Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Sol Moonarge

Super CD-ROM

I have mixed feelings about this RPG. There were times when it annoyed the hell out of me. Then things would happen that made me admire the ambition and creativity that went into it and think about how great it would be if it didn't insist on repeatedly mucking things up with its flaws.

I don't like the characters much at all. Understand that just prior to playing this game for the first time, I'd revisited Cosmic Fantasy 2 and Kabuki Den, which star some of the video-game characters I'm fondest of. Then I sat down with Moonarge and encountered a blonde-haired Pinocchio clone and his odd-looking cohorts. I felt like I was controlling a bunch of Sesame Street puppets. Granted, the wacky theme paves the way for some funny moments to occur (primarily early in the adventure); but when I'm tagging along with a video-game crew for a fifteen-hour quest, I like to have some sort of emotional investment in the affair, and it just didn't happen with this overly caricaturish bunch.

The random-battle enemies are also lame; impressive designs such as a fiery golden spike-head are few and far between. And while the bad-guy graphics are sub-mediocre, the overworld visuals border on horrible. Some locations feature a lot of colors, but the shades are poorly matched, creating big, bright, kaleidoscopic messes. The game shoots itself in the foot when it splatters too many colors on screen at once; the places that do look cool generally keep things simple.

The soundtrack has its fair share of nice tunes, but some of them are maimed by poor, abrasive sound quality, making them reminiscent of bad Genny-sound-chip ditties. A few of the ones that came out okay truly manage to shine, including a very exciting boss number.

My gripes about the gameplay generally involve the way-too-frequent random battles. And I guess I just stated the primary problem: there are just too damn many random battles. Laying off the dash button can help a little bit, but then exploration becomes a slower and more tedious task; and some areas will toss you into fights every few seconds no matter how slowly you're proceeding. The fact that the enemies win initiative far more often than your party members doesn't help.

But at least Irem did a lot of cool things with the battle system. You can divvy the damage you do among the entire band of enemies or concentrate the full force of your blow on just one unfortunate beast. The fights are generally fast paced (slowing down only when an enemy performs an attack that affects your whole party and you have to sit through the repeated animations, but I've endured much worse). There are decent-looking backdrops, and your characters celebrate in amusing fashion when they're victorious. Plus, one character you use early in the game gets killer animation bits for his critical hits (it's a pity all of the characters weren't granted such exciting attack theatrics).

The designers also did well with their take on RPG commerce. When you're looking at an item in a store, the game shows the effects on stats said item will have for each party member. And if you decide to go ahead and buy it, you can equip it right then and there without having to exit the shop menu and open a new one.

But perhaps the best element of all is the dungeon design. "Dungeon" might not be the most appropriate term, though; perhaps "challenge area" would be more accurate, considering the variety of challenges that await you in certain places. You're asked to do a hell of a lot more than trek through mazes: you'll ride enormous spinning gears, climb brambles up castle walls, assume different animal forms to pass unusual trials, and do plenty more.

Should you overcome the challenges, you'll have some fantastic bosses to look forward to fighting. These guys have lots of tricks up their sleeves; you can't just trade blows with them. There's a haunted mirror that pits you against scowling versions of your own party members; there's the swordsman Brack with his amazing show of swipes among petal storms; and there's a polygonal nightmare that delights in interacting with (and butchering) your little character avatars at the bottom of the screen.

Yes, it was an up-and-down ride for me, and I think my expectations for the game exceeded what it actually delivered, but it does get progressively better as the journey goes on, and my final overall impression did fall on the positive side. I have a feeling that more people will like it than don't (and like it more than I do, at that). Still, you might want to keep in mind that for the $30-40 the game often costs, you can purchase ten other PCE RPGs, many of which may prove superior.

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