Agarest: Generations of War Review
Recruitment at Gunpoint
Somehow I avoided Idea Factory’s offerings for a long time, until I was given the opportunity to review the first Agarest game. My expectations were low, but the presence of Red Company in the developer credits made me have a little hope of something interesting. Even the most tentative hopes of something worthwhile were extinguished long before Agarest: Generations of War finally had the decency to end, which meant my misery level had plenty of time to grow. Now I know what Idea Factory represents: it is a company skilled at sucking joy from the consumer and replacing it with most of the negative emotions Pandora released.
Agarest is a variant of the tactical RPG, featuring up to six player-controlled characters moving around a grid to fight a similar number of opponents in turn-based fights. Unlike most tactical titles, movement and attacks are not attended to on the same turn here, with a movement round setting up the positions for all the combatants before attacks are chosen. All participants in a fight also have a number of squares in a pattern unique to each character, and having one or more compatriots linked via these squares means they can simultaneously attack an adversary that would otherwise be out of range. These mechanics aren’t bad in theory, but the execution makes them take on extraordinary levels of aggravation.
Being able to have characters magically jump around the map to join in a combined clobbering of enemies is a good thing, but the game is responsible for where they land. If luck is not on the player’s side, characters will wind up haphazardly spread across the landscape with their linking squares no longer in the right position, effectively ending the assault for that turn even if the cast has plenty of AP left to continue, thanks to Idea Factory’s AI being considerably less than stellar. A similar problem stems from the inability to clearly see where abilities that affect an area will hit, and the game’s refusal to allow player selection of the precise spot such moves will take effect from, instead just assuming that it knows the right destination.
Single attacks rarely accomplish anything significant for dealing with the enemy, which means that combos are the way to victory. Some means of estimating how much damage each attack will inflict would be ideal, since wasted effort ensures characters will run out of AP for the round and drag a fight out, but Agarest‘s developers clearly did not think this was a concept worthy of inclusion. Like many tactical games, Agarest includes the ability to check out the enemy’s statistics and abilities, but only during the movement phase of a battle. A good memory is thus required to prevent the player from using ineffectual or counterproductive moves during the attack phase, and Idea Factory has ensured that plenty of foes will be troublesome like that as the game proceeds. Repetition will help ensure that those memories have a chance to form, as every enemy will be tossed out multiple times and often in the same formation. The last touch to the blizzard of déjà vu is every battlefield being the same: while the contours and spots that have an effect if stood upon can be changed, a flat and featureless landscape is used throughout.
There may be a difficulty selection at the start, but even on Easy this game becomes a trial before much time has passed. Early battles will pose little challenge, especially with the free DLC equipment Ghostlight provides, but soon enough enemies will start to kill characters routinely. The challenge does not stem from intelligent enemies that must be outsmarted, but from being slammed with attacks powerful enough to kill even the strongest protagonists unless a truly ridiculous amount of grinding has taken place. Solving these difficulty hurdles involves using the many means of reviving characters and launching an immediate assault, then doing it again. Bosses hit harder than regular enemies and tend to have HP regeneration, but the tactics for defeating them are no different than those for anything else, save making sure not to use ineffective techniques.
Linked to the combat is Agarest‘s amazingly infuriating means of broadening inventory. Initial shop supplies prove paltry, and expanding the storefront selection requires acquisition of the necessary ingredients. These tend to be granted by dead enemies, but the only way to be sure an adversary will give up something is to overkill it. To overkill every enemy in the game multiple times to be assured of having everything it can drop in a sufficient quantity is an amazingly time-consuming endeavor. With the necessary ingredients, blacksmiths in every city are able to create new things, and the fresh items will appear in the shops. The blacksmith can screw up sometimes and deliver an unexpected result, plus certain items are never for sale even if they’re fabricated multiple times, but this is the general idea. If just one prerequisite is not acquired, an item can never be created, and usually it in turn serves as a component part for something else down the line. Keeping every item in the game around for potential blacksmith use is thus recquired, and multiple points in the game leave earlier locations behind to ensure that a missed item can never be found again.
Nearly as rage-inducing is the game’s equipment system, which demands considerable time for little reward. Switching between different logistical setups is easy enough, but attached to each piece of equipment are numerous skills characters use in battle. Every time something is changed, the player has to make sure abilities are put back into place to prevent a character from being crippled in the next fight. Sifting through the massive store of things that need to be kept for potential use at the blacksmith’s takes a long time, and it’s not easy to intuit which equipment is an improvement when eight different statistics are affected. Idea Factory managed the nifty feat of putting poor action controls into a tactical game through Exploration Points, places that serve dungeons with hard-to-decipher paths and the need to jump repeatedly, plus the thrill of random battles from moving too much in any room.
