Have you ever played a series that you wish was better because the concept seems so great? Every now and then I get that feeling while playing a game for review. A series like Agarest War, in which you play multiple generations of heroes within the same RPG, seems like such a unique concept that I couldn't help but be intrigued when I first heard about it. Sadly, I played Record of Agarest War Zero and was less than impressed by the final product. I came into Record of Agarest War 2 hoping that the series would finally show its true colors and redeem itself, but alas it wasn't to be.
Things start, as they often do in RPGs, with a barely explained climactic event that changes the entire world. The main character, Weiss, has taken up a magical sword and killed a God. Putting a sword through a God is apparently like splitting an atom because it causes a gigantic explosive flash of light which simultaneously causes large spread panic and deleterious effects in some of the planet's human-like guardian races. It also gives Weiss convenient amnesia. He soon meets Eva, who tells him that he is doomed to become the vessel of the God he has slaughtered in order to maintain the balance, and that his time in this realm is shortened because of it. In fact, his time is so short that he can't possibly fulfil his destiny within a single lifetime, so while he hunts down demons to bring back the fallen God he must also find three maidens who are willing to sacrifice themselves in order to help him bring on the next generation to share his burden.
Animations during conversations are minimal, and the Japanese dub is the only option, so you're mostly stuck reading the dialogue and won't notice the subtle facial changes that demonstrate the emotions of the characters. I think the main reason that the Agarest War series has never really enthralled me is that playing through multiple generations, which seems like an interesting idea at first, actually means that you have less face time with each character, and so there's less character development as a result. Once you take out the connection with characters in a game's story then you're just watching general events happen in a world you have been given no reason to care about. The end result is a story that's interesting, but not one that makes you feel compelled to play the game just to see it reach its climax, which is unfortunate because it means there's little incentive to work through the more difficult fights and grinding that comes with Record of Agarest War 2.
Everything in the game just seems designed to eat up your time. It's like some nefarious scheme to make sure us nerds don't accomplish anything of meaning before we die. I don't mind the odd grind now and then, and I actually like it when a game I enjoy takes a long time to play through, but Record of Agarest War 2 doesn't fit the bill in this respect. The strange part is that if I compared this game to something I liked more, such as the Persona series, there are probably a comparable number of hours spent fighting in the two series, but the minimal exploration in Record of Agarest War 2 makes it feel more like a chore than anything else. There's a world map to walk around on in this sequel, but in most RPGs world maps act as the gateways to more detailed areas for you to explore. In Record of Agarest War 2 those more detailed areas never come. Instead, you travel from event marker to event marker on the world map without exploring all of the cities you're supposedly visiting.
The best example of how grindtastic this game can get is the equipment. Equipment rarely ever just drops for you, and the item shop in the one town you can actually explore doesn't get anything new in stock until you make it yourself, so if you want new equipment on a regular basis you'll have to delve into the synthesis system. Unfortunately, obtaining more patterns involves completing commissions at the hunters guild, which almost always means killing a certain number of enemies at each area you visit (always more than you'd be killing just to pass through), which will unlock a further three or four commissions. These will then give you random rewards which will sometimes be new items to synthesize, which will in turn require their own ingredients.
Here's the kicker though - you can't just ignore this system until you want to care about it, because almost all of the recipes ask for some other synthesized item you'd need a previous recipe for. This means that if you want to use this system at all you have to keep up with it right from the beginning, which means lots and lots of grinding to make sure that you never miss a beat. Even if you already have all the recipes you need, these requirements increase the number of materials you need for any particular item drastically. Instead of, say, just two goblin helmets and three hornet stingers, you'll need all the materials for the series of items you need to make before you get to that point. It turns one of the joys of RPGs - obtaining and trying out new equipment - into a giant chore, which is a real shame.
You're going to be involved in a lot of battles, and luckily they're much more fast paced and interesting than they were in Record of Agarest War Zero, but they come with some definite draw backs as well. Instead of being a full-on grid-based SRPG, positioning is handled by setting formations based on who the leader of the party is. Leaders can be changed during any character's turn, but it'll cost SP, which is gained throughout the fight. One issue that the battle system retains is the overwhelming nature of momentum that can occur. Extremely powerful attacks, called origin skills, can only be performed with points you gain from taking out an enemy's guard meter, but using an origin skill very commonly blasts through a guard meter all on its own while also doing a ton of damage. This means that boss fights can quickly escalate so that every single turn you're taking huge damage or losing party members without an end in sight. You just have to hope that the boss foolishly uses the origin skill twice so he has to slowly build things up the next turn or stops using his skills for no apparent reason, which is weirdly also an option.
The other issue with the battle system is that you don't have easy control over where each person is and sometimes you can have a character stuck in an area others can't reach. Once someone is paralyzed in enemy territory it's extremely difficult to get someone else close enough to take off the malady because you can only set them to different formations in your own territory. That's not to say that it's all bad; it's a very fast system, which helps when you're roaming around the world map and characters outside of the party gain some experience, so grinding to keep everyone level isn't as much of a bore as it was in the previous game, but it still isn't very enjoyable.
One of the reasons that I had a lot of hope for Record of Agarest War 2, even after playing Zero, was that the presentational aspects seemed to be much improved. Unfortunately, that's not the case - what amounts to only a slight increase in sprite quality comes with some pretty terrible technical drawbacks. Each time you boot the game up it takes an excessive time to load up, and for the first 15-20 minutes of playtime you'll be stuck with terrible framerate hiccups which eventually only make way for somewhat acceptable framerates. The music isn't memorable either, so the audio doesn't even begin to make up for these technical faults.
There are also some more practical faults as well. For example, main story arc quests like “fight a demon in _____” are only mentioned by characters once and there doesn't seem to be any record kept of what you're meant to be doing. Even if you do remember to write these things down, the lack of legends on the maps available makes them all but useless for finding where you're meant to go. All of this means you'll be spending a lot of time running around trying to find the next event you're supposed to be doing.
I've put 33 hours into Record of Agarest War 2 and gotten to what I presume is the final boss of the second generation before losing patience with all of these little road blocks and other assorted issues. If nothing I've mentioned sounds like a deal breaker for you then at least Record of Agarest War 2 will give you an impressive number of hours for its price, I just wish those hours were more enjoyable ones. It's an intriguing concept, but as yet the developers still haven't managed to fashion a great game out of it.
This review is based on a copy of Record of Agarest War 2 for the PlayStation 3, provided by the publisher.