Monthly Archives: March 2024

SRPG Game 90 – Sakura Taisen 2

Sakura Taisen 2 (サクラ大戦2), released 4/4/1998, developed by Red Company, published by Sega

This is the sequel to the original Sakura Taisen, which I covered earlier — the game is essentially the same as the first one so I won’t go over the basics again. There are only a few new features in the battles. There are combination super moves (which I never found useful), and then if two of your characters are both in range of an enemy there’s a random chance that they will join together in a combo attack. Finally, Ogami can change the overall tactics of the group which raise or lower move, attack, or defense. This last one is the only new feature that I found really changed the in battle tactics.

Ogami has been away from the theatre troupe for a year, and now he is back to meet his one true love Sakura. But of course new enemies threaten Tokyo. All of the girls from the first game return, along with two new ones.

Orihime is a half-Italian woman who seems to hate all Japanese men. Her mech has an area of effect attack although it does not target the spaces immediately adjacent to her.

Reni is from Germany; everyone thinks she’s a man at first but it turns out she is a girl. Her attack is like Sumire’s but it’s a 3-range rather than just 2.

The first stages proceed along the same lines as the first game — they’re a chance to introduce the new characters, revisit the old ones, and introduce the enemy group. This time the group is five demon-like characters headed by “demon mask”, called the Black Five.

Tsuchigumo, one of the five

In these first stages there’s not a whole lot of information about what the enemy’s goal is; they are doing everything for a certain unnamed person, and their main aim at first seems to be just to eliminate the Flower Battalion. In the first set of stages we manage to kill two of the five (Kasha the fire obsessed guy, and Suiko the ice person). At the same time, the Battalion is facing pressure from the army. One of the higher ups in the army (Kyogoku Keigo) does not like the group and uses political pressure to cut the funding, although we manage to reinstate it later.

Eventually these two strands come together as Kyogoku tries to take over the government with the help of the Black Five. However, we manage to thwart the group and Kyogoku commits suicide after the rebellion fails. After this there is an entire chapter that has no battles. For me, Ogami went to visit Sakura’s house but I think that’s because my love value with Sakura is the highest — I wonder if there are different scenes for all the different characters.

But of course the game is not over yet because there are still 3 stages. In the first game there was also this kind of double plot, but the second part went into some pretty bizarre places. The story this time is a little more grounded, I suppose. It turns out that Kyogoku did not actually die, and all the battles in the first part really had nothing to do with overthrowing the government. They were actually to gather power to revive an ancient flying fortress called Musashi that Kyogoku will use to cleanse the capital and rule over it as a new emperor.

But we use the revamped airship from the last game to make it to the Musashi. It turns out that the Demon Mask is Sakura’s dad, who has been revived by Kyogoku.

After a tearful reunion he helps us defend against Kyogoku’s attack but dies again in the process, and then we have to get to the main room to destroy all the power generators. Eventually Kyogoku ends up getting absorbed into a big robot called Shinno that serves as the final boss.

The game ends with Ogami getting promoted but then sent off to France on assignment which sets up for the third game.

Overall, I think the story was enjoyable enough. It had some similarities to the first game but I liked the links to the Kouma War that had been mentioned before and the new characters were interesting. The gameplay wasn’t as interesting. One reason I’m doing SRPGs instead of just strategy games is that I like to have some control over the development of your characters, and here it’s basically just fixed upgrades (along with the trust bonuses from the adventure part). I still don’t like how you can waste time wandering around to empty locations during the free time sections. I think I have to give this game a B rather than the A rating I gave to the original game; I don’t think that means that ST1 is a better game than ST2. I think it’s simply that I was more interested in ST1 because it was new and a shorter game overall, and it’s in a genre that I’m not going to like as much as true SRPGs. I will play the third one, though.

For the next game, I wanted to play a PS1 RPG so I asked Karkalla‘s discord for suggestions. The first one was Grandia, a game I have always heard about, so that will be next. However, Grandia seems like a rather long game so I think what I am going to do is switch off between that and Shining Force III Part 2 each week.

Märchen Veil (FDS)

Märchen Veil (メルヘンヴェール), released 3/3/1987, developed by System SACOM

For various reasons I was not able to play that much in the past couple of weeks so I’m still not quite done with Sakura Taisen 2; I don’t think that game needs two posts so I will do another early RPG this weekend.

