided. From a technical perspective, we’ve had looping music for decades and there are plenty of games that probably do it in that format. It’s something I’ve researched for my own projects and everything I’ve ever found treats it like a solved problem, though naturally every engine is different.

Where the problems start

I will say one thing is below average, and that’s the translation. It doesn’t really have Engrish, and it’s not unreadable, but it wasn’t done or reviewed by a native speaker. It’s not terrible or even stilted, but it is frequently awkward, in a way I’m quite familiar with on Twitter with Asian artists who have a few English classes under their belt and have a few more to look forward to. Things like "back then" being used for a recent event rather than a more appropriate "back there" represent subtleties in English that have much more to do with connotation than denotation. Surprisingly, the spelling and punctuation are immaculate other than the occasional period rather than a question mark for rhetorical questions, so it’s not that care wasn’t taken in the writing. And to be fair, unless you’re a weirdo like me, you’re probably not going to include a percontation point in your game, so technically speaking, a period could easily be seen as conveying the intent of the sentence more accurately than the technically-proper question mark. The issue is with knowledge, not effort. I’ll say it’s not a deal-breaker, but some people will have a higher or lower tolerance for this kind of thing. I will say the dialog could have been pared down a bit in places, and a few early conversations go back and forth longer than is constructive, including some unnecessary bickering between the first couple party members.

It’s also a little oddly structured. You can buy some flowers for 100G in the first town, but literally all the equipment you can get is the equipment you’re wearing and there’s no reason to sharpen your weaponry off the bat. You could buy an item or two, but you’re probably going to gain more gold before you have anything meaningful to buy with it. In contrast, your first mission is to find the elves, who are stated to be north and a bit off to the side. Naturally, there was a house-looking thing that fit the bill right there, and when you enter it, you get a message that you’ll need to buy access in a microtransaction. See, this is the Mages’ House, and you can cheat your way to maxing your skills there, for a nominal fee, or else by cashing in credit from engaging random encounters, which is probably the only option left anymore on Razer Forge, but the phone version might still let you pay for it. The game is pretty clear about this even in the menus, but I will say it was a little direct to demonstrate it that way. That said, it was also very direct about what the place was and what it was for, so I can’t fault it too hard. Honesty goes a long way. You can still technically get it for free if you’re willing to grind for it, but it doesn’t actually seem all that important other than the fact it’s got some very powerful items lying around the area that might be useful.

Getting your hands dirty

Battle initiation is a bit non-traditional. The world map doesn’t seem to have random battles and dungeons have enemies wandering the field. They can surprise you, but they often alert as soon as you get within radius, making it hard to surprise them in many cases. This varies by the enemy’s field sprite. The collisions are also varyingly lazy, with slime enemies in the field being practically impossible to surprise because the tail end has no collisions at all, and in some cases battle will initiate with these while you’re still moving, especially if you miss, and seemingly especially if you miss multiple times like the game understands what you’re trying to do and is taking pity on you. Using the Razer Serval, it’s incredibly easy to miss, too, since all but the gentlest tap that will register sends you 2 tiles rather than 1 even on the D-pad, leaving you at times unable to do anything but run a literal circle around the enemy you’re trying to engage until they meander back into the same relative grid you happen to be working with, which not all enemies even conform to, with slimes in particular being completely free-roaming, making them an especial pain to engage. Meanwhile, wolf enemies are much easier to contend with and will get pre-empted by a good charge into the rear, at least if they’re not alerted, and even hitting the side works if you can manage it without alerting them first. Really, it’s kind of interesting that each enemy field sprite presents its own rules of interaction. It’s not a problem in the sense you can easily avoid enemies by staying a respectful distance away, but those familiar with similar systems from, say, the Grandia series are going to be a bit confused why they can’t flank the enemy in a relatively equal manner. This does have an appreciable correllation to enemy groups, but those groups are arbitrary. You can have the same two enemies flipped in battle using two different field sprites correllating to the one in front and the battle will play out essentially the same despite entry to it being different. Enemies also respawn in the same spot each time the screen is loaded and each enemy sprite represents one of a few battle formations per screen, which is frankly pretty cool, and a heck of a lot more work than just throwing down a tile map with a few enemy groups and their percentages. This keeps battle highly varied and honestly makes grinding quite enjoyable, especially after you get the ability to steal items.

Combat itself works well. The closest comparison would be Chrono Cross. Your ATB is measured by stamina and the cost of your actions is influenced by the action itself as well as the weight of your equipment. The turn order is listed up the left hand side not unlike FFX. The right side features a 4-segment bar that fills to some extent with every action and each segment can be used to execute more powerful skills. This bar is completely shared by the team, so you don’t need to wait to capitalize on it. At the same time, you do have to manage it, and for the most part it’s best to save it for boss battles, since most enemies fall easily to standard skills and normal attacks. That said, while the choices are relatively simple, they are meaningful. Your ability to outlast enemies depends directly on your ability to see opportunities to build your bar, as well as being able to take enemies down quickly enough they can’t whittle your health away. Healing is also done in a lazy manner, which can be of benefit much like in Earthbound if an enemy happens to smack you while your bar is refilling, allowing healing items that would otherwise waste points to make up the difference. Damage is another matter and I doubt anyone would be fast enough on the draw to keep an enemy from downing an ally unless you’re The Flash or something. Still, an ounce of prevention works wonders. Some bosses also have armor you can break to change their form and also potentially their A.I. Naturally, this also makes them squishier. The armor bar is a blue one below the green health bar.

