Preview by Ginny W.
A game that advertises itself as being a mix of other established titles always makes me a little bit wary. I think that there’s a very fine line between a studio being inspired by a popular game versus reproducing a core idea from a popular game in a new title and hoping that it’ll be received just as well.
Regalia – Of Men and Monarchs is self-described by its publisher, Pixelated Milk, as a game that’s an homage to classic JRPGs. A quick scroll of the game’s Kickstarter page is like checking off items on a grocery list of Japanese games that have enjoyed mainstream success – Disgaea, Persona, Sekaiju no Meikyuu. That’s a lot for a game like this to live up to! Considering that Pixelated Milk is a studio of admittedly humble beginnings, I was more than a little sceptical; not because I’m one of those idiots who thinks that AAA titles are America’s gift to mankind and nothing else can live up to them, but because I couldn’t see how Regalia could turn the best parts of all those games into a goldmine. Luckily for me, it didn’t have to.
Before we arrive to any sweeping generalisations about Western attempts at Japanese games, let me be the first to say that from the beta content, this isn’t a Ghost in the Shell situation. In fact, I’m quite pleased to report that Regalia is actually quite charming. Yes, there are hints of Disgaea. The only real similarity with Persona is the adoption of social bonds. In the case of Sekaiju no Meikyuu, Regalia has a rather impressive soundtrack by the minds behind Endless Legend that draws from the former’s experimentation with orchestral themes and modern instrumentation, but that’s where the buck stops. I wouldn’t necessarily call it false advertising to name-drop those other games, but the experience delivered here deserves more than quick comparisons to other titles.
Ultimately, it’s a production that’s rough around the edges, but endearing. I wouldn’t have thought to call an adorably animated game “gruff”, but that’s as close as I could get to summing up how it felt as it pushed me around the first few levels with an iron-fisted grip on my training wheels. From the get-go, it was made very clear that Regalia is a game that values efficiency and sensibility. I’m not quite sure if Polish efficiency is a thing in the way that German efficiency is, but this might make a compelling case for it. You don’t get much in the way of an introduction to the narrative of the game once the title screen is pushed out of the way apart from a set of illustrations that deliver a basic spread of common tropes – your family has passed, you’re a prince, and you’ve inherited some land that you can do with as you will.
To this end, it was starting to look like Harvest Moon could have met the criteria for inclusion in the Kickstarter description as a source of inspiration too. The game was in its beta stages when I played it, so it could well be that the finished product ships with a little more pizazz in explaining why you’re doing what you’re doing, but I spent the first half an hour feeling shunted between strange places and even stranger characters with little exposition. I didn’t feel compelled to take my time with some of the niftier features of the game, and that was a bit of a pity, because there were a lot of hidden gems peppering the rather sparse framework.
Despite being a game in beta (or because of it, depending on your stance), Regalia is crammed full of features. These go beyond the aesthetic appeal of the game; I’m not talking about a particularly beautiful UI here, or combat controls that are incredibly streamlined. Once you’re past the tutorial, the game does the equivalent of throwing a backpack of knick-knacks at you before pointing you in the direction of the nearest boarding school like some kind of absent parent. The tutorial really only comprehensively covers the basic mechanics you’d expect from any game – how to fight something, how to make it like you, and how to move around. Once you get full access to your incredibly detailed quest objectives panel, it’s a bit like the Wild West. It’s not difficult to understand what’s going on, but there’s just so much that can be done. I mean, even as a lover of a good open-world game full of optional quest markers. I was a little suffocated by choice anxiety here.
Firstly, there’s social bonds – these are measured in the old-fashioned way via various levels of affection and corresponding extra combat skills, but there’s also a huge timetable of each NPCs daily routine so you know exactly where to find them. Hell, they’ve even got days off. Managing social bonds isn’t just about saying the right thing; it’s also about obsessing over where your loyal sidekick is going to be on a Tuesday so you don’t have to do leg day alone. The extra bells and whistles felt pretty cool, until I realised quickly that choosing to hang out with them usually resulted in watching the same scene over and over, even if your affection was level two instead of one. There’s a lot of incredibly shiny buttons to press, and having the timetable (while a little creepy) was a nice touch; it probably ended up detracting from me feeling like I was making an organic connection with the in-game characters. It seemed like Regalia tried very hard to condense the concept and function of social bonds (half-Tinder, half-optimisation) down into their essence, whilst forgetting about the importance of the “social” aspect of it.
