From Software and Agetec release an unusually pleasant RPG -- three characters to dress up, now.
February 6, 2002
Forever Kingdom is rather anomalous as From Software RPGs go. It uses analog control effectively, for one thing. That's a joke, but it points towards several ways in which this game, the sequel to last year's Ever Grace, stands in substantial opposition to the developer's long-standing (and rather inexplicably so) King's Field series. It's fun, for example, there's a big difference. Forever Kingdom isn't going to make that big a splash, but it's more entertaining than some 3D action-RPGs one could name, and some of its more unique features should certainly appeal to those with a taste for the quirky.
It is still, for example, the Fashion RPG, and now there are three main characters to play dress-up with. The three-character party also adds to the realtime combat system, with AI assistance and special attack combos that involve the entire crew.
The three-character party in Forever Kingdom makes one wonder why action-RPGs don't do this more often. Secret of Mana, after all, pioneered the concept, and it's still one of the best examples of the genre. Forever Kingdom is not quite as good as that, but it still does a good deal better than its one-man-show predecessor. Darius, the hero of the first game (this is a sort of prequel, to put a fine point on it), is joined by two other characters, which you can leave to the AI's devices or control yourself with a tap of the L1 button. Ruyan and Faeana each have their own weapons and special attacks, creating a fairly well-rounded party, although the emphasis is still on melee combat for all three.
Only one character is in your direct control at any given time, but it's possible to activate the Palmira Actions (special attacks) of all three by tapping their respective face buttons. Thus, it's possible to create combination attacks by timing the way each attack shoves a target around. For example, Darius has an uppercut attack that launches an opponent in the air -- you can use that, and then have Ruyan's fireball attack waiting to juggle him as he comes down. The special combos are surprisingly well-coorinated, considering that attacks vary according to a character's equipment, and there's a great many of them.
Plain old slugging it out is the more common method of resolving a fight, though, and it's invariably a little less exciting. There are varying attacks depending on directional presses and combination timing, but that timing is very difficult to learn -- most fights consist of the slow repetition of basic attacks. It's too bad your offense has to be so dull sometimes, because the opposition is actually very well-designed. Forever Kingdom includes an extremely wide variety of monsters, both in terms of how they look and how they attack. My favorites actually pop up early on, gigantic balloon-like clown things with little dwarves in backpacks. Kill the balloon and his cargo hightails it for the exit, but you can tag them quickly to earn extra items.
More annoying than the "whack...wait...whack some more" pace of some fights, though, is the surprising speed with which one dies now and again. There is actually only one life gauge for the entire party, so if it runs out, the lot of them dies, and it's back to the last save point (which are just a little bit more widely spaced than I would like). Healing items are common enough, but you have to go into the status sub-screen to use them, and it's easy to get distracted on the occasions when enemies surround you -- unless you pay close attention, they may kill you by harming an AI-controlled character that you aren't focused on. What this game very much needed was a shortcut button for the healing items, as was implemented to excellent effect in Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance.
Surviving combat gets easier once the reflex to heal gets nicely ingrained, though, and then it's on to exploring more diverting aspects of the game, like the Fashion system. As in the first Ever Grace, all items of equipment are represented on a character's realtime 3D model, so if you equip that iron pot as a helmet, there will indeed be a handle sticking out to the left side of his head as he runs around the dungeons. The cosmetic changes also apply to weapons, and then some -- the game does an excellent job of physically representing the handling characteristics of different weapons, and there's a wide variety of types that create very different attacks.
Kit your character out in the highest style and it's possible to earn benefits when dealing with shopkeepers and other NPCs. Rise up in the fashion ranks and...well, it would not be true to say that the reward is materially great, but it's certainly a satisfying feeling. This isn't a system that affects your progress through the game substantially, but it's certainly more interesting than staring at the same generic character models from beginning to end.
Which is why it's too bad that Forever Kingdom doesn't look better than it does. I like the style of design, especially all those original monster concepts, and the very autumnal color palette, but it's still low on detail in comparison to most of its higher-end competition. The camera is pulled back a ways to conceal some of the collision detection problems with the character models, and the lighting effects are sufficiently unrefined to give the characters an oddly smooth, plasticky look where they land on flat textures.
Some of the environments look better than what they surround. especially when water reflects the background and the monsters -- splashing and ripples are handled very well, although not as well as in something like Dark Alliance. Effects like that do a good deal to make up for occasionally repetitive textures (as does the generally pleasant color coordination, this being the Fashion RPG after all). It's wise to avoid tight corners when wandering through dungeons, though, since the camera doesn't handle the pinch very well. The one manual camera control simply centers it behind the active character, instead of a system whereby you can rotate it gradually, and this conflicts badly with some of the automatic camera shifts when you get close to a wall.
I'd be interested to know if anyone else out there can discern a consistent melody in the introductory theme (the song playing over the FMV demo movie). It's pleasant to listen to, but strangely dissonant all the same. Or perhaps our debug is just mysteriously skipping.
In any event, after that the style settles down a bit into a very pleasant mix of ambient sounds and light folk guitars. The character of the game is pretty slow-paced, with lots of wandering around open areas, so the soundtrack suits the environment quite well. It doesn't change much when battle begins, but there are suitably active effects when the bad guys charge or warp in from the ether, especially if you can get a good combo rhythm going.
Agetec has shown itself to be unusually able when it comes to English voice acting, and like the Armored Core games, Forever Kingdom isn't as bad on the ears as you might expect. The main characters, for the most part, have their performances dialed way down, which beats the alternative, and while the supporting and incidental cast tends to be gratingly overplayed, they don't get anywhere near as much screen time. Even if you don't like the voices, though, they're easy to skip.
Forever Kingdom comes out of left field to present a surprisingly entertaining action-RPG experience, especially considering what a grim affair the King's Field series has always been. It's nowhere near perfect, particularly in the visual department, but the multi-character gameplay gives it a good deal more gameplay longevity than some of the other contenders in this department.
Rent it first, perhaps, and you might spend the whole game wondering why they don't make another Seiken Densetsu game, but it might turn out to be quite the rewarding experience. Just remember, though, that the iron pot doesn't suit the Flare Armor in the slightest.