Märchen is a German word meaning “folktale” and was borrowed into Japanese; the “veil” in the title refers to a fictional race or monster type in the game. This game was originally released in 1985 for the PC88, and then ported to a bunch of other systems, including the Famicom Disk System in 1987. Unfortunately this is only half of the game, Märchen Veil II came out for computers but was not ported, so console players can only see half of the story.

You start out by creating a save file just like in Zelda.

You then are presented with the “Visual Stage”, which gives you the story, although it continues off what must have been the introductory story in the instruction manual. It’s fairy tale like, fitting the title — the main character is a prince of the lake kingdom, and after going through many trials he earned the love of a princess. But a wizard didn’t like this and teleported the prince away, changing him into a monster called a Veil. The prince finds that he has his sword as well as a bracelet that the princess had given him, and he sets out to find his way back to the princess.

Each of the eight stages has one of these “visual stage” at the beginning. In 1985 this was quite unusual; most RPGs and adventure-style games had no developing plot at all, and only a handful of games even had any dialogue in the game. For consoles, the two Dragon Quest games did have a lot of town dialogue, but even DQ2 doesn’t have all that much of a developing plot. So I suppose this was a selling point of the game at the time (of course by modern standards the cutscenes are pretty thin).

Then the action part begins. The original computer version operated on multiple screens like Hydlide and Zelda, but the FDS version has a scrolling map. It doesn’t scroll very smoothly, and the whole game is a bit choppy and sluggish.

It also follows the general pattern of the action-RPG-adventure hybrids from this area in that the difficulty level is pretty high and a lot of the content is hidden in secret areas with no hints. It’s not as bad as some games, but if you don’t use a walkthrough you will be wandering around a dying a lot before you figure out what is going on.

Your weapon is a sword that shoots things out of it. If you find additional hidden swords in the levels you can increase the number of projectiles (and maybe the power?) You get more hearts by killing certain monsters that drop fairies, and if you collect 4 fairies you get a heart upgrade. Refilling your health can only be done by finding full heals hidden in the stages, or sometimes beating enemies or destroying things on the map will give you a small refill.

There are a fair number of items in the game, like boots that make you walk over rough areas without slowing down, or a cape that lets you finish the first stage by flying over one area. But there are a lot of places on the map where you fall into a pit if you walk into it and you can only escape by mashing the attack button. There are other times where I suddenly died without really understanding why.

In the first stage you have to walk off the right side of the map, taking you to this weird area with random things shooting everywhere. If you get the cape above you can then finish the stage.

Once you reach that castle, it’s time for the second Visual Stage.

The prince meets Phoebus, who can’t help him but tells him to seek Neptune — this will require beating a monster, though.

Fortunately the monster has a safe place you can stand in (near the top) where you can just shoot it without dying.

That’s as far as I played — this is a pretty bad game; even in 1987 it was not reviewed very well. It’s nice to see that contemporary reviewers also complained about things like inscrutable secrets and high difficulty because it feels then like I’m not judging the game unfairly from a modern perspective. Even if you did want to play it for the “visual stage” aspect you only get half the game unless you hunt down Märchen Veil II for a computer system.

Next week will be the Sakura Taisen 2 post, then I am playing Grandia. I may have mentioned this before, but I basically missed the entire PS1 era of RPGs with the exception of the Final Fantasies, Xenogears, and Chrono Cross. So I do want to try some of these well known titles as well.

Esper Dream (FDS)

Esper Dream (エスパードリーム), released 2/20/1987, developed and published by Konami

This is the next early JRPG, another Famicom Disk System game. It’s an action RPG, but I think it’s the best of these early action-RPG-adventure hybrid games I’ve played next to the original Zelda. It also fully qualifies as an action RPG under my original criteria, having both experience levels, equipment, and exploration.

There are two big things that make it a better playing experience than other games of this early era. First, the game ramps the difficulty up slowly, it doesn’t immediately drop you in a place where you are going to die in 5 seconds if you don’t immediately figure out the system (which is true of Hydlide, Valkyrie, and Deadly Towers). Second, the game doesn’t rely on hiding everything in random places with no hints as to where anything is. It would be perfectly doable to finish this game without a walkthrough.

The story is fairly simple and mostly just in the instruction manual. The main character is brought into this dream world (perhaps from the real world?) to use his psychic powers to save the mayor’s daughter Alice, defeat the demon Geerasauzan, and return to the real world. You begin in Brick Village, which has the mayor (who saves your game), a few shops, and entrances to each of the five worlds. Once you walk around and gather some information, you can go to the first world. One of the few issues with the game that still reflects the early era of video games is that the five worlds have a definite order of difficulty that you should do them in, but there’s no indication of that in the game, you just have to try them out to see which ones you can actually do.

