Divisive no matter the format, Agarest has seen release on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, a PC port over steam and mobile devices and has either been hailed as wonderful or horrible depending on the player’s standpoint on its design decisions. Regardless, it stands as the first part in a trilogy of games that takes the formula first seen in ‘Phantasy Star III’ and turns it from a novel innovation into a central mechanic.
Developed by Red Company (Sakura Wars) and released by Compile Heart (Blazing Souls Accelerate), Agarest rides a crest of fan-service that has seen its marketing campaign focus not on its gameplay but on titillation. The release of an extra-naughty edition being the culmination of several campaigns. It is in truth not as racy as the advertisements would have players believe, and plays instead as a fusion of dating simulation and Tactical RPG.
Graphically, Agarest does not look like a title designed for a PlayStation 3’s level of technology, in fact it’s a middle of the run PS2 game at best. Worse there’s visual slowdown in some instances that’s completely unexplainable in the face of nothing happening that could humanly tax a machine of that level. Sprites are not drawn in HD, leading to pixel edges and blur, and are overlaid on rough 3D environments that have some truly horrible textures. This said, the character designs themselves are excellent and there’s a wide range of monster types to kill before you begin encountering palette swapped variants. Larger artwork used in conversations is nicely drawn, and menus are presented well, if not in a well-explained manner.
Sound design is acceptable with some nice looping tracks that can stick in your head, in addition to Japanese voices accompanying some sequences. The sound design is the best element however, with sound effects being very well recorded and used around conversations to give a sense of movement and event to static artwork that builds an almost audio-drama styles performance.
The narrative of Agarest is an interestingly penned tale that follows several casts over multiple generations of a single bloodline, starting with a soldier named Leonheart after he saves an infant Elven girl and finds his destiny is further reaching that anyone could imagine. Romancing one of several possible women in each generation leads to the production of an heir that you will continue to play as through the next chapter, and for the most part this is well handled. The background conflict can at times be masked by the dating antics of the player characters, but writing is well handled. Most if not all characters stay true to their character and although the story takes no unexpected turns it’s well handled – if overlong.
Gameplay is at first an extremely promising concept, with a mixture of narrative choices affecting party like/dislike levels with the protagonist as well as opening up new paths, backed up by a strategy RPG battle system. This system makes some interesting choices with combat, with characters moving simultaneously with the enemy units in a movement round before attacking begins, leading to the possibility that people will be out of place to attack the character you want to target, but making up for this by creating hot-spots around characters where party members receive boosts and can better unite for attacks. Battle actions come in the second stage, where damage is dealt and here combos of the right kind are essential, either dealing massive damage (including over-damage to get better item drops) or being completely useless. In the early stages of the game basic attacks will scrape by just fine, but as it progresses having the right character build and skills will make the difference between victory and defeat. Skills are found/brought and made and equipped onto characters in a straight forward manner that scratches the surface of the games huge crafting component, but character builds rely on putting points into the right stats at the time of levelling and it’s easy to create a completely useless character without checking an FAQ beforehand. This should never be the case. Crafting works as the main means of getting skills, spells, equipment and items through the game and a player will have to keep this going in order to keep their gear meaningful to the level of the enemies around them. Once an item is made once it’s added to the games shops, which saves on crafting resources which can be hard to grind. There’s little to no information in-game to help with this and again comes back to the FAQ necessity issue. The game gives players the ability to capture most (but not all) monsters and add them to your party, and this can be a great deal of fun, especially as they do not disappear between generations and are carried over into a new game +. Sadly many are not fun to have in your party and most will focus exclusively on the many characters the game throws at you. Romance elements usually take the form of special events that forward a particular character’s interest in you, but these can be easily missed if you’re not careful. Ultimately the game is keen to provide a lot of content at all times, but doesn’t manage to explain itself very well and hands everything to the player almost immediately rather than portioning it out over the course of several generations to keep the game interesting, leading to a late-game drag. Where the game really falls down however is in its dungeon areas, which act as big open 3D spaces your character walks around and are essentially padding that showcases a lack of cohesive vision for the games direction on its original outing.
Overall, there’s a lot wrong with Agarest but it has a charm that keeps it enjoyable and playable for the majority of its run. The game has a wide variety of DLC that ranges from additional dungeons to packs of items or experience and throws a number of currencies at the player from the very start that do their best to confuse those not prepared for the level of dedication a game like this takes to complete. Clocking in at easily 100 hours, the battle system grows tedious and the story runs out of steam in its later stages, making for this title being one best skipped in favour of better equivalents.