Shining Soul: Greatness averted

Until not so long ago, one of my biggest gaming regrets was to have missed out on the Gameboy Advance era entirely. This glaring omission in my gaming career can be blamed both on the fact that the system was poorly advertised in Europe and sold mostly as a kiddie console and on the fact that I was pouring all my gaming hours into emulation at that time, revisiting 16-bit era classics with a fervour matched only by my lack of interest in new gaming consoles. When I finally became aware of the GBA’s existence, the system was not produced anymore and the DS was soaring, so I chose to focus on the latter. However, I could never get rid of the saddening thought that I had let potentially great games pass me by while I was soaked into replaying games that I already knew like the back of my hand; and a couple of years later, aided by internet, I decided to revisit history and mend my oversight by purchasing a GBA, along with all the games that could possibly interest me. This move certainly helped me get rid of my regret of not having played the system in its heyday—albeit not always in the expected way, as we’ll see in this post.

Indeed, we are now tackling one of these GBA games that passed me by in its time. Shining Soul, developed by Grasshopper Manufacture and released in 2002(jp) and 2003(na/eu), is part of the long-running Shining series. Created by Sega in 1991, the Shining series encompasses a variety of games borrowing liberally from different RPG subgenres, from first-person dungeon crawler to S-RPG. Shining Soul was actually supposed to be a reboot of the series; and while it may well be so on the narrative side, since Shining Soul introduces a new story arc, it is much harder to believe that this game had such grand ambitions as far as gameplay is concerned. Or it may have had such grand ambitions, but they failed to materialize properly. Shining Soul’s gameplay is average at best, patchy at worst, and as a whole shockingly rudimentary for a game that presented itself as a new departure. The worst part is that this gameplay, and the game as a whole, could have been much better with the right amount of care and gusto. There was some potential in Shining Soul, that much is undeniable; unfortunately, it was not exploited to the fullest, as we’ll see right now.  

Presentation at its barest

Indeed, Shining Soul is so dry and unpolished that it is quite hard to believe it was developed for the GBA. Graphics aside, it could definitely have passed for a NES game, and it is in many ways inferior to handheld games that are a good ten years older, such as Link’s Awakening or Final Fantasy Legend II. Either the developers didn’t know how to handle the GBA or they didn’t care about crafting a respectable game, for Shining Soul doesn’t shine in the slightest indeed.

The first example of dullness lies in the narrative, which is as bare and unexciting as it can be. A couple of lines in an exposition sequence, followed by a short dialogue with a bunch of unknown characters who order you to go slaughter the Dark Dragon and its five generals, and off to the dungeons you go! Add to this meagre introduction a couple of unclear lines spurt out by the bosses before they fight you, and you’ll have the whole narrative content of Shining Soul. Now, I repeated often enough that I prefer my RPG narrative to be on the light side, and Shining Soul makes no mystery of being a pure dungeon crawler, which automatically gives it a pass to dispense with a convoluted storyline; so this bare-bones story shouldn’t be an issue, right? Well, it would not be an issue, if not for two blatant flaws:

—The narrative doesn’t make the slightest attempt to create a connection between you and the game world: you don’t know how the people you interact with are, you don’t know if the village in which you rest is your home village or just some random place, and you don’t even know the name of the game world. The NPCs have absolutely nothing to say and actually don’t seem to know you—heck, even you do not know who you are supposed to be, for that matter. This is simply the most alienating and disconnected narrative I’ve ever seen in an RPG, and I am still baffled by the emptiness and vapidity of the whole thing. Even FFI was way better than this: at least, it had several villages, a roamable world map and more than five NPCs, all things painfully absent from Shining Soul.

—The very few dialogues present in the game give off the persistent feeling that Shining Soul is actually the sequel to something, with everybody talking like they know you from before and referring to past events like they are common knowledge. Given that the game is supposed to be a reboot, this is a very embarrassing failure. And since I am mentioning this, shouldn’t a reboot strive a little more to offer a decent new narrative departure to its series in the first place? That makes this narrative fiasco a double failure that is all but impossible to ignore. Heck, I am as lenient as a gamer can be when it comes to mediocre storytelling, but this is simply unacceptable, no matter how you look at it. 

The coarseness of Shining Soul doesn’t stop here, unfortunately, with the game’s visuals being just as crude as its storyline. Their overall quality is decent enough, mind you, and on par with most early GBA games; unfortunately, these satisfactory graphics are sapped by an atrocious lack of coherence. For one thing, the visualization is uneven, with the viewing angle changing between levels: some dungeons sport a top-down view while others sport an isometric view. This is quite bizarre, and goes against that implicit level design rule stipulating that similar gameplay phases should stick to the same type of visualization. But there is worse: scales also vary dramatically from one level to the next. Egual Dungeon is supposed to be a volcanic mountainous chain, yet features volcanos that are hardly higher than your sprite; on the other hand, Deol Waterway features docks and levees that dwarf your character and could easily accommodate hundreds of sprites. The result is jarring and utterly messy, and one could seriously wonder why such a design was adopted—or even if it was the result of a well thought-out decision. One could seriously doubt it: these dungeons clash so vividly with one another that they look like they’ve been handled by entirely different teams—and maybe that was actually the case, for all we know.

To dull the game even more, the equipment, inventory and forging management is absolutely pitiful. It is tedious, highly unpractical and completely unrewarding, and it is doubtful whether the developers even tried to make it good, let alone put any effort into designing the whole thing. Once again, I am usually very forgiving when it comes to poor inventory ergonomy and the like, especially with older games; but Shining Soul’s resource management system has no redeeming quality whatsoever, no matter how kindly you examine it. Here are my three main gripes with said system, the ones that had me rolling my eyes and grinding my teeth more than once:

—There are four classes to choose when you start a run, and each class can equip three exclusive weapons that cannot be used by other classes. However, once you start roaming the dungeons, you are bound to find all the weapons available in the game, regardless of whether or not you can actually equip them. This will lead to either having your inventory completely cluttered in a matter of minutes or being forced to leave a good chunk of the safes’ content and monster drops behind, which is anything but fulfilling. I wish the developers had programmed the game so that any item not usable by your chosen character would have been wiped off from the ensuing run, at least in the single player mode.

