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Legaia 2 Duel Saga
Score: 80%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Developer: Prokion
Media: DVD/1
Players: 1
Genre: RPG

Graphics & Sound:
RPG business has become big business over the last few years. Our appetite for new titles has become such that we're seeing all kind of new games. Some actually new, some import translations and some seriously retro conversions. The last category seems owned by Working Designs, the first by Squaresoft. The middle category has been a mixed bag. On one hand, some really interesting games have been brought over, and given us new categories of RPG we wouldn't have seen if the market had only remained lukewarm in the USA. Dating sims, things like Harvest Moon, all would only be games we'd read about and laugh at or if we were hardcore, put our money down and try to import. The popularity of Legend of Legaia, the predecessor to Legaia 2 Duel Saga which launched in the US a year after it hit Japan, created some ripples. A clamoring for RPG action has obviously contributed to the sequel seeing the light of day on our shores, but is it enough game to justify the trip?

In appearance, Legaia 2 seems a bit dated. Not that I'm holding it up to the light against Squaresoft's best, because that wouldn't be fair. The simple fact is that this game looks very much like what we might have been impressed with last year. Looks aren't everything, and of course one has only to look at something like Arc The Lad to see a great, absorbing, challenging RPG in a plain brown wrapper. Legaia 2 has an anime-influenced style, and although the battles can achieve some spectacular lighting effects for magic and Arts attacks, the monsters always look a bit ridiculous. The motion of characters during cut-scenes is stilted and artificial, making you realize that at least the suspension of disbelief for super-deformed and sprite-based characters is quick and painless. Voice acting is passable, although the voices during battle when you pull big moves get annoying real fast. The game world seems empty and lacks detail or much to create visual interest. Again, it's not like everything has to be created from a million Photoshopped textures, but spending time running around bland settings and then getting into battles without much visual pizzazz creates a sense of sameness that pervades Legaia 2.

Stop me if you've heard this one before. A boy, in a village, is called on to pursue a quest. Who he is and where he comes from may be tied to the stranger who has taken the village's beneficial crystal, a stranger with marks on his body similar to those of our hero, Lang. So, the quest begins... If this seems like the same old story you've heard a million times, you're not alone. Why you should give this a chance might be explained by fans of the series as a case where the fine print makes all the difference. Sure, the broader story is Blandsville. But, Lang meets some other interesting characters (again, no huge surprise) and they will stand alone against a force that threatens to shatter the human world.

Getting past the lack of original story, what I can argue strongly for in Legaia 2 is an excellent battle system. RPG battles are somewhat of a love-hate issue for almost any fan. We love interesting battles with great visuals and cool effects and endless customizations through weaponry and magic. But, we hate having to fight too many battles and we hate long drawn out sequences in battles that make us sit through the same tedious cut-scene of summoning, magic or whatever in every single battle. So, the Legaia series manages to walk a nice middle ground and satisfy gamers on both sides. You end up fighting a lot, and the battles take some time. What you'll like is that any battle comes down to a series of attack sequences you control closely. This gives the battles a very immediate feeling not unlike a fighting game. And in that vein, you may be surprised to hear (if you're not familiar with the game) that attacks are 'dialed in' just like a fighting game. Sure, the pacing is much more relaxed, but this is a RGP, after all... ;) The concept is great, the execution is solid, but is this enough to sustain an entire game? If not, you'll also be able to do some creative battle attacks with 'Origin' or summoning effects. You can exercise some interesting skills off the battleground also, such as gardening and cooking. The cooking skill is pretty cool, and I wish it were actually a bigger part of the game. Somehow, I think the only way these middle-ground RPG titles will survive is to play up the things that really make them interesting as a central aspect of gameplay. Otherwise, what Legaia 2 does end up looking like is a very average RPG with a few interesting quirks and a very cool battle system. On the flipside, gamers who don't care as much about innovation and only want a game with some deep story, interesting characters and hour upon hour of juicy battles will find solace in Legaia 2.

Say anything you want about Legaia 2, but don't paint it as some kind of watered down RPG joint. There is plenty of challenge from monsters in even the first few areas who will take you to school if you don't come prepared. Learning how to coordinate the various Tactical Arts attacks and discovering new Arts (a cool feature) is key to prevailing during battle. Understanding how to chain Arts together can be challenging, but you are rewarded with a set of options that mean no 2 battles need ever be the same.

Game Mechanics:
Lots of dialog to page through and lots of little encounters make for enough of the cinematic storytelling to keep modernists happy, but the deep battle action and interesting non-battle pastimes will have traditionalists nodding their heads. The best part of Legaia 2 is how smoothly all this meshes to create a whole. In no way is this a shoddy, thrown together title. The details may not always show up in the graphics or sound or even in the impact this game creates in the bigger pool of RPGs. But, in the narrow market niche where RPG enthusiasts look for interesting twists on the gaming formula, Legaia 2 should make a big splash. To give an example of how the Arts system contributes to some cool battle action, basic Arts create energy that can be expended in Super Arts or Hyper Arts, which eat up AP created from normal Arts attacks. And, a Variable Art can be created by 2 players attacking in combination. Once you have learned enough of the Arts moves and built up a library, you can combine more than one by intermeshing the sequences from multiple moves. What this really demonstrates is that the Arts system is like a language. Each direction on the control pad corresponds to an attack in a particular direction. Learning the different 'core' moves and improvising around them will often cause a character to learn a move, and by seeing the overall form of several similar moves, you gain an easy way to remember them for later.

In a world where Square and Disney can join forces, the market forces behind a game like Legaia 2 don't stand a chance. Fresh Games is becoming known for backing the more unusual and interesting games to come out of Japan, and Legaia 2 is no exception. The problem may be when mainstream RPG fans come to the table expecting a next-gen RPG and find a year-old game that really feels much like a good Pop song with a great hook. It's not like the song reinvents the genre, but the hook sticks in your head. You know what I'm talking about. Well, you definitely won't walk away from Legaia 2 thinking it is God's gift to the RPG, but I guarantee you won't be able to forget the experience of using and mastering the Arts system. So, I give my recommendation, with reservations. It's not for everyone, but if you have a taste for something different after playing the mainstream RPG hits this year, Legaia 2 is worth a look.

-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

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