Review: Chaos Wars (PS2)

Chaos Wars
Genre: Turn-based Strategy RPG
Developer: Idea Factory
Publisher: O3 Entertainment
Release Date: 05/30/08


There’s a term that I frequently use (I can’t say that I “Ëœinvented’ it because hell, with multiple billion people on the planet, who really ever knows?), “doing the absolute most with the absolute least”. It’s meant to mean “taking something horrible and making something awesome from it”, more or less. We can see this in many cases in our entertainment, from John Cena (Who thought a white comedy rapper would become a multiple time WWE Champion?) to 24 (The guy from Lost Boys and Armitage III is one of the baddest men on the planet?) to Katamari Damacy (You’re rolling a ball around. How much fun is THAT supposed to be?) and beyond. It’s absolutely wonderful when something like that happens, honestly; take something incredibly poor, find the right way to make it work, and turn it into gold. Well, at that point you can pretty much start pouring your money out and swimming in it, ala Scrooge McDuck.

This, unfortunately, raises the counter phrase “doing the absolute least with the absolute most”. The definition should be simple: making crap out of gold. Seventy-five percent of licensed games do this thing, but it’s not exclusive to that type of game alone. Basically, any time you see something that SHOULD, on paper, be a winning idea, and someone else takes it and COMPLETELY RUINS IT, well, that’s doing the least with the most. Vampire Rain, Rule of Rose, Siren, Haze: all winning ideas, all well thought out, all bad games.

The point here is this: Chaos Wars, wonderful concept it might be, fits neatly into the latter category.

Now, I’m ABSOLUTELTY certain that someone, somewhere, will take umbrage with this definition, so instead of breaking things down to in the normal format, I’d like to take this opportunity to actually discuss the good and the bad of the game, categorically, so as to allow you, the buyer, to be completely informed about the product. This is largely done because it’s honestly just easier to place all of the hateful invectives I could possibly document about this product into one place, but it’s also done because honestly, everything in the game has good and bad elements, so writing out a normal review would basically seem like something written by a person with multiple personality disorder.

First, THE GOOD:

– The fact that it came out at all. Now, it might seem odd to casual gamers, but for more “hardcore” types, it’s fairly common knowledge that Japanese gamers have been getting all sorts of neato mash-up games for a good long while that feature characters from multiple different franchises duking it out in generally good games. Now, while in some cases it makes perfect sense why these games aren’t coming stateside (Another Century’s Episode and Super Robot Wars, for instance, feature tons of giant robots from known franchises like Gundam, Martian Successor Nadesico, Macross, Mazinger Z, and Neon Genesis Evangelion, among many, MANY others… most of which have multiple different copyright holders in the US, thus marking the ONLY case where monopoly laws kind of suck), with others, like, say, Namco X Capcom, well, this really comes down to the fact that Namco and Capcom hate you.

Ahem.

Anyway, the fact that O3 Entertainment would take the financial risk of bringing something like this stateside when the closest we’ve come to this sort of product are the (Marvel/SNK Property) Vs. (Capcom Property) fighting games, Mortal Kombat Vs. DC and some Super Robot Wars games with all of the copyrights edited out, well, it deserves applause.

– A solid story. As “getting a bunch of people from unrelated worlds together” stories go, Chaos Wars manages to weave a decent one, involving the world of Endia, where people from other worlds (called Knights) go to through dimensional portals that involve Keys of some sort or another. The game goes to decent lengths to explain who characters like Hiro (a character from Spectral Force), Yuri (a character from Shadow Hearts), Beyond the Grave (the main character from Gungrave) and other characters are, and kind-of sort-of succeeds. It’s not the best story ever, but the various characters are given a decent amount of time to flesh their character out as needed and the game generally manages to get the plot across well enough; it’s not perfect, but it does the job nicely.

– The sprites are bright and colorful, and are easily on par with most competing titles. One could even make the point that the sprites are of better quality than the sprites in similar games, as they’re generally not pixilated except in extreme close-ups and animate reasonably well. Also, the anime style of the characters is nice in a Super-Deformed sort of way, and the characters (even more “serious” characters like Beyond the Grave) are all pretty adorable.

