Sonic Rush: Renewing the formula with zest

If Sonic Classic Collection had the distinguished honour of being my first DS game, Sonic Rush had the equally distinguished honour of being my second DS game. When I got my first DS in 2011, it took me quite some time to realise how humongous the DS RPG library was; as a result, the early stages of my DS career were littered with familiar references such as these. Not that it is a bad thing, really: I love my Sonic, and the Rush subseries is one of the best interpretations of 2D Sonic platforming that I’ve ever encountered, as I will try to demonstrate very soon.

But first, let’s have the usual bite of data. Co-developed by the Sonic Team and Dimps and released in 2005 in all regions, Sonic Rush was the first Sonic instalment to grace the DS, and it was exclusive to the system. At that time, the DS was still brand-new, having been released barely a year before in Japan; and yet, the developers managed to get the most out of the console and to craft an amazingly polished game that could pretty well pass for a late-lifetime release. Without further ado, let’s now explore the adrenaline-filled awesomeness of Sonic Rush

The name says it all

Indeed, the mention of the word rush in the title of that game is no mere coincidence: Sonic Rush is the first Sonic entry that puts speed at the heart of the gameplay. I’ve already established in my post about Sonic Classic Collection that if speed was undoubtedly an inner characteristic of the Blue Blur, the early instalments of the series featured a gameplay based rather on careful exploration and quicksilver reflexes, with bursts of speed acting as a well-deserved reward between lengthy segments of focused platforming. This template was abandoned in Rush and replaced by a brand-new one in which momentum must be built up and maintained in order to progress as smoothly as possible. The upper routes can be reached only through clever use of speed, as opposed to the 16-bit instalments in which they could be reached through careful platforming, and it is sometimes mandatory to muster and maintain the maximum speed in order to avoid obstacles and survive. (Think of the boulder scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark and you’ll get a good idea of what these obstacles could be.) Talking about mustering speed, this is done through the use of the “Tension Gauge”, a meter that stores momentum and empties itself as you use said momentum. This gauge can be filled by using special items, killing enemies and, last but certainly not least, by performing acrobatics while your character is being projected in the air by one of the many contraptions present in the game. On top of being useful, these acrobatics are a treat to pull out, and they replace the speed of old as the reward factor: they pleasantly break the game’s high-octane pace to offer the player a few seconds of giddy, silly fun. It is hard not to feel a thrill of pleasure and a feeling of contentment as you watch Sonic or Blaze twirl gracefully in the air in a flurry of swift motions. 

Sonic Rush may be fast enough to make your head sway, but it does not forget its platforming roots. There are a good number of tricky platforming sections that require concentration and excellent reflexes: on top of demanding top-notch precision, they include a speed factor that cannot be overlooked. React just a second too late and you will likely fall to your death, as there is no second chance with such sections. And talking about falling, it is worth mentioning that Rush is undoubtedly the most Mario-ish of all Sonic games: it contains a staggering number of bottomless pits, probably more so than all the other 2D Sonic entries combined. No stage is sparred from these wide, treacherous gaps, and they will claim a good number of lives before you manage to master the gameplay mechanics and remember where these annoying pits stand. 
That game also manages the tour de force to introduce an awesome ally. The Sonic series is fairly known for not exactly mastering the art of creating secondary characters and for harbouring a couple of epic failures in that department. I won’t quote any name to avoid offending anyone’s sensibilities, but I think it is safe to say that the sidequick business went a tad astray after Sonic3&Knuckles. Not so with Rush’s resident ally, however. Not only is Blaze a great character in her own right, with her cat-like poise, fiery aura and ever-swishing tail that make her mesmerizing to look at, but she is also a completely viable alternative to Sonic instead of being a watered-down version of the Blue Blur: albeit a tad slower than Sonic, she has a handful of exclusive abilities than are well implemented and pleasant to use. Last but not certainly not least, her relationship with Sonic is incredibly well-crafted and is undoubtedly the narrative highlight of the game.

