Friday, 27 December 2013

Time and Eternity review

Holy dust, the bar for JRPGs on the PS3 is lower than the hype for the Xbox One. Long-time contender Final Fantasy might as well have disemboweled itself with its thirteenth main instalment and Hyperdimension Neptunia has only gotten worse and worse to the point where the fanbase is dividing on itself like the cast of a zombie apocalypse story. Keep in mind that these are only four of the demonic duck snot-level quality games plaguing this finally concluding generation. The current state of things is pathetic; JRPG fans are literally latching onto anything to sate their hunger, including Time and Eternity which I was asked to review. I'd normally feed such requests to my sister without her knowledge but I found a copy for only $28 at EB Games so I decided to give it a crack while bracing myself for crap beyond all measure. After playing it, I am thankful for one thing; it met the abysmally low expectations I had and didn't sink beyond those.

You know what the most embarrassing thing is? The most hyped feature of this game is the hand-drawn graphics. The box states that everything in the game—characters, monsters, even the landscapes—have been drawn by hand. A lot of care has gone into making the game look like an anime because this sort of aesthetic is apparently more important than solid gameplay and a good story. What makes this even more embarrassing is that it actually worked. That's hardly surprising, however; as I said, the JRPG river is running dryer than my hair. I must say, the idea itself isn't a bad one. 2D sprites have a habit of looking better than 3D models and, if recent Rayman history is anything to go by, the colours tend to be a lot more vibrant as well. However, if visuals are your only selling point, I think it's time for you to take a step back and think about exactly why people are supposed to play your game instead of watch Youtube playthroughs of it aside from all the copyright controversy lately.

It might be possible, though, that I'd be less bitter if the visuals were actually decent. These hand-drawn 2D sprites play on 3D backgrounds and, while it has worked in the past, it's a whole different matter entirely when the game plays on a 3D axis. You remember how it was odd in Paper Mario how Mario runs straight forward but moves up the screen? Add a rotating camera to that and you'll have Time and Eternity with none of the self-awareness. Unlike 3D models, 2D sprites have to be drawn one at a time and can't just be reposed  (although some companies are smarter about this and made 2D sprites from instances of 3D models, which looks great as well as saving time). Every single frame of running—very stupid looking running, by the way; it's like the heroine's really trying to hold it in before they reach the toilet—was done individually. Yes, it looks very odd and it's not even funny. Much like the rest of the game, in fact.

For crying out loud, you should be facing each other.
To make matters worse, the animation looks like it was from a CD-i title. It says a lot that the least of the problems is that the same animations play over and over again for friends and recycled enemies alike for the entire duration of the game. Even worse than that, the sound never syncs correctly with the mouth or sprite movements so the main character's dagger flipping sound plays half a second before she even touches it. On top of that, the artists couldn't even be bothered to reverse the sprites. If a sprite is looking in one direction, they will always look in that one direction and there will never be a situation where a pleading or angry Drake will look to his right. On top of that, some sprites don’t even have backs drawn for them. I'm serious; one boss only has one passive sprite where he looks forward and a bit to his right. When you look from behind him, the game distracts you from him suddenly facing forward by focusing on his leg. This happens again twice. It’s like the artists didn't even care.

Well, now that the graphics have been utterly shattered, let's focus on the plot, such as it is. Toki is a sweet princess who is marrying Zack (or <insert name here> if you prefer), a knight who is also an utterly perverted moron. After a day of talking with Toki's three dipstick friends, Toki and Zack finally get married but the ceremony is attacked. Zack is fatally hit but have no fear; Toki has a dual personality called "Towa" that she swaps with everytime they level up and she is cold, quick to hold daggers to people's throats and acting as this game's resident tsundere, although she's at least slightly subtle about it. Anyway, Toki/Towa has another talent; as a princess, she is a Timekeeper (don't expect the game to expand on this) so she has the power to go back in time. She does this immediately and rewinds six months ago to find out why the attack took place and stop it. However, for some reason, Zack is transferred to the body of Toki's pet dragon Drake and tags along.

