By Ishaan . May 20, 2010 . 3:22pm
Note: If you haven’t been following Hexyz Force, we would strongly suggest reading this along with our older playtest of the Japanese build for another perspective of the overall experience.
Here’s the problem, as I see it, with Japanese RPGs released in the last couple years. Most games in the genre, barring your mainline Final Fantasies, rely on the same audience that has grown up playing other games just like them for years. The market for JRPGs isn’t growing; every game released tends to be bought — or not bought — by the same few overlapping communities of fans.
This would be fine, were it not for the fact that the majority of these games treat their audience like they’ve never played an RPG from Japan before. There’s a very evident communication gap between the producers and the consumers holding the genre back. In light of this, the best thing one could say about Hexyz Force is that it understands its target audience.
Hexyz Force is a bit of a refinement of the standard JRPG formula. It takes everything one would find cumbersome about present-day products in the genre and tightens up a few nuts and bolts here and there to keep the overall experience from feeling clunky or the player unnecessarily burdened by a lack of streamlining owing to the designers wanting to make their games accessible to new players, but not really designing the game around that goal.
This connection with its audience probably arises from the fact that the game is developed by Sting. A quick look at their portfolio tells you they’ve developed games such as Baroque, Riviera: The Promised Land, and Knights in the Nightmare. Not exactly considered the upper echelon of RPGs, but all fascinating experiments well worth carrying out nonetheless. Sting as a developer seem to understand the value of innovation and surprising their audience.
Hexyz Force isn’t quite as out there as, say, Baroque, but combined with Atlus USA’s localization, it’s “fresh” enough to check out without feeling waves of regret afterward. Without giving away too many details, the plot is a mix of interesting political intrigue and the usual uninteresting sorcery nonsense that writers have decreed all Japanese videogame plots must eventually succumb to. Luckily, the game starts out with the interesting political intrigue, which brings us to its defining feature: great presentation.
The game features two playable protagonists: Cecilia and Levant, each with their own personal quests that intertwine in places. I started out with Levant, which Laura — who has completed the game twice over — tells me was the right choice. Within the first hour, Hexyz Force’s cast of characters had caught my attention, thanks to two standout traits; the first being that they were all strong, independent individuals that behaved the way you would expect them to. It’s nice to see a group of leads that act like real people with varying degrees of like and dislike for each other. In a world where racism and political unrest are just as common as in our own, you would expect human beings to act like human beings, and the characters in Levant’s route express the hesitation, distrust and eventual understanding that any of us would feel in their place.
Or to put it more simply, it’s possible for someone to dislike but still respect another person, and Hexyz Force explores that possibility. There are also traces of convincing love, both lost and budding. In a sense, this is a game about relationships. Personally, I loved the relationship between Levant and Irene, but other characters such as Griek and Bahn had their own chances to shine, too.
The second reason is that Atlus USA chose to give the cast — yes, even some of the women — astonishingly deep, grown-up voices. While this took some adjustment — Levant doesn’t look as old as he sounds, for instance — once I got used to it, it was a welcome change from the all-too-familiar (no offense meant at all) performances of Johnny Yong Bosch, Yuri Lowenthal and Vic Mignogna. Levant’s manly vocal chords are brought to life, instead, by Keith Silverstein. If my ears serve me correctly, voiceover goddess Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, too, is in the game, and admirers should be able to spot her right away.
You’re introduced to all of these characters early on, too, which goes a long way toward making the story get off the ground quicker. In fact, the way Hexyz Force pushes off the ground so strongly in general is one of the many signs that the entire game was treated by its developers like it needed to, in some small way, surprise or delight people already familiar with the genre. Not once did I feel like the game was underestimating my age or my ability to comprehend multi-faceted characters.
Music, as well, is composed to properly complement the scenes and environments it accompanies. While most tracks aren’t hummable and you won’t catch yourself listening to the OST outside of the game, it does its job while you’re playing and never feels out of place. I also liked that there are different battle themes depending on the kind of battle you’re fighting (standard, purification or boss).
Another feature you’re likely to appreciate is the ability to fast-forward both dialogue and battles by holding down the R trigger. This will have you crying tears of joy during the numerous battles you’re likely to fight while trying to solve some of the game’s more notorious dungeon puzzles. It also helps that the battle UI is very neat and well animated, which makes battles fast-paced once you know the ins and outs of the various menus. Minor graphical details go a long way toward making the UI feel satisfying to use as well. For instance, I found myself appreciating little touches like the way any menu option vibrates for a split second when you highlight it.
Battles themselves, however, are a little intimidating at first. Unfortunately, this is where Hexyz Force starts to feel like it could have used a little more fine-tuning, for, in its attempt to please RPG veterans, it sometimes goes too far, too quickly. The game features a rather complex underlying battle system, which isn’t explained clearly either by the game or by its manual. Chances are you’re going to want to access the short tutorials from the options menu once the game has presented them all, so you can figure out for yourself how things work by trial and error.
While the battle system certainly is complex, I played through the majority of Levant’s route without ever quite figuring out how to make full use of it. For the most part, making sure I had enough HP and RP (the points that you use to perform all your different moves in battle) and had upgraded my weapons kept me from dying. There was never really a reason to try and understand the complexities of, say, the different colour alignments until I started to get bored of the fights.
Whether or not Sting intended for this to be the way players acquainted themselves with the system is hard to say. On the one hand, I appreciate that I had the depth to fall back on when the battles started to feel monotonous. On the other, I’m not sure if, from a design standpoint, having players force themselves to fully explore your game in order to fend off boredom is the right way to go about it.
The issues with battles further extend to pacing. Something I often find myself thinking about while playing JRPGs is whether I’m presently in “story mode” or “battle mode.” In fact, if I had to cite the number one reason I don’t finish most RPGs, it’s because the two aren’t properly — not even seamlessly; just properly — integrated, and one or the other (usually battle mode) overstays its welcome. Hexyz Force is no different. While the dungeons aren’t overly long, I wish there weren’t such a clear distinction between the dungeon-crawling portions and the parts where you get to know your party better and move the story forward. Sometimes, it’s a little disappointing knowing that you’re going to kept from all the fun banter and character interaction when you’re headed into a dungeon.
Further exploring issues related to the storytelling, Hexyz Force also features different endings, which are influenced by a variety of factors such as decisions you make in the game, how many battles you fight or run away from, and other factors that aren’t ever explained clearly. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t give you feedback as to how you’re influencing its underlying mechanics frequently enough either, which can leave you feeling rather confused.
All said and done though, while Hexyz Force isn’t groundbreaking, I feel its overall sense of design — one aimed at refining and streamlining — is an entirely worthy standard to aspire to, and one the genre as a whole must make standard before it is ready to evolve. When developers do decide to explore the potential of JRPGs further, one would hope the best elements of Hexyz Force will be used as a starting point rather than making you feel like you’re lucky to have them at all.
Food for thought:
1. Irene’s “Ohoho” sprite (see above) is delightfully awesome.
2. The politics-heavy portions of the plot feel like a breath of fresh air. I only wish Sting had taken the concept all the way to the finish line instead of bringing in the magical mumbo-jumbo, which ruins the effect a little.