—This mishap actually also ruins the already pitiful forging system present in Shining Soul, making it all but useless. Here’s the gist of it: if you bring three fragments of any ore to some guy lounging in the village’s green, he will forge a powerful weapon for you. Good, right? Wrong. The problem is, you cannot choose what kind of weapon you want him to forge, which means that you only have a one-in-four chance to get a weapon usable by your character; and if you happen to have a favourite type of weapon out of the three available, then it’s only a one-in-twelve chance to get that precise type. This is more than just unpractical; this is downright idiotic, especially considering how rare ores are. I only found three in the course of my whole run, and—you guessed it—that amateur blacksmith crafted a weapon that I couldn’t use. Talk about a completely useless, pathetic excuse for a forging system.

—Last but not least is the miserable selection of equipment available in the village’s two shops. They hardly update their selection throughout the whole game, and it’s not exaggerated to say that you can find much better equipment lying around in dungeons. As a matter of fact, I did not buy a single piece of equipment from these pathetic traders during the course of my run because what they offered was inferior to my latest monster drops. As you’d expect, this makes any money you manage to collect virtually useless, which is just disheartening.

The deal-breaker

All these flaws I just mentioned are quite annoying, but Shining Soul still had a chance to redeem itself by treating us to a stellar fighting system. Bad presentation would have been all but forgotten if this game, which was branded from the get-go as an Action-RPG, had offered us some polished and intoxicating hacking-and-slashing. How hard could that be? Well, a lot more than you’d think, if Shining Soul’s actual wretched excuse for a fighting system is to be believed. It could have been the game’s saving grace, but it turns out to be the stone sinking it to the bottom instead. This foul fighting system has two horrendous flaws that ruin absolutely all the fun, exposed here in all their calamitous glory:

—The Missed Hits of Doom: All the time. With nearly all weapons. Sometimes affecting half of your hits, sometimes even more. Present from the first second of the game to the last, no matter how much you level up your dexterity stat. And trampling on your fun, ripping it apart. Seriously, I nearly ragequit a couple of times because it pissed me off to see half of my blows go down the drain. To add insult to injury, the sound effect for missed hits is a horrendous hollow wooden clunk; hearing it repeatedly was like pouring oil on fire, so much so that I actually played the whole game with the sound off. I abhor missed hits in A-RPGs, and this game is afflicted with the worst case of it I’ve ever seen. Compared to Shining Soul’s fighting system, Sword of Mana’s one is a pure gem.

—The Slowness of Abomination: I don’t know about you, but I expect a modicum of swiftness in my A-RPGs; some nervous, adrenaline-laden action that will contrast pleasantly with the slower fighting typical of Turn-based RPGs. And, well, I certainly did not get it in Shining Soul. It’s already bad enough that your character moves sluggishly, crawling around rather than running, but they also hit sluggishly, no matter how frantically you hammer the A-button. You may think this is due to hardware limitations, but it is not: occasional power-ups will let you deliver blows faster for a short period of time, as well as certain weapons, and the GBA has no problem handling these phases. Indeed, this is very much a design choice, and one that further ruins Shining Soul’s already miserable fighting system.

Compared to this terrible duo, the other flaws of the fighting system become hardly noticeable. Really, who cares about the fact that foes have no density whatsoever and that you can walk through them as though they were made of thin air, or about the fact that the hit box can be a bit wobbly, when moving around and delivering blows are such massive chores to begin with? Shining Soul’s physics are loathsome through and through, and there is not the slightest shred of enjoyment to be wringed out of this hot mess of a fighting system. Had I not found a slightly faster sword that let me hit faster in the fourth dungeon, I would probably have given up on my run before the end, despite my undying love for A-RPGs.


Indeed, and surprisingly enough given the scathing harangue I just wrote, I did finish the game. There are two reasons for that: the first is that I’m always reluctant to give up on a game that I physically imported, with shipping and toll fees involved—I want to recoup my investment somehow, especially when the involved game is an RPG. The second and most important reason is that I could actually see glimpses of goodness in the middle of all the mediocrity, glimpses that hinted at a vast potential that was sadly left unexploited.

Take the last four dungeons, for instance: they are truly gorgeous, with their isometric view and high level of details, and more pleasantly intricate than the first four ones. They could, and should, have been the template for all the dungeons in the game. Likewise, the fighting system was genuinely enjoyable the rare times I managed to get that speed power-up, and took a turn for the better after I found that faster sword at the halfway mark. Once again, the pleasant speed displayed at those times should not have been something exceptional, but rather the default speed of the fighting system. The truth is that Shining Soul could have been a great game: none of its flaws were due to technical limitations, and every single one of them could have been overcome with the right amount of care, dedication and hard work. Make the available weapons fit the chosen character. Put more items in the shops. Introduce a modicum of backstory. Choose a top-down or isometric view and a scale, and stick to them. Ramp up the walking speed, the hitting speed, and wipe these cursed missed hits from the face of that GBA cartridge. And so on. Indeed, Shining Soul could have been subtitled “Missed Opportunity”: for a game that was supposed to be a reboot, this stings hard. What a pity, and what a shame.

