Version tested: Xbox 360
That title. I mean, really. Are they even trying to make sense, or do Japanese RPG developers just shove random English words together these days and hope for the best? Will next year see the release of a 60-hour epic called Melancholy Windsock Concerto? Decoding its semantic tangle, I can only surmise than an "infinite undiscovery" refers a long-winded and fruitless task that feels like it'll never end. And, funnily enough, that's almost the perfect description of this deeply flawed effort from Star Ocean creator tri-Ace.
According to the pre-release hullabaloo, the idea was to create a revolutionary game that would shake up the staid world of JRPG with its bold ideas. What we've ended up with is a game that wallows in the exact same narrative clichs as its peers, while its attempts to break out of the traditions of turn-based combat and linear progression are either non-existent or hopelessly fumbled.
Our hero is Capell. He's a pretty young flute player, banged up in prison for having the wrong face. He's the exact double of Lord Sigmund, you see, leader of a band of rebels who are roaming the land breaking chains. Chains? Yes, the bad guys have tethered the planet to the moon with giant chains in order to steal its lunar power, and Sigmund is the only man who can destroy these monstrous bonds. Or is he?
Capell is sprung from his cell by Aya, a feisty Tifa-clone and one of Sigmund's warriors who makes the same mistake as the baddies. Thinking she's freeing her brave leader, she's understandably miffed to discover she's saddled with a mewling flautist for a sidekick. As luck would have it, despite all the early cut-scenes depicting Capell as a nervous kid who fears combat, during the actual gameplay he's an instantly proficient swordsman who has no problems leading all around him into deadly battles. Such is life in a JRPG.
Make no mistake, the first hours of Infinite Undiscovery are a real chore to get through. The game offers up precious little in the way of role-playing and instead forces you through a series of disjointed and horribly executed action segments, all of which seem purposefully designed to show off the game at its absolute worst. There's a mindless chase, marred by lousy environment design that means Capell is incapable of navigating even the slightest drop without trekking all the way around it. There's a horrible stealth section that finds you creeping around a forest in pitch darkness, trying to sneak up on enemies even though the extent of your stealth abilities is walking quite slowly. There's an obscure puzzle that relies on a hitherto unmentioned and unexplained support ability, hidden in the folds of the opaque menu system. There's a bit where you have to break down a castle gate using balsa wood catapults that fly to pieces after a couple of hits.
It's just a conveyor belt of patchwork game designs, crudely stitched together. Things improve as the game progresses, and the gimmicky mini-game nonsense becomes less prevalent, but while this is an improvement of sorts it still only raises the game to the level of mediocrity. The story is cookie cutter stuff, with plot twists signposted far in advance, while the enormous cast of characters results in a game with a lot of names, but few memorable personalities. The ones that do stand out, like the horrible whimsical children Rico and Rucha, do so for all the wrong reasons.
There are eighteen characters that can be swapped around in your team. Over half of those are introduced in the first few hours and most remain under-developed and under-used throughout the game. Unless you're a fan of mindless grinding for gold there's just not enough money available to keep everyone upgraded with the best armour and weapons, which is a real problem since the game has an irritating habit of forcing you to play with specific characters for lengthy period, and for no logical reason. This frequently lumbers you with characters that are far weaker than the ones you've favoured, and thus lowers your chances of success.
As with Star Ocean, the game is entirely real-time, with no pauses while selecting items, checking the map or organising your inventory. Enemies are visible in the game-world, and combat is initiated by attacking them, or if they spot you and fancy a ruck. It's better than the random battles that often blight the genre, but since the enemies respawn almost immediately, in the exact same spot, you'll still end up grinding through too many battles just to get from A to B.
You only ever have direct control of Capell, and the closest he comes to magical abilities is his flute, which can play tunes with different effects. If you want to utilise other attacks, you need to "Connect" with the other character's abilities, which enables you to direct their specific special attacks, or to aim ranged attacks. It sounds interesting, but it's an inelegant solution to a simple problem, and one that requires close proximity to the character in question and far too much button-fiddling for a game that gives you no breathing room in battle. You could get the exact same effect far more efficiently simply by swapping control to other characters completely, learning those abilities yourself or just being able to pause the game while in the menu. As with so many of the supposedly revolutionary features, it seems tri-Ace was so busy thinking up different ways to do the same old things, they didn't bother to check if the result actually improved the experience for the player.
Instead you spam away on the fast and strong attacks, using the same three combos over and over. Your companion's AI is actually extremely good, which means you rarely have to worry about them. The enemy, on the other hand, is hilariously stupid and so any team with a decent emphasis on healing spells and a stock of health potions is able to stomp through huge swathes of the game with little to no challenge. There are even moments where the whole cast is utilised, with you dividing the characters up into three different teams to fulfil different combat objectives at the same time. It's a great idea - one that could have defined the game with a more thoughtful design - but it's used so rarely and in such uninspired ways that it feels more like an afterthought than a stroke of genius.
That's probably just as well, since while combat is the game's dominant element it's also the most technically problematic. The frame-rate is a fragile beast, felled by the slightest activity on screen, and this isn't just an occasional dip under extraordinary circumstances. Every hit results in an explosive burst of light, and it seems this is just too much for the limping engine to handle. Just Capell's strong attack, used on its own against a couple of foes, can result in a frame-rate that looks more like a series of freeze frames. As you'd expect given this poor showing under basic conditions, as the battles become larger the game runs progressively slower. Mass Effect showed that a compelling game can overcome an imperfect graphics engine, but this level of near-constant slowdown is simply unacceptable.
It's not even as if the game is all that special to look at. The character models are decent, if oddly doll-like, but environments are empty and without interaction or features of note. Invisible walls block apparently open plains, while the way ahead almost always involves slogging around the map, looking for some unmarked canyon that will lead you to the next area. High-def aside, there's really nothing here that the PS2 couldn't have handled - and indeed did handle, with the more impressive sections of Final Fantasy XII. Even the audio is dodgy, with voice acting that ranges from passable to atrocious. At least, that's when the game is actually using dialogue. It frequently switches to silent subtitled narrative scenes, sometimes within the same story sequence, with jarring effect.
There's a modicum of replay value, since the different difficulty levels feature more content the harder they get, but these take the form of more (or different) story scenes rather than any serious amount of additional gameplay. Side quests, such as they are, simply involve stumbling across Person X, taking some item from them, and delivering it to Person Y in some distant town - usually the one you're conveniently headed towards. Although you're free to trek between maps, there's no quick way of moving around the game world and as the story keeps moving you in one direction, the incentive to explore dims with each passing hour. For those who keep track of such things, you can expect to spend between twenty and thirty hours on a normal playthrough.
With Star Ocean IV and Tales of Vesperia due next year, and Final Fantasy on its way to the 360, this needed to be something quite special to make its mark in a genre not known for its deviations from formula. Yet at its best Infinite Undiscovery is just another standard action JRPG following a strictly linear route through the same predictable story about another reluctant young hero overthrowing yet another evil empire. In its worst moments, it's an unwieldy collision of ill-conceived ideas and sloppy technical implementation that will test the patience of even the most hardened player. Such flaws are really only worth tolerating if you're so devoted to the JRPG genre that you'd settle for mediocrity rather than wait for the good stuff.
5 / 10