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Twice the Suck
By: Andrew Long
There are some things that should give developers cause to take stock before they embark upon projects likely to doom themselves to disaster. Stealing ideas piecemeal from other games, for example, is not a great strategy for success, and when you can't manage to get your graphics engine working to the point that you don't have to blur things whenever more than one or two characters are onscreen, it's usually a good idea to scrap the project and take up something more constructive like smoking. If even this doesn't dissuade you, then you should still have alarm bells going off when your field graphics designer, presumably after an extensive drinking binge gone horribly wrong, hands you a script he wrote that's all about a flying pig and a heartless treasure hunter that he has, for reasons unknown, named Rumble and Tumble. Regrettably, Matrix failed to heed these glaring red flags, and even more foolishly, Atlus was sucked into the bargain. As a result, Dual Hearts is somehow a game.
Dual Hearts opens up with our fearless hero, the Ruinseeker Rumble, chatting it up with a fat guy in an item shop, promising to bag the legendary Dream Stone for kicks. As those brave enough to dare the opening credits will already know, this naturally means that trouble must be brewing in Sonno's netherworld, where the incredibly spooky Nightmare has been sealed lo these many years. Just in case anyone was having any doubts about where things are headed, however, gamers are then introduced to Tumble, the Baku bumbler who looks like a bizarre cross between a rabbit and a pig. Tumble, you see, has been given an edict by his queen, the chopstick-haired maven of the dream world, who for reasons unknown has decided to have her most incompetent underling unlock the seals that have been holding Nightmare in check. Chances are it probably has to do with the chopsticks; it is a known scientific fact that they make any character who wears them do evil things, however much one might like to pass the blame off on niggling possibilities like "demonic possession" or "it was late and we ran out of ideas."
So moments later, Rumble and Tumble meet, and naturally, it's love at first sight. The battle system in Dual Hearts makes much of the combination of the two, but in reality, it is much easier to hop off Tumble's back at the first sign of trouble and wail on things with one of the game's several swords. The only real use to the Baku is the fact that he provides a rapid means of conveyance, which is a real help in a game that takes 12 hours and makes it feel like 120. He can also heal Rumble through the use of Esamons, tiny flying elemental doodads that erupt out of the plants that litter the game's dreamscapes. Finally, Tumble possesses a breath attack and an allegedly devastating dropkick attack called Megaton Buns. Either way players choose to go about it, the inescapable fact remains that Dual Hearts is very much about button mashing and not much else. The alleged weapon combos that become available after levelling weapons a la Secret of Mana are just more of the same, and the ones that allegedly involve multiple buttons don't tend to work particularly well.
Actually, though, the button mashing isn't even the worst part of the gameplay. By far the biggest problem in Dual Hearts is the utterly terrible control, which, when coupled with equally awful camera angles, conspires to make the game very trying at times. The targeting system is a chore to use, and rotating Rumble's point of view is maddeningly difficult, especially if the goal of doing so is to target something. On top of that, the sluggish choppiness of the graphics engine sometimes makes it difficult to see exactly what is going on, which makes executing certain jumping sequences or elaborate moves very difficult in places.
Despite this wealth of issues, Dual Hearts remains insultingly easy to play. The only nod in the direction of difficulty made by the developers is the ludicrous number of hits it can take to defeat some bosses, and even this is mitigated by the fact that esamon grass grows everywhere. That's right - even in boss chambers, esamon grass can be found, and just in case that doesn't keep players happily stocked, it is also possible to get an item that refills Tumble's tummy an unlimited number of times, simply by pressing a button. There are two difficulty levels, but the main difference in selecting "Hard" is that the bosses end up having even more hit points, and the added bonus ability of killing the unwary in a single hit, surely a great addition to any game.
In spite of the absurd desire some players feel to complete a game to its fullest, there is no real reason to play through Dual Hearts again. The game has only one ending, and collecting the rest of the items is neither difficult nor engaging enough to warrant playing through it again for the sake of completion (and certainly not enjoyable enough).
Dual Hearts, perhaps taking a page from the Zelda series, features a four-panelled inventory screen, in which one can chart the course of Rumble as he collects the Holy Instruments and all the fancy accoutrements that go with them. It's not the prettiest thing in the world, but it could definitely be worse, and in conjunction with a spotless, if bland, translation, this is perhaps one area in which Dual Hearts does not come up looking bad.
Alas, this is a bright spot amidst a veritable morass of darkness, and very blurry darkness at that. Dual Hearts does not look as though it belongs on the PS2, for the simple reason that its graphics programmers do not seem to have been able to construct a piece of programming that utilizes the resources of the PS2 to effect. The framerate is terribly choppy, and at the first sign of trouble, the game packs up and drops the player into a terribly disorienting blur mode, which in theory could be justified as some sort of "realistic action blur" but in reality amounts to "framerate too low to show without visual effects to disguise it." Beyond the purely technical, the game doesn't look that great either, with fairly uninspired art and some areas that are better left undescribed. This is not to say that everything looks terrible; certainly, there are a few areas like the storybook level that have a unique look that the game would have done well to exploit, but even this was not to be, as that unique look also came at a cost of even more framerate, resulting in a miserably choppy experience.
The game's music is also nothing to write home about, doing little to enhance the mood in any area and really not containing a single memorable piece in the entire soundtrack. Character themes are gratingly annoying, the battle theme relies on noise to get the job done, and about the only background piece that shows glimmerings of musical creativity is the jazzy number accompanying the optional dream of Parfait, the minigame dog. Sound effects also tend towards irritating, as Tumble's every movement is accompanied by an annoying squishy trotting noise that does little to enhance the gaming experience and much to inspire further hatred towards an already insipid character.
Insipid or not, Tumble is about the only character worth feeling sorry for in Dual Hearts. Though his bumbling antics aren't very endearing, he does get horribly mistreated by all the characters around him, and in the end, it's hard not to feel a little sorry for him, even if he does deserve some of it. Beyond that, character development is scanty; the innkeeper/love interest is a poorly kept secret, and Rumble is just plain irritating. As for the rest of the story, it bears very little discussion; Nightmare, the evil lord of being a big black cloud, is wakening from his eons-long slumber and so on, and so forth. Add a few magical orbs and most gamers will probably be able to put the rest of the pieces together without even playing the game, a wise decision indeed.
So with a story like that, one might expect some effort to create an original battle system, but button-mashing doesn't really qualify as inventive in most people's books, so if a new experience is your goal, you're best advised to look elsewhere. Pretty much everything in Dual Hearts screams conventional, from the wisecracking main character to the annoying sidekick to the Edea-wannabe Queen, and even the dreams don't show any evidence of creativity.
An utter lack of creative thought in a creative endeavour such as game development, then, leaves little doubt as to the probable outcome of the development process. Dual Hearts ultimately should have been killed before it got finished, but mercifully, even though it did eventually make it to stores, Atlus severely limited its release, so it will hopefully someday vanish before it can do any further harm to gamers.
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