– The Japanese Voice acting ranges from “decent” to “very good” depending on the character, and it’s generally not bad overall.

– Having specific songs play depending on the game the character comes from is a nice touch. Each time a turn starts the song changes depending on the character in question, with characters all having tracks that sound like they come from their specific property. Music that’s made for the game itself is also pretty decent and cute, and works well in the game all in all.

– The actual gameplay isn’t bad, in that it plays like a standard turn-based strategy game with no grid for movement. Characters can move anywhere on the level map that isn’t restricted by the environment or other characters, meaning you can gang up multiple characters on one foe depending on how many characters you can fit around an enemy. Combat is also pretty simple; characters equip techniques, each of which costs SP to use, which regenerate during their next turn. Techniques are dependent upon the character’s weapon of choice, with some techniques working with specific weaponry while others are more broad in scope.

– The S meter, Skill Changes and Realization are all interesting elements that are amusing to see in action. The S meter accomplishes three things; First, it allows characters to join in for gang beatings of enemies at the cost of one S meter. Second, it allows a character to Realize for the cost of one S meter. Finally, it allows characters access to their Super Special move, again, at the cost of one S meter in addition to SP points. You build this S meter by giving and receiving damage, thus making it decently easy to fill the bar and use it as needed. Realization basically allows characters to summon super-powered weapons that they would be able to use in their world (Grave summons his Cerberus guns, Yuri turns into a demon, Hiro summons a giant scythe, etc). This not only makes them tougher and able to do more damage, but also allows them to do their Super Special move, which is often a devastating attack that deals multiple hundreds of points of damage to one or more enemies. Skill Changing is a neat mechanic that basically allows a skill to turn into ANOTHER skill; as you use the skill it could convert to something else in mid-use, while retaining its level (skills go up levels as they’re used), which can make for some interesting changes in battle when a weak skill becomes something uber-powered.

– There are a whole ton of characters in the game, many of which can only be unlocked in a one or the other fashion (pick one character or the other), meaning that seeing all of the characters in the game will give fans plenty of reason to play through the game multiple times. Also, a lot of the characters are recognizable even if you DON’T import games. Half the of the characters from the Shadow Hearts series pop up in the game (Alice, Yuri, Gepetto, Anastasia, Kurando, Joachim, and Roger Bacon, among others), and the only reason the characters from the third game don’t pop up, one presumes, is because it came out too late. Pretty much the entire cast of Gungrave Overdose is in the game (Beyond the Grave, Rocketbilly Redcadillac, Jyuji, and Mika, again, among others), and as these games have actually come stateside, that’s good for those who’ve PLAYED those games. Also worth noting is the dictionary that explains the games everyone you recruit come from, on the off chance that you don’t know who they are and want to know about them, which is also nice considering that more Growlanser and Spectral Force games are coming stateside (and this will help get fans up to speed in its own way).

– There are all sorts of nice little touches in the game that make it a joy for fans to play with. Characters from Shadow Hearts use the Judgment Ring to do their Super Special Attacks, Beyond the Grave has a special move that requires you to spam the Square button to use it (and has a little cutscene for his Super Special move), the “Please name this character” thing pops up for Roger Bacon the first time you meet him (though in context this time it makes no sense, but whatever), you get the idea. The game is loaded with novelties of all kinds, and it’s pretty cool seeing all of the attention to detail the game has crammed into it.

Okay. So that’s the good.

Now it’s time for THE BAD:

– The localization of this game is very rough in most places and actively shows that no one bothered to play-test any of it. Characters will say things that make no sense grammatically, characters will say things that OTHER CHARACTERS should be saying, and some things are just poorly translated. A perfect example: Mika (a Gungrave character) has an attack called “Barret Dance”. There is no character in the Gungrave universe named “Barret”, which was confusing for about ten seconds until I used the move. The move itself involves Mika spinning in circles, firing in all directions with her guns for decent damage. I contemplate this for about five seconds before I sit up and go, “Oh, BULLET DANCE!”.

Look, that’s just stupid, okay? If anyone had bothered to spend some time playing the game they’d AT THE VERY LEAST have been able to clean up half of these problems. Such is not the case, however, and the end result is that, yes, the game is confusing or silly in a lot of respects.

