(PlayStation Vita Review) Generation of Chaos: Pandora’s Reflection

Developer: Idea Factory / Sting
Publisher: NIS America
Genre: Strategy (Tactical) / Role-Playing Game
Players: 1
ESRB: Teen
Reviewer: Marcus Way

Overall: 7 = Good

The land of Hades is in chaos. A deadly ashen rain is falling across the kingdoms, spreading a plague that is claiming countless lives. As the nobility hole themselves up in their castles and villas, the poor suffer a terrible fate, left to the elements and exploited by an increasingly impoverished and tyrannical aristocracy that is struggling to maintain its hold as the traditional social order disintegrates. For those who flee the cities in search of a freer life in the countryside, an even deadlier fate awaits, as the zombie-like homunculi prowl the lands for any wayward humans. There is little left in the world that hasn’t been touched by pain and loss.

Making their way through these lands is the alchemist Claude and his sister, Yuri. In the midst of all the turmoil, they trudge along on a never-ending search for the cure to a mysterious disease that is slowly killing Yuri. They make their way from town to town, always in search of the elusive and costly snowdrops, the world’s most potent cure-all. But Yuri’s condition attracts too much attention during one stop, and Claude, having vowed to protect her, gets involved in a scuffle that brings them to the attention of the region’s nobility—and their loyal knights. It doesn’t take long for the two to find themselves on the run alongside fellow ne’er-do-wells, a group made up of others who have also ran afoul of an area’s magistrates, fallen knights, and out-and-out rebels who want to topple the oppressive ruling families. They travel through barren kingdoms, villages filled with starving and paranoid inhabitants, battlefields where man and homunculi are locked in endless combat, and districts so ravaged that order has given way to a bloody, French Revolution-style uprising. On their travels, the group will have to fight starved serfs, defend themselves against possessed orphans, and suffer through betrayal as each character’s story unfolds.

This is the setup for Generation of Chaos: Pandora’s Reflection, the latest strategy-RPG from developers Sting and Idea Factory, and it’s hard not to find the idea intriguing. There’s a slight snag, though, which is that amidst all of the class warfare, ravenous mutants, deadly magic, and bloodthirsty lords, there is nary an interesting character in sight. Instead, you’re treated to rote dialog spoken by little more than cardboard caricatures. It’s as if the group has the same four or five conversations over and over, with the only difference being when each conversation takes place, depending on whom the party runs across and which character happens to find themselves in peril. That sort of repetitive design is rampant throughout the game, as the hours tick away and you find yourself going through the same motions over and over.

In some cases, the repetition isn’t a bad thing. However, in regards to the storyline, continuity, and narrative progression, it’s a significant problem. No matter how badly or how many times you beat an enemy, they never seem to die. Even if your squad absolutely decimates a boss, sending their armies scattered to the winds, there is a very high chance that you will have to fight them again, and again; actually, I can’t recall one mini-boss or boss that didn’t return, and somehow stronger at that. There is an incredible dissonance between what plays out on the battlefields and what ends up happening during the conversation sequences, with an absolute rout in the former turning into a bizarre exchange in the latter that completely ignores what just happened. Imagine that you manhandle a boss so badly that you make them slap themselves into submission and then have them pick the mutant bits of their mauled soldiers off of your mace, and then suddenly finding yourself not only whimpering in fear of the same boss, but actually having a conversation where the party contemplates giving up one of their own to be spared the boss’ wrath. This dogged adherence to the storyline is a constant thorn in your party’s side throughout the game, and the sudden dramatic reversals are mystifying every single time.

It is in between these head-scratching conversations that the game finds its legs, and that is with one hand on an axe, the other on a spell book, and feet firmly planted on the battlefield. After being confronted by an enemy during a dialog sequence, the view switches from the conversation screen to the battlefield. The battlefields are maps dotted with a base for each side, along with various unit points, strategy points, and event icons. Troops are summoned from your base and sent to either a waypoint or straight to a final destination. Only a few soldiers can be summoned at the beginning of a battle, with the rest held in reserve until an allied soldier reaches a unit point or a strategy point. Unit points can be taken and retaken any number of times, and with each capture, the owning faction gains the ability to field another unit on the map; if the other faction held the point beforehand, they lose the last summoned unit. Strategy points can only be taken once and are destroyed if lost to the enemy; these can be especially troublesome because any non-claimed point offers no resistance, as opposed to the few seconds a claimed one does, and immediately falls when an enemy unit reaches it. The enemy frequently fields more units than you in the beginning, so scouting out which points are most valuable is crucial. Artillery, including laser cannons and crossbows, can also be captured from the enemy, and their location also plays a role in how the beginning stages of a battle plays out. Lastly, the event icons are places where non-playable characters expand on what’s been happening in the area or, in some cases, gifts items to your party. These items, along with those scavenged after a victorious battle, can be equipped on any member of the party during post-battle intervals. Most characters can only equip one piece of gear and two weapons, and you will quickly learn that your entire strategy revolves around the weaponry you take into battle.

In Pandora’s Reflection, weapons are everything. Each weapon belongs to a specific class, of which there is a sizable variety, including axes, swords, daggers, claws, hammers, and rods. Some classes are better against others, and those that offer an advantage also increase the chance for a blow to engage a stun effect. The weapon-selection menu that appears after characters collide and combat commences indicates which of your equipped weapons are good, bad, or neutral against the type the enemy chose. The relationship between each type is important in the early stages of the game, but that eventually becomes secondary to the variable representing the size of the weapon class’s impact circle.

