Game Time: Nostalgia (DS)

NOTE: The following was originally written on 7/24/10 for the blog I had under "kakapotrainer" on That Guy with the Glasses.  This will be the first in a new tag series, one that focuses on the limited amount of video games that I can play anymore (they are either for the DS, the PSP, or much-derided "casual" games on the PC, since I no longer have the time or resources to fully enjoy a regular gaming console), and I wanted to move it here so it would last.  I have another essay for another tag that I will also be using, but for now, enjoy the first entry in my game reviews. - Mela

I play a lot of DS games, and after I finished the edition of Chrono Trigger for the system (BTW, that's my all-time favorite game), I looked for something new. Amazon recommended Nostalgia by Tecmo, and after perusing the Internet & hearing that it was mostly up my alley, I bought it. Having just finished it, I've decided to review it here. There will be spoilers, so if you really care about the story, you might want to skip this review altogether.

Nostalgia is deliberately made in the style of old-school, 16-bit-era RPGs, albeit with modern graphics (it uses the Matrix Software engine that was used on the DS versions of Final Fantasy III & IV) and a steampunkish Victorian setting. It tells the story of Eddie Brown, son of famed British explorer Gilbert Brown, who sets out to stop a secret conspiracy and rescue his father. He is aided by Pad, a London street kid; Melody, a witch girl from France; and Fiona, a mysterious girl that had been rescued by his father. The conspiracy that Eddie's father was fighting, the Ancient Father's Cabal, want to collect tablets that would open a gate to Asgard and allow them to destroy Earth with the power of their divine sun; Fiona is a goddess from Asgard who is needed to find the tablets, but of course she has amnesia & doesn't know who she really is. Along the way, we have Pad's search for his long-lost mother and Melody challenging the Cabal member who killed her mother years before. Pretty standard stuff, really - no attempts to delve deep into philosophy (except maybe some "arms races are bad, okay?" stuff near the end) or tell the greatest romance ever. Heck, a third of the game is exploring, and that's not even opened until you beat the outta-nowhere last boss of the story.

I'm breaking this down into gameplay, graphics, cast, and nitpicks. Gameplay is fairly standard menu-based combat; if you've played any sort of Square RPG, Dragon Quest/Warrior, or Breath of Fire game from the 16-bit era, then you'd know the options. Each character has unique Skills that both provide attacks and support/healing; Melody & Fiona have the magic-based powers, while Pad has speed & gun-based ones and Eddie has swordplay ones. One thing I like is that the game gives you Skill Points along with your XP; you then spend these to boost the effectiveness of their Skills and lower the cost of using them. Again, the combat is deliberately familiar - wander around an area until you whoosh into battle randomly. There is also the added wrinkle of airship-based combat; each character gets a collection of Skills related to the ship & whatever special weapon each uses. These are more frustrating than the ground combat, mostly because your airship never seems strong enough to be a real match. For instance, the toughest enemies are at the highest altitude, but you can't even hope to face them unless your ship has been fully upgraded to the highest possible health & equipped with the best weaponry, and even then, fighting them is a slog. But thankfully, airship combat encounters actually decrease as you fly higher, so this isn't too much of a distraction.

The graphics are familiar to anyone who's played the Matrix Software FF remakes, as I said earlier. However, the still art in the game and on the packaging is done with a very charming old-school anime style. The character designs are remniscient of Studio Ghibli or series like "Nadia", and one character in particular looks like Lupin III's more handsome cousin. Matrix did a decent job of adapting these designs to their engines, and they added some more nice little animation touches. My personal favorite is when you attack the boss Yang Gui from a distance, and she staggers around her magical platform awkwardly - funny in a stupid way (that's what you get for wearing heels in a fight). The backgrounds are very detailed, and aside from a bit of anonymity among the Western cities (London, New York, & St. Petersberg are differenciated mostly by music & a dusting of snow), they're also effectively atmospheric. The touch screen isn't utilized, but it functions as a map and combat order planner (in fights, it always shows you who is next to attack & how long it will be after a Skill is used that a given character can act again - very useful), so the double screen is used effectively.

Since the cast is so limited, I've decided to address them. Eddie & Fiona are a bit flat but harmless enough - they are both noble & sweet, and they like each other, the end. Fair enough. I'd rather have dull heroes than angstballs any day. Pad has a bit of a "tough street kid" thing going on, and while I feel his storyline & development was squandered, he's probably my favorite of the group. The only thing in his detriment is his "slap, slap, kiss" romance with Melody; while I have my own complaints about her, I find this whole trend in romances to be annoying and a bit disturbing, and I never like it. Melody is, phrasing it kindly, annoying as all get-out. Every interaction with everyone but her dead mother is a chance to gripe, bitch, and start a fight; her default animation is her jutting her arms out and shouting at whoever she's addressing. I know they were shooting for "fiesty", but like so many, they overshot and hit "screaming jackass" instead. The game doesn't have voice acting, but I kept hearing the voice of Meagan Smith in my head whenever she spoke. Since Ms. Smith voiced the most annoying character in recent action-animation history and is thus my least favorite VA of all time, that is NOT a good thing. Gameplay-wise, though, you can put up with character quirks because everyone is useful; when someone leaves the party or is knocked out, it made me panic a little as to how to fill the strategic void until they came back. So at least Melody is annoying but useful. If not, she'd be Eiko, and I will NOT tolerate another Eiko in my games.

Finally, I have some personal nitpicks. First, the translation didn't really match the character's backstory. The only ones whose speaking style matched them were Pad & Fiona; Eddie didn't sound even slightly British and Melody sounded even less French (they both spoke with modern American slang & phrasing). That was a bit distracting. Also, being something of a mythology nerd, I found the game's cosmology confused at best. Fiona is a goddess from Asgard - okay, fair enough; she was locked in Pandora's Box on Easter Island in case Freyja, Goddess of Death, ever broke out of her prison in the Acropolis. Wait, what? Also, Atlanteans were evil and fought the Mu, of whom Fiona is queen, and the real enemy behind it all is the god Metheus. My inner myth-freak started screaming like Sam Kinison as this went on, and it especially knocked me out of the ending. The characters' flatness hurts some of the storylines as well; only Melody seems to react in any way to her beyond-the-grave conversation with her mother, but it doesn't change her in any way (regrettably). You'd think that Pad (a) finding out his mother is alive and (b) helping cure her amnesia would make a sort of change, but no, this isn't referenced again at all. There's other subplots with the guest characters & NPCs, but these, too, are sort of brushed over. Finally, the end reward for 100% completion is weak. After you beat the super-hard secret boss Mother Stella, you get... an airship you no longer need to use and new outfits for Melody & Fiona. Yes, you won, now dress your underage heroines as a corset demon girl and an angel ballerina. Lame.

Personal gripes aside, this is an addictive little game. It doesn't feel like it's deliberately punishing you at any point, which only Chrono Trigger has avoided doing until now. I'd wholeheartedly recommend this to fans of old-school RPGs and especially for people who've never played an old-school RPG before. It's a great gateway into the genre that manages, for the most part, to avoid the modern traps of giving you a barely-interactive story and denying you any exploration. It lives up to its name, effectively harkening back to the days when you actually PLAYED Final Fantasy games and didn't just watch.

STAR RANK (because all reviews, by law, must break down to easily-numbered items):
Gameplay: 4 out of 5
Graphics: 3.5 out of 5
Story: 2.5 out of 5
Characters: 2 out of 5
Overall: 3 out of 5

Recommended?: Only if you're an old-school RPG freak and have the patience to take a bad story due to good gameplay.

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