Also, speaking specifically on behalf of name translations: okay, I can understand how “Karin” from Shadow Hearts Covenant could become “Karen” in Chaos Wars, that happens. I can kind-of sort-of get how “Nicolai/Nicholas” could become “Nicole” if you didn’t stop to think “Isn’t Nicole a girl’s name?” and were kind of rushed. But how does “Yuri” become “Uru”? When did Yuri transform into a Myst game? Again: shoddy localization at work. Thanks for showing that you care, folks.

– Many characters in the game are ignored for storyline purposes, while the default main characters (three young school children and a Gate Master from the world of Endia) are basically given the spotlight for most of the story. Now, yes, characters like Yuri and Grave are given their time to shine. Yes, other characters get their rivals and moments of exposition and whatnot. However the story often is focused on four characters created specifically for this game (three of whom aren’t even fighters in their home world and are seriously young in comparison to many of the other characters), with most of the actual crossover characters taking a backseat to them. I understand you need a reason for these characters to get together and all, but the same thing could have been accomplished with only the Gate Master character being involved, and she didn’t even need to be a combat character at all. The fact that several of my better characters are teenage schoolkids who are hanging in battle with demonic warriors and undead monsters, well, that’s kinda stupid in context.

– Speaking of awkward story issues, the idea that these characters all come from different parts of their own worlds and different timelines in each one is neat, but annoying when the continuities come at the expense of logic in both the original game worlds and in this world itself. Example: when you encounter Yuri, Karin and Nicolai (I’m not calling them by their poorly translated names, forget that) for the first time, they all know one another and are going through the motions of their Shadow Hearts storyline (and Karin is wearing the outfit she acquired when the group met Gepetto for the first time). This is fine. Later, the group meets Alice and Gepetto, who have also been transported to this world, and Alice and Gepetto don’t know who Yuri and Karin are. This, too, is fine, as they could be from an earlier part of the timeline. The part that’s annoying is the part where Yuri and Karin don’t know who Alice and Gepetto are, as in the SHC storyline, both should know who Gepetto is, and seeing as how Yuri was hiding out in the church Karin and Nicolai found him in because of Alice’s demise, the fact that Yuri doesn’t know who she is, well, is STUPID.

This is then further compounded by the fact that Alice and Yuri have a Bond of Friendship (a special technique that allows for greater damage during combo attacks) with each other, but Yuri lacks one with Karin (the character HE CAME TO ENDIA WITH) and Gepetto lacks one with Alice (who’s only HIS BIOLOGICAL RELATIVE and all). It’s then compounded even further when it’s noted that Yuri KNOWS ROGER BACON, which he wouldn’t unless the first Shadow Hearts had taken place.

In other words: this is stupid and doesn’t make sense to anyone who actually knows these games themselves.

– The English voice-acting is atrocious. There are Youtube videos devoted to showing this, but perhaps my favorite example comes up during a mission where the characters decide to go and visit a private detective and run into Ires and Zeros (the former is from a Japanese Idea Factory game called Rebirth Moon, the latter is from another Japanese Idea Factory game called Blazing Souls) at said agency. In the Japanese voice acting, Ires comes off as a sarcastic, full of himself guy, and Zeros comes off as a deep-voiced warrior-type character. In the English voice acting, Ires sounds like a very bored woman, and Zeros sounds like (and I swear to God I’m not kidding) A SEVEN YEAR OLD BOY.

Look, the fact that the English voices were only supplied for cutscenes and not for anything else is lazy, yes, and the fact that many of the voice actors have no idea what they’re doing is pretty bad, sure, but when your own voice director doesn’t even care to properly match up genders or ages of characters with appropriate voice actors, FIRE HIM. I don’t care if money was his primary concern, you could have held online contests for a chance to be the voice actors in the game, under the understanding that the actors would not be paid, and had the winners record their lines with their own headset mics in MP3 form and E-mail them to you and gotten better results. This is worse than the dubbing in 80’s anime, okay? THIS IS HIDEOUS.

– The battlegrounds in the game are floating fields over top of static backgrounds, which looks weird and isn’t terribly appealing visually.