And playing in the mud

The level design is good, but lacking in secrets off the bat. The first "secret" area was pretty obvious, inasmuch as I literally walked into it like it wasn’t hidden at all, literally with my eyes glazed over thinking about something else like second nature. There have been areas that looked like they could contain secret areas, but haven’t, and it feels like the world is a bit bare because of it early on, even though it fundamentally isn’t, with plenty of interesting details and some forests that are actually a bit devious in just how much obscuring foliage they offer to enemies. As the game progresses, it introduces more bits of level design, taking the training wheels off slowly. By the third dungeon, it’s already introduced hidden passages and to be honest it was a joy to be rubbing up against a wall only to realize after I’d come back through that there was a tiny corner visible from the wall from the few pixels’ gap from the obscuring top of the lower wall, though technically the tile shouldn’t have been walkable and the whole thing should have been shifted "up" for realism’s sake. It’s a minor complaint from a pedantic designer and pixel artist, but the fact it truly ramped up that quickly by teaching even as it went through that dungeon speaks to them really knowing what they were doing.

Unfortunately, this does not apply to item rewards. Those who are used to going into a JRPG and rubbing against everything that looks even vaguely interesting are probably going to stress a bit over this, but literally the only means of getting items outside of a shop or battle rewards so far have been chests and one little girl who sold me flowers as a one-time deal to kick off the obligatory trade quest. NPCs don’t simply hand over items for the most part and you won’t find anything in the scenery. In many ways it feels like this was a compromise to make things easier for unseasoned players, but unlike the level design it shows no signs of picking up, and for someone who has been playing JRPGs for decades, this streamlined method is just a bit stressful. I mean for Heaven’s sake, Final Fantasy has so much as placed hidden items on the bare ground without so much as a differentiating tile and stuck hidden passages in walls with no indication other than maybe surrounding it with a couple chairs and forcing you to feel your way through a black void that might even have more than one branching path. The people on this wiki expect that kind of obtuse stuff, so having to unlearn half of it for this game is likely to cause a bit of friction. It’s a testament to the expectations it gives that being denied this sort of thing feels like a betrayal. There have been chests that were tucked away in optional areas or slightly obscured, but ultimately nothing that you can’t walk back to at any time and nothing you ultimately can’t see. I keep getting these little glimpses into them understanding what makes exploration rewarding, but as of yet it doesn’t seem like they fully trust the player to catch on. It may surprise me and introduce something later, but for now with all the interesting mushrooms and crystals in the dungeons much less the million barrels and such in most towns, nothing has contained a single item.

If only menus were so easy

If there is one annoyance I do have that isn’t a personal taste issue, it’s that the equipment menus are a bear to navigate. You have to swap someone into your party to even access their equipment and once they’re there, the controls to get to them are fiddly and rely on you relying on the directional controls to get to the character status screen, then activating that to get to the sidebar with the portraits, then canceling out of that to access their equipment, and then having to use the directional controls to scroll back to the status screen and occasionally have to fight with the perk point screen to go the last step. It’s probably much easier with touch controls, but playing on a controller makes it a bit of a hassle, and the controller is otherwise much more satisfying. Menus also scroll a bit oddly in general, making it a bit annoying to use the shop interfaces. It’s also annoying that each shop sells the starting equipment of the characters gained in that town, which led me to accidentally buy a hammer I didn’t need on money I couldn’t spare because I couldn’t see the icon and assumed it was a fist upgrade for a character I had, rather than realizing it was going to be the default equip for someone I was going to get.

Premium unleaded

There are a few other items your mileage may vary on. Most characters are gained with equipment they’ve already mastered the skills of and it’s not hard to master skills. They could just as easily start at 0 and give you a bit more of a feeling of accomplishment while you wait for them to get new equipment. All party members share a level, and unless someone going KO can put them behind, it seems unnecessary in that they also seem to share the same EXP pool. Having all 6 level up when only 4 were in combat shows its hand very neatly. I don’t see this as an issue since it frees you up to build the party you need, and in most games that start everyone off even, it greatly annoys me when I can’t keep them that way. With how easy skills are to learn so far, I don’t expect a real issue. In fact, this is one of the things I liked a lot about The Legend of Dragoon giving half EXP to reserve party members – it keeps characters from falling too far behind so they’re usable when you need them. In this respect, making sure you have appropriate equipment and only having to build up skills means there’s still a meaningful way for a character to fall behind without making them useless.

While physical controllers can be a bit fiddly (both the MOGA and Kishi on phone and the Razer Serval on Forge suffer from this, Serval especially), touch controls streamline things a lot, and the game was designed around them. If you happen to LIKE touch controls, you’ll be happy with them here. I personally rely heavily on the tactile feedback of buttons and touch controls represent a roadblock for me since I have no non-visual feedback on where everything is and my brain does not accurately track their position in most cases, unless it’s in relation to something physical. Vita works fine for me, because I can relate it to the positions of familiar tactile cues, but phone touch controls just don’t and I have to be looking at them. On a positive note, connecting a controller doesn’t lock out the touch controls, so it’s possible to simply poke what you need to with your finger if you can wrap your head around it.

