If Agarest: Generations of War Zero were any more traditional, it’d serve you Sunday roast along with a few episodes of Downton Abbey. Taking everything you loved about RPG gaming and copy pasting it, word for word and mechanic for mechanic, into a lengthy prequel seems overly conservative. One or two gameplay and story choices save Agarest Zero from the dreaded condemnation of being dubbed a rehash. Whether these alterations are enough to entice gamers to the distinctly retro-styled fantasy world is another matter altogether.
Agarest Zero’s most obvious gimmick is revealed midway through the course of the game. Having played as Sieghart, a chivalrous soldier on a quest to save the world – again, story originality isn’t a strongpoint – the game shifts to the perspective of his children. The first half of the game not only features the requisite tactical battles and dull questing, it also tasks you with building a relationship with one of many potential love interests. Whichever lucky lady falls for your affections will become your partner, the intervening period resulting in the aforementioned children – their skills and attributes a direct product of your spouse. The mode, called ‘Feel Link’, also unlocks new outfits for strong relationship ties (although they really are fan service, being ‘maid’ and ‘schoolgirl’ get-ups that feel vastly incongruous albeit fairly standard costumes for the Japanese market). It’s a clever and natural way to continue a story, not unlike the themes of heritage explored in Fable and Infinity Blade. It’s just a shame that such a surprise comes midway through a litany of monotonous battles and padded quests.
Billed as an eighty hour epic, Agarest Zero lives up to its completion time albeit in a manner that only the most ardent, stat-watching, grind-loving fan will appreciate. Like the promise of a twenty-course feast where every dish happens to be dry crackers, Agarest Zero has a lot of gameplay yet most of it feels empty and repetitive. Imperceptibly animated characters converse against generic, static backgrounds, wittering on about the gods, fate and other fantasy clichés heard a million times before. Aside from their unnervingly heaving chests – designed to simulate breathing but (perhaps intentionally) enhancing the assets of female characters – the most animated part of these scenes ends up being the scrolling text within the speech boxes. The character design betrays its budget production values but remains high quality despite the underwhelming graphics to be found in the main campaign.
The strange mish-mash of graphical style present in the majority of Agarest Zero will likely be a litmus test for any newcomers to the series. Your party of characters are drawn as 2D sprites, as if this were a game from an earlier generation of consoles, haphazardly moving their way across the environment in that Moonwalker-esque manner familiar to gamers of a certain age. The environments are isometric and often sparse, a by-product of the tactical nature of Agarest’s combat. Meanwhile, enemies can be 2D sprites or 3D models, resulting in a weird aesthetic, lacking cohesion in design.
From practical, unflashy stat-boxes and menus, to gaming terrain flatter than a Belgian steamroller test road, it’s unfair to say that Agarest Zero has terrible graphics. Instead, they are merely serviceable, there to present as little a barrier to the real meat of the game – the battles and story progression. The overworld map of the game opens up as you progress, dotted paths etching a course into the landscape. Red dots indicate a battle – it is these skirmishes that will test your patience as they litter the path to every quest or event. They are little more than a random selection of enemies to defeat, often in identical surroundings, serving no purpose than to dole out a meagre amount of token XP.
Despite relying on grinding and repetition, the battle system is one of Agarest’s more original contributions to the genre. The chessboard style grid of the battlefield reveals its purpose as each member of your team influences a certain pattern of tiles - their ‘Extended Area’. If you arrange your team so that they stand on these highlighted sections, a link is formed between applicable teammates allowing for elaborate, powerful combos. Each turn is divided into a Move and Combat phase, the former focusing on finding the best possible arrangement to deploy. Combat uses the genre-standard Action Points (AP) to limit your movements, skills and attacks, while each character has a different range to further complicate things. If a teammate is downed you’re given a few turns to revive them, while their absence boosts your SP meter, thereby offering last-minute special attack ability, referred to as ‘Arts’. There will be many times when a single team member remains and is able to scrape through, thanks to their newly activated special attacks. Unfortunately, doing so may win the battle but you’ll still have a full team to revive at the local Infirmary, costing an arm and a leg. Any inventory you may have collected will likely be sacrificed to save your team, making Agarest’s inventory management a surprisingly harsh balance between keeping your loot and saving your friends.
The aforementioned combos are a trial-and-error mechanism within battle, with most found by mixing various attacks until a combo unlocks itself. There’s an exhilarating rush whenever a new combo is found (and there’s always the option to buy a combo book from a shop) but the excitement can soon wear off. While the graphical style has a nostalgic feel – all sprites and particle effects – it can’t hold up an eighty hour game. Couple that with a tough difficulty and the pervasive feeling that most quests are the equivalent of treading water and you can see the average gamer switch off long before the end.
Agarest’s main problem lies in how you’re able to handle your destiny. The initial character creator simply presents you with a near indecipherable pack of tarot cards. You select a few, trying to work out what each supposedly represents, and are given a character with a particular set of skills – skills that you may not have realised you were choosing. Likewise, the dating-sim aspects of the game – wherein your interactions with female teammates determine your love interest – are frustratingly vague. ‘Vacation Days’ will crop up every so often, allowing you to converse with particular characters. Conversations have multiple options but are never entirely clear as to who they’ll affect or in what manner. More often than not, you’ll choose an option and unwittingly lose favour with someone, oblivious as to how they even tie in to the situation. With heritage such a central conceit within the game, the lack of control over your eventual partner (and offspring) cheapens one of Agarest’s few original ideas. Even the combat system, with its trial and error combos and last-ditch attempts, feels more like a futile stab-in-the-dark resulting in a predetermined spectacular finish, reliant on your last surviving character and their special attack.
Released in Japan in 2009, Agarest: Generations of War Zero was already dated when it hit these shores. Fans of the JRPG genre will likely love the grinding story, cutesy animations, waffling dialogue and value for money offered by the game’s length. Japan loves a good slog when it comes to RPGs and graphics are never priority one as much as they are in the West. Unfortunately, most gamers will likely see Agarest Zero and be put off by the retro presentation, lack of originality or the investment of time required. It’s a shame – the game is a solid, albeit unoriginal, title and a few interesting design choices reside amongst the generic blandness. It’s simply a question of how much time you are willing to commit to encounter a few nuggets of originality.