Baroque Review.

…Even though I bet no one here bought it…

I’m not gonna lie: I dislike almost every single game released by Atlus - Both the games they develop as well as they games they choose to localize. I think I keep playing them because I’m a masochist. When I heard that Nintendo Power gave this game a really low score, the sadistic side of me kicked in, and I just HAD to see this game by Atlus that, surely, many people would dislike. Originally released on the Sega Saturn a decade ago, Baroque was re-released on the PS2 and the Wii by Atlus in early April of 2008. I figured that buying it would be a good opportunity for me to check out the soundtrack, anyways - the original soundtrack was done by a famous VG Composer, Masaharu Iwata (Final Fantasy Tactics, Ogre Battle Series). Well, this game threw two very big surprises at me: The first one being that someone else wrote a completely new musical score for the remake. The second one being that, well, Baroque is actually pretty good.

When you start the game, it’s very easy to see why most people would turn away from this game in a flash: Upon starting a new game, there is an introduction sequence that is less than 60 seconds, explains absolutely NOTHING to you, and then throws you into the game. There you are. No explanation at all. The game leaves it up to you to figure out the story. The game tells you so little that reading the description on the back of the game case is a spoiler for crying out loud.

So, just how DO you expand on the story? There are a few ways, but they are all very closely related to how the game plays. Let’s take a short look at that, shall we?

Baroque is a roguelike dungeon-crawler. For the uninitiated (myself included, before I looked it up), a roguelike is a dungeon-crawler that consists of only one dungeon, usually consisting of many floors. The maps, monster locations, and items are all randomized, and if you die, you have to go all the way back to the beginning of the dungeon, losing all your experience points and equipment. Sounds pretty rough, eh? Unlike most games, which want you to succeed, roguelikes want to thwart you; they DARE you to try and complete them.

So, this adequately sums up Baroque, other than a few random loose ends. For one, there is a ‘town’ at the beginning that you always go back to. As you go farther into the dungeon (hereafter The Neuro Tower), new monsters get added and older, weaker ones are phased out. This always happens on the same floors, and the style of the floors change along with it. Also, there are main characters within the Neuro Tower that always appear on the same floor. Lastly, the depth of the dungeon increases after completing certain story events. Due to all these factors, there is a bit less randomness in Baroque than the usual roguelike…maybe we could call Baroque a ‘roguelite’? Get it? Man, I’m good. Lastly, the game is an action RPG, but rather light on the action.

Back on the subject of story. As can see, there are people outside and inside of the dungeon for you to interact with. Some of them ask for items from you, which you can only get in the dungeon. Some of them will say or do different things depending on what you give to them, and whether or not you complete the tower. And so, this is the extent of advancing the story - completing the tower, giving people specific items.

A big thing most reviewers have made a big deal about is the necesity to die in order to advance the plot. This is not true at all. You can complete the game without ever dying at all; however, you would probably not see a lot of the more interesting things. Dying is more crucial to expanding the story, as you can find special items in the Neuro Tower called ‘Idea Sephirah.’ You can obtain these from monsters and NPCs and show them to a character in the ‘town’ who will give you more detailed information about them. Without doing this, you might never learn anything about certain characters. Beyond that, many NPCs have a lot of different things to say at different times, and have a variety of different reactions based on things you give them, or if you choose to attack them! Without seeing things like this, you can get the gist of the story, but it will come off poorly-explained (as if you needed more of that!).

Although, for all the trouble you take to learn all about the story, it’s not really the most compelling story. Almost the entire story is comprised of allusions to events that happened in the past, whereas the present - the events of the game - is more of a resolution. What would be more interesting would be an RPG that detailed the events that led up to this game. I hear that a text adventure game of that nature does exist. I wonder if it’ll ever see the light of day in the U.S?

