Inside Pulse 12

Review: Baroque (Nintendo Wii)

Baroque
Publisher: Atlus USA
Developer: Sting
Genre: Dungeon Crawl
Release Date: 4/09/2008

And here’s a game I never thought would come to US shores, but Atlus USA has really taken a liking to Sting over the past few years.

The original Baroque was published nearly a decade ago for the Sega Saturn. It had arguably the neatest packaging released for the system and became a cult hit, not only with Saturn fans, but across all of Japan. Baroque remains Sting’s biggest success although Americans are no doubt more familiar with the craptastic Riviera: The Promised Land or the highly under-rated Evolution series.

Baroque is part of the subgenre of Dungeon Crawls known as “Mystery Dungeons,” or “Fushigi Dungeons” by those who really know/love the genre (Rogue is another term erroneously applied to this genre, but that game traps you in a tower instead of repeating it and it’s primarily ASCII based. Dungeon Hack is a specific AD&D video game, and using it is like calling tissue Kleenex.) Mystery Dungeon games involve the repeated journey through a tower or dungeon in order to achieve a lofty goal. The dungeon changes each time you enter and the floors are randomly generated ensuring an unique experience each time. Some mystery dungeon games force you to start back at level 1 each time you enter, while others do not. You generally die a lot.

Mystery Dungeon games have never been successful in the US. Even when franchises such as Final Fantasy or Pokemon put them out, sales are underwhelming (although with said franchises behind them, they do sell far better than games like the aforementioned Evolution or the crown jewel of the genre, Azure Dreams. Mystery Dungeon fans are even less common in the US these days than shmup fans or people who love SNK developed titles that aren’t fighting games. That should tell you something.

For me the genre can be hit or miss. I loved Pokemon Mystery Dungeon and Azure Dreams is one of my favorite games on both the Playstation and the original Game Boy. Games like Nightmare of Druaga or Torenko: The Last Hope are games I hope never to encounter again whilst I still draw breath. Baroque has always been considered the weirdest/most existential of the genre. I remember playing through the Saturn version and asking myself if my Japanese was just that bad or if the game was being ostentatiously Kafka-esque. It turned out to be the latter, and I’m still to this day not sure whether that is good or bad.

Although the genre has always sold poorly and been critically panned in the US (Azure Dreams has the highest rating for a mystery dungeon game at 72.2% on Gamerankings),it’s time to see if Baroque can break that streak, or if it’s going to be the latest MD to line budget shelves in a month or three.

Let’s Review

1. Story

Here’s the thing. To even remotely begin to tell you the story of Baroque is to ruin the entire game for you. The core of playing the game is that the game starts in and you are thrown into the action. Only by repeatedly climbing the tower is anything ever explained, and even then what you are given is vague, nebulous, or surreal at best. Depending on what you do in the tower, who you encounter or where and when you die are plot points revealed. Eventually you get enough plot revealed that you can trigger an actual ending to the game instead of climbing the tower yet again. The game is designed to have you be woefully ignorant of anything and everything that is going on in the game the first time you turn your Wii on. Nothing is explained, nothing seems to make sense. Everything is as if Albert Camus wrote the plot to the game. AND THIS IS INTENTIONAL. See, why I can’t explain the plot of the game without ruining it for you? The actual story of the game only starts to make sense after your fourth or fifth journey through, and then that’s only if you trigger all the events or are astute enough to put the pieces together.

Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to put together the snippet together so as to help those of you who might want something a little more straight-forward.

In 2032 the whole world goes to hell. A event called the Blaze occurs, which essentially destroys the planet. You are an unnamed protagonist who has lost all memory. A character known as the Archangel directs you to the Neuro Tower to “purify” the Absolute God. You do this and then everything repeats itself and you keep climbing the tower and purifying God until they are completely purified.

At least…that’s one way the story can go down. You can choose not to purify the god, and various things will occurs, most of which involves you leaping from the tower to your doom. But wait! If that’s you falling, who is that trying to catch you.