Still, I am actually glad to have played that game, not matter how disappointing it turned out to be. In fact, I am glad precisely because it was disappointing, in a twisted sort of way. This brings us back to the beginning of that post and to my persistent regret of having missed the GBA era. Between the moment I discovered the GBA’s existence and the moment I purchased one, I somehow glorified the system and its game library, elevating the latter to nearly mythical proportions. I pictured cult classics donning the gorgeous bright colours so typical of the GBA era and the retro pixelated art I’m so fond of, games that would nearly shine brighter than their DS counterparts. Absence makes the heart grows fonder, indeed, and the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. However, after having played Shining Soul, I suddenly realized that the GBA pastures are not nearly as fertile and greener-than-green as I had imagined. In my mind, the system was near-perfect and could do no wrong, and the idea that I missed such perfection pained me and ultimately prompted to purchase a GBA; but I see now that there was really not that much to miss in the first place. The GBA is not a monument of gaming perfection, but rather a mere console similar to any other console under the gaming sun, with strengths and weaknesses and a library containing both sparkling gems and stinky turds. Ironically, I have yet to uncover and play a true GBA cult classic; Sword of Mana certainly didn’t qualify for that accolade, and Shining Soul even less. Riviera could pass with flying colours, but I played it on the PSP, so I have a hard time considering it a GBA game… That being said, I’m not done with my GBA collection, and I’m sure that I will unearth some gems sooner or later—maybe starting with Shining Soul’s sequel, which is deemed much better than its elder and which I’m definitely planning to play. Until then, thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Tales of Hearts R: Good game gone stale

I have a budding yet already very complicated relationship with the Tales series. My first foray into the long-running Namco franchise was Tales of the Abyss on the 3ds, a game that aggravated and delighted me in equal parts: when I finished it, I was both elated and vomiting the whole thing, and the ambivalence persists to this day. My second Tales game was Tales of Phantasia, the original instalment: it failed to capture my interest and I dropped it after a couple of hours—although I’d wager that this was mostly due to the fact that I was playing Final Fantasy Legend II at the same time and thus had more than my fill of retro RPG. (I’ll play it again, I swear, if only to recoup my investment.) My Tales experience is thus a mixed bag, and I was looking forward to playing Tales of Hearts R, hoping that it would provide me with unequivocally positive feelings and erase the uneasiness I feel around the series: after all, Tales of Hearts has been deemed one of the best Tales entries ever produced, both in its original, Japanese-only incarnation released in 2008 and its Vita-revamped incarnation released in 2013 and 2014.

So, did Tales of Hearts R rise to the occasion and manage to redeem the series in my eyes? Well, it did for the most part, and quite brilliantly at that. I definitely loved that game and deeply enjoyed the 40 hours I spent playing it, and I can totally envision myself doing the whole thing all over again in an undetermined future. And yet, the picture is not perfect, as you certainly guessed from reading the title of this post. While it is true that I loved Tales of Hearts R, I could have adored it. In fact, I did adore it at first; but as playing hours went by, my adoration somehow cooled down to become some kind of lukewarm affection. It was still love all right, but it was definitely not as fervent as the fondness I had felt during the early stages of the game, which I deeply regretted—and still regret. Let’s now see how this loss of love unfolded during my run of Hearts R—with SPOILERS included, as you might expect!

The beauty of simplicity

It’s not exaggerated to say that I fell in love with Hearts R within the very first minutes of playing it. I was instantly charmed by the overall aesthetics, all crystalline colours, sleek lines and gorgeous vistas—although the bland world map could have enjoyed a bit more love, as well as some of the dungeons. The contrast with the more retro-oriented, pixelated aesthetics of the original Tales of Hearts is striking; and yet, somehow, the two games manage to evince the same slightly dreamy atmosphere—an atmosphere I was, and still am, very fond of. (It’s worth noting that Namco cannot be blamed for having lazily ported Tales of Hearts from one system to the next: the game went through a complete overhaul, both graphically and in terms of gameplay mechanics.)

I was just as smitten with the fighting system, which is an intoxicating blend of Action-RPG and Hack and Slash mechanics. Battles are random and take place in a separate arena in which you’re free to move at will and attack enemies from any angle. This is similar to the fighting system used in Tales of the Abyss and represents a major departure from the system present in the original Tales of Hearts, which sported a side view of the action and relied more on carefully timed attacks, parries and retreats. These changes make the fighting in Hearts R more frantic and fast-paced, especially during boss fights, where moving constantly is pretty much the key to survival. As in former Tales instalments, you can switch between characters at will during battle, assign Artes to specific button combinations for every character and customize fighting strategies with a delighting amount of precision. Even neater, the A.I. is nothing short of stellar: your allies can take care of themselves incredibly well, retreating when necessary, healing the whole group profusely and reviving dead party members without any input from you, and they dutifully follow the strategies you assign to them. This fighting system is really quite the gem, clear-cut and streamlined without ever being boring or repetitive, and I enjoyed it all from the first battle to the last one.

I also deeply enjoyed the overall user-friendliness of Hearts R. This is a game that is utterly dedicated to making your gaming easier—in sharp contrast with Tales of the Abyss, which seemed to go out of its way to make your life more miserable. (Jeez, I should write a post about this game one day.) The leveling-up system is easy to grasp and use: on top of gaining levels, you reap some points that you must allocate to five virtues/qualities in a dedicated menu. Once you get a certain number of points, you gain new Artes, Skills and weapons to equip: simple and straightforward, just as I like leveling-up systems to be. To make things even better, you gain levels quite often throughout the whole game—even during the very last hours, which usually rather show a slowdown in this department. Let’s also mention that all cutscenes can be skipped, even during your first run: this is absolutely a blessing, especially when you’re forced to make several attempts at a boss fight preceded by a cutscene. (Yep, I’m totally speaking from experience there.) Also, shops always have the products they offer in stock. While this may seem pretty obvious for an RPG, it is not as far as the Tales series is concerned: Tales of the Abyss’ shops were regularly out of stock for unfathomable reasons, forcing the player to backtrack or go forward in order to buy the goods they needed. (This still makes my teeth grind, seriously.) Cherry on top of the convenience cake, sidequests are available at all times—sometimes long before you can actually fulfill them—and the characters presenting you with said sidequests are identified by a yellow question mark floating over their heads. Now, maybe this goes a step to far in terms of hand-holding; but I’d chose this configuration ten times over the infuriating one present in Tales of the Abyss, where sidequests were available only during a short period of time and not signaled as such, which could lead one to mistake them for plot-relevant quests. (Once again, experience speaking.)   

