By Will Whitehurst / April 23rd, 2013
There’s no denying that Archaic Sealed Heat has a massive amount of talent behind it, and it’s also safe to say that, in my opinion, it didn’t go to waste. ASH’s gameplay is centered around an innovative battle system that Sakaguchi calls “Team Tactics.” It plays like a mixture of the tactical elements of Fire Emblem and the turn-based nature of Final Fantasy, but with several tricks up its sleeve. For one, it’s that rare DS game that’s almost completely stylus-controlled, so that could take some getting used to for those accustomed to the usual button-controlled fare. Another technical quirk: if you can’t get used to tapping the screen twice every single time you want to confirm an action, this is not the game for you. This does sometimes prove useful, but it’s mostly a bit of a hindrance, especially because of the overworld sprites’ small size. Regardless, Archaic Sealed Heat‘s core mechanics are unique and bring a lot of interesting elements to the strategy RPG genre, which is quite run-of-the-mill to begin with.
Similar to more “utilitarian” SRPGs like Front Mission and Advance Wars, ASH is built upon the use of Action Points (AP), where each character has a set amount of points limiting how much they can do in one turn. Unlike most games with such a system, however, the AP in ASH are not limited to individual units, but rather combined between three-unit parties, which opens the playing field up quite a bit. And just as well, as your party members’ positions and attack ranges definitely matter. See, not only do your parties share AP, but they also fight together during turns. When one unit is farther away from a battle than the others, he/she must kill enemies by either chucking rocks or putting ranged spells to use. And speaking of spells and magic arts, a few can work on more than one friend or enemy; all it takes is a slide of the stylus across the screen and you’re in business. But perhaps the most useful core mechanic is the automatic restoration of HP and MP on a unit as he/she levels up.
The fun doesn’t end there, as there are seven major classes of unit to choose from, some much more useful than others. Aside from your typical black mages, white mages, and knights (called “Battlers”), you have classes such as “Itemers” and “Monster Mages.” The former seems like a copy of the chemist job in most tactical RPGs, but can actually do much more. An “Itemer” can spread the effect of one item across your party with a flick of the stylus, and can even give all of your party members item-related attributes (Paralyze, Freeze, Instant Kill). “Monster Mages” cannot give out attacks on their own, but summon monsters to do its bidding—for massive damage, of course. Soon after you get the regular mechanics down, the game introduces a system called “Engage” that allows you to sacrifice other units to get their attributes on a leader unit (such as Aisya or Dan) that they’ve bonded with. It’s a pretty useful system, but it only goes so far, and redefines exactly how expendable the units themselves are in the end.
In terms of difficulty, Archaic Sealed Heat is more forgiving than Fire Emblem and other games of its type, but will still take a seasoned player about 20-30 hours to complete. And that’s due to the game’s slightly irritating combination of difficulty spikes and hand-holding. This is the game’s most crucial flaw, and why its reception has been so mixed. The battles, which are already lengthy to begin with, sometimes slow to a crawl (not graphically, mind you, but in terms of time) as more enemy units are transported to the field when you defeat them, which can get annoying at times. The AI is hit-and-miss, with some particularly overpowered enemies (such as Ogres and Death Eagles) more than eager to kill your units, but others wasting their AP on bits of movement, even if they’re a mere two spaces away from you! And when they do attack you during their turn, you can’t attack them back, leaving you in suspense. Permadeath also features, but unless your dead unit’s a team leader or dies during an enemy’s turn, he/she can be revived in a flash with “Revival Medicine,” your White Mage can use a spell, or, when you’re done with battle, you can hire another unit.
There is plenty more hand-holding where that came from, however. Sometimes, it’s a bit useful: you can do a quicksave in the middle of a battle, which can prove useful in the most daunting chapters. However, for all of the limits placed on you in this game, you can carry as many items as you want, weapons don’t break, and you can even grind by going back to previous areas and killing enemies. And when you do finish the game, the New Game+ actually lets you keep everything you’ve gained through the story, without increasing the difficulty even a couple of notches. That’s typical of most NGPs, though, and it still provides quite a bit of challenge anyway.
Don’t get me wrong, I think Archaic Sealed Heat‘s innovations and quality more than make up for its flaws, and it does everything much, much better than its mixed reputation would suggest. It’s a shame Nintendo didn’t decide to localize this game. Sure, the lack of import-friendliness, ugly map sprites, touchy stylus control and lengthy battles might give some pause. But Mistwalker’s rich details and Racjin’s implementation of them, as well as the extremely satisfying and innovative battle system, make the payoff that much more worth it, and make the game that much better.
The furor surrounding Archaic Sealed Heat died down quite fast in its home country, with the copy I bought totaling a mere $20 with shipping included. I thought that ASH would prove to be yet another case of too much hype. I stand corrected. ASH is a great little gem that provides a fun yet streamlined strategy RPG experience for both genre newcomers and stalwarts. In fact, I think more games of its type should implement some of its concepts, such as the use of action points between parties (as opposed to individual units) and HP/MP restoration whenever a unit levels up. In the past, some Western critics and 2ch members have said it does not live up to the standard Sakaguchi has set in other titles from Mistwalker. To me, personally, that’s like saying Eternal Punishment is the worst installment of the Persona series. ASH was made to be a daring and divisive spin on RPG mechanics, so it’s sad but not surprising that Nintendo decided not to localize it in the end.
Should you take the plunge and import Archaic Sealed Heat? It really depends on what kind of gamer you are. If you’re at least fairly proficient in Japanese, or are good at reading FAQs, and can forego the rather simplistic nature of the game and several key complaints, then you’ll find a deep and engaging SRPG. On the other hand, if slow length isn’t your thing, then let this one burn out. In other words, Archaic Sealed Heat should, more so than many other games these days, be experienced with an extremely open mind. As for me, considering the flaws that do exist here, the fact remains that I actually enjoyed this very satisfying last-gen strategy RPG more than a good majority of the mainstream games released in 2012.
Game imported from Japan by author
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