Genre: Dungeon Crawler/Rhythm
Release Date: 05/03/16
You might well think that one dungeon crawler from Experience in a calendar year would be a fine enough boon to genre fans, especially considering that the game released this year, Stranger of Sword City, was one of the best entries in the genre from the company yet. Surprisingly, however, Experience has been fairly prolific in Japan as of late, working on not only their own in-house releases, but collaborative efforts with companies like Bandai Namco in the somewhat more experimental dungeon crawler Ray Gigant, which has just landed in the West by way of Acttil. Ray Gigant feels, at first, like it’s trying to be something of a casual introduction to the world of dungeon crawlers, in the same fashion as something like Demon Gaze, but with a bit more focus on welcoming newcomers to the genre. While the game definitely has a bit of an experimental bent in places, it also feels a bit more welcoming in its design and structure, and features a full cast that make the game more easily identifiable for those who like involved storylines in their RPGs. That said, while it’s a great attempt, and in some cases far more successful than Demon Gaze, it feels more like a game that’s struggling for an identity. It’s good, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t seem to quite know what it wants to do, and it often overreaches when trying to do thing that make the game uneven at the best of times.
On saving the world one act at a time
As discussed in the Ten Thoughts piece, the storyline of Ray Gigant borrows from the tropes set into place by franchises like Attack on Titan, Evangelion and God Eater: the world is somewhat ruined after an attack from super-powerful monsters (the Gigants) and only a handful of teenagers can face them down in battle effectively to save the rest of the world. The Gigants can only be defeated by people who can wield Yorigamis, living jewelry of sorts that allows them to manifest powerful weapons, though “potential” wielders can wield Kurogamis, which do much the same thing but at a lesser scale. The game is broken up into four acts, where the first three act to develop the world at large and the characters of the Yorigami wielders and their Kurogami wielding allies, and the fourth sees the Yorigami wielders come together as a force, and for the most part, the plot works. The first and third acts are fairly heavy on the anime tropes, to be fair, but the game does a lot to try to not be the same story you’d expect. The first act, for instance, focuses on Ichiya, who missed all of the Earth ruining stuff post zero day due to his Yorigami putting him into a coma, and his mental state makes sense in context, as does the initial acrimony between him and partners Mana and Kazuomi, since they were promised Ichiya was a lot better than he is and they have to adjust. The same goes for the third act, as Yorigami user Nil is a bit of a lazy-ass, but most everyone around her (including Kurogami users May and Raidne) get along really well and have several cheerful and enjoyable interactions. Honestly, the majority of the story works well, and if that’s something you’re interested in from a dungeon crawler, you’ll enjoy most of what’s here from jump.
That said, it’s not perfect. The smaller, but more prevalent problem, is that the translation isn’t as spot-on as it should be; about one in forty lines of dialogue is wrong in an obvious way, either through misspellings, grammar errors or sentence structure concerns, and while it’s not Lux Pain bad, it’s noticeable. The larger problem, however, is that the entire second act is just a painful slog to get through narratively. The second act focuses on Yoragami Kyle and his Kurogami allies Riona and Conner, and to be frank about it, the first act kind of paints Kyle as a bad guy, so the game has a lot of work to do to make him into at least an interesting character, if not a likable one. Unfortunately, it doesn’t even try to do this thing, and to be frank, the only character who manages to come across as a decent person is Connor. Kyle is painted as a borderline psychopath who’s in love with an AI and treats everyone around poorly, and Riona is an absolute trash person whose entire non-negative traits can be summed up as “otaku,” and the game sticks you with them for about ten hours. That the game manages to recover at all from this chapter is a testament to the rest of the plot, but it’s an absolute slog to get through the chapter narratively. I’m not sure whether Bandai Namco or Experience are responsible for this, but regardless of who did it, just… know that it’s a thing, and if you can deal with this, the plot gets much better when it’s over with.
