Review: Magical Starsign (Nintendo DS)

Magical Starsign
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Brownie Brown
Genre: turn Based RPG
Release Date: 10/25/2006

Magical Starsign is actually the second game in the Magical series put out by Brownie brown. The first, Magical Vacation was only released in Japan back on the game boy Advance back in 2001. Brownie Brown has proven to be an excellent developer with only four games to their credit. But when two of those games are Mother 3 and Sword of Mana, that’s an impressive streak of quality gaming.

Sword of Mana received a 6.0 from me back in January of 2004 and I was quite pleased with the quality in that GBA title. So when I learned we were finally getting another title by Brownie Brown in the US, I snapped it up. Who knows? Maybe if Nintendo sees their work is appreciated, we’ll get an English version of Mother 3 finally! The question is whether or not Brownie Brown could make a turn based RPG as decently as they made their action RPG in SoM. Did we get another above average game out of this young development company, or did we get a pretty big stinker?

Let’s Review

1. Story

Magical Starsign has a fairly paint by numbers plot. You play as a group of students at a school where the primarily learning is that of the magic arts rather than the three R’s or some vocational skill. Alas, your teacher leaves on a semi-secret mission and is never seen again. Three months later, by a combination of serendipity and accidents, the six students find themselves blasting off into outer space, being split up amongst several planets, each one aligned with a certain elemental property such as wood, water, fire, earth, and wind. Your journey takes you all across the solar system in an effort to find and save your various classmates, as well as your teacher. In the process however, you’ll encounter a nefarious plot involving evil pirates, a corrupt police force, and some pretty dastardly manipulators who are behind a web of misdeeds across all the planets you’ll go to. Of course your characters will go from green rookies to saviours of reality as you know it. Pretty standard dyed in the wool RPG clichéd plot, right? It even has the mute main character who never talks through out the game. You can get him or her to nod yes or no though.

What keeps Magical Starsign from being just another RPG is the dialogue. It’s well written, and managed to fit in jokes for all ages. It’s fairly light hearted stuff for most of the game, and it doesn’t hesitate to make you chuckle or smile whimsically as the character interactions. The game even realizes it follows a lot of the standard RPG fall backs and makes fun of itself for that at times. It’s a nice touch, especially as the vast majority of RPG’s take themselves far too seriously these days. The pomposity of the genre has been set aside and replaced with a more heartwarming variant. I rather enjoy that.

Magical Starsign isn’t going to win any awards for the complexity or originality of the plot, but what’s here is guaranteed to please most gamers, even the more crotchety types like myself. When I first started playing the game, the plot was so generic it hurt. But the more I played MS, the more I began to see how it plays off the stereotypes and has fun with them, rather than using them as a necessary crutch. By the time I beat the game (only 20-25 hours!), I found myself rather fond of the characters and goings on I had just went through. Although I can think of MANY games whose plot I enjoyed more, it’s impressive that someone can take the overdone bits of RPG storytelling I’m sick to death of and made them feel fun again.

Story Rating: 6/10

2. Graphics

As I mentioned before, Brownie Brown’s first stateside release was Sword of Mana. It appears that time spent in contact with Square-Enix really rubbed off on BB, as Magical Starsign looks as if it was a direct sequel to Squaresoft’s Mana series. Indeed, the graphics style and character portraits are identical in style to Sword of Mana, and even the Square developed versions of that series.

Needless to say, if I’m referring to a game has having “Squaresoft graphics,” you know it’s going to be amazing looking. The backgrounds, monster designs, and special attacks in the game are amongst the best I’ve seen on the DS. I actually think my favorite visual in the game involves this gigantic gorilla guarding an exit you need to get to, and you have to knock a bunch of bananas out of a tree for it. The expression on the gorilla’s face and its reaction when it picks up the scent of the bananas is brilliant. It’s these little not so subtle effects that really made me love the visuals of Magical Starsign. It’s a gorgeous game through and through.

What else is impressive is that this game has some cutscenes. This is the first game I’ve played on the DS to have any. I can’t say it’s the first out of all DS games, as I don’t know if that statement would be true, but I was quite pleasantly surprised to see a freaked out rabbit-girl flying through space early on in the game, and then also the cut scenes showing your magical rocket, named Neumann, traveling from one planet to another. They’re not as well done on something you’d see on the current generation of consoles, but for a cart based game, it’s quite excellent.

