"Rayearth's story is certainly one of growth and discovery, but it's hardly carefree. Despite the cutesy girls' fantasy trappings, this is an unmistakably mature adventure..."
There's something to be said for effort.
It's no accident that anime-based games, like their Hollywood blockbuster-based counterparts, tend to dip beneath the watermark for quality. Why devote a year or two in development to a licensed title when the target audience would just as quickly spend their dollars on colored dung as on a crimson ruby?
With that admittedly rational logic, most 'hot property' cash-ins are lacking a certain key element. Effort.
That's what makes the Saturn incarnation of Magic Knight Rayearth so special. Not only does it drip with the artists', writers', and programmers' love, but it even flushes out the rather average memory of the television show. Quite honestly, you're best off if you've never even seen the anime, because then the tragic plot and emotional themes have a clean slate upon which to write their magical message -- unmarred by the childish platitudes of the Rayearth TV series.
That's not to say this sword-swinging, Zelda-style adventure immediately sets in with the gory drama of MacBeth. In fact, it all begins quite innocently. Some of you might be familiar with Physics Day: an educational event during which students from multiple schools bus down to the local Six Flags amusement park to "study" such attractions as the Demon rollercoaster and 100-foot drop of Cliffhanger. In Rayearth, three fourteen-year-old schoolgirls -- Hikaru, Umi, and Fuu -- visit the Tokyo Tower on a similar area-wide field trip. They've never met, but they'll spend a lot of time together once they're enveloped in a single radiant burst of light.
In typical magical light manner, the blinding flash transports the trio to another world... or rather, to the skies of another world, causing the girls to plummet uncontrollably to the rocky ground below. After an uncomfortable arrival, things quickly take a bend for the unusual with monsters and magicians appearing at every turn. It seems the girls have been summoned to this world by a Princess -- a young lady by the name of Emerald who, through quiet prayer alone, maintains peace in the lands. However, a scoundrel named Zagat has kidnapped the unfortunate lass, as scoundrels are wont to do, and locked her away in a magic-sealing chamber. With her last remaining power, Emerald summoned the girls to her world so that they could unlock the necessary secrets to become Magic Knights and rescue the land of Cefiro from collapse. Naturally, there are plenty of mind-bending puzzles and nefarious villains impeding your path.
And thus, the stage is set for a magical and lighthearted (if routine) Spielberg-esque tale of growth and youthful adventure.
But then David Lynch takes the reins.
Rayearth's story is certainly one of growth and discovery, but it's hardly carefree. Despite the cutesy girls' fantasy trappings, this is an unmistakably mature adventure. There is no small amount of blood shed during the tale -- a tale of sorrow, penned by the authors of X and RG Veda, two of the more tragic and gruesome comic series in Japan. Innocent creatures are rescued from a destiny of violence, only to be twisted into ruthless killers by Zagat's sorcery. People struggle to find their own self-worth and, at the very point of revelation, upon realizing they can go on living, are wiped from existence before your very eyes. Each girl's spirit must survive and strengthen through heart-wrenching and thought-provoking situations that would leave a typical schoolchild catatonic with grief and uncertainty.
This dramatic plot would be wasted if the major players weren't so involving. Red-headed Hikaru is a feisty and trusting girl, the go-get-em of the group. Umi is classy but spoiled, a spitting image of the "rich kid" label. Fuu is a shy and quiet girl, caring of others' feelings and displaying a high degree of intelligence. Like real people, each character can be roughly labeled with a single sentence... but also like real people, their behavior stretches the bounds of convenient stereotypes -- adding a layer of depth without breaking the mold of their personality.
Take introvert Fuu, for example. Not my personal favorite by any means, but she demonstrates a genuine depth early on. During the first obstacle of the game, Fuu is forced to confront the one thing most important to her -- which just so happens to be herself. Coming from a quiet and thoughtful individual, such selfishness is pretty surprising, perhaps even contradictory. However, the explanation is quick to follow: how can one truly value life if they don't even value their own? Characters in Rayearth don't just have feelings -- they have reasons for their feelings. Whether these explanations are sufficient, or merely rationalizations to excuse their behavior, is explored throughout the game's lengthy quest.
Often when a video game RPG wants to prove, "This mage/warrior/whatever is not a stereotype!", we're faced with random epiphanies, jaded pessimists arbitrarily sacrificing their lives for love, or somesuch nonsense. Rayearth is much more subtle. By presenting the heroines' quirks early on and giving the girls time to develop, the major changes in attitude presented late in the game are far more convincing and less sudden.
The heroines are not the only compelling characters, as they are flanked on one side by endearing acquaintances, and on the other by fleshed-out villains. To use a single example, Innova -- the evil priest Zagat's right-hand man -- is shockingly convincing. The depth of Innova's loyalty to his master is unmistakable and surprisingly rare; time and again, from RPG's as varied as Thousand Arms, Lunar 2, and Vay, "Bad Guy Number Two" is a snake-in-the-grass plotting against the higher power. Not so here. Nor is Innova a cardboard "Yes Man" cutout. He has his own personal reasons for hindering the Magic Knights' quest, and when this villain's true relationship to Zagat and the land of Cefiro comes to light, the revelation is both deeply unnerving and profoundly touching.
