Version tested: PlayStation 3
Agarest: Generations of War Zero is a game about heredity. In the first half of the game you play as Sieghart, a typical tousle-haired anime hero sort, as he fights monsters and decides which of his many female companions he'd like to romance. In the second half of the game, you play as their offspring, with abilities and stats determined by the parental choices you made earlier.
However, Agarest is also a cautionary tale about the perils of limited genetic diversity. Far from being a sturdy hybrid, able to survive a changing environment, it's an inbred throwback, too indebted to a shallow gene pool to truly impress.
Tactical role-playing is the genre, and it's an area that has hardly benefited from much cross-breeding in recent years. There have been occasional flurries of innovation, but otherwise it's a gameplay style that is still much the same as it was in the time of Tactics Ogre and Vandal Hearts.
There's nothing terribly wrong with adhering to genre standards, in theory, but it can also be a comfortable trap. So it proves for Agarest, a game which feels lazy and half-hearted, content that there are enough fans of its niche to see it through.
It's technically a prequel, but plays more like a slightly enhanced remake of the 2007 Japan release, Record of Agarest War. With multiple name changes across territories and fractured release dates across various formats, it's a series that has managed to disguise its lack of evolution in a fog of confusion, penetrated only by those already sympathetic to its pink-haired manga stylings.
Story scenes, of which there are many, play out in drab fashion. Still images of the characters prop up either side of the screen and bang on at each other about all manner of peripheral nonsense. Their faces are vaguely animated, and their chests pulse in a crude facsimile of breathing, but the effect is creepy at best. It's certainly not enough to draw you into Agarest's generic tale of ancient evils and heroic prophecy. Worse still, dialogue scenes can't be skipped - only accelerated. Even then, you'll sit through dozens of these stiff tableaux between battles.
Actual gameplay is similarly limited. You progress along a fixed path, forced to stop at each dot along the way for a battle. These often have no bearing on the plot and are simply there to make the journey from one chapter to the next take as long as possible.
At least there are some decent ideas in combat. Characters can team up for attacks if you position them in each other's hot spots. Each character has a different pattern of squares around them where such attacks can be triggered, and manoeuvring your squad into position for the best combat opportunities is a core part of the game's strategy.
Beyond that, however, it's business as usual. Battles are divided between movement and attack phases, with the order of turns based on who has stockpiled the most Action Points. Flanking or attacking from behind causes more damage and healing in the field uses up precious AP.
It's all very flat, though. Literally, as the terrain is almost always a simple flat grid with few tactical possibilities. Since you can still unleash many attacks without being next to your target, questions of height advantage, or ranged versus melee attack, are rendered moot. A more robustly balanced game could have made something unique and interesting out of the chess-like challenge suggested here, putting the emphasis on co-ordinated movement rather than attack, but Agarest feels too vague and woolly to make the most of its potential.
Menus are stark and unhelpful, clearly designed with only the faithful in mind. And yet, those faithful are the ones most likely to feel déjà vu in a game that is almost entirely identical to the original, apart from new features like "Feel Link" and "Free Intention" - fancy names for what are essentially different ways to dress up and seduce your prospective brides. It would be slightly hypocritical to criticise a JRPG for doing something that even Western role-players have now embraced (is it really any different to all those people wanting Tali to be romanceable in Mass Effect 3?) but there's a subservience and possessive quality to the "relationships" in Agarest that feels more than a little icky.
Agarest then compounds its flaws with make-do presentation and an unforgivable reliance on the previous game's maps and mechanisms. Graphically it's a throwback to the PS1 era, but even this feels more like laziness than a deliberately retro design choice. The game is already two years old, having debuted in Japan in 2009, and it's based on a game engine that's two years older than that. Sluggishly paced and sorely lacking in actual tactical challenges, it really is hard to work out who, exactly, the game is aimed at.
Newcomers really don't stand a chance, since this is a game so insular and obtuse in nature that the developers at Compile Heart seem to have forgotten that some people may be new to the series, or even the genre. And yet fans are also being taken for granted and served the exact same recipe with a few grudging stirs of the spoon to make it look slightly different. At every turn, Agarest weakens its DNA by pandering only to those already invested.
There's nothing inherently wrong with sticking to what works, but it helps if the decision to cling to the past is at least made from a position of creative indulgence, rather than indifference. Agarest feels like the latter, a game that does what it does because there's no reason to try anything else. The tragedy is that in doing so, it embodies all the clichés that other games are trying to leave behind. You only have to widen your view a little, and take in sights like Valkyria Chronicles or Disgaea, to see how such an approach can only lead to extinction.
While these more ambitious examples set out for fresh waters, Agarest happily paddles in tiny circles around the most stagnant corner of a genre where rigor mortis is already setting in. That doesn't make it a bad game, per se - but it's impossible to recommend to anyone beyond its existing fan base.
4 / 10