Version tested: PlayStation 3
"That man has ten arms!"
"He's a cosplayer."
I've played enough idiosyncratic games of Japanese origin recently that the above exchange - one of many in Trinity Universe that poke fun at games and gaming culture - barely raised an eyebrow. This isn't the weirdest game I've reviewed this year, though with its effective skewering of anime stereotypes (there's a neat recurring gag about one character's silly hairstyle) it might just win the prize for the wittiest.
Trinity Universe is a hefty slab of pure JRPG whimsy which half-inches characters from the Disgaea and Atelier series and sprinkles them among a cast of originals led by a half-man, half-dog, understandably reluctant to fulfil his destiny of bringing harmony to the universe by transforming into a "dinky gemstone".
Demon Dog King Kanata is an idealistic young pup looking for adventure, rescued from being prematurely bejewelled by Tsubaki, his softly-spoken aide who may or may not have an ulterior motive for saving him. Here in the Netheruniverse, outer space is filled with detritus, from soft toys to traffic cones, rubber ducks to castles, and you're tasked with eliminating all these drifting objects to prevent them colliding with your home world of Empyria.
Many of these objects are meaningless decoration, but others house shops or inns, with the largest objects containing dungeons to grind through. For all the bizarre window-dressing, this is a fairly traditional RPG at heart, with a structure that will be familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in the genre.
You'd need more than a passing interest to be part of the audience for Trinity Universe, though. In the West, Nippon Ichi is pitching towards a very narrow niche with this: the kind of gamer for whom the idea of playing as Disgaea favourites Flonne and Etna brings a frisson of excitement. So it seems odd that NIS and Idea Factory initially appear to be tilting towards new players, offering a difficulty mode recommended for beginners, and drip-feeding abilities throughout the opening stages to get everyone accustomed to what are fairly recognisable RPG mechanics.
Sadly, it's obvious that the developers aren't exactly well-versed in tailoring their games accordingly. The simplest of concepts are laboriously detailed, while less obvious facets are glossed over all too quickly.
The intricacies of the character-switching Fury Chain battle system take some time to get to grips with after an all-too-brief tutorial, and even then, the timing-based commands hardly feel like the most accessible control set-up for newcomers. Particularly so, given the lack of clarity when swapping between party members: it's all too easy to lose a combo because the next Action Point gauge has started counting down while you've been concentrating on perfecting the initial character's attack.
Everything seems to be introduced either too early, too late, or at the wrong pace. The very start of the game mentions that Kanata's campaign allows players to create their own monsters to battle against in the Coliseum from an early stage, and thus gaining levels and acquiring key stat-raising items is theoretically simpler. Yet the first time you have the means to make a monster, you'll barely get a couple of turns in before they've sent you packing, as they're almost comically over-levelled.
Similarly, the game warns you of the occasional appearance of hugely-powerful Lurker monsters who surround your group with a dark aura, and can easily wipe most of your team out in a single turn. Yet I was only informed after I'd been soundly beaten by one of these creatures. Fortunately, it hadn't been long since I'd saved, unlike the time when I happened across an absurd difficulty spike of a boss who lost me about two hours' play thanks to the archaic save system.