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The Brightest in a Sea of Diamonds
Atlus has always been famous for their Tactical RPG's, especially when it comes to the Ogre Battle series. These games are harder, more time-consuming, and require more patience than any other in the Console RPG genre, and may thus keep some players away from them. I don't know if it was because of this that Atlus created Kartia: The Word of Fate (also known as Legend of Kartia when Konami published it in Europe), but this game is quite the opposite. It's fairly short, fairly easy, and serves as a good introduction to the world of Tactical RPG's.
In the world of Kartia: Word of Fate, the answer to survival is the use of....Kartia. Kartia are paper cards, which can be used for almost anything; cooking, spell casting, forging different materials etc. There are also forbidden Kartia, which were used in times of war, and are now hidden, from the public by the church. In this game, you can choose to control two different characters, Toxa or Lacryma. These two know nothing of each other, but will eventually meet as their adventures lead to the same places. As both of these two characters meet up with a lot of people on their quest, the game shows off some of the most impressive character development ever. There are often long conversations between the party, and every once in a while, the game presents the private thoughts of all the characters, which makes them a lot deeper than in many other games. Betrayal and Corruption are two common factors in this game, and you'll be having quite a hard time keeping up with every single character's plans and thoughts. The plot also brings up a few classic questions regarding religion, such as if there really is a god, and what purpose we humans have etc.
Considering that Kartia is a Tactical RPG, the combat system is one of the most important parts of the game. However, unlike most other TRPG's, Kartia's battles are very simple. Aside from your regular human characters, some of your party members also have the ability to summon certain Phantoms. These phantoms come in three different kinds; Common, Doll and Shadow. Now, these three types of Phantoms work much like the classic Rock-Paper-Scissors game (meaning, some of the phantoms can almost instantly kill one type of phantoms, and at the same time not being able to even damage the third type). So basically, it's advised to first check out what kind of Phantoms the enemy side has, so that you can plan ahead what kind of phantoms will be most effective in the upcoming battle.
Aside from this, your normal human characters also have the ability to cast certain spells, all of which require Kartia. The stronger the spell is, the more Kartia you need to cast it. Also, there are no shops in this game... every piece of equipment you earn is either found in chests, or created in battle via the use of Kartia. Weapon forging, creating equipment and saving your game can all be done at any time during battle. Another point that makes the battle system more interesting is the fact that every single character or monster in the game has 100 HP, even the bosses. So in the end, it all comes down to how you plan your game, and of course, what kind of equipment you use. Another important point in the battle system is how you can affect the surroundings with spells. Land can be raised with earth spells, water can be frozen with ice spells for easier access to newer areas etc.
Perhaps the largest flaw in the battle system though, is how unbalanced the game quickly becomes. All too easily, your human characters will become insanely strong about halfway through the game. The usage of Phantoms will be forgotten, and you'll simply slash through the hordes of enemies with only your regular party. This is a bit sad actually, since a large point of the battle system will be rendered as entirely unnecessary for survival. What adds to the difficulty though, is the fact that the moment a human character from your party dies, the game is over. However, considering that you can save any time in battle, this isn't really a problem.
The largest part of the interface is very similar to other tactical RPG's on the market. The battle area serves like a giant board, where characters move around on different squares. Attacking, casting spells and/or moving around all works through handy menus which are easily accessed. As previously mentioned, there are no cities, shops or places to move around freely on in Kartia. Instead, players create equipment and weapons with Kartia directly in battle. Menus are slow though, and the font and background colors bored me to death all the way through. Also, when creating weapons and/or casting spells, there are Japanese Kanji on the Kartia to indicate what kind of spell you're choosing and an English explanation of it further down on the screen. This was confusing at first, but got easier as I tried out the different spells and moved further on into the game.
Fans of Character Designer and Art Illustrator Yoshitaka Amano will be pleased to know that he created the character models for Kartia: Word of Fate. Those who have seen his work before will instantly recognize his special style. Overall, the graphics in Kartia could have looked a lot better though. Final Fantasy Tactics, which was released a year before this game, looked a lot better. Most spell-effects looked the same, in-game character models were quite blurry etc. I liked how the game used short CG movies to present each new chapter between the battles though.
Considering that a single battle in Kartia can take up to 45 minutes to complete (I think my longest one lasted for about an hour), players have to be prepared to hear the same battle themes for a long time. Luckily, the music changes depending on whose turn it is. When the player makes his/her moves with the entire party, a certain tune is played. Once you're finished and have ended your turn, the enemy turn begins, and their tune starts. This way, the game provides at least a little bit of variation when it comes to battle music. Most of the songs played in cut-scenes and during conversations were okay, but nothing special. One thing has to be mentioned though, are the very interesting sound effects that sometimes came up in conversations. These made the dialogue more interesting, and provided more feeling to important conversations and plot events.
As for localization, Kartia had some interesting moments. There were no obvious spelling errors or grammatical errors, but some of the characters didn't really have that special touch that I wanted either. The scores gets quite a boost for the interesting conversations though, especially those in which the private thoughts of the various characters were shown. As previously mentioned, I sometimes had problems keeping up with everyone's thoughts.
Unlike most other Tactical RPG's, Kartia does have some replay value. The game is quite short to begin with, lasting about 20 hours at most, for one scenario. Most players will replay the game with the other character, as there are a lot of differences between the two. There aren't any sidequests to look out for, and the game is very linear to begin with, especially considering that you cannot move freely at all in this game, not even on the world map. The difficulty is quite unbalanced, as it turns into simple hack'n'slash towards the later part of the game, as previously mentioned.
Some players might consider Kartia to be a very original title, even compared to other TPRG's. In some cases, this is true. Conversations differ a bit from other games, since we can see the party members' thoughts from time to time, and some of them even write diaries which the player can read between battles. The ability to affect the battle areas with magic was also quite unusual. Much like with the Zodiac Brave Story in Final Fantasy Tactics, all of the cut-scenes and plot events are saved in the main menu for the player to watch at any time, in case something was unclear, or just for fun. When looking at the game as a whole though, I can't really say that this is something I've never seen before. The rock-paper-scissors idea was great, but was unfortunately also rendered totally useless after about 10 hours of gameplay.
In the end, Kartia: The Word of Fate is worth a try. It's certainly not the best TRPG out there, but it's a good start for those who feel they are not yet ready for the heavier games in the genre.
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