Magical Starsign is a great looking RPG through and through, and if you’re a fan of the 2-D art style found in the Mana games, you will love this game.

Graphics Rating: 8/10

3. Sound

It’s been a long time since a song from a video game got stuck in my head. Sure there’s the Pokemon traveling music, the Legend of Zelda theme, and the opening J-Pop songs to Thousand Arms, and Sakura Taisen, but it really has been nearly a decade since I’ve caught myself humming a song from a video game. No longer. I caught myself humming the music to the fire planet world while making lunch the other day and that was proof of just how catchy and enjoyable the music in Magical Starsign is.

The entire score to this game is excellent with some very original and enjoyable music consistently playing through your travels and trials. The music really helps to enhance the gaming experience while also being a subconscious reminder to the game’s light-heartedness.

My only disappointment with the auditory aspects of this game came with the sound effects. The battle noises were a little too generic and repetitive for me. It’s just a slight damper on my enthusiasm for this aspect of the game, but not much of one.

Sound Rating: 8/10

4. Control and Gameplay

Oddly enough, this is probably my least favorite aspect of the game. 95% of what you do in the game is stylus based and I find it hard to sit with the DS for a long period of time using the stylus with out my left elbow getting pissy with me. This is one of the many reasons I really haven’t gotten into the DS and find myself using the GBA or the Neo Geo Pocket Colour more. I’m just not a touch pad gamer it seems.

As I said above, almost everything you do is Stylus based. You picket your actions with the stylus, you talk to people by touching them with the stylus, you even move with the stylus, but thankfully you can use the D pad for that as well. The only buttons you’ll press are the shoulder buttons and that’s because you can use them to speed up the painfully slow text in the game. Other than that, you have no choice but to use the stylus. This can be very annoying at times, like when you’ve beaten a random battle, and you’re trying to get through the $/XP screen, and you press a button to move on as you would in any other RPG, but then you have to remind yourself only the stylus works in this game. Like I said I find this annoying and wish the had made the buttons on the right side of the DS do something other than act as another D pad.

My other problem with the controls is how bloody long it takes to do everything. Not only do you use your stylus, but you have to double click on things in battle mode to proceed. First comes your choice of actions. Double click with the stylus. Then comes the options within that action. Double click on that. Then pick your opponent. Click on that. It’s all very slow compared to most RPG’s, and when you have six on six battles, there’s a noticeable difference in the length of time it takes to do a battle in this game compared to other turn based RPG’s. Add in the realization that this game has a lot more random battles than one is used to from a turn based RPG, and a good chunk of your playing time is just clicking through menus!

The game plays pretty much like every other turn based RPG you’ll ever play. You wander through maps, getting into random battles, where you and your opponents attacks based on whoever has the highest speed rating. A nice twist here is that by the halfway point in the game, you’ll have a team of six characters, each of which can fight in battles. Usually in turn based RPG’s, your team is set at 3-4 characters and you have to switch out playable characters if you have more than that on your team. Here though, you get to use them all from the moment you get them on your team. This is a really nice touch that I’ve wanted to see more turn based RPG’s do for a very long time.

Each of your six playable characters has their own magical school they use. Your main character has a choice between light and dark magic at the beginning of the game. I suggest light magic as that allows you to have a character other than Lassi who can heal. A magic attack’s strength is determined by the “astrolog.” The astrolog is a chart that shows the current location of each of the elemental aligned planets along their orbit. When a planet is in the part of its orbit that is in the same colour as its elemental sign, not only magic in general stronger on that planet, but any mage who casts that type of magic gets a boost as well, even if they are not on that particular planet. For example, if you’re on the Wood or Water or Wind planet while the Fire planet is in the part of it’s orbit that is aligned with Fire Aura, then Pico, who is your fire mage, will find all of his spells are super strong at that time. This holds true for your enemies too, so be careful. Light mages get a bonus when it’s day and Dark mages get a bonus at night, so they’ll be the ones who see the most benefit to their powers.