The game also had me wrapped around its finger with its gripping pacing. During the first 20 hours, time flies by as you visit one town after the other, explore dungeons without a hitch and run ever forward, driven by a palpable sense of urgency as you’re embroiled in an pressing quest in which every second matters. There is not the slightest hint of backtracking and things flow unhindered, and I really found myself more than eager to tackle the next milestone in line. In fact, the pacing in the first half of Hearts R is simply one of the best pacing that I’ve ever encountered in a J-RPG, especially a story-driven one. It is compelling and intoxicating, and it makes you feel like your actions truly matter in writing the game’s history. This is not an easy feat, and Hearts R must be praised abundantly for mastering that delicate alchemy between storytelling and player’s input and giving the impression that what the player does makes a difference in the game world—at least during its first half. Things turn sour in the second half, as we’ll see later; but that doesn’t erase or nullify the achievement of this compelling first half, which boasts an enthralling pacing not matter what.

Last but not least, Tales of Hearts R captured my heart with its storyline, which is simple and limpid yet strangely riveting. In an era where J-RPGs feel compelled to brandish complicated and inflated storylines to distinguish themselves from their peers, the clear-cut and unpretentious narrative of Hearts R was a delicious breath of fresh air. (SPOILERS ahead!) Here’s the gist of it: playing as the young, lively and a-bit-dumb-yet-pure-hearted Kor Meteor, you find an unknown girl passed on the beach next to your home village, bring her home and offer her help… and end up accidentally shattering her soul, or “Spiria Core” as these things are called in Hearts R’s world, all under the eyes of her brother who joined the fray in the meantime. Nice job rescuing people, Mr. Clumsy! Of course, you have to repair your horrendous mistake, and thus ensues a desperate quest to collect the fragments of the girl’s Spiria Core before less scrupulous individuals get their hands on them—these things are laden with strong emotions, see, and can be used to nefarious purposes such as manipulating people. Of course, there are hints that the girl and her brother, Kohaku Hearts and Hisui Hearts respectively, harbour deeper and darker secrets: a shady sorceress is out to get their heads, a mysterious woman seems to live within Kohaku’s Spiria Core, and a conveniently vague and ominous prophecy gives you an inkling that more serious developments may lurk ahead. This all promised a compelling tale about taking responsibility for your actions, fixing your mistakes and amending your behaviour, mixed with a sweet budding love story—I mean, which boy wouldn’t fall in love with a girl whose soul they are patiently rebuilding, and which girl wouldn’t become smitten with a boy who is dutifully collecting the pieces of her soul? This whole collecting affair could have turned into a giant boring fetch quest involving an indefinite number of nebulous MacGuffins, but it manages to be exactly the opposite, thanks to the engrossing pacing that I mentioned above. The search for Kohaku’s Spiria Shards—much classier than “pieces of soul”, indeed— occupies the first half of the game and is clearly the best part of it as far as narrative is concerned. The good ol’ incentive of Saving the World is all well and nice, but striving to cure a young lady from an lifelong apathetic state in which you put her because of your own stupidity and recklessness turns out to be just as compelling an incentive—maybe even more, because it is not as ridiculously overused as the “Save the World” trope.  

So, this is the game I hopelessly fell in love with: a beautiful and straightforward tale about taking one’s responsibilities unfolding in a gorgeous game world with crystalline aesthetics, complemented by a flowing adrenaline-laden fighting system and a pleasant accessibility. Alas, this adoration was not meant to last: I should have known that “simplicity” and “JRPG” is the biggest oxymoron ever, and that this initial limpidity that I treasured so much was not meant to last. And sure enough, it was only the prelude to the game royally soiling itself.  

Overplaying the part

Let’s be blunt: the second half on the game, i.e. the last twenty hours, is a sickeningly glorious exercise in fake longevity. For some reason, Namco felt compelled to overinflate their game in various ways, ruining the gorgeous simplicity that had prevailed in the first half of the game and sapping whatever originality it had managed to muster. Indeed, the second half of the game could be subtitled “Modern JRPG 101”: it is an amalgam of all the JRPG clichés of the last fifteen years—party member turned traitor turned good again, mechas slowly learning to feel emotions, heroes being the offspring of courageous warriors who sacrificed themselves to seal a foe forever but failed miserably at it, impossible love story and much, much more—and thus comes across as utterly unimaginative and boring. Let’s now take a closer look at the various ways the game unraveled after the halfway mark.

The user-friendliness and gorgeous crystalline aesthetics endured until the very end—the latter even increasing: the last third of the game is home to the most breathtaking vistas. The fighting system remained mostly preserved too, apart from one annoying detail: as the game went on, the fighting arenas became wider in order to accommodate spell-casting foes. While this may seem inconsequential, it had the annoying effect of forcing you to cross greater distances in order to attack enemies. This both lengthened battles and made them more tedious, as you could spend a good chunk of your fighting time just running after moving enemies. Still, this was far from being the biggest hurdle; and had it been the only problem appearing in the second half of the game, I wouldn’t even have bothered mentioning it.

