Atlus is well known for producing amazingly deep role-playing experiences, but they typically stick to the traditional mold for most of their projects. On the flip side of that coin, we typically applaud the effort when a developer decides to take a risk and embrace a slightly different style, which is what Atlus did with Baroque. Granted, it was developed by Sting, but any RPG with Atlus’ name on it should be relatively predictable by now, which is why we were happy to see something fresh and new. Well, we were happy to see it for about ten minutes, until we realized this wasn’t a risk worth taking, and most fans of the veteran role-playing publisher won’t be satisfied with the result. Baroque is a game hampered by a decided lack of direction, a mostly lame-duck story, iffy controls, and technicals that are questionable at best. In short, this really isn’t what we’ve come to expect from an Atlus-published game, and while that could’ve been a positive, it ends up being a resounding negative.
The graphics are sub-par in every respect, as Sting decided to focus on a palette consisting almost entirely of dark, drab colors, and there’s very little detail involved in our adventure through the tower (and there ain’t much more to explore). There’s the standard “jagginess” found in many PS2 titles, but that wouldn’t have been much of a drawback if the team had exhibited more in the way of effort. We understand there won’t be much in a post-apocalyptic world, but couldn’t they at least have upped the appeal of the atmosphere and general environment? It constantly felt as if we were running around bare-bones landscapes that had no real substance to them, and it got tiring. The character and enemy design is okay, and we did like the fact that all our new equipment could be seen on the main character, but that’s about all we liked. Atlus isn’t known for flashy visual presentations, but they can usually provide us with pretty sprites and hand-drawn backdrops. In Baroque, Sting tries a new approach and a new style, and it just doesn’t work.
The sound is a touch better, but only because the combat effects aren’t bad and the voice acting is average. The soundtrack is either non-existent or instantly forgettable, and that’s a shame, because they really needed music that could draw the player into this mysterious world now trying to recover from the effects of the Blaze. Instead, all we really get are some boring, slow-moving beats that occasionally pick up when we’re faced with a particularly dangerous obstacle, but that’s about it. The combat effects are mostly solid, but they soon became repetitive and the actual number of effects is seriously lacking. There’s a “slash” – slammed down on an enemy with a sword – and a “squish” - stepped on something slimy and nasty – but after playing for only an hour or so, you’ve heard just about everything this game has to offer. Sound is one of those categories that never gets enough respect, and when it falls short, the entire production falls short. Sting apparently didn’t worry too much about this and were satisfied with, “eh, that’s good enough.”
As we said before, Baroque may surprise you with its focus on real-time combat. A lone warrior heads into a tower to descend towards what we can only understand as absolution, in a freshly destroyed world that is no longer restricted by the physical limitations of death. You will die plenty, but when you do, you simply start again outside the tower, minus anything you may have collected when inside. This defies all logic and no matter how hard we tried, we simply couldn’t understand the purpose to this feature. How is this entertaining? How are we being rewarded? We assume the goal was to present us with an old-school format, where we would always start the level over again after dying, and without anything we acquired in our previous run-through. It was the way of the 2D side-scroller back in the day, and while there’s a certain nostalgic purity about that, it seems very much out of place in Baroque. This isn’t Contra, damnit. Worst of all, we don’t really even know why we’re constantly trying to attack this tower!
Everything is all very surreal and vague. And while this can be extremely effective when implemented correctly, it’s nothing but annoying in this game. We’d like to know why we’re killing ourselves (literally) over and over again, working our way through this very non-descript tower, negotiating mazes and opening up new pathways, and conquering new foes. We’d like a reason. But no, you go in and just try to get as far down as you can. Unlike the traditional RPG, you will encounter and battle enemies in real-time, even though you do have an interesting and challenging HP/VT system; the balance of which ultimately dictates your success. Essentially, if you lose HP and have VT (Vitality), your VT will deplete until the HP is refilled. If your VT reaches zero, your HP cannot refill, and you’re in imminent danger of death, especially considering that many enemies can easily kill you in only a few hits. Items you encounter will restore both HP and VT, and deciding which to refill and when is a major part of the strategy in Baroque.
The controls themselves are extremely simple: press Square to attack, X for a special powerful attack, move with the left analog (or d-pad), control the camera with the right analog, and switch through your inventory with the shoulder buttons. These never change, and there is no block or dodge option. You can move out of the way, of course, but for the most part, it’s all about killing the enemy before it kills you. Needless to say, this isn’t God of War, and it’s a sorry excuse for a straight-up action gameplay mechanic, which drags the game down even more. We have to award points for the ambition, though, and as difficult as it is, the HP/VT system really forces the player to work hard and pay attention to every second of every enemy encounter. Furthermore, because there both ranged and melee weapons, you can – at the very least – experience some diversity when it comes to combat. The character himself isn’t very capable, but you can pick up some seriously cool stuff.
However, we did notice several major glitches, and in a very short span of time, too. First, this angel gave us a very sweet-looking weapon, and during battle, we tried to use it without equipping it. Accidentally, we made the character throw the weapon, and we just figured we’d beat the enemies and pick it up when it was all over. Well, the weapon had disappeared, and after testing throwing it again when first getting it, it didn’t disappear, so obviously, that wasn’t supposed to happen. Secondly, even if it isn’t a glitch, we really don’t think the first menu option for an Item called “Boom” should be “Eat.” Because we did, and we died instantly. Comical, yes, but still a significant design flaw, given the fact that “Eat” is the default for anything you select in the menu…there’s just something wrong with that, don’t you think? As for the control itself, it’s simple and responsive, but there just isn’t enough to do. The camera is very loose and there’s no way to auto-center it during battle, although you can choose to aim at certain targets. It’s just a very mediocre system the whole way ‘round.
The storyline is difficult to explain and really not worth the time. As mentioned above, everything is very vague, and you won’t find out anything significant for a very long time. By then, you’ve likely grown very tired of the same ol’ routine: go into tower, find your way through, fight a few enemies, pick up a few items, die…repeat. Without a sense of direction or a goal, you never feel as if you’re working towards something, and the entire quest almost seems arbitrary. Every once in a while, you’ll come across an event or a cut-scene that may intrigue you, but as you must again do the exact same thing to reach the next part of the story, you'll lose interest very quickly. Baroque really isn’t worth the price of admission, and even though it’s somewhat ambitious and new, the whole production falls flat. It doesn’t work as an action game, it doesn’t work as an RPG, and despite having a few good ideas, it doesn’t deliver in any way, shape or form. Sorry, role-playing fans. You gotta pass on this one.
8/12/2008 Ben Dutka