Overclocked On Caffeine v.1.1 2009-07-13 03:34:00

Baroque

PS2

RPGs are a weird breed. For all the crowing made about pushing the boundaries of gameplay forward, by and large, the settings are inevitably the same: the same cod-Tolkein medieval landscape, the same large expanses of nothing with the same few hamlets and forests, and the obligatory village of ninjas and samurai, despite the rest of the world ostensibly taking place in 14th century Europe. And on the few occasions when they take place in a more modern or futuristic setting, there will always be, without fail, one person, more than likely the hero, running around with a sword. Or a laser sword.

In any case, it’s rare that anyone actually tries to do something different with the setting. There has never been, to the best of my knowledge, an RPG set in the Renaissance. I’ve never seen a film noir strategy game, and if you want something in a recognisable modern day setting, if you don’t like the Shin Megami Tensei series, you’re pretty much boned.

Baroque is something different. Following a catastrophe that nearly destroyed the world, known as The Blaze, the land is left in a twisted state. Twisted abominations known as ‘meta-beings’ roam the earth. The only semblance of order and authority comes from the False Angels of the Order of Malkuth. Their leader, the Archangel, claims to have God trapped at the bottom of their former headquarters, the Neuro Tower, and charges the main character with purifying her. If he does so, he will receive absolution for the terrible sins he has committed – sins he has trouble even remembering.

Right from the off, you’re thrust into a landscape charitably described as ‘hellish’. The sky is a painful crimson, the buildings crumbling down to girders and rusted metal gratings and beyond that, blasted sand as far as the eye can see. The only building of any real worth in the area is the Neuro Tower, home to the game’s main quest. The area’s not completely devoid of inhabitants: there are several people in the area you can talk to who will offer help and advice, after a fashion. The Bagged One will hold items for you, the Coffin Man talks about building the world’s greatest dungeon (goddamnit), while the Baroquemonger will read any Idea Sephirah, glowing pearls that contain the thoughts and feelings of its former owner, that you’ve found. Other characters, like the neurotic Longneck, the cryptic Horned Girl, and the worryingly pleasant Bagged One offer up interesting tidbits of background and advice depending on your actions. Eventually, you head towards the tower. As you near it, a vision of the Archangel appears and hands you the Angelic Rifle, reminding you of your mission to purify God. Picking it up, you enter the tower, and the game proper begins.

Baroque is a Roguelike, a modern-day version of the classic dungeon-crawlers of yore, exemplified by games like Diablo 2, Azure Dreams, Nethack, and, to a lesser extent, games like the Marvel Ultimate Alliance series, and that means one thing: crushing difficulty. If you haven’t already noticed by this point, you have two main meters onscreen: the first is your health, which is pretty self-explanatory. If you take damage, it recharges itself over time as long as you avoid more hits. The other is your vitality meter. No matter what you do, this is always ticking down. When it empties, it starts draining your life meter at the same rate until you die, so its in your best interests to keep it topped up as much as possible. There’s a few ways to do this, but the main way should clue you in to what kind of game this really is:

You eat the hearts of your fallen enemies.

Yes, for all it’s RPG trappings, Baroque is really closer to the survival horror genre. The environments are lifted right out of Silent Hill, the atmosphere out of a David Lynch movie and the enemies right out of that unsettling dream you could never quite remember. They start off reasonably enough – mutant fish, hopping bugs that are easier to step on than hit with your sword – but before long, you’re encountering wicker and mesh manikins that fire balls of dark electricity at you, fake walls with grotesque faces that try to consume you, and floating monstrosities with more appendages and status effect attacks than is strictly necessary. This is a game that manages to put the creatures of Silent Hill, long a World Leader in the export of Freaky Shit to shame, though they’re usually less outright horrifying, and the sense of isolation is easily on a par with it. You never really get to a point where you feel capable of taking on everything with ease: in the back of your mind, you always know there’s a trap or a group of enemies that will shut you down for good, so you’re always on your toes. And all the while, you’re eating the hearts, flesh and bones of your foes. No one said this was a happy game, after all.

