When I buy games by Compile Heart, I feel like I’m playing Russian Roulette with my wallet. Their games have just as high a chance of being dreadfully sub-par as they have a chance of being surprisingly decent. Since many of their titles seem to have a close correlation with the level of fanservice and the gameplay quality, I went into this one hoping that this would be one of their few games to break the pattern for the better. Thankfully, it is.
Before I get into things, I’ll just set the stage for you. Long ago, the world’s goddess fought the vile god to a standstill, resulting in both of them being sealed. This doesn’t seem too relevant at first, however, since you’re then put in control of a lazy man by the name of Fang who refuses to be bossed around. As he walks through town hungry one day, a random townsperson tells him that pulling a specific sword called a “fury” out of the ground will lead to a wish being granted.
And so Fang does just this, and his new fairy companion’s introduction ends up constantly interrupted by him trying to wish for food and then calling her a fraud for not granting it. Still being hungry, Fang resorts to stealing food and is thrown in prison. Once they escape, they run into a rich girl named Tiara, who dupes Fang into becoming her bodyguard in her quest to unseal the goddess. How does she trick him? She claims her family’s inn has a five-star chef, but they go there and meet Mrs. Five-Star, whose cousin’s wife’s eldest brother’s friend is a five-star chef.
Yeah, it’s that kind of story. They go full-on comical and the plot moves quite fast. Or, rather, it feels like it goes by quite fast, but then it turns out that the part you thought was the end of a short game was the half-way point.
Now, onto the gameplay. The battle system should feel familiar, yet not identical, to anyone who’s played a recent Neptunia game. Characters take turns to run around a circular field with invisible borders, you can grind up a meter to transform, etc. There are only a few things of particular note here. Everyone can transform (called “fairize” in this game), but you go back to your base form if you get hit or heal too much. Also, everyone’s weapons can temporarily become another weapon for an attack, so weapon weaknesses were emphasized on enemies over elemental weaknesses.
The more interesting things they did with the game, however, aren’t in the battle system, but the things surrounding it. You’re given a lot of freedom over what skills characters learn, and what stats get buffed as time goes on. It can almost feel overwhelming, as you’re given a large amount of options at once and you can pursue them in any order. This is actually really nice, since you can make it so no two playthroughs feel the same in terms of character capability, but, of course, there are still ideal things to get first.
There’s also a mechanic allowing you to equip fairies to confer passive effects to your characters. These include gaining experience when not in battle, elemental resistances, buffing the power of certain weapon transformations, and things of that nature. These fairies can also level up, and you can make them stronger by using them to unseal either the goddess or the vile god. This makes them into swords you can stab into the world, granting passive effects in dungeons nearby.
While you may not realize it at first, you can actually stack several effects from these swords onto one dungeon (the range increases as the fairies gain levels), so you can effectively create your own difficulty by balancing the tradeoffs from these swords, which aren’t very forgiving. For example, you could double your experience gain, increase monetary gain, but be rendered unable to heal within the dungeon and all damage is doubled. The game expects you to make some level of use of this, since you need a lot of money for something else I mention further down, you want Fang’s level as high as possible, and you need to grind up points for the aforementioned customization (something that can also be sped up this way).
It can be interesting to try figuring out what combination of swords to stab for maximum efficiency, but you also have the option to just not. You need to use one to unlock each dungeon, but you could just pull the swords right out again before entering. This removes the passive effects of the sword, and allows you to use the sword again elsewhere at your leisure.
I actually made heavy use of this to make the gameplay more interesting since, to be honest, the game is very easy otherwise. Without any grinding, you can effortlessly clear most fights. Most. Why not all? Because one of these two things keeps happening:
Fang: “Let’s beat this dude up!”
All Other Party Members: “I’m too tired/lazy/busy.”
*everyone but Fang leaves the party for just that boss fight*
*boss fight starts after a chance to change equipment, but no chance to use healing items*
[This sometimes happens right after another mandatory fight, so Fang may be hurt.]
Scenario 2:[Boss fight starts as normal, I get the boss down to half health, my characters are likely hurt and have used up a lot of SP to get the boss down this low.] Boss: “Hahaha! I’m obviously so much more powerful than you despite the fact that this fight has been easy for you so far!”