A much more serious issue was the unraveling of the pacing. The compelling urgency present in the first half of Hearts R is put to death in the second half, as the game forces you to backtrack, make detours and generally squander your energy in annoying wanderings. Dungeons become larger without becoming more interesting in the process, bosses that you already fought must be taken down a second or even a third time, and you spend more time trying to locate that already visited town that you’re forced to visit again than discovering new and exciting places. This dilution of the pacing is actually a collateral damage, and can solely be blamed on the biggest issue of Hearts R’s second half, which is none other than the collapse of the storyline.

What a waste, indeed. I cannot find any other words to describe my disappointment at how the narrative of Tales of Hearts R evolved in the last twenty hours, going from a straightforward and limpid story to an over-bloated attempt at epicness bursting at the seams with clichés. Sure, there were also clichés in the first half, such as the recurrent recklessness of Kor, the overprotectiveness of big brother Hisui towards little sister Kohaku and the obligatory lame misunderstandings about peeping into the Ladies’ baths by accident; but they were innocuous, and hardly noticeable. The clichés that plague the second half, on the other hand, are massive and unescapable. (SPOILERS ahead.) Here’s what happen in a nutshell: once the last Spiria Shard is collected and Kohaku is herself again, we discover that the lady living in her Spiria is actually an extra-terrestrial being that took her as host when she—Kohaku, that is—was still in her mother’s womb. But that’s not all: in the same breath, we also discover that Kor himself hosts such a being, unbeknownst to everyone, and that this being dressed like a disco superstar is actually malevolent and wants to release the power of one of the moons orbiting around the heroes’ planet—which happens not to be a moon at all, but rather a giant flower-shaped artificial organism called Gardenia whose sole purpose is to suck Spirias. Huh, really? Gee, talk about imaginations running wild. 

For all the ludicrousness of this development, this is not even the worst narrative sin committed by the game. This could actually have passed if it had been handled properly: the “aliens living in Spirias” plot twist comes across as conveniently shocking while not popping up entirely out of the blue, and Creed, the ultimate bad guy dressed as ABBA in their heyday, is threatening enough to give you the desire to eradicate him on the spot. And that is what should have happened, in my opinion: I was so pumped up when Creed revealed himself that I wanted to finish him immediately, after taking down his cronies one by one in the most epic showdown of them all. Instead, the game forced me to run away from these fights, kicking and screaming… Only to make me spend the next bloody twenty hours trying to find a way to reach Creed and his crew again after they escaped into a flying fortress and set up to rouse Gardenia.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is clearly the bloodiest, dirtiest narrative crime Tales of Hearts R is guilty of. To reveal the identity of the big baddy at the halfway mark is not only stupid, it is also totally counter-productive: anybody could figure out that after twenty hours of pursuing said big baddy, even the most motivated player will be bored to death and have lost all their motivation to set things right—anybody but the guys at Namco, that is. Sure, they tried to make that over-extended second half easier to swallow by stuffing it with flashbacks, character development and various twists and turns, but this simply does not work. All these events come across as hurdles and hindrances whose sole purpose is to extend the game’s longevity, and that is exactly what they are. But there is worse: in the context of Hearts R’s storyline, this development is purely and simply unbelievable. We are talking about saving the world from a giant alien menace; I will gloss over the unbearable platitude of the whole premise to concentrate on how ludicrous it is compared to the game’s previous events. To put it simply, your party is not up to the task. This miscellaneous crew of characters from all walks of life was competent enough to collect pieces of a girl’s Spiria, but saving the world seems just too huge a task for their frail shoulders. No matter how hard the game tries to convince you that they can do it by shoving the old “If we’re united we can overcome any obstacle!” credo down your throat until you vomit it, it is simply not believable, not even remotely. This development is too wide a stretch, and it comes across as redundant J-RPG fare: saving a single girl was not enough, oh no—they had to throw the whole world into the mix.   

I have nothing against saving the world in JRPGs, mind you; but the way Hearts R presented things is just too clumsy and hard to swallow. The transition between “Piecing a Spiria together” and “Saving the World” is way too abrupt—“inexistent” would actually be closer to the truth, even though the game tries to squeeze in a sequence in which your party ponder their options and wonder if they are up to the task—yet after that, events take much too long to unfold until the final showdown. Namco could have made these developments much easier to digest by either: a) Letting us fight Creed and his cronies right after they revealed themselves and before they actually endangered the world for good by rousing Gardenia, thus putting an end to the game around the 20 hour-mark, or b) Cutting the game in two distinct parts—the first about curing Kohaku and the second about saving the world—and letting a good amount of in-game time pass between them. The latter was done in a good number of games, from Solatorobo to Popolocrois, to great results; and it would certainly have worked just as well in Hearts R. The whole “Saving the World” business would have seem much more plausible if a couple of years had elapsed between the two halves of Hearts R, giving the characters the opportunity to train and become accomplished fighters instead of the bunch of misfits they are, and the issue of the abrupt transition would have evaporated altogether. The two instalments could have been sold separately, à la Tales of the World, or put together on the same cartridge and separated from one another by credits à la Solatorobo. Of course, the option of letting us fight Creed and his crew right after they revealed themselves and ending the game there was also perfectly viable. It would have been all the more viable as we do not actually fight Gardenia itself at the end—the game fortunately didn’t step as far as pitting us against an moon-sized alien entity—but rather Creed, after which the menace is eradicated for good. This outcome reinforces the feeling that Gardenia was only used as some kind of plot device to increase tension—to no avail, as far as I was concerned—and that things could have been dealt with twenty hours before, when we first uncovered Creed and his crew. But I guess such an option was simply out of the question: the game would then have been slandered for being way too short, clocking at “only” 20-or-so hours. Oh, well.

