Friday, March 8, 2013

Game Review: Zero no Kiseki Evolution (PS Vita) - updated

From left: Zeit the wolf, Randy the redhead, Elie the fancy,
Kea the tykebomb, Lloyd the leader, Tio the teen, and Sergei the boss.
And yes, I'm aware the sign reads Ao no Kiseki. I like this pic, okay?

Eiyuu Densetsu: Zero no Kiseki Evolution (Legend of Heroes: Zero Trails Evolution) takes players to a world with an unseen goddess, shadowy groups, geopolitical intrigues, straight and overturned stereotypes, and explosive new technologies. Zero no Kiseki continues from the Sora no Kiseki (Trails in the Sky) games, which introduced “orbment” technology, composed of quartz forged from sepith (mineral) fragments. High-tech advancements include cars, cell phones, planes, guns, and trains, all with an elegant retro/steam punk design. 

In Zero no Kiseki, the latest in orbment tech becomes key as players take on the role of Lloyd Bannings, who leads a team of rookie police officers tasked with maintaining order and upholding the law in Crossbell City. The city is the capital of Crossbell, an independent state located between the Erebonian Empire and the Calvard Republic, who both want to conquer their smaller neighbor. 

Early in the game, the mafia moves into the city and stirs up trouble with local gangs. Lloyd and the other members of the Special Support Services (SSS) begin investigating reports of fights, mysterious attacks, missing people, and underground auctions. They eventually realize that something monumental is afoot. Perhaps it's somehow connected to the death of Lloyd's elder brother three years ago? (Hint: yes.)

Zero no Kiseki Evolution takes over 60 hours to finish for the completist gamer. While the game advances through plot-centric requests, there are sidequests to complete, random cut scenes to watch, recipes to collect, dishes to cook, fish to catch, furniture to buy, and even a cat to feed! All these optional events take as much time as leveling up and figuring out which character has the best stats for equipment and Arts (magic). The great part is, they're fun, and they improve your chances of having easier boss fights. 

Actually, the voice acting added for the Vita also extends play time. All the seiyuu (voice actors) do a great job, even Estelle's -- I initially cringed when I heard her archetypal genki-girl voice, but she grew on me. If you're into Japanese immersion, then soak in everything this game has to say. And it has over 60 hours of sweet Japanese nothings to whisper into your ear. And by "nothings" I mean "police terms such as investigation, criminal, and infiltrate."

Having said that, Zero no Kiseki is a blast because it continues in the combat system tradition of the Eiyuu Densetsu series. Your characters can to choose to fight, or run away from, enemies visible on the field map. So instead of random encounters when you're hurrying to another location, you could just rush past all the assorted monsters bent on your demise. By the same token, rather than running around like a busy person, you could crash into every single enemy you see in a way that lets you have turn priority when you start the battle. Thanks to this type of combat, ordinary enemies are usually a breeze. A few bosses will be tough, but having things too easy would be boring.

Zero no Kiseki also boasts a complex plot. I'll avoid spoilers here, but let me just say that the ending leads to more questions than answers. Hopefully, the sequel to the game, Ao no Kiseki, will resolve the threads left to dangle in Zero. Playing the Sora no Kiseki games, which take place a few years before Zero, would also be useful, but not necessary to enjoy Zero no Kiseki.

Finally, Zero no Kiseki continues the feminist overtones present throughout the entire Legend of Heroes series. In Sora no Kiseki FC and SC, Estelle, the main character, transforms convincingly over the course of the games from a lazy and forgetful girl to a determined young woman. Her stats are decent, too, and what a relief to not have her be a staff chick specializing in magic. She's a physical fighter, not quite on par with the specially-trained Joshua, but certainly his match when it comes to sheer grit and refusal to surrender. Her motivations propel the plot of both games.

In other Legend of Heroes games, if the boy is a main character, he must be accompanied by a girl. This is the case for The White Witch and Song of the Ocean. The only exception is A Tear of Vermillion, where the kidnapping of a female character drives the movements of the main character. That one's more of a bromance.

The Trails/Kiseki series takes gender equality to a new level with male characters who challenge heteronormative stereotypes. Olivier, the handsome, gun-toting "bard," flirts outrageously with Joshua and any pretty person who catches his eye, whatever their gender happens to be. In Zero no Kiseki, the handler for the Bracer Guild is Michel, a man who loves pink and speaks like a woman. See, in Japanese, your social status determines your hanashikata (way of speaking). For example, refined women add "wa" to the end of sentences, hooligan boys say a lot of, "Butseketeyaru!", a higher up will use the non-formal when speaking to subordinates, and so on. But Michel, sweet, redhaired Michel, fooled me into thinking he was a girl, because you really can't tell with the 3D sprites, and all I had to go on was his speech pattern. Then, when a kid asks him why he talks like a girl, and everyone else tries to shut the kid up, Michel laughs and says something to the effect of: "You know how you're wearing clothes that suit you? I speak in the way that suits me." Flame on, Michel, flame on!

As for the music, it hummed quietly along in the background, adding to the atmosphere. The battle tracks and revelation pieces worked very well. My only complaint is that there's one arrangement when you're in Crossbell City that makes it sound like you're in a porno. Saxophone much?

All in all, Falcom did a great job with the additional features of this former PC game. I could jump through a couple of hoops to get Ao no Kiseki on the Japanese Playstation Network, but I think I'll wait and see if an enterprising Amazon seller can get in an import. If not, I'll figure my away around getting my paws on another Eiyuu Densetsu game, because they're reliably fun without being stupid, deep without being convoluted, touching without being cheesy, and funny without being annoying. In short, the games in the series consistently strike a good balance, so thank you, Falcom. Until next time.

Anata wo mitsuketemiseru.

If I've convinced you to play, let me also help you finish the game! Here is my walkthrough on GameFAQs: I post FAQs and reviews on that site as Fragrant Elephant. GameFAQs forums have helped me when I was stuck in some games, so this is how I give back. Power to the gamers!!!