Rogue Galaxy (PlayStation 2) review
"For all its ambitions, Rogue Galaxy neither sustains enough interest nor gathers enough courage to break away from being just a great-looking, great-sounding shell of the epic it wants to be."
Pirates, treasures, stars, and ships - these are the riches that epics are made of, and Rogue Galaxy has them in droves. One moment you'll be following the footsteps of Star Wars as Jaster Rogue, a strapping young lad who hopes to one day escape the daily monotony of his desert planet and trek through the galaxy in search of adventure, self-discovery, and of course, his parents who gave him up at birth. And the next moment, you'll be sifting through cut-scenes, gathering allies, synthesizing weapons, inventing items, gaining experience points, and completing more than enough long-term goals to imitate your favorite RPG. Now, there's no fault in flipping through the pages of the classics; that would be setting off in the right direction. But unlike the successes of Dark Cloud 2 and Dragon Quest VIII, Level 5's auspicious launch into the cosmos takes an unexpected turn into the excessive and the simplistic.
On first impressions, the game's visual and aural presentation pops. Level 5 has mastered how to make cel-shaded graphics an argument against realism. Every picture on the screen is able to capture fantasy with texture, vibrancy, and contrast, whether it is the dense jungles of the planet Juraika; the smoky, dreary mines of Vedan; or the breezy beaches of Alistia. Complementing them is a soundtrack that immediately sets the mood without going over-the-top or being forcefully dramatic: casual jazz within the Dorgenark, a relaxing flute and drum medley for Lapatia Village in Alistia, and violin staccato phrases as a part of the understated battle theme.
But don't be fooled by the whimsy of it all.
Most of the game's novel ideas, which in themselves are hard to come by in this borrow-heavy genre, are slighted by one critical gameplay flaw: Once your party gains attacks that damage every enemy on the screen, about six hours into the game, combat becomes a tiresome process of weaving your way through menus to use these AP-consuming abilities and then, every now and then, whipping out an inexpensive AP-recovery item.
In a turn-based system, this ruins any sense of strategy - but in a hack-'n-slash system, this just kills. The first hours of playtime are devoted to teaching you how to swing your blade, dash back and forth, blast enemies with your gun, and mince monsters into gold and leftover items. This fun is not only soon discarded, but actually replaced with an unusual kind of irritation when the game forces you to drop your AP-consuming schemes. Some monsters, especially those near the grand finale, can't be destroyed by ground or AP attacks; you can use Jaster's Supernova ability, a hyper-blade of crescent light which pierces the planet into vaporized meteorites - and they won't die. It is as if the game knew you would rely on your AP attacks and thrust AP-resistant enemies as an artificial challenge.
And this doesn't stop there. Similarly, several enemies have impenetrable barriers and some bosses can only be reached by creating airborne platforms. Both of these can be remedied by shooting them with the Barrier Shot or the Monography Shot respectively, but only Jaster can use these two guns. Moreover, these two weapons do not charge outside of battle, so not only do you have to switch your lead character to Jaster (if he isn't already) when these enemies appear, but there will also be times when you have to run around and admire the scenery while taking damage, and wait until your gun charges to full power.
Another ill-fated good idea is that you are rewarded a 10% experience bonus for every battle in which you defeat more enemies than your two active allies. However, only enemies that you kill in hand-to-hand combat count. So while this would have encouraged you to master your melee skills, you are better off spending your time using a quick and easy AP attack, and engaging in another battle to gain 100% more experience instead.
Worse yet, boss battles are a cinch - and since it takes a while before you learn powerful AP abilities, the early bosses are actually the hardest. Who knew that a mutant frog would cause more trouble than a sorceress queen who has protected a deep jungle temple since ancient times? Particularly debilitating is that the game's dungeons, which are already tortuous and recycle the same structures without a second thought, get exponentially longer as you approach the end. All the build-up of opening minor treasures and whacking low-level enemies is left on the road. Bosses are supposed to be the climax of a dungeon, not the other way around.
