Traditional JRPG Story and Characters, but with Fresh Gameplay
A turn-based treat of a battle system
Available on: PC
Developer: Andrew Ryan Henke, Adam Dover
Publisher: Nostalgia Addict Games
A lot of recent nostalgia-focused indie games have been made using RPG Maker, including Divided Reigns. Gamers may have opinions about that, but I have always been a fan. You might know what you are getting in advance as far as tileset versatility goes, but it allows for the focus to be given to the development of the rest of the game and has resulted in some fascinating titles like ‘Corpse Party’ and ‘To the Moon’.
Divided Reigns accomplishes a lot given the restrictions of the RPG Maker medium. The graphics are cute and functional, the cutscenes are visually effective, and the battle system is one of the more engaging and fresh that I have come across in recent years.
I do wish that the game had not advertised itself as story-rich/having a deep and emotional story though. These tags raised my expectations above the cookie-cutter template that encompasses the first two Acts (slightly over eight hours) that the game has so far been following.
The Star of the Show - the Battle System
There are enough iterations of turn-based JRPGs to keep any fan of the genre busy for a long, long time. As a fan of the genre, I had thought I had come across pretty much anything these games could throw at me in battle.
Divided Reigns has done an amazing job of freshening up ‘the template’ into easily digestible chunks. Especially where physical attacks are concerned. The sheer variety of weapons each character can use further opens up movements, angles, and strength levels for each attack selection. The more advanced your selection the more RP required, even more so when you begin to graduate to using ‘Skills’ as well as attacks. Different enemies are weak to different attacks, to which there are sometimes visual clues that can be quite clever. Eg. Opponents holding tower shields are often weak to ranged or high attacks.
Magical attacks operate much in the same way as every other JRPG - put MP in, get magic out. Divided Reigns does go a little deeper than average in the strengths and weaknesses charts of than the average game. For those interested, here is a total word dump on how it works:
There is both the usual elemental wheel (fire is stronger against wind, which is stronger against ice, which is stronger against fire) and a force wheel (water is stronger against ground, which is stronger against lightning, which is stronger against water) and a carnal wheel (psychic is stronger against poison, which is stronger against sonic, which is stronger against psychic), which also interact with each other (elemental is stronger against carnal, which is stronger against force, which is stronger against elemental).
How these wheels interact with each other can take a while to get used to, but the game does introduce the concepts generally enough for the player to get used to them slowly without becoming overwhelmed.
I have to say it is difficult to switch up turn-based RPGs enough to make the system feel fresh, and Divided Reigns did succeed in this to an impressive extent.
RPG Maker Graphics Used Well
The cutesy chibi-style overworld sprites that were popular in every non-WoW MMO in the late noughties are still going strong in Divided Reigns. And I love it.
The blending of certain items into the environment can occasionally be a little harsh, but the structures themselves never look like they don’t belong stylistically or are confusing to look at. Certain design choices, like the curling smoke above a campfire or the stumpy but clear outlines of a horse, just makes me happy. Even the decision to identify a different race, the Abeyans pictured above, with a soft yellow glow around the character’s face to signify glowing eyes above was so clever when working with this graphic style.
The overworld map when travelling between destinations isn’t nearly as neat as the town and dungeon maps. But honestly, that doesn’t change my opinion that the graphics are a triumph of the retro style overall.
The almost watercoloured character portraits in the save screen are surprisingly detailed, and pretty too. It’s almost a shame that they are this good because they put the in-game mid-conversation character portraits in a worse light than they need to be, especially when they are perfectly fine.
Gary Stu goes to the Races
The actual story driving Divided Reigns for the first ten hours/Act 2 (I can’t comment beyond that, yet) is exactly what it says in the description. Exactly.
There is a war. The main character and captain in the army, Ailfred, has become disenfranchised with the horrors of it and his actions in the name of their Kingdom. He is noble, virtuous, and honourable and we are told this very often and with little subtlety in the opening few hours. He likes to talk about how war is bad, racism is bad, and how everyone else in the world needs to be nice quite often. Usually unprompted. The approach here is very much telling the audience instead of showing the audience.
Once Ailfred and his lieutenant Shakar do get away from the army with two new Abeyan companions they go on a journey to complete random good deeds in different towns to make up for the evils he committed in service. This has the potential to ramp up the storyline eventually so I can’t comment on anything beyond the end of Act 2, but so far there doesn’t seem to be much to the plot outside of war and racism both being bad and the suffering race has a lot to offer that nobody (except honourable Ailfred) thinks exists.
That’s not to say the outline of the story overall is bad, it’s just been done enough times that you feel as if you have played the game already. The blunt approach to dialogue when introducing themes also removes most of the emotional impact certain moments had the potential to make. I was momentarily excited when the fifth party member first showed up, thinking that this would be a breakthrough interesting character… but I was corrected quickly enough after a visit to the local mansion. So far it’s a cookie-cutter plot with basic enough characters. But by no means is it terrible.
I rarely enjoy a game so much when I do not have particularly fond feelings towards the plot or characters, but I did like this one. The graphics are cute. The music is reminiscent of early Final Fantasy games. And the battle system has found an amazing niche to sit in between the old and new of the genre. Even Ailfred and Shakar’s weak dialogue can’t detract from that. And it has all those features that just makes a player's life easier, like automatically optimising your equipment if you're lazy and don't want to go reading descriptions or a Journal that tells you where you need to go next.
All in all, I won’t be thinking about this game for very long once I finish it. But it’s an enjoyable distraction while you’re waiting for the next great one.
Play this game if…
You like turn-based RPGs
You want to experience a fantastic take on a turn-based battle system
You like retro-style graphics
You don’t require originality in a plot
You can look past stilted dialogue in favour of other strengths the game has
All images were taken from screenshots of the game, the first image taken from the Steam page here