Basically Baroque is one giant mindfuck. Are you really the cause of the world’s destruction? Did you kill your brother? Who are all these people you encounter in the tower? Can you trust the archangel? Can you trust the doctor? Who are the Koriel and why do they say your are part of them? Is the world even destroyed at all or is something else occurring behind the scenes? Why is there a doctor who occasionally appears who has only a brain for a head? Why have the people you encounter outside the tower mutated beyond what passes for human form while you remain intact? Why are there so many cyborgs or ghostly people? All of these questions and more are explained if you go up the tower enough times, trigger enough story events and time your death juuuuust right. This doesn’t even get into the “left hand” or “right hand” story paths either.

Baroque has an interesting and very sublime plot, but I have to agree with criticism that was heard about the game when it came out in Japan for the Saturn. Simply put: Baroque tries to pass itself off as smarter and more intricate of a story than it really is. God knows I love my existential or whacked out plot RPG’s, but there are so many that do this whole concept better: chief amongst them is Digital Devil Saga. The game’s story, is presented as a whole in a linear fashion is actual quite sparse and underwhelming. However, by spreading tiny story details through multiple play-throughs, as well as telling the story in, “In Medias Res” fashion, Baroque is able to hide its shortcomings and make the game come across more mysterious and bizarre than it really is.

Think of it this way. Megaten is to James Joyce’s Ulysses as Baroque is to Falkner’s The Sound and The Fury. In fact, that which Falkner based the aforementioned work’s title after is a perfect way to describe Baroque’s plot as it is the entire plot in a nutshell.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Macbeth Macbeth: Act V, Scene V

Story Rating: Above Average

2. Graphics

The original Baroque was widely considered the ugliest video game on the Sega Saturn. The good news is this new version of the game has a complete graphical overhaul. People who imported the original will still recognize characters from their previous incarnation, as the overall art design has remained intact.

The game still manages to be below average visually. The game looks like it was designed for the original Playstation, not the PS2 and/or Wii. Character designs are original in design and memorable, but the graphics are still a generation or two behind what is capable now. Let’s leave it this way, The original game would probably have been a 1/10 for graphics for the Saturn. If the remake was a Saturn game, it would still only achieve a 7/10 compared to what else is on the system.

Monster designs are generally boring, uninspired, and quite ugly. Again, we’re talking about graphics that would have been considered good (at best) a decade ago. None of the monsters in the game impressed me in the slightest.

Backgrounds and level design are quite poor as well. The backgrounds are all highly generic and boring and due to the repetitive nature of the game, you will grow sick of them quite easily. Things get a bit better when you give “pure water” to a certain character and the dungeon levels increase in depth and design, but for the most part, you’re still talking about very dull and uninspired graphics that greet you for 99% of the game.

One could probably assume that the game is ugly and lifeless on purpose. That’s a good guess, especially as you uncover more of the game’s plot. Sadly, if you know Sting as a company, then you’re well aware that graphics is probably the weakest area of all their games. The graphics are by no means an artistic statement nor a hidden metaphor giving deeper meaning to the story. The graphics are just poor compared to what is possible in this day and age. The game is passable and quite playable. It’s just not pretty.

Graphics Rating: Poor

3. Sound

I adore the score to Baroque. The music is far superior to what we had on the Saturn and all the tracks are haunting and fit the surreal nature of the game perfectly. Here’s hoping Atlus releases the soundtrack stateside. The music is just so fittingly creepy and post-apocalyptic in tone (Fist of the North Star though – not Mad Max).

Voice acting is excellent as well. I disliked the fact that all the characters were rather dry and atonal at first, but then I realized I’d be a hypocrite for raving about why this was done in Digital Devil Saga when it’s done for the same reason here. The characters may take a bit of getting used to, and even longer to care about, but the voice acting certainly helps. Coffin Guy is certain to be everyone’s favorite character, if only for his PG level potty mouth goddammit.

Baroque has a strong chance of winning our “Best Sound” award at the end of the year. I could easily see a few of these being remixed and played at Slimelight back in England.

