Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Rune Factory: Tides of Destiny Review

[Note: this review was originally written in 2011.  Some things stated may be dated by this point in time, but much of it remains true.]

With gaming in one of the lowest states it has ever been in, finding a good Wii game to look forward to has been excruciatingly difficult.  These days, all we get is half-assed, unambitious attempts at making an ordinary game and shovelware made for the blatant purpose of ripping people off.  Gasping for the genuine greatness we used to have in the year 2009, I, yet again, reached out and grabbed a copy of Rune Factory: Tides of Destiny, another recent title to a long-running game franchise that I never played before because game sequels are almost always better.

The Rune Factory series has been described as Harvest Moon with JRPG elements and a fantasy setting.  In fact, the full title of the first Rune Factory was Rune Factory: A Fantasy Harvest Moon, so I can see where that description may have come from.  As for my experience with the Harvest Moon games, I’d read about them in Nintendo Power years ago, but never actually played any because frankly they sounded… well… boring.  A game about running a farm isn’t exactly the kind of thing you’d try to advertize to a man who believes Viewtiul Joe to be the greatest game and anime series ever made, so it seems Natsume opted to take the Sengoku Basara route and added fantasy and action to make something that should be a total bore significantly less boring and more compelling.  With that, we got the Rune Factory games.

Rune Factory: Tides of Destiny starts with a boy and girl traveling to the top of an ancient structure.  The boy and girl’s names are Azel and Sonja by default, but I gave the boy my own name (I probably would have given Sonja the name of my girlfriend if I ever had one).  After a brief run-in with some monsters, the girl sings to an altar and the two are transported to Fenith Island; one apparently parallel to a Fenith island they are from.  But unlike their world, which has several arch dragons all over the place, this Fenith Island has only one that the people worship.
But something interesting happened on the way there: Sonja’s soul is inside of Azel’s body.  From there, a journey begins to find out just what the hell happened and to get Sonja’s body back while the two get adjusted to their new home on the new island.  The premise may have tipped you off that anyone who said you can choose to play as a boy or a girl is partially lying.  You can only choose to play as Sonja after you finish the main story and get her body back, so you’re stuck with the boy for the long run.  This wasn’t a problem for me, of course, but the female gamers wanting to give the game a try might be disappointed.

Tides of Destiny’s gameplay essentially consists of 2 halves.  The first is on Fenith Island, the hub the main characters are living on.  It is on Fenith Island where the Harvest Moon-style life simulation takes place.  There, you talk to all the different residents, buy equipment and food for your travels, participate in festivals, and craft/cook various dishes, weapons, and accessories for use on your travels or to give as gifts.
Most of what you do on both Fenith Island and in your travels use up your rune points, and once you’re out of rune points, you instead start using up large chunks of your health until you pass out.  It’s usually not a problem though, as rune points can be replenished with some food or rest, and more often than not your health will run out long before your rune points do in battle, so most of the time it’s a somewhat trivial mechanic.

Fenith Island is somewhat small, but not small enough to be particularly boring, and though you’ll hear characters speak the same lines of dialogue to you each day (like “Good morning.”), you hear enough new dialogue to really get a feel for them, and they’re all likable in some way.  Fenith Island is home to a lot of peaceful, but very well developed characters that you’ll learn to like, provided you aren’t extremely cynical.  They’re happy to help, altruistic, and good-natured.  It’s like what the world would be like if every smoker on the face of the planet burst into flames in unison.

While they’re all generally good people, they have flaws that distinguish them.  Everyone has their own story to tell that you will learn more of the more you talk to them, which will also raise your relationship values.  When you’ve talked to someone enough, you’ll level up their relationship value, they will invite you to do something with them, and accepting their offer will trigger a scripted event in which you learn something about the character, and your relationship reaches the next level (see also: Persona 3).  These events are fun to watch and do a lot for each character’s development, but don’t happen very often.  You need to talk to the people a lot and every in-game day before the relationship events come up, but giving characters things they like (identified through conversation) as gifts or giving gifts for their birthday (also identified through talking) can speed things up a little, as well as just make you feel good about yourself.

It’s the little things that bring each character to life.  The voice acting, for instance, is surprisingly solid considering most of the actors are unknowns.  After Arc Rise Fantasia, I was suspicious of actors who aren’t A-list, but the acting in Tides of Destiny felt genuine and convincing rather than like an actor that was trying too hard.  The voice director must’ve done their job well, as there are only a couple performances I could consider on the borderline of bad, and I wouldn’t mind seeing them people in more roles in the future.
That’s not to say they didn’t get the usual A-listers.  Patrick Seitz voices the main villain and does an incredible job giving him an imposing voice akin to Kingdom Hearts’ Xemnas.

