Inside Pulse 12

Review: Baroque (PS2)

Baroque
Genre: Dungeon Hack
Developer: Sting
Publisher: Atlus
Release Date: 04/08/08

Have you ever seen the movie Groundhog Day, goddammit?

In case you’ve not had the pleasure, let me try and enlighten you as best I am able. The film is centered on what could more bluntly be described as “a complete jackhole” as he ventures to the hamlet of Punxsutawney Pennsylvania to provide coverage of the annual “Groundhog Day” event that occurs there. While there, he is cast into a time loop where, no matter what endeavors he opts to undertake, he’s forced to relive that very goddamn day. It doesn’t matter if he lives or dies, who he talks to, what he says, or what he does; every day is functionally the same for him, until he eventually figures out the way to escape, of which he is never enlightened and only manages to accomplish by a random and seemingly arbitrary stroke of goddamn luck.

Baroque is a lot like that.

But that’s not all the goddamn game either draws parallels to or influences from; one is able to best describe Baroque as displaying elements culled directly or indirectly from Groundhog Day, Jacob’s Ladder, Shadow Tower and the Fushigi Dungeon series of games, only to force them into a blender and frappe them into a rich, thick paste that is only going to be palatable to the most plot-motivated and self-loathing of gamers. That Baroque would be given the Maken X treatment (making the transition from a first person action role playing game on a defunct Sega console to a third person action role playing game on the Playstation 2) is understandable; both titles sold fairly well in Japan and have cult followings. But to see Baroque then translated and released in the United States? Baroque, more than any other localized game released prior, is so absolutely difficult to appropriately define that it’s nearly impossible to determine what the target audience is intended to be, goddammit.

But let us undertake the goddamn labor of attempting to qualify what it is that makes Baroque just so perplexing and puzzling, goddammit.

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There’s virtually an absence of things that can be explained in regards to the story of Baroque that won’t completely ruin the entirety of the goddamn experience, so let us attempt to provide the absolute most information possible with the least enlightment: the world is horribly devastated in the wake of a horrible cataclysmic event, and you, the nameless protagonist, are tasked with venturing into the nadir of the goddamn Neuro Tower and using the “Angelic Rifle” to purify God, partially because “there is purpose in you using it”, and partially because you feel the specific need to atone for a sin you cannot recall. Of course, there’s a good deal more to it than that, goddammit, but the whole point of playing the game is to unearth what the “more to it” is, exactly, so let us not spoil that, goddammit.

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Instead, let us discuss what is done and how well it is accomplished. The characters are generally all quite convincing overall, as their dialogue is often well written and conveys the appropriate information about the characters to enlighten the player as to what sort of people they are. The actual portrayal of the story is very surreal in many cases, and characters often speak in riddles wrapped in enigmas and give out incomplete pieces of information that make the experience quite engaging, goddammit. However, the story itself is trying exceptionally overmuch to present itself as Kafka when it more closely resembles something from King (which is by no means an insult, but even so); once you mentally assemble the pieces of the story into the expected storyline tapestry, the events come together in a fashion that the player wholly understands, but doesn’t particularly take much away from, goddammit. The plot makes sense, but not to a point where one can nod and go “Oh, I see what you did there”, and most of the goddamn story is really only going to appeal to those looking for some sort of high concept storytelling; it’s marvelous in its own way, but many people aren’t going to mentally absorb anything stupendous from it. There are several different “endings” to the game as well, but since the game never actually reaches any sort of conclusion after you earn an ending they’re not so much endings as they are a recreation of getting to a conclusion in a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book and holding the page prior so that when the axe-wielding psychopath brained you for dodging left instead of right you could go back and dodge right instead… only, with about two hours between each page turn, goddammit.

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Now as a remake of a Saturn game, this is the part where the observation is expected to be something to the effect of “Baroque on the PS2 has dramatically improved production values, goddammit”, but there was something to be said for the grainy pixilated sprites of the original, as they somewhat helped to strengthen the atmosphere. Here, the visuals are clean and the various character models and monsters are quite acceptable looking, but the character models are kind of… a little too Persona 3 when something more Nocturne would have been ideal. Also, there are a lot of outstanding visual themes and elements throughout the different floors of the tower, with all sorts of amusingly well-rendered monsters and interesting industrialized environments, but then you see the same levels and re-colored monsters as you progress further into the bowels of the tower and you stop and think to yourself, “What the hell was that, goddammit?” It’s quite disruptive. On the positive side, the voice acting is, for the most part, quite well performed, the sounds are pleasantly morose, and the music is really, really, REALLY atmospherically appropriate and exceptionally well done, and is vaguely reminiscent of the score to the film Dreamscape… or, to a lesser extent, Silent Hill.

