Imagine if most RPG conventions were thrown out the window
Well, that's what someone did. Because they roll out so many new and untested ideas, this leads to a lot of initial confusion. Honestly, my initial reaction was almost to quit, and I never quit. After I settled in and made it through the story in 50 hours or so, I can confidently say that this a gem in the rough. The very, very rough. Seriously, there are some cool ideas here, you just have to work for it.
The story is a decent quality. It has a pretty slow flow, but gets going strong in the second half. It has a decent coverage of some pretty heavy themes about war and conflict, revenge and purpose, racism references, and so on. There are some typical "you destroyed my village when I was a child" clichés, but it was good overall. Some of the twists were pretty telegraphed, and the whole game was generally drawn out by some repetitive processes. For example, I love split parties. Ever since FF6, I've always enjoyed when RPGs force you into odd party combinations. However, going through one area with a set of characters, then doing it again with a set of characters, that's not what I had in mind.
The gameplay overall is very unique. I hardly knew what to do upon starting. The battle system is timing based, kind of like Shadow Hearts. But it also has a timing bar like you'd expect in Grandia or the Final Fantasy RTB setup. Also the attacks of a character run in a sequence each battle, so you have to get a couple of strikes timed correctly in a row before you can begin belting out big damage. There's also a crazy "chi" system that makes some attacks more powerful based on the environment, or can often make attacks unusable if that particular one of eight chi types gets depleted. Sound confusing? it is. But also can be a little fun and different if you're used to mashing the confirm button with your forehead until the fight is over. It's an interesting system that could definitely have used some refining.
There are a number of gameplay oddities as well- every item is represented as a talisman, or symbol. These can be combined with each other to make other talismans, some of them really powerful. Oh, but there's no guide except for a guy that gives you hints one at a time throughout the game, so you have to actually look it up online, or make a chart if you are help-averse. There are also quest givers around the world that can give you important equipment upgrades, but you really have to scour shops and quests at each location to make sure that you get the right ingredients, because you often can't get back to some areas right away. The game isn't necessarily linear, but there is definitely no quick travel from place to place. There's also a "campfire party chat" type setup where you go to save your game that provides some character depth and also increases battle efficiency if you improve relations with characters. You can also give gifts, but the gifts are also part of the questing setup, so I was constantly afraid to give up items. Again, interesting, different, could've been a little tighter.
Graphically, the game is fairly strong relative to its earlier peers, as you'd expect from a late gen entry. The character models are by an apparently renowned Korean artist, of whom I had never heard until playing. The models and art direction are probably the best part of the graphical package overall, while there is also a nice blur effect and variety of environments. It is often difficult to appreciate however, because the camera system is a complete disaster. I appreciate the effort for trying something different, but the camera failed really badly. They went with a cenematic sem-fixed camera- meaning it will sometimes trail along with the player on a fixed track. However, paired with the normal control scheme of the character moving on the screen whatever direction the player indicates on the stick, this ends up where you often turn around when the camera changes, and end up in some loop between screens.
The sound is a real mixed bag. The music is pretty solid overall, save for the intro song that was apparently written and performed by some amateur. Either that or my ears are broken. The VA is a genuine trainwreck. Granted, back in PSX days, you could get away with phoning in some VA because it was cool. Good VA back then was just amazing. In a late gen PS2 game, VA that is this bad and this canned shouldn't happen. There are a few characters that are okay, including your protagonists, but the rest are eject the disk and break it bad.
So overall, this is a 2 star game that I'd give a bonus star because it is unique. And while I play most all game types, RPGs are my main deal, so I really value something that is different and tries different things. Also, for whatever reason, every female character has enormous and bouncy breasts while wearing next to nothing, so that was good for a laugh every now and then.