Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Super Robot Taisen OG Saga Endless Frontier


This is probably the longest named video game that I've ever played, but what a fun, long named game it is.  I'm just going to be referring to it as "Endless Frontier" from here on in for brevity, okie dokie? :p  Anyway, this is a sci-fi RPG from the folks at Monolith Soft, the same people that brought us the Xenosaga series, and Xenoblade.  What I found particularly interesting about this game is how much of an about face its story is compared to the other titles that the developer has put out.  Just look at the Xenosaga games.  Such serious fare, with so many straight faces and such somber storytelling.  Then you take a look at Endless Saga, and it's a jolly interplanetary romp full of boob jokes, flirtation, and an almost harem like anime quality to it.  The game really feels like it was a chance for Monolith to let its hair down and do something fun, and silly for a change.

There's more than a good story to be had here, though.  The battle system is pretty snazzy too with timed attacks, juggling, combos, and cool looking special moves.  All and all, this game feels like one of the better, yet tragically overlooked, RPGs on the DS.  With that, lets take a closer look at Endless Frontier. ^_^


Story and Setting

As the game's name suggests, players are thrust into the world of the Endless Frontier.  It's a group of worlds connected together via a series of devices called Cross Gates that allow travels to cross between the dimensions to visit these places.  A little over a decade before the events of the game, there was a massive war between a number of these worlds that left a huge amount of destruction in its wake, and everyone is now trying to recover while still being a little standoff-ish towards one another.  With that, players control Haken Browning, a young bounty hunter, and his busty android partner, Aschen.  What starts as their usual treasure hunting, and bounty fulfilling adventures spins off into them exploring the causes of the war, and learning that a lot of what originally started the thing is still around, and up to no good.  Also, seeing as this is a Super Robot Taisen game, don't be surprised if you come across a fair amount of mechas along the way (though not quite as many as in the strategy games in the series).

From here the two set off to try and understand all of the mysteries behind the war, and stop a new one from beginning, as well as learning about Haken and Aschen's own mysterious pasts.  Along the way they are joined by a large cast of characters, and this is really where Endless Frontier's story takes off, because it's the characters that make the game's narrative so enjoyable.  Players will quickly notice that Haken is mostly joined by attractive young ladies that he thoroughly enjoys flirting with, and many of the villains are also well endowed lasses.  It's the interaction between all of these people that makes the game's story so fun.  There is a lot of humor, and moments that make one want to smile, as conversations go by.  I really liked this, especially because so many RPGs take themselves soooooo seriously.  I'm usually pretty okay with that, but sometimes it's nice to have a little fun, and goof around a bit.  Endless Frontier provides this.  Bare in mind, though, that the game does seem a bit more geared to gamers of the lecherous male persuasion, so if you're not into that sort of thing, consider yourself warned.


The whole story plays out in an extremely linear fashion.  You'll be coaxed from point A to B to C back to A over to D and so forth the whole way as you go to new areas, revisit previous ones, and unearth the mysteries of that war of the past.  The game leads you by the hand the whole way, so don't expect much in the way of exploration outside of the occasional wayward corridor in a dungeon that likely leads to an extra treasure chest full of loot.

Graphics

Endless Frontier isn't going to set the world on fire with its visuals.  The world map and battle screens are about on par with what one would expect from the 16-bit era.  Perhaps a tiny bit nicer than that.  It's a very functional sprite-based approach that gets the job done.  There are some nice monster designs, and the mechas that you'll come across look nice.  However, there are still plenty of monsters that are just color swaps of one another.

One area where the game's graphics do excel is through its use of a number of portraits for each of the main characters in the game, as well as important villains, and supporting characters.  Not only is the detail on these pictures really nice, but the artists did a fantastic job of nailing a variety of expressions that fit so very well with the conversations these guys have.


Finally, there are the special and overdrive attack animations, which are quite the site to see.  These are a combination of your characters' sprite-based selves doing crazy attacks on the enemies with some anime-quality animation on top of this making for a spectacular flurry of blows that easily rival many of the fancy-shmancy summoning attacks one will see in other RPGs.  What makes these even better are how silly they can be, like Suzuka's dancing with a disco ball, or the game reminding us how bouncy Kaguya's breasts are, or Aschen shifting into "fun mode" (she's much more powerful in that mode, if a bit ditzy).  It's a strange mix of the bad assed with the hilarious, but it works.


Sound and Music

Like its visuals, Endless Frontier's audio experiences aren't anything spectacular.  They just do their job without drawing too much attention to themselves.  The sounds are quite functional, and the music is alright, but I didn't really find there to be any stand out tracks or even memorable tunes.  I could hardly blame anyone for wanting to turn the game's sound off while playing.  It's all largely forgettable.  There's a bit of Japanese voice acting when characters attack or enter / leave battle which I guess may be useful for anyone studying the language, but by and large there just isn't anything terribly praiseworthy about the game's audio experience.