Said relationship is actually a revival of sorts of Sonic and Knuckles’ one: starting off as opponents on the basis of a misunderstanding, they occasionally interact and let the tension build up until a major showdown takes place, after what they realise that they ultimately strive for the same goal and decide to join forces. Rush reuses the formula and hons it successfully, managing to erase the disappointing parts of the Sonic/Knuckles relationship in the process. This is especially true regarding the epic showdown, which went from an anticlimactic, low-key fight in Sonic3&Knuckles to a frantic and intense confrontation in Rush. This fight takes place at the end of the seventh zone, Dead Line, and the way to it is conveniently paved by subtle yet effective means. For one thing, Dead Line is a conveniently difficult level that is bound to keep you on your toes and raise your blood pressure, making you all frayed and edgy by the time you reach the end of the stage. For another, the respective musical themes of Sonic and Blaze, which up until then only showed subtle variations, are now much more blatantly different from one another; this showcases the paroxysmal opposition between the two characters, soon to be resolved through that ultimate fight. Both Sonic and Blaze are tough nuts to crack, and the confrontation is backed up by a gorgeous décor and a frenzied, adrenaline-popping musical theme. This fight is a masterpiece and delivers in all departments, unlike the disappointing one against Knuckles in S3K

To close that list of goodness, a word must be said about the music. Composed by Hideki Naganuma, it incorporates vocal samples and can be a hard sell at first: it is definitely not your classic Sonic soundtrack and is bound to be divisive because of that. However, it boasts an undeniable originality factor and most importantly, it suits the game like a glove: it is hard to imagine a soundtrack that could better emphasize the feverish, nearly manic pace of Sonic Rush

Still needs polish

Of course, no game can ever be deemed perfect, and Sonic Rush is no exception. It actually has a couple of flaws that are quite noticeable, albeit not to the point of becoming deal-breakers. However, they are still worth mentioning, if only for information’s sake.

The most blatant one is the general shallowness of the level-design. The game’s emphasis on speed undoubtedly forced the developers to craft significantly less intricate levels than in the 16-bit instalments. Gone are the many secrets passageways, moving platforms and booby traps that acted as obstructions in the first entries; in their place come loop-de-loops, endless slopes and propelling devices that accommodate Rush’s faster gameplay and allow for the building-up of speed. The collateral damage of such a design choice is that levels feel a trifle too streamlined and simple. Crossing them at full speed remains highly enjoyable, that much is sure, but it is also hard to deny that they feel just a little too empty and linear for their own good. 

Another irritating flaw is the general mediocrity of the boss battles. These fights that should be moments of tension and epicness play the part visually, featuring humongous mechas and gorgeous backgrounds; however, they turn out to be quite tedious and clunky gameplay-wise. For one, they are incredibly repetitive. Apart from the deliciously inventive bosses of Mirage Road and Night Carnival and the epic showdown between Sonic and Blaze, all the battles unfold in the exact same way: Eggman tries to crush your frail rodent or feline body with a part of its giant contraption before retreating in the background to fire at you; rinse and repeat. This becomes old very quickly. The fights are further marred by hitbox issues: the mechas have a single sensitive spot that must be hit to hurt them, and it can be incredibly hard to aim precisely at the said spot, especially as it tends to become smaller and smaller as the boss fights unfold. (The boss of Altitude Limit is probably the worst offender, with its slippery head that seems to deflect blows.) As for the final showdown in space while sporting your super-form, it really doesn’t deliver. Instead of being the climax of the game, it turns out to be a long, boring and tedious fight in which landing a hit is way too difficult and random. Be prepared to cringe and shatter the time limit more than once before you manage to master the mechanics of that confrontation. 

On a more personal note, I resent Rush for being the first 2D Sonic entry to have introduced a ranking system. I loathe trophies, achievements and ranking systems with a passion, and it is supremely annoying to have a crappy rank slapped across my forehead after I enjoyed myself immensely while clearing a level—call me childish, but it does ruin my fun. It doesn’t serve any real purpose in the context of that particular game and seems to be nothing more than a thoughtless concession to current gaming trends, which makes it even more galling. 

Still, these flaws remain minor ones. Sonic Rush remains a dazzling gem of a game that manages to renew brilliantly the series’ trademark gameplay. Rush’s brand-new mechanics are easy to learn and master and soon become as pleasantly familiar and intuitive as the 16-bit ones. As a matter of fact, I found myself instinctively trying to perform them in instalments that don’t support them, such as Sonic Colours; this is similar to the Spin Dash attempt case in the first entry and definitely shows that these mechanics are efficient and bound to endure. Most importantly, Sonic Rush gloriously conveys that feeling of giddy joy and blissful happiness so typical of the series, perhaps more strongly than ever before: this game is a rapturous maelstrom of sparkling colours, thrilling music and non-stop delirious action that can send the player on cloud nine—it did so for me, at least. It is definitely one of my favourite 2D Sonic entries, and I fervently hope to see a third Rush instalment grace the 3ds before the end of its lifetime. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Class of Heroes (2): Solo Run, interrupted

You didn’t expect less from me, did you?