Eventually, after some probable mishaps, you will encounter the God of the Order of Malkuth, and more than likely do as instructed by the Archangel. One confusing cutscene later, you’ll be dumped back outside the tower with none of your equipment or levels, and even less of an idea of what’s going on. Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the two core mechanics of the game. The first is that you’re going to be assaulting the tower. A lot. Be prepared to restart from nothing repeatedly, because that’s the only way to unlock the story and further floors of the tower. Woe betide anyone who forgot to give Eliza their Idea Sephirah on the 15th floor, because you’re going to have to do the entire thing aaaaall over again. Granted, while the tower itself is always randomized, the NPCs that appear on each floor are almost always on the same floors, so if you screw up, really the only one at fault is you. Thankfully, you’ll level up fairly rapidly just by killing enemies as they appear, and items are always plentiful, so a lot of the time, restarting is more of a hinderance than a game-breaking flaw.

Of course, you’ll want to repeat the tower, because this is the only way you’ll uncover the other main draw of the game: the storyline. It’s drip-fed to you in the most agonizing way possible. At the start, all you’ll know is that the world is ruined, and that, somehow, you were the one responsible for this. As you continue to assault the tower, you start piecing together the background to the story. You’re told fairly early on that the Archangel knows more than he’s letting on, which even the least attentive of players will have worked out, but then you begin to start understanding how much he’s not telling you. Then you find out exactly what happened. To the game’s credit, no matter what you thought was going on, somehow, it’s even more twisted than you ever dared imagine. It’s almost a shame that Baroque isn’t a more traditional RPG as the darkness of the story is easily one of the most intriguing I’ve ever encountered. It’s so hideously warped, and it’s a wonder that it manages to surpass even the darkest of expectations, and if I could recommend a game based solely on its premise alone, this would be getting the highest marks imaginable.

Unfortunately, I can’t and I have to judge it on gameplay, and there’s several gaping flaws here, first and foremost being the difficulty. It’s a Roguelike, so you expect there to be a steep learning curve attached, but somehow the game manages to outdo itself at every turn. It’s hard to feel like you’re making any progress at first, and when you finally start gaining some ground, you’re inevitably dumped back outside with no equipment again. Characters will eventually start dropping hints as to what to do to – how anyone would work out what ‘pure water’ actually means without a gigantic leap of logic is beyond me – but the going is slow, and the majority of players will drop out long before they uncover the good stuff.

Secondly, for all the items the game throws at you, it’s oddly stingy in some respects. Good weapons and armour are maddeningly difficult to acquire, and wandering around with a Puny coat and Junk sword does nothing for morale. That wouldn’t be so bad if, like in other Roguelikes, items to power up your equipment were plentiful, but here, you’ll be lucky to encounter a single stat-up item every half-dozen tower runs. Of course, that doesn’t stop certain enemies tossing around weapon-degrading attacks like confetti at a funeral. Keeping items from run to run is also needlessly hard. On certain floors, you’ll encounter a fixture known as a Consciousness Orb. As well as being an important plot element, any one item, and one item only, thrown in will appear in the item collector’s inventory back in the town. You’re guaranteed to encounter at least two on the final (enemy-free) floor of the dungeon, allowing you to keep your sword and armour between runs. Unfortunately, you’re not likely to encounter many more than that. So if you also happen to find a really awesome item the level before that you’d like to keep for the next journey, tough noogies, it ain’t happening. It adds a maddening degree of unfairness to an already hard game. Surely letting us keep anything equipped, and using the orbs to send back extra goodies would be a far better idea, with the bonus of making the game that little less masochistically hard.

It’s a shame that the difficulty and repetition will put of just about everyone who plays Baroque, because in every other way, this really is a fantastic game. The levels are nicely atmospheric, the music is fantastic, a heavy industrial influence underscoring the journey well, the enemy designs are gleefully grotesque, even the swords are fascinating, being less sharp bits of iron, more borderline organic slabs of metal. There’s also a ton to unlock, with every voice clip and cutscene going into a gigantic directory, and an extensive list of every character and enemy in the game. If you have a high tolerance for basically restarting a game over and over again, or a lot of patience in the face of ludicrous difficulty, this is well worth a look. If, however, you’re like me, and just want to try something different, you could do a lot worse, and if you can get through the difficulty barrier, you’re in for a real treat. A shame then, that that single barrier will put off most everyone who’ll play it – even the ones who’d enjoy it most.

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