Publisher: NIS America
Genre: Action / Role-Playing Game (Dungeon-Crawler)
Reviewer: Marcus Way
Overall: 8 = Excellent
Despite being known primarily for the strategy-RPG Disgaea series, NIS America has been branching out with an expanding portfolio that has become increasingly diversified through a slew of releases that call back to role-playing’s past. Colorful graphics and goofy dialog often mask the fact that their games are in fact the kind of stat-heavy roguelikes and dungeon-crawlers that PC gamers once ate up with abandon—subgenres largely underrepresented in the console world. Up until now, many of their titles, from Z.H.P. Unlosing Ranger vs Darkdeath Evilman to Cladun, have only been available on the PlayStation Portable, but now comes Legasista, an action-heavy dungeon-crawler exclusive to the PlayStation 3 and only available through PlayStation Network.
Developed by System Prism, Legasista fits the mold of previous NIS-published titles: wacky characters, melodramatic and often cheeky dialog, a focus on customization, and modifiers upon modifiers. However, the latter isn’t apparent at first glance, as Legasista initially seems to be little more than a no-frills action title with big-headed adventurers running around colorful yet unassuming dungeons, whapping whatever giant bug or monster crosses their path. While that impression is largely true, it doesn’t take into account the myriad systems working in the background extrapolating results from the player’s careful choices to ensure that their tweaking has paid off, rendering their whapping as righteous as a whapping can be and leaving the bug nothing more than a pile of mush (or, as it is, a puff of smoke).
Initially, players are limited to two playable characters—Alto and Melize—and, surprisingly, several sprout minions. After villagers accuse Alto’s sister of being a witch and turning her into a crystal, he enters the Ivy Tower in search of ancient technology powerful enough to revert her back to human form. Within the tower, home to the artifacts of an advanced civilization destroyed over a thousand years earlier, Alto encounters the tower’s curator, Ms. Dungeon, and her genetically modified sprouts in the hub-like Railyard. After years of gene manipulation, Ms. Dungeon has created not only the most nutritious supplement known to man but also sentient creatures that will aid Alto in his quest. Their help comes in the form of automatically healing wounded members (by offering up their compatriots as nourishment) and repairing damaged items whenever players return to the yard, as well as in taking on the task of exploring. Groups of sprouts will grow and place themselves on a roster to be called out to investigate the tower, with those who don’t shrivel up and die returning with extra items, be it a lead on a dungeon, a jukebox option, or tracks for the jukebox. As helpful as the sprouts are—and they certainly try—the real quest begins when Alto encounters the amnesiac humanoid ancient weapon known as Melize.
Melize turns out to be Alto’s only hope of saving his sister. As a being created during the previous high-tech epoch, she wields powers unknown to current generations, but she has also been deactivated for so long that she no longer remembers any of her functions. To that end, Alto must venture into the Ivy Tower’s many dungeons, including a 12-floor Tutorial, and seek out chips that will reinstate certain protocols that will allow her to engage the programmed functions. Each dungeon hosts a variety of chips, and as she eats—yes, eats—each one, she regains not only her former powers but also painful memories of her role in man’s downfall.
Before the truth is revealed, though, the two meet a variety of lively characters. The Tower’s secrets are highly sought after by many throughout the lands, and during their treks through its many dungeons, Alto and Melize run into the witch Liena and her own ancient weapon, the intimidating Shout, the speedy thief Volks, and the human-dragon hybrid Mimily. After a new character joins the party, players can then add them to complete their three-character squad. The three characters are interchangeable, and those who aren’t on-screen can still lend some assistance to the active character in the form of support spells. Players can even create a character through a cumbersome but thorough system, which allows for a model to be chosen, skills assigned, a voice selected, and a name given. Players can go even further by importing images from the PlayStation 3 to use as models. Creation can be a time-consuming task, but fortunately, those who aren’t interested can skip the process altogether as the main characters do just fine.
But getting even the primary characters up to snuff will take a fair amount of work. At any given time, each character is actively serving in one of six job types: Cryo, Explorer, Pyro, Thief, War Mage, and Warrior. I say actively because of the characters’ ability to switch jobs once their current job reaches level 20. Each job has both job-specific and general Job Properties, with those specific to that job affecting characters only when they are in that role while the other is independent of the job chosen. Job Property points are earned whenever the character levels, and the properties themselves are tiered; this allows for players to try multiple jobs and have a well-rounded character, or focus on one job and max out all of its properties. As an example, the Warrior has a job-specific health bonus (a percentage of the current health point total) and a universal one, meaning that a Thief can switch over and grab a 40% health boost that will remain with them even after they switch back over to carry on as a Thief; alternatively, the player might prefer the Warrior and stick with it, which offers them the chance to upgrade their health even more. Changing jobs results in the character dropping back down to the first level in their new job, which can be difficult. It’s not only the innate shock of going from an experienced level 35 Explorer to a green level 1 War Mage that’s rough, but also in balancing the experience runs amongst regularly used characters. As characters only receive the experience they earn, sending a freshly minted Cryo into the depths with an experienced Pyro and Warrior isn’t beneficial to the Cryo or the party. Practicing a balanced approach, however, will result in parties that are filled with specialized characters made even more formidable by their broad job experience. While a War Mage might not be as fast as a Thief, the general speed property enhancements offered by the Thief will greatly benefit the slower mage long after they go back to spell-casting.