[Optionally sneak in Scenario 1 here.] *boss goes back to full health and the fight restarts with your HP and SP as they were, all of your transformations are canceled*
If this happened once or twice, I’d have waved it off… but this is a fairly consistent thing. It’s not all of the boss fights, but it happens often enough for it to be a breath of fresh air when a boss fight doesn’t pull either of these. I should also note that scenario 1 is the more common one by far. With no warning. I can’t even count how often I had to reload because I unexpectedly ended up with just Fang against a strong boss and lost the game of tag as I fled just outside of the boss’ attack range to use my items to heal every few turns. This is actually one of the few times the aforementioned invisible borders at the edge of the battle arenas in Compile Heart’s RPGs annoyed me.
Yes, this is an RPG where you can’t count on your other party members even being present. Quite often, important fights will omit specific party members or reduce your party to just Fang. I don’t think I even need to explain how terrible this is when it happens. Just imagine yourself in that position.
It feels like the developers tried to up the difficulty after the fact, once they noticed how easy the game can be. The sad part is that this isn’t necessary. There are optional missions you can Research at exorbitant prices from an informant named Lola. These provide a notable challenge for the point in the game where she gives it to you. There’s also, as I mentioned, the ability to adjust things to an extent by stabbing swords into the ground. Had they chosen to emphasize this a bit more instead, that aggravating part of my experience would not need to exist.
This doesn’t make the rest of the experience bad, however. It’s actually very clear that the developers put a lot of work and budget into this one, at least… comparatively. When I heard the Neptunia team was handling this, I expected reused dungeon layouts out the wazoo, really bad loading times and framerates, a slideshow of an opening animation, and things of that nature. Thankfully, this isn’t the case.
This may sound like a backhanded compliment, but I’m glad Compile Heart didn’t reuse dungeon layouts more than twice, aside from the abandoned city layout (used four times). Some areas may look similar, like two that take place inside a volcano, but the layouts are substantially different. Environments also look cleaner, and the framerate and loading times aren’t bad, showing that the zippy load times in Mugen Souls Z weren’t a fluke.
Although I pointed out that the battle system isn’t much of anything new for those who’ve played their RPGs before, this doesn’t make it a bad battle system. It’s sufficient enough to have fun with, it’s just nothing to write home about. When the game isn’t pulling any cheap moves for the boss fights, I find myself optimizing the sword layout on the world map, taking on some of the legitimately difficult optional fights, and just… enjoying the game.
It’s not the best RPG I’ve played lately, of course, but still rather nice. It’s just too bad that Compile Heart made it into The Fang Show, featuring Fang and no other party members.
Food for thought:
1. Let’s not mince words: you’re worried about unnecessary fanservice in this game, right? There’s one character who repeatedly tried to strip, but they keep this to text. Otherwise, there’s practically nothing gratuitous, though I may have simply not noticed thanks to my rather strong fanservice filter.
2. Given Compile Heart’s usual pattern, among the deluge of DLC, there are probably some freebies planned with overpowered weapons that would make Fang rip through the fights in scenario 1 effortlessly. If so, I recommend you use them.
3. Like most recent Compile Heart RPGs, this game features a pointless jump button when you’re running around in dungeons. Unlike their other recent RPGs, however, this game forces some minor platforming on you in one particular dungeon. It’s so simple that it’s meaningless, though.
4. Unlike most Compile Heart RPGs, however, this game doesn’t have a “true ending” to be considered canon in future instalments. The closest we have is the game defaulting to one of the endings if you meet the requirements for both positive endings. This is probably why the upcoming PS4 entry has to include part of this game’s plot.
5. Even one character having the Fairize ability active overrides any other background music with the Fairize theme. As epic as the song is, I’d love to hear the other battle themes without having to hold back, thank you. Thankfully, the game swaps it out for another epic song half-way through to prevent monotony.
6. There’s no penalty for freeing the vile god, even though your goal is to free the goddess and leave the vile god sealed. You just get a cutscene scolding you the first time you remove part of the seal, and something minor happens if, and only if you fully unseal him.
7. If you pick up this game, know that the game pulls a jerk move with the timing of one of Lola’s quests, all of which need to be cleared to unlock one of two optional party members. I’ll just say that you should probably check up on her immediately after the only scene where the characters camp out in a dungeon. Ignore the story, just turn around and walk out of the dungeon or you’ll miss it. Also, clear all of the ones you have at that point before going back to the story. If you see the next cutscene, you missed it. This stands out in a game with very few missables.