Let’s be honest: this time, I didn’t even pretend to consider a classic party run and went straight for the solo option. The idea of micromanaging a team of six was simply unbearable; and if I had to reduce the number of party members, I might as well do it with full force and scale down my team to a one-man unit right away. As a matter of fact, I was very eager to tackle a solo run and see for myself if Class of Heroes was playable at all with a single character: given the many reviewers’ comments about the supposed difficulty of the game, it seemed to be a thrilling challenge fit for my fearless gamer’s heart. 

A bumpy ride

And so, I dove into that challenge with gusto. I chose a Felpier as my one and only, mostly due to the fact that Felpiers are one of the best-rounded races in Class, which makes them perfectly fit for a solo endeavour; and their cat-like features, complemented with a fitting haughty air, certainly made them even more endearing to me. I then committed my first huge mistake, unbeknownst to me: I chose Warrior as my class, despite the fact that I had enough Bonus Points to select any of the available classes. My reasoning was that I would get the opportunity to change classes later in the games and that a basic class such as Warrior was better fit for my first steps into the game. Little did I know that changing classes would turn out to be so cumbersome, and that Warriors couldn’t learn that priceless Levitas spell that was so important in the late stages of the game. 

I already explained how bothersome the class change process was in my first post about Class, but it’s now time to use data lifted from my solo run to illustrate that point. One of the main issues with class change is how unfit the random encounter rate is for level-grinding, as my experience shows abundantly: in thirty hours of gameplay with a single character and without running away from any field battle, I reached Lv. 31 only. Now that’s food for thought, isn’t it? This reveals how excruciatingly hard it is to level up in that game, and by extension how impossibly tedious it can be to change classes during the course of your adventure. 

Of course, class change was not on my mind in the early stages; I had other things to think of, like staying alive and gleaning enough money to upgrade my pitifully weak equipment. I resorted to various tactics to reach that goal, from the most straightforward to the most unsavoury, on which I’ll expand later; and after a bit of sweating and trudging, I could purchase a brand-new Talwar that suddenly made all things fighting much smoother. That’s not to say that my run became a walk in the park: if the game was not as excruciatingly hard as I had expected and read about, it still tested my determination on a regular basis by throwing nasty hindrances at me. The most prominent one was undoubtedly the occasional presence of floors requiring the Levitation ability to be crossed; since I couldn’t perform the deed, I was forced to backtrack, exit the Labyrinth and enter it again in order to reset the floor layout and get a different one with no Levitation-only floors. Other minor hindrances included locked doors that would only open after a couple of attempts, trapped chests that would poison or hurt me and turn out to be empty, and enemies that were only sensitive to magic attacks that I couldn’t learn as a Warrior. All these hurdles were annoying and time-consuming, but they were manageable nonetheless with the right amount of patience; and as a whole, roaming the Labyrinths was a fun and engrossing experience that amply justified soldiering through a couple of obstructions. 

And thus I progressed through the game, slowly but surely, taking down bosses along the way and clearing one Labyrinth after the other, and it was all nice and fine; until I found myself facing the ultimate obstacle that would finally break my iron will. That obstacle, ladies and gentlemen, is a huge difficulty spike located at the end of the game, precisely as you reach the last three Labyrinths: Tohaus, Flake and Lark, the harbingers of doom. For one thing, Levitation-only floors are unescapable in these three: no matter how many times I exited and re-entered them, there were always a couple of floors that required Levitation to be crossed, if not all of them. This didn’t shatter my resolution, though: I was determined to clear that game for good and overcome any obstacle thrown at me.  Since I didn’t have the necessary materials to synthesize the equipment that would allow me to Levitate, the only option was a class change; however, that meant losing half of my heard-earned HP, which I loathed to do. I thus resorted to a milder option: recruitment. I created a Wizard Felpier and levelled him up until he learnt the much-needed Levitas spell, which I then used to explore and cross these frustrating Levitation-only floors at long last. Apart from his sorcery talents, this last-minute ally was mostly useless: he could hardly fight and needed to be protected from deadly blows that would have taken him down in two hits—we’re talking about the last three Labyrinths of the game, after all. 

