Um, where did my experience points just go? - Review By BenT
Climax Entertainment is a rather interesting developer, mainly because of one stellar game that put them on every hardcore gamer's map: Landstalker, for the Sega Genesis. Since then, if you look at the Climax games that made it to the States, they've kind of gone downhill. At one point, Climax even tried to do a 3D update of their classic Landstalker, in the form of the Saturn's Dark Savior. Unfortunately, its attempted innovations failed in a variety of areas, leading to a game experience that could best be described as odd. In 1998 Climax made waves by announcing another high profile game, this time for Sega's new Dreamcast. Called Climax Landers, it was widely anticipated as one of the first great RPGs to hit the fledgling system. However, as with Dark Savior, when the game finally hit stores the reality fell far below expectations, and the product's numerous attempted innovations fell flat on their faces. Now Climax Landers has come to the States, under the new, thoroughly American name of Time Stalkers. You'd think that having a more than six-month gap between the Japanese and domestic releases would lead to some improvements, right?
Ahem. Well, here's the cursory story explanation. You are Sword, elf-like swordsman and all around jerk. While walking one night, Sword is attacked by a mysterious assailant, whom he chases to a dark and gloomy castle. In said castle, he finds a very important looking book, which he of course proceeds to open. Big mistake. The hapless (but still a jerk) Sword is sucked into the pages of the book, and when he comes to, is in a world that's strange beyond imagination. It's an amalgamation of different times and different dimensions - for example, at one point there's a medieval town square, and right next to it a street ripped from 1980's Japan, complete with a 24-hour convenience store. And next to *that* is a giant floating turtle held aloft with colorful balloons. Sword is understandably confused, so he takes the advice of Master, the first old geezer he meets. This advice? Go on adventures, kill monsters. Repeatedly. Eventually, other lost souls will arrive and join Sword on his quest, with the eventual goal of defeating some vague dark force and escaping this twisted reality.
Intrigued? Don't worry, it gets worse.
Sadly, the best point of Time Stalkers is the excellent localization job that Sega has performed. The majority of the game's script reads rather well, and through this text some comical situations and interesting NPCs are fleshed out. That doesn't mean there's not a lot of inane dialogue, because there is; it looks like this is the fault of the source material, though, and not the translators.
Certain parts of the world look pretty cool, and illustrate the clash of alternate realities.
The game features a mildly interesting monster capture system, letting you add monsters you encounter to your own party. They can then gain abilities and be built up just like your main character. Neat.
The movement control is fine, assuming you can see where you're going. See below.
There are a variety of VMU mini-games, which are about as interesting as you would expect a VMU mini-game to be. But what can I say? I'm trying to pad out The Good, so give me a break.
Finally, the coolest little bit about Time Stalkers is that it features cameos from past games. The most obvious is the return of Landstalker's classic hero, Nigel, along with his inseparable sprite pal Friday. Then there's Pyra from Shining in the Darkness, and Lady (is apparently) from the Super Famicom's Lady Stalker. Cool stuff, as it's neat to see a company that remembers its past. Too bad these characters aren't appearing in a better game...
The single most terrifying attribute of Time Stalkers is how closely it follows in the dubious footsteps of Sting's earlier DC RPG, Evolution. As you might recall, Evolution was a case study in how randomly generated dungeons and a half-hour's worth of plot could lead to hours of pointless, repetitious boredom. Time Stalkers makes all the same mistakes, and then some.
You can probably count the RPGs that offer 24-hour convenience stores on one hand.
Time Stalkers' worst failings occur when the game tries to innovate. The first major oddity is that your character returns back to level 1 after leaving a dungeon. Yep, all of your gained levels are effectively gone. While you do occasionally increase in "rank" upon leaving a dungeon, the improvements gained here are incremental at best. You may learn a cure spell and start the next dungeon with 5 extra HP, for example. Unfortunately, many of these permanent upgrades won't be available to you upon starting a new dungeon, as your character will be too weak to cast the spell, or equip that nice piece of armor you found. I tried to keep an open mind about this odd system, but in the end these artificial rules and stipulations did nothing more than take away any feeling of building my character into something better. Sure, you may get a faint feeling of power toward the end of a long dungeon, but as soon as you leave it you can kiss that feeling goodbye. It's back to level one for you, with 35 hit points and crap stats. A winner is you!
