It's been clear for a while now that the JRPG genre has been growing rather stale. With Western titles like Mass Effect and Alpha Protocol doing away with turn-based combat in favor of a more action-oriented focus, the days of swords, sorcery and selecting skills from menus seem to be waning. While a well-executed traditional RPG can still be a lot of fun, it really needs to bring something new to the table to flavor the experience and prevent boredom and burnout. Sadly, Sands of Destruction falls well short in that respect, instead presenting an average JRPG that you'll likely forget about immediately after shutting down your DS.
The world inhabited by the game's characters is one of humans and "Ferals," a sort of half-human, half-beast superior race that has enslaved humanity. Among the subjugated humans is Kyrie, your typical spiky-headed teenage protagonist who is obviously more than he seems. In one of the few departures from tradition, Sands of Destruction doesn't cast Kyrie as a reluctant hero who's out to save the world and free his people, but rather as its potential destroyer, a dangerous weapon which, if unleashed, will turn every living thing to dust. After being tracked down by an agent of the World Annihilation Front, Kyrie sets forth to discover his true power and destroy the world, or save it, or reshape it or something.
The setup for the story is quite intriguing, but the game quickly falls back into the same old trite tale we've seen a million times before. Kyrie's quest to destroy the world morphs into an attempt to save it, and once he assembles the requisite ragtag group of friends, they all head out to slay a wannabe god and defy fate. All potential for nuance and complex storytelling is abandoned pretty quickly, and the end result leaves you sitting through cut scene after confusing and inconsequential cut scene just so you can eventually arrive at a foregone conclusion reached hours beforehand. It basically boils down to a formulaic plot that's trying to disguise itself as something fresh and intriguing.
The game's combat fares a bit better than its stilted story, but it also succumbs to the doldrums pretty quickly. Attacks are divided into weak combo attacks and strong staggering blows, and each character can also call upon an arsenal of special offensive and defensive skills. Early on, the game is fairly well-balanced, forcing players to rely on varying attacks and mixing in timely skills, but it's a tightrope the title can't walk for long, and once you crack the code, you can set up your attacks in such a way that the "Y" on the DS basically becomes your "win button."
The culprit is the game's battle customization, which allows you to spend points earned defeating foes to upgrade your characters' various skills. Weak attacks can be strung together in combos, and once these attacks are all chained together and fully powered up, a character can easily hit a foe over 30 times in one flurry for 200-500 damage per strike. Furthermore, critical hits and combos of a certain length grant you extra turns, so it's not at all uncommon to land over 100 hits on an enemy before one character's sequence ends, let alone the whole party. I abhor frustration and artificial challenge as much as the next guy, but it's still disappointing to be able to defeat the game's penultimate boss in one turn and take down the final boss before it ever has a chance to attack. While the ability to customize attacks is a fine addition, it is far too easy to take advantage of and effectively ruins the title's challenge once you crack the code of how to efficiently upgrade skills.
One aspect of Sands of Destruction that deserve unequivocal praise is its sound, both in music and spoken dialogue. The game's score is nearly perfect, creating an ideal atmosphere in nearly all conditions. The voice acting is superb as well, as Sega thankfully took the time to find some actors who knew what they were doing and actually made the conversations fun to listen to. While some of the minor characters can be quite annoying, their screen time is brief, leaving room for the stars to deliver plenty of emotional and thoughtful chatter. Though the story line is bunk and the script does them no favors, the actors all do an exemplary job in drawing players into the experience.
The visuals share similar flashes of brilliance but are, for the most part, merely unremarkable. The 2-D sprites wandering in a 3-D world make for some wonky camera angles and annoying camera obstructions, but the in-battle animations are quite well done. Also, there are occasional, extremely brief fully rendered scenes to introduce new locales or critical plot points, but they normally only last a couple of seconds and then they're gone. It's sort of a tease of brilliance, but before you can really enjoy it, it's taken away.
By today's standards, Sands of Destruction falls well short of the benchmarks set by other top-tier RPGs. The entire experience takes a few steps down the path toward immortality, but then comes running headlong back into well-worn trail of every other JRPG before it. The story has a few original ideas but smothers them before they ever get a chance to breathe. The combat has a great deal of depth until you start upgrading and eliminate the need for all but one button. Sadly, the list goes on and on. If you absolutely adore the old-school, turn-based, level-grinding JRPG experience, then Sands of Destruction is perfectly adequate, but not much more.
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