Despite the fact that I could Levitate at long last and thus progress through the last Labyrinths, and despite the fact that I stood virtually at End Game’s threshold, I still gave up in Tohaus after trudging through a couple of floors. The reason was quite simple: Tohaus, as well as Flake that I tried exploring in parallel, feature floors that are an absolute chore to explore. These floors bristle with warps tiles, hidden doors, fake magic keys and other annoying obstacles that are so numerous that they steal away all the pleasure taken in exploring. This, for me, was a deal-breaker: I didn’t mind dodging obstructions by the truckload, as long as it was entertaining; if this was not the case, then I was out. And since I couldn’t derive any pleasure from these last Labyrinths no matter how hard I tried, let alone progress efficiently through them, I gave up and put an end to my solo run. 

That’s not to say that I gave up entirely on Class of Heroes. I will certainly play it again sooner or later, putting my hard-earned experience to good use in order to progress faster and more efficiently. And since I’m mentioning this, here are a couple of useful tricks for a smooth run, be it a solo one or a classic party one. Enjoy!

Tips and tricks for an easy roam

—I think I have made that point abundantly clear by now, but it cannot hurt to repeat it one more time: your whole party must be able to Levitate, regardless of how many members it comprises. If a single one of your party members cannot perform the deed for whatever reason, you will be stuck all the same, so be careful. The three races that possess the inner ability to Levitate, i.e. Sprites, Erdgeits and Celestians, are not the best-fitted ones for a solo endeavour, nor are they fit to constitute a full party; and since the equipment that allows characters to Levitate is hard to synthesize, the easiest way is to choose a class that can learn Levitas for at least one of your party members. This precious spell only needs to be cast once, and voilà! Your whole party will start Levitating and will keep doing so as long as you’re on the same floor. (I cannot remember if the effect endures when you warp to the next floor—sorry about that.) The classes that can learn Levitas for sure are Wizard and Cleric; since this is a Black Magic spell, it may well be also performed by advanced classes that can learn Black Magic such as Alchemist or Samurai, but I cannot assert this with absolute certainty. 

—Money can be a serious issue, especially in the early stages of the game. The classic, honest way to fill your purse is to glean some money by defeating foes and selling the loot you bring back from the Labyrinths; however, there is a quicker and dirtier way to get your hands on much-needed hard cash. The game offers you a dozen of ready-made students available for recruitment, and each of them holds 100 golds; 100 precious golds that you can easily collect from them by letting them join your party temporarily, going to the campus store, selecting “Sell” and using the “Combine Money” command to secure all the cash into your own character’s purse. (Make sure that said own character is conveniently selected as the money reaper: a golden halo must be visible around their portrait.) Once you’ve conveniently robbed these built-in students, you can also strip them of their gear and sell it for more cash before getting rid of them. After you’ve depleted these sources of riches, you can create as many students as you want and sell their gear before erasing them, reaping 50 golds for every student’s full equipment. The process can be a bit lengthy and cumbersome, but it provides you with a virtually unlimited source of precious cash. Sure, it’s a bit sleazy; but there’s really no reason to play fair with a game that forces you to spit out 100 golds per party member every time you want to sleep in your own dormitory. 

—And talking about the early stages of Class, I cannot recommend enough to use and abuse the instant save system when taking your first steps into the Labyrinths. Rescuing dead party members is an absolute chore, all the more so if your whole party was decimated; to avoid such annoyances and keep the benefits of your early grinding, the best trick is to save literally after every single encounter. It may be a bit tedious, but it’s still ten times better than having to recover the fast-rotting bodies of your party members from the depths of the Labyrinths. 

—Check out dutifully all the shops you encounter—including the ones that can be found at stopovers between Labyrinths—in order to look for Maps. All the maps of all the Labyrinths can be found in the many shops scattered across the game world, but many of them are exclusive to one or two shops only and cannot be found anywhere else. You don’t want to miss a much-needed map and need to backtrack in order to get it, oh no precious.

—Once again, this may be a no-brainer, but it’s still worth mentioning: all the floors have symmetrical layouts. The type of symmetry used is not axial symmetry, but rather point symmetry (also known as central symmetry) using the centre of the map as a reference point, which creates an inversion of sorts of the floor’s layout. At any rate, this means that once you’ve explored a portion of a floor, you can expect to find a similar reverse design on the other half of the said floor, which makes exploration a trifle easier. 