That being said, I don’t want to sound overly negative: I did love the second half of the game too, and I didn’t exactly have to force myself to finish it. Fighting was still just as compelling, the vistas were just as gorgeous, and the lovely ending was just what I expected, letting us (SPOILER) witness Kohaku and Kor’s sweet love confession to one another (END OF SPOILER). All in all, I’m really glad that I finished that game, and I enjoyed every minute spent playing it. To end on an unashamedly positive note, I am quite optimistic about any future run of Hearts R: now that I know what to expect, I won’t be disappointed again and I’ll certainly be more able to enjoy the game for what it is instead of projecting my own expectations on it. Although Heart R’s story ended up being longer and more convoluted than I had hoped for, the game still managed to redeem the series in my eye and make me want to try more Tales entries. I certainly love it ten times more than Tales of the Abyss, at any rate, and I will undoubtedly play it again. I’m also quite curious about the DS original; and since I actually own it, I will probably play it sooner or later, if only to satisfy my insatiable curiosity regarding gaming history. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Sonic Boom-Shattered Crystal: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

Why such a title, and what does it have to do with the Sonic series in general and with this game in particular? Well, quite a lot, actually. Depending on how you look at it, Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal can be either a miserable and pointless failure or a commendable and entertaining offering, and whether it appears as one or the other depends entirely on one’s stance towards the Sonic series in general and towards that game in particular.

Whether you’re a Sonic aficionado or not, you must be aware of the abject critical and commercial failure suffered by the Sonic Boom sub-series. It comprises only two games—and will probably never comprise more—that were hailed as a brand-new start and a departure for the ageing series: they were supposed to introduce new gameplay mechanics and bring a breath of fresh air to the Sonic universe. That fresh air turned rotten as the pair was utterly destroyed by critics as soon as it landed on shelves and condemned to the deepest pits of gaming hell. Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal was not as severely mauled as its Wii U counterpart when it was released in late 2014, but it still reaped the filthy scores of 47 on Metacritic and 47.45 on Gamerankings. These slightly higher ratings may be due to the fact that Shattered Crystal was handled by a different—and more competent—developer, namely Sanzaru Games, or simply to the fact that expectations regarding portable games are slightly lower than expectations regarding home console games; but whatever the reason, Shattered Crystal failed miserably all the same and was chewed by critics nearly as vengefully as its Wii U counterpart. The revamped character designs, which had focused criticism prior to the games’ arrival, became a mere detail lost in a torrent of venomous complaints, gripes and grievances targeting virtually every single aspect of the games—the Sonic Boom subseries went boom, indeed.

In fact, the level of hatred found in the huge majority of the reviews for Shattered Crystal is seriously uncanny. There is so much contempt, anger and resentment dripping from these reviews that you’d think that the game scammed the reviewers and emptied their bank accounts or even murdered one of their acquaintances. Shattered Crystal actually committed an even worse crime—at least as far as gaming criticism is concerned: it failed to meet reviewers’ expectations. This is a serious offense, and one that the Sonic series has been guilty of numerous times in the last fifteen years, and reviewers reacted to it with the righteous fury of people who have been wronged just one time too much. Shattered Crystal acted as some kind of last straw and received a torrent of hate and ire and return—a torrent that, in my opinion, was mostly undeserved. However, another gamer with a different stance on the matter may think that Shattered Crystal got the beating it was asking for, and their opinion would be valid too. The truth is that Shattered Crystal is a two-faceted game, and that proved to be its downfall: it is both a lovely action-adventure game and a crappy Sonic game.

Sonic in name only

Indeed, a gamer who expects Shattered Crystal to be a classic Sonic game with a distinct Sonic feel is headed for a sore disappointment. Sure, it says “Sonic” on the box, and the original crew is there—still very much recognizable despite the revamped designs—along with other distinctive features of the series, but it still doesn’t feel like a canon Sonic game at all. In fact, it could probably have accommodated totally different characters without anybody screaming rip-off.

The weirdest part is that if one’s eyes are to be believed, Shattered Crystal should feel like a classic Sonic game. Heck, it certainly plays the part visually: it is a 2D side-scrolling platformer all right, very similar to Sonic Generations in terms of art style, modelization and camera dynamic, and it features beloved staples of the series such as rings, shields, high-speed ramps and bouncers. It also faithfully integrates a handful of classic gameplay mechanics, such as Sonic’s Spin Dash, Tails’ ability to fly and the Homing Attack. And yet, despite all these efforts, that distinctive Sonic vibe that the series’ aficionados know and love is entirely absent. Playing Shattered Crystal is like playing a game that pretends really hard to be a Sonic game by donning the series’ clothes, yet fails at delivering a believable Sonic impersonation. The reasons for this uncanny unfamiliarity does not lie in the features that are present in Shattered Crystal, but rather in the features that are absent from it. For reasons unfathomable, Sanzaru Games decided to remove some defining elements that have always been at the core of the 2D Sonic instalments, creating thus this weird game that looks like a Sonic entry but doesn’t taste like one. Here are the features that are conspicuous by their absence, conveniently broken down for your convenience:

—The upbeat and frenzy musical accompaniment typical of the series is nowhere to be heard in Shattered Crystal. In its place plays a rather subdued and entirely forgettable soundtrack that is more soporific than thrilling. There are a couple of good themes, such as the one that plays in the first level, but this soundtrack sounds for the most part as though it has been lifted from some crappy adventure flick. This is clearly my main gripe with Shattered Crystal, and the presence of such a boring and unimaginative soundtrack in a Sonic games was so unbearable that I played the whole game with the sound off after the first level.

