Release Date: January 30, 2007
The defining form of the Western RPG right now is the MMORPG, with its endless content, team-based tactics, and massive emphasis on character building. Until very recently, the defining form of the Japanese RPG still progressed along the same basic lines as Final Fantasy VII: sweeping storylines, stunning cut scenes, tons of mini-games, and a meticulously isolating single-player experience. This tradition of console RPGs seemed poised to change completely last year with the release of Final Fantasy XII, which was vibrant with the influence of MMOs and MMO-like games like Knights of the Old Republic. Instead of the usual deluges of mini-games, players were instead invited to participate in optional challenge battles called Hunts, very similar to the classic raids on rare monsters in MMOs, and could use loot dropped by enemies to affect the world's economy. Player response was swift and enthusiastic, and sometimes it seems like fans may not ever run out of good things to say about FFXII.
This being said, Final Fantasy XII wasn't the first game to reflect a Japanese fascination with the MMORPG. A year before FFXII saw release in Japan, the Japanese version of Rogue Galaxy hit shelves. Rogue Galaxy was also born directly of a love for the idea of playing an RPG with friends, and it included a system of hunting Quarries that clearly presaged FFXII's Hunts. If you're wondering why it's coming out after FFXII here in the US, it's because Level-5 wanted time to improve and enhance the game — and add some extra content — before bringing it into the U.S.
It means Rogue Galaxy takes a very different approach to creating the MMO experience in a single-player console game than FFXII ended up doing. Where FFXII used the MMO real-time combat system, with monsters roaming the field and party members waiting to take actions, Rogue Galaxy opted for a semi-traditional action RPG interface with random encounters. There are quite a few twists on what you might expect from this formula, though. The random encounters cause monsters to "pop up" into the area you're traveling through, instead of taking you to some other screen for the battle. This allows terrain to factor into the outcome of the battle, and sometimes it becomes of overriding importance.
Instead of FFXII's meticulous high-level management, Rogue Galaxy focuses more on putting you in the action and trying to create the illusion of actually playing with two different "people" on your party. The controls are a bit mashy, although your tremendous freedom of movement in a fight more than makes up for it. You can leap on top of objects or buildings, throw monsters and objects around the fight, and opt to fight either at melee or long range. Every character has two different weapons with their own sense of physics, and every character handles differently. You can switch which one you control, or who is in your party, at essentially any time.
While combats are usually very fast and furious, they pause when you go into any menu for any reason. You usually go into menus during combat to alter your ally AI, or to use character-specific special moves called Abilities. Most Abilities are, in MMO-style, buffs that enhance combat traits in some way. There are a few debuffs, although in console style they're fairly hard to use, and then lots of damage-dealing abilities that hurt everything on-screen at once. Abilities consume a limited resource called AP that only refills at save points. The power level and damage types of Abilities change from character to character, helping to keep them all distinct.
Quite a lot of the rest of the game is built around trying to give your characters lots of personality, too. In addition to full voice-acting in the cut scenes, which is of exceptional quality for a video game, characters also speak during battle and exploration. This feature is called Live Talk, and it basically causes characters to say interesting things when put in the right circumstances. You travel to different planets that have a wide variety of environments and histories, and the characters' comments can be quite revealing or just funny. Characters also have specific quotes for different combat situations, or to reflect on your progress in the game. They'll complain if you spend a lot of time wandering aimlessly in a dungeon, or if you retreat from a battle and let someone get lost for a bit. There is a very wide variety of Live Talk quotes, and for the 40 hours or so of the main game, they never feel too repetitive. All told, it's a nice touch and something that would be fun to see implemented in other titles. If the quotes do start getting on your nerves, you can shut them off at the Options menu. This can be useful in the post-game, which requires a lot of wandering around and can take a very long time to completely clear.
Level-5 is best known for the Dark Cloud and Dragon Quest VIII games, which both emphasized a lot of side-questing and collecting aspects. Rogue Galaxy is no different. Aside from the Quarries, which we've mentioned, there is a huge variety of mini-games in which you're invited to participate basically from the game's start. For instance, each area you pass through in the game has its own unique selection of monsters (although there's some palette-swapping going on). If you kill a requisite amount of each monster in an area, you're rewarded with Hunter Points for the kill and granted access to a special mode that lets you examine the monster's character model from various angles. By amassing Hunter Points, you increase your standing on the Hunter Rankings, sort of a virtual leaderboard. Certain high scores reward you with equipment and items called Hunter Coins, which you exchange to upgrade your Hunter License. Increasingly good licenses give your character access to discounts in the game's various shops, and the final Platinum License lets your character buy equipment that is otherwise unavailable.
You also gain access to a Factory that lets you manufacture new types of items and equipment from blueprints you have to gather on the game's various planets, with the added challenge of having to properly create your own assembly line in order to make the items. Constructing your assembly lines can be very time-consuming and a little frustrating, but it's rewarding when you finally get your assembly line running and forge a much-needed item. You generally only get to keep the prototype item your Factory constructs, and multiples of the item must be purchased from shops.
Finally, there is the Insector mini-game, where you capture wild insects on different planets, raise them, and then have them battle through a tournament. This mini-game is enormously complex, since your insects have limited life spans, and how you feed and battle them affects their stat growth. You can breed your bugs, which creates superior offspring you can then raise again. The Insector stuff really could have been released as a Game Boy Advance title on its own, and getting into it really feels like playing a game within a game. At the end of it, you unlock the ability to battle your team of Insectors against other players' teams in either a two-player mode, or by using a code to generate someone else's team in your game.
Dragon Quest VIII and Dark Cloud 2 were renowned for their cel-shaded graphics, and Rogue Galaxy really takes this technology about as far as it's ever going to go on the PS2. In fact, with the system entering its twilight years, Rogue Galaxy stands as one of the apex games in terms of graphical quality. The cel-shading creates an amazingly smooth and attractive sense of animation, which complements the game's very anime-influenced plot. Backgrounds and objects are cel-shaded as well, so characters interact with the world around them in a remarkably seamless way. At points, the game plays a little bit like a 3D platformer, as certain boss fights and puzzles call for platform-jumping and exploring the terrain around you in inventive ways.
The voice-acting has been discussed, and it is really classy all around, using a lot of veterans from animation. There is also the all-important question of music for the game. Rogue Galaxy takes the same ambient approach Final Fantasy XII did, which results in a lot of tracks that are good background noise but not exactly something you'll want on your iPod. The game does benefit from having an actual combat theme as part of having random encounters, though, which does a lot to break up the music on very long dungeon crawls. Part of what is so remarkable about this game's look is how massive and expansive the world manages to feel, when you really only ever get to explore six planets. Each of those planets still has a very pronounced personality, and often many different types of dungeons. The vibrant graphics go a long way toward creating that incredible illusion of size.
A lot of people are acting like Rogue Galaxy is going to be the last great PS2 RPG before the system sinks into the sunset, replaced by the PS3. While this is probably not literally true with stuff like Persona 3 on the way, Rogue Galaxy is definitely representative of what the last generation of PS2 games will be like. If you've moved on to next-gen systems by now, this game won't be such a big deal to you, but if you've stuck doggedly by your PS2, then prepare to be amazed by the visuals Level-5 have managed to spin out of the Emotion Engine. When people look back on the development of Japanese RPGs five years from now, when likely the genre will have become a very different animal, this is probably one of the games to which they'll point as an enormous influence on what was to come. You certainly feel like you're getting a little taste of the future when you sit down to play it.
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