10 for ’10: Glory of Heracles

Glory of Heracles

Developer: Paon / Studio Saizensen

Publisher: Nintendo

U.S. Release Date: January 18, 2010

Genre: JRPG

I’m trying to think of a good way to say this… Glory of Heracles wasn’t the best game I played this year; it wasn’t close. But I think it might be the game I liked the most.

To put it another way, Glory of Heracles had the highest Value Over Expected Enjoyment (VOEE) score out of any game I played this year. Some games, like Super Mario Galaxy 2, were awesome experiences… but I expected them to be, so they have a VOEE of zero. Other games, like Dragon Quest IX, I enjoyed but was mildly disappointed by, so they have a negative VOEE despite still being good games. Glory of Heracles, on the other hand, was something I acquired mostly just to fill time — I wanted a DS game that would give me 30 hours or so of adventuring, and GoH was scoring decently — but I ended up liking it quite a bit, so its VOEE is quite high. (2009’s VOEE champion, in case you were wondering, was NyxQuest: Kindred Spirits.)

Then again, this isn’t that surprising. I’ve always been fond of games that are unambitious but well-executed, and Glory of Heracles is about as unambitious as they come. This is just personal taste, but I usually prefer games that aim low and hit their target dead-center than games which aim high and miss wildly. Most people seem to want to see grand failures rather than modest successes, but not me. I would much rather play a game that is comfortable with its identity and pursues its strengths (even if it means traveling a well-worn path) than one that’s still trying to figure out what it wants to be. Polish, rather than innovation. Craftsmanship, rather than creativity. Evolution, rather than revolution. Call it what you like, but that’s just the way I am.

Glory of Heracles fits right into that niche. It is very much a no-frills JRPG of approximately the 16/32-bit vintage, with a few modern elements thrown in for spice. You’ve got your quest to save the world, your party of anime cliches, your dungeon crawls, and your standard-issue “different, but not really” battle system. The focus on Greek mythology as opposed to medieval Europe or Japan is a little unusual, but ultimately minor. (It’s more prominent than, say, Wild ARMs’s Wild West theme, but it’s not really a game-changer.) However, because the game makes no pretense of being anything other than what it is, the game pushes through the hackiness of its roots and becomes rather charming — like the video game equivalent of comfort food.

Take the cast… Glory of Heracles’s player party is comprised of several standard JRPG archetypes: Your silent protagonist with a mysterious past, your mysterious female co-star who’s pretending to be a boy, your chivalrous pervert, your comic relief strongman, and your snarky loli-bait. However, through strong writing (and localization) and a heaping helping of self-awareness, the characters are developed into a funny, lovable team with great chemistry. I don’t mind cliches as long as they’re well-executed, and Glory of Heracles does it as well as you could hope for.

Take your female co-star, Leucos, for example. She’s a girl masquerading as a boy… and the joke is that she sucks at it. (The hotpants and smooth, womanly legs don’t help.) Every new character you meet sees her for what she is within seconds — even the manual makes no attempt to hide it from you. Rather than being a “secret” that the player picks up on twenty hours before it’s clumsily revealed to the characters, it becomes a running gag that the player is invited to participate in along with the characters. When, late in the game, Leucos finally reveals why she was pretending to be a boy (and why she’s choosing to stop doing so), the revelation is a good deal more touching than it would be if the game had played it dead straight beforehand. All of the characters have similar traits.

Moreover, the characters have a great report even when they’re not talking about their mysterious pasts or the powerful superweapon. They’re funny. They needle each other, bring up past events, hang lampshades on some of the more ridiculous things they encounter. Even the game’s obligatory title drop is an offhand bit of self-deprecation (“So much for the glory of Heracles, huh? Ha ha!”). They’re not well-rounded characters, but they are fun to hang out with for thirty hours, and (in my mind) that’s all you can ask of an RPG cast. Just don’t be annoying, or overwrought. If you can make me grin, I’ll come away with a good opinion of you. In fact, one of my biggest criticisms of this game is that it’s probably the worst possible game to have a silent protagonist as the lead. This game needed a real character to be the player’s avatar, someone like Vyse or Yuri Lowell who could communicate and participate in the party’s verbal sparring. As it is, the hero just stands there in most conversations — he’s a game mechanic, essentially, someone you need in combat but who is otherwise irrelevant.

The plot has a similar charm. The main character begins the game with amnesia. Stock JRPG plot device, right? Well, it turns out he’s not the only one with amnesia — almost all of the party members do as well, as do several supporting characters. Early in the game some fairies tell the hero that he’s the titular Heracles, but the game doesn’t leave it there: Two other characters show up, both of whom claim to be the legendary Heracles. The mystery of who the real Heracles is, and the identity of the people who are wrong, is compelling enough and interesting enough to herd you through twenty-five hours of game or so, at which point you’ve got a world-threatening baddie to deal with for the final five. None of this would be of note if it had been used straight, but the game throws in enough twists to keep you curious as to what the real truth is.

(Credit goes to the localization team, 8-4, for much of this. Everybody knows that Nintendo, Square-Enix, Atlus, and XSEED have great localization teams, but 8-4 is one of the great unappreciated localizers of our time. So, a shout-out to those guys.)

None of this is to say that the game is perfect — far from it. In terms of gameplay mechanics it’s entirely pedestrian. It’s almost entirely linear — there’s a world map, but due to the way it’s set up (and the way you’re herded along) there’s almost never anywhere to go other than the place you just left and your next plot destination. The random encounter rate is a few ticks too high considering most fights take several clicks to clear out. I feel the battle system is a little too overcomplicated for its own sake (rows, secondary weapons, and the bizarre ether system don’t really serve any useful function, and while the action commands are a neat novelty, they’re not nearly as deep as something like Paper Mario). The dungeons suffer from that irritating “long, empty hallways designed to force you into random encounters” feature that grows vexingly common these days. (Really, people, we’ve known how to do dungeons in JRPGs for 10 years. Golden Sun showed us how it was done — how about following its example, preferably without also absorbing its obnoxious flaws?) While the bosses can be dangerous, most other fights lack teeth, and the game showers you with more healing items than you will ever need. It’s also a little easy to break, but I know some people consider that a feature and not a bug.

Fortunately, the game is smartly paced, and just as you start to get sick of it, you’ll be finishing up. In a time when most RPG developers are desperately throwing anything they can think of against the wall hoping it’ll stick and revive their flagging genre, Paon had the courage to say “We just want to make an old-school RPG.” That won’t win you a Game of the Year award, but it will win you a seat at the VOEE awards ceremony — at least as long as I’m running it.


1 Response to “10 for ’10: Glory of Heracles”

  1. 1 kaisel December 10, 2010 at 1:16 pm

    unambitious but well-executed

    I think that’s one thing that I’ve kind of missed in this console generation. There aren’t a ton of games out there like that, trying to add complexity to keep things fresh.

    It also makes me think of the death of the jRPG talk that always crops up, as I think the jRPG genre has always been really tied to execution over ambition.

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