Don't be fooled by the title; it's translated from Japan’s title of Toki to Towa. Yes, it means "time and eternity" but I'm sure all of you can figure out just what this game is for aside from endless swarms of annoying puns worthy of new dads in their 40s. This is not a sprawling epic adventure to save the world. This is a purely personal quest to achieve a happy marriage, yes, but that's just the plot. The game is a waifu game dedicated to having Toki and Towa be the sweet and sour girls for whatever fantasies you have. There's an affection mechanic for the two girls, many of the optional events involve getting a cutesy picture of Toki or Towa and there's even an entire string of side missions dedicated to Zack getting various appliances for clearing out the steam from the shower so he (and, by extension, you) can see Towa naked while she showers. The story's plot was tailored to with all the care and grace they took with the animation so this is pretty much all they have.

"But Pore!" I hear you yelp as you step on the shards of broken discs I have smashed all over the floor. "You're being far too harsh! This is a character-driven story and it's totally not what you're making it out to be!" Well, Iji and Spec Ops: The Line were also character driven stories that progressed due to the character's actions. What separates them from Time and Eternity is that their characters were actually good. Part of what makes character-driven stories work is the characters' motivations; Iji and Spec Ops: The Line's characters had very diverse motivations and backgrounds behind their actions and they were very compelling. Time and Eternity's plot-driving characters, on the other hand, have only one of three motivations: help Toki/Towa with their wedding, make sure it doesn't go through or don't care. Toki's three dipstick friends, no matter how diverse their designs and stock personalities may be, pretty much act just to help their best friend get married and are about as deep as a puddle of dog drool. There needs to be more to a character than their appearance, you see.

Zack's guide to looking at underwear when house cleaning.
Speaking of Toki's dipstick friends, you may have noticed that I am not entirely attached to them. That is because of their stock personalities and shallow characters and there's not a single character artist in the world that can fix those sorts of problems. Their implementation is even worse; they have at least some character but, again, their motivations just centre on Toki and they have no feelings apart from "me want make Toki happy". What's worse, only one of these friends get elaborated on in each chapter like a series of Friend Of The Week episodes and they take place in little side plots that ultimately do very little (sort of except for Chapter 2's but I will not pad out this review with exceptions to the rule). However, the one character who I spend many a dream fantasising about shooting into thick slabs of enriched uranium is none other than Zack. You can say he's not always a perverted idiot but the exceptions to these moments are, with very few exceptions, restricted to dialogue choices in side events. Also, these chivalrous choices are just as canon as the perverted ones so, if you were to take them out, you'd spend the main game thinking he just married Toki because she happened to be sweet and pretty.

"But Pore!" I hear you yelp again while I wonder if we should treat your foot before it gets infected. "It's not a serious story at all! You're meant to just take it with a grain of salt!" You can shut up because I know that you would not be using that excuse if the story was actually decent. Now, I don't mean "decent" as in complex and dark and all that. I like silly stories without much depth to them. I like the chance to just sit back and relax from time to time. I have played games with grain of salt stories before and they were good and fun. Time and Eternity is not. The problem is the tone; it's silly most of the time but there are quite a few serious moments and the juxtaposition is incredibly jarring. I know this is going to reduce my credibility amongst you lot but there is a choice at the end that was, without a doubt, the hardest thing I had ever had to do in all of gaming. If it weren't for unique circumstances, I probably would have left the PS3 on overnight, put down the controller and hope the tragedy sorted itself out by first light. I will tell you now that it was not the kind of moment that goes into an ostensibly silly game. Other similar moments are scattered throughout the story but they're immediately followed by a wacky moment that kills the mood and leaves me wanting to strangle the writers with a loli's bra.

"But Pore—" Righto, that's enough out of you. I've covered a lot else so let's talk about the gameplay. All of the game's fights are one on one and you, as Toki or Towa, stand on one side of the field while the enemy stands opposite you and you can pick them off from afar with your rifle or go in close to attack with your dagger. For the record, you can attack with your magic whenever. I must say, it's nice to have a Victorian fantasy protagonist actually armed like someone from the Victorian era for once. On the other hand, it is odd that Toki specialises in rifles while Towa specialises in daggers even though they share the same body which shouldn't really change their specialisations either way but oh well. Anyway, the game is far too generous. Healing items restore obscene amounts of health; at the game's start, the most basic of Macaroons will completely heal you. Not that you'll need them; Drake can heal you when you're at a pinch for free. Although it's random, it's rather reliable and it's not like enemies attack frequently enough to drop you before he heals you.

