Saturday, February 26, 2011

Closing the Curtain on Disappointment 2011: Chaos Wars

I imagine that by now, some readers look forward to my posts with both a sense of anticipation and dread:  The anticipation of seeing a new post, and the dread of knowing that, given the first theme of the gaming year, the game that I'll be talking about will likely be a pretty awful one.  I'll start by letting you know that this post formally brings an end to disappointment 2011, and that for the foreseeable future, I'm not deliberately going out of my way to play awful games.

Thus the focus of this post is the game Chaos Wars:  A  crossover strategy RPG released in mid-2006 in Japan by Idea Factory, and surprisingly made it to the U.S. in 2008.  While anticipated by many S-RPG fans, the game was met with a host of criticisms:  Dated graphics, a simplistic battle system, obscure characters, but primarily an absolutely atrocious localization, which you can see here.

While Chaos Wars indeed deserves many of the criticisms levied against it, strategy gamers who keep an open-mind will find a game that, while simplistic in many areas, offers a wide selection of characters, numerous customization options in equipment and skills, and enough grinding options to keep even the most focused perfectionist occupied for awhile.  Read on for more details on the game that closes the curtain on Disappointment 2011.


First, let me start by saying that I'm a fan of crossovers.  I will agree with Patrick Gann of RPGFan's assertion that they tend to work best for fighting games (the success of Marvel Versus Capcom, to list one example, speaks to this), but I also know that when done correctly, they can work quite well for strategy games:  Any avid fan of the Super Robot Taisen series can attest to this.  Furthermore, any crossover fan can tell you that, outside of the aforementioned example of MvC, it's exceedingly rare for the U.S. to get any strategy game.

So when I dropped by Gamestop and saw them advertising this game for preorder, I went home and did enough research to find out the nature of the game.  My interest was piqued, and upon hearing that characters from a few series familiar to me were present (Shadow Hearts 2, a few of the Growlanser titles), I decided it was worth giving this game a purchase.

Upon purchase, though, I was slightly underwhelmed.  The character designs turned me off, and combat, while not horrible, left me expecting something more.  I played through the game for a few stages, attempting to figure out some of the mechanics, but upon getting to chapter 2 (out of ten), I quickly lost interest and put the game aside, vowing to come back to it eventually.

"Eventually", however, would be nearly three years later.


Doing a story in a crossover game is often a tricky affair:  After all, you need to create some plausible reason for characters of vastly different backgrounds and worlds to come together in one place (how does a demon coexist alongside a member of the Shinsengumi).  Some crossover games, like the aforementioned Super Robot Taisen series, manages to do this in a clever way:  Somehow, they're able to weave together all the different series into one cohesive world, where everyone is more or less aware of each other:  In other words, a world where Universal Century Gundam characters can exist alongside alternate universe Gundam characters (such as Gundam Wing) without an obnoxious debate over which mech is more powerful, while also having a cup of coffee with the cast of Evangelion.

Every bit this awesome.
The other option, which Chaos Wars chooses, is creating a central hub where characters from parallel worlds are dragged unwittingly:  In this case, it's a world called Endia.  Also, any good crossover game of the SRPG/RPG genre is usually going to have its own set of original characters developed by the parent company.  These individuals usually serve as a set of outside observers unattached to any of the well-known franchises for the more famous characters to interact with.

In some ways, Chaos Wars does this well, and in others, it leaves a lot to be desired.

The Originals

The three main characters of Chaos Wars are three high school students:  Hyoma (the primary protagonist), a sullen kid with a sour outlook on life, Hayatemaru, a would-be comedian, and Shizuku, the token female of the group.  Honestly, in terms of originals, these kids are pretty lacking.  Shizuku ends up being pretty obnoxious most of the time, while most of Hayatemaru's jokes fall flat (though he has some moments).  Hyoma is probably the funniest of them all, if only because of his cutting dialogue (particularly when he interrupts Hayatemaru at one point to go tell him to dig a hole in the ground, then flat out admits the hole had nothing to do with anything, other than buying Hyoma some time to NOT listen to Hayatemaru chatter).  They are later joined by the first resident of Endia they meet, a "Gate Master" named Rin Sunroad:  A somewhat scatterbrained girl who is a constant target of Hyoma's cutting remarks.

