Monday, November 20, 2006
Good: Top notch graphics, a sense of fun reminiscent of early Zelda
Bad: Stale battle system, occasionally so cute you need insulin
Inadvertent Drug Reference: Licking toads to restore HP
Honestly, I don't like role-playing games. I find them to be exercises in tedium and repetition that are more likely to trigger incontinence than gratify me as a gamer. Whoever was the first to vomit 1970's Dungeons & Dragons dice-throwing mechanics upon the virtual community should have little pewter dwarves rammed into every bodily orifice until ruptured organs bring their life to an excruciating end.
What's more, since we're being frank, I have a distaste for the manga style of Japanese art that borders on pathological hatred. Giant eyes, tiny noses and indeterminate gender may pitch tents at the Neverland Ranch, but it deeply annoys this overcompensating, heterosexual reviewer.
Considering all of the above, it is a testament to its quality that I don't loathe Magical Starsign for the DS. All of the elements that should send me into a foaming apoplexy are there "classic" turn based battles; a colorful landscape populated by twee, asexual ragamuffins but the developers at Brownie Brown (Sword of Mana) managed to create an engaging bit of escapism that rises above the normally infuriating trappings of the RPG genre.
The story is some inconsequential puffery about students from a magic academy who go planet hopping to rescue their missing teacher. Think Harry Potter, but melded with weird Japanese interpretations of Middle Eastern aesthetics, New Age mysticism, and zit-popping sci-fi. The character I selected to play as (you can choose between a male or female protagonist:as previously mentioned I'm a boorish pig, so I naturally chose the dude) resembles a Burning Man version of the Prince of Persia, complete with wash-board abs and a bejeweled diaper on his head. You and your coterie of mini-pagans interact with a whole galaxy of similarly goofy characters on your quest, most of whom spout reams and reams of occasionally clever text.
Despite the odd mish-mash of influences, the overall presentation of the game is very polished. The graphics are sharp and colorful, with characters and environments that are endearingly cartoony. The 2-D look of the game fondly recalls the top-down efforts of the Zelda franchise, such as A Link to the Past or The Minish Cap. There are also some high quality, fully animated cut-scenes squeezed onto that wee cartridge which rival those found in Metroid Prime: Hunters. The score is catchy yet tinny, and the sound effects do their job.
Magical Starsign uses both screens on the DS to very nice effect. All of the primary action takes place on the bottom touch-screen, with the top screen alternating between maps, menus or expanding the field of view from below. You use the D-pad to navigate your characters and your stylus to interact with the environment. Everything feels solid on the control front.
The battle system is where Magical Starsign, as well as virtually every other RPG, slips into a coma-inducing grind. While the game proudly advertises a unique spell system (some nonsensical hippy crap about your character's elemental symbol orbiting into planetary houses to increase your wizardly powers), I had absolutely no use for it. It was a random engine that didn't affect my strategy. What actually was a fun twist on the turn-based paradigm was the inclusion of stylus tapping to either boost your attack or fortify your defense. It's a simple addition that takes advantage of the touch-screen, adding a layer of immersion to an otherwise clock-work battle system.
Despite my aversion to the sort of games that attract albino pederasts obsessed with Japanese culture, Magical Starsign is a cut above the usual role-playing dreck. The story and script, while too cute at times, have a light-hearted humor about them. The graphics perfectly capture this sense of funderful fantasy, and it's one of the best looking games available for the DS. The only area where the game doesn't excel is in its battle system, which, despite some nifty stylus work, is mired in the same-old.
Definitely give it a shot, even if you are a role-playa-hatin' gaijin such as myself.
First Play: 8.0