Saturday, February 12, 2011

Game Review: Quest 64

Quest 64
  • Publisher: THQ
  • Developer: Imagineer
  • Platform/Release: Nintendo 64, 1 June 1998
  • Genre: RPG
  • Save: Controller Pak, 2 pages
  • Rarity/Cost: Common (US$5-15)

In the late 1990s, role-playing video games gained recognition by the American mainstream thanks to two particular titles: Final Fantasy VII on PlayStation, and Pokémon Red & Blue Versions on Game Boy.  Meanwhile, the Nintendo 64 had nothing to contribute to the genre, especially since those fine quest-crafters at Squaresoft jumped ship to Sony's camp.  In between those two landmark games, the Nintendo 64 got its first shot at the genre with a game known simply as... Quest 64.  Yes, it is a stupid name, bland and nondescript whether or not you mentally remove the "64" from the title, and it shows how little its American publisher, THQ, cared about the product (sales-wise, rightfully so).  Elsewhere around the world, it got the alternate titles Holy Magic Century in Europe and Eletale Monsters in Japan (which got the game a year after the other regions, despite being developed there).  I'll let you decide who got the best deal.

But the name's not important if the game content is the same across all regions.  (NB: The Japanese version did add some extra events and balanced the difficulty, but it's nothing worth losing sleep over.)  You play as a young lad, named Brian in the American version, whose father has gone missing whilst trying to reclaim the stolen Eletale Book.  Your journey will take you all across the kingdom of IrelandCeltland, with many sights to see along the way, but the game never makes a big deal about the overarcing plot.  The search for Brian's father is easily forgotten as you seek out the bosses who have been wreaking havoc... okay, mischief with with the four elements: Earth, Wind, Water, and Fire.  And while you're thinking about how lucky it would be if the bosses would eventually lead you to your father, you must control these elements in order to achieve your goals... sort of.

The battle system, triggered randomly within enemy-infested areas, does some unique things that are worth mentioning but don't always work out as they should.  To start off, instead of using a series of menus to issue commands, you physically move within an arena, limited in how far you can go by a blue ring.  Likewise, the monster(s) can only move within their red ring(s).  Should you for any reason want or need to escape the battle, make your way outside of the large yellow ring bordering the arena.  Pressing A or Z next to an enemy does a physical attack with your staff, but you have to make sure a staff icon appears over its head when you trigger an attack or else you've just wasted a turn.  To cast spells, you navigate through a menu by pressing a series of C buttons.  All of this is turn-based, so if you're intimidated, you can take as much time as you need to do this stuff without fear of (in-game) interruption.  Although you can't control the camera manually, holding B will swing it behind you, but for some reason in battles the camera more or less has a mind of its own, going on its merry way whenever you release B.  Good luck aiming spells then; why not add a lock-on system, triggered by pressing Z (since it does the same things as A)?

Many powerful spells are at your disposal...
Winning battles builds up your experience meter, viewable on the pause screen.  When it fills up, or when you find a spirit bubble anywhere on the ground, you add a level to one of your four elemental attributes.  With each level, spells of that particular element grow stronger, and new ones are learned at certain milestones (every 3 levels or so).  However, your attack strength is directly tied into the total number of element levels you have gained, so your physical attacks will always do more damage than magic, even if you throw enemy weaknesses into the mix.  The balance is off in other areas as well: for example, one shot of the Healing Lv.1 spell (Upgrade your Water element to level 4 as soon as possible) doesn't restore much of your HP, but you can fill it up all the way by casting the spell repeatedly after each battle.  Plus, you gain MP automatically by walking.  Yeah, I might have lost some of you by now.  But if it helps you grind for experience as long as possible, I suppose I shouldn't look the gift horse in the mouth here.

...But it's not always worth the MP.
Other statistics (HP, MP, Defense, and Agility) are powered up in their own ways, like in (the Japanese) Final Fantasy II, but for some reason, all your experience levels are measured in percentages instead of absolute points.  That's it - there are no weapons or armor to equip, or even money to spend on items - people will always give you a certain item if you don't have any of them at the moment.  Even using items is a chore: pressing R at any time brings up the Items menu, where your consumables are displayed in a row of eight icons at a time, with no way of skipping directly to one end or another.  If you have a lot of items stored up, be prepared for an... admittedly minor inconvenience as you slowly scroll through the whole list.

For a quest which uses the very word in its title, it's awfully linear.  A hallmark of the major console-style RPG franchises is that the whole world is open for exploration from the get-go, assuming you could survive the encounters in more advanced regions.  Not so here; you're constantly shephered within each region, unable to advance until you beat the boss - which by the way, you'll have to do a lot of experience grinding to have a fair shot at them.  It's linear in a literal sense, too: you think that would be funny, but once you spend an hour trying to make it through one of several caves, with naught but a compass to keep you headed on the right track, constantly running the risk of accidentally turning around and wasting time in the wrong direction, you won't be laughing.

One of the things that console gamers think of and expect when a new RPG comes along is an epic, sweeping, memorable story... something which Quest 64 fails to deliver upon.  Whatever limited exposition is in this game is limited to the text boxes of ordinary conversations.  It's too bad The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time or the PlayStation's Metal Gear Solid had yet to be released at the time; those two games showed the effect, if not importance, of real-time cutscenes.  Yes, I know the theft of the Eletale Book is wreaking havoc with the four elements; would you mind showing me some of the damage!?

And even if there were cutscenes in this game,  they wouldn't always offer a feast for the eyes.  While I must commend the art direction for all the wondrous sights you'll pass through, on a technical level, the graphics do little or nothing above the (admittedly low, in hindsight) standards set by Super Mario 64.  Many of the character models are blocky and chunky with hard-to-make-out features, and the textures can get especially blurry and poorly-detailed.  I know this is a weakness of the Nintendo 64 hardware in particular, but some games on the system handled this better than others.  Guess which camp Quest 64 falls under: the others.  Speaking of technical capabilities, the music could've easily been re-created, down to the waveform, on the Super Nintendo, or pretty much any low-budget video production from the 1980s.

Quest 64 happens to be the first true role-playing game I ever tried, and it proved to be a good choice to get my feet wet in the genre.  Not only does the concept of button presses for actions instead of menu commands tie it into the action games I was more used to, but it is incredibly dumbed-down, forgoing some of the basic concepts (money, equipment, party members) we take for granted.  In other areas, this game does have its intricacies, namely the combat and magic and experience systems.  The worst of the RPG snobs will certainly get bored with this in no time, but if you open your mind this game is worth trying out, despite the relative lack of effort put into it.

Control: 3 spells out of 5
Design: 2 spells out of 5
Graphics: 2 spells out of 5
Audio: 1 spell out of 5
The Call: 55% (D+)

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