Aksys' newest releases, outside of the stellar "BlazBlue" franchise, have been leaving me in the cold. A lot of the titles they've been cranking out recently come across as blatant pitches to snag the smallest niche of anime fans, with uninspired plots, girls with chests bigger than their head, and an emphasis on cheesecake versus original characters and good gameplay. Coming from a lifelong anime fan, that's saying something. Now, on the surface, the "Agarest War" franchise looked no different. Here we had marketing reliant on the sexualization of the female characters and no real information about the game itself, and the bonus items which came with the collector's editions reeked of sleaze. Superficially, I hated the game. But with its devoted fanbase, and because a friend with connections pulled aside a copy because he thought I'd like it, I decided to give this new entry a go. Lo and behold, it has turned out to be one of the rare RPGs I plan on playing to completion. "Record of Agarest War 2" is nothing groundbreaking, but it's unique and original enough to merit a play.
The plot starts you off in the shoes of Weiss, who has killed a god but lost all memory of the incident. After a chance encounter with a mysterious and buxom woman clad in borderline dominatrix gear, he is informed that he is in fact to serve as a vessel to atone for the sin of slaying a god, and if he fails his task, he must shack up with a woman and create a child that will serve as a new vessel. As the game progresses, you will indeed have to do just that, and through the span of multiple generations, you'll fight hoards of demons, score with some lovely ladies, and uncover the destiny of your bloodline.
Now, this generation spanning is something that has apparently been a focal point of the entries prior to this one, but as a first-time player, I have to admit that it's absolutely fascinating. Depending on how you interact with the woman you choose as your bride, and how you adjust your statistics through battling, your protagonist's predecessor will change. The sheer notion of a piece of entertainment having such an in-depth feature is definitely a sign that there are some things the interactive medium can do that movies and books will simply never be able to. In fact, I feel that this should have been a primary selling point instead of the cleavage and rear ends of the admittedly attractive ladies in the game.
As far as the gameplay goes, it was a bit of a mixed bag for me. While I play plenty of JRPGs, and a decent amount of the occasional SRPG, I found myself kind of lost when it came to navigating the plethora of statistics, menus, and other things. While the core combat system is actually quite good (an interesting mix of turn-based fighting mixed with the speed, action and control of a hack-and-slash game, coupled with a dual-grid system), the amount of effort it takes to plan out what gear to equip and whatnot is just irksome. It definitely feels like the developers were intending to make the game come across as "deeper" by just adding more hoops to jump through than necessary. The experience as a whole could have benefited from some serious reduction in menu clutter.
What makes up for this, in a way, is the very snazzy way battles are paced. There are three or four different types of maps you will find yourself navigated. One is the standard World Map that you run around on to get from one place to another. While you will still encounter random battles, you also have the option to trigger a battle at any time. When grinding for levels, this is an indispensable feature that other RPGs with random encounters should take note of. Having the ability to sit in one place and grind levels until you feel confident enough to progress is a very empowering feeling. The second type of map you'll be navigating are what you might call this game's "dungeons." Bridging areas of the World Map are smaller maps that are divided into several different zones that you progress through in a board game-like fashion. Each tile you progress to instigates a battle, and you can fight as few or as many times as you like. There are diverging paths that feature treasure and other goodies to claim, as well as tiles that will help you meet requirements on the main town's commission board, which will net you spells, armor, and ingredients required for alchemy and blacksmithing.
Speaking of towns, it houses the third kind of map you'll see. It's a menu that you pick locations on, and then go to them. Pretty straightforward, I know, but it segways into the second major focal point of this game: the dating sim aspect. Now, "Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love" set my standard for what to expect from a dating sim/RPG hybrid, and while this certainly doesn't exceed that experience in my book, due to the fairly limited range of conversation, it does almost match it. What it does beat that game in, however, are the production values. Instead of static images, the lovely ladies (and handsome men, if you're into that) are fully animated, living and breathing, all with unique animation that creates an interesting 2D/3D hybrid. This makes the experience as a whole so much more engaging than many other games that try and touch the SW franchise's signature dating sim/RPG blend. I enjoyed getting to know the cast through the interactions, and despite the aforementioned limited conversational choices, it's a defining feature that sets it apart from imitators.
However, while the overall story arc and character development is exceptional in "RoAW2", I have a serious bone to pick with the dialogue. If you're familiar with the worn cliche many gamers hold about JRPGs, about them having seemingly endless amounts of inane banter that is ultimately redundant, then you know where I'm going with this complaint. To be entirely honest, several lines of conversation in this game have bored me to death, and I like to think that I have a pretty large attention span. But it can't be helped. Characters repeat each other's dialogue, and characters making awkward pauses such as, "Uh-!", "Oh, uh-!" or the infamous "...", happens way too often, frequently occurring multiple times in a row with certain characters. I'm not saying the dialogue is awful, but it's tiresome and wears on the nerves after a while, making the experience seem longer than it is. An "autoplay" option helps alleviate the pain somewhat, but only a bit. The story is good, the characters are great, but the dialogue needed some serious work. Also, the font and styling of the text is formatted in a very odd manner. Things are surrounded by hyphens when they should be either italicized, capitalized, or put into quotations, making the emphasis in some dialogue only understandable when the voice actor actually speaks it. Also worth noting is that there is no English voice track. That doesn't bother me one bit, but some may be deterred by that.
Graphically, the game is quite pretty. What really stands out are the exceptional monster designs. Most of the enemies break free of the typical trappings of fantasy RPGs, and some of them are surprisingly frightful to gaze upon. The environments are nice and varied, and the character art is very crisp and appealing to look at. That same overall sentiment can be echoed for the soundtrack, which is infectious and passable enough to give praise to. Nothing too new, but nothing terrible. Overall, pleasant and helps to whisk you off into the fantasy world of the game, which is sometimes too much to ask some soundtracks for. It's always nice when it does happen, though.
With Square Enix focused on running their two main franchises into the ground, and Atlus branching out into new, more varied territory, it's nice to see Aksys putting out a game that screams niche. But furthermore, it's nice to see that some of these games are quite good, such as this one. While "Record of Agarest War 2" will not change your life, it will entertain and thrill you. Futhermore, it will draw you into its own little world, and with games of this variety, what more can you really ask for? This is a solid little game with plenty of nice imagery, a good story, and memorable characters; in this critic's opinion, it's a great title to spend your Summer downtime working on.
P.S.: A couple of notes on the Limited Edition of the game. The artbox it comes in is pretty and well-designed, and is decked out with art that differentiates from that of the cover illustration, so if you're into collecting those like I am, then you'll be pleased to know it will look great on your shelf. Now, the main draw here is definitely the blow-up doll of catgirl Felenne, and trust me, it's every bit as adorable as it looks. What's refreshing is that the plastic used for it isn't the cheap stuff; this thing seems pretty durable, and it's a decent size as well at around 9 inches (10 if you count her cat ears.) As for the hand towel, it has exclusive character art on it, and it is wrapped in a heart-shaped sandwiched between two pictures of Fiona; it reads "A Wonderful Tower Experience." Yeah, nothing sexual about that at all, huh? Speaking of sexual things, there's the art book. Now, I was a little disappointed by the paper quality of the book, because it's really just the same kind of glossy paper used for higher-end instruction manuals. As for the illustrations, well, erm... they'll all pretty dang suggestive. I mean, we're talking borderline softcore pornography, or as fellow anime fans would refer to it as, "ecchi." If you're living with your parents, maybe you shouldn't show this to mom and dad. If you've got a girlfriend, fiance or wife who's easily ruffled, hide this. If you live all by your lonesome, then, well... enjoy yourself, I guess.