Thursday 25 January 2007
Space pirates - by which we mean full-on, grog-swilling, "shiver me nebulas" space pirates, with cybernetic peglegs and lasers and everything - really don't get enough play in videogames. So when someone goes and makes a whole game about them, we take notice. And when that game is one of the biggest, most satisfyingly intricate RPGs we've played in ages, we say "awesome."
Rogue Galaxy isn't quite as huge as its name implies, but sometimes it feels that way. Promising over a hundred hours of gameplay, the game takes a relatively linear space-opera story and crams it full of huge monsters, surprisingly addictive side games and huge places to explore. The battles are a button-mashing blast, the characters are weirdly fascinating and the whole thing is about as pretty as a PS2 game can get.
As Jaster Rogue, a young nobody-turned-bounty hunter who inherits a special sword from a mysterious stranger, you'll sail from planet to planet, fighting monsters and recruiting increasingly weird travel companions to sail aboard your colossal space-galleon. There's a central story about how you're racing an evil corporation to fabulous ancient riches, but it takes a while to get off the ground, and once it does it plays out predictably. It's padded out by a number of smaller side stories and character threads, but those are even flatter and more predictable than the main storyline. Good thing, then, that there's plenty of other stuff to keep you distracted from how tepid the plot is.
First, there's the exploration. Rogue Galaxy 's environments are huge, both in scale and in overall distance. We're talking cavernous starship factories, sprawling futuristic cities and mazelike jungles, all rendered beautifully and seamlessly. With all that space to move around in, it's a godsend that every conveniently located save point is also a warp point - step into one, and it can instantly take you to any other save point you've visited on that planet, whether it's in a dungeon, a town or even on your ship. Suddenly, backtracking isn't such a drag anymore.
Rogue Galaxy's real-time battles are a lot of fun, which is great, because you'll spend most of the game fighting through them. Not even towns are safe havens from monsters, who jump you at random no matter where you are. The fights themselves play out a lot like the battles in Kingdom Hearts - real-time and button-mashy, with a couple of computer-controlled sidekicks that you can order around. They seem pretty simple at first - just hop around and bust out repetitive sword combos, or stand back and unload your blaster while your allies do their thing - but like the rest of the game, a simple appearance hides layers of complexity.
See, some enemies won't respond to simple hack-and-slash. Some have shields that need to be shattered with a charged attack, or even with a special gun. Others have weak spots that can only be hit while jumping; in fact, the first boss you'll face can only be hit if you shoot it with a gun that projects laser platforms for you to hop around on. Of course, if all else fails you can pick up debris or other monsters and throw it at them, and that's always cool.
Then there are your allies; you'll usually have two in addition to Jaster, and you can switch your control to them - or swap characters in and out of your party - at any time, even during battle. When you're not controlling them, they tend to fight like berserk idiots, so keep plenty of healing items on hand. They are smart in one way, though, in that they know when to heal each other or call down a special technique. And if you don't want them using up your items without you knowing, you can even order them to ask you for permission first.
To unlock those special techniques (which range from simple power-ups to massive group attacks), you'll need to tackle each character's "Revelation Flow," essentially a flowchart with empty slots for items. Fill all the slots for a particular ability, and you'll get a new move to bust out in battle, as well as clearing a path to the next set of skills. At first, the items used for Revelations seem like random crap, being useless baubles, hunks of ore and weird food items. But eventually, you'll find other uses for that stuff, and as those items get rarer and rarer, you'll start to get really choosy about how you dole them out.
See, the junk you'll find has two other main uses: making new items, and feeding your Insectors, both of which are the basis for extremely beefy minigames. Insectors are bizarre, Pokémon-style bug creatures that you can capture with baited traps and care for in 3D terrariums. Collect five, and you'll be able to pit them against rivals in what amounts to turn-based chess matches. These are really deep if you let yourself get sucked into them, as each bugmonster has unique abilities and attacks, although it's all completely optional.
Similarly optional is your factory, which you'll get as a reward several chapters into the story. Where most games that involve "crafting" just let you mix a couple items together and call it a potion, Rogue Galaxy actually enables you to build a full assembly line, based on whatever "blueprints" passers-by tell you about. Pick the ingredients, figure out what equipment can process those ingredients and arrange your conveyors so that everything arrives at the smelter at the same time, and bam! You've got a new magical sword, protective item or whatever.
There's no denying Rogue Galaxy is an impressive piece of work. The amount of content is staggering, the art direction is stunning for a PS2 game, the oddball cast is likable and this might be the first RPG we've ever played in which the gameplay was way more interesting than the story. The flat, formulaic plot and mostly monotone voice acting drag it down a little, but overall Rogue Galaxy is a stellar effort.