Each weapon class has a corresponding on-screen pattern that is overlaid on top of the enemy’s image, and these patterns are filled with circles. As your character begins their attack, the pattern fills from the top-left down to the bottom-right at speeds varying by weapon type; if you hit X as the filling reaches a circle, you initiate an impact circle, and its size increases with each subsequent successfully timed press. Impact circles are the deadliest ability you have in your arsenal because, while every ally within the circle gets a chance to attack, the enemy is not able to retaliate against an ally’s impact circle attack. For example, let’s say you select a scythe. The attack pattern looks like a scythe being swung down, and is filled with six or so circles. If you hit a few of the circles in time to match the pattern being filled, then after the initial exchange of blows, a bright circle will radiate from the enemy. Since you can only deploy five soldiers at a time, and one of those units initiated the attack, the remaining four are assigned one of the face buttons. If an ally is within an impact circle, they will ping back with a small circle of light and an icon of their associated face button will appear nearby. This means that, if you place your soldiers on the battlefield correctly and remember each unit’s weaponry, you can chain attacks together with only the first unit in danger of being harmed. If you link all five attacks together, you will achieve a 5-Combo Chaos Attack Special and inflict additional damage on top of the separate blows.

However, there are additional elements and tradeoffs to consider when choosing the appropriate weapon. The weapon types with a small impact circle only have a few pattern circles with which to interact, which makes them easier to utilize; those with larger impact circles have more elaborate patterns with circles that are split between two or three lines or set along a curve. These lighter weapons are more difficult to time, but the payoff is so great that it would seem they were worth the risk of a failed circle and less damage. The heavier weapons offer another edge, and that is their knockback effect, which not only sends enemies flying across the map but also causes several summon-enabling crystals to fall in the process. These summons come in handy, especially towards the end, with the imaginatively designed deities rendering enemies stunned, destroying points and battlefield artillery, healing all allies, and enchanting weapons for maximum effect. Each action requires you to quickly sort through a mental checklist to decide whether want to go for crystals, knock an enemy back, a quick kill, or a chain attack. This system is very addictive, and was novel enough to keep me entertained throughout the 20-plus-hour campaign.

Of course, you can’t link together moves or make the most out of impact circles if you haven’t properly positioned your units. To that end, the game employs a dual control system that utilizes a snap-to scheme and a precision scheme. When using the analog stick, any nearby object, be it a structure or an enemy, will draw the pathway cursor to it. If you find that to be a problem, as is the case whenever there are multiple enemies in one spot, then you can use the directional pad to have the cursor ignore nearby objects and go exactly where you want. It’s a fairly well-thought-out system, and it largely performed up to par. One snag is that, while you have the ability to fast-forward time, you do not have the ability to slow it down. This results in things happening because you simply couldn’t scroll the cursor to the area in time, and with units frequently becoming scattered all over the battle maps, this will happen regularly. The left shoulder button scrolls through the characters, but it was sometimes difficult to tell who exactly was selected, and that still didn’t offer the kind of precision required to address a localized threat—by the time I scrolled through the roster, it would be too late. Enemies also got the drop on me because of an unfair advantage resulting from the state of post-combat invulnerability that characters enter after a battle. Because the game moves so briskly, it’s difficult for you to do much more than reorient yourself to get your cursor near the next unit you wish to select, but the computer, uninhibited by any control restraints, is able to immediately make a beeline for the nearest strategy or unit point or, in a worst-case scenario, an undefended base. Since some weapons have fairly strong knockback effects, an enemy can quickly find themselves near one of your vulnerable points and waltz onto it because no one can intercept them. I said “can,” but in many cases it seems “will” is more appropriate, and that’s because your allies have terrible pathfinding when it comes pursuing a target. After sending an ally after an enemy, it was more common to see them turn in the general direction and wander about, rather than actually stay on point. For a game that emphasizes position and offers such a solid control scheme, these are glaring oversights.

While the term strategy-RPG has become the common nomenclature for a game like Pandora’s Reflection, it’s more of a tactical-RPG. To be clear, it is much heavier on the tactical than it is on the RPG. Aside from fighting, there is nothing else to do. Even something like equipping your characters becomes pointless due to the game’s Alchemy system. Unlike most other role-playing or strategy games, there is no buying or repairing items. Instead, Claude uses the Alchemy Points (AP) earned during a story or Free Play mission to heal wounded party members, redistribute them as experience to a party member, or upgrade weapons. Those few items salvaged from a battlefield can also be converted to AP, with the result being that the weapons you upgrade remain the best unless you discover a particularly rare item, which units can stumble upon as they traverse the battlefields, or want to switch to one of a different type. There are no side quests, no dialog choices, no usable items, very little character customization—almost nothing you have come to expect from a strategy or role-playing game. The story, normally a driving force in Japanese strategy-RPGs, ends up being little more than a chance to rest your hands after combat, but it’s also that combat model that makes Pandora’s Reflection stand out from the pack.

Generation of Chaos: Pandora’s Reflection is as niche as it gets. The barebones presentation, droll story, and cyclical conversations drag out the game’s campaign, but the combat makes it worth seeing through. This is one of those rare strategy games that is all about positioning, and while it might not set the genre on fire, it definitely scratches a very particular itch. At $19.99, the game is priced right for the casual strategy fan looking for something a little different.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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