There’s also a degree of strategy involved. Characters in the front row can use physical attacks, but they also take more damage from enemy attacks. They will also find their magic is more powerful, but they can only hit one target. Back row characters will have weaker magic, but their spells can hit multiple enemies, or even the entire enemy battalion.

Finally, there are bonuses you can get to your attacks and blocking if you time them just right. A Spellstrike is when you tap a character casting a spell right before the casting is completed. If you time it right, you get a flash of light an extra damage. Figuring out when you are supposed to do this is quite difficult, but once you find the right time to tap in the animation, you’ll end up getting the Spellstrike 90% of the time. The same holds true for the defensive variant of this known as the Reflex Guard. If you tap a character right as they are about to be hit, you’ll take less damage. The problem with this one is you have to have pre-selected your character’s action to block and it’s a complete waste to be defensive in this game. Nice idea in theory though.

Overall there are some excellent ideas here. I’m just not a fan of the interface and the lack of an option to use buttons instead of the stylus. It’s also quite annoying when the Stylus has to be for everything, because you might be trying to use an on-screen wild magic skill and the game thinks you’re telling it to move your characters instead. The implantation of the controls and the gameplay could have been done better in several obvious ways. Disappointing, as I’m sure I would have enjoyed the game a lot more had the stylus and the touch pad not been forced down my throat more than I’ve had to experience with any other DS game.

Control and Gameplay Rating: 5/10

5. Replayability

It’s hard to recommend Magical Starsign as a game you can play through more than once. It’s exceptionally linear with only one exception. You have a choice between which of two planets you want to go to first. Then you have to go to the other one. That’s your only break in the linearity of the game. As well, the character level up exactly the same and get the same spells at the same levels. There are some very miniscule story changes depending on if you make the main character a boy or a girl, and some spell differences depending on if you choose light or dark magic. That’s really it.

What saves Magical Starsign in this category is that you have two extra modes in this game that can only be accessed through multiplayer games via the DS wi-fi. The first of these is Tag Mode. Tag Mode involves your DS searching for someone else playing MS at the same time in your nearby vicinity. If you do connect with someone, your games send each other letters. You may also gain rare items this way. Even more importantly, you just might gain an egg! Eggs can be incubated and hatched, and the egg characters can then join up with your main story characters. The downside here is eggs hatch only when you had connected with a certain number of other people playing the game. Good luck with that one. As well, egg characters don’t level up from battles like story characters. Instead they level up by, you guessed it, tagging even more people playing Magical Starsign. Again, expect to get little to no use out of your egg characters.

The second of these multiplayer modes is the “Amigo Dungeon.” In this special dungeon, two to six players can run play through special dungeons together, battling as a team. Each player only gets one character from their team however. This is also not a co-operative mode. You are competing against your friends for points. You get points by killing monsters, and finding treasure. The dungeon ends when either time runs out, or your find the special treasure chest. Then points are added up and a winner is declared.

Although both of these modes give Magical Starsign a slight boost in Replayability, both the Amigo and Tag modes are inherently flawed and really not that fun. In the end the game becomes an enjoyable once through and then it’s trading the game with a friend or turning it in at your local video game store. It’s not going to be any different the second, third, or fourteenth time you play through the game.

Replayability Rating: 4/10

6. Balance

In some ways this game is very well balanced. In others…not so much. What’s nice is that Magical Starsign uses the Shining Force method of gaining experience. You get less experience for a particular monster the higher your level. A team of enemies might be worth 30 experiences at one level, but 2-3 levels higher they may only be worth 5 or 10 XP. Your characters also level up every 100 XP, which continues the Shining Force theme.

You’d think that this adjustable experience scale would ensure that you can’t munchkin/power-level your way through the game. Indeed, you won’t need to. Since there are so many random battles that you’ll have to fight through, your characters will be more than capable of getting through almost any battle. I never lost a single battle in my playthrough of the game. Even boss fights weren’t hard as much as they were long. Bosses in MS have a lot of hit points, but compared to the levels you’ll be at when you face them, they’ll be little to no challenge. If you have Lassi in your back row she can heal all of your characters to full health and be able to do either a lot of damage to enemies or continuously heal your characters each round. Put the main character in the back as well, as you have two characters that can heal your ENTIRE team to full health consistently. If you’re looking for any sort of challenge out of your RPG’s, you’re going to want to look elsewhere.