—The Inner Sanctums of the Labyrinths contain a couple of interesting features. First are the so-called “Magic Capsules” that can regenerate your whole party’s HP and MP and be used as many times as you want. Such capsules are the only opportunities to heal your party at will while inside the Labyrinths, and they must be located first and foremost; some of them are hidden in secret rooms, but they are always present. The Inner Sanctums also systematically contain an Evoke Ring—which, as the name abundantly implies, is the turf of Evokers only. Since my lone ranger was a Warrior, I couldn’t discover the purpose and effects of these rings and they were virtually useless to me, which was a trifle frustrating. (Why create a feature solely for the use of a single class? This is pure unfairness, that’s what it is. Oh, well.) And of course, Inner Sanctums also contain the entrance of the true “Labyrinths”: a single cut-throat floor which is home to all the bosses of the game. The distinction between these true Labyrinths and the ordinary ones can be a trifle confusing, given that they are all lumped under the generic “Labyrinth” term in the game’s dialogues and texts. However, the ordinary Labyrinths contain the world “Path” or “Road” in their names and are really nothing more than travelling ways—albeit particularly nasty ones, granted—while the genuine ones contain the world “Labyrinth” in their names: for instance, Kausa Path and Kausa Labyrinth. Genuine Labyrinths are also more often than not the place where various quests and major boss battles take place; if a mission requires you to reach the “X Labyrinth” in order to do something, it is undoubtedly referring to the true Labyrinth whose entrance is hidden in the Inner Sanctum of the corresponding Path. 

After this tip galore, it is now time for me to say goodbye to Class of Heroes. My solo run of that game was a pleasant experience that could have been even more pleasant if I had chosen a better class: next time I play Class, I will make sure that I select a major that can learn spells. I will also play the second instalment, which I own and which is deemed much better than its predecessor; and of course, I’m already licking my chops at the thought of playing the handful of other first-person dungeon crawlers that I own—the full Etrian Odyssey series, The Dark Spire, Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, you name them. Hopefully they will prove to be even more delightful that Class of Heroes—which shouldn’t be too hard, as a matter of fact. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Class of Heroes (1): Interesting yet uninspired

This had to happen: my first ever first-person dungeon crawler—but certainly not the last, perish the thought. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself there. The reason why I never explored that RPG subgenre’s subterranean and cut-throat paths is pretty simple: kick-started by the Wizardry series in the early ’80s into a brief burst of fame, the first-person dungeon crawler subsequently fell out of fashion before I was old enough to enjoy it properly. It became even less that a niche, with games released so sporadically that one could be forgiven for missing them and thinking that the genre had died entirely. Things remained that way until, by a sweet twist of fate, this special brand of dungeon-crawling was rekindled in the late ’00s on portable systems. En passant, it’s interesting and heart-warming to see how, in two decades, the portable gaming industry went from being a watered-down alternative to the home consoles to becoming a lively Noah’s Ark for all kinds of niche genres—it’s good be a handheld gamer nowadays, indeed. But I digress. This late revival of the first-person dungeon crawler was initiated by two separate franchises: Etrian Odyssey on the Nintendo DS and Class of Heroes on the PSP, which I’m going to cover here. 
Developed by Acquire and released in 2008(jp) and 2009(na), Class of Heroes can be described as a kawaii and moe-infused take on the Wizardry series, in which the dark fantasy art is replaced by colourful anime sprites. The game quickly became quite popular in its home country, as well as the de facto foundation of a whole new series: three sequels and a spin-off were released on several platforms between 2009 and 2012, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the series head to the Vita in the next years. 

Seen from the West, the Japanese success story of this first instalment is quite puzzling. Class of Heroes was not exactly welcomed with open arms by North-American reviewers, who collectively granted it the mediocre score of 61 on Metacritic and 60.45 on Gamerankings. And after playing it myself, my stance goes as such: Class of Heroes is an interesting and potentially addictive game that is unfortunately marred by a couple of annoying practical issues and a problematic lack of inspiration bordering on blatant laziness. It’s a pity and a shame, for there was a lot of goodness there, as we’ll see right now.

A gambling roaming fest

Class can be praised for revamping the genre to some extent and giving good ol’ first-person dungeon crawler an unexpected twist. This twist is not to be found in the school setting, as one may have expected—or feared: indeed, that setting is nothing more than a mere context element, and there is really not much to it beyond fancy denominations—classes being called “majors”, for instance— and sailor outfits in lieu of sturdy armours. The real twist lies in the combination of two factors that constitute the very core of Class, namely Exploration First and Random Stats.  