Visually, Ray Gigant uses the same “3D world, 2D battles” most Experience games work with, but it’s almost certainly the most attractive Experience game yet, due almost entirely to the fact that there’s some substantial animation to the 2D models this time around. The 3D environments generally look good, though the game only offers up a handful of them to navigate through so you might end up not taking much from them due to their consistent reuse. The characters and enemies, on the other hand, are a lot more dynamic this time around, as enemies have static animations and characters have both static animations and animations that play when you select an action for them to perform. You still don’t get full combat animations or anything, but it’s still a marked improvement over prior Experience titles, and the characters and enemies look quite nice even if their animations are limited. The game also features plenty of character artwork during interactions, which are all very well done, and even several anime sequences, especially during Slash Beat, which all look excellent. Aurally, the soundtrack for the game is almost entirely amazing, as each chapter gets its own unique soundtrack pieces for dungeons, battle and such that make them feel notably unique. The first act features lots of funky jazz-inspired tunes with heavy horn focus, while the third act features a lot of violin-heavy tracks that really compliment the aesthetics of the dungeons and combat sequences. The second act uses more down-toned electronic-heavy tracks that are… fine but don’t stand well on their own, sadly, which doesn’t help the act, but it’s not bad, it’s just not as good as the rest of the soundtrack. Beyond that, there’s also a good amount of Japanese dialogue in the game that’s all well cast, and the combat effects sound exactly as you’d expect as well.
On Gigants and how to kill them
If you’ve ever played a dungeon crawling RPG in your life, Ray Gigant mostly works in a way that you’ll find immediately understandable, though there’s some experimental stuff here to keep the game feeling unique. The core elements work as you’d expect: when you’re in the dungeon, your party can be moved with either stick or the D-Pad (the left stick and pad allow for forward movement and turning, while the right stick allows for movement in the direction pressed), and you’ll generally have a specific objective point to reach in each dungeon you go to. Unlike most dungeon crawlers, there’s no random battles to speak of, and you’ll only be pushed into combat when you move into an enemy marker on the battlefield. The game offers a full automap, and in most dungeons it will even show you where enemies and treasure chests are so you can try to plot your way to them as needed, though you’ll still need to uncover the map itself as you move. Each dungeon also has its own unique gimmicks to deal with, including floor traps, one-way doors, panels that automatically move you in a direction, maps that don’t track movement or enemies and more, to keep you on your toes. The game also features the Experience standard of allowing you to automatically move to a point on the map by selecting it to minimize backtracking, though in a nice addition, you’re also offered the option to escape most dungeons whenever you wish via a press of the Select button from the map screen if you want to head back to base. You’ll mostly only do so if you need to save, since the game only uses your home base for saving and narrative advancement, but it’s still a good mechanic, especially on a portable console where rapid saves are a good idea.
The most significant change players familiar with the genre will likely come across is in the battle system, as it’s unique to the game and fairly strategic in its design. Except in instances where the story requires it, you’re generally set up with three person teams, where one character is a melee-heavy tank unit, one character is a ranger-type, and one character is a mage. Each character can have up to six skills set up to their dual-layered action bar (save during the first chapter, where you’re limited to three) that fall into four categories: offensive (damage dealing), defensive (defending/healing), item usage or “Wait”. The game allows you to map these actions to the Square, Triangle and Circle button more or less as you wish (though Triangle must always be a non-offensive action), so you can map whatever skills or items you wish from what you have available, up to a maximum of six, as you see fit. You can then swap between your two action bars by pressing Down to select any of the actions you wish, up to a maximum of five actions per person, before starting a round of battle. The trick is, though, that each skill costs a certain amount of AP to utilize, and each characters actions impact the total AP meter for the party each round. In other words, if you have everyone use all five actions in a round, you’re probably going to burn all your AP, and since the AP number follows you between battles, you’ll run out quickly. That’s where the Wait command comes in, as characters who Wait can replenish ten AP to the meter (on top of any replenished from taking battle damage), with the trade-off being they cannot do anything else. This ends up being very strategic, as you’ll have to manage health and actions between members to keep everyone in good shape while also managing the AP meter during each round of battle.
Another thing to be aware of is Parasitism, which is an effect you’ll have to manage from the second chapter onward. Essentially, each round of battle your Parasitism meter will increase ten percent, unless you end the battle that round. When the meter fills, Parasitism kicks in, which essentially makes all actions you take deplete character HP instead of AP. In theory, this sounds absolutely devastating, but there are instances where it has its uses; basically, so long as you can heal more health than your combat actions deplete, you can unleash massive damage per round while in this state, and it’s often more beneficial to be in this state during random battles (and it can even have uses during boss battles). Since anyone who survives a battle gets all their health back at the end, this can be very useful for rapidly ending battles and replenishing AP, though if someone gets knocked out, they’re out until you hit a save point or return to base. It’s also worth noting that each enemy you face has two distinct types to be aware of: the first, which is a sort of breed type, dictates what types of weapons and attacks damage them at all, while the second, which is an elemental type, dictates what they’re strong or weak against. The breed typing is mostly used to limit the sorts of attacks and weapons you can utilize against them, as some skills and weapons are meant to damage specific breeds of enemies, making them more or less tactically viable depending on the enemies you’re facing. Elemental typing, on the other hand, can be used to add or reduce damage based on the enemies in battle, meaning you can use elemental weapons or skills to deal more damage as needed, to speed through battles more handily.
