Quest 64 (Nintendo 64) review
"The Nintendo 64 has only one great RPG, and it is not Quest 64. "
The Nintendo 64 has only one great RPG, and it is not Quest 64.
It was technically the first of its genre to hit the system, and that alone should have been significant, especially given Squaresoft’s then well-founded allegiance to the rival console having given in to the temptations of the disc format. But whereas the most prolific RPG developer on the planet was elsewhere redefining our expectations of what the genre can offer us, Imagineer was more than happy to discard such breakthroughs and embrace the role-playing of yester-yester-yesteryear, when a few text boxes spoken by an elderly sage type was a perfectly reasonable way to set up a plot.
In fact, everything about Quest 64’s presentation mirrors that of the NES- and SNES-era role-playing games that obviously inspired it. All of the game’s environments could effectively be recreated in 2D, the characters have disproportionate bodies and speak only one line apiece (even the important ones), and all of the set pieces are generic fantasy fare ranging from simple castles to simple villages and even simpler fields. In terms of appearance, the game actually reminds me of Square-Enix’s recent DS remakes of its old Final Fantasy games, which I suppose reflects how old-fashioned the whole package is. Quest 64 felt like it was living in the past in 1998, and that is certainly not the kind of issue that time heals.
What’s surprising is that Quest 64 actually presents a relatively fresh take on the turn-based battles that send JRPG haters into moaning frenzies, since each encounter plays out like a strategy game of sorts. Battles spring up at random, and are represented by two octagons. The smaller one encircles our protagonist, Brian, giving him movement range. The larger octagon displays the playing field, which you’ll have to exit if you wish to escape the fight. Brian and his opponents get chances to exchange physical attacks and magic spells, and like every RPG, it all boils down to the stronger of the two.
In theory, this should work since positioning yourself gives the battle system an extra tactical layer that could potentially provide a unique spin on each individual encounter. But the feature is underutilized. In terms of Brian’s placement on the battlefield, your only options are to either (a) move closer or (b) move farther away, and how you come to such a decision usually reflects whether you wish to fight or flee. Since Brian’s position has no impact on the outcome of battle beyond separating physical and magical attacks – hitting an enemy from the side or behind, for example, doesn’t make any difference – the encounters themselves play out like they would in any generic RPG. It’s disappointing – here was Quest 64’s one chance to do something new, and it winds up feeling derivative anyway.
As with just about every other RPG ever made, Quest 64 revolves heavily around the usage of the Generic Four elements, the ones that are so overplayed I’m not even going to specify them, because you’re already familiar with them. Yes, those. Your quest (hey now!) has you drawing said elements out of key hotspots in the game world and gradually building more powerful spells as the game progresses, which is fine. What bothers me is that these elements don’t seem to abide by any rules or principles. The bizarre distribution of said elements among your enemies is random enough – rabbits use wind attack, spiders and caterpillars shoot fire, etc. – but there’s no sure-fire way to tell which attacks your opponents are weak against without simple trial and error. Some of your enemies are pretty resistant to all of your spells, forcing you get up close and personal with your staff. Again, Quest 64 could have been a richly strategic experience, but the utter randomness of its execution throws that off balance.
Assigning each of the Generic Four elements to its own C-button, thus doing away with unwieldy menus, was a smart move and makes for a damn intuitive battle interface. But at the same time, this control setup leaves the camera to fend for itself. In towns and castles, the camera takes on the personality of the incompetent employee, drooping down at an uncomfortably low angle and slogging lazily after Brian, not even bothering to maneuver around the foreground objects it’s content to simply clip through. Battles are a different story: While the camera is more focused on remaining tight on the action unfolding, the result is that it’s dizzying and disorienting, never staying in one place (or at one angle) for too long. And while the normally plain and featureless environments seem inexcusable, it’s an acceptable alternative to having your view of the battlefield obscured by a rogue tree.
This all leads up to one of Quest 64’s most punishing oversights. I have no qualm with the game’s graphics from a technical standpoint, but most of the levels (save for some of the later ones) are rather bland and unimaginative in design, with very few distinguishing features as you trot from point A to point B. And since the random encounters are set within the game world itself, added with the camera’s chaotic gyrations, it’s far too easy for players to get turned around without even realizing it. There are few feelings in gaming more infuriating than spending fifteen minutes slugging across an open plain contending with the same repetitive battles time and time again, only to wind up precisely where you started.
Even putting aside all of its technical issues, Quest 64 is alarmingly shallow and unexciting even by the RPG standards of the time-worn era it’s trying to mimic. There’s no equipment and, in fact, no money whatsoever; the staff you’re using at the start of the game is the very same one you’ll use in the final battle. Little attempt was made to flesh out the level design into anything more than a series of battles occurring in a straight line. If you were to remove all of the random encounters, your objective in Quest 64 would be “walk forward until the game ends.” Quest 64 probably works well as an introduction to RPGs for beginners, but if the PSX era was the time when the role-playing game came of age, then Quest 64 is the younger sibling who’s trying his hardest to imitate his older brother without realizing he’s got a long way to go before he matures.
Though I suppose that if you’re really looking for a terrific RPG, you wouldn’t be doing so on the N64. Good. It’s impossible for Quest 64 to disappoint you when your expectations are low to begin with.
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