Jobs also dictate the Energy Frames that the characters are capable of wearing. Energy Frames are essentially suits of armor with slots in them that allow for items and weapons to be fitted. The frames limit what can be worn by what slots they offer, and further by the amount of mana each slot affords. If a slot has more mana than a weapon, item, or charm requires, then that item can be equipped for use. Leveling not only offers additional health points and magic points, but the mana offered by each slot also increases to allow for the equipping of stronger items. There are many frames to unlock, and each has a different focus. This is also where some of the more confusing aspects of item and combat come into play. Each item has a Durability rating that decreases when the character is hit, but not all items are damaged at the same time; a stream of attacks will damage an item’s durability but can then bypass the currently targeted gear to damage the next leftmost item. Further complicating things is that the character’s health bar (or bars) are placed at different spots on the different frames. So if a character has their health bar on the left and several items to the right, including a shield, then they can withstand much more damage than if their health bar is somewhere in the center or the far right. Some frames offer multiple health bars, splitting the total amount of health between the bars (e.g., 65 health points might be broken up into a 40-point bar on the far left and a 25-point bar on the far right). If this sounds confusing, it’s because it is, and becomes more so whenever the action heats up and damage figures start flying.
Confusion aside, combat is by far the best part of Legasista. What’s most surprising is just how involved and engaging the fighting actually is. It also quickly becomes clear that position is everything. While the characters can move at angles, the game favors straight paths, with controls often keeping characters moving and attacking directly towards the four cardinal points. This does make fighting enemies tricky, but they largely stick to straight paths as well. Getting to an enemy’s flank or rear is often paramount to victory due to how quickly they can inflict severe amounts of damage and the greater chance to inflict a more damaging or critical hit because of their lack of side and rear protection. Speed is also an important factor given the enemies’ preference to rush and swarm any spotted characters; and they even display some nasty tactical thinking by working to box characters in at dead ends and narrow paths. This is important to keep in mind when deciding which frame to go with because some are centered on the ability to equip shields, which sacrifice a dash ability for greater protection. Being able to outmaneuver enemies and deliver critical hits at their weak points takes much more skill as the game progresses and dungeons become harder. Even magic-based characters will need to become proficient with weapons, as any item breakage might result in the loss of their most potent spell and an increased reliance on their dagger or scythe. I can’t recall any dungeon-crawler with as much arcade-y action as Legasista, and that is also what makes it so enjoyable.
The focus on position and speed makes weapon choice all the more important. And while the loot might not always be great, the weapons are, thanks to how varied each type is and how their attack patterns serve various play styles. There are five weapon types in all—bow, club, knife, spear, and sword—as well as bare knuckles, for the overly brave or very unfortunate. Bows are slow, but they are the only standard weapons with long-range capabilities; they also have a charge attack. Clubs are slow but have a strong frontal attack, and they also have an explosive charged attack. Knives have no combos but are very fast, offering an additional strike or two, and increase the chance of landing a critical attack. Spears are somewhat slow but have a multi-hit medium-range thrust that can damage several opponents, and a swinging move that can hurt nearby enemies that are approaching from any angle. Swords offer a three-hit combo, decent speed, and a swinging attack similar to spears. Becoming accustomed to a character with the dash ability and armed with an axe, which has a very handy knockback effect, makes for a markedly different experience than previous runs with a character wielding a shield and spear. And of course, there are the spells, which run the gamut from support, such as health spells for active and support characters; to practical, such as illuminating dungeons (pulling the view back) when a lantern isn’t available, or transforming a chest’s contents into better loot; to combat-centric, such as ice shields, explosive fireballs, and walls of lightning.
And there’s more. Weapons also have main titles and subtitles. Main titles affect the subtitles, while subtitles affect the equipment. Basically, an axe might offer +3 to attack and increased durability, all of which appear as titles. Most of the items in Legasista are single-use only and restricted to that raid, and as a result, there is no real loot hoarding. Weapons and equipment are the only things players can bring with them back to the Railyard—that is, if they don’t die, in which case all looted items are lost and a huge experience penalty is imposed. Since enhancing oils or gems or magic- and health-replenishing items can’t be stockpiled, there is no need for money, meaning there is even less need to haul around gear as there is no one to sell it to. But lesser items are good for something, and that’s because the game allows for items to be trashed and their subtitles saved for transfer to a worthy bit of kit. If the new subtitle has a lower transplant power, then it can replace another weapon’s existing subtitle with maximum effect. Fortunately, this is really for players that want to get into the guts of the mechanics, as I rarely found the need to mess with any of my equipped items. The game also has a handy auto-equip feature that automatically selects the best item for that slot, which significantly cuts down on time and makes item management far less daunting.