There’s also the matter of Weight and Encounter types to consider, as these also heavily impact how battles progress over time. Weight is exactly what it sounds like: your characters can change weight over time in battle depending on their actions and the food items you use, which impacts their actions. Lighter characters can evade and hit more readily, while heavier characters hit harder overall, and Weight changes based on who’s attacking (which reduces Weight) and who’s waiting (which increases Weight), so balancing actions means you can specify who’s doing what at any time. Finally, it’s also worth noting that, while boss battles always operate at a default AP/Life expense, encounters on the map can vary in how expensive they are to the player. Enemy markers can either be normal Encounters (yellow icons), Light Encounters (blue icons) or Heavy Encounters (red icons), which dictate how expensive actions are to perform. In other words, Encounters cost the normal dictated cost, Light Encounters halve the cost and Heavy Encounters double it. The game rarely makes you jump into Heavy Encounters, but can potentially place them in front of attractive shortcuts or treasures to make them enticing (but painful) to take on, while normal and Light Encounters are more commonly placed in your path to force combat, so the game rarely tries to force you into costly and painful battles. However, it does give you reasons to consider them, which adds another interesting layer to the overall combat experience.
By far the most surprising addition to the game, though, comes from the Slash Beat system, as it’s so completely foreign a concept in a dungeon crawler that it’s still kind of surprising to deal with even after utilizing it a few times. Basically, as you engage in battle with enemies, a meter in the upper right (the Slash Beat Meter) fills up, and once it’s between fifty to a hundred percent full, you can kick on either a half (at fifty to ninety nine percent) or full (at one hundred percent) Slash Beat. This is basically a rhythm mini-game where you press action buttons (listed on the bottom of the screen) in time with icons moving into target circles on the main screen. In the beginning you’ll probably just do this with your default attack, but as enemies develop new type modifiers and you learn more skills you might find you’ll want to swap to your second palette or press a different button (though you’ll rarely want to swap around or anything like that). Regardless, it’s mostly about matching your button presses to the timing of the song, and if you’re even a little bit decent at rhythm games you’ll find this to work out just fine for a big damage boost during boss battles.
The game also utilizes an odd level up system that, interestingly, only rewards grinding to a certain point, instead rewarding exploration and discovery over heavy grinding over time. Not much has changed from when I described it initially: characters can only level up when they find Seeds, Forces or Materia, each of which improve different things for the cast. Seeds are your standard “Level Up” items, allowing you to improve one core stat for one character when used, between physical stats (damage/defense), magic stats (damage/defense) and agility stats (hit/evasion). They’re rare, however, and don’t drop in random combat at all, so you can only level up so much until very late in the game, when some bosses can be grinded. Force and Materia, however, can drop normally, and are generally used to improve your skills and gear, respectively. Force items allow you to buy new skills for each character from their respective tree, and while they’re a rare drop, they can allow you to unlock some useful stuff. Materia, on the other hand, allows you to upgrade the levels of your equipment from four categories: weapons, shields, armor and food. Once leveled up, you can use Breed gems (also random drop items) to build new gear right from the character screen, and characters can generally build two to four items per type of item, each of which improves as you level up, and each of which has different stats. The first three item types can be equipped directly to the character, while food can be added as a combat option for healing or weight changes during battle as needed. You’re also able to find Alter and Reverse gems, which let you respec character stats and Forces as needed if you have the gems to do it, so you can rebuild if you think you need it. It’s an interesting system, conceptually, that only rewards grinding to a limited extent, and it’s great for those who aren’t thrilled with the heavy grind such games can ask of you, until the late game, when you can grind more or less as much as you feel comfortable doing.
On saving the world and long term experiences
Your first playthrough of Ray Gigant will probably take between forty to sixty hours, give or take, depending on how much time you spend grinding or dying to the enemies you’re confronted with. The game gives you the option to grind if you want, but it’s rarely mandatory, so those who enjoy such things will have that option, and you’ll even be given the option to do so between missions, which will also (usually) offer you new treasure caches to collect in the process. Once the game is completed, you can also go through it again with a New Game Plus playthrough, which will allow you to carry over your stats to a more challenging playthrough (or not, if you want a real challenge). Research also indicates there’s an option for an invincible playthrough option if you complete the game twice, if you’re interested in this thing, so there’s really a lot to unlock if you’re invested in doing so. The game also comes with a pretty solid compliment of Trophies and works with the Playstation TV, for those who’d rather play it on the large screen, and from testing I can confirm it works out just fine. Genre fans and newcomers alike should easily get their money’s worth from the experience, all in all, and there’s a lot here to enjoy if it’s a game you’re interested in.
