God Wars Review
Kaguya Versus the Volcano
After having a unique take on the strategy RPG genre with Natural Doctrine, Kadokawa Games is taking a more traditional bent this time with God Wars: Future Past. Rather than the free-form movement found in Natural Doctrine, God Wars returns to traditional grid-based strategy RPG combat and combines it with a deep class system encouraging customization. This gets wrapped up in a setting that mixes in ancient Japanese history and folklore. While there are a few bumps along the way, God Wars successfully pulls this together into a package strategy RPG fans that appreciate a challenge will enjoy.
God Wars knows how to set the scene. The game opens with a royal procession travelling up the slopes of Mt. Fuji. The gods are angry and Mt. Fuji is threatening to erupt. The leader of this part of Japan, Lady Tsukuyomi, has come to appease the gods by sacrificing her daughter to the volcano. A young girl no more than five is lead up to the edge of the precipice and, as Lady Tsukuyomi is seen inconsolably weeping, waves of lava steals the child from the world. This sacrifice heads off the impending disaster and the scene shifts to thirteen years later where the game’s protagonist, Kaguya, is introduced. The youngest daughter of Tsukuyomi, she has been imprisoned in a shrine at the base of Mt. Fuji on the orders of her mother; a sacrificial spare in case the gods are angered again. However, Tsukuyomi disappeared shortly after the original sacrifice; no one has seen her in over ten years and the region has fallen into disrepair in her absence. This has caused revolts that Kaguya’s childhood friend Kintaro exploits to break her out of imprisonment. Newly freed, Kaguya sets out to search Japan for her mother, learn why she was really imprisoned, and discover her destiny.
God Wars is set in ancient Japan, in a period where gods and myths meet history. The islands of Japan have yet to coalesce into a single nation, and instead are a collection of warring parties at each other’s throats. The lands of Fuji, Izumo, and Hyuga are all vying for control, with Izumo and Hyuga locked in a bitter and bloody conflict that has had a harsh effect on the landscape. Many of the characters and events portrayed in the game are historic figures pulled from the Kojiki, the oldest surviving chronicle of early Japanese history, and these historic figures are mixed with gods and other characters from Japanese mythology. It makes for a unique and interesting setting and the game puts it to good effect. As the story progresses, the conflict between the humans and the anger of the gods fuses together. The eastern influence becomes plain as the gods are angry at the way the land is being treated, the conflicts between humans, the lack of respect for ancestors, and they are especially displeased with Kaguya for a promise that her mother broke. The story can be difficult to parse at times; Japanese gods sometimes appear in human form, while other characters are named after Shinto deities. This can lead to some confusion whether a character is supposed to be a god, or the game is just taking traditional traits and grievances of the god and applying them to a human. Ultimately, it helps that God Wars doesn’t get bogged down trying to explain every detail and the story keeps moving at an engaging pace. Also, this is part of the price paid for having a game that is so steeped in Japanese history and culture that it can be unfamiliar to a western audience. It’s a unique setting and story that hasn’t been done to death, but there are times where it becomes stiff and a bit convoluted. The localization leaves many of the names and terms untranslated, but there is a glossary included in-game and, since these are all taken from Japanese folklore, more information is never more than an internet search away.
The characters of God Wars are a bit of a mixed bag. It’s not a surprise with such a large cast that many party members have limited screen time. It was unexpected that Kintaro, who sets the story into motion, never develops beyond a one-note character and by the end of the game he faded into the background. However, Kaguya remains a strong, interesting lead throughout; driving the story forward by trying to solve the conflicts between humanity and their gods. She transforms from a child trying to understand her place in the world to a self-sacrificing leader intent on saving Japan from itself. Ookuninushi, prince of Izumo, makes a predictable, but nonetheless well executed transformation from feckless playboy to principled leader. Susanoo and Amaterasu, leaders of Izumo and Hyuga respectively, are complicated figures with a personal conflict between them mirroring that of their Shinto deity namesakes. Susanoo starts off as merely an impediment to Kaguya’s story, but as the game develops he unveils the side of an aging leader who is concerned about passing on the kingdom he created to his son. The main cast is not fun and lighthearted, but with a game concerned with warfare and mankind’s fall from grace with the gods, it’s a serious cast for a serious story.
