Rogue Galaxy is arriving on Western shelves accompanied by a somewhat baffling level of silence, seeing as it’s the latest JRPG to surface from uber-developer Level 5; previously responsible for the best-selling ‘Dragon Quest VIII’ as well as the classic PlayStation 2 series ‘Dark Cloud’ (or ‘Dark Chronicle’ for the second iteration). Riding in on the wave of publicity surrounding Final Fantasy XII, and at the tail-end of the lifespan for one of the most RPG-friendly gaming systems in existence, you could be forgiven for thinking that Rogue Galaxy would be an absolute no-brainer purchase for dice-rolling fans; and that’s almost proven to be correct.
As with so many JRPG’s, Rogue Galaxy casts you as a particularly gifted and sullen teenager, this time under the name of ‘Jaster Rogue’. As an orphan living on a desolate sand-filled planet with only a vicar and a few other townspeople for company, Jaster spends his days dreaming of one day exploring the vast reaches of space. A chance encounter with a bounty hunter and a case of mistaken identity later, Jaster finds himself aboard the pirate starship ‘Dorgenark’, ready for adventuring across one of the five distinct planets that inhabit the Galaxy. This is a ship filled with a host of colourful crew members, each with their own story to tell and unique place in the main narrative; and you’ll need them all to succeed.
Pre-release coverage has almost universally centred on the lush visual style applied by Level 5 here, with solid grounds to do so for a change. The well-animated, colourful, Anime-inspired gameworld is as sumptuously created as anything yet seen on current or next-generation systems, with each planetoid uniquely crafted and individual in style. As an example, the mining planet ‘Vedan’ is an outstanding achievement, with neon-lit trees cutting a stark portrait against an industrial backdrop that brings to mind the gritty neo-futuristic landscape of Blade Runner. Indeed, from the plot to the minutia of the visual trappings, Rogue Galaxy sets itself up as a homage to the Science-Fiction genre as a whole; with visual aspects subtlety referencing a host of productions, and Star Wars serving as a primary influence on the narrative.
Visual flair aside, Rogue Galaxy plays out as a pretty straight-forward Action-RPG. You’ll embark on the majority of your quest with a party of three characters, usually comprising of Jaster and two other members of the crew determined by plot circumstances. Combat is extremely quick, with no loading times to speak of; and each encounter also contains a thin layer of strategy in the form of party commands and chainable attack sequences. Whilst it isn’t the most dynamic of tactical elements ever created, Rogue Galaxy works best when played in the manner of something like a Knights of the old Republic; with brief pauses to set up an attack plan, followed by a flurry of activity to the end of each bout.
Unfortunately this system also shows up the lacklustre character AI system, with your compatriots often rendered completely useless in battle. More often than not, you’ll find them doing completely nothing on some of the more guarded settings, or alternatively deciding to hack at everything in sight, resulting in a swift death and yet another resurrection potion. There are no healing spells to be found here, but the design compensates by providing a fairly frequent supply of consumable items; just make sure to use them regularly (there are no gambits to be found here).
Character levelling is handled entirely through combat experience, and each protagonist has their own unique progression tree; very similar in style to the system employed in Final Fantasy X. In that respect, usable items can be placed into slots on each upgrade board, eventually unlocking new special moves and summon-like abilities. Every weapon in the game has its own elemental and proficiency attributes, and can also be synthesised with others in order to gain higher-grade equipment. It’s a tried-and-tested RPG system, but on the positive side, that means that it’s also one of familiarity that many will be able to pick up within minutes.
Some of the similarities to the genre stapes are not so welcome however. The rather clunky script and voice-acting will eventually begin to grate over the roughly 40 hours it’ll take to complete, with dialogue coming across as a little patronising (especially from Jaster). The wide focus on each character also leads to a couple of story threads that are entirely unnecessary, and some of the crew members becoming fairly redundant. Elsewhere, stronger areas of the plot (such as the relationship triangle between Jaster, Kisala and Zegram), are stretched far too thinly, with the designers seemingly content to concentrate on some of the more superfluous narrative strands.
As always, completing the main storyline is not always going to be the sole focus in any JRPG, and on that note, Rogue Galaxy has more than it’s fair share of extra content to offer the hardcore players. A pokemon-style monster hunting game rounds out the majority of an extraneous plotline, and in a nod to a certain other RPG, Jaster can also undertake bounty-hunting duties; earning a points total for each pack of beasts killed, which then accumulate on an overall leaderboard. For a change, all of the bonus content is fairly well-developed here, and could easily see you through a playtime of around 60-70 hours with a minimum amount of dedication.
Unfortunately Rogue Galaxy will inevitably fall short in comparisons with Final Fantasy XII elsewhere (on power of brand alone), but in truth the design ethos behind both titles couldn’t be any more different. Level 5 has succeeded in producing a colourful, fast-paced adventure game, that at times shares more similarities with a Zelda or Okami than anything Square-Enix related. Whilst it doesn’t set the same gold-standard for quality that either of those titles manage, the unique, interesting, and thoroughly compelling pastiche of Sci-Fi references makes for a very heady cocktail indeed, and one that any PS2 owner should seriously consider.