By Will Whitehurst / April 23rd, 2013
ADMINISTRATIVE NOTE: Import Reviews are still an extremely new endeavor for the oprainfall Staff. Note that unlike Jonathan Higgins, who has thus far reviewed two RPGs without any Japanese experience, I, Will Whitehurst, am currently studying the language and translate articles for oprainfall. Therefore, my particular viewpoint on this game and its import-friendliness may not necessarily reflect that of the whole oprainfall staff.
|Title: ASH: Archaic Sealed Heat
Console: Nintendo DS
Release Date: October 4, 2007 (JP)/
Genre: Strategy RPG
Rating: CERO A, ESRB E10+
In reviewing Archaic Sealed Heat, a forgotten strategy RPG for the DS by The Last Story studio Mistwalker and executive producer Hironobu Sakaguchi, my passion for the Japanese language has finally intertwined with video games. As most Downpour listeners might remember, I did import a learning tool for Chinese characters (known as kanji in the Japanese language) called Tadashii Kanji Kakitori-kun (Correct Kanji with Kakitori-kun). But then, that wasn’t really a game. Although I’ve actually played some Japanese games before, they were either very short affairs (the oddball Cooking Mama predecessor Motoko-Chan’s Wonder Kitchen) or too complex in grammar, making translation guides absolutely necessary (Fatal Frame IV). ASH, however, is a completely different animal, played in its full, untranslated glory by yours truly.
I anticipated this strategy RPG for quite some time in 2007, especially since it was heralded as Mistwalker’s first foray in the handheld arena. It was also one of the most technologically advanced games on the DS at the time, with tons of full-motion video and other goodies to spare. One year later, an ESRB rating was released, and English voice actors were reported to be on board for a potential localization. Nintendo of America never officially revealed Archaic Sealed Heat to the public, however, and quietly cancelled the strategy RPG. In fact, this game’s troubled release history was a major reason why I took part in the original oprainfall campaign, in hopes that I wouldn’t miss out on Sakaguchi’s later masterpiece for a Nintendo system, The Last Story.
After months of clearing my backlog, including TLS, I finally decided to give Archaic Sealed Heat a chance and see what all the fuss was about. Playing this DS game has become not only a test of my Japanese skills, but of my skills as a gamer. This game is a true slow-burner that harkens back to better days in strategy RPG-dom, but adds in a good amount of twists, mechanics and annoyances. In other words, fans will either love or hate this game, which is probably why it sold very poorly in its homeland (at only 67,000 units in its first month on sale, a surprisingly low amount for a Nintendo-published DS title) despite a high score of 33/40 and a Silver award from Famitsu. In addition, some vocal critics have derided it as a “kuso-ge,” which quite literally translates to “crap game.” No wonder Nintendo was so hesitant in bringing it to the Americas. Shame, too, as despite some faults and lack of 100% import-friendliness, it’s a fantasy SRPG with a distinct sense of character that will be thoroughly enjoyed in the right hands.
Foreigners, Beware the Burn!
I reiterate: unlike some other notable DS imports, ASH: Archaic Sealed Heat is certainly not an import-friendly title. Even with some use of familiar icons, as well as occasional bits of gorgeous voice acting and pre-rendered cutscenes (on the DS, no less!), this is still one of the most text-heavy games one can come across on the platform. It could be partly due to the differences in genre from some of its more import-friendly peers. Take Soma Bringer, for instance, which is an action RPG to the core, with tons of iconography and a rather simple story. Archaic Sealed Heat, by contrast, is a classic strategy RPG with a good number of menus and such, more similar to Final Fantasy Tactics or your average Nippon Ichi title. Of course, one absolutely must know hiragana and katakana, the two basic Japanese writing systems, if they even want to get through a battle. But, those who want to know the game’s nuances and complex details will have to know some kanji on the side. Potential players should be able to recognize at least some on the fourth-grade reading level of the Japanese jouyou (elementary) list beforehand. Even if you don’t know a lick of Japanese, there are some very handy FAQs on the Internet that describe what goes on in the game.
