1 MP. Become a Velociraptor.
I’m not sure that I need much more from a game, let alone a game which marks the resurrection of a beloved series thought dead.
Part of what I find so impressive about the game is the nostalgia, of course. An…event…occurs at one point, one which drives the spike of reminiscence deeply into the throbbing center of one’s skull. Combined with the music (which does loop a little more quickly than I’d like) and the existence of a “run mode” that you never have any cause to toggle off, this game touches the primal part of my brain that is always playing these games; the nascent Seth still buying TENT in bulk and hiding the cartridge from his little brother because pants knows my parents didn’t understand the concept of one save slot; the fauxstached Seth who broke parental-imposed limitations on SNES time, only to be found out when they spotted the telltale television glow creeping out of the basement window. Some kids spent their nights and weekends sneaking out to parties…I snuck a Chrono Trigger cartridge into the gray machine and ground out a few more Ruminants.
The game does buck some conventions, particularly by removing random encounters* and thus the possibility for grinding. Me, I love a grind. I can’t endure thirty seconds of silence in my living room without crawling up the walls, but I absolutely will slaughter the same half-dozen enemies a score of times while I make certain key numbers incrementally bigger. As I’m typing this I’m updating my Dungeons and Dragons Online client so that I can not only run a new character through the same early content, I can run the same character I already rolled on the test server through the exact same cavalcade of quests.
Instead of a grind, the game provides you with an arena which gradually fills with enemies as you complete the game content. An enthusiastic bloodsporter loiters in the arena, offering you delicious prizes as you complete tiers of foes. Because of the dramatic jumps in enemy difficulty (some are too easy, others crush you if you go at them right when you’ve unlocked them), I didn’t find this area especially appropriate for leveling. However, it was a challenge I deeply wanted to dive into, and when I finally defeated the full 8 ranks of the arena, I most definitely expelled some triumphant profanity.
At which point they popped out a new boss, who has savaged me mercilessly the few times I took a run at her 160k hitpoints.
However, the biggest draw for me with this game is the innovation it applies to classes. Each of your characters has a class, with titles like “Scholar,” “Brute,” and “Necromaster.” These classes level at a reasonable rate, and fall into the categories you’d expect (“fighter”, “red mage,” “black mage”). However, you quickly unlock a series of “pins” which provide you with additional class options you can stack on top of your previous ones. These classes have names like “Cordwainer” (whose mastery of shoe-related attacks—seriously—allows swift actions and deadly sole-based walloping) and “Gentleman” (whose adjusted monocle increases magical power, and who eventually learns “Confucian Ideal” which made me feel my Master of Eastern Classics degree was totally worth it). You level these classes alongside your core ones, meaning you can run a Brute/Gentleman for all your Dr. Hyde fantasies—though honestly Hobo is a better fit there, as the deadly Hoboism debuff (a callback to earlier games) stacks with both bleeds and poison.
The classes also level independently of the characters, meaning you’re never punished for not having a pin equipped at a given time. Better still, classes level on the pins themselves, so you can grind up Gentleman on one character, then later swap the class to a different character while retaining both the abilities and the passive buffs.
You eventually unlock a second tier of these class pins, like the “Gardenar” (which creates persistent effects with their own slot in the initiative order, allowing you to continually buff or debuff entire sides of the fight) or the “Diva” (a class built around taking stats from the other members of your party, as well as taunting enemies to attack specific party members). Alongside this unlock comes the ability to equip a second pin to each character, meaning you have a 4-person party with 3 classes each.
The closest old-school corollary I could think of for this style of play was Final Fantasy American3, where each character played out distinctly. However, most of the gameplay presented in Ep3 feels fresh and clever, particularly with the Gardenar and another class, the “Apocalypt.” The Gardenar’s persistent abilities (and similar abilities possessed by the Necromaster) allow you to make a small investment in order to completely change the battlefield, benefitting from constant buffs or powerful periodic damage until you switch up the garden. This power is compensated for by the Gardenar doing very little else. The Apocalypt, on the other hand, is built around having tremendous power turns late in a fight; all of your class effects trigger in a single delayed package that acts on its own initiative. This allows you to build your own spells, combining Fire All and Ice All with a full-party heal, or stacking Wind, Earth, Fire, and Ice damage with a mana refund for the caster. Though it’s easy to get greedy and stretch the spell out so far that the enemies are corpses by the time it lands, it reminded me fondly of the absolute asshole Mages present in Ethereal Mists, the GodWars code MUD I played in high school.
Again, the combination system makes each unique class mechanic even more interesting. I constantly debated giving Tycho the Tube Samurai pin for its dramatic speed increases, so that I could pack more effects into my Apocalypt prophecies. However, the Samurai stacked so well with the Cordwainer that Gabe was using his most basic attack for around 3k damage a turn, and I was loathe to break that up. Some fights forced me to completely reassess my entire roster, undertaking vast role changes to bring more magic, speed, health, or physical damage to a particular confrontation.
I also like the way the game handles weapon upgrades, which feeds into the above role changes. Stacey and I have been co-opping through Dungeons and Dragons: Heroes (and I’m utterly thrilled to be able to co-op with my wife, even if she steals all the gold that is). In that game, weapon upgrades are frustrating because it usually takes a few minutes going through a dungeon haul in the inventory to determine what incremental upgrade a particular sword/spear/hammer provides. Partially this is down to poor UI and almost a decade’s innovation not being present in the game. But I like it no better when a game follows the old-school Final Fantasy model of “Find new town, get new gooder weapons, find next town.”
What I love in PAAOtRSPoD:E3, though, is that the base upgrade line is very simple: you go to Kiko and buy whatever upgraded weapon you can afford. However, you also find weapons throughout dungeons (and through other methods). What they’ve done with these, however, is make them lateral upgrades. So you might play Moira, the redheaded gumshoe, as a straight damage-dealer…and this is fine. However, if you’d rather swap her into a tank, or into a mage, there are weapons in the game that make such changes possible–particularly alongside a pin swap. Similarly, you can take a magey/hitty fellow like Tycho and put him heavy damage, or give the bruiser Gabe a magic wand. Well, a magic hobo’s paw. I still need to grind out a few more pin levels to unlock…whatever I unlock when I have everything at lvl 40 or above, so I’m thinking of completely shredding my current party comp and exploring new roles. That kind of flexibility is what keeps me resubbing to Rift every few months, and it already has me salivating for the next installation in the series.
Oh, and what I said before about turning into a raptor being all I needed from a game?
2 MP. Become a Cthulhusaurus.