One thing that can not be denied about the story, though: If you get past the first hurdles, the story makes you WANT to discover it. If you get hooked, you’re going to want to know all about what happened, and what happens. I think stories in RPGs need to get better at delivering that sense of excitement. It’s certainly unfortunate that the story failed to deliver at the end; however, the thrill of getting caught up in the story - just dying to know what happens next - is an excellent, refreshing feeling.

And now for my last arbitrary jump back into gameplay: So, we know that Baroque is a roguelite action RPG. The next question is, of course, how fun is it to play the game? Well, unfortunately, the action elements are pretty boring. There is no variety in combat at all, meaning no magic, and four different ways of attacking: Fists, One-Handed Swords, Two-Handed Swords, and a gun. Of those four, there is only any merit to using swords. All melee attacks have a ‘combo’ button and a ‘power attack’ button, the power attack being slower but can stun enemies. There are no evasive actions you can take, aside from moving out of the way of an attack.

Because of how limited you are in your actions, the action elements can feel really difficult at first. But eventually, you’ll learn how to dodge each enemy’s over-agressive attack patterns. In fact, most enemies in the game can be defeated either by spamming power attacks, Two-Handed Sword attacks (Because the last hit of a Two-Handed Sword combo stuns enemies), or just by running circles around an enemy until they try to attack you, evade and counter them. It gets a little monotonous unless you’re fighting a horde of enemies at once.

As for the roguelike elements, they are pulled off pretty well. These games are about learning general survival skills, like how to use items effectively, how to ration them, and knowing what kind of risks to take, and which not to take. For example, some of the items you find are not identified; in other words, you’ll get a ‘Sword’ or a ‘Flesh’ (HP restoring item), but you won’t know what kind of Sword or Flesh. If you equip the sword, it might have an effect on it that prohibits you from removing it. If you eat the flesh, it might be burnt, which means it will recover all your HP, but it will lower your Vitality Points.

“Say, what are those Vitality Points you just mentioned?” Good question! In Baroque, you have a meter that displays your HP, and a second meter called Vitality (VT from now on). Your VT is a meter that slowly depletes no matter what you’re doing; while you still have VT, your HP will slowly recover; however, once your VT is at 0, your HP will slowly decrease. Max VT doesn’t raise when you gain a level; you have to eat a Seed (VT restoring item) when your VT is at max. You can regain 1-5 VT from killing an enemy. I thought this was a cool idea, because it gave you a sense of urgency while you were going through the Neuro Tower to explore as quick as you could…at least, until later in the dungeon, when you had so much VT that being down to 1/4 VT would still take like fifteen minutes to run out on its own.

The only trouble with the game’s roguelike element is that there is no consequence to dying. You can save as you complete every floor of the Neuro Tower, so what difference does it make if you die? If you’re steadfast about saving, you can just reload it at any time. The unfortunate problem to a game like this, which tries to instill dire consequence to dying, is that there’s no way to really hold you to it without making the game unwieldly frustrating. Like, it could auto-save when you die, but that’s just agitating. It could limit the number of times you save, or how often you can save, but that would make the game a chore to play, as the later floors can take up to 20-30 minutes to explore and complete. In the end, I think Baroque’s way is the best, but it’s unfortunate that dying can’t actually be severe without making the game a chore.

Remember how I said that Masaharu Iwata didn’t write the music? Well, in spite of that, the music is really good. Written by Shigeki Hayashi, a resident composer of Sting (The development team of Baroque), the music focuses very heavily on the Industrial Rock genre, and is eerily reminiscent of Doom (a popular FPS, in case you didn’t know!). The graphics get a lot of flak for being not-incredible, but I think that’s missing the point: The game intentionally looks a little distorted and fuzzy, which is brilliant. It makes the game feel like a memory, a dream, or just not-reality in general, which is perfect for the game. As for the style, it can be described very concisely as dark, bleak, etc. In fact, the whole aesthetic of the game feels something like a Doom RPG (nevermind that there is some sort of Doom RPG on cell phones).