Gameplay

So, the meat and potatoes of the game.  What really makes this game work is its battle system.  Without it Endless Frontier would just be an extremely linear visual novel.  On a very basic level the game uses a turn-based system with timed attacks, but what makes the battles so great are a combination of managing various gauges in the game, putting together combo attacks, and learning how to juggle your opponents.

As I said, at its core, the game has a turn-based battle system with timed attacks in it.  What this means is your characters turns will come up just like in so many turn-based RPGs to come before.  Here you can choose to cast spells, use items, run away, or get down to the business of bonking enemies.  Once you begin an attack phase your character will be able to do a maximum of five attacks, where each is initiated by the press of a button.  As the end of one attack approaches, press the button again to smoothly go into the next attack until you've completed all five.  Very straightforward.  While doing this you can even call in back row support characters to do a quick attack alongside you, or even give up the rest of that character's turn to allow your next party member in the queue to start an attack phase (you can't do this if the next person to attack is an enemy, however).  On this level, battles are quite easy to learn, but things really start to get interesting when you factor in the game's various gauges, combos, and juggling.

So, lets discuss these gauges.  Besides the usual health and mana-like gauges, there are two very important ones that players will need to keep an eye on here.  The first is the COM gauge.  This is basically an energy gauge that dictates how many attacks each character can do per turn.  Different attacks consume different percentages of the COM gauge.  As characters gain in levels, they'll slowly learn more of these attacks, and players can select up to five of these attacks to put into said character's attack queue, being mindful that the attacks don't consume more COM than they have available to them.  Not only do you need to think about how much COM gets eaten up, but you also need to consider how much damage these attacks do, how well one attack leads into the other for juggling purposes, and how well these attacks fill up your Frontier Gauge.


Which leads us to the other gauge, the Frontier Gauge.  This is the bar you want to fill up in order to unload crazy strong attacks.  This fills up at varying rates depending on the attacks you have your characters doing, as well as incoming damage from enemies, bringing in support characters for a quick attack, transitioning to the next person in your party whose turn it is to attack without letting a turn end, and also from cancelling some of your own attacks.  Cancels are very important in the game, as they usually boost the Frontier Gauge by a good 10% every time you use one.  However, it also means cancelling a regular attack, and it also requires some timing, as they can only be pulled off at certain times during an attack.  So, here you really need to learn your characters' attack animations and figure out at what point to launch your next attack, thereby cancelling your current one.  This just takes practice, but once you get the hang of all this, you'll be able to fill the Frontier Gauge plenty quick for a steady flow of big, big attacks.

Lastly we need to take a look at the role of juggling in combat.  Players want to get enemies airborne and keep them there.  This builds up big combos for fun and bragging rights, but, more importantly, letting enemies get near the ground can allow them to initiate a "Forced Evasion".  These are bad, bad, bad!  First, this will end the rest of your character's attack and cancel any further incoming damage from an attack in progress.  Second, the enemy can use a counterattack after doing one of these.  So, players really need to stay on top of keeping enemies in the air.  Know what attacks work best for launches, when to call in a support character to help get enemies higher into the air, and how to adjust the timing of their attacks if an enemy is getting worryingly close to the ground.  All of this is easier said than done, but very important to learn.  It can be particularly tough to do on enemies with high defenses who are able to guard against a number of blows, thus not going into the air.  When you finally do get through those defenses and send them into the air, it can be very tough to get them to a safe height.  Sometimes they'll even go into a Forced Evasion the second their guard is broken, and there's not a whole lot you can do about it.  Some bosses, and robots are particularly notorious for this.


As you can see, there's a lot of really neat stuff to keep track of while fighting in battles.  With a constant stream of number crunching, deciding how to manage COM and Frontier gauges, and when to make use of them, coupled with a bit of twitchiness thanks to the timed attacks, there is a very well put together combat system in Endless Frontier.

One thing I do want to mention about the gameplay that I found irksome before moving on was that the game would force you to fight certain bosses multiple times during the game.  It's all part of the plot as Haken and the gang come across certain villains again and again through the course of the game, but it's just so tedious to have to keep fighting them over and over (I'm looking at you in particular, Koma >:-(    ).  I'd have liked more variety in the bosses that I fought.


Final Thoughts

For me, Endless Frontier was a breath of fresh air.  I don't mind serious storytelling in games, but it can wear a person down after a while constantly being subjected to it.  I really appreciate the lighthearted, humorous nature of this game.  It's a nice change of pace to the "serious business" attitude of a lot of other RPGs out there, and with the game's snazzy battle system, Endless Frontier is more than just a good story.  Overall, it's a game well worth spending some time with.  Giant robots may not play as prominent of a role here as they do in the more strategy-oriented installments of the Super Robot Taisen series, but it's not the end of the world.  Really, though, you may come to the Endless Frontier for giant robots, but you'll stay for the boob jokes, innuendo, and combat.

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