Here we are, back for the second part of my praise of Hexyz Force’s placid brand of goodness. It is now time to expand on what I consider to be the game’s most stellar quality—a quality that is not so often encountered in the realm of J-RPGs. This quality, ladies and gentlemen, is a deep connection between the narrative and the gameplay, in which the two reinforce each other rather than sap each other. This is easier said than done, as proven by numerous J-RPGs: the most infamous example is undoubtedly Final Fantasy VII, with its Phoenix Downs that mysteriously lose their power as far as Aerith is concerned. A harmonious correlation between gameplay and narrative is hard to craft, indeed; but Sting managed to perform the deed in Hexyz Force, and quite brilliantly at that. Let’s now explore how this rare and most precious quality unfolds in that game.
Force runs the game
Indeed, the name says it all: the presence of the word “force” in the title is no mere coincidence, as the thing plays a huge part in both the storyline and the gameplay. The game’s special brand of force borrows more from Einstein than from Star Wars and is surprisingly well-crafted and consistent, both on the narrative and the game mechanics front.
Narrative-wise, Force (indefinite, as mentioned in the game) is a powerful energy that infuses all things. It sometimes flows directly out of the ground like your average spring, but most of it lies within living beings and objects. It can be harnessed and used by beings known as Hexyz, hence the title of the game. As for what Hexyz are exactly, I won’t enter details in order to keep the game unspoiled; suffice it to say that our heroes belong to that category and can thus tinker with Force. Now, this is all very classic, Star-Warsy fare; however, the game adds a touch of complexity by throwing a zest of special relativity into the mix. To put it simply, Force and matter are two sides of the same coin: living beings can be converted into Force, and Force can be injected into objects and living beings to modify them at will. Such operations are the turf of Hexyz only—which is probably a good thing, given the kind of messy, bloody actions that they entail.
This leads us to the gameplay variable of the equation, and the examination of how these metaphysics translate into gameplay mechanics. Well, it’s fair to say that the said translation is seamless and that very little is lost in it. As Hexyz, our heroes have access to a pool of Force that is theirs to use only; and using it is highly recommended, since it is the only way to perform a number of classic RPG deeds that go as such:
—Healing: There is not the slightest trace of a good ol’ Inn in the game world, nor is there any kind of dedicated healing item that will cure you in the blink of an eye. Instead of resorting to these classic healing methods, you have to use your pool of Force in order to recover your HP. Doing so won’t refill your MP, though; if you aim for a full recovery, you have to bathe your hands into one of the “Force Sites” present all around the game world. These are ever-flowing fountains of Force that can be used and abused at will and often go along with a conveniently placed Save Point.
—Upgrading your equipment: Once again, your classic weapon and armour shops are nowhere to be found in the world of Hexyz Force; if you want to upgrade your gear and weapons, you have to resort to your own private pool of Force, coupled with whatever items you harvest through the game world. The characters’ main weapons, the so-called Ragnafacts, can be upgraded in various ways by injecting Force into them: you can increase their base strength, lower their MP consumption and, last but not least, acquire a decent range of useful Special Skills ranging from healing spells to multi-targeting attacks, without forgetting good ol’ buffs. New weapons can also be created through a Fusion process, by putting together a couple of items or base materials and injecting Force into them; however, these Fusion-born weapons have a limited number of uses and cannot endure forever. Fusion is also the sole way to craft new and more powerful equipment, from shoes to cloaks to magic trinkets with a myriad of effects. It is worth noting that you don’t need to ransack libraries or any other place to find Fusion recipes: the said recipes become available as soon as you have at least one of the ‘ingredients’ in your inventory. How convenient is that?
—Miscellaneous uses: Your characters can generate a “Force Scan” that allows you to locate special places known as “Harvest Points”: as the name implies, these are selected spots that harbour interesting items and replenish regularly. (They can be plundered again after fighting a couple of random battles, if I remember correctly.) These points can also be discovered without using Force Scan if you stand very close to them, but the conveniently wider range of the Force Scan spares you the chore of poking your nose in every nook and cranny. Your pool of Force can also be used to inject Force in various places, from trees to unreadable tablets, in order to progress through the game (rarely) or clear sidequests (most of the time).
When it comes to the harnessing side of Force, things are pretty simple and unfussy. There are two convenient ways to fill in your pool of Force:
—Random battles: As you slaughter monsters on the field, their bodies are converted into Force that is added to your pool. This is a great incentive to engage in random battles in the first place and provides a welcome justification to the necessity of butchering everything in sight.
—Item conversion: All the items dropped by monsters, as well as the one you collect through the game world, can be converted into Force. This is a clever and convenient way to recycle any unnecessary item, allowing you to clear up your inventory while reaping benefits—two birds with one stone, indeed. And given how cluttered the inventory can become at times due to the overabundance of monster drops and Harvest Points, this option is an absolute blessing. It is ten times more satisfying than simply throwing away any unwanted item—heck, it’s even more satisfying than selling them, knowing the many excellent uses of Force in that game.
So, you get the picture: Hexyz Force’s brand of Force is both a compelling storyline concept and a stunningly well-honed ensemble of gameplay mechanics, reinforcing each other in a pleasant display of cohesion and coherence. This is only the second Sting game that I’ve played, and the first, Riviera, also displayed a rock-solid continuity between gameplay and narrative—albeit translated and implemented in a different way. I’m starting to think that Sting masters the art of harmoniously linking together this often restive duo, but it will take a couple of extra Sting games to confirm that hunch. And if this is indeed the case, then I predict that Sting will become one of my favourite developers of all time.
