Game Review -- Riviera: The Promised Land

I intended to grab this game months before I actually did. What reminded me of Riviera: The Promised Land, a Wonderswan Color title that first saw English translation on the Game Boy Advance, was actually this month’s behemoth, Final Fantasy XIII. When the first wave of reactions from Japan hit the net -- most of them bemoaning the lack of towns and strict linearity -- the numerous reviews that likened Riviera to a visual novel found their way back into my conscious memory. The major trend in game design for RPGs has been dubbed “streamlining” by people who like it. People who don’t characterize it as a dumbing down or “nerfing” of the genre’s distinguishing mechanics. Riviera is one of the best examples of streamlining in a Japanese developed RPG, and it was released way back in 2002.

A frank discussion of mechanics is in order. Riviera: The Promised Land does not allow the player to control the minute movements of the in-game characters. Movement is simplified to entering a single command to progress from one room to another. Exploring the rooms requires movement points. Interacting with objects in a room takes movement points called TP (for reasons I don’t pretend to remember), and in some cases activates a quick time event (i.e. timed button press/reflex tests, for those of you who are not savvy to game lingo) which awards points when completed correctly. Movement points are earned in battle, according to how efficiently the player handles the fight. The battle system is turn based -- the JRPG standard. But the battle system is also based entirely on items. The player chooses which formation the three characters will take, and the position determines how their attacks will work. Some characters using certain items will only attack the enemy directly adjacent; others using the same item might attack the whole enemy party.
Characters don’t level up with experience points. Their stats increase when they learn item skills, which they learn by using the items in battle. But items degrade after each use, so there’s a practice feature in which your characters can use items without taxing their limited durations. Upon completion of a dungeon sequence, the game assigns a grade to the characters based on the points earned in QTEs, battles, and how many turns it took to complete the dungeon. On top of all that, dialogue options determine the feelings of other party members towards the main character.

What might be called streamlining is actually a trade off between what is usually a useless mechanic and kitchen-sink complexity with the others. The game basically rewards the player for efficiency, and what are described as “visual novel” elements (the one button, menu based movement and lack of direct control) are the only genuine simplification involved. Truthfully, JRPGs of a certain type are actually just visual novels with lots of extraneous movement to provide the illusion of exploration and choice. Developer Sting cut the fat where there was actual fat instead of lobotomizing the gameplay.
Riviera also boasts some of the best music on the GBA, and the graphics, except for the repetitive dungeons, are quite good. The battle system features attack animations and voice samples that are impressive once and tedious each successive time the player watches them.

I think it’s a well made game, but some people are more interested in story than actually playing with mechanics and stats. I have trouble discussing the plots of games like this; the developers have cobbled together a cutesy Norse myth pastiche and filled it with anime/RPG stereotypes in possibly the most by-rote plot to exist in the canon of human storytelling -- saving the world from destruction. It seems to me that the subtle dating sim elements probably earn this game some sort of otaku (read: weeaboo) cred that is lost on me. Every character besides the protagonist is female, and true to form, the game offers the player a chance to peak at them bathing. If I cared, I might write about how Sting plays into the destructive tendencies of a certain sort of gamer -- the type who might own something like life sized Miku Hatsune dolls. I don’t care, though.

One thing that Riviera: The Promised Land did for which I’m ever grateful was to bring Sting to the attention of us American nerds. Before Atlus published Riviera, Sting was probably known only to a few Dreamcast collectors and RPG starved Gamecube owners for their two Evolution dungeon crawlers. Now they’re darlings of the handheld scene, developing innovative games like Knights in the Nightmare and more standard JRPG fare like the upcoming Hexyz Force.

The whole "streamlined" design trend is really just a way of catering to people who don't actually like RPGs and it actually stifles real innovation. While there's lots in Riviera that I don't care for -- amnesiac heroes are the lamest trope of all time (of ALL TIME) -- it's one of the few examples of a developer trying to eliminate pointless mechanics while not assuming the worst of its audience. As it turns out, Final Fantasy XIII is the exact opposite, holding the player's hand for about twenty hours before offering the player the option to do inconsequential things within the game world. I'd rather play a GBA port of an eight-year-old Wonderswan color game.

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