Unfortunately, he gets pretty tropetastic by the end of the game, going on the usual heroic spiels about fighting against destiny, and all that jazz.  He also grows closer to Rin, which while endearing in some ways, feels entirely too forced and rushed in others.

The World

The central world in which Chaos Wars takes place is a land called Endia:  It's a world comprised of numerous islands circling a large tower.  It's also a land where the sun never sets:

Like Alaska, only without Sarah Palin, or Russia in your backyard.

People and things being dragged in from different dimensions is something of a regular occurrence in Endia.  The actual warriors dragged in from other realms are known as Knights, who have the ability to "Realize":  In the case of people like Hyoma, it means awakening some unknown latent power (like I said, tropetastic).  In the case of the characters from established franchises, it means that for a short time, they are able to gain access to their powers from their home world:  So for example, Yuri from Shadow Hearts gains the ability to transform into his Dark Seraphim fusion, Growlanser characters gain access to their ring weapons, and so forth.

From a storyline standpoint, Endia also incorporates another interesting factor:  Characters who suffered from an illness or other debilitating condition find that it's mysteriously gone.  Thus Okita of the Shinsengumi, who was known to have tuberculosis, finds that his condition is mysteriously gone in Endia.  Grave (of Gungrave fame), who regularly needed blood transfusions to continue functioning, does not need this in Endia.  This is explored in some pretty interesting ways throughout the stories, though not as much as it could have been.

Even Distribution

One of the things I always admired about the Super Robot Taisen  games was how, in addition to bringing the protagonists together in a cohesive story, they also managed to incorporate the villains in nicely.  If you thought it was cool to see your favorite heroes teaming up, imagine how awesome it is to see villains from different series scheming together:

Unfortunately, there's no Solomon Grundy.
Sadly, Chaos Wars doesn't do that great of a job here.  While there are characters present from the first two Spectral Souls games, and all five Growlanser games, in addition to the original villains (who are of course the main baddies), Chaos Wars focuses overwhelmingly on the villains from Gungrave, Shadow Hearts: Covenant, and Shinsengumi (which was never released in the states).  The result sometimes makes you feel like you're really playing another Gungrave or Shadow Hearts game with a few random people coming along for the ride:

If you don't know him, don't worry:  You'll know more than you want to by the end of this game.
With so many different series represented here, choosing a few to focus on admittedly must have been a very difficult choice, but I can't help but feel that given the theme of parallel world traveling, the Spectral Souls games could have been better represented on the antagonist side.  And while I'm a huge Shadow Hearts fan, the villain in question they chose to focus on may not have been the best choice, given his role in the story.

Overall, the story of Chaos Wars has potential, and if you pay close enough attention, there truly are some hilarious moments (most of which come courtesy of Yuri or Hyoma's remarks), and Endia does an interesting take on the whole parallel worlds idea.  The execution, however, feels somewhat incomplete.  Admittedly, while story is a huge part of S-RPGs, so is gameplay, which I'll cover next.


I am not a big fan of any RPG or S-RPG where you can essentially make all of your characters identical, aside from one or two special abilities:  I like there to be a clear difference on who's worthwhile, who's a benchwarmer, and who is situational.  I'll give Chaos Wars credit for the fact that it does manage to diversify characters to some degree:  Each character has a set of 4 passive attributes (two normal ones, two that are only available during their realize state).  Each character has their own individual weapon proficiencies, but more importantly, there is a clear difference in stats, and as you level up more, you gradually begin to see who your powerhouses will be, and who the mediocre character are.
Furthermore, Chaos Wars gives you such a huge number of possible characters (45, if you don't miss recruiting any) that you have quite a selection to choose from.  Unfortunately, a few things ruin what could otherwise be fun:

Limited Deployment

While you can eventually amass a roster of around 45 characters, you are never allowed to have more than 5 characters on the map at a given time (obviously, your enemies can have more).  You can have up to 10 characters in your 'active' team (so you'd have 5 characters on 'standby'), but sending a character back to base mid-combat renders them unusable for the remainder of battle.

