When it comes to Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs), developer Tri-Ace and publisher Square Enix are two of the big hitters within the industry.
Their brag sheet includes the Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts, Dragon Quest, Star Ocean and Valkyrie Profile series – all classics in their own right. With such a pedigree parentage we expected nothing less from their latest offspring, Infinite Undiscovery, than a first rate game with plenty of substance , memorable characters, engaging storyline, plus top of the range production values.
The learning curve is a leisurely 40-60 minutes, due to the tutorial screens drip feeding info on a 'need to know' basis as the game progresses. Controls are fairly simple to master, and once you have acquainted yourself with the various commands you’ll be able to focus fully on the game’s story and characters. Speaking of which….
The story behind Infinite Undiscovery is basically another take on your basic ‘good vs evil’ and ‘zero to hero’ tale. In this case the good guys are a devoted, ragtag band of freedom fighters led by a noble knight: Sigmund the Liberator, whose hobbies include mowing down hordes of Order of Chains minions and destroying their handiwork by severing the heavy duty chains they use to shackle the moon (an improbable scenario, but this is the realm of fantasy RPG – and a Japanese one at that). The game’s protagonist is not actually Sigmund, but a rather less heroic jailbird flautist named Capell, who happens to look an awful lot like him, and whose life is changed forever when his uncanny resemblance to the people's hero prompts one of Sigmund’s followers to bust him out of the slammer.
Like many games of this ilk the storyline behind Infinite Undiscovery is linear, and while it does contain a few optional side quests, many of these are of a trivial nature, requiring Capell to take on the role of errand boy rather than anything truly intriguing.
Onscreen tools such as a mini map provide some basic navigational assistance, although a compass would have been handy. Other onscreen icons include an AP gauge (used in battle to boost the effects of your combo moves and special attacks), and at-a-glance party status icons. The in-game menu is simple to navigate and has a logical layout… one less thing for the novice RP gamer to worry about.
From a pool of nearly 20 dramatis personae – most, but not all of them RPG stereotypes – you can field up to four at once in your party, with three of them AI controlled. Whilst you only have absolute power over Capell, you are able to issue tactical commands and dip into the other party members’ diverse pool of talents (such as talking to animals, spells and bow attacks) via an innovative Connect Actions/Skills feature. At certain points in the game there will be up to three parties of allies working together to complete a set of objectives; however you only have to worry about Capell and your own party, since these 'sub-parties' are AI controlled.
While it’s refreshing to have such a large group of allies to work with, you never know which ones you’ll need in your party from one scenario to the next, and keeping all of them kitted out in the best gear your limited finances can afford is a logistical challenge of epic proportions. If the number of allies were slashed by perhaps half this would have been far more manageable, and the individual characters more memorable.
Encounters are fought in real time, and combat action takes place on the main game screen with absolutely no pause in gameplay. This seamless transition makes for a faster paced experience without the sometimes frustrating stop-start nature of turn-based battles on a gridded layout. There is one caveat, however: ‘real time’ means exactly that. The game doesn’t pause while you rummage in your backpack or decide to dabble in a little item creation. If you haven’t parked your party in a safe place you could well be caught unawares. On the plus side, enemies are usually visible onscreen – sometimes from quite a distance. There’s none of the annoying ‘running through an apparently empty countryside, only to be thrown into battle without warning’ format of many JRPGs.
Battles are fast paced and full-on, loaded with impressive combo moves, spectacular FX and special attacks with impressive-but-nonsensical names (the latter is par for the course in a JRPG). One feature which proved extremely useful during combat was the Healing Request. This instructs available party members to focus on healing injured comrades, leaving you free to continue racking up impressive ‘overkills’ on your hapless foes. Levelling up is largely a hands-free affair, with stat increases and unlocked skills assigned automatically. The overall game mechanics are geared toward delivering an accessible RPG experience, which for the novice gamer is a definite plus. Veteran RPG fans who prefer the detailed, time consuming business of DIY level-ups may find this lack of freedom somewhat restrictive, but it does fit well within the context of this particular game.
Infinite Undiscovery boasts some impressive visuals, including explosions, attack and spell effects, and there are some good looking, detailed environments to explore. However after a while the scenery begins to take on a repetitive quality, much like driving along the Desert Road or the Hauraki Plains… miles and miles of the same terrain (and playing 'I spy' to pass the time is not a viable option).
For want of a better description it just lacks a certain ‘wow factor’ that would elevate it above the many games with merely ‘good’ graphics, to the few great – and more importantly, memorable – ones.
Character animations are reasonably realistic; subtle gestures and the occasional facial expression combine with generally well-matched voice talent to bring each one to life, although synchronisation of speech and lip movement is terrible – even for a dubbed-over Japanese game. There are sections of dialogue where characters can be heard conversing but there’s nothing in the animations to suggest this. Also, cut scene dialogue often switches between speech with no text, and text with no speech without warning, which has a disconcerting effect on the poor viewer. It doesn’t help matters that onscreen text is tiny and difficult to read. Nit-picking perhaps, but it dulls the polish of every interlude. By contrast the orchestral soundtrack is simply beautiful, and skilfully manages to convey the mood of each scenario without being intrusive.
All in all, Infinite Undiscovery ain’t half bad – certainly better than its obscure title would suggest. It’s kid-friendly (say, for 11+), boasts a large cast of interesting and diverse playable characters, a decent storyline, and a swiftly moving, robust combat system with some genuine innovation; a rare thing in this day and age. Despite all this we can’t help but feel it hasn’t quite achieved its full potential. With less than 30 hours of play on offer, experienced fans of the genre – and of the high calibre RPGs we’ve come to expect from both Tri-Ace and Square Enix, may feel there’s not quite enough to satisfy our boundless appetite for truly great RPGs.
Having said that, thanks to its seamless, real time action and user friendly interface it is an excellent choice for newbies to the genre, and to younger gamers with a penchant for button mashing and a good yarn.