The first world is a computer-themed one. Once you enter the worlds, you see paw prints on the ground. Some of them are fixed in one place, others will appear and move towards you. When you hit one, you get taken to a separate screen for combat.

In the separate battle screen, you move around and shoot at the enemies. At first that’s all you can do. You can also escape from battle by shooting one of the wall segments (randomly chosen, but it will turn red) and then escaping through there.

Beating the enemies leaves behind gold purses, or more rarely, capsules that restore your HP and EP. Unfortunately you destroy these if you hit them with your attacks.

Once you level up, you gain more max HP and EP, and at certain levels you will learn new Esper powers. You can also buy some of these powers in town, but that’s a waste of money. The first power is a “psi beam” that creates a wave across the screen, damaging enemies. Other powers include a town warp, a brief invincibility barrier, and healing. The powers take EP to use.

You can spend your money on equipment. Unfortunately there are only a few weapon and armor upgrades, and they are pretty expensive, but they help a lot. There are also some items you can buy like keys and items that restore you when you hit 0 hp. You can also find a fair number of items in the dungeon areas, including items that increase the power of your psi beam.

Each world has a boss that leaves behind a capsule you need to win the game.

I went through the first three worlds, but once you get to the fourth world the difficulty of the enemies raises sharply and there are no more buyable equipment upgrades (only one more armor upgrade in the last world). So you pretty much have to rely on the invincibility psi move, which requires a fair amount of EP. This is where you have to do some grinding, and where I decided to stop playing.

But as I said, this is a strong game for 1987 when it was released. If you can look past the disk swapping and the sometimes clunky mechanics, it’s a very playable retro game for someone who likes games from this period. There is an English patch.

There is a 1992 sequel to the game, released at the end of the Famicom’s life. According to Hardcore Gaming, it preserves the basic gameplay of the original but is a huge improvement and refinement. Maybe I will give it a try later, since I’m not locking myself into a chronological playthrough of these early games.

Next week, the Flower Division is back to save the capital again in Sakura Taisen 2.

SRPG Game 89 – Rebus (Kartia) (PS1)

REBUS (レブス), released 3/26/1998, developed and released by ATLUS

Two Atlus games in a row. This is Atlus’ first SRPG that isn’t in the Megami Tensei franchise, although it still involves summoning monsters. It was localized in the US as “Kartia: The Word of Fate”. In a coincidence, a twitch streamer I follow named Karkalla has just started the game on Friday and should be playing it for a couple of weeks.

The art was done by Yoshitaka Amano, well known for his Final Fantasy illustrations that go against the typical anime style that you normally see in JRPGs. Now that we are in the fifth generation of consoles, Amano’s art can actually be directly used in the game rather than simply providing art for the instruction manuals that isn’t reflected anywhere in the actual game.

The story is presented in an unusual fashion. There are two protagonists with 18 chapters each, but the story is laid out in a total of 36 episodes that weave back and forth between the stories. There is a lot of overlap and interaction between the two stories and they are basically telling two parts of the same tale. You can either play one all the way through and then the other, or play episode order which requires you to switch back and forth between the two. The latter is what I did.

The game takes place in a world that is strongly controlled by a church — the terms “heresy” and “heretic” are constantly used in the game of people who question the church’s teaching, or even non-humans. There are a group of “inquisitors” who are given extra-judicial and extra-national powers to hunt down and punish heresy. The English translation blunted these terms by using “inquirer” and “heathen”. I don’t know if this was a conscious decision or if it was simply ignorance of the translators for what the terms mean. It can be something of a challenge to deal with this kind of thing because Japanese games frequently use terms that were originally coined to refer to the Catholic Church, but they are then applied to any fictional religion that is sort of Christian-like. Translators perhaps want to avoid the strongly loaded Catholic terms to avoid giving a connotation to the terms that they don’t have in Japanese, but I don’t know whether they think of it this closely.

Lacryma Christi, the woman protagonist, is a Holy Knight devoted to the church, with a strong belief in its teachings. She’s the daughter of Cainas, a deceased hero, and is revered as a holy woman. Toxa is the son of a merchant who dreams of being a knight. Both are involved with the local guard of the Crossland kingdom, operating in the Shinon barony. The story first involves fighting against a bandit group, but soon expands to involve a plot by certain people in the church to summon the holy land of Eden.