Agarest‘s plot is carried across five generations, depicting a tale of suppressing evil that must be carried on by future generations. It begins when a young man named Leonhardt is mortally wounded trying to prevent nastiness by a military unit to which he unfortunately belongs. Rather than let him die, a mysterious female named Dyshana offers to revive him with great power, if he and his descendants will be bequeathed to her mission of stopping the power of darkness from taking over the world. Leonhardt agrees, and at the end of his part of the story must select a bride to share his life with and produce an heir, who will journey to a new continent. Many allies join over the game’s course, ensuring that the progeny of Leonhardt never lack for assistance in the job of saving the world.
Phantasy Star III‘s notion of a story that crosses generations has been built upon very seldom in the RPG world, and Agarest: Generations of War had an opportunity to make the concept better than an early Sega Genesis title. It fails at this seemingly-simple task. Leonhardt can be somewhat excused for not being more than a valiant and noble protagonist because he gets the story rolling, but his descendants all hit exactly one note and stick to it. Characters who join early in the adventure at least have some vague reason to stick around, but later recruits have increasingly-minimal explanations for why they’re coming along and giving up decades of their lives. Instead their dialogue consists of a lot of filler on the subject of military and political entities that the player never has any reason to care about, when most of it could have been excised and replaced by generic instructions to go out and fight bad guys.
A potentially interesting mechanic is the selection of a wife for each hero, which affects the abilities of the next generation’s leader. Agarest reduces this to a few questions that pop up and affect each lady’s estimation of the hero. The game has to continue even if he manages to alienate all the potential brides, but use of a FAQ will be very helpful to ensure that the not-always-obvious result of each answer goes the way the player wishes. Having protagonists shaped by romantic relationships between parents is a good idea, and another company ought to use it right. Idea Factory’s interpretation is to have a few questions be the entire deciding factor for a relationship, followed by a few wedding images of the lady in question. The next protagonist is shaped noticeably by this process, but the game keeps most of the important aspects invisible.
Originally a PS3/360 release, the PC rendition of Agarest took some technical problems along to make it even less appealing. The frame rate chugs along at a pathetic clip, and the game actually has the gall to slow down frequently, issues that are unjustifiable on any current hardware given the game’s undemanding visuals. Its biggest problem is a tendency to crash, though reports vary on exactly what prompts this. When and how often crashes happen varies from person to person, but the problem is an enormous detriment in a title that hardly needed more.
Exactly what would cause the visuals to stutter in Agarest is something of a mystery, since the game would not have strained hardware in the late 90s. Its character sprites are nice at first glance but have a low number of animations, and the initially-impressive artwork used for dialogue scenes gets reused enough over the game’s course to become dull, especially when the only variation for different situations is a slightly altered facial expression. Navigating the Exploration Points is a challenge when figuring out which areas are inaccessible proves difficult because of the visuals, and the same backgrounds for dialogue and battle scenes are used throughout the game.
While well-localized, the dialogue of the game is accompanied by Japanese voice acting that is scattershot. Some of the performers do good jobs, but more of them seem to come from the B-list of Japan’s acting talent, delivering monotone work that fails to enliven anything. On the other hand, Kenji Kaneko’s score is pretty good. The game is far too long to avoid frequent repetition of his compositions, but the music itself is energetic and entertaining.
Steam counts the time I played even if the game crashed before I was able to save. Despite turning off combat animations to try speeding the pace, 126 hours had passed before I was finally done with this thing. That was without going for the True End, which requires rigidly following a FAQ in order to achieve all the requirements for finding it. I can praise Ghostlight for the company’s willingness to help me past a point that continually crashed, but the game itself deserves no such kindness. If simply tossing many hours at a game is all that is necessary to deem it worthwhile, Agarest certainly qualifies. Then again, I could take a similar amount of time to watch videos of stupid things people have uploaded to YouTube and probably learn something useful, a claim Agarest cannot make.
Ideas someone else can co-opt
Far, far, far too long
Abysmal item acquisition and management
Utterly wastes a good story idea
Mind-numbingly repetitive combat
Technical problems on PC