Sunday, November 8, 2009

DS Review: Nostalgia

Never before has there been a more appropriately named game. Nostalgia is the latest release from Ignition Entertainment and comes from the development team of Matrix Software, who had their hands in the remakes of Final Fantasy III and IV. Going in knowing that, it’s no wondering that Nostalgia is one of the greatest role-playing games on the Nintendo DS. That’s saying something considering the system has fan-favorites such as Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest calling it home. But, just what makes Nostalgia so gosh-darned nostalgic? Everything.

This game brings back those memories of a sense of wonder and adventure from when you were younger. There are random battles aplenty, a flying airship, a familiar skill system, the gameplay is turn-based, and there are some familiar monster types (the first monster that you encounter is a rat for crying out loud!). The structure is also very similar to other Japanese role-playing games (JRPG) in that you have to hit a town to advance the plot, gain experience from battle, and use loot to buy equipment. The game hits just about every other expectation you’d have for an RPG.

One thing about Nostalgia that will strike players right off the bat is the setting. The game takes place in the 19th century and begins in London. The world is rife with magic and there’s a definite steampunk vibe throughout. This alternate history of the world takes you from London to other major cities in the world as you follow the exploits of Eddie Brown and his cohorts on a quest to find his lost father, Gilbert, and save the world in the process. At the start of the game Gilbert is attempting to save a girl from a mysterious cult named the Cabal and goes missing during the rescue. His airship is recovered, but his whereabouts are unknown.

To be honest, the story is kind of flat. It lacks that draw that pulls you in and aside form the rich setting, there’s really nothing dynamic about it. The plot has many stereotypes and doesn’t have the emotional development typically associated with some of the more robust RPGs. Still, the true beauty to Nostalgia is the experience as a whole, so thankfully the game isn’t being judged on the merits of its story alone.

When you begin Nostalgia, Eddie is all alone and heads off to become an Adventurer. In your first mission you’re quickly introduced to all the mechanics, and believe me when I tell you that this was completely unnecessary. Even though this is a new title, you’ll feel like you’ve played the game before. A random encounter in a dungeon reveals a turn-based combat engine. When a character steps up to the plate they can just attack, use a skill or an item, defend, or run. If you’ve played a turn-based RPG at some point since the original Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest this should be nothing new to you.

As you play through the game you’ll unlock additional party members each with their unique brand of attacks and skills. It doesn’t take long for your party’s ranks to be filled, which is a good thing because grinding and gaining levels is paramount in Nostalgia. Enemies don’t really rise in level with you, so as you fight through new environments you’ll receive more of a challenge than when you retrace some of your steps. Either way, there are still a lot of random encounters to deal with, and what Nostalgia brings to the table is a little higher than the norm in that regard. Going from point A to point B can be kind of frustrating at times, but thankfully there are save points scattered along the way that refresh your HP and MP.

One nice take on the genre is the inclusion of airship battles, which are definitely a throwback. Eddie’s floating boat is equipped with a massive sword on the front and each of your party members can man other weapons as well. During these skirmishes the enemies are larger, seemingly tougher, and come at you from in front of you and to your sides. The battle system for the airship is roughly the same as it is for regular party battles, but there is a little more strategy involved.

While the other facets of this game are, at their core, standard RPG fare, the game also gives you Skill Points to use. These can be allocated to strengthen abilities of your characters and also set them down paths for new skills to learn. As you build up some SP it’s worthwhile and necessary to head into the sub-menu from time to time to perform some upgrades. While this exact system wasn’t exactly in RPGs of yesteryear, it’s one of those alterations that makes Nostalgia feel modern in some ways. Another example of such an improvement is a ranking system that grades how you did in a battle. The better you do, the more you’re rewarded with, so there’s definitely some incentive to better yourself.

The campaign in Nostalgia is fairly linear and for the most part you’re carted from one location to the next. There is a selection of side quests to dig through and the variety is pretty good as well. Also, it’s worth mentioning that for a DS game Nostalgia has a decent length to it. You can quick save anywhere, and real save in the overworld, in towns, or at special spots in dungeons. This helps minimize the frustration of playing a handheld RPG, but you could also just close the DS as well and restore your progress when you’re ready (just be sure you have enough battery power if you do that!).

What about how the game looks? Well, things are on par with other RPGs on the DS. The top screen displays your characters and movements, while the bottom brings up vital information, battle stats, and an area map. Everything gels and it’s safe to say that if you enjoyed the work done on the Final Fantasy revisions, you’ll appreciate what was done here. Characters are large, detailed, and nicely animated, and monsters are equally impressive. Some of the environments can be a tad bland and recycled from time to time, but overall the unique designs outweigh the sparseness of textures. One thing that stands out as problemematic is the fact that some of the text in the menus and maps. It’s simply too small for the screen and the brown color palette does not make for an easy read. Despite these nitpicks Nostalgia is a solid looking game and an impressive DS title.

The sound is great as well with a soundtrack that is rich and memorable. Everything from the overworld tunes to the theme and battle music is spot on with what you’d expect, and it’s even better that it comes from a DS cart. The game’s effects are also whimsical and charming to boot.

It could be said that the game doesn’t do anything original. I mean, Matrix Software takes everything you’d expect from a classic J-RPG and rolls it into one package. The combat, exploration, and structure all scream “hey, I’ve played this before!” Despite that fact, the realization comes through as a nostalgic sensation, almost as though the developer was paying homage to the franchises that came before it. Because of that, Nostalgia is the most aptly named games in recent memory. Sure it may have its flaws, and yes it’s not the most creative RPG ever, but it’s such a joy to play that it’s an instant classic.

Nostalgia gets a 4 out of 5.

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