“But why, Will?” you might ask. “Why suggest such a high level of Japanese fluency?” And to that, I answer: The story of ASH is one of its strongest points, and is, in many ways, a tribute to the twisty plot lines of Square’s classic SNES RPGs. At first, it sounds like a standard RPG yarn. In the kingdom of Millinear, the coronation of 17-year-old Princess Aisya is interrupted by a fearsome creature called the Fire Serpent. The beast burns down the castle and kills all of Millinear’s citizens in its wake—except for Aisya. She discovers, however, that she can summon her faithful old friends and allies from piles of ash. Although their bodies are made of ash, their souls remain, giving them the power to assist Aisya in her quest to revive all of her kingdom’s remaining inhabitants. Chief among them is her father figure and bodyguard Bullnequ, who holds a very close relationship with Aisya. As the story moves forth, characters such as the soldier Dan, the psychic kid Emu, the Metal Legion double agent Cootorolan and the mysterious Jeekawen also feature.
Each character fits into their own skin, and the dialogue you read is every bit as snappy and entertaining as anything Mistwalker has done. In particular, Cootorolan’s bumbling speech patterns provide quite a bit of needed comic relief, as do some of Emu’s jokes. Of course, the studio’s usual penchant for unusual names is well at work here, but it’s not a glaring flaw in any way. With that said, the story, which spans 31 chapters, weaves traditional fantasy tropes with brilliant sci-fi concepts to create a masterful story. And what typical strategy game doesn’t have a couple of shocking and even disturbing plot twists thrown in for good measure? Indeed, the sheer mix of genres here spawns a sort of spiritual predecessor to the equally rich and complex stories in the rest of the company’s output. (Well, aside from Party Wave—but then again, that was Sakaguchi’s major break.)
In terms of presentation, all but a mere few of the game’s aspects are, for lack of a better phrase, on fire. ASH was the first DS game to use the rarely seen 2-gigabit (256MB) cart, and it shows through much use of pre-rendered 3D material. One can still notice minor artifacts in the cutscenes throughout, but they’re nowhere near as pixelated as those in other video-heavy DS games that, ironically, came after it. (Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days and Sands of Destruction come to mind.) However, the CGI cutscenes are saved for pivotal moments in the story, while a good majority of the game’s story segments consist of Fire Emblem-esque dialogue exchanges with static characters and backgrounds. There aren’t a whole lot of facial expressions, though, which might make the experience a little bland for most non-Japanese speakers. Even so, there’s some great character design on display from Hideo Minaba, of Final Fantasy Tactics and Little King’s Story fame, whose art style gives the game a decidedly retro fantasy flair similar to other games in his œuvre.
Archaic Sealed Heat looks pretty darned fantastic for a DS game, but there are a few minor nitpicks that, if fixed, could have made it look a lot better. Granted, there’s a lot to like here. Again, the art style suits the game’s nature as a strategy RPG quite well, and some particularly gorgeous CGI cutscenes are used for “Extra” attacks carried out by party leaders. During battle, combatants are displayed as pre-rendered sprites that carry out attacks in nearly flawless animation, making the fights fairly entertaining to watch. Regrettably, though, not every limit of the DS’ potential is pushed. The overworld map is mostly a bunch of small 2D sprites on an uninspired 3D grid, which ends up creating somewhat of a mess on that front, but not enough to completely ruin the game. Also, while all of the characters in Archaic Sealed Heat are different classes, there could be more variety in order for players to distinguish certain units that they’ve summoned. Perhaps a simple palette swap could have done the trick there.
The game’s sound, on the other hand, is simply perfect. Headphones are an absolute must here, as the soundtrack consists of many great compositions by Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata. This duo’s body of work is quite vast, including every game in the Ogre Battle series, Mushihime-sama, Stella Deus, Final Fantasy XII, and most notably, Final Fantasy Tactics. In other words, these two composers have put together some of the best soundscapes ever to grace gaming, and their work in ASH is every bit as astounding as these. Elsewhere, the sound effects and voice acting are top-notch, and, in the latter’s case, actually somewhat rare. When it does appear in key story segments and during battle, it’s quite wonderful. Hardcore anime buffs will definitely recognize a few names on the cast list, including Satomi Akesaka (Aisya), Mamoru Miyano (Jeekaween), Maaya Sakamoto (Emu), the dearly departed Takeshi Aono (Bullnequ) and Jouji Nakata (Bamyganant, the final boss). A stellar cast, indeed.
Check out Sakimoto’s composition “A Battle With History” here.
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