There’s a common sentiment that Japanese RPGs are stuck in the past, but nowhere is this truer than on the Android market. While 16-bit homages and remakes abound, including some very excellent efforts in the Final Fantasy series, there have been precious few that dare tread on the near side of the ‘90s. The first Chaos Rings was a real relief. It looked, in many ways, like a glorified 32-bit game, with low-res 2D backgrounds, and blocky, unfiltered textures, but those PlayStation-era sensibilities still put it leagues ahead of the competition. After an unadventurous prequel, Chaos Rings Omega, Square Enix has returned with a full blown sequel to bring their series up to par with modern phone games.
Although the semi-realistic character design resembles recent Final Fantasy games, the Chaos Rings series is far darker than what you’d normally expect, and almost feels like the sort of thing we’d expect from Atlus. You control Darwin, a young soldier who, along with his adoptive brother Orlando, finds himself suddenly transported to a strange place suspended in time and space. Orlando manifests as a giant beast, and Darwin is forced to kill him.
Darwin emerges in a mansion suspended in time and space with four other individuals, who have all witnessed the “murder.” He’s told that time has been frozen and the world is facing immanent destruction, and the only way to avert it is for Darwin to sacrifice the others. It isn’t immediately clear how these people are connected, but it’s obvious there is much they don’t know. The story unravels like a mystery novel. Rather than unfolding through big events on-screen, it’s revealed gradually through a lot of expository dialog. Much of this is voiced, albeit in Japanese, but the whole affair is decidedly un-cinematic in a refreshing way.
While it may not push any technical boundaries, Chaos Rings II is absolutely beautiful to look at. The hand-drawn backgrounds are lavishly detailed, and very atmospheric. Their static nature is used for effect in the various stages, all frozen in time. Crashing waves dramatically stand still, and pink petals from cherry blossoms hover in mid-air. Each one of the stages offers dramatically different scenery, and all of it is gorgeous. The 3D characters have been gussied up quite a bit, and fully 3D sets are used for battles and key cut scenes, but it’s really the 2D artwork that steals the show.
Square Enix has balanced out the game’s lavish production values by keeping the scope fairly small. Your hub for the entire game is a small section of the mysterious mansion, and you are teleported to the various other locales, much like Japanese Dungeon-RPGs like Grandia Xtreme. These diverse, frozen slices are left to suggest a larger world that we never get to see. You can go back to previous areas, and even scale the level of the enemies (and rewards), which makes the ever-present level grinding less of a bore, but there isn’t much in the way of real exploration.
Compared to the first game, stages are small, linear, and have relatively simple layouts. The notorious “puzzle rooms” are gone, replaced with a very simple system of character-specific abilities that won’t really tax your brain. Although I actually enjoyed these brain-teasers in the first, they were out of place, and their removal makes for a more even game.
As in the earlier games, you’ll be fully healed between every battle, which leads to some interesting pacing. Normally RPG battles are all insignificant until you get to a boss, because you have to survive dozens of them, but in Chaos Rings normal enemies can get your health seriously low, since it’ll all be restored after the battle.
The turn-based combat system, while fairly typical of the genre, proves to be more interesting than it initially appears, thanks to a variety of small hooks that each prove to be useful. There’s the usual rock-paper-scissors elemental skills, plus the ability to team up to perform attacks, use items, and take damage collectively. It takes a while to understand where all the different abilities are useful, but after banging your head over a couple boss fights, you’ll realize it’s not as braindead as the typical Dragon Quest clone.
It’s not hard for a game like Chaos Rings II to stand out; it really doesn’t have a lot of competition. Its own prequels and Gameloft’s awful imitation-JRPG Eternal Legacy are really the only things that come close. Luckily, Square hasn’t taken this opening as a chance to slack off. This is a well-made, polished title that, while small in scope compared to console games, would be still be a blast on any platform.
Chaos Rings II is a beautiful, highly polished RPG that may lack the huge world and cinematic trappings of other RPGs, but makes up for it with a good story, gorgeous artwork, and solid gameplay.