Perhaps you will remember one of the PS2's very first titles that focused on the main character's death. It was the critically acclaimed adventure title from Konami, Shadow of Destiny, and at the very start of the game, Eike fell prey to a mystery attacker and died. You spent the rest of the game traveling back and forth through time, constantly attempting to thwart your veiled assassin, unraveling an intricate storyline along the way. It was a very intriguing concept, and it's similar to the one we find in the upcoming PS2 RPG, Baroque. Those PS2 titles just keep comin', and even though Japan has had access to this one for a while, North American gamers will get their chance next month. In this one, you actually have to die in order to progress through the game's story; you will explore the afterlife, so-to-speak. Well, "afterlife" is probably the wrong term, as we'll actually be playing through an altered reality that came about after a catastrophic event.
It actually sounds similar to the post-apocalyptic world we first encountered in Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, where the world was infested with demons and demon/human hybrids. In Baroque, the dark world is also split into two factions, but they're called Baroques and Meta-Beings. Baroques are those who have been...changed...by their own twisted ideas and delusions, but at the same time, they're able to maintain a semblance of control. In other words, they can actually operate like normal humans. But Meta-Beings have let those aforementioned ideas take over, and they've become horrid creatures that only reflect their deepest desires. Now, if you know anything about the human mind, this should scare the ever-loving crap out of you; the deep recesses of our brain aren't to be trifled with! Obviously, battles tend to rage between Baroques and Meta-Beings, and this represents the crux of the plot. Of course, the question is, how exactly does one combat the other? Sounds complicated.
The main character in question suffers from amnesia, which isn't exactly a fresh theme, but it certainly offers up some added challenges. When you're playing as someone who has no idea who he is or why he's in some psychotic alternate realm, you've got all kinds of problems. To top it all off, you can't speak. You're a mute, and even in a world where nothing is as it seems, Meta-Beings haunt the lives of the Baroques, and everything is topsy-turvy, everyone still considers you a freak. Thankfully, you are given a concrete direction right off the bat, as a winged man with red eyes points you towards Neuro Tower, and hints that you are a very important individual. It quickly turns into a quest to save the world and yourself, but to do so, you'll have to work your way to the base of the tower. The winged man supplies the main character with his first weapon - a rifle - and sends him on his way. Now, it may not be the traditional RPG weapon (you were probably expecting a sword, right?), but then again, Baroque isn't your typical, run-of-the-mill RPG.
First of all, we won't be using a standard health meter in this game. Instead, we have Vitality Points, which has a crucial effect on a character. Basically, provided you always have VP, your health will continue to regenerate at a constant pace, but things get dicey if you lose all VP. When that happens, it's as if you've lost a shield and your actual health will begin to deplete, leaving you in imminent danger of death. The real difficulty centers on the fact that VP continues to drop even outside of battle; it counts down while exploring the world, and getting attacked will drop both VP and health. Therefore, you really need to keep a close eye on your VP if you want to advance without keeling over. But even death isn't treated in a standard fashion. If you do suffer the ultimate demise, it's not immediately Game Over; you just start the game fresh and certain aspects of the world may have changed. Characters may have new things to say, and those words will actually reflect what happened in your previous life...the one you left behind when you died. Thing is, death is actually supposed to happen if you want to get the full Baroque experience.
We're not really sure if you lose anything you've acquired when you die, though. In other words, if we spend a great deal of time running around in one particular life, does it carry over to the next one? Or are we really starting from scratch every time? We hope it's not the latter, because if it is, it makes much of our adventure seem almost trivial. But either way, this style of approaching death and reincarnation injects a unique element into the game, and we have more originality from the Neuro Tower. This is where we'll be doing most of our battling, and each time we enter, the layout will be different. During combat, a Baroque can attack a Meta-Being in a variety of different ways; by using either a standard or special attack or tossing items at the enemy. You can take just about anything in your inventory and use it as a damaging projectile, which will undoubtedly help you in the long run. When a Meta-Being is defeated, it leaves behind its heart, which you will use to replenish your VP. It's a very interesting way of doing battle, and one that should be wildly entertaining.
Baroque is scheduled to arrive for the PS2 on March 18, and it may be one of the last great RPGs on the system. There have been many over the past seven years, but we can always use another one, especially if Atlus' name is on the box. Here's hoping originality wins the day!
2/14/2008 Ben Dutka