By the way, the reason the game's not called Toki to Towa to Tofu and there isn't a spellcasting personality with blue hair is because magic is vastly overpowered. Very few enemies pack resistance to magic and they are the only ones aside from bosses that won't go down in one to three explosions. If that wasn't enough, as Toki and Towa are Timekeepers, they can also access Time Magic which breaks the game into a fine powder and forms the sand into a duck just because. One of the powers is "Time Surge" and it speeds you up and lets you cast spells virtually instantly, making charge up a non-issue. It's even upgradeable with a passive skill that buffs Magic when you use it. Just unlocking one spell at the start of the game turns you into a steamroller and, by the end, I had my skills and abilities optimised for spellcasting and Time Magic and fights would end as soon as they began if it weren't for the obnoxiously slow start and finish battle animations. I only died to one boss when the rules changed unexpectedly and to another boss that opened up roughly seven of our fights with an unblockable insta-kill attack. I managed to get around it eventually and win although I don't actually remember how. The game only gets easier the further you go. For most of the game, I was at least ten levels below the recommended level for the missions and I was still breezing through them like gamma radiation. It was boring. It wasn't challenging nor was it cathartic because I never had enemies I got frustrated at and wanted to utterly destroy.

I am so thankful I didn't have Time Surge back then.
It wasn't always like this, you know. Close to the game's beginning, before you get your first game-breaking spell, your three dipstick friends offer a dungeon each for you to go to. The idea was to go through them in sequence but I jumped right to the last one for the sake of a side event. I instantly regretted this as I was faced with enemies two levels higher than me that didn't go down without a fight and put me in mortal danger several times. However, I stopped regretting this as I felt an uncanny sensation. Strangely enough, I was excited. Using expertly timed dodges to weave around powerful spells and attacks while returning with strikes of my own thrilled me. The boss of the area was a robot assassin named Mute. Not only was he sassy, he put up one hell of a fight that I didn't think I was going to win. It was awesome. Because of the awesome fight and his personality, he was by far my most favourite character in the game. Not that that's a big hurdle at all but I actually liked Mute.

Sadly, that time is now gone and I am left trekking across massive levels and triggering random encounters only to blow them up effortlessly. Why, precisely, are the levels so big? They're pretty, yes, but it doesn't take very long at all for the levels to start repeating themselves and losing their lustre. Walking in a straight line from Point A to Point B feels like it takes forever and I'm begging Toki and Towa to pick up the pace and actually run rather than waddle. Unfortunately, the game's method of dealing with this monotony is random monster encounters and you will encounter a hell's circle worth of them in each area. I tried to keep my time spells in reserve for when I actually needed them but I got so sick of these overlong encounters that I went through Time Surge after Time Surge just to get them out of the way.

In case you're wondering, the overworld is indeed just a map screen and you can't roam towns. I will respect this decision for some games. Some game budgets are very much stretched and I can respect the decision to keep the money confined to the core parts of the gameplay so I let this map screen thing slide. However, there's one thing that makes Time and Eternity an exception. You see, some side missions actually take place in fully rendered areas of the towns you go to. If the areas are already there, would it really take so long or be so hard to just make them normally traversable and scatter mission givers here and there like the game does in the actual dungeons? Not that the setting's actually interesting but at least let the player get a feel for the bigness (or smallness) of the world. You might as well let the player have a pleasant stroll and actually feel like there's a world around them, however uninteresting it may be.

Even now, we must ask the question "what is this game for?" It’s not to deliver a good story because the story is poorly written embarrassingly lazy garbage that makes no sense. As I said, Time and Eternity's purpose is simply to sell a girl. Or two girls, actually. I'd forgive this if the rest of the product was actually decent but the gameplay hardly challenges or provides stress release and the animation just plain sucks. I can understand using sex appeal to sell a product but, if you don't want people smashing it, you need to make sure that there's more to the product than that. Time and Eternity is tedious. It's boring. It's simply not worth playing. It is, at the end of the day, a massive chore that doesn't make sense to do and just grates like trying to come up with a non-forced time pun to conclude this review with before you just go bugger it and blow up a sting ray.