Saturday, May 22, 2021

Riviera: The Promised Land


Riviera: The Padded Land

In 2002, Japanese videogame developer Sting Entertainment developed the first “episode” of its Dept. Heaven series (although akin to Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy, the games would have little narrative connection), Yakusoku no Chi: Riviera, for the Japan-exclusive portable WonderSwan Color, years later porting the title to the Game Boy Advance with significantly-altered art direction. The GBA version would see release by Atlus in 2005 as Riviera: The Promised Land, which would two years later receive an enhanced port to the PlayStation Portable with mostly-full voice acting and a rearranged soundtrack. Do these improvements make the game?

A millennium ago, a war known as Ragnarok occurred, when demons from the realm of Utgard overran the gods of Asgard, with the latter breaking an ancient taboo by sacrificing their lives to create black-winged reapers known as Grim Angels, each armed with Diviners, sacred weapons easily vanquishing the demonic horde. Afterward, the gods renamed Utgard Riviera, leaving their knowledge and authority in the stewardship of seven Magi and their power in the care of the Sprites, Riviera’s peaceful inhabitants. The Grim Angels Ein and Ledah receive the task of activating the Retribution, a secret godly power to eliminate the demons once again after the thousand years, although it would destroy Riviera as well.

Ein falls in battle and awakes in the town of Elendia, suffering from amnesia and ultimately rediscovering his purpose alongside his feline familiar Rose. Cue anyone who’s played any amnesia-centric roleplaying game plot to roll their eyes and lose interest; while the Norse mythological influence, religious commentary, and interactions among Ein and his four playable female allies have some flair, the story never reaches excellence, with the plot very well putting quantity over quality, and Ein’s companions not receiving much development aside from their personalities. There are different endings depending upon interactions throughout the game, but these come too little, too late.

The translation is okay, as one would expect of Atlus, with few grammatical errors and some good dialogue, along with a choice between English and Japanese voices, but many of the typical tropes of Japanese RPGs play part, such as characters in battle unrealistically shouting the names of their special attacks, which may sound cool in the game’s original language but sounds horribly unnatural in the Anglophone world, alongside other elements such as Lina referring to herself in the third person. Things could have definitely been worse, although the localization is hardly a reason to play the game.

In and out of battle, the gameplay one could describe as methodical, divided into several chapters, players receiving a number of Trigger Points that they can use in dungeons to analyze environments or open treasure chests, both of which can have different effects on the narrative and sometimes come with quick-time button-pressing sequences that the player can fail easily at times, and which can have penalties such as decreased maximum health for all characters. When successfully evading a treasure chest’s trap, the player randomly receives an item with limited durability for use in combat.

In dungeons, the player occasionally encounters groups of enemies in parties or up to three that they need to battle in order to advance, before which the player can choose a combat party of up to three characters in a two-to-one or one-to-two front-and-back formation, after which they select up to four items, each with finite uses (except for Ein’s Diviner, which one can use endlessly) with which to battle the enemy. Once a player has set up party formation and usable items, they can start the fight, where the player’s characters and the enemies take turns depending upon agility, players luckily able to view who will go when during their turns.

Once one of the characters reaches their turn, they must use one of the four items brought into battle, whose durability consequentially decreases by one point after using it, and can have different effects depending upon which character is using it, and the player unable to target alternate foes with offensive items. Each item, if a character is able to properly wield it, has a certain number of uses before they “master” it, in which case after the battle ends, they gain increased stats, provided they survive combat. If not, then the uses necessary to master an item and raise stats reset for that character.

Both sides of combat have an OverDrive gauge, with each of the player’s items, when mastered, having an OverSkill that consumes up to the maximum three levels of the gauge for a powerful effect. Battle ends when all units on either side are vanquished, and should the player be victorious, the surviving characters, if they used any of the four items enough, gaining raised stats along with Trigger Points usable during exploration, depending upon how well they performed. An item’s durability reaching zero removes it from the player’s inventory, and there is also a limit as to how many items a player can carry throughout the game.

