Brave Story: New Traveler
Hope you've got a thing for cats and funny hats...
Ever have that game that should be brilliant but does that one thing, or those fairly numerous things that punch you in the gut every time you see them? Brave Story has a few of those, but the big one for me is the hero's hat. It looks like a brown leather rasta tam with big metal plates on either side like bulging bug eyes. It's a very stupid hat. In fact, I find his entire costume rather boring. Also, I really hate his sword which every time it grows it continues to get uglier and stupider growing more moving parts than any sword should have. It's a personal thing, I know. But damn, he really looks like the kid at the fantasy heroes convention that couldn't afford the costume he really wanted.
Let me get what I really dig about the game out of the way first, cause I've got some beef with the writers and character designers here. First and foremost, the gameplay is quite good. It may even be excellent. The difficulty ramps up at a good, if a little spotty, pace. Any newbie to JRPGs should be able to get into it with no problem before they start experimenting with the more unique gameplay elements. Still, it all falls rather on the easy side. But that can be a very good thing since the combat is infectiously addictive and fast. Being on the go, it's not hard to pop it back on to finish a quick battle or two before the next subway stop. And when you've got it at home and get into the groove, the hardest part tends to be telling yourself to put the game down. You'll swear to yourself you'll just keep playing till the next save spot, then the next one then the next one and so on.
But what makes this turned based battle system so infectious are a number of factors that developers Game Republic got so very right. The loading times are non-existent between exploring and battle screens; a hell of an achievement as PSP fans should know. The random encounters are never too plentiful but are formidable obstacles. The battle animations for every attack are quick and simply superb to watch. And when you get right down to it, it becomes addictive by doing some neat things to hasten the pace and encourage aggressive play. With every attack you do, you gain back some of your Brave Points (your MP to do special attacks with). The more attacks your team does in a row or the more enemies you hit or kill add to the points you get back. You can even regain all the points you've used to do a special attack, encouraging you to spend the points liberally on all but the biggest of attacks. And whenever you finish off a creature, you often get an extra attack on another one. Characters who finish off monsters gain extra experience to level up. Leveling happens generously often, and often it happens right in the middle of a battle. Sweet!
Your characters grow gameplay-wise in a couple of interesting ways. In particular is the relationship each character has with the main character. The longer they've been in battles together, the more unity attacks they'll have with each other. These are particularly devastating attacks or spells which use both characters BP to activate but not both their turns. For instance, one can activate the unity attack while the other casts a healing spell. Though there aren't many selectable main characters, (5 in all not including the many character and the hosts of guest characters) the friendship system does encourage sticking with the same two party members to back up the main kid. It balances it out with the "tribal" damage system where certain characters almost always get critical hits on certain types of creatures. Characters who weren't in the battle are still privy to experience points anyway so characters never end up so far behind that they're unusable. Switching party members accordingly becomes painless, which is good as the variety of enemies can call for changes of plan. Those changes of plan are no more apparent when suddenly any humble monster can suddenly go crazed, tripling in size and damage.
New weapons and armor are almost always affordable and are available at a pace matching the difficulty ramp. Each weapon and bit of armor have their own appearance, by the way. But more interesting is the addition of an accessory building system. All over the world are diagrams for creating new accessories which are built from the spoils after battle. Most are built from common items dropped by monsters, though there are quite a few which would take some good honest work to find the ingredients for. It's a huge list of items and possible accessories which are made worth while by the stat boosts they give you to interject some customization to the team. With the accessory creation attached to numerous sidequests, those in turn attached onto a considerable main quest, the game was quite huge even before they attached the bird catching minigame. You catch birds, trade birds, genetically mutate and combine birds, and set them off in the most adorable little cock-fights you'll ever see. It's a fun diversion, and it's one you can share with your friend's PSP too.
But my god... that hat. Beyond the horrendous main character, the rest of the design work falls under the generic category. From generic swamps of sorrow, to generic bandit camps in the mountain, to generic main character designs, to generic hyper chipper cat girl, it's all rather seen before. And for the most part, some of it's seen all too often. The monster encounters are spiced up by variable sizes and colors per creature, though it doesn't hide the fact that I've encountered these creatures in so many other games before. Nothing stands out design wise, except perhaps the fantastic graphics. Every beautifully modeled character hosts scores of fluid animations really breathing life into them. The whole look of the game has a nice soft, post processed bloom effect giving characters skin that pearly, luminous quality. And even the cat girl has this adorable thing where her ears flick independently. I've never been that kind of cat girl fan, but damn she can be cute as a button in rather scandalous attire. I did find it hard to imagine how her parents, at the game's beginning, could have just let her go off adventuring in that outfit with a boy she met ten minutes ago.
While we're on the subject of weak character motivations, every character is generally poorly developed with thinly veiled excuses for joining the main quest. That main quest, which is supposedly your quest, never seems to be very important to what's going on. You're a boy from our world whose best friend, that's a girl, has fallen into a mysterious coma. Then, a voice from on high drops you into the game world of Vision where you become a Traveler, one who goes between worlds. There in Vision, you're seeking the gemstones which will allow you to make a wish and bring you friend, that's a girl, back. No one knows where the gemstones are so you find yourself doing task after task helping every town that's in trouble. They're even rather upfront about it, that most tasks you do will appear uninvolved to the main quest. And that's precisely the problem wherein the story is just so blatantly a bunch of random dungeons and villages strung together on a flimsy premise. Worse is the seeming under involvement of your character, whereas the cat girl and the lizard dude tend to do most of the talking for you. Everyone just assumes you're here along for the ride. It's very uncomfortable.
I'd complain more about the story if the writing and the localization didn't have its own charms. Sure each character is a cliche but at least the writers have strung together their quirks rather well. Each one plays to their broad characterizations, and all they want is to be liked. I cannot fault them since it's only the bitter part of me that wishes for Shakespeare in everything. XSEED's localization on the other hand will have some of the JRPG hardcore groaning, but on occasion it had me smiling. I couldn't help but giggle when I realized I was on a sidequest to defeat a Giant Enemy Crab (Game Republic, also the developers of Genji), or when I found the Sanjaya Staff (The legendary rod of a forgotten idol). Though the voice over work they do grates my ears a little, it's generally passable. For the battle cries I myself didn't prefer either the Japanese or the English over the other, and I switch them every now and then just to add some variety. And the music is acceptable, even if the main theme sounds like a dumbed down version of the Pirates of the Caribbean theme.
It's a great game to be sure. Extremely playable and thankfully portable, it can have you going for hours on end. But seriously, I wouldn't mind if they tried to break out of the JRPG mold a little more. And I still hate the hero's stupid hat. I really do. Without much of an inspiring story to go on, nor characters that we really could care about, the game can only rise so far in greatness. But in its unfortunately average story telling, a key component to any such story driven game, this great game never reaches excellence.
What's Hot: Excellent combat mechanics; A lengthy and consuming adventure; Beautiful technical achievement in graphics and presentation; An enjoyable shared minigame to boot.
What's Not: Uninvolved, fairly routine JRPG storyline; Generic world and character designs; I loathe the main hero's hat.