Time Stalkers steals another page from the Evolution playbook by featuring randomly generated dungeons. The idea turns out just as stupid this time around, although the game's nine dungeons aren't as insanely, maddeningly long as Evolution's were. Still, towards the end of the game you can expect to spend a bit less than an hour reaching the top, assuming you stop and map every floor along the way. Doing so is essential, because you won't be strong enough to take on the dungeon's boss if you don't exterminate
every little pest with extreme prejudice. Working against you here is the game's hunger system; basically, the more time you spend searching the dungeon, the more food you must feed your character (and allied monsters) to prevent catastrophic maladies. This system becomes highly annoying, as you can't explore very long before one character or another needs attended to. What's worse, sooner or later the game's random dungeons will yield a severe shortage of food, and there's nothing you can do about it, except teleport out, or hope for the best and press on.
This is my monster harem. That blue guy in the back is my most popular stud.
Well, you may be thinking, why not just cart a grocery store's worth of food into the dungeon with you? That sounds great, but for some unfathomable reason the game puts a low, arbitrary cap on the number of items a character can take into a dungeon. In the case of brave hero Sword, that cap is set at four. This includes both usable items and wearable items, so if you have equipped a sword, shield, armor, and boots, you won't be able to take anything else of worth with you into that dungeon. What's more, you won't be able to pick up any items you encounter on the first floor because your carrying capacity is already maxed, and can only be increased through leveling up. The end result is that you'll tend to spend most of the dungeons at the very limit of your item capacity, so every time you find a new item you'll be forced to use consumables you'd rather have saved for later, or even drop something, just to get an all-important space free in your inventory. I don't know about you, but I don't particularly enjoy having to perform inventory juggling and maintenance every minute or so. That's one reason I disliked Evolution, and it does nothing to help Time Stalkers either.
With all the problems so far, you'd hope that at least the battle system would be up to snuff. Unfortunately, it falls just as flat as the rest of the game. Fighting is turn-based in standard RPG fashion, but there is one small twist: normal attacks use up vigor points, which are only regained over time. This means that you have to carefully choose which type of attack you'll use each turn, in much the same way you'd choose spells in other RPGs. This little innovation doesn't really add up to much, since the vigor
points are regained at a decent clip. The rest of the battle system is generations behind other current games. In fact, small features that one might think of as "standard" are completely missing, such as the all-important cursor memory. This means you'll have to manually select your commands for each character every single turn, even if that character is not currently in a position to do anything useful. Worse, the game forgets which enemy you had targeted last, so when you go to attack or cast a spell in the next turn, you'll have to manually target the correct enemy again. Fun. The most laughable oversight (and probably the one that shows us that Climax didn't even try) hearkens back to the days of the NES's Final Fantasy 1, circa 1987. If you tell two characters to attack a target, and the target is killed by the first one (or moves), then the second character will still try to attack the non-existent enemy. Needless to say, he ends up missing completely and wasting his turn. Hooray. Come on, Climax. We're on the verge of the next millennium... aren't we supposed to be over this sort of interface lameness by now?
Here I am battling the horrific number six, which you can see going for the head of my knight.