Should the player lose a battle, they receive a chance to retry it with the potential to change characters, formation, and the four usable items, along with the enemies having a portion of their health reduced, not to mention one level of the player’s OverDrive gauge available, up to three times should death come again, which alleviates potential frustration with combat. During dungeon exploration, the player can also “practice” with items against fixed enemy sets to master their use and increase stats, although most of the time, they can’t go back and save to preserve experience (only allowable between areas of a dungeon), solely being able to move forward through a dungeon with maybe two exceptions.

The main issue with Riviera’s gameplay, however, is the absolutely-glacial pacing within and without battle, with any action that the player’s characters and the enemy performed taking way too long, consequentially needlessly dragging out even the simplest of fights and accounting for plentiful superfluous playtime. Grinding in between mandatory battles is also sluggish, and that death screws characters out of experience doesn’t help matters. A few foes, sometimes from practice battles, can also damage item durability, and dungeons can occasionally do things such as rendering powerful spell books useless with water damage. In the end, the game does plenty to unnecessarily waste the player’s time.

Control doesn’t fare any better, and while there are some bright spots such as most voiced dialogue being skippable, there are plenty issues such as saving allowable only between areas of a dungeon, the countless points of no return, the lack of a soft reset in case sometime adverse happens within an area, the limited inventory, and Ein’s slow movement in between chambers of a dungeon’s subdivision. Overall, Riviera doesn’t exactly interact well with players.

When booting up the game, the player has a choice between English and Japanese voices, always a welcome feature, given that some of the former can be a bit shrill at times, along with JRPG cliches such as characters shouting the names of their special attacks. Full marks, however, go to the soundtrack, which is absolutely gorgeous as foreshadowed by the haunting theme during the pre-start screen narrative sequence. Tracks such as the angelic theme of Elendia are also nearly impossible to hear with dry eyes, and many battle themes such as “Fierce Fighting!” are very pulse-pounding. Generally, Riviera, as with most Japanese RPGs, largely goes all-out with regards to its aural presentation.

Visually, not so much, aside from superb anime art direction with occasional still story shots and excellent character design, along with believable colors. One of the biggest issues is the heavy recycling of dungeon design, with many rooms looking exactly the same, and the chibi character sprites don’t show much emotion, with their respective character designs doing the work during cutscenes. Battle graphics don’t fare any better, with Ein, his allies, and the enemy telekinetically exchanging commands, the ability animations being nothing to write home about, as well. In the end, the graphics are another nadir in Riviera.

Finally, playtime ranges somewhere from sixteen to twenty-four hours, mostly in combat, and while there is theoretical lasting appeal in the form of different story events and endings, the game, frankly, isn’t nearly enjoyable enough to warrant supplementary temporal investment.

In conclusion, Riviera: The Promised Land is another Japanese RPG whose only major redeeming aspect is its soundtrack, and while the gameplay has some decent ideas, it largely falls flat on its face, given the absolute glacial pacing within battle and during exploration, the unengaging and underdeveloped narrative aside from the backstory, the excessive visual recycling, and the potential waste of time of going through the game again just to see different story events. The game definitely shows as the first installment of its respective franchise, and safe to say, I certainly won’t be checking out other episodes of Dept. Heaven in the foreseeable future.

The Good:
+Choice between English and Japanese voices.
+Haunting intro.
+Different endings.
+Excellent music.

The Bad:
-Glacial pacing in and out of battle.
-Derivative plot.
-Lots of graphical recycling.
-Not fun enough to replay.

The Bottom Line:
Good only for its soundtrack.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation Portable
Game Mechanics: 2.0/10
Controls: 2.0/10
Story: 3.5/10
Localization: 6.0/10
Music/Sound: 7.5/10
Graphics: 2.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 1.5/10
Difficulty: Moderate
Playing Time: 16-24 Hours

Overall: 3.5/10

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