Quick Facts:

NA Release Date:  March 2010
Played on: Xbox 360 (also available on PS3)
Genre:  JRPG
Publisher:  Sega
Developer:  Tri-Ace
Preferred Beverage:  Long Island Iced Tea

It’s a good thing this isn’t a proper review, because I haven’t finished Resonance of Fate yet. I’m breaking with journalistic tradition and writing this now because

  1. I’m 40 hours into the game, and there’s no sign that it will ever divert from its rigid structure, and
  2. I want to write this while some of the game’s mysteries are still preserved – I want to write it as an active player of the game, not as someone who played it.

So maybe the last 10 hours are completely different from what I’ve presented here (and if they are, I’ll let you know) but I’ve got enough of a grip on it to share some thoughts.

Resonance of Fate takes place at some point in the far future. For unclear reasons, humanity has moved into an enormous clockwork city-tower known as The Basel (actually, Wikipedia lists reasons, but if they’re revealed in the game it doesn’t happen till the end). In the time the game takes place, there’s been some societal degradation: nobody really understands how the tower’s complex mechanisms work, and there are a few glitches that will sometimes cause entire towns of people to SPONTAENEOUSLY DIE.

But that’s not your problem. You play Vashyron, a “hunter” (read: mercenary) who does various violent missions for the ruling Cardinals. That’s right, Cardinals: this is yet another Japanese RPG with a bizarre fixation on a fictionalized version of the Catholic Church. I remain thoroughly perplexed as to why this is one of the most dominant tropes in Japanese game-stories, particularly given that there aren’t very many Catholics in Japan. But I digress.

Along for the ride are Leanne and Zephyr, too youths with mysterious paths who are nevertheless handy with guns. See, Resonance of Fate’s battle system, which is very much the centerpiece of the game, is entirely gun-based; there isn’t a sword in sight. And it ACTUALLY MAKES A DIFFERENCE.

Allow me to explain one of the chief flaws of traditional JRPG battle design: it makes little to no use of space. In Dragon Warrior and its many successors (including the first ten Final Fantasy titles) the battle screen presented your party on the right side of the screen and the enemy on the left. They do not move around; they just take turns trying to kill each other. At best, any sense of space is abstracted into a front and back row for the attackers; there is no real movement. The mechanics of the battle system, then, are entirely menu-based, with the visuals merely window dressing. This system has its place, but has remained largely unchanged for 25 years: the few JRPGs that do switch to real time (such as the Tales series) tend to feature a certain amount of button-mashing.

Resonance of Fate shakes this up. The general structure of the game is pretty typical. Vashyron and his crew get a mission from a Cardinal, which will inevitably force them to go into a dungeon of some sort (in the gaming sense of the term – in a pleasant twist, almost all battles take place outdoors). But rather than being a series of random battles, the dungeon is a series of rooms, in which your party is free to move about.

Of course, so is the enemy. The game uses an “active turn based” system, where the enemies only moved and charge their attacks as you do; of course, you only get to move one of your characters at a time while they all move simultaneously, giving them the advantage. In theory. You’re the protagonists, and the game acknowledges this with Hero Actions, actions that allow you to “draw a line” across the screen that will allow you to move, fire, and heal damage (not to mention perform gravity-defying backflips) until the character reaches the end of the line. But each hero action uses up part of your “hero gauge,” and when the gauge hits zero your party goes into Critical Mode, is substantially weakened, and will probably die.

The other key part of the formula is that each character wields either a handgun or machine gun. The machine gun does a lot of damage, but only delivers scratch damage, which can’t actually kill and renegerates over time. Meanwhile, the handguns deliver “direct” damage, but convert any scratch damage a target has taken into actual damage. The result is that it’s a game of constant balancing.

The result is one of the freshest and most dynamic battle systems ever to come out of the stagnant genre, with the player constantly balancing their weapon use and hero actions. Add to this a number of other options, including tri-attacks (made by forming a triangle with the lines form a hero action),  grenades, special ammo, and an insane weapon customization system (think: gun with 8 scopes), and you end up with a system whos complexity rewards rather than discourages further play. The fact that positioning matters, and that the gunplay allows for wide areas, gives each encounter a pleasant variety.
Resonance of Fate’s narrative is also distinctive, though not quite as successful. It’s episodic and usually employs a sort of goofy humor reminiscent of Tri-Ace’s last offering, Radiata Stories. Some of the scenes are standard JRPG/anime fare (including one awkward scene in which Vashyron runs through a string of double entendres describing what he’d like to do to one Cardinal’s sizable bosom), but it excels at banter; the translation is excellent, as is serial Joystiq commenter Nolan North’s perform as Vashyron, and more than once it resembled a goofier Raiders of the Lost Ark. The dramatic narrative is as distinctive as the humor, not so much in its content (you’ve seen one Japanese Catholic Church, you’ve seen ‘em all) but in the unusually slow pace at which it reveals its mysteries, and even then chooses to often leave threads hanging. I felt mixed about this. It was ambitious, particularly given gaming’s typical, modernist need to explain everything; but a lot of the time it seemed as much a symptom of laziness as post-modernism, and at 40 hours into the game I’m still asking a lot of the same questions I was asking in the first five.

In every other way but one, Resonance of Fate excels. The aesthetic achieves the difficult task of being varied but distinctive, and the aging clockwork of Besel is sketched out in fine detail. The game features what may be the finest monster designs I’ve ever seen in a JRPG, which helps when the game inevitably starts reusing models. You can customize your characters with an astonishing array of clothing, the vast majority of which is so well-designed that I would happily wear it in real life; it occurred to me that they must have had a few people on staff whose sole job was as digital fashion designers. The music is also pleasant, with a consistently jazzy feel to it: there’s a lot of saxophone, and the music – while taking clear inspiration from the likes of Uematsu and Mitsuda – nevertheless managed to be surprisingly restrained, far from the typical bombastic orchestral score.

Resonance of Fate has only one fatal flaw: it doesn’t change. There are only a few substantially different enemy types, and they cycle throughout the game. The battle zones are almost always square rooms with a few bunkers and walls thrown in, and while weapons are upgraded their use never really alters. This is all fine and good during the many hours it takes for the player to come to grips with the battle system: I spent a good 30 hours playing around with it. But once I mastered it, things got boring real fast.

To the game’s credit, it seems to recognize this. Early missions take your party into a series of repetitive dungeons: later missions tend to be shorter, more varied, and more story-heavy (in short: more interesting). Yet the subquests take the opposite path, and this is where I have to stop being faux-objective and admit a purely personal problem with the game.

I am an obsessive gamer. This doesn’t go so far as the need to collect all 1000 Whatzits scattered throughout a given title, but it does mean I feel the need to tackle every subquest as long as there’s some story attached to it. Every subquest has a few narrative touches, usually amusing ones; but they are slight, and the actual content is the sort of sloppy fetch and kill quests that fill many an MMORPG. The solution, of course, is to avoid these and simply pursue the always-enjoyable main quests. But a given episode’s quests disappear if they are not completed before the next story mission, and I could never bring myself to get rid of them that way. The result was that I was farming by my own volition, trapped by bloated game design and my own neuroticism.

To sum up: Resonance of Fate is a great game, and certainly one of the freshest JRPGs released in the last five years, which is a lot more enjoyable if you don’t stop and smell the flowers but keep on moving.

Recommended: Yes, particularly if you’re tired of traditional JRPG fare and don’t have OCD.