The good, the bad, and the ugly

The characters also can be a point of contention. The villains are written in a way that it goes unnecessarily out of the way to portray them as bad people and it gets really uncomfortable for various reasons, not the least of which in that it lumps in LGBT+ with murderers and pedophiles. Hargna the dark elf is especially problematic for the game’s treatment of her, since the heroes keep calling her a man despite, surprisingly, using female pronouns for her. This initially comes off like it may just be because the dark elves are all built that way, but you meet another one later sporting an hourglass figure and E-cups. Hargna states outright that she’s a woman in body and soul, but that could also be censorship in the translation, and her voice actor is clearly male, and clearly playing it very flamboyant in the battle lines. I have a feeling they tried to sidestep the pothole of having a very flamboyantly gay character only to fall into the manhole of having one who comes off as trans. The cast making a big issue of it literally every time she shows up is very uncomfortable and comes off as transphobic, which, I mean it’s a game clearly aimed at an all-ages audience, but trans people are always the first to be thrown under the bus when it comes to bigotry against LGBT+. In a way, their using her dialogue to reinforce that she’s a woman and to not judge by appearances is the kindest thing they could do in that situation, but it reflects very poorly on the heroes to fail to take it to heart, and they’re the ones the player is supposed to empathize with. Of course she also finds Ryle (the main protagonist) attractive, and is quite codial with him, as well as Denoas (the golem he accidentally activated), and really everyone but Rumil, the pretty blonde elf third character and obvious love interest with her gigantic boobs hanging out, who urges the party to take her out, not to listen to her, and no less than that Hargna and everything like her should be wiped from existence. So not only are the party homophobic/transphobic; they’re also clearly racist. Hargna, for her part, may not have had patience for Rumil specifically, and absolutely struck first when Rumil was trying to introduce herself, but when addressing Ryle, her main issue was that while the light elves are pretty, they’re not very substantial, and takes the suggestion of her race’s genocide pretty gracefully, all told, specifically telling Rumil that it’s made her just a tiny bit mad and she’ll happy chop her racist rear end up if she wants a fight. Naturally she takes it very poorly when Denoas decides to attack her during her monologue and Ryle jumps right on that wagon, and any benefits Ryle might have had with her passing interest went clearly out the window. Hargna is also the reason one of the others didn’t kill Ryle right off the bat. Ryle could be just a little thankful for that. Ryle also ends up asking someone else something that is very plot important that he could have just asked her, and she probably would have been happy to tell him, so if you really examine it, they’re in the wrong in every way on this one. When you really sit down and examine it, Hargna very well could have been on her way to join the party with all the justification it takes for anyone else to do so (next to none). She specifically tells Rumil there’s only room for one heroine and the party wonders what she was even doing there after she leaves them understandably livid at the fact everyone just jumps her in the middle of the conversation. She’s easily the nicest villain in the entire game and probably in the top 3 in the cast overall when you step back and look at it and the party’s treatment of her is abysmal. This would not be a problem if you weren’t supposed to see everything from their perspective, which I might reiterate is bigotry. Maybe bigotry reflected in Hargna’s own treatment of Rumil, but it’s at least vaguely understandable that from her perspective, Rumil is an inferior choice from a race who probably did a genocide at some point and, in the conversation immediately preceding, was using "slithered" as a verb to describe how a whole host of different races decided seeing the sun might be nice and came out from underground. I should also state that Rumil needs to be an adult to leave the forest and by necessity that makes her FIFTY per NPC dialog around her town, so while she may look like an innocent 20-something (20 being legal age in Japan), it’s not like she hasn’t had double the time of anyone else in the party at that point to maybe question what she’s been fed. Like, she’s literally older than the rest of them combined. I can’t help but feel she should know better. Hargna is obviously the more mature of the two and probably is old enough to remember whatever atrocities Rumil’s textbooks glossed over. I’d honestly have picked Hargna over Rumil if there’d been any chance the rest of the party would have treated her with any decency in relation to her not being a similarly pretty Aryan girl with her gazongas flapping in the breeze.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, they later introduce Yukulf the Horned One, who’s a pedo, though the game tries to play it off as "saving it for later" when he attempts to abduct your newly added 12-year-old ninja. I mean, she’s uncomfortable and points out she’s only 12, and his entire thing is, "well, yeah, for now, but you’ve got the build of someone who’s going to grow up totally hot." I don’t think I have to point out just how problematic that is in its own right. Like, he does raise a legitimate point about the surface world having plenty of resources that living underground just doesn’t offer, but that segues into being of the mindset that in his society people can’t afford to hold off on taking what they want and like, on one hand, that makes sense at least generally? But she’s TWELVE! Like, no matter how you slice it he’s objectifying a child. I really have no idea whether they were trying to play him as a half-oni, which could maybe be related to them stealing (and generally eating) kids or whether they were trying to do something with a unicorn route given the long spiral horn similarly sticking out of his forehead, but he’s so infatuated with her during the battle he wastes a good 2/3 of his turns just admiring her and FFS they could maybe have redone some things with that to remove his affection entirely.