While the combat system descends into a black hole of abilities, its consequential fast pace oddly keeps it addictive, though this has little to do with the combat. Here, items are not sidelined as just random things enemies leave behind; they also give characters their abilities. Each party member has a unique Revelation Flow Chart which maps all their abilities, showing what items are needed to learn them and any prerequisite abilities that are required in advance. This probably sounds mechanical and nonsensical, but there's a certain charm with items being used this way. That a Rose of Passion helps Jaster learn Our Song, an attack that burns enemies with the heated desires between him and his love interest Kisala, is comical and light. There's also something about putting items where they belong, in slots whose silhouettes were specifically cut out just for them, that is satisfying enough that you'll take an extra half-hour of random battling to get the items you need.
In fact, you'd better like the slow grind of developing your characters, because there's not much else worth experiencing. At this point, you're probably wondering whether the story will be the game's saving grace, but it's certainly not. The relationships between characters, between them and the world, and just the thematic points of the story don't develop beyond the ordinary. After a case of mistaken identity, Jaster is hired as a bounty hunter by the head of the legendary pirate ship, the Dorgenark. From there, you can expect to pick up a new character for every planet you happen to hop on - forming a motley crew that includes the Amazonian warrior Lilika, the C-3PO-like android Steve, and the eye-patch bounty hunter Zegram.
The unlikely combination of pirates, technology, and a planetary system just isn't convincing enough. Pirates are supposed to plunder and behave with all the gruffness and haughtiness of a grubby beer keg. Here, Jaster transforms the Dorgenark into a goody-two-shoes ship to the point that even Zegram comments about whether they're pirates anymore. The story is also supposed to revolve around an intergalactic war which has brought Jaster's home planet Rosa under foreign occupation, so where's the warfare? It's quite obvious that the capitalist weapons manufacturer Daytron is pulling the strings behind the war and that soldiers that look like Storm Troopers are frequently seen pacing around some random street, but there are no laser-infested skirmishes, no underground revolutions, no technological scale of violence. Is a war really going on?
Encompassing the lackluster story are lines of dialogue that don't have any power, both literally and figuratively. Cut-scenes sometimes move as if they were stuck in molasses, with noticeable pauses in between each word or line, and every now and then, a character will say something grating like "OMG, that is so scary!" Computer lingo like "LOL" should never be spelled out or used in spoken dialogue. Ever. NPC characters also hardly have anything interesting to say, and the game even marks them with a blue orb over their heads if they have an invention idea to tell you - so you know exactly who to ignore. To be fair, the only chapter that leaves an impact introduces Deego, a canine humanoid ex-military man, who has a recent devotion to alcohol. His unresolved love for the bar owner Angela and his conflict with an ex-comrade who has joined the local mafia unravels with a strength reminiscent of Cowboy Bebop. Unfortunately, this cannot be said for most of what comes before and after this brief episode, and what you're left with is a mostly uninspiring affair.
If it's any compensation, the game at least offers a wealth of distractions. Side bosses litter the galaxy, waiting to be sliced up. Defeating these quarries as well as bundles of regular enemies earns you hunter points, which spikes you up the hunter leaderboard for some hard-earned items. Going back to the NPCs marked with blue orbs above their heads, you can follow through with their invention ideas by assembling the right parts in the factory. Crafting new items actually takes some math and a bit of reading, but it makes the laborious task of item synthesis more interactive and engaging than simple additive mixing. Not as nearly compelling is the Insectron tournament. If you don't like tamagotchis, Pokémon, or Yu-Gi-Oh! cards, then you already know how you'll feel about trapping, raising, and fighting with assorted bugs. And if you do like those collectible games, then you're better off playing them instead. Besides, none of the rewards for these distractions are necessary, as the final dungeon and boss are among the easiest in recent memory, and the treasure chests along the way provide all the weapons you need to beat them.
"All style, no substance" could be said to be the long and the short of Rogue Galaxy, but it's more than that. If AP-recovery items were not easy to come by and if the dialogue was not written in a way in which you could see the plot twist from hours away or where it derived from so clearly, the game would have been a hack-'n-slash action RPG for the ages. Unfortunately, gameplay and story matter. For all its ambitions, Rogue Galaxy neither sustains enough interest nor gathers enough courage to break away from being just a great-looking, great-sounding shell of the epic it wants to be.
Staff review by Nicholas Tan (April 01, 2007)
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