(Japan 2007, developer: Game Republic, publisher: SCEI)
The same old JRPG dying every day
Once upon a time I stumbled over an Eastern RPG with the title “Grandia 2” on PC. I didn’t know there were others from the dubious genre of JRPG, but it was quite a new experience. Interesting characters, a storyline you could follow, even though it went a bit overboard at the end (I didn’t know a lot of JRPGs tread the same way back then) and the play time was not so long that it became tedious. After all I enjoyed “Baldur’s Gate” which was pretty long by RPG standards.
Now all this time I’ve tried most Final Fantasy games (which I found overrated, except maybe the 8th one most fans seem to hate) and one Dragon Quest (the excellent 8), only what they were all lacking was an interesting approach to storytelling. The same old angst-ridden anime characters trying to save the world in one way or another.
Sure the vistas, cutscenes, music etc. made you lose yourself in another world, but there are a lot of other games which do that in less time. And level grinding isn’t really that much of a reward if you can finish an adventure game in under 10(0) hours.
Make your choice
Now here comes along a game by Japanese developer Game Republic which tries it a bit differently. There are only two characters you can first choose from: Ellen, a young woman trying to find out what happened to her dead mother who apparently wrote her a letter, and Keats, a writer of a paranormal activity magazine wanting to find out who’s responsible for the murders happening on a small island. The characters experience the same storyline from different perspectives, and you HAVE to finish with both, only in what order is up to you as the game is divided into 7 chapters, played independently. It makes for some interesting ways of making the player guess what happens in between the gaps the game leaves for and with each individual character. Both Ellen and Keats are working towards the solution of their own mystery, but to different ends. They meet the same characters and traverse the same locales, but still every chapter plays differently, the NPCs react differently.
The main story and its ending may not be that satisfying (again a problem many Japanese games face: they try to be more clever than they actually are, with all kinds of human emotions thrown in), the village inhabitants are a bit flat, but it’s still something you don’t see everyday: a mystery and detective story mixed with folklore, the meaning of dreams, suppression of memories, death and all kinds of pretty bleak human experiences (nothing like the typical JRPG fare)…and fairies.
FIGHT!!!…or absorb, if you like.
But fairies are usually only NPCs. What is more important, in gameplay terms, is the handling of so-called folks, some creatures both protagonists can catch and later use for combat. It’s quite a lot like Pokemon or, if anyone remembers the game as fondly as me, the 2002 PC-exclusive action-adventure Zanzarah (from German developer Funatics). This means certain types of folks are more useful against others. It’s not an over-complicated (or new) idea, but its execution lacks in precision: some folks can only be absorbed at the end by waggling the PS3’s six-axis-controller to drain their last energy bar (and not killing them). Unfortunately this procedure takes up quite some time plus patience and can easily be disrupted by attacks from enemies.
With end bosses (which are visually quite disturbing and well-done, just like the other strange creatures) you also have to change the waggling pattern at certain points and this can result in quite some out-of-breath and sweaty hands moments. It’s not really the enemies which put up a fight, but the controls.
Another disappointing feature is the way you have to scroll through all the folk-menus to choose the ones you need. You always find yourself reading the description about what kinds of elemental attacks they have. In principle it’s an interesting way of finding each weakness and strength, but it’s still time-consuming.
There are also pages strewn throughout the worlds which tell you in drawings what those weaknesses (especially of bosses) are. Unfortunately some are poorly drawn and it frequently happens that you mix up the creatures.
Levelling up is for sissies
Levelling up is also a pretty cool idea, but done in a not-so-good way: You have to fulfil certain conditions (like absorb 10 of those folks, defeat 5 of those with this particular folk, use a certain amount of nuts you find in the levels etc.) which of course makes you rethink your combat strategies when confronting new foes. It’s less monotonous than levelgrinding, but if you have to backtrack just to find a certain number of enemies for your creature to fight against and upgrade with, it gets tiresome. Especially since the dungeons aren’t that interesting to look at and you can beat the game easily without absorbing and powering up each and everyone of the little buggers.
More adventure game than RPG?
A bigger problem is actually the whole gameplay, because it takes more time to level up (your two characters do it automatically after a certain number of folk upgrades, absorbs, NOT defeating them, no attributes and so on) and fight the different types of folks than progressing in the story.
At some points it feels weirdly at odds fighting them if the story segment itself shows just a dream which has nothing to do with combat or the folks themselves. I always wondered if the game wouldn’t have been better suited to a classic graphic adventure, and done without the whole RPG elements. Of course the dialogues aren’t the best (but there are enough contemporary graphic adventures which are even worse) and the graphics are a hit-or-miss affair But the way the suspense is kept at a high throughout the game would be enough to make those gamers interested who don’t want to spend 20 hours of fighting and dying all the time (at the end it gets quite unfair because of some checkpoint issues).
Side quests left at the road side
There are some sidequests in the Netherworld (an alternative dream world the characters can travel to at night) which show some fun characters and awkward ideas, but I couldn’t be bothered to go through the same battle system again and just getting some equipment the characters don’t really need to finish the story.
Less hours, more story and fun than the dying breed
It’s a shame Folklore hasn’t been well received because of its incongruous RPG templates. For those who don’t want to spend 100 hours or more on another levelgrinding-bore with angst-ridden teenage anime characters, this comes highly recommended, especially since it can be completed in 15-20 hours and has quite an interesting storytelling technique with flashbacks, open gaps which make the player guess throughout the game what happened, happens or will happen in a imaginary world like no other.