Almost as effective as the voice acting is each character’s expressions.  When talking, large character models of the speakers take up the screen and go through the motions when expressing themselves, with different sound clips and effects (like tears or a sweat drop).  It’s very much like Animal Crossing.  Their expressions are subtle and cute, and there is so much variety in them, with each character having their own set, that I never grew tired of them in the dozens of hours I played of the game.  It’s no L.A. Noire, but it works just about as well.
Quests and holidays in the game only further let you get to know the residents better.  Each one is a nice break from what is otherwise a routine of simply talking to people around the island while you’ve got nothing better to do and killing monsters in the main quest (more on that later).  Festivals include a lantern festival, in which the islanders float lanterns into the sea, a snow festival where everyone helps make a large dragon sculpture out of snow, and even a beauty pageant, where you vote on who the prettiest girl on the island is.  Most of them have some kind of bonus to it that make them worth attending, such as winning a prize or raising a relationship value, which motivates players to participate even more than them already being fun and diverse.  The only thing disappointing about the events is that they never deviate from the core mechanics of the game.  I’d have liked each one to have its own minigame or shift the game’s genre briefly, but everything you do in the festivals is something you do normally, just with a certain set of rules.  I feel there’s more that could have been done.

Fenith Island as a whole feels like a lovely home to chill out in while you’re not at your day job in the other part of the game.  Unfortunately, it is there where Rune Factory: Tides of Destiny falls apart.

The other half of the game after Fenith Island is traversing the open seas with the giant stone golem you get early in the game, fighting monsters on the different locales you visit, and taming them to work for you.  The default name of the golem is Ymir, but I named my golem Mithos, after the legendary hero of Sylvarant.
While at sea, your golem is able to walk around and explore, flip over rocks, and pull islands out of the sea, provided someone gave you the location of one for a quest first.  Moving around the large ocean is slow at first, but early on you’re able to fast forward to a specific destination on an overhead view, which makes traveling long distances far easier and less tedious.  Once you get that option, you’ll likely never go back to the other view, which causes the open sea to lose a sense of its size, but I’ll take any conveniences I can get.  I wish The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker had that option, to be honest.

Your golem is also able to fight.  Sometimes when flipping something over or just by chance, it can run into some sort of giant sea monster, like a giant squid, a giant jellyfish, or Godzilla.  At that point combat becomes a simple game of blocking and punching.  Punch the enemy when there’s an opening, block when they’re about to strike, or see if you can beat them to the punch.  The impact effects for each of your golem’s punches certainly have some “oomph” to them, but you will probably only want to engage in these battles if you have to, and there are only a handful that are required throughout the entire game, so don’t get too used to doing it.  Even if these fights do level up your golem, I was able to beat the final golem fight without too much trouble even after getting through the game and rarely fighting anything with Mithos, which is good because the last thing I need is more grinding, and even with different opponents, every fight feels the same.

When not on the golem, your character engages in ground combat, where he is able to use a variety of weapons; specifically, spears, axes, hammers, staffs, dual-wielding swords, katanas, and one-handed swords.  As you swat down monsters with each one, you level up your ability to use them, making them deal more damage and making you learn moves to use with them.

It’s with the fighting we come to the first major problem with Tides of Destiny: the combat is absolutely awful.  If you want anything dead, you simply mash the A button as your character jerks around with each weapon doing the same canned, awkward animations over and over again until the enemy or you is dead.  There are rune abilities and special attacks to use, but the majority of them are impractical, doing about as much damage as a normal attack and often leaving you open to take a hit.  You’ll only use them in specific situations, usually when you’re surrounded by monsters and you know it will hit more than one of them.
The simplicity of it all might have been forgivable if the game at least put on a good show.  I’ve played button mashers in the past that have been only a bit more complex than this game in terms of combat, like Kingdom Hearts and Sengoku Basara, but in those games, hitting enemies with your different weapons have smooth animations, gratifying physics, firework-like particle effects, and wider varieties of moves (even if some ARE impractical).  In Tides of Destiny, there is no such merit.  The animations are weak and aren’t visually enticing, the only particle and sound effects are wimpy little white slash and impact effects with the same sound effects for each one, and there are no physics or sense of satisfaction.

The combat could’ve been better had there been more variety in the enemy or level design, but the game can’t even pull that off.  You would think that a game focusing heavily of taming monsters would have a strong number of different kinds to keep the player interested.  That’s why Pokemon and Monster Hunter are so popular.  In Rune Factory, there are only a handful of monsters and their color-changed cousins with no difference except for their name, their stats, and occasionally their projectile attack.  That is absolutely pathetic.

