By Katie . July 26, 2007 . 11:28am
Though I’d never heard of it, in Japan, the novel Brave Story has been serialized as manga, animated, and digitized into video game form. A tale spun from the yarn of Alice in Wonderland or perhaps The Wizard of Oz, the original story arc follows a boy named Wataru, whose mother can be cured of her sickness only if he ventures into a world called Vision, reaches the Tower and asks the Goddess of Destiny to grant his wish.
In the latest telling of the self-described “classic story”, a parallel timeline unfolds as Tatsuya, whose friend Miki is stricken by an incurable disease, enters the doorway to Vision. Thus begins Brave Story: The New Traveller, handled by XSeed Games, to be released at the end of July for the PSP, and which, as you may have guessed, we’re here to review.
I can hear some of you saying, “Hmm, I do like games, and I like stories about bravery!” Ahh, but the keen observer checks their enthusiasm, asking, “then again… what Japanese brainfart doesn’t get the works?”
Alas, it is true – all those big-eyed, small-mouthed characters vying for our attention and moolah aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be. And the turn-based RPG formula? Without the proper ingenuity, this time-honored recipe can turn as stale, meatless and unleavened as a sandwich forgotten all summer in your lunchbox. So where does Brave Story lie?
In towns and the field, there aren't enough things to do. Talking to people is all well and good, but I like a world where the heroes walk up to a bookshelf, take out a tome, and give sardonic opinions on a ridiculous subject. Is a little interaction so much to ask, when not only bookshelves, but paintings, barrels, beds, armoires, and other furniture abound, and, given their shabby appearances, beg for further inspection? Shining Force III's discussion of flatulence as it pertains to train-riding etiquette is an unbeatable example, but heck, they could still try for second. All Brave Story offers as an incentive to exploring are square, open-concept towns where jars are placed in all-too-obvious positions and contain an item 90% of the time. Treasure chests likewise occupy empty, non-descript clearings in the linear dungeons, granting little sense of achievement for their acquisition. It's a straight run for the finish or door-to-door in most areas, the map included, but I finally found out it goes much faster by holding the O button for speed (not that the game ever reveals its controls to us).
The battles, it must be noted, also tend to lack excitement. Aside from the tactics of friendship-building towards acquiring Unity skills, and targeting weakened enemies for extra attacks, not much stands out about Brave Story's system. It is, however, solidly built, and the comic-book "Kerslash!"s and "Chhhing!"s are a nice reminder of the series' origins. Spell effects, too, aim to please, but sometimes their reuse and combination into new spells looks foolish and lazy. And through it all, I still find myself pressing buttons, hoping to trigger some kind of timed attack and feel more involved in the fights.
Next on the chopping block: presentation. As we all know, the timely and engaging delivery of plot and character development forms the basis of any beloved RPG. Wait – that should read, as all FANS know. These days, regular cutscenes, full-motion cinematics, and competent voice acting are expected of developers big and small, but all too often, even the best potential is squandered in the rush to push the product out the door. Brave Story will see release sooner than first expected, and that decision may have contributed to its shaky presentation – although more time might not have healed the thorough, but tedious amounts of text, detailed, but ultimately camera-damaged visuals, and non-descript menus that mix valuables in with game settings. Though it begins strongly with a Kingdom Hearts-fashioned introduction, it soon turns to boxfuls of text to relay events, and to compensate for the lack of any interactive tutorials (such as would be useful for a game that boasts a complex battle system.) And points of interest, like Tatsuya's rare chances to return to his world and check on Miki, are sped through and underexploited for story-telling value.
With so much translator discretion at their disposal, Tatsuya's entourage has spirited verbal bouts quite often, but sadly not to the development of their characters. During these times, the camera's static eye relies on character gestures to break up the long, LONG literary action. As well-written as the dialogue may be, Brave Story's camera stays locked in long shots and high angle views in all but the most infrequent breaks, causing the models and environments to appear unimpressively far-off and jagged. The disparity between close-ups and the rest of the visuals is equally notable in battles, where the enemy models are so good, they rival your party members in detail and animation – while the map afterwards appears blurry and small.
This is not to say it's an aesthetic or mechanistic failure. Brave Story is at its best when the decent voice acting and cutscenes collide, or when a thrashing, giant boss is introduced. Its musical fare sings shades of Lunar and is mostly quite agreeable, if generic. And gameplay-wise, it's not all monotony – while the main system only goes part-way to fulfilling its promises of complexity, there are also item-crafting pursuits, and bird catching and bird brawl minigames to pass the time. A Talk button has catgirl Yuno remind you of your objective should you ever become lost in these diversions, which is helpful when you forget that one detail in the cavalcade of script poured into your eyes. Plus, no matter where you are in the game, from the title you can even go online to pick fights and trades with the birdies. Which is all good, because behind every good RPG stands a good bird.
Their effort to bring the story of a New Traveler to North America may not be totally in vain, but XSeed Games, Game Republic, and Sony itself could have created a far more captivating introduction to this classic tale for our audiences. Brave Story: New Traveler is fine to play in between more serious engagements – just don't expect to brag about it happily ever after.