As a genre grows old, it tends to stagnate and become a solid monolithic structure, impervious to new ideas. RPG’s, especially their oriental counterpart, greatly suffer from this predicament. Even when something refreshing comes along, fans are quick to distrust it (even if sales usually don’t falter). A quick look through current generation JRPG’s shows how much the genre is stale; in between “Blue Dragon”, “Lost Odyssey”, “Disgaea 3”, “Eternal Sonata”, and “Tales of Vesperia” there isn’t a single innovative concept that breaks away long winding “motifs”. If anything, these are some of the more conservative titles in years, “Blue Dragon” is a facsimile of “Dragon Quest” with poop jokes, wait… scratch that, it’s a facsimile of “Dragon Quest”, “Lost Odyssey”, an attempt at reproducing “Final Fantasy” outside of mega conglomerate Square-Enix, “Disgaea 3” is… well, “Disgaea”, and “Eternal Sonata” and “Tales of Vesperia” continue in the same vein of previous “Tales” and “Star Ocean” titles. Mild attempts at revitalizing the genre, are either remarkably flawed, as “Enchanted Arms” was, or completely forgotten despise their aspirations, as “Folklore”. “Infinite Undiscovery”, despite its numerous flaws, at least seems to have a noble goal: shake things up a bit.
It starts by employing some of the concepts inaugurated by “Parasite Eve”, “Vagrant Story” and “FFXII”, namely the idea of a consistent game-world, in which there is no transition from exploration to battle. “Infinite Undiscovery” however, abdicates turn-based like battle systems, instead opting for a completely real-time mechanic. Combat is simple and a nice evolution of the system present in Tri-Ace games, with only an attack and special attack buttons used for the unleashing of combos; this surprisingly simple system has an arcade feel that provides hectic brawls with enemies in fully 3D spaces. It’s pleasant and fast-paced as with any beat’em up, with careful positioning of your character and the selection of the right combo being the bulk of tactical choices present to the player. Magic is completely relegated to other members of your party, which you don’t control directly, so in order to heal yourself you’ll just press a button and the rest of the party will take care of the rest. The greatest issue concerning battle in “Infinite Undiscovery” comes when you actually have to coordinate attacks with your party. The game uses a standard tactical order that you can assign (like “focus your attacks” or “save mp”) and a “Connect” system which allows you to give direct orders to characters. The issue emerges from the incredibly slow pace of character reactions when you’re connected, making it impossible to use the system correctly, as you’re managing a gruesome, fast-paced, real-time battle with multiple enemies.
The “Connect Ability” is also used when exploring dungeons and town hubs, and once again marred with problems. Each character has a different special ability; for instance, there is a kid who can talk with animals, so for the player to engage in conversation with an animal, he has to connect with that character. The thing is, you can only connect with one character at a time, and connecting isn’t a simple matter of picking a name from a menu, no, for some insane reason you have to physically be in contact with a character to activate the “Connect” system and then go to the place where you want to use its ability. This would be fine if towns weren’t gigantic, and had clear indication on where each character is, but no, and if that wasn’t enough, characters are spread out randomly. This flaw in design destroys all the attempts at exploration, questing, as well as any tactical nuances you’d want to impose on your party. It’s at times like this, that “FFXII’s Gambit System” really comes to mind.
Exploring is not only a chore because of the silly “Connect” system, but also because most game-areas are large and, for the most part, vacant. There are wide open landscapes, sprawling in every direction, on the scale of many football fields, enormous castles with many corridor-filled floors and the stereotypical, boring dungeons with meters and meters of dark passages – and in each one of these areas, there are only one or two items to catch, even though they’re inhabited by dozens of enemies for you to kill. Not only that, but nine out of ten times, you don’t know where you’re supposed to go, as characters, cutscenes and maps provide zero clues on where to head in the vast game-world; leaving you two choices, wander aimlessly in hope of finding what you’re looking for (even if at times, you don’t know what that is) or google the solution and be on with it (my personal response).
Oh well, you can use mindless exploration to enjoy the scenery of “Undiscovery’s” strange world, and that pays off… for the most part. Each scenic area is beautiful in a fantasy postcard kind of way: mild blue skies, white clouds soaring high, the sun reflected in each small pond and lake, lush green pastures and grassy knolls spreading as far as the eye can see, tall forests of extremely old trees with a golden moon rain falling down from the skies, a hot steamy desert in reddish brown hues… It lacks the picturesque and impressionist design of “Eternal Sonata”, but is still beautiful by its own merits. The Shirogumi FMV intro is the cherry on top of the visual banquet. If only the dungeons and castles were as good looking: gray, black and brown tinted to the point of saturation, with poor lighting contrasts, and bland architectural details. Some art pieces present in certain sets are definitely worth watching carefully, as this is clearly the case of a “Square Enix” production, the most relevant being the ever looming moon, chained by beautifully ornamented chains to the Earth, glancing surreptitiously in every scenario, its presence constant and somewhat frightening.
And therein lies “Infinite Undiscovery’s” ultimate failure, by not being able to harness the potential of a powerful concept, which instead of flourishing into an arresting epic adventure, is instead turned into a shallow, cliched narrative. The idea of a world chained to a moon is original (even if the moon as an evil presence is a recurrent theme), and had the potential to deliver a high-fantasy story filled with powerful imagery; and yet, what we’re treated to is an insult to our intelligence. It starts with the characters, all the same tiresome archetypes with the same skin deep details you’ve come to expect, with Porom/Polom clones of the worst kind, a myriad of under-explored mystical concepts, a handful of predictable twists, and even a shameless copy of the “Prince and the Pauper” tale imbued in the main story-arch. As if it wasn’t enough, the voice acting is horrible, making even most Japanese-to-English game dubs seem decent. Super high pitch voices, overly sentimentalist tones, actors doing multiple voices when they’re clearly incapable of producing any believable accents, etc, etc. There are even scenes in which voice acting is cut off from the original, leaving awkward silence scenes in the game. And unlike recent JRPG’s… NO OPTION FOR THE ORIGINAL LANGUAGE. Why? Why would you bother dubbing something if not to attempt to do it, at least, mildly right? [Note to publishers: if you don’t wanna pay for a proper translation and dubbing, just leave it with subtitles, it’s much cheaper and we’ll all appreciate it.]
Motoi Sakuraba’s soundtrack tries and save the dramatic impact of the story sequences with his signature scores, but as the rest of the game, they’re not always on the level. Sad, heartwarming scenes are treated with soft and delightful melodies that are only marred by the obnoxious voices chatting away. Yet, whenever the need for a full, grand epic sounding score arises, Sakuraba’s progressive and unrelentingly grandiose style becomes tiresome for music excerpts that are repeated so often. The game’s main theme is his ultimate saving grace, a simple harmonic pattern that’s catchy and well developed over a series of orchestrations.
“Infinite Undiscovery” is filled with small ideas that are uncommon in the genre. Unfortunately, it gets none of them right, as they’re all wasted thanks to poor design choices, an apparent lack of testing and overall polish. This was Hiroshi Ogawa’s (“Tales of Destiny” and “Star Ocean Till the End of Time”) directorial debut, and though he seems to want to break the mold, he fails miserably. At the end of the day, the only thing that’s left is an entertaining battle system – which is little for a game that according to Square-Enix, had years and years of bottled ideas which were only possible to implement in the current generation of consoles. Apparently, it’s still too early to implement them.