By Jonathan Higgins / January 18th, 2013
I’ve often talked of the past, of Origins stories, and of knowing one’s roots. But I don’t think anything has been more impacting regarding how far I’ve come as a gamer than my recent playthrough of Soma Bringer. As faithful listeners of The Downpour Podcast know, I started this venture several weeks ago with hopes of creating an Import Review for the game. Those looking for something like that can expect it soon, as I’m in the game’s final dungeon, and will likely see the credits roll before long. But… reviewing a game focuses more on its qualities and less on its meaning. My personal journey through Soma Bringer has brought forth so much more than can be discussed in the context of a review. What follows is a detailed account of my fascination, with emphasis on communication, and why I might just be willing to call a game I don’t fully understand one of the most insightful experiences I’ve ever had as a gamer.
Desperately Seeking Context
Of all the genres in gaming, I would think the RPG would be the hardest of all to cope with in another language. But it’s also the one I’m the most familiar with. Role-playing games tend to follow certain tropes. There are themes I’m used to seeing in any given story and game mechanics I’ve encountered in hundreds of different games. While I knew the story’s breadth would be lost on me, since it’s written in a language I have zero experience with, I went into Soma Bringer thinking I could, perhaps, fumble my way to the credits somehow.
The first things the game asks of the player worked to confirm my theory. Using process of elimination, I explored the game’s title menu and eventually found my way to a screen with three blank files that had NEW GAME written in plain English. From there, I was greeted with a character selection screen, then asked to pick a class (each class was denoted with a familiar icon, such as a knight with a spear or a mage with a pointy hat), then finally, the character was shown in action wielding one of several different weapons I could choose from.
After watching the game’s opening scenes, I eventually found myself in control of my character. I took in some of the flora and fauna of the land, then realized my objective was to join my two AI-controlled buddies in mashing everything I could approach. And so I did, all the while learning about the game’s various menus bit by bit. The game’s tutorial goes out of its way to show pictures to accompany instructions. Again, with prior knowledge of RPGs of this ilk, everything from the simpler kinds like Phantasy Star Online or Diablo, to the infinitely more complex Xenoblade Chronicles (the game from this same developer that came after Soma Bringer), I eventually learned how to level up my character’s stats, use items, set skills, and other basic functions.
Upon reaching the end of what was clearly a tutorial dungeon, I saw the first bits of the game’s story. A girl in a cocoon fell from the sky. The characters I was with approached her with caution at first, but moments later (after finding some clothes for her), the strange girl and my allies were all speaking together in a completely different setting. I was reasonably confident after completing the game’s first dungeon that I would be okay for a while, but I was still extremely nervous about handling things like big, bustling towns and other common RPG fodder.
One of the first things I noticed was how much this game used symbols to help guide the player. There was a symbol for shopping, a question mark bubble for taking on optional quests, and (thank Heaven) even a symbol for story progression. Whenever I was stuck or met with a wall or character I couldn’t seem to pass, I simply wandered around town looking for the story progression symbol in a place I’d been before. Sure enough, after bits of dialogue, formerly impassable areas were open to me.
I imagine that speaks volumes towards its import-friendliness, but the first question I asked myself about Soma Bringer was whether or not Monolith Soft must have known the game wouldn’t be localized, but that import-enthusiasts like us would find our way to the game somehow. Everything about the game’s interface seemed to suggest this at first. This notion is what drove me forward. And dungeon after dungeon, story arc after story arc, I began to realize how right my intuition really was.
From Context to Concepts: Identifying with Characters I Cannot Understand
One of the only drawbacks in my dedication to the concept of an “Import Review” is purposefully avoiding any information about the game in order to limit my impressions solely to the Japanese-only experience. That said, I am obviously extremely limited when it comes to explaining the game’s story. Its text is in a language I don’t understand. Beyond the character names I saw in a trailer, I couldn’t even tell you who the people I traveled with are, beyond the hero Welt and the mysterious girl, Idea. Those names are the ones that stuck out to me the most—one because it was the character I played as, and the other because…there is obvious philosophical context in choosing to name your character “Idea”.
So how in the world do I identify with characters if I don’t really know their names, much less the true depth of their stories? That answer is actually much simpler than I’d imagined. Part of the advantage video games have over other mediums of entertainment is their heavy reliance upon music, ambiance and interactivity. Yasunori Mitsuda (of Chrono Trigger fame) is the composer of this game, and one of my favorite composers of all time—so I obviously felt very familiar with what I was hearing. Because I resonate with Mitsuda, I was better able to understand certain situations within the game’s story based on the music he chose to accompany them.
Gameplay and interactivity is also extremely important. You can feel a character’s anger if you’re forced to wail on an enemy you were just watching/talking to, after all. All of these features work together to help the collective story. By the end, I couldn’t tell you why certain things happened, but I can definitely tell you what happens. And it’s certainly extraordinary to me, how I can still detect a huge plot twist or rising action in a game’s story, despite its language being well beyond my comprehension.
But, still, being able to understand what happens but not why is…extraordinarily vexing, to me. I can sense a story extremely similar to Xenoblade and other games of Monolith Soft ilk. After my review is finished (which thankfully isn’t far off), I may just look up what summaries and translations I can find.
Characters’ emotions, which are easily understood thanks to the game’s sense of artistry and commitment to the “bonds of friendship” help me frame where I am in the game and who, beyond the main team of people, I am speaking to. I was able to tell when one character…Cadenza, I think his name is, was speaking to his brother based on how similar the two characters looked, and how Cadenza seemed to take a central role in the story during one arc of my quest. Similarly, I could tell when I was speaking to someone related to Welt (possibly his sister or mother) because of how close they stood in relation to one another, and how the two spoke at length to each other, back and forth. There’s even some racial tension (man versus beast) during one area in the game.
Soma Bringer places some importance on friendship and family. So much so, that I could spoil certain things that happen to them despite not understanding why! But I think if I can come away from a game still understanding and conveying its central themes, I can echo my earlier point of Monolith Soft’s message being universally understood.
Is This Reflection a Testament to RPGs, or a Detriment?
I’m honestly not sure where my stance lies in this question. It’s fascinating that certain aspects of both gameplay and story in RPGs have become so well-traveled that I’m able to understand, navigate, and explain them despite the game I’m speaking about being in another language. But it also speaks to the predictable nature of the JRPG. Regardless of why Idea exists, or the motives of certain protagonists or antagonists in the game, Soma Bringer really does follow some of the same patterns as its contemporaries, and the legendary games to come before it.
But… at the same time, I can tell what it does differently.
All I know is, at the end of this venture, I’m convinced Monolith Soft has become one of those developers in my eyes—the ones I would put money down on regardless of what they announced. This is because the gameplay of Soma Bringer is so amazing, and also due to the fact that its story, while it has obvious depth I can’t understand, is truly universal.
I may continue to explore avenues of communication in gaming. Certain games that tell stories without the aid of text or voice (Sonic 3 & Knuckles, as well as Super Smash Bros Brawl) could be worth discussing in the wake of my experiences with Soma Bringer. I’ve also contemplated playing a game I am extremely familiar with like Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy Legend III (known as SaGa III in Japan) in Japanese to see if their messages can be universally understood as well.
Only time will tell. Video games are indeed young as a medium, but I know now without a doubt that video games are art, because they can be understood globally, no matter what frame of reference one may have, or how perceptive one may be.
Importimport reviewMonolith SoftSoma BringerXenoblade Chronicles