It’s a really amazing game. I’ve seen Ken Levine rave about it, but I didn’t believe it until I tried it for myself.
Before I went in, I was expecting a competent Zelda clone with a sense of humour, and after the first hour of playing, that seemed to be what I was getting. I had a cute little slime character who was going through an area populated with largely incidental, minimally threatening enemies, gradually gaining new abilities and opening up new paths, culminating in a fairly run-of-the-mill boss battle. Our hero has an interesting basic attack where he stretches out and springs into enemies and objects, which pops them into the air where he can catch and throw them. There was an odd little collection mechanism where I was accumulating enemies and objects and carting them back to town, and I didn’t understand why.
But then, all of a sudden, the gameplay opens up dramatically. While I’m still traversing areas like before, the focus has been shifted to these giant tank vs tank battles. The central mechanic of these battles is collecting objects from within your tank, and then loading them into cannons to be fired at the enemy. At this point it becomes apparent that the game has, for lack of a better phrase, been “pulling a Valve”. All of that springing into and catching and throwing objects, and figuring out how these objects interact, has been developing the skills necessary to excel at these tank battles. And the use for all these random objects that I’ve been collecting is revealed: they’re to be used as ammunition for the tank.
But playing through these tank battles, something felt off. After dealing enough damage with cannon fire, the battles conclude by going into the heart of the enemy tank and destroying its core. But this process left my own tank undefended, since I wasn’t there to load the cannons or hold off invaders. Enemy tanks, on the other hand, were being manned by three or even four individual guys. It didn’t feel fair.
But once again, I had underestimated the game. Not long after nearly losing a battle due to this imbalance, I gained the ability to man my tank using my choice of allies that I had rescued in the adventure portion. And each of these allies has two behavioural preset which can be chosen between on the fly during battles. So now, not only do I get to customize my tank’s ammo, I get to configure my crew, too. It’s just been this fantastic progression. I’m only about half-way through the game, and even if it doesn’t expand again mechanically, I would be very much satisfied with it.
Another really nice touch is that, in the adventure portion, the game has a tendency to teach a skill in a basic way, and then invite the player to put the skill to use again in a harder context in an optional side-area. It’s a perfect example of this subtle, implicit method of developing skills that the best games are so good at.
And it’s not just the gameplay, the writing is genuinely charming too. The localizers at Square Enix have done a marvelous job. There’s a real love of language and delight in wordplay on display. There’s no shortage of groan-inducing puns (a heal-slime who is a clergyman is “Curate Rollo”) but there’s plenty of cleverness too. Some standouts: one enemy tank is a giant mechanized tree called the “Chrono Twigger”. What puts it over the top is that the name is written using the same typography as the Chrono Trigger logo. A cat-themed tank is “The Purrsecutor”. A giant knight is called “Fort Knight”, with the sub-heading “Not Too Weak”.
I do have a few points of criticism. The lead character moves a little slowly. This obviously is important in controlling the pace of the tank battles, but it can be frustrating when moving around in the field, especially when I have to backtrack. Also, the game, thus far, has been a little on the easy side. Finally, some of the menus are a little slow and cumbersome to navigate, and there are some inconsistencies in the default selections in some of them.
But these are all minor points. It’s such an unusual, delightful experience, one that makes me remember why I love playing games.