Frankly, by comparison, Gardino (who the game calls an ogre, but is almost certainly an oni given his samurai stylings, and possibly undead given it appears he has hollow eyes and ashen gray skin) is probably the tamest of any of them in how they want to present him as evil, in that all he really wants is to find someone who can possibly defeat him, or at least make for an interesting battle. It’s a rare villain whose goal in life is to find someone to kill him and it makes his motivations refreshingly straightforward. Even if it does lead Hargna to convince him to spare Ryle on pure potential rather than just squash him like a bug, it feels like he’s going to come to collect on that later in the game and there’s probably not going to be a third chance, because he’s not the patient sort to begin with.

That really just leaves Elrona and Jenowin, the latter of which is treated more as a plot force at his introduction as the one who killed Ryle’s parents and the former of which makes a personal appearance not long after horny guy Yukulf, though she has little to establish herself as a character since she drops a boss off and doesn’t bother to make sure it actually does the job. The only other notable thing about her is her outfit defies the technical definition of nudity and could have done with something to connect the front into more of a sports bra or even just added a black tube top. She seems to be in the habit of keeping her arms crossed and one gets the impression that that’s largely because it’s the only thing holding her outfit together, because it’s certainly not any kind of fabric, friction, or probably even double-stick tape, because I’m not sure there’s enough of a base to stick it to. It’s really a shame, because they had a good opportunity to maybe make her outfit into an elegant loop of a sports bra that would’ve gone nicely with her elegant gloves and they just, like, forgot to draw the front until the beltline, so it’s really more like a pair of suspenders. I see this as a legitimate missed opportunity here because most of the villains are actually dressed in something approaching modern fashion and if they’d just closed the front, she would’ve had something that would’ve been excellent to wear to a rock concert. Call me the fashion police, but with so much of the clothing design being so good, it’s just a shame that she gets the short end of the stick when her design otherwise has so much going for it. And it really doesn’t seem to fit her character, because she’s a very calm, confident woman who really feels like she shouldn’t have anything to prove, at least judging by her first appearance. She could have been sexy without being cheap, I guess is the best way of putting it. No top general who ever expected to fight or command troops would ever go topless like this and the biggest problem is that it’s not like the player is probably going to see much of her where it might be expected to sell the game on sex appeal. Look, part of what I do as a solo dev is character and costume design; there were easy ways to fix this. She could’ve looked fantastic; instead she just looks exposed and cold. I know female villains often have this problem where their sexiness is effectively a weapon, but in almost every case, their outfit is also whole enough that they don’t have to literally hold it together while they’re moving around because that gets in the way of villainous activities. An outfit that leaves something to the imagination will always be sexier than something that bares way too much, because the best accessory a woman can wear is confidence and it’s very hard to have confidence if you don’t have agency. A woman who has to cover herself with her arms because she can’t do it with her clothes doesn’t have agency.

Not so white-hat

In addition to that, the heroes have some real issues. Rumil’s racism is not an endearing trait and I know they’re going to pass it off as her being sheltered and not knowing any better since she has zero experience in the outside world, but she’s also shown to think that everyone should live like the elves do, and the party thankfully takes time to gently correct her before she tells a dwarf to stop living in a hole to their face. The 12-year-old (Karin) joins in giving this input. Rumil is otherwise your bow and arrow user and starts with healing and Wind magic, making her your ostensible White Magician Girl, though as stated, her purity is somewhat tempered despite her also being as much of a ditz as a particular joke requies. Unfortunately, there’s no real ranged combat in this game, so her weaponry is purely aesthetic, though she does become your status attacker due to her various arrows, which I’ll explain later. But just because the designers couldn’t help themselves, yes, while she’s mostly covered, what’s not is what’s most telling, including a hefty amount of her bosom, each side of which has its own window and also its own pocket, which strikes me as a bit less than wholesome for how they try to play her off, and she has a generous amount to flaunt, straight to the edge of comical, though not so ridiculous that it swings all the way back around like Elrona. You pretty much know exactly why her outfit is like this and to be honest it’s distracting, and not in a way I can really respect. Maybe "uncomfortable" would be a more accurate word. I honestly don’t see why anyone passing for a pure maiden would make that particular wardrobe choice of her own volition and she’s literally the only one who doesn’t look like she had any agency in what her closet is filled with other than Elrona, but Elrona at least has the "I’m evil" excuse to be aggressively sexualized. Even Hargna manages an outfit that’s nicely detailed and elegant, keeping her mostly covered with a jacket that makes a bit of a skirt and having a black collar embroidered with pink roses, but most of all doesn’t look like it has any design flaws that would make it simply fall open just by moving due to a generous number of connecting straps. If Hargna had the same bust Rumil or Elrona do, some very simple tailoring adjustments to account for the extra volume would mean it would still be covered no matter how she moved, because Hargna’s outfit is very much tailored and does move with her and doesn’t leave the essentials in danger of exposure. The biggest issue with this is if it’s not Rumil’s own sense of style, it’s her older brother’s; their parents are nowhere to be found (and if I recall correctly, dead) and given she idolizes him, if anyone was going to take a scissors to all her shirts to turn them into bustiers, it’s him. You’re not supposed to think about this, of course; it’s gratuitous eye candy. But I do and I don’t like it, and unlike Elrona, it’s in your face constantly and not supposed to be a weapon. The only saving grace of it is that she retains a nice, upright posture at all times so they’re not constantly hanging around and in fact her body language is mercifully innocent, like she doesn’t even realize she’s about 30° from a wardrobe malfunction at all times. Otherwise, the game’s intro makes her out to be a sort of third main character, even though absolutely nothing supports this, and I 100% guarantee it’s just because she was considered so marketable and because Ryle has the hots for her; she just isn’t smart enough to realize it despite him having expressed it out loud as soon as she first walked into the same room, or else experienced a plot-convenient bout of momentary deafness to that and the ensuing bickering with Denoas chiding him for it – to be fair, something that nobody else seems to notice either despite the sheer volume of it. I’m sure the relationship is eventually going to pan out, but it takes its sweet time.