Sound Rating: Unparalleled

4. Control and Gameplay

There are two control schemes for Baroque. The first involves the wiimote and the Nunchuk, and the second uses the “classic” controller. The game can be played in third person or first person, which is an excellent touch and helps Baroque’s audience to find a style of gameplay that is right for them. I personally prefer third person with the Wiimote.

One of the biggest differences between Baroque and other mystery dungeon games is the pacing. Other MD games are turn based with a grid map. You move one square, then every monster in the entire dungeon moves a square. You take an action, the monsters make a reaction. It’s a very unique style of gameplay, but also one that lends to being slow or boring. Not so with Baroque. Here the game is more real time oriented and it plays like an action RPG. You and the monsters are all autonomous from each other’s movements and this frees the game up for faster paced combat and dungeon crawling.

For the most part, each time you enter the Neuro Tower, you enter at level one and without any possessions. As you learn a few tricks, this changes. You can enter at a higher level by playing through the training dungeon first (when it is open at least) and bring weapons or armour and items from there into the Neuro Tower with you. As well, you can send items from the Neuro Tower into the outside world by hucking them into a “Consciousness Orb.” These items will then be teleported to a being known as The Collector who will store them for you as well as give them to you for when you re-enter the tower. This is a great way to hold on to Vampire or Crystal swords.

That’s basically the game. You run around, you stab monsters, and you try to get as far as you can as fast as you can. You can’t dodge or evade blows, but neither can the monsters, so just hack away and remember to lock on with the Z button.

Health and Vitality are the two important traits of your character. Health is your Hit Points. When this hits 0, you die. As long as you have vitality points though, you keep regenerating. Vitality points however are constantly depleting and you’ll have to eat food in order to keep them at their max. If you ever eat a food product when your vitality or health is full, you raise your maximum of the trait embodied by that food (Flesh for health and Seeds for vitality).

Controls are pretty solid while gameplay is hit or miss. The nunchuk has sensitivity issues, which can be a pain when you are scrolling through items or your database. Meanwhile the classic controller tends to feel sluggish to me. This is not a game where lag should even be suspect. Still, I can’t think of any major flaws in the game play, and for an action oriented mystery dungeon style game, Baroque does a good job of feeling familiar while also making the gameplay more accessible than others in this genre.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Good

5. Replayability

You can conceivably play through Baroque thousands of times before you finally figure out the tasks you need to in order to advance the plot. The hints in the game are vague at best and inane more often than not. The dungeon does randomly generate each time you enter, but there is very little level deviation each time you go in. Very rarely will a level truly change from one play through to the next.

Playing through the Neuro Tower gets longer once you’ve given your Idea Sephirah to a certain character in the tower. This means your dungeon playthroughs will be longer each time you enter. Unlocking other dungeons, figuring out how to help the townspeople and trying to unravel the plot of the game are all reasons to keep coming back to Baroque. Even after you beat the game, you’ll be able to come back and try to earn the other endings or go through a new “harder” dungeon.

The downside is that after the second or third playthrough, the game gets boring fast. When the tower is only 16 levels high, the game is monotonous as there is so little variation. Once it gets deeper or you unlock the other dungeon, playing through even once is boring and far too long. If it takes 90 minutes to play through a 16 level dungeon, do you really want to play through a 40/100 level one? That’s some serious OCD right there if you say yes. The game is either too short without enough new and interesting bits to keep you going or far too long and obscure with not enough pay off. The plot did draw me in, but it’s a very niche gamer that will be able to take the purposely repetitive nature of the game along with the vague promises of a story yet to pass and want to keep playing. Most will be drawn in at first, but then quickly annoyed by the lack of reward and get bored.

Replayability Rating: Mediocre

6. Balance

Balance is always a problem with mystery dungeon type games. Most gamers consider them to be the hardest of all RPG’s due to the playing style, the fact that your level drops to 1 every time you enter and the fact you need to eat in many of them. With items randomly occurring and enemies constantly respawning the law of averages does say that at least once you will be hosed not by your own actions, but by the random generation.

