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Monday, January 23, 2012

Review: Ash 2: Shadows (iPad)

For those who bemoan the "death" of the JRPG here's some good news for you; Ash 2: Shadows is great fun. It's equal parts slavish devotion to the formula and self referential humour, but throughout it's guaranteed to delight.

The secret is in the presentation. In looking like an RPG Maker project (indeed, I have to wonder whether this game was built on RPG Maker), Ash 2 is an instantly appealing game to fans of the old SNES classics. Even better, on the iPad, the gorgeous sprites, cute character art and vibrant colours truly pop out in a way that transcends anything that was achieved on the SNES and PlayStation 1. The sheer quality of the visuals is enough to make me pine for developers and publishers to make these kinds of games for the PlayStation 3 or Wii; the artistic value would be incredible.

This visual artistry is accompanied by a very clever little script. There's a sense of wry humour throughout, and the game never wastes an opportunity to have a poke at the JRPG genre. And yet, like the best comedies, this game doesn't stretch things to the ludicrous. The humour is tempered by a creative quest that could have easily be turned into a serious JRPG.

What lets that presentation down is the soundtrack. The music itself is stylish, and the kind of classic JRPG music that fans would get right into. What lets it down is the execution, with some poor coding in the background creating some nasty distortion effects whenever the game needs to do some thinking - entering battles, opening the menu, and so on. The constant scratching meant that in the long term this game was better on the ears with the music turned off.

The game itself is as standard as JRPGs come, and doesn't even try to break from the established norms. Characters are on set development paths, and there's little room to deviate from their set combat roles. Battles are completely turn based. The quest itself is almost completely linear. The only concession to modern JRPGs that Ash 2 makes is in doing away with the random battles to have the monster encounters represented on the map instead.

Indeed, the developers have gone out of their way to make the experience as streamlined as possible. Rather than track experience individually, the entire party uses the one experience pool. If the "party level" is 12, the characters are each level 12. Equipment is streamlined down to just four different pieces of equipment per person. Characters can specialise in different weapons to get better in them over time, but this boils down to a simple matter of choosing a type of weapon (axe, sword etc) per character, and sticking to the best example of its kind through the game.

In battle, enemies also have very little variation in terms of tactics to deal with. Indeed, the combat is the single greatest flaw in this game; it's way, way too easy. Not once did I feel threatened by this game, even in the boss battles, which is a sure fire example of a game with balancing issues. As someone who likes a challenge in his RPGs, I got to the point where I tried to avoid the enemies as much as possible, not because the combat was frustrating (it's actually quite fun), but because I wanted to try and save some challenge for the boss battles.

But this is one of those rare instances when a JRPG doesn't succeed or fail on its battle system. This is a game which is all about the fun of nostalgia, and it largely succeeds. While we wait for an RPG Maker to come on the iPad with the ability to share games with other players, this is an admirable, and well crafted little bit of genre fan service.

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Review: Ash 2: Shadows (iPad)
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