Karin, for what it’s worth, seems to come from a Pokémon society where kids can travel the world freely, and joins the party because she has the distinct impression they’re a force for evil in the world, even if she ultimately determines they themselves are only useful fools. Literally she’s there to keep an eye on the rest of them and is probably one of the only unambiguously good people in the game. She uses a katana, despite the intro showing her with a throwing star, which also means she’s capable of using many of the same equipment parts Ryle is. More on that in a bit. She does become one of your better sources of elemental and status abilities, though, and starts with an ability that makes her your party thief with either a 100% success rate or at least higher than anything else the game affords you. I’ll admit I would have liked for her to at least get one ability involving throwing stars, though, given she’s a ninja and has one in the intro. They’re not exactly hard to make graphics for and some ability to toss a handful into the ranks would’ve been nice. In terms of her attack magic, she represents Water, but she’s also a useful status mage. While she’s the 4th character to join and gets largely ignored in the intro, in practice she receives almost as much to do in the story as Rumil and joins so shortly after that there’s really no reason Rumil should be treated any more specially other than that Rumil is the marketable waifu. Strictly speaking, I’d argue Karin is the more useful character since healing items are plentiful, reducing Rumil’s ability utility a bit, where Karin is the most effective thief the game offers without you engaging in its specialty shop.

Denoas is similarly without world experience as Rumil, but instead of having any preconceptions, at least is making an effort to learn. He definitely views the world from the perspective of a war machine, but at the same time, he’s looking to add to that and is quick to point out Ryle’s flaws including his rudeness. There are things he asks that he knows are sensitive and he tries to be gentle about it, but to be frank, he’s nothing short of brutal with Ryle at times, and is rarely anything less than blunt with him. In many ways, though, his perspective is centered around logic and applying what he knows to what he doesn’t yet know, and he’s a quick study and perceptive, which seems to be one of the key things saving the party’s butts in the early game. He uses fists and unlike the others, his other "weaponry" is less additional arm parts and more various other armor bits including a helmet and arm guard. More on that in a bit. Out of the entire cast so far, Denoas is the one I’d consider the most interesting, and certainly the one who feels like he has the best ideas behind him. He may not be the most likable, but he’s certainly the one I like to watch move around the most because of the interesting ways his normally cool exterior interacts with his relative inexperience and surprising intelligence and even wisdom. He’s probably not actually the smartest person in the party if only because Golban exists, but he’s definitely the smartest of any of the first 4, and the way he’s able to apply what wisdom he has despite his inexperience in the world is definitely fun to watch. I suppose it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say he’s not sagely, but has incredibly good instincts. He’s a sort of locus of cool concepts within the game and strikes me as being the one someone woke up from a dream about and pitched to the team, after which they probably immediately threw Ryle together to act as a more relatable protagonist and started trying to build the party around the two of them. Ryle is absolutely the protagonist, but it feels like the game is much more "about" Denoas. Denoas otherwise plays like a sturdy tank and is a good physical attacker, though early in the game he might fall behind unless you upgrade his initial weapon since the next shop you find lacks one for him. When you do get an upgrade not long after, it comes with an ability to raise his crit rate by +30%, though, and given how many of his special attacks have multiple physical strikes that can crit, it sounds like a good way to pile on the damage with him. Otherwise, the most notable things surrounding him are questions about his functionality. He needs to eat, but food basically just disappears as soon as it gets close to the metal plate marking his mouth. He also is capable of incredible power off the bat, but loses that after clunking out immediately after along with most of his memory of the events, and the intro leaves a very ominous question mark dangling over what his true functionality and purpose actually is unbeknownst to him or really anyone else – something Karin seems to immediately sense. In return, he seems to be able to sense Karin and her intentions, making it clear there’s more to his perception than the basic 5 senses. Nothing else otherwise links the two, but it’s nothing anyone else picks up on. In fact, the only link he could feasibly have is with Ryle due to absorbing his blood to activate, and if I didn’t know better I’d almost say much of their lengthy arguments might be purely psychic without Ryle or the player realizing it given people generally don’t seem to notice the two constantly derailing conversations going back and forth, though to their credit they actually get a better handle on that by the time Rumil joins. It would certainly be interesting, though.