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It is most unfortunate, then, that for all of the exceptional production values of Baroque, it is undone as a product by the mechanics of its gameplay. Which is by no means to say that the game plays poorly; whether you choose to play the game from first or third person perspective, the game plays acceptably (first person play has a tendency to be more friendly in most respects; as the original title was a first person title, this is understandable, but for those who prefer a third person experience, you’ll find this fits the bill), if not exceptionally. You’re offered two attacks, light and heavy, with which you may deal damage to those who would seek to impede your progress, as well various normal and arcane objects, each with various different functions. Swords and coats act as melee weapons and armor, respectively, and their functions are, I would imagine, obvious; “Torturers” are iron maiden shaped stones which are activated as area of effect assaults, each of which carries one of a plethora of interesting effects ranging from elemental damage to status ailments to assaulting your adversaries with rotting foodstuffs; Disks, which effectively act as traps one may place so as to lure unsuspecting foes to their demise, or alternatively, in some cases can be used to aid your protagonist; Bones, which can be used for beneficial effects or as ranged assault tools; Meats, which replenish health (which also regenerates over time) and Hearts (which replenish vitality, IE hunger, which decreases over time and, if it is depleted, will then begin to deplete your health)… these are amongst your tools for this excursion, and they are both quite unique and pleasantly familiar, goddammit. Indeed, the experience as a whole is very much familiar, which is goddamn refreshing considering how surreal the game presents itself to be; upon arriving on a tower floor, all one is expected to do is meander about, slaughtering everything one sees until one has found the portal to the next floor, whereupon one may progress further into the tower. Simple, yes?

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So it’s rather a shame to note that, despite the simplicity of the concept and execution, Baroque’s simplistic design conceals mechanics whose inaccessibility are matched only by their draconic expectations; quite literally, one secretly believes that Sting as a development house is secretly contemptuous of each and every person who would purchase their product, so truly punishing is its design, goddammit.

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Every time you complete a circuit of the tower or meet your demise, you are reduced to level one and your entire inventory is callously stripped from you; this is explained in storyline terms, but is still a goddamn hideous breach of expectations to the average gamer, and even those players who are versed in Rogue-like experiences will find themselves confused when their inventory is stripped from them and deposited into a cosmic dumpster because they were successful. Now, in fairness, one can send items out of the tower or brand items so that they return to the first floor upon death or success, and in all honesty, most of the items one can locate will not appeal to one’s style of play, so this is more of an irritation than an actual hindrance after the first hour or so.

Unfortunately, this is further compounded by the fact that one cannot actually “complete” the goddamn experience in any meaningful way without making multiple circuits of the tower, each time facing the exact same foes and traversing the exact same floors; literally, in your first several excursions into the tower, you will

1.) venture to the bottom of the goddamn tower,

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2.) deal with the goddamn Absolute God as expected,

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3.) venture to the goddamn bottom of the tower,

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4.) deal with the Absolute God as goddamn expected,

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5.) venture to the bottom of the tower, goddammit,

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6.) I believe you understand the goddamn point.

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Unfortunately, to experience all of the “endings” to your quest, you will literally have to traverse the first sixteen floors of the tower approximately twelve to fifteen times, assuming you do not meet your demise at some point along the way. “Tedious” is simply not a strong enough word to describe this experience; it is quite literally a Sisyphus simulator, as nothing you do will drastically impact the product in any significant way, and no matter what you accomplish, after completing whatever task you’ve opted to undertake, your boulder will roll back down the hill, leaving you essentially where you started.

