Reviewed: November 18, 2005
Released: November 16, 2005
Once upon a time, a game called Final Fantasy X set the gold standard for mainstream PS2 role-playing titles for years to come. Rather than contend directly with the might of this impeccably told, endlessly entertaining tale of loss and redemption, other game companies busied themselves making RPG’s that didn't ask, or want, to be compared to it. Nippon Ichi continued serving its rabid fan base with chibi characters and deep strategy, Midway focused on a more realistic setting in its ongoing Shadow Hearts saga, and Atlus mostly became known for its awesome Shin Megami Tensei games, which offered a darker, more mature alternative to the rest…until now, anyway.
With Atlus' release of Magna Carta: Tears of Blood, the company is not just asking for a game to be compared to Final Fantasy X, it's begging for it with open arms and puppy-dog eyes. For better or worse, there really is no better way to gauge this game than in direct comparison to the heavyweight champ. Although the stories of the two games differ greatly (Magna Carta's is much more traditional), the graphic style, characters and overall presentation are strikingly similar. So how does this newcomer stack up?
Magna Carta: Tears of Blood is, in many ways, a non-traditional RPG melded to a very traditional story. The game follows the exploits of Calintz, a young man working as a captain in the mercenary group, Tears of Blood. The Tears of Blood have been hired out by the human military (the "Alliance") on the island of Efferia to help combat the native Efferians, feral-looking humanoids with whom the human settlers have been at war for countless years. Calintz, like most of the Tears, suffered a great loss at the hands of the Efferians as a child, and has devoted his life to avenging the villagers they slaughtered.
An upright, stern man of few words, Calintz leads a motley crew of mercenary troops and other allies in special missions for the Alliance. His independent nature and status as a mercenary for hire allow him a much greater freedom to do what he likes than a normal conscript, though, and he often finds himself at odds with Alliance generals. In Calintz, Magna Carta has an interesting, believable and generally likeable main character. He isn't an example of any great new stride in anti-hero archetypes, but his personality is much more consistent than such characters' usually are - in other words, unlike Cloud Strife, he's never out of character.
The rest of the playable cast range from poorly developed to blatantly copied from the ideas of more successful franchises. The best case in point has to be Reith, the female lead character, whom Calintz meets in a cave after falling from a destroyed bridge. Reith has lost her memory, but apparently has the healing powers of a Priestess of Amabat, several of whom were involved in the day's actions. Calintz decides that Reith must have suffered amnesia as a result of some accident and offers to lead her back to safety. Reith is almost a dead ringer for Final Fantasy X's female lead, Yuna. She has a similar hairstyle and facial structure, uses the same type of weapon and twirls it in a similar fashion, speaks in the manner of a polite child, and is always apologizing for everything. It's hard to adequately describe just how similar the two characters are, but it's easy to see it in the actual game.
So, Calintz and Reith set off for home and are reunited with Calintz's usual team. Reith immediately sets about being far too kind to the Efferian captives, and a whole series of mishaps and adventures follow. The plot is largely predictable, although some of the minor twists and turns are unexpected. Anything that you suspect strongly about a main character is probably correct, and the story arc follows a general pattern common to most RPG's.
There are times and places where I can forgive this sort of a retread plot. Usually the question is, if the developers used an archetype that's been done to death as the basis for their game, did they do a good job telling the story? The plainest tale can be vastly entertaining if it is masterfully told. Unfortunately, Magna Carta's is not. There are too many dialog sequences that should have been shown in game, but are instead plainly set out in dialog boxes over a screen of the world map. If the experimental aircraft I'm escaping in begins to waver and ends up crashing in a valley, I'd prefer to actually see that, as opposed to being told that it happened in plain text without even a sound or rumble effect.
Also, the CG movie sequences tend to feel disconnected from, rather than integrated with, the in-game events of the story. There were a few instances during which I had to guess at what was happening in a cut scene, because the lead-up to it was so sparse and because there was often no dialog during the movie to help it along. Only afterwards, when the characters discussed what was happening in-game, could I piece the puzzle together completely.