Ryle himself is quick to both take offense from and sling abuse at Denoas, showing signs of being a bit of a control freak, as well as rash, rude, and inconsiderate, which he blames on being a country boy, though given he was orphaned 5 years ago and has been training as a soldier ever since and gotten absolutely nowhere with it because of his sloppy technique and inability to keep his cool against even a straw dummy, it strikes me he has more deep-seated anger issues holding him back than even he admits, though these anger issues are a known quantity. Even his combat instructor says Ryle’s form is a mess because he can’t control his anger and after a very brief training session against the aforementioned dummy literally tells him to take the rest of the day off. Folks, I don’t think it’s not obvious, but someone who can’t make it past trainee because he flies off the handle so bad against an inanimate object that he’s told to cool his head for the latter half of the day really doesn’t have what it takes to be a real soldier, and he’s not shy about saying his motivation is revenge. The thing is, he knows this anger is holding him back and is clearly disappointed in himself. There’s an undertone of something a bit more noble to his motivations than simple revenge, too, and has chosen a profession where on some level he knows he’d be helping people avoid his own fate. His attempts to control Denoas speak to a couple different things in that regard: 1) most golems are little more than puppets and so that’s his frame of reference and colors his expectations, but 2) he desperately needs to feel a sense of agency due to his trauma and being tasked with babysitting and training Denoas is something he’s at least a little resentful about and not something he’s prepared to handle maturely because he’s not over needing similar guidance. The king is smart enough to have at least read up on him despite it seeming like they’re not normally in contact, because he phrases the mission in terms of getting his revenge vicariously through Denoas to give him the push out the door, though that definitely doesn’t put him in the right mindset surrounding Denoas. Ryle otherwise considers himself woefully inadequate for the job and rightfully so all things considered and it’s only because of hints that he’s essential somehow to Denoas’ operation that it’s clear he doesn’t really have a choice in the matter and such a push is needed. Boy needs therapy, but it doesn’t seem to be on offer. One gets the impression that the only reason nobody’s given up on him is because they think he might legitimately be able to use his training to work through his issues and he still somehow hasn’t given up on himself. To everyone else in the castle’s credit, they all treat him pretty warmly like they all understand this. He’s a screw-up, but he means well. If he didn’t mean well, people wouldn’t have the same patience with him. Unfortunately, he has little patience to spare, particularly when Denoas is pointing out his flaws. In fact, there’s not much that Denoas says or does that DOESN’T get his goat. While he eventually relents because he knows Denoas is right, or questioning in innocence, it doesn’t stop him from being argumentative with him. This is a huge issue in that everyone treats this like them getting along splendidly, when they really, really aren’t. Ryle isn’t necessarily a completely unlikable protagonist Denoas aside, but seeing as he’s only free of that particular interaction in the very opening of the game, he gets very little time to show that side of himself, and his lack of maturity shows itself constantly. As a combatant, he of course uses a sword, because what JRPG protagonist doesn’t? He otherwise is no mage, but does, perhaps a bit too appropriately, get a Berserk skill, making him probably the best physical attacker in the party, even if it does tank his defense. Otherwise, since I’ve already griped about designs for a couple other characters, let me just say that Ryle is the LEAST memorable character in this game. I honestly sitting right here typing cannot recall a thing about his appearance other than his head and the fact he has red shoulder pads of some sort. It’s not even necessarily that his outfit is lacking in detail, but it lacks strong details like the others benefit from. Like, all of the detail, inasmuch as I can easily recall that some detail exists, is pretty much lost in a swamp of dark colors and lacks the same bold lines and contrast that make things memorable for literally everyone else. I get that he’s supposed to be a knight, but I can very easily recall the sprites of the other knights around the castle, where his is just such a mess that I honestly couldn’t tell you what it’s supposed to be, other than a general guess of "armor." But if it were any kind of standard armor, I’d be able to tell you exactly what kind. It’s pretty bad when the most memorable thing about a character is his wonky face and generic messy spiked brown hair. Heck, even Yukulf I can tell you has a sweet red leather jacket. When I say the game feels like Ryle was thrown in to give a relatable protagonist, but was not the one someone had a dream about, this is the sort of thing I’m talking about. Denoas has immediately recognizable features beyond just being a living suit of armor and frankly a lot of it even has to do with wonky anatomy that I can quite easily visualize because it’s clear they got lazy and made, like, literally everything a ball joint and he has a thigh gap for miles because of it, because he’s essentially a posable figure with armor pasted straight onto it rather than trying to fill out the skeleton with anything resembling a torso or humanoid muscular shapes. I can visualize literally everyone in the game except Ryle. That tells me he really needed a silhouette pass before anyone rubber stamped his design, and it feels like his was the first one done and then nobody modified it to fit with everyone else.

The last two characters of the party are gained at the same time. Golban is basically the adult of the party and feels a bit like a warm grandpa, able to direct other people around pretty effectively through Worthers Orig- I mean, uh, actually, yeah, sugary treats at the very least, but only because Runatie has an insatiable sweet tooth. I never did get far enough to get more than that initial read on him before losing my save, but that should be easily remedied and when it is I’ll pretend this never happened update this in place. Runatie seems to be a bit of a brat. They use a hammer and rapier, respectively, but chances are since your party already has a pair of perfectly good attackers, a healer, and a thief, you’re not going to have a burning need to change anything. I’m honestly not sure why they exist at all except for story reasons. Runatie is not immediately likable like most of the others manage to be before they show their less endearing traits. Golban is another story, but other than being a dwarf and therefore prone to drinking like a fish, I’m not sure exactly how they’d manage to ruin him as a character. Runatie is a Fire mage, while Golban, naturally, uses Earth. Both of them eventually get a substantial mix of buffs, debuffs, and curative abilities without actually being healers according to a guide I found, but whether that actually becomes significant is going to depend greatly on whether the game makes it an issue or not, and it doesn’t feel like any of their abilities couldn’t have gone to someone else, especially since Ryle’s rage abilities would have made him perfect for the Fire element and Denoas would have been perfectly suitable for Earth as a golem. Their relative lack of focus just feels like it could have conceivably been redistributed to everyone else and that specific others might have been well suited to it for their focused areas. It also doesn’t feel like their mix of abilities really lets you effectively choose the "best" one for a given situation; both of them have abilities that feel like you’d need them both to cover the most common situations where either would be useful.