The story and characters are definitely a strong point of the game. Each character gets a fair amount of time and development, and the overall story is interesting as well. Amano’s art is also memorable in highlighting the characters.

The other worldbuilding aspect that has more to do with the system is Kartia. These are a type of card that people can use to “imagine” things, writing them on the materials to make them appear. They are used for a lot of things in the world, but all of the “texts” are copies of the Originals that can be used for great power, although often at a great cost to the user.

In terms of the system, you find “texts” in the stages (either from beating enemies, opening chests, or burning barrels/boxes/etc, or as a stage reward). These texts can be combined to do three primary things, and each use takes one or more of your materials (Silk, Mithril, or World Tree).

Most of the combinations are given to you and you just have to select them, but you can usually add additional texts to increase the power. For the most part the additional texts you add just up the power without any relevance to what the text actually is (each one is a kanji character), but there are a few hidden combinations that can make additional items not listed.

The first thing you can do with the kartia is make equipment. There are no shops in the game so this is the only way to get new equipment other than finding it in a stage. There are six types of weapons, and six armors (two head, two body, two leg/foot).

The second thing you can do is cast spells. It doesn’t look like I took a screenshot of that, but the spells window is similar to the others — you pick a base spell (which are sorted into about 8-10 basic types) and then you can add additional texts to increase the power. The different classes of spells are elemental types, some of which have AoE, can heal, or burn things, raise and lower the ground, etc. There are no buff or debuff spells.

The third thing you do is summon Phantoms (幻獣). These are summoned monsters that can fight alongside you. They come in three basic types, and the types operate on a rock-paper-scissors system (which applies only to the phantoms themselves, not the human characters). They can gain levels and equip things, but if they reach 0 hp they die and cannot be revived. You can summon them before a battle starts, or use certain characters’ turns to summon them during battle (although they appear with their turn already used).

Each route is made up of 18 stages, played back to back with no alternate routes or anything in between the battles (other than story scenes). The only thing you can do between stages is play the Arena, where you are provided with a stock of monsters to fight against a group of enemies. You can’t gain XP here, only Kartia materials. I never used it.

The battle system is relatively complicated with a lot of moving parts. In addition to the RPS system with the monsters that I mentioned before, height makes a big difference in weapons and armor. Spears work better when attacking from below, and axes work better when attacking from above. Helmets protect better against attacks from above, etc. Characters can counter attack unless they are ranged attackers. You can use Quake to raise and lower the ground.

The system has two aspects that I do not like. First, any human character reaching 0 hp means a game over. This means you have to be aware of letting monsters gang up on your guys. Second, the lower a character’s HP, the worse they fight. This is a system that is not commonly used in games, and I never like it when it is. It may be realistic but it’s not very fun.

The Phantoms are a big problem in the game. They are extremely difficult to keep alive. They always start at level 1, and because the RPS system has such a huge effect, it’s very difficult to keep them from getting killed by opposing monsters who have good compatibility with them. However, they are very cheap to summon, so especially early on in the game they can be used profitably as cannon fodder. I never had one higher than level 2, but I wonder how effective one would be if you actually managed to get them to a high level and equip them with some decent stuff.

However, it’s not particularly relevant because after the first 4 or 5 stages, the game is extremely easy. Your human characters quickly reach a level where the enemies can’t do much against you even if they gang up on you, and you can defeat almost any enemy with just a few hits. There are still a couple of situations that are easier if you summon some monsters, and the final bosses take a little bit of strategy (particularly on Toxa’s route), but for the most part you can just send in your human characters with swords and slice through everything.

Which was fine, because I found the system more cumbersome than fun, and so it was nice to be able to enjoy the story without having to worry too much about the battles. From what I can see, my opinion of “good story, meh gameplay” seems to be shared by most of the reviewers in both English and Japanese.

One other aspect that is commented on a lot is that because you can’t repeat stages, many of the Texts in the game are permanently missable. You definitely want to make sure that when possible, you do not clear the stage without getting all the chests and boxes/barrels, and defeating any enemies that are carrying Texts. There are also hidden items in the stages but I didn’t bother with any of them.

So overall this is an OK game, but give it a pass if you insist on having good gameplay — I do wonder what it would be like to play a game where you really try as hard as possible to build an army of the summoned phantoms. I have a feeling it would be more frustrating than anything else. I wish they could have made the phantoms more costly to summon, but have their levels and stats continue — unfortunately the disposable nature of the Phantoms is part of the plot.

The next random game I chose was another SRPG so next week will be Esper Dream for the Famicom Disk System.