Not a problem in the early stages when you only have 3 people, but a huge pain later.

Even worse, inactive participants in combat do not gain experience, nor is there any way outside of combat (such as a dispatch mission) for them to level up.  While the game offers an endless supply of non-story related battles to gain experience, the limit of 5 characters makes leveling your team painfully slow:  I eventually resigned myself to leveling up only 5-6 characters for the whole game:  Hyoma, because of his absolutely phenomenal stats, Yuri, because of my love for SH (and the fact that he's a powerhouse in this game), two mages, and Grave -- speaking of him, that leads to my next issue:

Forced Deployment

I mentioned before that the game overwhelmingly focuses on the plots of Gungrave, Shinsengumi, and Shadow Hearts.  As such, throughout the game, there are a number of stages where you are forced to deploy certain characters:  While I mainly leveled Grave because I wanted a gun user (not to mention he has a badass theme and EX attack) , doing so ended up being a necessity since you were forced to use him in so many story battles.  When this happens, your already limited battle slots drop by one (and sometimes, two).

Admittedly, this loading screen is a subtle hint you'll be forced to use these people.

Trust me, it's also not fun when the game deploys a level 4 character you've never used against a battle with level 50+ enemies.  These scenarios seem to happen without rhyme or reason, really:  Once again, using Super Robot Taisen as an example, it was pretty obvious when you'd be on the slew of stages that would require a particular Gundam series at length.  In Chaos Wars, you'll pop into a stage with Grave randomly deployed.  Fortunately, the battle conditions of Chaos Wars are always "Kill or be killed", so even if the jobber bites the dust, you won't get a game over as long as the rest of your team is alive.

But of course, Chaos Wars does some things right in gameplay.  While some have criticized the game as being too easy, I do appreciate the fact that there are battles where rushing  headlong -will- get you killed.  Part of this is due to the fact that enemies work by the same rules you do:  Just as you have access to team attacks (an integral part of the game) and "Realize" abilities, so do your enemies:  And trust me, they will abuse the skills at any opportunity.  I found out the hard way that a team of enemy mages with high tier spells could make life entirely unpleasant for Hyoma:

This is a dramatic understatement of what actually happened.
Thus you actually do need to rely on things like status ailments, group attacks, and at least a somewhat balanced fighting force.  Elemental affinities actually do matter as well, meaning that you'll usually want a good balance of skills.

Really, I could go on about the good, as well as the bad.  Succinctly put, however, combat, while deceptively simple on the surface, does require some degree of thought, and can be challenging if you choose to take on the non-story missions later on at higher ranks.

Right now, it does sound like I'm singing the praises of this game.  But in acknowledging the good, I also need to acknowledge the bad, which the game has no shortage of, and primarily falls into one area:


If you followed the above link, then you've already discovered one of the things that Chaos Wars is infamous for:  Its awful dubbing.  However, I can forgive the dubbing for the simple fact that a dual language track exists:  If you can't stand the English voices (and they are pretty atrocious), switch to the Japanese ones.  However, the issues with the presentation don't stop there alone:


One of the nice parts about a crossover game is that it serves as a mix-CD in a way:  You have the original tracks made for the game, as well as a host of other different themes from a variety of series.  Here, Chaos Wars fails on a number of levels:  The original tracks are non only forgettable, but downright awful.  Secondly, the track selection from the other games is quite limited.  The best example of this is Growlanser:  While five out of six games are represented here, the only theme used for each Growlanser character, regardless of game, is an instrumental version of Wings of Light, the opening for the first game.  If you're lucky, you might hear an extra theme from a game (such as the Grand Papillion theme from Shadow Hearts 2).  To add injury to insult, the sound volume itself is inconsistent:  Both on certain tracks, and character voices.

Graphics and Animation

Admittedly, I was playing a game that came out in 2006 in 2011, but the graphics looked like a slightly lower quality version of Disgaea's (which came out even earlier, from an equally small company at the time).  There are some nice still shots (particularly during EX-Attack cut-ins), but for the most part, I felt like I was playing a more colorful PSX game.  Normally I'm not a graphics whore, but when I was attempting to get over my initial resistance to the game, this wasn't helping much.

