If Resonance of Fate proves anything, it's that Japanese role-playing games are still evolving. While the Japanese games industry as a whole has fallen by the wayside these last few years, the genre in particular has been seen as a stale, stubborn entity. tri-Ace's latest effort manages to come up with novel ways to freshen up the battle system and world exploration, while still retaining those customary JRPG flavours.
Those traditional elements arrive through its protagonists: youthful, effeminate-looking characters once again lead the story, and yes, humanity is in a spot of bother. Interestingly, the damage has already been done - mankind survives on Basel, a solitary tower which withstands the poisonous gases that have blanketed the planet. The game takes place entirely within the districts and cities that have grown on the structure, housed inside glorious steampunk, redbrick and rather dystopian architecture. The purifier that protects the tower malfunctions, and it's up to our plucky heroes to save the day. While many of these story details are JRPG staples, the fact that such a sprawling adventure exists solely in one isolated location is a rarity, and provides the opportunity to instil a unique atmosphere in the surroundings.
Naturally, the bulk of the game plays out through the battle system. It's a complex and multifaceted beast, especially to the bystander, but one that's designed to bend and flex according to what you're up against. In short, its turn-based system coupled with strategic elements, with pistols and machine guns instead of swords and sorcery. Those familiar to Star Ocean will find some similarities here, at least superficially - although they might be surprised at its action movie inspirations, which sees characters duck and dive with every attack, John Woo style.
In every turn, you can decide to move around and fire from a set position, or better still, select a point close to the enemy for your character to automatically go to, allowing them to fire as they run. The closer you are to the enemy, the lower your attack time, allowing you to get more shots in within that turn. Of course, the enemy receives the same benefit, so it's a double-edged sword. Once you've finished the turn, you move on to the next party member and so on.
While you can do this automatic movement manually, the main benefit of selecting a point is that it draws a line on the battlefield. If you get another character to cross that line, it'll form a triangle, which will allow you to perform a Tri-Attack, where your party will run around the enemy group and spray them with bullets. While you can perform this early on in the battle, ideally this is something to build up to: a key element of fighting is Resonance Points, earned from inflicting damage or killing enemies, which are spent during this Tri-Attack. The more points you earn, the more revolutions you can make, and the more damage you'll deal.
While that's the basics of the system, there are also a dozen different variables that add layers of complexity. Certain characters can wield machine-guns which produce 'scratch damage' - it will weaken but won't kill an enemy, making it easier for someone else to finish off. You can equip your guns with different ammunition, adding status and element damage, and equip special weapons at higher levels which charge up an attack that can dispel it in one go. On the other side, certain enemies have multiple attack points that might require a specific order to target, and there's even a cover mechanic through environmental barriers, which can protect you or the enemy party.
They key thing to note, through these attack variations, is that the enemy can attack during your move as well, knocking back your assault and spoiling your chance to get that all important Tri-Attack. Planning ahead is vital, especially since you want to get close enough to the enemy to damage them, but you'll also need to take the time to earn enough Resonance Points for that killer move. It's a complex system that takes time to learn, and one that'll continue evolving throughout the game, but you'll be pleased to hear that the game will sit you down with a half an hour tutorial at the start, which proves to be nothing short of essential. (Another reassurance is that if you die during a battle you can restart it straight away - with a small fee, of course.)
It's not just the battle system that is multi-faceted - the game itself is a mish-mash of different methods of progression. Dungeons will lock you in battle mode for the duration of your stay, providing you with the ability to avoid or surprise wondering enemies, while the world map will have random encounters in enclosed arenas for speedy, snappier battles. Progressing the world map is a novel experience, too: hexagonal parts are required to bridge you from one location to the next, all formed out of different Tetris-style pieces, requiring you do enough battles and side quests to earn enough parts to get where you need to go.
When you finally arrive at a town or safe haven, the game takes a more familiar turn. With sweeping cameras through detailed polygonal environments, you can talk to bypassers for information and visit the local guild for side quests, as well as the usual assortment of shops of items and synthesising weapons. There's a clothes shop with extensive options for customisation, and a night-day mechanic opens up these areas further, with specific quests only available at certain times.
It's these vastly differing play styles that'll ensure the game remains fresh over the course of the game: tri-Ace told DS that the game will last a hefty 50 hours without sidequests, and a behemoth 100 hours if you decide to undertake them. With a quick peek of the World Map later in the game, the tower contains dozens of environments across multiple levels, and with its open-ended battle system, this lofty estimation doesn't come as much of a surprise.
While role-playing games have been adopting strategic elements for some time, Resonance Of Fate looks to be particularly unique. It's traditional in many aspects, and downright overwhelming in others, but it's certainly trying to carve its own niche. Our only worry is that it'll be perceived as yet another JRPG with a whimsical name, but those looking for a fresh take at the genre should have this on their radar.
Resonance Of Fate will be released for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 later this year.
> Click here to read our Resonance Of Fate interview