Story aside, one of the most notable aspects of Magna Carta is its unorthodox battle system. As in such games as Chrono Cross and Romancing SaGa, enemies are represented on the map as they move around. In fact, by trading movement speed, Calintz can even switch to a "caution" mode in which he can perceive enemies at a much greater distance than normal. Once an enemy is spotted, the general next step is to try and sneak up behind it so that you can strike it with your sword (by pressing X) and initiate battle with a serious time advantage.
Of course, if the enemy spots you first, both parties will begin battle on relatively equal footing. And if an enemy manages to hit you from behind, you'll be immobilized for the first ten or fifteen seconds of battle. In theory this is an interesting system, but I did find it a bit annoying to have to move so slowly when in caution mode. Since switching out of the mode will almost always cause you to have to deal with a back attack, the only sane option in an infested area is to use caution mode. It would have been nice if I could have moved at least a bit faster. It makes exploring a large dungeon unnecessarily tedious.
Once the battle begins, Magna Carta becomes a truly unique game. Your party may include up to three people, but you'll only be controlling one of them at a time... and they all share the same action gauge. In other words, you pick your character, wait for the gauge to fill and then take an action. After that action, you have to wait for the gauge to fill again before you can use another, regardless of which character you'd like to use.
Different characters have differing "notches" on the action bar that represent the speed of their actions: the monstrously powerful Haren, for example, has a notch near the 'full' mark, making him much slower than Calintz, whose notch is around the center of the bar. Enemies work on a similar bar of their own. Taking out an enemy will move the action notch for remaining enemies farther down the bar for a turn, representing the lost action of the dead monster.
If it seems weird already, fasten your seat belt. It just gets weirder. The next thing to be aware of in battles is the element saturation of the battlefield. There are eight separate elements in the game, including such standards as earth and air, as well as some less common ones, like astral. Depending on the region in which you're fighting (and the manipulation of certain map objects that can generate more of a particular element), each of the eight elements has a certain amount of saturation in the area. One or two of the elements usually glow brightly on the indicator, meaning that they are abundant. The next four or five pulse normally, and the last two or three look weak and shrunken, or have no aura at all, indicating total depletion.
Now, each attack or spell you cast in battle, even a plain physical attack, uses up some of a related element on the battlefield. It is therefore important to fight with characters whose elements are in abundance on any given field, and avoid using those characters whose elements are in short supply. For example, attacking with Calintz constantly, whose attacks use wind and astral elements will gradually deplete those elements over the course of a battle, making his attacks progressively weaker. When a required element runs out completely, that attack simply cannot be used. There is also an "element" called Leadership, which represents the group's loyalty to each other and their subsequent efficiency working together as a team. Without leadership, items cannot be used and fighting styles cannot be switched during battle. Leadership builds up very slowly over time, but after an expenditure it can take several battles to regain it.
When it comes time to actually hit the monsters and start dishing out damage, Magna Carta takes a line from Shadow Hearts' playbook, with a timed button press system remarkably similar to the Judgment Ring used in those games. Set on a ring are three buttons at equal intervals. Pushing the first button will start the ring spinning. As each symbol passes through the reticule at the top of the ring, players must press the corresponding button. If all three button presses are executed successfully, an attack will occur (this is the same for using healing and buff effects). The ring moves quickly and the timing is exact and unforgiving, but a sort of rhythm can be learned without much practice that makes it fairly easy to do.
It's also important to note the "score" of each successful press. If you get "great, good, good," the attack will deal a minimal amount of damage, but if you score three "greats" in a row, it will do significantly more. There is also a chance that a new move will be unlocked if you do this. There are various styles to be learned in the game, and while some styles only have one move, most have two, three or even more. Of course, each move is more powerful than the last one. Unless you can get "great" timing fairly often, you might never get to see or use these powerful later moves.