—The visual identity that has always defined the 2D instalments of the series—all bright colours, detail-laden backgrounds and levels with very distinctive atmospheres—is nowhere to be seen in Shattered Crystal. Although the game is undeniably gorgeous and very pleasant to look at, the vivid colours have been replaced by pastel hues, the background have been emptied of most flourishes and the levels, while still different from one another, do not sport anymore some very recognizable themes—Ancient Egypt, Water Labyrinth or Artic Circle, to quote only a few. Once again, there are some exceptions: the Fire Level and its silhouetted gameplay is just a great idea and looks really gorgeous—not to mention that it’s one of the few occurrences of a Fire Level in the series, which makes is a curiosity by itself. Also, the first level boasts a Tropical theme, in pure Sonic tradition. Still, there’s no denying that this game is visually more subdued and vanilla than your average 2D Sonic game, and anybody expecting pyramids, ice loops and parade lights will definitely be disappointed. Heck, you can’t even dip a toe in water in that game!

—Last but certainly not least, speed itself is nowhere to be enjoyed in Shattered Crystal, neither as a key gameplay mechanic nor as a reward. This is certainly the most stinging omission of the bunch and the one that had many reviewers frothing at the mouth. Sanzaru Games themselves recognized at some point that neglecting the speed factor had been a dire mistake and that they hadn’t anticipated the uproar such a move would generate. Think about it: not only is Sonic not an inch faster than its teammates, which is already a heresy, but the whole gameplay itself is not based on speed. Sure, you can run and even dash around thanks to a Boost move, but it serves no other purpose than, well… crossing the levels a tad faster. The use of speed doesn’t grant you access to exclusive areas nor is ever necessary to survive à la Sonic Rush, and it doesn’t act as a well-deserved reward like in the original Sonic trilogy. Sure, there are some bursts of breakneck speed in which your characters are propelled along a high-speed ramp with camera flourishes for good measure—classic modern Sonic fare, shall we say. Unfortunately, the semi-scripted nature of these sequences prevent them from being any rewarding: there is nothing to feel accomplished about, since the action will take place without any special input from the player. Ironically, the very presence of these ramps in the game feels more like a half-hearted homage, a testimony to the fact that Shattered Crystal is supposed to be a Sonic game, than like a rock-solid gameplay mechanic. As well-executed as these sequences may be, they don’t replace a meaningful and cohesive integration of speed in the gameplay.

All in all, the high-octane, frenzied atmosphere so typical of the classic 2D Sonic entries is nowhere to be found in Shattered Crystal. If the presence of such an atmosphere is the touchstone of awesome Sonic-ness, then the conclusion is implacable: Shattered Crystal is a bad Sonic game. There’s no way this game can be a good Sonic game without the thrilling music, the eye-popping aesthetics, the mind-blowing speed and the general chutzpah that came to be associated with the series over the years. Does this mean that Shattered Crystal is a bad game full stop? Well, absolutely not.

Not Sonic-good, yet still good

Indeed, an open-minded gamer who approaches this game as some kind of weird Sonic spin-off from a parallel universe will undoubtedly find a lot of goodness in it. It may be a crappy classic Sonic game, but it’s not a bad game per se: anyone who claims that either did not play it or is too blinded by hatred to see the truth. Shattered Crystal is a very competent Action-Adventure platformer with undeniable qualities and is very much worth playing if you’re an aficionado of the genre. It won’t treat you to that classic Sonic feel, but it has other excellent things to offer, and they are not to be sniffed at. Without further ado, here’s a list of Shattered Crystal’s virtues:

—The game boasts rock-solid physics that are utterly enjoyable and tight controls that many games could envy. Moving your characters around is deeply enjoyable thanks to this awesome combination: not only do they perform every required action with delightful precision, but the actions themselves have some sort of deep physicality that is a complete treat. You can feel yourself ram into things, erupt into a burst of speed or leap gracefully from one ledge to the next, and it’s incredibly pleasant and rewarding. There is not a trace of the mushiness and lack of precision so often encountered in lower-tier platformers and action-adventure games, and this is a feat that should definitely be acknowledged and praised when discussing Shattered Crystal.

—Great physics and tight controls would amount to nothing if they were not put to good use. Fortunately, they are indeed put to—very—good use in Shattered Crystal: the game treats us to an excellent brand of platforming that makes the most of the physics and the controls, and manages to renew the gameplay of the series in an astounding way. This was a risky move if there ever was one, given how touchy the Sonic fan base can be, and it didn’t reap the expected rewards and praise; nonetheless, this brand-new gameplay is not only entirely functional, but also deeply enjoyable in its own right. Unlike any other 2D Sonic instalment, Shattered Crystal features a gameplay that is mostly aerial-based: moves such as mid-air dashes, homing attacks and a brand-new double jump are used profusely to progress through the stages. Sonic Colours on the DS had already flirted with this kind of aerial gameplay, but the results were mostly unsatisfactory and lacked much-needed precision; in Shattered Crystal, on the other hand, the control over your characters’ actions is total, and moving around in mid-air become a sheer joy instead of a chore that you endure while grinding teeth. Add to this excellent aerial base a couple of extra moves such as Knuckles’ Burrowing and Stich’s Boomerang-Throwing, and you get a vibrant gameplay full of variety that always manages to keep the game fresh.

—Last but not least comes the very distinctive and unique atmosphere of Shattered Crystal. The long levels with their grand vistas must be explored carefully several times over instead of rushed through; combine this with the near-absence of speed and the aerial-based gameplay, and you get a game that is deeply, well… Relaxing. Soothing, in a somewhat atmospheric way. Putting “Sonic” and “relaxing” in the same sentence is as close to blasphemy as it gets, and yet, it cannot be denied: Shattered Crystal is a deeply relaxing game, a game that made me feel all mellow every time I played it. It is probably the only Sonic game that can be used to chill out, and will probably be the only one ever; and to be honest, I would nearly regret this. As much as I adore the fast-paced and delirious atmosphere of the classic 2D Sonic games, I also deeply enjoyed the soothing quality of Shattered Crystal, and I really wouldn’t be against seeing more of it in subsequent Sonic entries. This is obviously wishful thinking: after the critical debacle endured by Shattered Crystal, the relaxing orientation will undoubtedly be buried forever. Well, at least I have this game to cherish.