There are some other notable secondary characters, notably King Gnorr and his younger brother and closest advisor Prince Royneed. And it’s pretty immediately apparent the two of them have a Red Oni, Blue Oni thing going on, because Gnorr’s portrait alone pretty much leaves no doubt that you’re working for the villains. Like, he took power 8 years ago after his father died of a long illness, but the first thought I had reading that line was "probably poisoned, actually." That said, Royneed is more the type who’d surprise everyone by doing it since his softer expression, better "good guy" colors, and generally just coming off as an almost suspiciously good person in relation to his brother would have been more believably a benevolent king were he not faithfully serving his brother’s needs, largely focusing on the fine details Gnorr is stated to not pay much attention to and providing a friendly face Gnorr seems incapable of. It strikes me that Royneed would make the better king and Gnorr would make the better general, but since succession goes by age, Gnorr would have to abdicate and there’s no reason for it given they’re basically co-rulers for all it matters and have no apparent difference in their goals or any sort of conflict between them. Like, if I absolutely had to call a twist, it would be that Royneed specifically is the evil one and Gnorr is so disinterested with anything but the flashy stuff that he’s more or less a useful tool, but it strikes me that since Gnorr is the one who threw in a bit of emotional manipulation to get Ryle out the door that he’s smart enough to use whatever details Royneed provides him and to that effect Royneed isn’t so much his secretary as an equal half to their shared operation and almost certainly the one primarily involved in Denoas’ creation. So yeah, when Karin gets bad vibes from the party, Rumil aside and even Denoas appearing with red eyes and black angel wings in the intro aside, your mission is coming from the sketchy sort in the first place.

Some assembly required

But to fulfill the many promises I made, to explain equipment in this game, your "weapon" actually is composed of 3 parts, which consist of the business end and 2 additional components. Your 3 sword users share hilts and guards as their additional components and even Golban shares the hilts for his hammers, though rather than a guard, he has a "grip" that one can only assume is the portion slightly higher up where one might put another hand or hold on instead of the lower hilt for a bit more control. Rumil as a bow user has the "bow" part of the bow, the arrow she shoots from it, which one could consider to be an effectively infinite stock, and the bowstring, with the bow itself being the "business end" and her arrows being notable for most of them applying status at a certain rate or otherwise a second arrow altogether, where most of the others have some sort of defensive bonus in the corresponding slot. Denoas has a "business end" of a fist, with a helmet and arm guard being his more defensive bits. The business end of a weapon is able to be enhanced for more damage, but being brutally honest, chances are you’re going to have learned the abilities off it by the time you hit the next shop where they’ll sell one that’s at the recommended level with new abilities to learn. Enhancing is as such rarely recommended unless you prefer a given weapon attribute and have already learned everything off weapons whose attributes you like less. I’ll also say that enhancing quickly gets expensive since you’re going to be paying the same price as a whole new weapon of that tier to buy it, so your best bet is to just invest in the new abilities and at whatever point that runs dry, pick a favorite and sharpen that baby to a molecular edge. Other than that, the Thief’s Hilt can turn 4 of the party members into item collectors, but Karin’s Haze Slash ability already makes her a better thief than that ever could, so whether this is necessary is up to you. Armor is a much simpler affair in that everyone has a particular type exclusive to them and is generally a straight upgrade for each except when it’s more of a choice between some special defenses or a little extra physical defense. Everyone also gets 2 accessory slots, which is a nice touch and allows you to easily protect Rumil as your healer from whatever nasty status might make her unable to perform that duty in a given area, beef up your physical attackers, etc.

Where the grass is green

To dive deeper into the aesthetics, graphically, this game has a few different things going for it. Traveling the world is done in a tile-based manner with sprites and all of it is very nicely done, and conversations happen with large, hi-res character art that I have very few quibbles with other than that Ryle’s "angry, but not yelling" pose is just his normal one with a neon anime popping vein pasted on when they could have done more with his eyebrows at the very least, and some of the default mouths have an overly deep and wide "V" shape to them that makes their expression look a little off since it’s just a deep black shadow. There are other poses that are just the default pose with a cute icon slapped somewhere nice, but none of the others are quite as obvious as that angry one for Ryle.

Combat instead switches to a soft-shaded chibi style that moves like it was animated in Flash, but overall it’s not a bad thing and there’s plenty of detail to enjoy. There’s a lot of squash and stretch and little bits of bouncing, even for slimes in the dungeon screens, but it’s largely charming rather than coming off as lazy due to there being enough other animation to keep it from being too static and animations are quite snappy, though if I do have one quibble it’s that motion smears look at little too solid and could have used some ragged edges and/or transparency. They’re not up for that many frames, and I wouldn’t call it distracting, but it is hard to un-see it once you’ve noticed. Overall, my complaints about the graphics are relatively minor and it’s obvious a lot of effort was put into them.