This is not so with Baroque. In fact, Baroque is mindlessly easy in terms of going up the Neuro Tower. Enemies have little to no AI, healing and food items are plentiful. You level up exceptionally quickly and there is such little randomization with the levels that the game is a cakewalk. Factor in that for a good portion of the game the tower is only 16 levels high compared to 100 (or more) for other games of this genre, and you can see how easy it is.

Ironically, the game isn’t supposed to be easy. It’s supposed to be mind numbingly hard. The game’s cover even refers to itself as “Hardcore.” Trust me it’s not. Playing through the tower is the easiest fushigi experience I have ever had. POKEMON Mystery Dungeon was a harder challenge. Sorry, but unless you’ve never played a mystery dungeon before and are completely caught off guard by the dynamics, you won’t have the slightest problem with this game. Again, back to the irony factor. In Baroque you are SUPPOSED to die. It’s supposed to be oh so hard and when you die bits of story are revealed to you. But when you rarely if ever see even the halfway point of your lifebar, it basically means you have to stand around waiting to commit suicide to see what sort of action occurs. IF ANY.

There are three difficulty settings in the game, but they make little to no difference. In fact there are many times when I made it through the game faster and with less trouble on hard than I did easy. The only thing I can find that is different is that levels get a little longer and your vitality goes down a little faster. Oh no. Even the super bonus dungeon of pain you can unlock is about as challenging as beating Pac Man World.

The only real challenge comes in figuring out what you’re supposed to do and who you are supposed to give items to. It’s primarily trial and error, leaving you bored and frustrated. Why would I give Longneck’s crystal to the Sentry Angel? Where is the hint or logic in that? Why would you have a character ask for “Pure Water” and have it be a cryptic reference to part of yourself rather than the Glacier item, which is the literal pure water in the game? Again, this isn’t hardcore – it’s just guess and check leaving a person who miraculously gets it right on the first time to feel as smug as the game itself, which is not cool. I ended up helping several people out with this game simply because I remembered the frustration I had with the Saturn version. Every time I told them what they needed to do, the reaction was simply “How the hell am I supposed to know that?” You’re not. Again, it’s part of the Kafka-esque nature of the game, but it also destroys any semblance of balance in the game

Balance Rating: Dreadful

7. Originality

On one hand. Baroque is easily the most original and innovative game in the history of fushigi dungeon style games. On the other, this is a complete rehash of the Saturn game, only now in English and with the special move controlled by swinging the wiimote. I’d love to give this game a high score in this category, but that would be like me giving Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD a high score because 15 years ago, Street Sighter was a revolutionary game.

I’m going to be nice here and say that Baroque is definitely a game to inflict on your unsuspecting friends because they will be flabbergasted and either enraptured by the oft-kilter plot, or aggravated to levels of profanity usually only scene at Manchester United football matches,.

Even nearly a decade later, Baroque stands out as a wonderful example of surreal gaming, and for 99% of North American gamers, they won’t even realize this is a remake and will instead light up their internet message boards about how out there and weird this game is. And you know what? I’m fine with that. I’m just glad Americans are finally getting a taste of this.

Now if only Atlus would remake freaking Hell Night and bring it stateside…

Originality Rating: Above Average

8. Addictiveness

Event hough I know this genre of gaming isn’t well liked here in the States, I really get into it. Sting also realizes how tedious the dungeon crawling can be and so has kindly given us the ability to save after each level. And it’s a hard save, not a quick save, which is brilliant. For me, it’s very hard to enter the dungeon without completing it. This is mainly because i like seeing what actions trigger what story bits. I realize I’ve been very hard on the game for the lack of exposition and the fact the game is as easy to play as the story is hard to get pieces of, but that’s because I’m a critic. I realize the very things that I enjoyed about Baroque are the things that are going to drive the majority of you reading this review away from it.