Once more moves have been unlocked, each new battle starts off with the basic move, but successfully completing it is enough to unlock the next move in line - you don't need to hit every "great" in line again. Once the top of the style is reached, a character stays fixated on that move until he or she misses or the battle ends. This allows for some surprising depth of strategy - do I massacre everything with Calintz, or work him up to the top of his style and use Reith to hack away at another enemy, with Calintz on backup with his best move for when things get ugly? Remember, conserving elements for later surprises is an important part of the game.
Overall, I've grown to like the battle system. At first, I really didn't like that there was no warning when the battle ring started spinning - I kept pushing X to "start it," only to realize a second later that since the first button on the ring was Circle, I should have started with that instead. I also was unsure about only being able to use one character at a time, but since the enemies are held to the same restriction, it balances out fairly well and actually makes for some decent strategizing: to heal a party member is to waste a precious move that could possibly have been used by the damage dealer to finish off the enemy in question.
There are still some things I don't like about it - mostly small imbalances that I only notice because I've been playing RPG’s for so very long. But overall, if you take the time to learn the system, it isn't bad, and can even be fairly fun at times. It's unfortunate to note that I grew weary of battles despite the innovative system, largely because of how slowly I was forced to move already, being in caution mode. It also doesn't help that many early quests have you visiting and revisiting the same areas over and over again, long after you've worked out the best strategy for each enemy in that area and are no longer challenged by any of it.
If there's anything in Magna Carta: Tears of Blood that proves, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that it is trying to compete rather directly with Final Fantasy X, it's got to be the graphics. The 3D rendered environments coupled with fixed camera angles will be familiar to fans of that game, as will a lot of the architectural design and the clothing of most NPCs. That's not to say that the game doesn't look good: it does, very much so.
It's one of the few RPGs out there that can almost go toe to toe with FFX and X-2 in terms of graphics quality. There are practically no jaggies, and clear, well-designed texturing in every location. The character models are smooth and gloriously detailed, and generally move in a lifelike fashion, except during a few action sequences, when a straining character looks like he isn't straining at all (they couldn't nail the physical look of great force being applied to a human body, for some reason).
CG sequences are vibrant and detailed, awash in particle and lighting effects. The only issue I've really noticed so far is that there are few close shots of characters in these movies, particularly in regard to facial expression. This ties in with the relative lack of spoken dialog, as well. It's something I call "Legend of Dragoon syndrome": a game tries to go toe-to-toe with Final Fantasy by having its own elaborate cutscenes, but despite a high graphical quality to the movies, their lack of human detail makes them less powerful than they could have been. Meanwhile, many important sequences between characters are acted out in-game, or (as in the case of that experimental aircraft crash) not at all, and are simply explained through dialog instead.
Now, the character design... where do I begin? I appreciate it, on one hand. Most of the characters are well thought out. They look cool and at least nominally realistic (Eonis's massive bust, I'm talking to you here). A lot of them are built around a general color theme: Reith is in yellow, Eonis is in red, while the mysterious General Agreian is in black and grey.
On the other hand... Calintz, Oh, man, Calintz. What were they thinking when they chose his outfit? I've never been one to complain about feminine character designs in video games - I even liked Testament's look in Guilty Gear Isuka. But this is going too far, even for me. He's got fine silver hair - so far, so good - but it's done up in a little mini-ponytail, the kind that spritzes out in a feathery little ring at the back of one's head. So he has this feathery, extremely feminine little sprayed ponytail popping up over his head, to start.
And then they went with the Cloud Strife sleeveless turtleneck and these weird pants that are more or less held up by suspenders - leaving an oval shaped space of exposed skin over each of Calintz's hips. It doesn't help that his hips are curvy, either. Finally, the lower legs and feet look pretty normal - the pants widen towards the ankle in a samurai-pant way, and he wears simple wooden sandals on his feet.