What monsters there are can be tamed instead of killed by constantly brushing them with a magic taming brush.  To tame a monster, you simply go up to them and constantly brush them, taking longer and longer to do so as the game goes on.  Once tamed, the monsters can produce something for you in your golem’s barn, like milk or eggs.  They can also farm for you on the four seasonal islands you get as you progress in the story (after you reanimate them with spirits you find on the field) to grow things to sell or use, and have them follow you into battle to fight alongside you.

There's variety, just not enough.

Brushing monsters to tame them isn’t much of a problem at first, but as it takes longer, it becomes frustrating, and not just because it takes far longer than it should.  It’s possible for the monster you’re trying to tame to be killed by your own monsters, which you can’t control directly (All you can do is teleport them to your location), making all the minutes you spent brushing the monster a complete waste of time.  Even more annoying is that since enemies are copy/pasted so often in this game, and there are monster gates everywhere that infinitely spawn them unless destroyed, it’s very easy to lose track of the specific monster you were taming when there are crowds of lookalikes all over the place and you get blindsided while your target runs off.  I like the idea of this simplistic, yet challenging monster taming method, but it’s the little things in the overall design that keep it from being fun.  Eventually it becomes a chore.

In fact, practically the entire game becomes a chore eventually.  The worst offense Tides of Destiny commits is some of the most ungodly padding I have ever had to slog through.  The game took me around 65 hours to get to the last boss (where I promptly rage-quitted for reasons I will get to), but I’d estimate about 40 or more of those hours were spent fighting through the long, tedious, repetitive, monster-filled, multifloored elemental shrines you have to fight your way through (in which the story gives you no indication to do so), with nothing but the same respawning monsters to get in your way through the recycled corridors and environments.  And you can’t just breeze through them either.  The difficulty curve is more of a difficulty stairwell.  Every time you go up a floor, the monsters spike in their strength, requiring you to once again grind your ass off so that you don’t die in 3 hits.  That means every single floor in all 4 of these shrines are far longer than they should be, and with a poorly implemented combat system, you’ll only want to continue on if you promised to do a review of the damn game!

But it’s with the bosses where the BS piles up.  Just like the enemy levels, the bosses in Tides of Destiny are far too strong.  All of them can kill you in 3 or 4 hits easily, even if you’re at a decent level, and that’s almost a guarantee because they often hit consecutively, and you stagger every time.  The only way I found to beat the bosses was to fight them over and over, memorize their patterns, and then create a hit and run tactic that shaved their obscenely long health bars a little bit at a time.  It is no exaggeration when I say that it took me at least 30 minutes to an hour to beat each of these bosses after bringing along dozens of health potions, plenty of food, and my strongest monsters, leaving with almost nothing left.  And that’s not even counting the dozens and dozens of times I had to start over after the bosses landed a lucky shot!  These are some of the most broken bosses I have ever fought and they are far more of a chore than fun, which is just wrong, because bosses are usually the highlight of any game I play!

Not to mention there's something unoriginal about their designs.
It got so bad, I couldn't even beat the game.  At a certain point of the final boss fight, the hit and run tactics are ultimately useless, and no matter how much I ate, no matter how much I leveled up, it was unbeatable.  I'm not going to make myself suffer just because a game has crappy combat.

All of that combined with the graphics and music suggests that Rune Factory: Tides of Destiny didn’t have nearly enough time, money, and effort to make a good game.  The graphics are decent aesthetically, but technically it looks little better than a PS2 game.  Like I said, the animations are jerky, pixilation can be easy to spot, and the environments painfully lack variety.  The soundtrack is also extremely limited, with maybe barely a dozen or so tracks in the entire game, none of which are very memorable (though admittedly, even after all those hours, the music never got on my nerves).

Rune Factory: Tides of Destiny is comparable to the critically panned Alpha Protocol.  One half of the game is really well done, with great characters, a variety of activities, and fun gameplay mechanics, but the core of the game is so half-assed, badly done, and thoroughly unpolished, that most players will not want to suffer through it.  Maybe fans of the Rune Factory series are used to this and will be able to suffer through it, but I don’t think it’s worth it, especially at 40 dollars.  It has far more low points than high points.  It’s not an awful game, but it’s not up to our current generation standards.  Had this game been on the 3DS, it may have been at least passable as an on-the-go time waster, but on the Wii, we expect better than this and have better games to play.  I give Rune Factory: Tides of Destiny a 5.5 out of 10.

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