It's not as though the game is entirely doom and gloom, however. Rayearth is littered with humorous touches, from Hikaru chasing her puppy around Tokyo Tower, to the tongue-in-cheek tutorial sequences where your Magical Advisors suddenly pop in and explain how to power-up your sword. Speaking of the Advisors, when the Magic Knights first arrive in Cefiro, knowing not a single lick of magic, the head magician is convinced that Princess Emerald screwed up and summoned the wrong people. That misunderstanding itself makes for an amusing sequence, as the girls are a bit incensed at having been unexpectedly yanked out from the "real" world, only to have some random, robed freak roll his eyes at their incompetence.
Furthermore, one of the girls finds a love interest in the form of a suspicious swordsman. With her goo-goo eyes and heavy blushing, she suffers no small amount of teasing from the other two Magic Knights despite her vehement claims of purity. While it provides fodder for quite a few jokes, this plot piece also serves to underscore the power of later scenes, provoking questions of trust and betrayal.
Rayearth is proof that a claustrophobic, oppressive atmosphere is not necessary to create a mature adventure. Just as one can overdose on saccharine shenanigans, it's also possible to hammer tragedy to the point that none of the characters are any fun. This game treads the precarious line between the two extremes, and it succeeds.
However, as fantastic as the story, quest, and characters are, the game itself is not without its setbacks. One immediately evident problem is in the quality of the many (many) cinematics. From the opening to the ending, intense artifacting muddies what would otherwise be an impressive feature. The anime intermissions still look nice, but it's impossible to ignore the spotty coloration.
On a less cosmetic note, combat is occasionally tedious. You can alternate between the three playable characters at any moment, similar to Secret of Mana, and bask in their unique and gorgeous magical attacks. Unfortunately, the primary sword (or bow, for Fuu) is a bit slow on the take. Against the bosses and larger foes, this poses no problem, as those battles are primarily strategic and not fast-paced. Against the common scrubs, however, fending off legions can become a bit of a chore when travelling through a particular area for a second or third time.
As you slaughter those minor annoyances, you'll collect more than a few multicolored crystals. Rayearth's money crystals resemble Zelda's rubies in appearance, but not in utility. Whereas this game could have had a deep shop system across its abundance of towns, you are instead relegated to spending those crystals on nothing but health and magic potions. You will never need to purchase more powerful swords or armor because, in an imaginative twist, the girls' equipment increases in power as they mature through various ordeals. However, by the end of the adventure, that bag of unspent crystals gets pretty heavy, leaving one to wonder why a monetary system even exists at all.
Don't be misled. Rayearth is not a case of a fantastic idea being ruined by technical and design flaws. Aside from the above quibbles, this game flaunts its excellence.
The extravagantly colorful and highly resolute (sometimes to the point of near photo-realism) visuals enhance the joy of the quest itself; exploration is a pleasure when every room radiates with the artists' pride. As you wander through hollowed trees, bits of branches poke out through the walls. Luminescent will o' the wisps glow in the night-time sky as the Magic Knights explore a haunted forest that has sprouted from the enormous, mossy shell of a Jurassic sea-turtle. In less exotic locales, such as fiery caverns, flames shimmer and twist behind simulated clouds of steam. Special effects abound, as rickety wooden bridges ripple underfoot and transparent clouds descend upon the Forest of Silence.
Silent as the forest may be, the game is anything but. Classical fantasia melodies whistle through the speakers, and ominous marches punctuate the urgency of the Magic Knights' mission. More impressive than the music is the Diary feature. After key events -- well nigh thirty in all! -- each girl jots down her own, personalized observations in an illustrated diary. Like the rest of the text, Working Designs' translations of these private notes are excellent. Not content with merely letting players read these diaries, the US publisher went above and beyond the Japanese version by adding audio commentary. Now, at the optional tap of a button, each of the Knights will read any page aloud from her own journal. Seeing the girls' varied views on a single event adds to character depth. Being able to hear that same story makes it even more immersive and compelling.
Most impressive of all, however, is the background interaction. Almost anything you see -- drawers, cupboards, fountains, bushes -- can be examined, and each girl has their own separate observation. Fuu might guess as to the reason someone keeps a mirror, but Umi would simply admire her own hair. While entertaining, this interaction also serves a practical purpose. Scattered throughout the game are fifty six Rainbow Amulets. The more you find, the more secrets you can unlock: pictures, mysterious diaries, and even special shoes. This is an incredible incentive for exploration and, since many of the comments are amusing, I felt rewarded even when there wasn't an amulet hidden in a flowerpot.
The finale must be addressed. For those who have persevered to the end of Devil May Cry, you have some idea what to expect from Rayearth's final gameplay moments: a grand finish to a fantastic adventure. The final plot twist, however, is something else entirely. While not completely unpredictable, the ending scenes are powerful, moving, and absolutely original. In a world where high-profile games offer unsatisfyingly bizarre endings, palette-swapped final bosses, or allusions to sequels, Rayearth is a treat for the mind.
There is no doubt that the artists took great pride in their work, and for good reason; this is a true gem in a crowded genre, showing a great deal more effort than anyone should have reasonably expected. From its Japanese release at the Saturn's birth, to its US release at the Saturn's death, Magic Knight Rayearth never lost its luster.
Staff review by Zigfried (February 17, 2005)
Zigfried likes writing about whales and angry seamen, and often does so at the local pub.
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