What else…Well, Baroque has an option to be played in first-person view (See? Doom RPG!), but it’s very hard to gauge the distance between your character and any object while in first-person view. Appearantly, the original version was first-person view ONLY, so I believe that this was a good change. There aren’t many differences between the Wii version, other than a 16:9 widescreen mode, progressive scan, and some horribly-constructed Wiimote functions (admittedly, this is hearsay; but I found a lot of opinions).

Still, the game does not have any appeal of a normal RPG, so it’s hard to reccomend it to anyone that isn’t into roguelikes, or dungeon crawlers in general. If you enjoy dungeon crawlers, or want to experience the thrill of surviving in an environment that wants so badly for you to die, then do Baroque. I’m humbled, Atlus. It can be exhilitrating when you’re winning, and absolutely infuriating when you’re losing, but Baroque is a pretty good game in the end.

Everything everyone says about Baroque tell me I would hate the game.

Conversely, I’m a huge fan of other Atlus titles: Ogre Battle, Tactics Ogre, Touch Detective, many many others.

Yeah, it’s easy, EASY to hate Baroque. It’s a very hateable game. I think the main reason I liked it as much as I did was because I thought it was going to be SO_AWFUL.

I’ve not found a Japanese attempt at the roguelike genre that I haven’t disliked in some way or another. I can play Crawl , IVAN or ADOM for hours (days in the case of Crawl, just ask my gpa) on end, but something like Elona, Izuna, or the Fushigi no Dungeon series ends up finding multiple ways to bore me to tears. All of the japanese games I listed circumvent the permadeath mechanic that more or less defines the genre, while also having places that require you to stock up every decent item you find for ages in order to progress. This tends to render them a lot like a bad mmo minus the people. Baroque sounds a lot like a Fushigi no Dungeon game with some light action added.

Other than the novelty of having a console roguelike (which is hardly novel these days with the likes of Powder and the ports of Crawl and Nethack for just about every platform under the sun) I can’t really see this worth bothering with. There are better examples of the genre that are free as in speech (and a few others that are free as in beer), so I can’t really justify paying for this when all I’m really getting out of it is a flashy skin and slower gameplay.

Well, for someone who’s a diehard roguelike fan, probably nothing. For someone who is NOT, like me, Baroque is really accessible, and maybe even a good entry level game for roguelikes.

Powder is a pretty great roguelike for starting out on. It is quite short, something like 15 levels, has a very good interface designed with pointing devices in mind (not bad considering how many roguelikes have user interfaces from the 80s), ports for several handhelds, and a relatively unintimidating list of commands. It’s still a rather hard bastard to win, but what roguelike worth playing isn’t? It leans a little hard on Nethack’s formula of a punishing item identification game and 10000 obscure uses for every item for my tastes but such is handled competently.

Doom - The Roguelike is another great place to start. It features sounds and music from Doom 2 in as well as the weapons and monsters. It has 5 difficulty settings and a wide array of unlockable challenge modes. It feels a lot like playing Doom only turn based.

It’s a bit of a shame that the genre is best known for Nethack (with every feature and obscure reference ever, including the kitchen sink), Angband (grind easy levels for ages to get the gear you need to not splatter upon entering the next. There is a bot that can win this 99% of the time) and the Fushigi no Dungeon series (as many obscure references as nethack, lots of bullshit instadeaths, hoard items so your next character can use them) when there are so many smaller entries with a lot more character while still possessing that ruthless edge that makes them so fun.

Now, I’m not absolutely sure, but I’m gonna bet that none of those games offer things that ease RPGamers into the roguelike genre with things that they like, such as:

  • Simple action-based RPG elements
  • A compelling atmosphere, made so by its music and graphics
  • A storyline, which, while not particularly good, is compelling to discover, which is what the game revolves heavily around.

It gives all these things that someone used to the average console RPG would like, and, if they enjoy the roguelike elements, they can immerse themselves in a game afterwards that focuses more heavily on the pure roguelike elements.