Steampunk Fortnight is a good excuse for me to talk about what’s turned out to be my favorite game so far this year, the Japanese RPG Resonance of Fate, developed by tri-Ace and distributed in the U.S. by Sega. Unfortunately, it was released within a week of the debuts of Final Fantasy XIII and God of War III, and received relatively little critical attention as a result; moreover, reviews of the game were mixed. What’s interesting about the nature of these reviews is that the average score isn’t the result of a general consensus regarding the game’s mediocrity—rather, the highest score is 90 and the lowest is 25. I think this is because the game is innovative in a number of ways, and innovation often takes the risk of pleasing some while irritating others.
Resonance of Fate is billed on the back of its box as “post-apocalyptic steampunk.” Humanity has completely wrecked the environment, and its last-ditch attempt at rehabilitation involves the construction of a series of mile-high towers that serve as mechanically powered air purifiers that will, over the course of centuries, restore the world to its former pristine form. In the meantime, the purifying towers themselves are the only livable spots on Earth. The entirety of the game takes place on the tower of Basel (note its name, one letter distant from Babel), centuries after its original construction, long enough for its early history to have faded from the memory of its culture.
There are two plotlines in the game’s narrative that are laid out in the opening cuts cenes and converge at the game’s conclusion. The first involves the three player-controlled characters, Vashyron, Zephyr, and Leanne, who are a team of “hunters,” the cheerful errand runners that often crop up in Japanese role-playing games. The second (and, since this is revealed within the first ten minutes of loading the game’s disc into the drive, I don’t count it as a spoiler), involves the Cardinals that practice Basel’s quasi-Catholic religion. They’ve been keeping a secret from the populace: The God that they worship, Zenith, is a gigantic device made of clockwork. Moreover, the Cardinals have forgotten how to operate it, and so its mechanisms have become a mystery, and its actions have the appearance of miracles. This is the kind of reveal that usually comes near an endgame: Whenever an organized religion shows up in an RPG that does anything more than provide places for healing and saving your game, it’s a safe bet that it’s either not what it appears to be, is inherently evil, or is a front for some other secular organization with malicious intent. The fact that the reveal of God’s true nature is dispensed with before you’ve even pressed the Start button in Resonance of Fate is one of several ways in which the game seeks to overturn and complicate traditional storytelling conventions.
And so while the Cardinals spend the game attempting to reverse-engineer Zenith’s construction so that they can operate it to serve their own ends, your happy-go-lucky team of hunters performs tasks of varying degrees of importance for Basel’s citizens. These characters begin as familiar types: Vashyron, the slightly older father figure (note that the mid-twenties usually counts as “older” in a JRPG); Zephyr, the hotheaded younger male; and Leanne, the wholesome and pretty young woman. But over the course of the game they evolve in unusual ways. Leanne, at the beginning of the game, is on the receiving end of an endless stream of sexist jokes from Vashyron and Zephyr, comments about the size of her chest and what’s beneath her skirts. However, by the end of the game, those jokes vanish from the storyline, and one boss battle takes place while she has a thoughtful discussion with the boss about the nature of her femininity. (“I’m as much a woman as I ever was!” she shouts at him while emptying a machine gun clip into his head. About that machine gun—more later.)
Even if she never quite becomes the Kick-Ass Heroine that might be more in line with my cultural politics, she is dynamic, becoming tougher and stronger and more well-rounded as a character, and art doesn’t necessarily have to confirm my cultural politics and sensibilities—often, it’s more interesting to me when it doesn’t.
I say that primarily because of the character of Zephyr (and if this paragraph sounds vague, it’s because I want to tread lightly and avoid spoilers). The manual’s description of Zephyr’s character mentions that, in the time before the game begins, he was involved in a certain “incident”; that incident involves a character who commits what must be one of the most heinous crimes I’ve seen depicted in a video game. (When I described it to a friend who asked about it, he said, “I didn’t think you could actually have that kind of thing in a game and still sell it.”) Moreover, for reasons that also constitute major spoilers, said character is completely absolved of any legal consequences from that crime. Usually when we’re presented with a stereotype character like Zephyr in a JRPG, we expect the headstrong, impulsive kid to get some life lessons that result in his maturing; however, because of the “incident” and its after-effects, his character arc tends not toward maturity, but nihilism. He becomes an increasingly unpleasant person as the endgame approaches, and gamers who wish to identify with their in-game avatars will have a tough time here. But the presence of unlikable protagonists can signal a difference between a work of art that’s just interested in escapism and a work of art that’s trying to do something more, and as gaming as a genre continues to shrug off the impulse to be primarily escapist, I think we’re going to see more characters like this.
The game’s storytelling method is appealingly oblique. Instead of being overtly cinematic, with lengthy plot-driven cutscenes doled out as rewards for beating bosses, the cutscenes are pared down to nearly nothing—much of the narrative comes from the dialogue of non-player characters, or sidequests that can be easily skipped, or observed changes in the game’s environment. It can seem at first that the narrative makes little sense—characters have conversations with each other that sound like a series of non-sequiturs, but nonetheless are fraught with portent. But on a second playthrough the story makes (almost) perfect sense. It’s a pleasure to revisit the opening cutscene every few chapters as you progress through the game—what at first seems like a slick but empty action sequence ends up being full of information that you can’t initially process, so that it reads in a different way when you’re halfway through the game, and in yet another way when you’ve finished it. (My only complaint here is that the endgame’s plot involves characters who engage in conflict not because it makes sense to do so, but because the conventions of video games demand it, but that’s minor.)