The unpolished side of the force
Hexyz Force’s harmonious connection between the narrative and the gameplay may not be ground-breaking, but it is undeniably well honed and deeply fulfilling; added to the rest of the game’s serene goodness, it creates a beautiful gem of a game—not the most sparkling gem ever, granted, but a gem nonetheless. However, there are a couple of smudges that somewhat tarnish the smoothly polished surface of that gem and prevent it from reaching a cult classic status; I think it is worth mentioning them, if only to prevent some disappointment after I raved about how excellent Hexyz Force was. I did love that game to pieces, but some points really rubbed me the wrong way, and here they are in all their annoying glory:
—Clocking at roughly 20 hours each, the game’s two routes are a trifle too long for my taste. It may seem like I’m nit-picking and being ungrateful: more content must be a good thing, right? Well, not so much in Hexyz Force. I played Cecilia’s Tale first, and the last five hours felt a tad diluted and uneventful compared to everything that unfolded before. On top of that, there is quite a lot of backtracking involved, which definitely leads one to assume that the routes have been forcefully stretched in order to meet the current expectations regarding RPG longevity. I cannot say for sure if the last quarter of Levant’s Tale went through the same type of artificial lengthening since I didn’t play it, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if it were the case. And talking about this, the reason why I did not play Levant’s Tale after clearing Cecilia’s one is precisely the excessive length of the routes: I was initially planning to clear the whole game in one setting, but I gave up on Levant’s Tales after a couple of hours because I had already gotten more than my fill of the game. I firmly think that a game that includes several routes should keep said routes short enough not to bore the player: a length of 10 to 15 hours per route is more than enough, especially if the game includes several different endings and an extra Hard Mode like Hexyz Force does.
—The ending of Cecilia’s Tale TROLLS you big time. Jeez, I’m still fuming about it. (SPOILERS ahead, as you’d expect.) This ending starts all nice and well, with short yet explanatory scenes surveying all the characters’ endeavours since the eradication of the final boss. And then comes the abomination, the supreme insult to everybody who took a liking for Cecilia and Rafael: in the last seconds of the ending, the young man rushes to Cecilia to confess that thing that has been on his chest for so long and that we all know about. And instead of letting us enjoy that sweet long-awaited moment, the camera slowly travels backwards before the screen fades to black. Wait, what? That’s right: we don’t get to know Rafael’s words, nor are we allowed to see Cecilia’s reaction—let alone the outcome of the whole scene. Seriously, game? After having rooted for these two for so long, it feels like a massive slap in the face to see things end like that. I know I praised the sobriety of Cecilia’s and Rafael budding love in my first post, but this is a trifle too sober, even for me. Of course, this may have been intended as a cliffhanger ending that would have paved the way for a second instalment; this explanation is all the more believable as the neutral ending also ends on a cliffhanger note, leaving many questions unanswered. However, this is frustrating all the same—especially since this hypothetical second instalment has not yet seen the light of day.
—The final boss fight is way too difficult, creating a nasty difficulty spike that is definitely unwelcome—especially after the couple of uneventful hours that precede it. The problem is not so much that this final boss is hard to defeat per se: this is actually a classic example of RPG epic showdown, with metamorphosis of the boss at the halfway mark and occasional party-wiping attacks—you know the drill. No, the problem is rather that this final fight clashes vividly with the rest of the boss battles by being significantly more exigent. It requires a good amount of strategy, which is a brand-new thing at that point in the game: instead of pummelling the boss senselessly until it dies like in all the other boss battles, you now have to think and to choose your actions carefully. The Hexyz Charge, which up until then was a nonessential option, is now a central element and must be carefully monitored if you don’t want your party to be slaughtered: the boss’ attacks change depending on which aspect your party members unleash, his most devastating attack being triggered by the use of Cerulean Flame. To change the battle template at the very end of the game is infuriating and frustrating: why would I suddenly start checking the Hexyz Charge meter when I hardly ever looked at it during the whole game? I had also grown seriously lazy after having been pampered by the comfortable easiness of the game, and the sudden need to strategize my every move felt like an enormous effort—so much so that I nearly considered giving up on the game at that point. It certainly didn’t help that this final fight is preceded by a long cutscene that cannot be skipped and must be endured again after every failed attempt.
—A couple of other points bothered me, such as the absence of an instant save system (fortunately compensated by the abundance of Save Points) or the lack of a dedicated Axel route, despite the fact that it would have made perfect sense. (I won’t spoil the reasons for that, but people who have played the game will sure know why I’m saying that.) However, those were really minor quips that can hardly be counted as flaws.
All in all, I unequivocally loved Hexyz Force and deeply enjoyed my run of it. I don’t regret having paid such a hefty price for it: it was worth every dime—and more. I will most certainly play that game again, especially since I still have to clear Levant’s Tale—which hopefully won’t end on a nasty big troll of a cliffhanger. Now, dearest Sting, I would really love to see a sequel to Hexyz Force grace the Vita. It’s probably too much to ask—but then again, how knows? Some pretty obscure games get sequels on a regular basis, so why not this one? At least, I’ll keep pining for it and hoping for a miracle to happen. And even if a sequel never comes to life, Hexyz Force is still there to be enjoyed, and I’ll certainly indulge in it again in the future. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!