Release Date: January 30, 2007
Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the sta —
...no, wait, wrong intro. Let's try that again.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far awa —
No, that's not right either. Yeah, there are far away galaxies involved, but there's no proof that this is a long time ago.
Space. Space is big, inky, and filled with lots of stars and planets. Some of these planets are inhabited with brutish, war-like creatures; other planets are obviously inhabited by talking housecats. Others just have simple humans like you or me, looking to make their mark on life, looking to do something big.
Rogue Galaxy is the tale of one such human.
Right away, the game shows promise simply by its heritage — Level-5 started off strong as a developer with the quite engaging (if a little clichéd) Dark Cloud, and both the game's sequel and their team effort with Square Enix, Dragon Quest VIII, have shown that the company has gone nowhere but up. However, nothing, nothing quite leads up to the spectacular effort given by Rogue Galaxy.
Of course, Level-5's strong point has never been its storytelling, which easily peaked with DQ8, but what's presented to you in Rogue Galaxy is passable enough. The story is that of young Jaster Rogue, a young hunter who lives on a planet not entirely unlike Tatooine. (Don't worry, we won't tell George Lucas.) Jaster, while trying to protect his home village, gets a mysterious sword planted on given to him by an equally mysterious hooded figure. The sword quickly leads him into trouble, as Jaster is accosted by two space pirates who believe him to be the galaxy's most notorious bounty hunter, a man by the name of Desert Claw.
It seems that the pirates' boss, a man by the name of Dorgengoa, wishes to recruit bounty hunters across the universe for his needs. Jaster, always having dreamed of going into space, hops on board the pirate ship Dorgenark, where the game truly shows its lighthearted side. See, the Dorgenark may be a spaceship, but it looks every last bit like an 1800s schooner, complete with sails, Jolly Roger, and everything. In addition, some of the ship's (sometimes bumbling) crew consists of folks like Steve, an even more polite and effeminate (if that's even possible) C-3PO-styled robot, and Simon, a stout little man with a variety of guns and a Scottish accent quite befitting a ship's engineer.
However, similar to Dragon Quest VIII, the lighthearted jabs at humor and shameless parodies of the space opera genre are merely bit players to lighten the mood of an otherwise serious story. Granted, the plot may cover plenty of well-trodden territory, and the characters are at times rather one-dimensional, but the writing is so superbly done that never once does the game's story feel tired or boring. In addition, the voice actors are quite fitting for their roles, save for a few early game slip-ups by Jaster (who seems at the beginning to have forgotten to finish his sentences here and there), and perform better than many games of this era.
To accompany the voice-acting, the game's soundtrack is completely average for Japanese RPG fare — which is to say it's jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Tomohito Nishiura is on his way to be as respected as Nobuo Uematsu and Motoi Sakuraba in the world of game soundtracks, as the score to Rogue Galaxy is of such a high caliber that it could easily be listened to without garnering (many) odd looks.
To wrap up the entire package, Rogue Galaxy is visually stunning. This is indeed what CG artists had in mind when cel-shading came into heavy use — an artistic, flowing quality that doesn't rely too much on either harsh contrasts or muted blurring. So, yes, Rogue Galaxy is one of the most beautiful games on the PlayStation 2, even rivaling the looks and sounds of Final Fantasy XII. The real question, though, is how does it play?
It's hard to tell what exactly Rogue Galaxy plays like, but the first comparison that comes to mind is a rough splicing of Dark Cloud 2 and Star Ocean: Till The End of Time. The Dark Cloud 2 portion of the gameplay comes from the combat, which focuses on careful balancing of your main attacks, attacking with a sub-weapon, and defending against the enemies' attacks, while the Star Ocean portion comes from the random battles, the mechanic where each character has a certain number of chances to act before they must recover their stamina, and the completely counter-intuitive A.I.
Somewhat similar to Gambits in Final Fantasy XII, your A.I.-controlled teammates will occasionally call out to you, looking for guidance on what move to next take, prompting you to do useful things like have them throw healing potions or cast spells. Aside from those real-time suggestions, however, the A.I. is perfectly content charging headlong into danger, never once figuring out what a "defend" command is and instead getting quite handily beaten down by mid-level enemies. In addition, there's not a single character with the ability to cast curative magic; much like in the Dark Cloud games, all of your healing will be provided by items. This isn't much of a problem, though, as even the most basic healing potion heals approximately 50% of whatever the targeted character's maximum hit points are, which means that healing, while requiring a near-constant watch on your party's health, isn't a chore at all.
Each character has a variety of attacks and skills available to them. In addition to having a main weapon and sub-weapon for each character (usually one melee and one ranged attack per character), each character has a board of skills called a "Revelation Board." Similar to the license boards of Final Fantasy XII, Revelations differ in two distinct ways. Firstly, each character has a different set of skills unique to them, meaning no two characters have the same set of requirements for gaining skills. Secondly, instead of using abstract, arbitrary amounts of mysterious points of some sort to unlock, each Revelation instead requires you to plug in a few items. Most of the items you get are for precisely this purpose, though some may be curative items, or bait with which to catch Insectrons — the game's side-quest equivalent of Pokémon. The skills gained from Revelations range from passive resistance to skills that boost your whole party, to screen-clearing super attacks.
In addition, each character can unlock three separate levels of "Burning Attacks." Equivalent to Limit Breaks in various Final Fantasy games, each Burning Attack sends you into an almost rhythm/action-based sequence where you must push buttons when they show up to perform a devastating combo to a single enemy. These attacks don't require AP like spell abilities do, and instead take energy from a gauge in the upper left of the screen, which is refilled by gathering glowing green spheres that scatter the battlefield as you fight. Inexplicably, you can't use Burning Attacks in boss fights, where one would expect they would be at their most effective; however, that's a minor oddity at worst.
Like any true Level-5 game, the battle system doesn't comprise the entirety of the gameplay in the same way it does in most RPGs. There is a plethora of side-quests and mini-games, including the previously mentioned Pokémon-styled deal, which involves setting out traps for bugs, catching them, and making them fight in an oddly chess-like strategy game. There's also the insane level of weapon customization that is almost Level-5's trademark now, though in a slightly different fashion than any game before it.
In Rogue Galaxy, you gain a companion shortly into the gameplay who offers to combine weapons for you, though he only combines two of the same type of weapon. One of Jaster's swords won't combine with one of Lilika's bows, for instance. In its own way, this takes customizing weapons to a level of obsession even past that of Dark Cloud 2, as there's an almost-limitless amount of combination potential. Many combinations lead to similar or identical results, however, so don't mistake it as a full-on "create your own weapon" situation.
Could Rogue Galaxy be the Game of the Year? Given that it's early in a year that is bound to be dominated by plenty of powerful performances by the next-gen consoles, it's highly unlikely. However, the game could easily ensnare an even more illustrious title with ease, as it's easily one of the best RPGs available for the PlayStation 2, and certainly deserving of "classic" status from any console. This one's a keeper, folks — a game that ranks right up there with games such as Chrono Trigger, Phantasy Star IV, and many of the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest titles. It has its flaws, but many of the flaws — particularly the stilted A.I. and the predictable plot — are more like pitfalls of the Japanese RPG genre than problems inherent in the game itself. If you're an RPG fan, or if you loved Dark Cloud 2, don't pass up Rogue Galaxy. It may not be the perfect game, but it's easily one of the best Japanese-made RPGs you can find.
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