Alas, graphics are nothing to marvel at either. The game runs at just 30 fps (less during spells), but yet the world and characters alike are simple and bland. Textures lack the terrific vividness we know the Dreamcast is capable of, and your characters walk about like incredibly stiff robots. The modeling is so lame, in fact, that Pyra's skirt splits in two when she walks, as if she were a poorly constructed, plastic action figure. Another example is Nigel's sprite Friday - she seems to have just one single animation! Some of the character portraits are nice enough, but they're balanced by some of the most bony, ugly drawings I've ever seen in an RPG. Check out the picture when Sword gets mad - ugh. Amid the mediocrity there are a few nice sights (such as the giant turtle with a cottage on its back) but the majority of the game, particularly dungeons, is lifeless and dull. With clipping and glitching galore, this is strictly first gen stuff, and the Dreamcast can do much better. This wasn't enough for Climax, though. Oh no. To add insult to injury, Time Stalkers features the single most irritating camera I've yet experienced in an RPG. In the overworld
it swings wildly about between a variety of pre-chosen vantage points, which in theory gives a unique and interesting perspective on the world. In practice, it makes it a pain in the ass to see where the hell you're going, so you'll often have to wait for the camera to catch up to you. The game also offers a first person view to give you a better look around, but you can't move around in this mode. Worse, it seems that you have a FOV of about 50, so places that should offer a decent vista turn out to look rather underwhelming and claustrophobic. The dungeon cam is not much better. The default choice offers a close-up overhead view that makes you rely exclusively on the map for navigation. I won't even describe the alternate dungeon cam - five minutes with that thing and I was begging for mercy.
The spells are rather pedestrian, and cause slowdown.
So, the music? Take a wild guess. While there are one or two pleasant tunes, the majority of the game is either standard RPG noise or irritating new age piano, with the latter being reminiscent of Seventh Cross, and provoking horribly traumatic flashbacks. Sound effects are standard fare, although it might be noted that the footstep sound drove me up the wall. Yuck.
Then we come to the all-important plot. Yep, it sucks, perhaps even worse than Evolution's. As mentioned above, your goal is to escape this world by defeating some vague force of darkness. That's it. There's just a single important plot twist, and you can see it coming a mile away (if you want a clue, think of Capcom's Code Name: Viper on the NES). As in Evolution, the majority of the game is spent hacking your way through dungeons, with short snippets of exposition in-between. During this time, your other heroes will be quickly introduced, and then it's time for the final showdown. The game can be solved in about ten hours, which gives you little chance to "rank up" one character, let alone the six that the game offers. To recap: no character development, no complex intrigue, and no real interest at all. The fact that Sword is a complete and utter jerk might have been interesting, but again, that's yet another aspect that's been pretty much lifted straight from Evolution.
Note the mind-numbingly lame, random dungeon layout. Oh, and also: Elf needs food, badly!
Finally, there's the manual. Upon opening it, you are confronted with this message:
"There is so much to Time Stalkers, that we couldn't fit it into one manual!! Whenever you see this icon, please refer to the Time Stalkers website."
Erm.. ever hear of double jewel cases? Anyway, that's not the real issue here. The problem is that this website, supposedly here, doesn't exist yet! The printed manual is somewhat of a mess, so I might have been less confused going into the game if this website had actually been up. Since we received Time Stalkers before its retail release, I figured the site would be up for the game's launch date. But here we are, well over a week later, and the thing's still not up. Shame on you, Sega.
The Final Word
Time Stalkers is a very weak start to Sega's Dreamcast line of RPG's, and you wouldn't know it's from the company that once published Panzer Dragoon Saga and the Phantasy Star series. The game is mediocre and just plain screwed in too many ways to count. There are a lot of new ideas, but none of them turn into rewarding gameplay, leading one to wonder if Climax actually tried playtesting their creation before release. Further, the parallels to Evolution are uncanny and not particularly welcome, considering the quality (or lack thereof) of that title. In short, Time Stalkers is a muddled mess of a game that's not worth your time, unless you're someone who's satisfied by merely watching stat numbers go up repeatedly. And then... back down. Blah.
Developer: Climax Entertainment
Highs: Decent control, good translation, neat cameos.
Lows: Everything else.
Other: 1 player, VMU Compatible (1 save takes 16 blocks; mini-games take up to 123), VGA Box Compatible, Jump Pack Compatible.
(out of a possible 10)
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