There are some enemies in the game that will give you a wee nip o’ trouble, but that’s more annoying flesh wounds due to their high speed allowing them to attack first than any real threat of one of your characters being knocked to 0 hit points. It simply won’t happen unless you’re new to this genre of video gaming.

Magical Starsign is a game you play for a light hearted story and some interesting, if flawed, game mechanics. You’ll find it almost too easy to beat, and for some that might take a good amount of the fun away.

Balance Rating: 4/10

7. Originality

As I’ve mentioned before, a lot of this game is adhering to the standard clichés of the turn based RPG formula. Sure there are some miniscule variants and some piss-taking, but there’s not much story wise that you won’t encounter in a hundred other RPG’s.

The game mechanics are quite original, along with the reliance on the stylus. The astrological control over the strength of one’s spells is also a nice touch, but Magical Vacation did exactly the same thing.

There’s not much here that is truly original or innovative. Either Brownie Brown has done before in their prior games, or a score of other developers beat them to it. That’s not to say the game isnâ┚¬â”žÂ¢t fun. It’s quite enjoyable. It’s just not very outside the box, if you will.

Originality Rating: 4/10

8. Addictiveness

I actually found this game quite hard to put down. The spellstrike aspect of the game forced me to pay attention ala Shadow hearts where I usually tune out from boredom on most turn based RPG’s. Active participation is always a much needed bonus. The graphics and music helped make up for the constant string of battles that would occur every half dozen steps or so. The story kept me entertained, even as my arms were annoyed by how I was to hold the DS and its stylus compared to other handhelds.

Although there are some very glaring flaws to me in Magical Starsign, the things that were done right were able to keep me captivated with the game and surprise me at how much time I managed to log on the game each time I turned my DS on. I probably would feel the same way if the game was a normal 40 hour long RPG, but the twenty hours this game did take up were rather enjoyable ones.

Addictiveness Rating: 7/10

9. Appeal Factor

If you’re looking a for a short RPG that offers you a decent story and some interesting twists on game mechanics, you won’t be disappointed by picking this game up. The graphics and music are just icing on the cake as well, and will help to attract a lot of other casual gamers. Some gamers might be turned off by the light-heartedness of the game having grown accustomed to their daily dose of angst and woe, but it’s their loss.

The game’s decent. It’s not great, but what’s there is fun. I imagine most will feel the same.

Appeal Factor: 6/10

10. Miscellaneous

I find that like the previous Brownie Brown game I reviewed nearly three years ago, Magical Starsign is an above average game whose flaws aren’t enough to detract from the inherent fun in the title, but are enough to keep the game from being labeled “good” or “go buy this title right now, you feckless hooligans!” I can’t see it being a game that I would keep on my shelves for an extended period of time, or even a title I’ll ever play through again. But I did have fun with it. I enjoyed the characters a lot, even if one of them was a furrie. My elbows still hurt, and I’m still having a hard time finding a game for the DS that really grips me or wows me. But this was an enjoyable way to spend a few evenings. You can’t ask for much more than that.

Miscellaneous Rating: 7/10

The Scores
Story: 6/10
Graphics: 8/10
Sound: 8/10
Control & Gameplay: 5/10
Replayability: 4/10
Balance: 4/10
Originality: 4/10
Addictiveness: 7/10
Appeal Factor: 6/10
Miscellaneous: 7/10
Total Score 59/100
Final Score:6.0 (Above Average)

Short Attention Span Summary
Magical Starsign is a game that could use a bit more in the challenge department as well as a little more depth. I can’t recommend it for the full $30 price tag, but it’s definitely worth picking up if you have a rental service that carries DS games. It’ll also be worth snagging when the eventual price drop occurs in a few months. There’s nothing bad about the game really. It’s just there’s nothing to really make me want to strongly recommend the title. You won’t have a bad time with the game. You just might have a hard time justifying $30 for a 20 hour RPG.