It's tough for nostalgia and great gameplay to co-exist in the same package. Astonishia Story, a very old-school Korean RPG, is the latest to make the attempt, and the latest game to fail utterly. Granted, the nostalgia is largely due to the fact that the game originally appeared on PCs in 1994. But this new translation passes on any updates, with the exception of a comically bad translation.
The hero is Lloyd, a knight who's on escort duty when the empire's super-special holy Cainan Staff is stolen by some vengeful elves. In order to recover the Staff, Lloyd has to traipse all over his empire, enlisting the help of other playable characters, most of whom join the party for only a finite length of time before jetting off to continue their lives. Thanks to its very retro, detailed 2D visual design, the game at least looks nifty while it's unspooling the turgid plot.
Without a strong core party upon which to hinge all the typical RPG twists and turns, the story loses direction fast. While guiding Lloyd through his world, you'll go through all the expected motions: exploring towns, talking to people, taking on side quests and occasionally finding a relatively well-hidden secret. These hidden items are one of only two elements that don't feel thoroughly strip-mined of all interest. The other is a warped sense of humor, which regularly breaks the fourth wall and dispenses amusing little gags about gaming. But a good joke every hour or so is hardly enough to keep the game light on its feet.
After breezing through the beginning of the game, we hoped that the grid-based, pseudo-tactical battle system would offer some of the missing depth. Not a chance. Like everything else in Astonishia, combat is stripped down to the bare essentials, and not in a way we like. Enemies and the player's party typically enter from opposite sides of a stretch of land, then move and attack by turns. There are a few good spell effects, and the eventual option to use missile weapons like rocks and spears is almost cool.
Though items like trees and rocks can block movement on the combat grid, there is no sophistication to battle. Sure, you can hide behind some trees and wait for the enemy to charge blindly - they will - but there is no bonus for doing so, no element of surprise or ambush modifier or anything. After a while, we'd wait for the enemy to rush in, they would, and we'd win. Whew - almost fell asleep just writing about it.
Since combat is the heart of the RPG, the extremely thin version on offer gives the game little traction. If there's much positive to say about Astonishia, it's that there are no barriers to entry. The simplified controls, which work with a very minimal interface, won't stymie anyone without RPG experience. But the absence of story and strategy will. This is a game best played on autopilot, if you have to play it at all.