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SEGA tees up a hands on opportunity with the mighty fine looking tri-Ace JRPG, Resonance of Fate...
With much ado about the popularity of JRPGs in the West, tri-Ace and SEGA's Resonance of Fate certainly has a challenge ahead of it to gather the required publicity for a successfully marketed, big budget game. The perception held by many gamers, developers, and publishers throughout the Western hemisphere is that JRPGs simply don't innovate enough; that they're bogged down in age-old gameplay dynamics that don't inspire players as much as they used to. Even BioWare's Greg Zeschuk recently weighed in on this debate, telling Destructoid, "The fall of the JRPG in large part is due to a lack of evolution, a lack of progression."
During a recent hands-on session with Resonance of Fate, we were given the rare opportunity to speak with tri-Ace developer, Takayuki Suguro on this very issue. He reminded us that while Western gamers might assign negative traits towards the awkwardly termed 'traditional JRPG', this isn't necessarily the way that these types of games are perceived in Japan. "With Resonance of Fate we have tried to be innovative, but in the Japanese market in particular the traditional JRPG does have a very good fanbase and there is still the demand for those type of games," Suguro-san told us. "That's because those types of games are perceived as tradition, rather than being viewed in a negative way."
In a marketplace of spiralling multi-platform development costs though, having a worldwide audience for your titles is fast becoming a necessity, forcing JRPGs to reach beyond the niche Western market that they've relied on in the past. Western release dates have to be more closely aligned with the Japanese launch (Resonance of Fate will come out simultaneously in the US and Europe later this year, similarly to FFXIII), while the games themselves are under increased pressure to cater for an action-orientated Western game player. Despite the huge success of the DS-skewed Dragon Quest IX in Japan last year, Suguro-san was quick to point out that Japanese gamers are starting to lose interest in the genre as well.
"Traditional Japanese RPGs do have a strong demand in the Japanese market, but it is also true that those people are actually losing interest in the traditional Japanese game, which means even if you want to succeed in the market you have to come up with something new," he said, and it's no surprise to us that the Director of a game like Resonance of Fate is so aware of these varying demands across the global market. The central theme of acrobatic mercenaries who wield guns like a character out of the Matrix is clearly geared as much towards the West as it is Japan. Similarly, the blend of real-time and turn-based combat is a balance that's been struck to appease a broad range of very specific demands across what can often appear to be diametric gaming cultures.
What's most notable about Resonance of Fate is that it appears to be pulling off this monumental balancing act. The steampunk setting is stunningly realised with painstaking attention to detail and sharp execution, enough to eagerly please hardcore Japanese fans of the fiction, while also inspiring enough memories of Star Wars' Cloud City that it might just turn the attention of Western gamers away from Modern Warfare 2 for a second or two. Likewise, the combat is just about fast enough that the action is frenetic (with guns... did we mention that there are guns?), although there's also plenty of allowance to slow down the action and consider strategy. It's character movement, however, that does the best job of binding these seemingly contradictory gameplay approaches together.
Playable characters start a battle in the traditional style: lined up and ready for prompted attacks. From here, Resonance of Fate's 'Tri-Attack' system comes into play, allowing players to draw a line across the battle arena for the selected character to automatically run down. As the character runs, it's then up to the player to choose when they vault into the air for an acrobatic flurry of gun-slinging attacks. While one face button commands the acrobatic leaps, another allows players to decide when the character unleashes their guns and a charge system for these fired weapons rewards attacks that are timed for the last possible moment. Alternatively, one fully charged attack can be exchanged for multiple smaller ones, depending on the amount of shots players manage to get out in their character's allocated run.
On top of these 'Tri-Attack' basics are the more strategic 'Invincible Action' moves. By choosing the attack lines of other characters so that they overlap with previous lines, players can form a triangle within the arena between the attack lines of all three playable characters. These 'Invincible Action' moves build up Resonance Points that can then used to make all three characters travel across the path of this triangle and co-ordinate simultaneous attacks. Although characters can be freely controlled between attacks, doing that essentially voids any previous 'Invincible Action' moves, which thereby provides the option of manual control but conversely rewards fixed attack routines.
While it might sound complicated, it's actually not as complicated as it sounds. A brief tutorial is all that's required to get used to a system that soon feels natural and, although it might not be quite as freely controlled as tri-Ace's previous titles (e.g. the most recent Star Ocean), it somewhat paradoxically ends up being more innovative because of this. Japanese games, in general, are best left to the creative directing skills of their designers, rather than a manual camera that can be controlled by the gamer (Bayonetta is a perfect example of this), and Resonance of Fate is at its best when tri-Ace's camera direction is allowed to skilfully capture a piked-backwards-summersault combined with more gunfire than an NRA convention.
Beyond this, the combat appears to be based on luck as much as it is strategy. Special attacks such as 'Smackdowns' (performed while directly above an enemy) can cause the target to drop valuable items, which playable characters can then pick up using the manual controls. However, these 'Smackdowns' occur randomly and are not necessarily dependant on player skill. Similarly, hits on an enemy can occasionally launch them into the air and - with equal randomness - this can prompt a mini-game that unleashes extra damage on the target. Stopping a reticule between specified points on a roulette wheel around the enemy enables this, although the reticule moves dizzyingly fast and the specified points vary, making the result a bit of a lottery in practice.
On the other hand, weapon choice demands considerable strategic thinking. Our previous first look at Resonance of Fate spoke about the difference between 'Scratch' and 'Actual' damage in the game (the former being recoverable while the latter isn't) and, predictably, certain weapons such as sub-machine guns are better at inflicting 'Scratch' damage, while pistols are more useful for inflicting 'Actual' wounds. Special bullets then add to the strategic equation, allowing characters to either ignite their enemies (fire bullets) or freeze them (ice), while grenades can be used to launch enemies into the air for special attacks that cause them drop precious items (such as additional Resonance Points).
There's also the option to customise guns by finding one of Babel City's merchants, who can disassemble the weapon's items and reassemble them using different configurations to make new items. It may not be the same as one of Modern Warfare 2's SCAR-H assault rifles with a heartbeat sensor and thermal scope (in fact, it's probably much more similar to traditional forms of weapon combining in Japanese games), but the option to dual-wield and the resulting pros and cons that this throws up are a clever little nod towards the Western shooter.
All of this combat is then put to work in random-enemy-encounters throughout Babel City, as well as the standard dungeon offerings (a map of enemy encounters in these dungeons allows players to plot their way through, while the random encounters are obviously beyond player choice). Tri-Ace didn't reveal much more on Babel City itself apart from what we already spoke about in the first look, although there were a couple of very minor details on the elevator system (one main elevator between levels through the city's central column and smaller ones on the periphery). Unfortunately we can't go into world exploration here as there's simply not enough space, but check out the earlier preview if that's more your kind of thing.
In a way that's typical of Japanese gameplay, Resonance of Fate is both a slot-machine and a trial of gamer skill at the same time. Despite the challenges now facing the success of JRPGs in the West, this is one title that's both sticking with tradition and throwing a bone of innovation to Western gamers as well, which makes it one of the most interesting titles of its kind this year.
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