Then, there’s the pacing. My first major in-game narrative event was a timed quest, of sorts; I had to fix up my dilapidated council flat of a castle and make the people in the nearby village want to be my serfs, all in the space of around fifty days. How they’d measure my success was based on a metric involving me doing three Kingdom Quests, which meant anything ranging from building something to making some people hate me a little less. I had a list of almost a hundred possible Kingdom Quests that would help me succeed at this timed event, and every single one was visible on my objective screen, their little accompanying checkboxes almost taunting me as the hours went on. I panicked and took the easy way out by accruing social bonds with those in the area – every three new friends made was a quest down, and I had this first objective nailed in no time. However, once the game had detected that I’d completed this first major narrative quest, absolutely nothing happened. I was a bit surprised, but I’ve chalked it down to being a cheeky twist on how games often overuse instant gratification. After all, I didn’t do much more than chat up five blokes in a tavern, so getting no approving response from my advisors was probably appropriate. The Tudors probably weren’t big on rewarding their monarch for swanning around with buff foreign men so I took it like a little bite of medieval realism that it was.
However, I didn’t really get any new goals from the game between then and the end of the time limit. No new sub-quests popped up inviting me to further my connection to handsome Gunther down the road. I had a vague memory of an antagonist earlier on in the game saying that he’d be round to collect on some mortgage payments every few months, but checking the quest objective panel didn’t provide me with a solid lead. What was I to do? Sure, it’s all well and good being able to explore every single dungeon in the game at any level, but if I’ve got the fate of a kingdom on my shoulders then surely someone should be making sure I’m reminded of any future dates with debt collectors. Armed with crippling indecision and an offhand observation from my bodyguard about exploring, my approach to waiting for the time limit to expire can be best summed up as: panicking about fiscal responsibility and ignoring it in favour of jaunting around the woods, clubbing bandits to death.
Evidently, the grid-based combat was easily one of my favourite parts of the game, with the characters a close second. It draws from the Banner Saga’s approach in dealing with stat displays and action points, but it’s also decently streamlined, which was a refreshing change from the dreaded quest objectives panel that haunts me to this day. Each character gets a small selection of skills, and gets to use one skill a turn after/ before movement, unless they execute a limit break of sorts via action points. The skills available to each character are tailored to their backstory, and that provides for some much-needed flavour and direction. It’s obvious from the get-go who’s going to be the tank of the party and who’s going to be a damage dealer, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. The combat specialisations and skills show that a lot of care has been taken with ensuring that characters are thematically coherent, which means that theoretically, there’s been a strong base set for good storytelling. I enjoyed the various exclamations that would burst forth when characters called for help, missed a shot, or even just encouraged their other party members. There was a palpable sense of camaraderie from the battlefield dialogue and the responses to various skills, even when recycled, and if Regalia can capture that by developing on their social bond system then the potential for entertainment is limitless.
I felt the same way about the characters; they’re all incredibly distinct, though they come from easily identifiable tropes – your best bro and bodyguard, the drunken traveler, an ornery beastgirl, and the devious merchant. What dialogue you do have with them feels special, and the kaomoji that pop up over their heads to indicate approval levels add a nice touch to the proceedings. The attachment I had to my friends and family was what kept me going when I slogged through legions of thugs in order to make sure that my castle wasn’t foreclosed on. A lot of the relationships you have will humble you, and as a spoiled prince, that’s probably a good thing. The way that the NPCs focus on their lives, with you a palpable outsider, provides a different lens through which you interact with the world. This isn’t a BioWare game where people think you’re going to save them from themselves; the townsfolk just really want better plumbing and a bigger pub, and they’ll rib you endlessly for your privilege.
Regalia is a game that’s lays out all its cards on the table for you to see, and boy, are there alot of cards. It’s honest, if a little overenthusiastic, but there’s still well over a month for the studio to work on any kinks and I’m unusually optimistic. It suffers from some bloat, probably because of all the features that it’s tried valiantly to work with, but I sure as hell can’t fault them for trying. It won’t remind of you Persona nor will it play like a JRPG, but once it gets over its minor identity crisis it’ll have a winning formula of its own that won’t be bogged down by comparisons.
– Ginny W.