Japanese RPG releases have been disappointingly sparse on the current generation of consoles, but the genre has found new vitality on mobile platforms like the Sony PSP and now Android. This continues with Covenant of Solitude from veteran Japanese developer Kemco, an unspectacular but respectable RPG evoking console games of the mid-1990s.
Covenant of Solitude tells the story of Fort, a young man blessed and cursed with the power to summon and communicate with monsters. When his town is ravaged by invading Imperial soldiers, he desperately calls on this gift and summons monsters to fight them — but is unable to control them as they slaughter friend and foe alike. (First rule of RPG military strategy: No plan to defend a fixed target containing large numbers of civilians should ever, under any circumstances, contain the words “and then I summon a monster.”)
Three years later, he’s moldering in an Imperial prison when a mysterious visitor appears, showing Fort how to control his powers and escape. Frightened by his own powers and tormented by guilt by the carnage he unwittingly caused, Fort prefers to simply die, but agrees to escape when he learns of his impending execution and remembers his best friend’s dying wish that he survive. Now Fort is on the run, in a land wracked crushed by oppression and wracked by war, struggling to survive in the threats of his Imperial pursuers,, the spreading conflict and chaos of the world around him, his own guilt, and ghosts of his horrific past coming back to haunt him.
The story is pretty good. The setting is standard-issue medieval fantasy and kicking off the hero’s adventure by burning his home village to the ground is the mother of all RPG clichés, but they’re used well. The events that unfold are interesting, and Fort is an engaging protagonist. It’s nothing remarkable, but it should keep fans of the genre wanting to see what happens next.
Gameplay hews to the classic JRPG format. You explore dungeons, gain experience levels, improve equipment, and fight turn-based battles with a party of up to four characters. Anyone familiar with console RPGs of the 1990s will feel right at home here. The formula isn’t anything new, but it’s well-executed.
One twist is the composition of your party. Instead of recruiting people you run into on your journey, you fight alongside monsters Fort summons and commands. You can have up to 20, of which three can join Fort in each battle.
Each monster is created from one of four character classes and four races, each with their own abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. They gain experience levels just like Fort does, and can be further customized by having them change classes — they start their new class at level 1 but keep the abilities learned from their previous class. This element is fun and, adds some depth and variety to the battles.
The game’s translation into English is subpar, though it never descends into the sort of cringe-inducing awkwardness and oft outright incomprehensibility that plagued many early English localizations of Japanese console RPGs of the 1980s and 1990s. For some reason, this becomes markedly worse in the game’s menus, and in the descriptions of skills and items. They’re readily understandable, but were clearly localized by someone not fully fluent in English. The dialogue is better — its frequently rather stilted, but doesn’t suffer from the grammatical errors or awkwardness of the menus.
The game’s graphics are reminiscent of sprite-based JRPGs on Sega Saturn and the original Sony PlayStation during the 32-bit era, such as Arc the Lad or Albert Odyssey. A weakness of the graphics is their lopsided quality. The environments are fine and the character sprites look great, but character animations can be jerky (enemies in battle mode aren’t animated at all) and visual effects for spells and abilities are underwhelming. The result is a game that looks like something from the 32-bit era when at rest but that sometimes partially relapses to 16-bit when in motion. Overall, though, the game’s look is quite appealing and the strengths outweigh the weaknesses.
The game’s sounds is another matter. The audio lags behind the graphics. The sound effects are dull and generic, often sounding like something out of an NES game. The music is adequate, but not especially inspiring or memorable.
However fans of the old-school JRPG should take note; despite its flaws Covenant of Solitude does everything an old-school JRPG should. While it never breaks new ground, it’s got an entertaining story, nice graphics, and solid old-school mechanics that make the buy and the game, especially for JRPG fans, well worthwhile.