– Combat becomes more about bum-rushing one or two enemies to get an early advantage than it does about any sort of strategy, and as a result becomes boring rather quickly.

– There are a whole lot of different mission types that you can pick from (Main Story Missions, Search Missions, Quests, Dispatch Missions) to level up your characters and/or earn prizes and such, but only Dispatch Missions are anything other than killing tons of monsters (and in fairness, all they are is non-playable missions meant to earn you money or prizes), meaning that you spend a lot of time grinding for items, money and experience points to get to a point where you can actually do something; that much combat will eventually wear on the most novel combat system, and as Chaos Wars is, at best, a low-impact knock-off of games like Phantom Brave, it’s not going to keep your interest for long once you’ve played through forty or fifty battles, and since you’ll be seeing SEVERAL HUNDRED battles over the course of the game, this becomes tiresome.

– The S Meter and Skill Changes don’t work anywhere near as well as they could. The S Meter, as noted, is used for Tag-team attacks, Realization, and Super Special moves, which is fine until you realize one important thing: this basically means that to get maximum effectiveness out of the game, you have to take a whole lot of beatings in battle to charge the S Meter. The fact that you have to weigh the risk of whether you want to Tag-team an enemy or use Realization and a Super Special move would be cute except for the part where, in most cases, Tag-team attacks often do way more damage than a Super Special move, and waiting around for your character to build up enough S meter and SP to do the move often means passing up perfectly good opportunities to waste a foe normally; thus, you often end up ignoring Realization unless you’re out-classed. This, unfortunately, happens quite a bit later in the game, as we’ll discuss later. Skill Changes don’t work as well as they could, either; in theory, your skills can change into other, far more awesome skills; in practice, you could find yourself watching a useful skill change into a useless one, or worse, one you already have. You CAN lock down useful skills if you want to keep them, which is fair enough, but watching a skill you’re hoping to transform as it transforms into something you already own, well, that’s annoying and frustrating at the best of times, and this happens fairly often, honestly.

– The game has awkward balance issues. Okay, when you take damage in Chaos Wars, the normal life bar depletes, while a second red bar behind it appears. When your turn comes around, your life bar refills a portion of that red bar back with life (possibly all the way to max, depending on how much life you lost). This is useful to a point, but it’s far more useful for the enemy, as they often get more life back than you do. Now, this wouldn’t be a huge problem on its own, except that as you progress further into the game, the enemies outnumber you, overpower you, and regenerate more life than you; thus, you’re stuck grinding to get through some missions. Strategy is secondary to simply outclassing your foes, and that’s NEVER a good recipe for a strategy game. This becomes something of a problem when

– You take on multi-tiered missions that are impossible to complete. Okay, in Chaos Wars, many missions are structured as multi-battle missions (Story and otherwise), meaning that you have to fight several battles in a row. You’re provided ten characters in your primary group, with your secondary group being backup characters that can be subbed into your group between missions, but not between battles IN a mission. In-between battles, you’re afforded the option to heal characters and such with your inventory, but you’re not able to cast spells to heal them or sub out injured characters for fresh ones. Thus, if your characters get almost wiped out in the first mission, and you save your game before taking on the second mission without saving in a second slot, well, hope you like the game a lot, because you’re starting over.

The above two complaints are summed up neatly (along with a few other issues) with the storyline mission “The Backyard”. For starters, the monsters are saying words like “Crocodile” and “Backyard”, which makes no sense. Next, characters I didn’t bring in my active party are providing exposition on the situation, which makes no sense because THEY AREN’T IN THE GROUP. Third, the game claims that the mission is a Rank 12 mission (meaning, presumably, that characters of Rank 12 should be able to complete it), but this is something of a lie, as the group of Rank 13 characters sent into the mission all died. Finally, there are two battles, and you’re outnumbered in both.

This is, realistically, game-breaking, and the fact that it happens a few times is a bit perplexing, frankly.

