Friday, October 19, 2012

Mysterious Song

Frozen Utopia / Darkness Ethereal
Super CD-ROM

Sometimes there's value in having experience on the other side of things. The guys at Frozen Utopia undertook the project of remaking Darkness Ethereal's 1999 PC-based title Mysterious Song with a wealth of knowledge as to what makes role-playing games work, being veterans of many a 16-bit-era adventure themselves. They put their experience to good use in crafting a game that's remarkably sound mechanically, one that makes life easy and pleasant for the player. A dash button is provided so that trips to nearby caves or local shops never feel like arduous treks. Dialogue windows deliver their messages at once and can be dismissed just as quickly. The monster-encounter rate is quite tolerable, and when assailed, players can make use of a streamlined battle system to annihilate their foes. Party members gladly move on to new victims should the adversaries they targeted be killed by their comrades before their turns come up. And dungeons are purged of creatures that would be but mere nuisances once the heroes have demonstrated heightened levels of power by completing certain tasks.

It was hard for me not to favor Mysterious Song even before I had the opportunity to experience the aforementioned conveniences, as the title screen welcomed me with a wonderfully moody piano-dominated number. Most of the in-game tracks are of the atmospheric sort, and while they all sound good, some of the compositions are a great deal more effective than others. Among the winners are an extremely exciting boss tune and an intense bass-driven accompaniment to a late-game tower invasion. I could do without the animal noises mixed into the overworld theme, however; I don't want audio that makes me feel as if I'm in the middle of a jungle while my characters are traversing open plains.

That beastly cacophony isn't too difficult to deal with since the plains themselves are anything but eyesores. While they lack the sheen sported by those in some major PCE releases, MS's towns and fields boast appealing, distinctive looks thanks to solid tile work and effective utilization of interesting shades of green.

Even more impressive visually are the battle backdrops, some of which are of such high quality that they rival the best delivered by any other PC Engine RPG. The gorgeous backgrounds, however, are juxtaposed with enemy sprites that often bear promising signs design-wise but lack the size and detail that might have made them cooler and more sinister looking.

The cinemas, on the other hand, do come off pretty well despite some rough moments and the occasional awkward poses and expressions assumed by the characters. I only wish that there had been more to work with conceptually during these scenes; as it is, most of the cinematic material unexcitedly revolves around conversations between an often perplexed and whiny hero and a villain who enjoys speaking in musical metaphors.

The story on the whole is essentially a write-off, beginning with a typical "find out why there are monsters around" premise and building up to little of anything from there. Emotional moments are arrived at too quickly and occur too abruptly to make much of an impact. There are bits of amusing dialogue to enjoy, though.

Plot elements are not of the utmost importance here, regardless. MS is about grinding at its core, and thanks to the good work done in regard to mechanical aspects, players do have the wherewithal to make the most of what's on offer. And what's on offer is simple stuff, really. Spell and item lists are hardly extensive. Aside from an optional one, dungeons are a vanilla brand of maze, completely devoid of puzzles. The entire affair can be resolved in short order--a mere two or three hours should be enough for most players to reach and annihilate the final boss. There are some extremely cool unlockables to check out once said boss is defeated, however.

One of those unlockables is an "EX Game" mode, which features an enormous bonus dungeon. Some segments of this mega-labyrinth come off as pointless space; I was able to stick to one wall or the other while battering outclassed enemies for long stretches at a time. There is a puzzle to solve, though (and quite a good one at that), and the extra bit of story that's provided compares favorably with the specks of plot offered by the main mode. But I must mention that I encountered a game-halting glitch at one particular point. Perhaps it was a fluke, but due to the severity of the issue (there was absolutely no way for me to proceed), I must advise players to keep a save file around that enables them to resume questing at a point right before they delve into the bonus dungeon. The fact that I'd kept such a file handy enabled me to give the maze another go without beginning my quest anew (and thankfully, the glitch did not appear the second time around).

But had I been forced to start all over, I actually wouldn't have been all that irritated. Mysterious Song is made of such sturdy stuff mechanically that it truly makes it difficult for the player to stop playing. Granted, it'd be nice to see the title's many positive attributes placed in an epic context. But if taken as a short, fast-paced grinder that plays wonderfully and features some nice (at times great) music and artwork, the game can surely be deemed a success.

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