Indeed, Shattered Crystal is a jolly good game in its own right. It combines a unique soothing atmosphere with delightful physics, tight controls and a varied and interesting gameplay with deep and solid platforming roots and a tang of action-adventure to spice up the mix. This is very un-Sonic, and yet it’s deeply enjoyable. To appreciate this game for what it is can be difficult: it may require us to reconcile conflicted feelings about the Sonic series—feelings that can often take us all the way back to the series’ inception.

Coming to terms with the series’ evolution

One fact can hardly be denied: the most devoted and enduring Sonic aficionados are the ones who discovered the Blue Blur on the Sega consoles in the beginning of the 16-bit era, some 25 years ago. We saw the feisty hedgehog come to life, in a flurry of colourful pixels, and we fell in love with him, often at first sight—or play. The first Sonic games showered us with exhilarating and brand-new gaming sensations that embedded themselves into our memories, and the series gained a special spot in our soft gamer’s hearts. As time and gaming systems went by, we expected the series to sweep us off our feet with its every entry, as it did in the early days; however, the magic of these glorious debuts seemed hard to conjure up again. The series stubbornly refused to dazzle and shine as it did in the 16-bit era, preferring instead to experiment and wander around—sometimes to cringing results, but also sometimes to excellent ones. Alas, we couldn’t spot and enjoy all these gems: as games were released and failed to enrapture us with the same force as the original instalments, we retreated in some kind of critical ivory tower, sniffing and spitting at the new entries while expectantly checking the gaming horizon for a sign—any sign—that the series was on its way back to its former glory. So far, such a sign has yet to come.

Let’s be brutally honest: it will probably never come, no matter how long we wait. Not because the Sonic series is destined to mediocrity—far from it, at least in my opinion—but because we, as a collective group of old-timers who grew up with Sonic, do not want to see that sign. It became pretty obvious over the years that innovations, whatever they may be, are not well-received at all as far as the Sonic Series is concerned. Every new gameplay mechanic is met with critical mauling—often deserved, but sometimes not. (Case in point: Shattered Crystal.) However, sticking to old-school gameplay or trying to go back to the series’ glorious roots doesn’t do the trick either and doesn’t make us any happier. The GBA and DS entries, which feature gameplays and overall atmospheres that are the closest thing to the 16-bit era ones, are generally ignored and glossed over; and Sonic 4, which is a vibrant tribute to the 16-bit instalments loaded with shameless fan-service, was chewed by critics and fans and is regarded as a worthless pile of trash.

Let’s face it: there may be no way to satisfy us old-timers, to give us back the amazing feelings and sensations that the Sonic series elicited when we first discovered it. For one thing, the type of gameplay that brought Sonic to prominence, i.e. 16-bit era generic platforming, is utterly dated nowadays: it has lost its appeal and freshness many years ago and could certainly not sweep us off our feet anymore. Sure, Mario, Rayman and Kirby are still around the gaming block, starring in games that are reminiscent of their own 16-bit era moments of glory, but let’s be honest: their popularity in that field is a shadow of what it used to be at that time, when platforming as a genre was at its peak. 16-bit era platforming—and Sonic along with it—may in its time be revived and glorified by the independent scene in the same way 8-bit era platforming is being brought to life and paid homage to in tons of indie games right now; but until then, any Sonic 16-bit era revival would better stay buried and wait for its time. If the debacle of Sonic 4 proved something, it’s definitely that we are not yet ready for starry-eyed, reference-laden homages to 16-bit platformers, no matter how much we loved them. Then, there is the crucial nostalgia factor: we have very likely embellished our first steps with the series beyond all recognition, creating a picture of pristine perfection that shines so brightly in our minds that it makes any new Sonic instalment pale in comparison. Even if we stepped on a Sonic game that were genuinely as brilliant as the original entries, we wouldn’t recognize it for what it is, blinded as we are by our own nostalgia.

So what’s the way out? Can we ever be happy and fulfilled again playing Sonic, or is the Blue Blur condemned to be our lost gaming love? Well, maybe the trick is to just go with the flow and try to accept the series’ evolution. We still have the 16-bit era entries to cherish, and they’ll be there forever; knowing that we can come back to them whenever we crave a fix of old-school Sonic gameplay, maybe we can relax a trifle and accept new directions and experiments with an open mind, and enjoy them for what they are. Maybe that’s the supreme key to being at peace with the series once and for all: give up our rusty, near-fossilized ideas about what Sonic games should be and take them for what they are instead. There is some good in Shattered Crystal, although it doesn’t fit the bill as a perfect classic 2D Sonic game; and when we grumpy old-timers give up our unrealistic and contradictory expectations about the series, maybe we can finally see some beauty in that game—and countless other Sonic entries.  

I loved Shattered Crystal, at any rate; but that should be, well… crystal-clear by now. It’s not a perfect game, but it deserved much better than being pummeled to death by critics the very second it was released. It’s worth playing for the awesome physics and the soothing atmosphere alone, if nothing else: it’s not every day that a Sonic game can be deemed “relaxing”, if ever. And unfortunately, top-notch physics seem to have also deserted the series lately, at least in its home console incarnations; all the more incentive to try one’s hand at Shattered Crystal’s stunningly honed physics. Give the game a chance, it so deserves it! Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!