When you ask someone what their favorite games from the "Great 16-Bit Era", as some of us old-school gamers like to remember it, are the list will probably include Final Fantasy IV-VI, Chrono Trigger, and various other titles made by Squaresoft. While some games like Earthbound remain a cult classic today, others like Lufia (aka Estpolis Denki in Japan) were all but forgotten. Taito, a company best known for arcade hits such as Bubble Bobble, managed to create a colorful and entertaining RPG series which spawned a handful of installments. The series started with Lufia and II on the Super Nintendo, which were followed by portable games. After Lufia: The Ruins of Lore, Taito stopped working on the series. Fast-forward to fall 2009 where Square Enix, having already acquired Taito some years earlier, announces Estpolis, a total re-envisioning of Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals.
Estpolis is, without question, a tried-and-true action RPG that will feel immediately at home with anyone who is familiar with Falcom’s Ys series as the gameplay is almost exactly the same. Players guide Maxim as he seeks to save the world from the evil machinations of the Sinistrals. Along the way he will be accompanied by various other playable characters such as Tia and Guy. The story has been shortened from the original with many towns, events, and locations being removed from the game. Why this happened is beyond me, especially since the original Lufia II team apparently made this game.
The gameplay can best be described as standard hack-and-slash fare. The four face buttons are form: regular attack, special attack, dodge roll, and jump. Killing monsters is as easy as mashing the attack button until they die, occasionally moving out of the way of their attack. It’s rather simple, though the battle isn’t really "over" once you deplete a monster’s HP. The game (as with Ys Seven) allows you to hack up the enemy carcasses to get additional experience points and gold. There are also special attacks executed by holding down the R-button while attacking, with the special attack changing slightly depending on which weapon you are using.
Unfortunately, the battle system is crippled by a knock-down time that lasts for about five seconds. While waiting to recover, you are subject to more attacks and frustration as hitting the buttons to speed up the process is to no avail. This flaw becomes annoying during some of the game’s more challenging boss fights where monsters will inflict upwards of 150HP damage per attack. All you can do is lie on the ground and allow multiple attacks to connect. Additionally, the game regulates all items to the use of the main menu screen. You need to pause the game while in battle to recover and revive which makes control feel a bit unnatural. Why, exactly, wasn’t the touch screen used for this? Wouldn’t mapping various items to the second screen make the game flow much smoother?
The sole gameplay gimmick is a gem-based board system: You will obtain dozens of gems that may be "plugged in" to a gem board. Each type of gem has a different function, be it boosting strength, HP or magic, for example. The effect will be heightened or decreased depending on which gem square you set them in, proper organization and foresight is a must. There is only one gem board and thus all the characters share it, but each have their own portion allowing for overlapping. Gems come in many different sizes. You need to mix and match the best combination. Honestly, it’s taken straight out of Capcom’s Battle Network Mega Man Battle Network games. So if you are familiar with the customization system in that series, this will be right at home for you. Yes, there are egg (capsule) dragons, however unless you are a true master of boss-bashing chances are you’ll play through without getting a single one of them.
As long time fans of the series will recall, the Lufia series is very much about puzzles as it is about adventuring. Estpolis has tons of them ranging from throwing boxes onto switches to bombing doors to collecting train pieces. Many of the puzzles require a specific weapon from a specific character, which add more relevance to the cast. While none of the puzzles are truly mind-boggling, some will stump you for a bit as you decide how the game possibly expects you to solve them.
I’m somewhat conflicted as to what to make of the graphics. There is a lot of detail and creativity in the areas and characters, but unfortunately the game is hampered by the antiquated hardware of the DS. The 3D polygons look a tad blocky. This is dramatically increased if you use the DSi XL (like I am) which will also tend to make the colors more washed out and less-crisp. [On a general side tangent, I maintain that the DSi XL is both a blessing and a curse as it makes all games look worse, though when you go back to the regular DSi the screen is so tiny as to make the games almost unplayable]. Equally disappointing is the fact that the game has a large variety of weapons for each characters, yet the appearance of said object never changes throughout the course of the game. Considering that the characters are always carrying around their weapons, even in towns, you will forever see the same design. While one might not complain about such a "trivial" issue, the fact that the game comes from Square Enix (the company that basically started the trend with Final Fantasy VII) it seems a bit peculiar. Perhaps the graphics are more "disappointing" for me in light of how similar this game looks to Ys Seven and thus my mind drawing comparisons. Don’t get me wrong though, Estpolis looks nice for a Nintendo DS game and some of the bosses are stretched on to two screens.
The music of Estpolis is brilliant, if only for the fact that it reuses a remixed and enhanced score from the original game. There are a large number of tracks to be heard, each with their own theme and melody. It’s interesting as despite the game’s occasional "problematic" boss fights, you will still be motivated to retry again and again because of the music. In terms of voice acting, suffice to say the game really doesn’t have much. Some major key lines are voiced and the characters make noises when attacking. However the reams of text contained in the game are for the eyes only.
Estpolis’ reception will no doubt be one with mixed feelings: delight at the idea of a new Estpolis installment, disappointment with the substantial cuts made from the original product, and chagrin at the combat system’s shortcomings. Nonetheless, the game is sure to keep players busy for the 12-15 hours the adventure occupies.