I grew up in the 90s and thus my early gaming was dominated by 8-bit and 16-bit games. Between my Nintendo, Genesis, Super Nintendo and Gameboy, I found some of my favorite games, games that now inhabit the “retro” category. Now I’m going to try to avoid whining about how people see old games, but there is something I’ve noticed lately that is borne of a fascination with this apparent bygone age of gaming. Nowadays you can’t browse a single game catalog without tripping over countless stylized games using 8 and 16-bit graphics. Now for some this is due to nostalgia, others ease of access, and others still likely have different reasons for pursuing this retro design, but it really does feel like a gimmick anymore to slap some pixel graphics onto any hastily-made game and expect instant appeal.
I’m really trying to not dismiss all “retro” graphic games. I’ve already discussed the Earthbound-inspired Undertale, which derives a great deal of its heart from its retro graphics and soundtrack, and the puzzle game Camera Obscura which definitely packages fun platforming in charming simplicity. However, there exists a swath of half-hearted platformers and derivative RPGs that pollute the gaming market and seem to garner praise more for the look and the idea than the actual gameplay or story. Effectively, aspiring developers seem to be telling us that it’s “easy” to make a 2D game so they’re going to grab a copy of RPG Maker and grind out whatever it takes to get noticed. Unfortunately for them, it isn’t easy, and accessibility does not automatically promise success. Games like Undertale are good because they not only knew how to use their medium, but because they wanted to utilize it to realize a very clear vision.
Creating a good game requires a wide variety of skills, especially if you are doing most of the work by yourself. One of the most important skills though is to be able to be self-critical—to be able to look at one’s own work and decide maybe it isn’t exactly turning out as hoped. Now I’m not necessarily saying that everyone should accept only perfection when making a game. If we were always crippled with doubt about our work very little would ever make it out into the world. However, I don’t think this is a problem when it comes to the indie gaming community. Steam is flooded with underwhelming RPGs with stock assets and stilted dialogue. One such game is today’s focus, an RPG that promised to be filled with surprising twists on a classic hero’s tale. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to assess the merits of these claims, as the gameplay and bugs stand in the way of any wish to explore the world. Valiant Resurrection, produced by Aldorlea Games and developed by Warfare Studios, does little to shake up RPG conventions, and winds up weighing itself down with some of the more tedious standbys. Also, I’ve been told that my reviews would benefit from the inclusion of more dragons, and this game has a dragon right on the title card. So the dragon’s alright, I guess.
Valiant ([Resurrection] I’m not really sure which is supposed to be the title) starts by introducing us to our hero Agro through the tale of his many exploits before the game. We’re taken through his backstory, his engagement to the princess of a fair land ruled by a kind king and finally the tragedy that befalls them spurring Agro back into action. However, the introductory cutscene does not stop here. Instead, we continue to watch as we’re told Agro seeks out an oracle who tells him of the power to save his beloved in Asteria. We then watch as Agro fights and defeats the mighty dragon Golagros and commands him to fly Agro to a shrine so that he can plead with the gods for the life of his beloved. THIS is where we take over the controls and finally start our game, at this bizarre point of the plot that began without us. Now clearly there is much more game to play, but honestly it could have started long before. Why couldn’t we experience first-hand Agro’s departure from his home? Why couldn’t we explore the cave of the oracle or fight the dragon? Why couldn’t we learn the princess’ name? As you slog through the narrated introduction, you feel more cheated than informed.
Often it’s said of writing that you should show, not tell, and that in video games this is even more true. The player should be able to “do” not just “see”. Now I actually I don’t consider this to be a hard and fast rule. I do think that it is possible for a game to explain what is happening in a way the player can still enjoy. I don’t consider large amounts of text in a game to be an inherently bad thing. But Valiant Resurrection is an example of why long narration or dense writing is frowned upon. The text boxes tell you everything, including the emotions of the characters, and expect you to just accept it. The dialogue and the action are stock and do little to support the narrative’s claims, and the fact that it arbitrarily chooses the shrine to allow you to interact with the story further throw you out of the experience. It’s difficult to care about Agro, his nameless lover and his named dragon companion when you’re pushed into one way of seeing them.
