The J-RPG, once a genre seen as risky by publishers in North America and Europe, has in recent years become a staple of gaming the world over. With titles such as Blue Dragon, Folklore and Lost Odyssey
due to hit the current generation of consoles any time now, what sets DS gem Magical Starsign aside from the masses?
In some ways, nothing. At first glance, Magical Starsign appears to be a by-the-numbers turn-based J-RPG, utilising a 2D graphical style in the vein of Golden Sun and the earlier Final Fantasy games. For those looking for a flashy 3D handheld RPG, Magical Starsign is perhaps not for you. You’ll have seen it all before, in some form or another. Even the main plot arc seems gnawingly familiar; your mentor has been abducted by ne’er-do-wells, causing you and a team of quirky characters to trek across the galaxy in a quest to save her. So far, so generic. Right?
Magical StarsignOne would be forgiven for dismissing Magical Starsign at this point. It’s only upon closer inspection that the game’s self-deprecating wit, beautiful design and subtle, deep combat system makes itself apparent. The retro 2D graphics become lovingly hand-drawn backgrounds, rich with detail, in which well-animated sprites go about their day-to-day lives. Cutscenes are CGI, adopting an art style akin to claymation, which leads to one of the best title sequences in a handheld videogame.
It soon becomes pretty clear that the plot is far from the contrived outline the game would lead you to believe, as well. In the course of the adventure, the characters travel to and fro between six different planets, each featuring their own self-contained plot which ties into the main plot arc. It is these individual storylines which provide the strong narrative, with the interplanetary travel meaning the storylines interweave and provide a little variation. Each planet contains a series of mysteries which must be solved, the solutions all piecing together to explain the truth behind your mentor’s disappearance. Puzzles are generally solved using a series of field screen abilities; for instance in the opening sections of the game, the party is unable to continue along their path due to a raging sandstorm blocking the way. After some investigation and exploration, one of the characters observes that a strong wind might clear the area. Then it’s a simple case of summoning a screen-filling tornado to blow the sand away. This is just the precursor to some of the later, more visually impressive puzzles, which while not being terribly challenging make for a fun addition to the usual world map navigation and create some brilliant set-pieces to boot.
The planets themselves are an important gameplay mechanic; each character is aligned with one of the planets, depicted in an astrological map. The planets rotate around the sun at a fixed rate, occasionally landing in a coloured zone relating to the nature of the planet itself. When this occurs, the character who is affiliated with that planet will receive a powerful boost. Later in the game, the player receives the ability to control the planets’ alignments, adding an extra element of strategy to the already-tactical battles. It sounds confusing on paper, but the in-game explanations and representations are very well thought-out, with a decent learning curve to get the player into the game.
The battles themselves range from quick tussles with regular enemies to epic boss fights, with some of the villains impressively spanning both screens of the DS As the game progresses, these battles can become fairly long, demanding a well-planned strategy. Characters can be positioned in the foreground or background of the battlefield, each giving different options and abilities in battle. The combat abilities themselves are the usual mix of melee and magic, although unlike many RPGs the magic attacks are the focus here, with the melee combat only a last resort should you run out of magical points.
Developer Brownie Brown has made good, if subtle use of the touch screen. Outside of battle, characters can be controlled with the stylus, but it is in combat that the touch screen becomes useful. Tap a character when they are casting a spell and you have a chance to increase its power. Tap them again as they brace for attack, giving you a defence boost. Hit an enemy with the stylus as you perform a melee attack for an increased chance of a critical hit. This mechanic won’t set the RPG world on fire, but it adds more of an interactive element than just clicking menu items.
Magical Starsign is not particularly unique or original, but it certainly updates the 2D turn-based RPG in a way that fans of the genre will find irresistible. Perhaps it won’t bring new players to the table, but if you own a Nintendo DS and have even a remote interest in RPGs, Magical Starsign is most definitely a worthy purchase. It’s an incredibly fun, light-hearted experience with its tongue firmly in its cheek, and one that will leave you with a large grin on your face many times throughout the course of the adventure. And all that before encountering the fantastically incompetent ‘Space Police’ who, without wanting to spoil anything, bring paper-shuffling bureaucracy to a whole new level.