Resonance of Fate can get away with these stripped-down cutscenes because its world is so satisfyingly detailed. The graphics and sound are gorgeous, though the designers have opted for subtlety rather than flash. Basel seems to defy the laws of physics: there’s no way its slender central spindle could stand on its own in the real world, and it’s festooned with gears and escapements that are dozens of feet across, but that move with the grace and delicacy of the components of pocket watches. A lot is done with color and contrast: sometimes you’ll see an enormous shadow cast on the ground from a giant spinning gear that the sun shines through, and as morning turns to afternoon, that shadow will drift across the ground as the colors of the world change from bright yellows to burnished reds. Much work was put into the ceilings of caves and chambers, as if the designers knew that gamers would occasionally look up to check that the ceilings were actually there.
The game’s sound design is equally detailed and elaborate. There’s a lot of music here. Every single area of the game has its own theme, and the soundtrack album takes up a full six CDs. Ambient noise is employed throughout to convey and augment crucial narrative details, such as Basel’s class structure: While the upper levels of the tower, where the Cardinals live, are nearly silent, the lower levels are never free of the constant clanking of machinery. The game also makes extensive use of your surround sound setup if you have one, placing dialogue and effects precisely throughout the soundfield. (I recommend turning down the sound effects in the option menus slightly—otherwise, the constant sound of gunfire from all directions may start to wear on you).
So this is a game that’s interested in going against convention in almost all of its narrative aspects. How does this impulse extend to the actual gameplay?
Truth be told, many RPGs are barely even games—in most of them, you advance not through proving your skill, but by doing enough work, pressing the X button enough times to convince the game to grant your characters a statistical bonus that will allow you to get more work done with fewer presses of the X button. In many instances, AI-controlled party members will happily help you out by automating rote tasks for you, or healing your character without asking if you make the rare tactical mistake.
Resonance of Fate isn’t like that. Even the random battles between bosses can provide a real challenge, and level grinding is little help here. However, you can beat bosses that are twice your level with proper planning, just as you can be slaughtered by enemies that are half your level if you make too many missteps.
The battle system has a reputation for being difficult to comprehend, and it is indeed more complex than the systems of most RPGs. I’m going to shy away from describing it in too much detail here, since that would make a long post even longer. But, in the grand scheme of things it’s not that hard to understand. In particular, if you’ve played Sega’s Valkyria Chronicles, you’ll catch on to it quickly—it’s similar to that game in that it’s a hybrid of real-time and turn-based gameplay, and positioning on the battlefield matters a lot. After a few hours, reading all the on-screen meters at a glance will become second nature, and you’ll find yourself regularly thinking, “Well, I can send Vashyron on a Hero Run and have him fire Hollow Point Plus bullets into that guy that’ll send him airborne if I’m lucky, then jump into the air halfway through the run and fire some more rounds into him that’ll give me a Smackdown for bonus items; that’ll give me a third Resonance Point, and the subsequent Tri-Attack after that could possibly finish him off, especially since I’ll probably get Full Scratch Damage.”
There are two principal kinds of weapons available to your characters: handguns and machine guns. This may sound restrictive, but the weapons are highly customizable, and take multiple grips and barrels and scopes that can all have modifying effects. (The gun design here is not at all concerned with realism—near the end of the game one of my characters had a golden machine gun with six scopes and over a dozen barrels attached.)
The most precious resource during combat is Bezels, which appear at the bottom of the screen. Expending a Bezel allows your character to perform a Hero Action, which essentially slows time while the character runs across the field in your chosen direction, leaping around and firing off weapons as if he’s in a John Woo movie. Bezels are replenished if you kill an enemy or remove part of its armor during a Hero Action, and once you get past the early game, it’s necessary to use Bezels for your turns almost constantly—if you run out of them, you’ll be reduced to taking potshots, and you’re likely to be quickly annihilated. So the strategy during battles involves a constant balancing act during which you have to weigh the cost of expending a Bezel against the probability of replacing it during the Hero Action.
Tactical difficulty is compounded by the fact that enemy AI is ruthless. Since a game-over results if any one of your three characters falls in battle, the game loves to send three or four enemies after your weakest character to harass him or her constantly. Moreover, status effects have an unusually significant effect on battle, and are difficult to protect against. Another favorite AI strategy starts with one enemy freezing one of your characters so that he can neither move nor shoot. That enemy will keep the character frozen, while the others on the field swarm him and start hacking away at him. Poison is worse: if one or more of your characters is poisoned, a battle that seems to be going your way can easily get away from you in as few as two turns. Armor that defends reliably against status effects only becomes available in the late game, and has to be synthesized using an item that drops only, and rarely, from a particularly powerful enemy (which can poison you, natch). So the most successful strategies involve not getting afflicted by status effects in the first place.
I found this difficulty to be refreshing—while I began Resonance of Fate thinking that it’d be a stopgap that’d keep me entertained between more interesting high-profile games, I ended up investing 119 hours to get the platinum trophy for the PS3 version. This involved playing through the game twice (my second time was a seven-hour speedrun), completing all of the sidequests, winning a series of 500 battles in the game’s Arena, and beating the optional dungeon Neverland, which is extraordinarily difficult (and also has a couple of major plot reveals). In all this time the game never became boring to me, with the occasional exception of the Arena, which got a bit grindy at times. But without the experience acquired in the Arena, the monsters of Neverland will finish off your party hilariously fast.
I’m tempted to wind up here by saying “you’ll like this if this is the sort of thing you like,” but since I don’t think there’s another game quite like it, that wouldn’t be useful. But I greatly enjoyed Resonance of Fate, and if you’re looking for a game with a stiff challenge, a unique setting, and an unconventional storytelling method, I definitely recommend it. If it seems inaccessible at first, read the manual and play through the tutorial in the Arena, then push through the first few hours. Once you’ve beaten its initially steep learning curve, you may be pleasantly surprised.