The visuals are effective at creating the ancient Japanese setting. The battle maps feature an isometric view and there is an impressive variety of locales: volcanos, waterfalls, shrines, and fortresses. Like most strategy RPGs, the majority of story is conveyed with character portraits and dialog boxes. These character portraits are basic and there is only one portrait for each character, but they do have some facial expressions that soften that blow. Much more effort went into the cutscenes that are sprinkled across the story; a mixture of manga-inspired images that transition into fully animated cutscenes, they provide an engaging way to highlight the major moments in the story. The world map also deserves note, a piece of art inspired by Japanese watercolors, it beautifully represents ancient Japan and changes with the seasons throughout the story: cherry blossoms in spring, turning leaves in autumn, and snow in winter.
God Wars is a small-scale strategy RPG, meaning that grid-based maps usually accommodate five to six ally units and ten to fifteen enemies. This game falls on the technical end of strategy RPGs; attacking from the side or behind enemy units grant bonuses to attack power and hit chances. Likewise, elevation also provides these same bonuses for higher elevation and penalties for lower elevation. Against difficult enemies, maximizing these elements can be extremely important as this is a game where the reported hit rates are accurate. Bosses and some common enemies have high evasion, so attacking from behind and with the advantage of elevation is important for success. The game’s AI seems generally fair, and since units can be revived on the battlefield, the difficulty isn’t punishing. Nonetheless, as the game progresses, enemies become adept at using area of effect attacks, requiring the player to balance protecting weaker units while not bunching units together. Boss battles are especially difficult, but generally strike the right balance between fun and frustration.
One of the problems that can occur with smaller scale strategy RPGs deals with protecting weaker units. When there are ten or more allies on a map, it’s easy to create a skirmish line of melee units in front with weaker ranged, mage, and healer units in the rear. Obviously, this sort of strategy isn’t available when there are only five allies on the map. God Wars addresses this problem by introducing an Impurity rating for all party members. Working in a similar manner to aggro or threat in an MMO, this value will increase when characters attack enemies and, to a lesser extent, when they heal allies. The game provides many skills that allow characters to manipulate the Impurity rating, as well as some abilities that allow the creation of dummy units with high Impurity to distract enemies. When used correctly, this system allows most of the attention of enemies to be directed at characters with high defense and away from vulnerable units. Also, with planning, it can be used to orient enemies so that the player can take advantage of positional and elevation advantages. It is an addition that helps make up for the lack of units under control and adds an additional layer of strategy to the game.
The class system is also one of the highlights of God Wars. There are over thirty classes, but since each of the fourteen playable characters has a unique, always-equipped class, it’s closer to sixteen classes that are available to assign to each of the playable characters. Each character has access to both a main job that determines stat growth as well as which skills, weapons, and armor can be equipped, plus a secondary job that allows the character to access even more skills. Every class has a branching skill tree with both active skills that are tied to the class and passive skills that, once unlocked, can be equipped even when that class is not. Combined with an equipment system that includes eight different types of weapons as well as armor and accessories, there is an incredible about of customization in this game and it is completely open; a character that is obviously intended to be a mage can be turned into an axe wielding warrior. The other side of the coin is that, as the game progresses, it expects the player to master these systems and will punish those who don’t. Grinding will be a necessity on any difficulty above easy to obtain the experience and job points necessary to match up with more difficult bosses.
The soundtrack is best described as serviceable. The biggest problem is that there isn’t enough musical variety to stretch across such a lengthy game. By the fifty-hour mark, the main battle theme that plays in most non-boss battles had long since worn thin. With story battles sometimes stretching past an hour, the music didn’t have enough catchiness or variety to hold up. Major boss encounters did have unique tracks and these were the highlight of the soundtrack. Also, the game is fully voiced with a Japanese audio option and English voice acting that is solid, although there are times that the mixing is off and the background music overwhelms a soft-speaking character. Thankfully, the audio balance can be adjusted in the options menu.
In a year full of JRPGs, God Wars still manages to be a standout. Following Kaguya’s story through ancient Japan, dealing with warring factions and angry gods was a fun journey. I found it impressive that for such a lengthy game, the story pacing was well done and I never lost interest in what was happening. In fact, I found myself interested enough as the game progressed that I was researching the people, events, and gods depicted. The gameplay especially shined, with an incredible amount of customization and strategy that has been streamlined out of many console strategy RPGs. The Impurity system was a great addition and helped keep the strategy in this smaller scale game. It’s certainly not without flaws, the soundtrack could have used more variety and the limited map size guaranteed that many allies went unused, but the strategy was top notch. Players looking for a mechanically deep strategy RPG with a unique backdrop will not be disappointed.
Unique ancient Japanese setting
Involved class system
Soundtrack lacks variety
Bland character portraits