The music has some stand-out themes, including the opening as I mentioned and especially the boss theme, with the battle theme also being pretty good. All of that is good, because you’ll be hearing the boss theme a surprising amount. Not that the game is a boss rush, but there’s generally one whenever you make the slightest bit of progress, so you can expect to hear it at the end of every dungeon if not more, and dungeons tend to be pretty short, at least in the early game. Each theme is pretty appropriate for the place you encounter it, though I do have to say your maiden voyage through your first dungeon does put a surprisingly creepy vibe in woods that are nominally under the control of the elves. It doesn’t sound like they have much control over them anymore, and with talk of people needing to be legal adults in elven years (50 in this game, which is half of what D&D stipulates, for the record), one gets the impression they’re fully aware their comfortable home is now surrounded by a dungeon where it probably wasn’t before. Especially when one considers that monsters are referred to as "demons" despite the game starting you off with slimes and otherwise perfectly natural wolves, the natural order seems to have been mucked up pretty effectively by the relatively recent (especially by elven standards) problems caused by the villains coming up from their subterranean abode 5 years ago.

Just to address that, "demons" are treated as distinct from "The Evils of the Earth-depths" who comprise your primary antagonists, though nothing really says one way or the other whether they’re related or started appearing at the same time, though it would be a reasonable assumption unless and until the game states otherwise. Dark elves seem to be a known quantity by standard elf standards and Hargna being one of them implies that any efforts to wipe them out simply drove them underground, with neither Hargna nor Rumil offering any indication that they’re of anything but mortal origin. The other villains naturally raise a few more questions, but so far they’ve gone largely unaddressed.

That aside, the music makes good use of its instrumentation, using more rock-based themes for battle and focusing on less electronic instruments for most of the world. It’s pretty typical JRPG stuff, though I will say that smart instrumentation is not a given. Even Final Fantasy has made the mistake of putting melody on a string section. This game’s OST may not be the type that ends up on a CD, but it does what it needs to and for the most part, themes don’t overstay their welcome, though the rather shrill trumpets you get in the castle when the opening of the game has you on rails definitely get grating by the time you’re able to get on with the actual game.

Extracurricular activities

In terms of quests, the game is quite linear and once you leave a place, it’s likely you’ll only need to go back to fulfill an optional sidequest. To that effect, you can buy teleportation items that let you warp to any town you visited and they’re pretty cheap, so if you do have business somewhere, you don’t have to backtrack the whole game world to get there. Otherwise, the only things you might need to worry about are stocking up on new accessories you couldn’t afford before, which is fairly likely, because accessories are the most expensive thing you’ll find in any shop early on, costing like two weapons’ worth at a very consistent 500 gold apiece.

Otherwise, shops don’t have much worth buying and enemies drop a fairly generous amount of gold, so you’re likely going to be able to upgrade at least some of your equipment at every shop without too much hassle, though there’s very little wiggle room. Enemies also have fairly generous drop rates on healing items early on and healing items heal a ton, which is helpful for that lazy bar mechanic as I mentioned earlier. Equipment will be constantly breaking your bank, but it’ll be the only thing doing it.

And the school of hard knocks

In terms of how combat plays out, each character gets a couple different pools of skills: one that takes their initiative bar and one that takes a 4-segment meter at the right side of the screen that the party shares. In practice, since there’s no MP to worry about, there’s no reason not to just spam your skills in most battles since attacking takes almost as much action meter as skills do for less damage, though to be frank, it’s not always that big a deal, either, since most battles don’t take more than a round to complete anyway, at least on Normal. Hard might make things a bit more meaningful in that regard, but unfortunately you have to commit the whole file to a single difficulty and I haven’t tried Hard personally because the game may be pretty easy, but, like, enjoyably so. You’re not one-shotting enemies with basic attacks by default and that opens the door to a little strategy, as well as not having to dig through menus to make things go a bit faster, even if it means your party takes more damage, and damage can absolutely build up over the course of a dungeon.

Your shared-bar skills are another matter and the party gets more of those as they level up, including team attacks, but starting out, each only gets personal ones. The bar is best saved for bosses, of course, though notably, there is the rare personal skill pool skill that might take a bit of it. You’ll likely fill it up by the end of any dungeon and normal battles would just be wasting it anyway, but it’s a nice touch and ensures you have powerful skills at your disposal to take down bosses with either by way of extreme damage or curing all the pain and status they bury you in, even if they don’t outlast the battle.

Is it worth it?

Despite my reservations about the party, I ultimately do want to see where this goes, because the story as a whole is maybe a little generic, but has enough interest to it that it’s clear there’s more to find out and things aren’t quite as straightforward as they might otherwise be. Like, it’s clear as you go that there are real problems that the party is just not being informed of between Denoas having an evil-looking alternate form in the intro and the fact that he was literally activated by absorbing Ryle’s blood (not that Ryle had any shortage of it outside his body after getting the crap kicked out of him in a "supposed to lose" battle with Gardino). That and your clearly evil king and his suspiciously wholesome brother, who was almost certainly involved in the project of making Denoas, make an undercurrent of malaise in your seemingly simple mission that Karin picked up on just by reading the room. Like, yes, it’s obvious from the word "go" that there’s a problem, but I’m actually interested in what that problem IS. Even if it’s just some world domination BS, the fact everything is interwoven with an external threat still means the game is keeping multiple balls in the air, which is more than I’d expect for less than $10.