Let’s first tackle Exploration First. As this denomination abundantly implies, exploring dungeons—or Labyrinths as they are called in Class—is the primary purpose of the game. Nothing too surprising here, given that Class is a dungeon crawler; however, exploration has been made incredibly easier and more convenient that in your average dungeon crawler. Everything is designed so that you can enjoy your exploring sessions to the fullest: hindrances typical of the genre have been neatly excised and replaced by features that make your roaming quite comfortable and pleasurable. Without further ado, here are the most prominent ones:

—The game boasts an instant save system that is an absolute blessing. Not only can you save at any moment, be it one square away from a mighty boss, but you can also create as many save files as your memory card can stomach: what’s not to love? This save system completely eradicates the fear of losing your hard-earned progression, thus making way for a much more relaxed brand of exploration that lets you experiment to your heart’s content. 

—The random encounter rate is tailor-made for exploration. In fact, it is one of the most perfect random encounter rates I’ve ever been treated to: you meet foes often enough to level-up smoothly and regularly and seldom enough to explore in peace and discover large chunks of dungeons at once. The balance is absolutely top-notch and undoubtedly one of the highlights of Class. Random encounters somehow always seem to happen precisely at the right moment, offering a welcome diversion from exploration and a pleasant burst of adrenaline; and providing that you never run away from them, you should always be powerful enough to tackle any challenge coming your way. 

—All the maps can be purchased at various shops for a reasonable price, and they fill themselves automatically as you progress through the Labyrinths. This is a much more forgiving approach than the one favoured in Etrian Odyssey, and it allows you to focus solely on moving forward, confident that any space you clear will appear on the map—along with traps, warp tiles, magic doors, portals and the like. There is even better: once you explore a specific floor layout, it is explored for good, and will be shown as such when it reappears in another Labyrinth—providing that you own the map of the said Labyrinth. 

Let’s now explore the second facet of the twist, namely the Random Stats. To implement such a feature is a bold move that is not so often encountered in the realm of RPG where level-grinding usually reigns supreme, and Class takes it to a level that I’ve never witnessed before. For, lo and behold: all the stats in that game are random. From your base HP and MP to the amount of XP and money you gain from battle, without forgetting foes’ HP, every single stat you’re bound to encounter in Class is subject to random variations, which transforms that apparently innocuous dungeon-crawler into a gambling game in disguise. Apart from originality value, this feature has drastic consequences on the gameplay: it dramatically undermines the importance of level-grinding and makes it somehow superfluous. Here are a couple of revelatory examples:

—When you create a new character, you’re granted a certain number of so-called “Bonus Points” that you must allocate to various base stats in order to gain access to the class of your choice. You may think that this number of points is fixed, but it is in fact totally random. The lowest number of Bonus Points I’ve been allotted was 6, which grants access to a couple of basic classes; the highest was 35, which grants access to virtually every single class. If your keep creating characters until you get a conveniently high number of Bonus Points, you can easily gain access to your class of choice from the get-go, which is incredibly neat—all the more so as changing classes is quite tedious. But more on that later. 

—If you find yourself struggling against a boss, you don’t need to level-grind the slightest bit like in more conventional RPGs. Instead, you can simply keep tackling that fight over and over until you get a stroke of luck, i.e. a version of the boss with pitiful stats. I once faced a boss that wiped me out after ten turns of arduous fighting; the next try, I took that same boss down in two neat turns. It’s all about persevering until luck humours you.

—When you gain levels, your stats can be either raised or lowered, and you’re granted a random amount of extra HP. If you’re not happy with what you get, it only takes a quick reload and another try to reap more rewards from your leveling-up. 

This combination of Exploration First and Random Stats works like a charm. The random nature of the stats is a tongue-in-cheek move that pleasantly defuses the importance of level-grinding; it allows you to approach the game in a much more relaxed way and reinforces the focus on exploration, which itself is as smooth and comfortable as it can be. At its best, the game is beautifully addictive and offers a flowing experience in which you simply can’t get enough of roaming the dungeons while testing your luck. Indeed, my sessions of Class often stretched beyond their initially planned boundaries, as I found myself riveted by the game and unable to stop myself from exploring just a trifle more.