The overall effect is that he has flirty hair, sexy hips and bell-bottoms. There's a point at which even I draw the line, and this is it. Not only is it simply too feminine (especially with Calintz's deep, masculine voice), it just doesn't look good, and wouldn't look good on anybody, ever. If Atlus has doomed me to seeing chubby, pimply guys dressed up like this at anime and gaming conventions for the rest of my life, I'll never forgive them.
The opening song to Magna Carta: Tears of Blood is downright icky. It starts out as an innocent-sounding Asian pop ballad, but becomes something much worse. The crappy lyrics don't help much, either. I won't go into the gory details; you can hear it for yourselves should you decide to pick the game up. Outside of that, the game's music is pretty good. It's never annoying and at times it's quite likeable. My girlfriend and I couldn't decide where it rested on the spectrum between Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, and Chrono Cross, but probably more towards the latter.
I also liked Calintz's voice. It's fairly low in tone, somewhat refined and matches up well with the personality, if not the appearance, of the fellow. Outside of that, though, I found that the voice work in this game landed pretty solidly between "grating" and "downright awful". Almost all of the characters give incredibly stilted deliveries, and a lot of times when a character is supposed to sound emotional, it seems like they got the kid who used to go home from school and stand in front of the mirror practicing his "crazy laugh" that would "scare all the jocks" to record it for them.
Of course, no amount of emotion remedies the stilted delivery, either. Words are spoken in groups of three to five, with one- to three-second pauses in-between, regardless of whether or not there was a natural break in the flow of words there. It also doesn't help that Haren, a young black guy with silver dreadlocks, sounds as white as the singers from the original "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" theme song. His voice simply does not fit his hotheaded nature and actions. I'm not saying "you have to make the black guy sound black." All I'm saying is that they should have made him sound more like someone who is being torn apart by rage inside, not like someone who's preparing to give an informative lecture on oatmeal at Boring University next week.
So, we have good music and bad voice acting. Luckily, Calintz's voice (while hardly what I'd call perfect) is the one you'll hear the most of, and it happens to be one of the game's best. It's also worth mentioning that the sound effects in battle can be really cool, and have a nice weight to them that gives a sense of how powerful they are. Overall, except for the bleak voice work, Magna Carta sounds pretty good... once you skip that opening song.
I haven't beaten Magna Carta completely yet, although I feel I'm at the end. It took me a solid forty hours to get to where I am. Some of that time, of course, came from moving slowly in caution mode around dungeons and such. There are a fair number of side missions and extra things to work on, as well, including various blacksmithing quests to create some of the game's best equipment that can take quite a while.
There isn't anything like Final Fantasy X's blitzball to engage in, either in terms of length or entertainment. Still, there is a lot of ground to cover, and the story is pretty engaging, if not exactly fresh. For the going price of a whopping $54.99, I find it difficult to recommend. There isn't any reason to pay $5 more than the average for this game. Once it drops to the $49.99 mark, it will make a worthy purchase for fans of the genre. People who are generally interested in it will probably not feel like they've gotten their money's worth at that price, however, considering the stilted delivery of story and dialog, and the combat system, which is tough enough to grasp even with years of previous RPG experience.
Let's be plain: Final Fantasy, this ain't. The story isn't told as well, and the characters aren't as endearing. But with the bizarre combat system found in Magna Carta: Tears of Blood, it does have something to its credit besides being an also-ran. It's too complex for most people to ever enjoy, and if you want balance look elsewhere. But for better or worse, it is the game's only real claim to distinction, and it isn't bad, once you've figured it out.
I guess that could be said of the whole game - that it isn't bad, once you've got the hang of things. Despite the poor storytelling, I've ended up caring about Calintz. With a sympathetic main character, and a story that contains at least some surprises, Magna Carta has a decent backbone from which to string its interesting battles. And the graphics are really, really nice, even if Calintz looks like a fashion nightmare given flesh. While I can't give Magna Carta: Tears of Blood my highest recommendation, I give it a solid one for fans of the RPG genre.