This review makes me feel guilty.
I’m going to be frank with you, dear reader. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I did not finish Sands of Destruction for the Nintendo DS. I could not finish Sands of Destruction for the Nintendo DS. I make it a habit to finish the games I’ve set out to review, but in the end, this is the only way this review is going to get written. Which, simply put, is a shame, both for me, and for the game.
Going in to Sands of Destruction, I was kind of excited. In the last few years, I’ve become very appreciative of the concept of a portable role-playing game; and when Sands of Destruction hit shelves almost four months ago, I was hungry for a new RPG to get lost in. I was almost completely in the dark as to what Sands of Destruction was about; only that it was called “World Destruction” in Japan, with its own anime and manga series. I went in with no expectations about the quality of the game or its mechanics, and after spending nearly 7 hours with the game, I came away more than simply unimpressed.
Sands of Destruction takes place in a world where everything is slowly turning to sand. The Ferals – a highly evolved race of beast people who now rule the world – look down upon mankind. Many ferals consider humans to be a lesser species – weaker, and easily oppressed. This has lead to the birth of the “World Annihilation Front”, a group of rebels determined not only to overthrow the ferals, but to put everybody out of their misery once and for all by ending the world. One day, a humble farm boy known as Kyrie discovers he has been forcefully drafted into the World Annihilation Front against his will, and learns that he now possesses a frightening new destructive ability. It is through this that Kyrie meets up with Morte, another World Annihilation Front member with a taste for chaos and murder. Though Kyrie has no interest in destroying the world, the pair wreak havoc across the several continents as they slowly uncover the secret of Kyrie’s mysterious ability to desolate entire cities, reducing them to the same sand that now covers most of the planet…
Mechanically, Sands of Destruction is both very similar and very different to the standard structure of a Japanese Role-Playing Game. Dungeons are littered with random battles. Battling monsters is done by taking turns until the creature is dead. Completing battles earns you experience points, and earning enough experience will grant you the ability to “Level Up” your power. But what matters is how Sands of Destruction puts its own spin on things: borrowing some ideas from contemporary fighting games, Sands has a “combo” system that rewards stringing together a series of attacks in a chain to maximize the amount of damage dealt. Alongside experience points, you also earn something called “Customization Points”, “CP” for short, which allow you to upgrade existing attacks and unlock the next attack in that combo string. You also have the ability to augment battles through the “Quips” system – as you progress through the game and watch the story play out, characters in your party will say important lines of dialog that can the be equipped and spoken during battle to infer various effects, such as increased defense, increased accuracy, or even double the amount of gold acquired after a battle. It’s nothing terribly revolutionary, but it’s unique enough to be fun – that is until you discover just how pitifully easy the game is. One would expect a game to gently ease you in to its mechanics, but time after time, I found myself not only breezing through most random battles, but even the “climactic” boss encounters – I managed to defeat the second or third boss of the game on my first turn, before he even had a chance to strike.
As I kept playing, the game wasn’t really getting any harder or more interesting. In every dungeon I would encounter, I’d face enemies that consistently did roughly five, maybe ten hitpoints of damage to me, while my party members were dealing several hundred, or even several thousand hitpoints of damage in return. I’d leave dungeons with an exorbitant amount of money, enough to buy all of the best weapons, armor, and 99 healing potions from the shops back at town and still have enough left over to invest in expensive, frivolous bonus items. The actual dungeons themselves proved no more interesting – most were confusing mazes of identical rooms with nothing else to do but bat away weak monsters until you found your way to the end. That might have been acceptable in RPGs from decades ago, but it’s the year 2010 – and no, matching keys to their color-coded locks does not count as “puzzle solving”. Then, almost like somebody flipped a light switch, the game went from one unbalanced extreme to another. In the middle of the longest, most tedious dungeon yet – a seemingly endless, serpentine prison – I encountered a boss that got trapped in a loop, constantly casting spells to increase his strength and speed. Suddenly, the boss could attack me eight, sometimes nine times in a row and deal more hitpoints of damage in a single turn than everybody in my entire party had combined. He wiped me out before I could even blink. A game that was previously boring me to tears had unexpectedly decided to get unbearably frustrating.
That was the breaking point for me. Up to that point, I would’ve been content to call Sands of Destruction simply mediocre, but at that moment, the game took a sharp dive. Maybe if the story presentation had held up – but not even that could save the game. Take, for example, the game’s voice acting. While the anime leverages the talent of the dubbing studio Funimation, the game opts to go with its own, completely different cast of voice talent. The quality of the acting itself is extremely dubious and at times laugh-out-loud bad, and it is quite clear that the actors were given little direction as to what context their lines were being spoken in. This is coupled with the fact that the cutscenes themselves were not re-timed for the English dialog, leaving many very awkward, very unnecessary pauses between lines as character sprites pantomime to non-existent Japanese dialog in relative silence. I would have actually preferred that this game not have voice acting at all – especially considering at times I became afraid to start a new section of the game, for fear I would be locked in another fully-voiced, poorly acted, 20 minute long cutscene. For this reason alone, I would say that Sands of Destruction is not a game suited for the portable format. As for the core of the story itself, clichés are visible a mile away, and I found it more than a little unnerving that the game could, in a single breath, portray Morte’s disturbing behavior as cold-blooded and murderous one second, then as wacky anime hijinks the next (sometimes, even masquerading as heroism).
Amidst all of the recent discussion regarding Final Fantasy XIII’s colossal, 50-hour tutorial, ask yourself: If you give a game 6 hours and 58 minutes of your time and it fails to provide a compelling reason to keep playing it, should you? When there exist entire games that can be enjoyed from beginning to end in 7 hours, how can you justify anything that comes later in Sands of Destruction as being “worth the suffering”? The more I played Sands of Destruction, the more it became apparent that the only reason I was still playing it was to give it a “fair review”, and it even squandered that good will, eventually. So even though it makes me feel incredibly guilty to say this, we’ll have to settle for an unfair review. Unless you are some kind of hardcore RPG fanatic who loves Japanese anime, I would strongly advise you to steer clear of Sands of Destruction.
(This review was originally written for tssznews.com and was published there on May 3rd, 2010)