I guess I view Baroque in the same way I view Missing. It’s a weird game where very little is explained in a fashion that the average person can appreciate. Most gamers won’t enjoy the constant returns to the dungeon. Or the level resetting. Or the lack of AI. Or the fact you need to die. It’s so far outside most gamer’s realm of comfort that the game will drive people away. But for that small niche of gamers who like the obscure and weird, or games that require a good deal of deduction, they will be hopelessly glued to this title.

Your feelings towards Baroque will be extreme. I loved the game, but I can see it for what it is: a game that purposely alienates the average gamer.

Addictiveness: Mediocre

9. Appeal Factor

Oh man. I feel bad for the marks I’m going to give the game here, but I’d rather be brutally honest with you than to say, “I like it. Maybe you will too!” The fact of the matter is you will most certainly NOT like this game. You will hate it. You will dislike the graphics, the lack of depth in characters, the way the story is revealed, the monotony of it all, and the fact that even when you do beat the game, the endings are generally anti-climatic and underwhelming.

Mystery Dungeon games have the smallest audience I can think of in the US. Baroque’s story however will alienate many of those who are used to the genre holding the gamer’s hand with the plot progression. The fact the dungeon crawling itself is easy and secondary to the guess and check aspects of the game will no doubt make the game even less appealing.

In truth, I can think of five people on this planet I would ever even remotely consider recommending Baroque to, and three of them (Chuck, Mr. Rose, and Mark) are staff here at Diehard Gamefan, one of which also owns the original Saturn version. The other two people are friends of mine that like their games to be as weird as possible. Other than that, as much as I like Baroque I’ll be simply to engage in shaudenfraude my friend’s reactions when they put it in and purify the Absolute God for the first time.

Baroque is a nice game within an already small niche genre. I would love to see the game reach even cult status here in the US, but even that’s a longshot.

Appeal Factor: Dreadful

10. Miscellaneous

Baroque provides a lot of neat extras in the “Database” option of the game. This includes all the Baroques you have received in the game, a list of all the sound clips you have unlocked, all the cinematics you have unlocked and character profiles. There’s a lot to see and o in this bonus area of the game, and it is by going through it all that will help explain the story to you. My only complaint here is that the voice acting should have been arranged in a way that it would help people more, rather than sound bytes be scattered across the list without rhyme or reason.

I’m also happy that Atlus released the game at budget pricing. I would have been pissed if this game had a MSRP of $49.99 simply due to it being a remake with little to no new content provided. As a budget title, I can hope that more gamers will pick this up and go “What the hell? It’s half the cost of other games” and experience Baroque for themselves. If gamers don’t try new things and go outside their usual genre on occasion, well that’s how we get sequel after sequel will little to no new innovation to be churned out all the time. I’m happy to see Atlus taking the chance with Baroque and more importantly bringing it to the PS2 and the Wii so as to get more of a market share with this. The game is definitely not for everyone, but it’s worth experiencing just to say you’ve tried it. The better this does, the more like Atlus is to bring over other weird games, and I’d rather have a mixed bag like Baroque then yet another first person shooter, Tomb Raider or Madden game where the only change is a roster update.

Miscellaneous Rating: Good

The Scores
Story:Above Average
Graphics: Poor
Sound: Unparalleled
Control and Gameplay: Good
Replayability: Mediocre
Balance: Dreadful
Originality: Above Average
Addictiveness: Mediocre
Appeal Factor: Dreadful
Miscellaneous: Good
FINAL SCORE: DECENT

Short Attention Span Summary

Baroque has some pretty strong flaws, but what makes these flaws stand out the most is that they were purposely put into the game by Sting as part of the overall experience. For those of you that like existential novels or vague mysteries you have to piece together, this is right up your alley. Most gamers will be turned off by the gameplay and nature of how the story is presented to you. In short, Baroque is the Lost Highway of video games. I enjoyed the game, but it’s one of those appeals to my specific wacky tastes. I can’t recommend Baroque to my readers, but if you find yourself intrigued by the review, by all means go out and get this title. Hopefully you too will enjoy it.