It’s been quite some time since we’ve seen Square Enix’s mobile division show some real ambition. Where once they delivered ambitious originals like Drakerider and Chaos Rings, now they seem more content to churn out ports and remakes of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest accompanied by the occasional free-to-play distraction. After three long years, Square has finally released a new installment in their Chaos Rings trilogy, and it does anything but rest on its laurels.
In fact, Chaos Rings III is such a departure, it’s hard to even recognize this as the same series. The previous titles were dark, mysterious affairs, informed by Atlus’ output more than typical Square Enix fare, and wrapped around a complex time-hopping plot that renders questions like “prequel” or “sequel” seemingly irrelevant. The newest entry jettisons that tone completely in favor of a more colorful, lighthearted approach, sure to please anime fans and Japanese-RPG initiates.
Chaos Rings III does retain the basic structure of the earlier games, with a hub world that allows you to teleport to self-contained dungeons, as well as some of the basics of its battle system, but that’s about where the similarities end. Instead, we have a brighter, more colorful world drawn from sci-fi anime and the likes of Phantasy Star more than the grim and gothic tones of MegaTen.
But despite this bright and colorful tone, there’s still an underlying sadness to the world. Humanity is living inside a large orbital space station called Neo Pascal, a beautiful, surreal landscape of floating islands inside a large glass dome, orbiting a planet known as Marble Blue. Marble Blue is landscape of post-apocalyptic beauty, reclaimed cities that speak volumes about the forgotten civilizations that once lived there. Now overrun with lush plant-life – not to mention monsters – it suggests a darkness that the characters seem oblivious to.
Your nameless main character embraces all of the classic J-RPG tropes. He’s a teenage orphan with a giant sword who sets off to join a league of explorers in the big city. He’s following in the footsteps of his father, in search of some mystery. It’s the standard coming-of-age fare that dominates the genre, a boy striking out on his own and heading for the big city.
And it is a big city. New Paleo serves as the game’s main hub, a glimmering futuristic metropolis, with shops, homes, and activities to explore. It’s a much livelier place than the mysterious arena of the previous games. There’s a Battle Mode where players can test their skills for bonuses, and a constant flow of new missions and side quests flowing in.
These missions all take place on the surface of Marble Blue, in self-contained labyrinths of paths dotted with treasure chests and soaked in random encounters. Although there isn’t really much in the way of puzzles or environmental action, these stages are considerably larger than anything in the series previously, and feel perhaps even more open thanks to the newly 3D graphics and follow-view camera, making exploration a more rewarding experience.
The move to 3D makes a big difference, but Chaos Rings III is still very dated looking. Where the previous games looked like high-resolution PlayStation 1 games, CR3 looks like an HD PlayStation 2 game. Still, despite the blurry, flat textures and chunky environment models, it’s still a gorgeous game, full of memorable and beautiful places, even if it’s hardly going to push your phone to its limits.
Like its predecessors, combat is a straightforward, turn-based affair, but with a few hooks that allow you to coordinate your attacks as a team. You’ll regain all your health after each battle, which might sound like it makes the game easy, but in practice it allows the developers to crank up the difficulty so that mundane fights can be challenging too. There’s even player-controlled level scaling for those who want an extra challenge (and experience reward). Taking a page from the Persona series, you’ll level up by unlocking “genes” representing powerful alter-egos, allowing you to unlock different sets of spells for each character, and adding some welcome variety.
Despite its dungeon-crawler structure, Chaos Rings III puts a lot of effort into presenting its story, with frequent cut-scenes, some of which are voice acted (in Japanese), and lots of character-building conversation. While none of the characters really elevate beyond basic anime tropes, you’ll grow to like them all the same as you watch them interact.
While many fans are likely to be divided on the dramatic shift in style, it’s hard to deny that Chaos Rings III is the biggest, most ambitious original J-RPG you can get on Android. While others are content to remake the past, or relive it through pastiche, Square’s latest is a rare reminder of what can happen when Android is treated like a real gaming platform. Its price is hefty, but it’s honest, devoid of IAPs, timers, and other means of extorting money from players, and it offers a game of a quality and scope that would feel right at home on a dedicated gaming handheld like 3DS. For those who still believe mobile can be what handhelds once were, Chaos Rings III is the best evidence yet.
Is it Hardcore?
Finally, another full-fledged, original JRPG with a compelling world to explore. For those looking for a “real” modern JRPG on Android, there’s no finer.