Valiant Resurrection features a hybrid control system in that you can move Agro around either with the directional keys or by double clicking a spot in the map with your left mouse button. The game is programmed to find the shortest distance to the destination. This idea feels bizarre and out of place in a top-down game where your movements are limited to the standard four directions, but beyond this it also very quickly reveals some flaws in the game’s design. Certain terrain tiles that should be flagged as impassable are left open, causing your character to walk through cliffs and into the sky. Haphazardly stumbling across these things robs any sense of professionalism from the game, that no significant testing could’ve been done to discover such a simple oversight to fix (in RPG maker, all you have to do is enter the tileset editor and click on the side that you want to make impassable) and that someone could ask for money for such a game.
However, I don’t want to complain too much about being able to move more readily from one section of the map to another. In fact, knowing this was an option made traversing some of the overly large areas at least slightly less unbearable. The maps in Valiant Resurrection are unnecessarily large and at times illogically linear. For example, one town can only be fully explored by walking down one path and into someone’s house, in order to access the other half of the place through a side door. Exploration simply drags on and on, making you wish you could leave the location. Unfortunately, you’ve likely forgotten how you got there to begin with.
One of the most grating aspects of this game, in my opinion, is the personality of the main character. Agro is just so bland! Now, hero characters can often be flat or boring, but what makes Agro so insufferable is the attempt at making him involved in the world around him. He vacillates between a noble hero dispensing generic advice and a snarky wise guy engaging in predictable observational humor. Were there some personality traits that could piece his actions and outlooks together, perhaps he could be an interesting character, but since we are immediately thrown into near constant responses to every little piece of dialogue, the only thing we can really take away from the dialogue is that Agro likes to hear himself talk.
The game tries to make these interactions important at times by shoehorning in main quests and side quests that you can track in a log located in the menu. You can pick up side quests from NPCs, which ultimately task you with wandering around the frustratingly large regions to track down another NPC and talk to them, allowing Agro to have another pointless interaction devoid of meaningful personality. This quest system, a common thing in modern games, is rather clunky and awkward in the “retro” style Valiant Resurrection, as the world does not make you want to explore and its restrictions make it all the more of a chore. Say what you will about the repetitive nature of fetch quests; being forced to soothe two bickering mermaids on the opposite ends of town while running about on a broken fixed grid is just soul-sucking busy work.
The main quests aren’t any more impressive than the side quests. In fact, some of the main quests render the side quests a requirement. The clunky dialogue and forced situations leave you rolling your eyes and wondering what completely unrelated circumstances will befall Agro next. Consider this scene, an interaction with the priestess of the mermaid village Sirenuse Bay. Agro, looking to advance his effort to slay one of four titans to rescue his beloved, is told that the mermaids have no qualms whatsoever with granting him passage into their lands, though it is implied that this once would have been unthinkable. Instead, the convenient fact that marriage is so important to the mermaids prompts Agro to aid the priestess in helping a betrothed couple hurry up and tie the knot. The scenario itself is handled with about as much grace as my summary, with the priestess going so far as to call the engaged youths “primadonnas”. This is standard in Valiant Resurrection: the plot stumbles from one point to the next, never fully engaging you with anything meaningful.
Valiant Resurrection is an example of everything wrong with the trend of making RPG Maker games. It includes very few original assets, its story is clunky and forgettable, its design is incomplete and its battle system is so painfully stock that I forgot to talk about it. (It’s an RPG Maker battle system: turn-based, menu-scrolling… The works.) The game tries so hard to be something different that it becomes unsuccessful at being what it truly is: a generic RPG. The ease of access provided by the “retro” style does not immediately promise a successful game. However, it doesn’t immediately promise a failure either. With enough care and skill, you can take the tools offered by a game making program and create something fun and interesting. Until we start seeing more examples of it though, it may be presumptuous to ask people to spend money to be disappointed by half-baked games. If nothing else, it leaves a bad impression on the consumer and makes them unlikely to follow your progress as a game designer. With time and testing, even Valiant Resurrection could be a game that pushes the boundaries of what’s expected from RPG Maker games.