That said, the game has a few minor hiccups to address beyond the translation hiccups and pacing problems of the second act. The game features some notable slowdown in several of the in-game dungeons, such that about a third of the dungeons overall show this issue; it’s not something that impacts play, due to the turn-based nature of the experience, but it’s there and it’s mildly disruptive all the same. The mechanics are still a bit wonky, even after a full playthrough, as the button mapping feels unnatural no matter how long you play the game; again, as a turn-based game it’s not a big deal, but it feels weird and you’ll need to pay attention as you play to make sure you’re not throwing away a turn on the wrong actions. Probably the most disappointing thing, though, is that despite the more casual-friendly introduction and nature of the experience, the game ramps up in its difficulty in the last two chapters (in much the same fashion as Demon Gaze), such that it’s far more friendly to diehard genre fans than newcomers who might pick this up based on its aesthetic. The second to last chapter in particular tasks the player to go through three massive boss battles in a row, where losing one party member drops them for the whole sequence (since there’s no option to resurrect characters in battle), and battles push players to use taunts and high defense skills, which they weren’t heavily encouraged to use until that point. It’s not bad, just poorly paced, and it really caters more toward genre diehards rather than casual fans.
In the end, Ray Gigant is basically the best casual-friendly dungeon crawler Experience has developed yet, and one of the better ones to come from the company overall, but some translation and pacing issues (both in narrative and difficulty) as well as technical and mechanical hiccups make it harder to recommend than it really should be. The narrative, while a bit anime-trope heavy, is mostly quite interesting and carries the majority of the game along well enough, and the visuals and audio are among the very best Experience has delivered yet, as well as among the best in the genre overall. The gameplay takes the core concepts of the dungeon crawler genre and applies some complex and interesting play and leveling systems on top of it, as well as a rhythm mini-game special move, that make the game feel surprisingly fresh and different, and there’s significant depth to the game on top of its novelties. Sadly, the pacing is iffy, between a second act (of four) that really drags narratively and an endgame that’s far more challenging than the chapters before it, which makes it uneven to play overall. Further, the core combat gameplay is a bit awkward at times, the game features some minor but noticeable slowdown in about a third of the dungeons, and the translation has some noticeable flaws that, on their own, aren’t gamebreaking but in total hurt the game a bit. If you can deal with the pacing issues and mild technical concerns, Ray Gigant is one of the better Vita games available and one of the more interesting dungeon crawlers on the market, and without its flaws it’d easily be one of the best for newcomers ever made. As it stands, it’s still a lot of fun, but you’ll need to be prepared before jumping in, as its odd pacing and wonky flaws make it harder to love than it really should be.
Short Attention Span Summary:
Ray Gigant could have been an excellent dungeon crawling experience for newcomers, and for the most part it manages to be this thing between its novel mechanics and exciting presentation, but its pacing and technical flaws make it harder to recommend than it should be, and it’ll probably appeal mostly to genre fans as a result. The plot’s a bit steeped in genre clichés, but is mostly written well enough to carry the experience along, and the presentation is wonderful thanks to a colorful, well-crafted visual style and an aural composition that’s mostly fantastic across the board. The gameplay takes the core mechanics of the genre and mixes them up with some interesting and fresh combat and leveling systems, as well as a rhythm-based super attack dubbed the Slash Burst that are all interesting and unique in their own ways. There’s also a lot of content to see here, whether during your first run or your third, such that the game more than justifies its thirty dollar asking price, especially if you’re a fan of the genre who’s seen and done it all. However, the pacing issues of the game, between the second act’s narrative and the final act’s difficulty spike, make it harder to recommend the game to newcomers, which is what the game mostly feels like it’s paced toward attracting overall. Further, there are some mechanical issues with the combat gameplay, some slowdown occurs in some of the dungeons and noticeable translation issues pop up here and there that make the game harder than it really should be to recommend. Ray Gigant still ends up being one of the better games in the genre and on the Vita overall, but without the pacing and technical issues it’d be an easily recommend piece of work; as it stands now, it’ll be worthwhile for genre fans, but everyone else might have to give it some thought, even for the lower than average price.