Colorful, but I'll let you be the judge.

The animations for attacks are also a mixed bag:  Some, while quite impressive (as you may have seen, if you followed the link showing Grave's special attack), some of them drag on quite a bit.  You do have the option to turn off the animations (which I did), but you then deprive yourself of some eye candy.  I can't help but think there could have been a happy medium here, or at least the ability to speed up certain parts of the animation.


A lot of things about this game felt slower than they should have been:  The aforementioned attack animations, the procession of dialogue, the management of items and inventory. . the list goes on.  Ultimately, this pacing, along with the aforementioned other areas, and an overall lackluster presentation sadly keep Chaos Wars from shining as a solid niche strategy RPG.

Hopefully you've gained a fuller picture of the game and my experience by this point, but of course I'm sure a few of you are still asking the following:  Why did you keep playing?

Closing Thoughts

Usually, sheer stubborness keeps me playing even the worst game.  Usually it's my inability to fully walk away from something I started, and other times it's just the fact of knowing that I spent money on something, followed by a desire to get said money's worth out of it.  A combination of all three kept me playing Chaos Wars (as well as not wanting to admit I gave up on it to you all), but at some point, a weird thing happened:

The game actually started to become fun.  When I admitted this to the Enabler, she was quick to ask if I really thought that, or if it was the painkillers I was on making it seem fun (I was playing the game during a bout while I was recovering from surgery):

Even Rise of the Robots is tolerable with this stuff.
Sure, the limitation in the roster annoyed the heck out of me.  However, I began to appreciate the customization elements of the game.  When discussing Disgaea with The Enabler (who's an avid fan), as well as a number of other friends in the past, I used to mention that I felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of things you could do in the game, and thus didn't play it much.  The former, however, commented on the fact that Disgaea can be fun in small spurts:  Pick it up for a bit, do a little leveling, do something else.

Chaos Wars is no Disgaea, but when I started treating leveling and item customization from that venue, the game became a lot more tolerable.  Sure, I was eager to finish it (and make this post), but when I was beat from a long day at work or tired, the combat system was simple and familiar enough that I could just do a quest or two, get some neat rewards, and be done.

Admittedly, your mileage may vary.  When it comes to games, Idea Factory is notoriously hit or miss.  They make some truly unique games with engrossing combat systems, but are usually plagued by one or two horrific flaws that ruin the gameplay experience:  In the case of Spectral Souls (which someday, I will get around to), it was atrocious loading times.  Generations of Chaos suffered from a non-intuitive combat system.  The list goes on.

Perhaps what is truly tragic in the case of Chaos Wars, though, is that much of the issue comes from a horrid localization riddled with awful voice acting, blatant typos, and noticeable graphical glitches.  Had a company such as XSeed or Atlus taken the time to localize this game, we would have had a much better presentation, and perhaps a game that was lauded as a slightly above average strategy game.

In the end, Chaos Wars is a tough call.  Although this was the game to close out disappointment 2011 for me, it was not a complete let-down.  As for my verdict?  Like any crossover game, you'll enjoy this game much more if you're familiar with all the series in it (which can be a challenge for titles that were never released stateside, like Shinsengumi); if you're a Shadow Hearts or Growlanser fan, at least give it a try.  You may ot know the other series in the game, but who knows?  It might motivate you to go look up more info on them (personally, I plan to play Gungrave sometime in the future).

For those without any familiarity with the series, this is a game that you might want to steer clear of, unless you're a die-hard fanatic for strategy RPGs.    Even then, you'll need to keep an open-mind.

Truthfully, I was hoping to end Disappointment 2011 with a more dramatic post telling you of a painful experience I managed to overcome through sheer determination and focus:

Instead, as the last two posts of shown you, I've been pleasantly surprised.  However, as I move forward through clearing out my PS2 backlog, I am looking forward to playing games that I know I'll enjoy.

Or so I hope.

In either case, the only option is to keep moving through the backlog.

Until next time, keep playing:  Hopefully titles that bring you enjoyment.

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