But it doesn’t hurt to keep an eye on titles because the enemies, while not terribly creative, can be deadly. The 14 dungeons that make up the Ivy Tower are filled with all manner of creatures, from small spiders to medium-sized spiders to giant spiders. Note: there are spiders. Weird cat creatures also await, as do fireball-spewing fireballs, wizards, dark elves, and even trench-coating-wearing bomb-layers. Then there are the numerous traps, most of which are triggered by labeled plates, save for the flame-throwing spouts and massive blades that eject from and twirl around outlets. The plate traps vary in effect: some of them summon a monster, while others trigger a poisonous cloud, an explosion, or floor spikes. One trap type actually heals the active character. While the enemies themselves do not set off the traps, many of them can be damaged by them, which make for some daring escapes.
The traps and monsters are the same throughout the dungeons, only varying by difficulty level, but the dungeons themselves differ. There are those dungeons that are traversed in the story and those that are randomly generated. Although all share similar pallets and themes—swamps, jungles, etc. —the story dungeons also feature rudimentary navigational puzzles centered around teleporters, switches, and buttons. Those accessed from the Railyard eschew any sort of puzzle element for all-out fighting and gaining rare loot. The story dungeons are actually fairly easy—up to a point. One of the game’s weaknesses is how the difficulty ramps up considerably around three-fourths through the game, with enemies suddenly overpowering even the strongest squad and being overcome only through grinding. Since the game’s enemies vary greatly in their attacks, some deaths are downright confusing. One of the instant deaths is that by poison. If all four of a poisonous mushroom’s effects inflict a character, which can range from anything from hallucinating to being unable to switch out with a support character, they will immediately die; interestingly enough, one of the four effects is actually positive, offering a nice random bit of chance. Other moments of (seemingly) sudden death are when an enemy’s attack bypasses items. As mentioned earlier, these attacks can either remove a powerful attribute, thereby seriously weakening the character, or go straight for and quickly deplete the health bar. If some of the party members happen to be adept at certain monsters, the difficulty level’s smack to the face is delayed—but only delayed, because it will most definitely happen.
There is even more to worry about in the random dungeons, dubbed Ran-geons. Ran-geons come in four difficulty levels, but even the easiest, the Baby-geon, can quickly become too much to handle. What make the Ran-geons so dangerous are the numerous gates around each floor. The 10 gate types generally affect three things, the next floor’s Monster Level, Item Drop Rate, and Rate Title Drop Rate. There are some that don’t, including the Warp Gate, which just sends the party to the next floor, and the Fortify Gate, which allows players to gamble an item by either fortifying or losing it. The rest can vary between helpful (Angel Gate) to terrifying (Hell Gate). The results are drastic. Players can either find the enemy level negligibly increased with their health and items restored and the Item Drop Rate increased, or the Monster Level increased by 100 and the Item Drop Rate decreased by 60 and Rare Title Drop Rate decreased by 111. Once a gate has been entered, and sometimes players will have no choice but to enter a Devil Gate or a Hell Gate, numbers quickly flash until a button is pressed to lock in the result. After the results are tallied, a fortunate change might shift a Devil Gate to an Angel Gate, but often it just leads to the less-desirable gates opening up a world of pain. Once the enemy level skyrockets too high, the game becomes a furious dash for the exit panel. This normally includes running like mad and setting off every trap to ward off enemies and leaping over whatever gates might be in the way, in the desperate search for the glorious rainbow-colored glowing panel that will see the team back to the Railyard, with all experience earned and items attained. It can be pretty frustrating to suffer a series of setbacks after a few rounds of bad gates, but it’s also exhilarating to make it through to the end with little life left but thousands of experience points.
Given the swarm tactics of the enemy, and the chance for their level to increase drastically between floors, it’s unfortunate that another of the game’s weaknesses is that there are no adequate evasive moves. Aside from the dash move available to shieldless characters, or the odd spell powerful enough to clear a path, there is very little that can be done whenever the enemies rush in, save for swinging away like crazy. As soon as the active character dies, the next support character in line spawns, and then the next, which results in swift deaths for everyone. This is a curious omission from the combat system, given how intertwined and thought-out the weapon stats, types, and attack patterns. A back-dash or side-step would have done wonders.
If it wasn’t for the difficulty spike, and the well-endowed Liena’s ability to emulate buoys rocking about on rough seas whenever she talks, Legasista would have made an excellent dungeon-crawler for younger gamers. Despite the mounds of dialog—and I don’t see how System Prism fit in so much into a game without any side quests or branching dialog paths—most of it is innocent, if a bit long winded and hammy. As it is, though, with the later dungeons hitting full force, some risqué outfits and ridiculous endowments, Legasista is better suited for the older crowd, despite the colorful visuals and cutesy aesthetics.
I wasn’t expecting nearly as involved a dungeon-crawler as I got when going into Legasista. An engaging combat system, backed by a web of stats, modifiers, and systems, makes for a thoroughly enjoyable action-filled romp through trap- and monster-filled dungeons. The characters may be chatty, and the difficulty curve may make for a rough ride, but Legisista is a lot of fun and should offer dungeon-crawlers hours of entertainment.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)