– There are odd unlocking requirements for a good bit of the characters. Now, the whole “you get one key for beating an enemy one way and another key for beating them a different way” mechanic is fine because it’s not very difficult to work around, but some of the recruitment methods in the game are either silly or outright draconian. Several characters require you to go on random grinding missions to find them during certain parts of the game, which, too, can be tolerated to a point. But a sizable amount of the characters in the game require you to have done other things early on or have found characters early on that, if you missed them, are all lost forever, which ultimately makes the experience annoying if you don’t feel like following a strategy guide to unlock everything. Finding out that you can only unlock, for instance, a character in Chapter Four by finding another character in Chapter Three who you can only unlock if you finished off a certain boss in Chapter Two with a certain character when neither the boss nor the character are affiliated with the unlockable characters in Chapters Three and Four makes the experience somewhat frustrating the FIRST time it happens; when it happens three or four times throughout the course of the game you quickly come to the conclusion that the game is structured in such a way as to make you play it for hundreds of hours (literally, as the main game is incredibly long on its own and the grinding you’ll have to do to keep characters in prime condition makes things worse). Frankly, if you actively want to devote that much time to unlocking characters in the game, God bless you, but that doesn’t amount to “replay value”, it amounts to “tedium”.

– Other odd issues make the game something less than the sum of its parts. Characters can, in many cases, be equipped with different kinds of weapons that fall into different categories, which is nice and diverse, but their Realized weapons are often of a specific type, so if you, say, give a character a gun and their Realized weapon is a javelin, well, YOU’RE BEAT, which basically means that you’re better off NOT experimenting. The game offers a shop and a way to upgrade weaponry, which is nice, but the fact that the contents of the shop randomize and the fact that good equipment and good upgrades cost more money than you get normally combined with the fact that if you want to outfit and upgrade all thirty or more of your characters later in the game means you’ll be spending ungodly hours grinding makes the game somewhat less palatable (especially considering a few characters have mandatory battles they must be a part of, meaning that ignoring those characters in favor of others means those characters will be underpowered when the time comes for them to shine). The fact that the Judgement Ring is used by Shadow Hearts characters is neat in certain respects, but the fact that it doesn’t seem to actually DO anything (as I used the same move, “For the Children” if you care, twice in one battle, once with a successful Ring, once with a failed Ring, and both dealt the same damage).

Now, in conclusion: Chaos Wars is a generally decent game that does good, novel things and bad, annoying things in equal parts, making it a game that will appeal more to anyone who is a fan of the characters in the game or a fan of grinding for hours and hours than, say, someone looking for a game that’s good on its own merits. If you like Gungrave, Shadow Hearts, Spectral Force, Growlanser, and some of the other, more obscure games the characters in this game come from, you’ll certainly have a reason to pick this up, as it’s a cute crossover that does a decent job integrating its characters and it’s priced reasonably enough. That said, if you’re not a huge fan of turn-based strategy RPG’s, not a huge fan of the characters in this game, or not tolerant of massive grinding sessions in your games, well, you’re going to hate this openly; it’s long, tedious, repetitive, not well balanced, and not well localized. There’s a certain charm to it, certainly, but only the most die-hard of genre fans will want to stay with the game any longer than twenty or thirty hours (and the game is much, MUCH longer than that); the rest will most likely put this down, call it a failed experiment, and go back to the games these characters came from, which are all generally quite a bit better than Chaos Wars.

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

Final Score: MEDIOCRE.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Chaos Wars is a few neat ideas tossed into a game that doesn’t really seem to know what to do with them, and the end result is an experience that’s big on style and depth but low on actual substance and enjoyment. Having access to a bunch of characters from other games is cute, and teaming up favorite characters from different franchises is enjoyable, and the game tries to give the top-tier characters screen time as best it can. The game looks decent, sounds decent, and has plenty of little touches that make for some surface-level enjoyment. However, the core gameplay is repetitive and tedious, and you’ll spend hours upon hours involved in it, and between that, the lack of variety in the experience, the fact that the characters all seem to be jostling for position in a story dominated by some unknown characters who shouldn’t even be remotely in the same league as battle-hardened warriors, the poor localization, and the need to grind constantly to make progress, the game becomes less of a “game” and more of a “chore” the further you play into it. Chaos Wars ends up being a cute first try that’s unfortunately not as good as any of the games the characters that appear in it come from, and is really only going to keep the interest of die-hard fans of the genre or the characters.

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