RPG fans had their hands full in 2006 with Kingdom Hearts II, Valkyrie Profile II, and Final Fantasy XII all delivering top-notch products. Thanks to Level 5, ‘07 is starting off strong with an action RPG that does most things very well but falls slightly short of becoming a classic. With Dragon Quest VIII as my only exposure to Level 5’s work, I didn’t know what to expect when I embarked on Jaster Rogue’s long journey trough the galaxy. What I got is a game that blends real-time and menu-based RPG gameplay in a way that still allows you do a lot even without menus, while providing a compelling story, characters I can relate to, vividly-colored and richly-detailed graphics alongside a stirring musical score that drive the action and plot perfectly.
Things begin with Jaster trying to defend his home planet from attack, and then leaving to make sure it’s protected, which will allow him to fulfill his lifelong dream of seeing the galaxy, but also tear him apart from his adoptive father, Raul, who took him in as a child and wants to see Jaster live his dream, even though it means they may never see other again. From there, he wanders the desert before being befriended by a pair of pirates who mistake him for a legendary hunter that helped Jaster keep his planet safe. After that, the pace picks up and you’re hurled into space to rid the galaxy of those who wish you and your newfound companions harm.
The bulk of your time is spent traveling the vast planets while battling hundreds of foes, including bosses that fill the screen from the earliest parts of the game and then somehow get even bigger. Battle uses an action-RPG gameplay style like Kingdom Hearts, where you control your party’s actions in real-time. Unlike there, I never found battle to be tedious, and enjoyed being able to control more aspects of the battle (like how aggressive your other party members are, or being able to swap characters quickly). Having your partners’ skills set to shoulder button commands also helps keep battles flowing, and you can also skip through the heftier parts of the attack and healing animations, preventing you from losing your train of thought in the heat of combat. This system isn’t perfect, as there are some inefficient parts to It (like having to sift through about four menus just to swap characters), but it works very well, and far better than I expected going into it.
Your party’s skill progression occurs through the ‘revelation’ system - basically a flow chart requiring you to have certain types of items (like a heart-shaped item and a circular item) in order to gain a new ability. It’s an easy and efficient way to improve the skills of your characters, and since the player is given complete control over when to perform these ability upgrades, you can increase the challenge of the game by not upgrading during a dungeon, or only upgrading certain characters. It’s a nice change from game-mandated player upgrades, which are limited here to your characters’ levels increasing and something I‘d like to see done in more RPGs.
Rogue Galaxy’s many successes are marred by a few failures as well. The camera being the biggest offender, as the default camera leads to confusion because it swings around too much, while the player-controlled camera moves too slowly to compensate. This isn’t a huge problem, but it will lead to you needing to use potions to heal your party as a result. Fortunately, the game is quite liberal in its dispersing and usage of them, as even the most basic one fills 50% of your life meter no matter how low it is. Thanks to that, what could’ve been a disaster just ends up being an annoyance.
One upside to the slow-moving manual camera is that it makes it easy to view Rogue Galaxy’s many scenic sights. Every world seems to be designed with that in mind, and it’s evident in the cinematics, which always pan slowly down the biggest and most impressive parts of the environment. These things add to the game’s grand scale, and make the journey throughout the game seem more worthwhile and enjoyable since the player is able to further absorb themselves into the game‘s environments.
Due to their beauty, this is one of the few RPGs (alongside Final Fantasy VII and FF X) that I felt compelled to explore. I actually felt more motivation to uncover every nook and cranny of the world here than in most platformers since the worlds feel so alive and look so gorgeous. Everywhere you look, there’s something to catch your eye - whether it’s a massive sea, a large waterfall, a sprawling metropolis beneath your feet, or even the darkened skies above you slowly shifting around - you’ll always find something to stay visually attached to. The cel shading adds a sense of comic book-styled whimsy to everything, where it seems fantastical and larger than life in some areas, but then completely normal and realistic in others.
The cel-shaded graphics also work very well for the character graphics, with smooth character animation and fairly accurate lip synching being other visual highlights that add a sense of reality to the adventure. The lack of slowdown is perhaps the most impressive technical feat pulled off, as a lot can happen at once in Rogue Galaxy, and yet the action doesn’t chug at all. This keeps the frantic pace of the battles intact, and that’s a major part of why they’re so exciting.
Character designs are also diverse, ranging from realistically-proportioned humans to anime-inspired characters like Mio, and then to gigantic monsters who would seem at home in any 16-bit shoot-em-up due to their massive size and their towering stature compared to your party. Visually, this is a very impressive game, and it’s basically exactly what I want out of a late-gen PS2 game as it is stunning and doesn’t slow to a crawl because it pushes the hardware too far.
The voice cast does a fantastic job at making even the most melodramatic material and off-the-wall characters as emotionally as resonant as possible, and given how insane some of the plots are (like an early one involving sacrificing a blind child), that couldn’t have been an easy task to accomplish. Will Friedle (of Kim Possible and Boy Meets World fame), Steve Blum (Spike in Cowboy Bebop, and a cast member in many other games) and Michelle Ruff (from Lupin the Third and dozens of other anime titles) are the most prolific voice actors here, and they did a fine job with the material they were given. I think that Friedle had the best delivery of dramatic material as Jaster, while Blum played his usual gruff character in Zegram very well, conveying just the right amount of seriousness and complete contempt for everyone around him.
Musical composition is another strong point in Rogue Galaxy; while I wouldn’t call any of the songs classic gaming tunes, they’re all very enjoyable to listen to during the game, with a few that I couldn’t get out of my head and ended up humming for hours. The music usually has a fast pace to it, which fits the action RPG gameplay style perfectly, and makes the tender cut scenes, with their slower, more soothing music, seem even more important since slow songs are rarely heard in the game.
Rogue Galaxy is easily the best game I’ve played so far this year. Its highly-stylish graphics, mostly-smooth gameplay, incredible music, and fantastic voice acting combined to create an experience that I won’t forget, and one that I hope is enjoyed by anyone with a love for RPGs. Even if you aren’t fond of action RPGs, you might find a lot to like here - I know I did, and I’m more of a fan of turn-based RPGs than action-oriented ones. Rogue Galaxy certainly isn’t flawless, as it’s biggest problems are caused by the shoddy manual camera, which simply isn’t acceptable for such fast-paced action. Luckily, there are many more things done well than done poorly in the game, and I’m impressed by just how well everything else came out.
Note: It’s worth noting that this is a dual layer DVD game, so if your system has issues with those, you might want to rent the game or borrow it from a friend before buying it only to find that it won’t play in your system.