Alas, also a dragging fest

Unfortunately, Class is not always at its aforementioned best. Despite its undeniable goodness, it is also weighed down by a number of blatant issues that seriously undermine the pleasure one can derive from playing it. Lo and behold, here are the joy-killers: 

—The Labyrinths are horrendously bland, to the point of being seriously depressing. For one thing, a lot of them are unexplainably dark, offering lighting only on the tile in front of you and leaving the rest of the room in a complete murk. I have no idea if such a design choice was based on a lack of funds or on the desire to give the Labyrinths an aura of threatening mystery; but at any rate, the result is quite depressing, and more disheartening than threatening. For another, the Labyrinths are miserably empty: there is hardly any scenery element to break the monotony of the smooth walls and floors, and hardly any chest to ransack; to add insult to injury, the few chests available contain only trinkets, or nothing at all—so much for the promise of precious treasures hidden in the depths of cut-throat dungeons. Last but not least comes the major issue of the background tiles: there are only a few of them, recycled over and over again in all the Labyrinths with just a couple of tweaks here and there to create the illusion that this is a totally different place altogether. Unfortunately, the player is not blind, and the trick doesn’t work in the slightest. Add to this dreadful picture the fact that the music is non-existent, consisting in only a couple of random notes that could make the lamest elevator music sound like a Bach sonata, and you get a shockingly dull and disheartening roaming experience that will bore the life out of everyone but the most dedicated dungeon-crawler aficionado.

—Changing classes is tedious and reaps more inconveniences than rewards. The main issue is that unlike in games like Dragon Quest IX, the abilities you learn when donning a given class are not saved when you switch to a different class; only a limited number of spells can be maintained, depending on how many spells can be mastered by the new class you’re donning. This is already stinging, but there is worse: if you switch back to your original class, your hard-learned abilities are not handed back to you à la Dragon Quest, nor is your HP; instead, you basically restart from scratch. On top of all that infamy, your HP is divided by two every time you change classes, which is just discouraging. If you combine this with the fact that the encounter rate is actually too low to level-grind efficiently, you get a very neat case of fake longevity that can only appeal to the most masochistic gamer. All in all, the changing class process is so bothersome that I really wish it wouldn’t have been implemented at all; it gives you a false sense of security by letting you believe that any ill-advised choice in the class department can be amended later without too much hassle, which couldn’t be further away from the truth. Class change should be facile and rewarding, or not be at all, period. 

—Some of the Labyrinth floors cannot be explored at all unless you're able to “Levitate”—i.e. make your character(s) hover above the ground, be it by way of an item, a spell or an innate ability. The problem is that the game never lets you know that Levitating is mandatory, not even in a veiled way. Now, maybe this is some kind of inside joke known to all first-person dungeon crawler veterans; but as a newcomer to the genre, I discovered it the hard way and I was none too pleased with that. To make matters worse, only a couple of classes can learn “Levitas”, the spell that allows you to perform that mighty task, and only three races (Erdgeist, Sprite and Celestian) possess the innate ability to do it; as for the item that lets you levitate, it must be synthesised and the main component is incredibly hard to find. (So hard, in fact, that I never found it.) Given that nearly all the floors of the latter Labyrinths require the use of the Levitation ability to be explored, it’s incredibly easy to find yourself stranded with a party that cannot perform the deed as you’re approaching the end of the game. Combine this with the impractical class change and you get an apocalyptic combo that can break the will of anyone but the most seasoned dungeon-crawler veteran.

When all is said and done, Class of Heroes is very much an average game. It has its highlights and offers a solid and enjoyable dungeon-roaming experience, but it’s also painfully uninspired and cumbersome to the point of being punishing. And yet, I poured thirty hours into that game without even noticing it, and would have poured even more if not for the difficulty spike at the end of the game—on which I’ll expand in my next post. The fact that I could become so engrossed in such a passable game can only mean one thing: I found myself a new favourite RPG subgenre! And indeed, I’m dying to try more first-person dungeon crawlers, starting with the ones I already own. As for Class of Heroes, I’d like to think that I will come back to it later, for there are many things left to discover and experiment with; however, the thought of roaming these barren, barely lit dungeons again makes me feel all gloomy and depressed. Maybe I need to let some time pass first. A lot of time. 

I will give a thorough account of my run in my next post, as well as a couple of useful tips that I learned during my trips through the Labyrinths. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!