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Many of the elements of the experience also seem as if they were specifically designed as a form of psychological torture against the player rather than any sort of goddamn game impediment. Status effects, for example: poison is quite reasonable, and blindness can be negotiated without too much difficulty, but “Lethargy” (which afflicts the player with slowness that converts a tedious experience into a terminally boring one), “Confusion” (most games simply reverse the default control schema; Baroque opts to make the protagonist stumble around as if drunk), and oh sweet merciful Jesus, “Lust” (a status effect that turns EVERYTHING into scantily-clad goddamn inflatable dolls; this effect, quite literally, does absolutely nothing to hinder the actual game experience for the protagonist, but by the twentieth time you have either bumbled into an adversary or absently swung your sword at an item, you will find yourself unconsciously grinding your teeth so as to keep from screaming in frustration as your eye keeps twitching and it won’t stop) seem as if they were conceived by the mind of a sadist and inflicted upon the player in a fit of hostility. This is then further compounded by, as an example, forcing the player to face monsters who pilfer your wares (even the weaponry and armor off of your very back) before expediently dashing off into the level, often leaving you to punch your way through several other foes to retrieve your purloined blade. Or, alternatively, one might stumble over a goddamn “Food” trap only to stare, mouth agape, as the item you required to complete a task further in the tower was just converted into a hunk of meat.

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Oh, and I would be remiss if I did not note that part of the reason the experience is so incredibly surreal is because nothing is explained to any sort of significant satisfaction in the game. With item usage and inventory management, this is not wholly insurmountable; the manual provides enough information to make do, and tutorials exist to explain the basics (though one is not given access to these explanatory play sessions until after one is dumped, kicking and screaming, into the goddamn deep end with nary an expository word… and, oh yes, assuming one is willing to poke around the town and deduce that Coffin Guy, the gentleman responsible for designing the tutorial dungeons, is in fact said proprietor of the tutorial dungeon). But insofar as discovering what needs to be done to complete more of the actual storyline, forget about it; while a few of the events are explained, many more require trial and error and the exploration of every nook and cranny in the tower to further advance the story, which is rather… off-putting, to be honest; many, many times, you’re left to stare at the screen, dumbfounded, uttering little more than “What am I doing? What am I trying to do?” to yourself, goddammit.

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Of course, truly, none of these complaints would be wholly insurmountable if the product offered you some type of long-term reason to complete it, but save for viewing all of the cinematics and collecting all of the item, sound, Baroque and character list entries, the experience is quite barren insofar as “offering up a sense of accomplishment” is concerned, goddammit. Collecting all of the things mentioned prior accomplishes, effectively, nothing of note and, unless you are the sort of person who enjoys the act of collecting things more than the specific appreciation of the thing being collected, you’ll find no joy in collecting each and every item from the depths of the tower. There is also a one hundred floor dungeon to traverse upon unlocking the “best” goddamn ending for the game, and assuming you’ve not been stricken with insanity by your numerous trips into the normal tower, this may hold your interest, but otherwise, upon unlocking the “best” ending, you’ll have no desire or reason to place the game into your console again. More’s the pity; despite some incredibly unfriendly mechanics and unappealing design elements, Baroque is an interesting remake of an exceptionally originally designed Saturn title that most have never heard of; as such, despite being a “remake” it’s possibly one of the most uniquely presented goddamn titles to come to the US in years.

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Despite all of the listed complaints and design issues, make no mistake: if you are the sort of gamer who can derive pleasure from such an experience, Baroque comes fully goddamn recommended. I honestly found a significantly large amount of joy in playing through the game to its completion, though I cannot even begin to imagine the sort of person who would otherwise derive joy from the experience; fans of Atlus’ other localized works will find Baroque to be punishing and sadistic, and those who are fans of punishing and sadistic games will find the inability to retain much of anything from one excursion to the next and the inability to actually affect much to be a touch disappointing. For those who are appropriately able or willing to tolerate or perhaps even embrace these designs, however, Baroque presents an interesting and artistically pleasant story, strong aural direction, and an exceptional amount of originality, goddammit.

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The Scores:
Story: ABOVE AVERAGE
Graphics: ABOVE AVERAGE
Sound: CLASSIC
Control/Gameplay: ABOVE AVERAGE
Replayability: POOR
Balance: MEDIOCRE
Originality: GOOD
Addictiveness: POOR
Appeal: BAD
Miscellaneous: GREAT

Final Score: ABOVE AVERAGE.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Baroque is an ambitions undertaking of epic proportions whose most appealing facets are ultimately undermined by its often viciously punishing mechanics. The presentation is atmospherically stunning and artistically sound, but only the most patient and stalwart of gamers will ultimately have the fortitude necessary to traverse the product. Those who are capable of accepting this process will realize that, in this world, there will be times where you lose sight of what you are supposed to do, but do not worry; this world is changing ever so slightly. The flow is moving. As you are killed, as you die, you will slowly understand.





























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