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What could have been.

We deal in a lot of RPGs around here. This is no surprise to anyone. And with RPGs you have certain expectations of dashing heroes and their mysterious female companion saving the world from the horrible demon vampire space robot ninja from another dimension. But everyone once in a while, a game comes along that doesn’t really follow that formula, and I will frequently enjoy those games a lot simply because they are different.

Carlsev Saga is one of those “different” games. It bills itself as a “political thriller” and the game focuses more on the conflicts between nations than any world-saving heroes. It presents a story of revolution and industrialization where notions such as “good” or “evil” are not so readily identified. It sounds like a much more modern and mature tale than one of the boy who found a magic sword and killed God.

So what we have here is a game that sounds like it could most certainly be interesting. But because of some flaws on a very basic and fundamental level, I felt like this project was only a shell of what it could have been.

Talking about this game’s plot in any fashion will mean spoilers almost by its very nature, and while I’ll try to avoid revealing any major plot twists, if you don’t want any part of the game spoiled for you, turn back now.

Carlsev Saga begins with two men, Deckiller and Nate, being shipwrecked in a strange new land. While Nate quickly disappears from view and is not heard from again (or is he?...), Deckiller begins a meteoric rise through the ranks of the Carlsev Kingdom’s military. Years later, as revolution tears the kingdom apart, he stands at a unique position to dictate the course of the history of the kingdom, and perhaps even the world. As multiple world powers begin to take the stage, a complex web of treachery is revealed, and a number of Carlsev’s citizens must decide where their loyalty lies…and who, if anyone, they can trust.

In a lot of ways, this is a very hard game to discuss, because it is almost like talking about two separate games; the first of which is pretty good in a lot of respects, but the second of which is not nearly so. Hopefully you'll see what I mean as I continue.

Balance 2/5
As I mentioned, Carlsev Saga is divided into two distinct halves, which have quite different combat rules. The player’s point of view jumps between various different parties representing different sides of the conflict, focusing on two parties in particular, and both have very different methods of fighting. In general, you’ll have three main archetypes in your party at any given time, a physical damage dealer, an elemental damage dealer, and a supportive character. Much ado is given early in the game about the importance of exploiting enemy weaknesses to be successful, and there were cases where this was true, but just as frequently I would find that hitting an enemy with their weakness element did not do any additional damage, and was often weaker than a physical attack regardless. In general just spamming physical attacks was all that was really necessary in most cases.

The second half of the game switched things up considerably. One character could learn skills form enemies ala Blue magic. This was a neat ability which I enjoyed. Another character could draw “magic” from enemies in the form of essences, stocking them as items for later use. Some people may remember this system from Final Fantasy VIII and I don’t think most people have very fond memories of it. Having to spend time “farming” magic from enemies isn’t that much fun, but you better believe you need a whole lot of it if you want to survive this game.

Leveling up does not increase your stats much, and in the second half of the game no character gains any ability by leveling. Finding new equipment is also very, very, very rare (there’s virtually none in the second half.) How do you increase your characters’ stats then? You take combinations of items to alchemists who will make stat-boosting tonics for you. Each alchemist requires different combinations of items for each tonic so there was never any telling if you’d have the right items. Most of these items dropped for monsters, so you had all the fun of grinding without any guarantee you’d reap the benefits. And there were a few places later in the game where I needed to grind out some health potions to survive. The game provides a handy way to fight any enemy encounter you want pretty easily, but it’s still busy work.

Bosses occasionally tried to switch things up a bit. Occasionally they would activate “auras” that would disable either physical or elemental skills. I wasn’t really a fan of this because instead of presenting me with a situation where I had to adapt my strategy to an enemy’s weakness, it simply took away my options and forced me to fight a certain way.

Finally, certain battles introduce “Trigger commands” that were one-time abilities present only during that battle. This could range from talking to an enemy to convince them of your allegiances, or taking cover during a heavy fire fight. Certainly an interesting feature, but it ended up being pigeon-holed from something that could be interesting into a “Press X to not die” situation where I was often forced to simply use said skill over and over until I won the battle. Effectively all it did was take away one of my fighters. A shame, since it had so much promise.

Level Design 2.5/5
From a design sense, this game is certainly a mixed bag. On the one hand most of the areas are competently mapped and looked decent enough, but other graphical choices left me confused at times. Quite a few character sprites are reused, and it was occasionally extremely confusing to me to see a sprite that looked identical to another important character used for a throwaway character.

In terms of dungeon design, you’ll see the usual battery of block pushing, ice-sliding, switch-pulling, and every other basic dungeon trick you’ve seen in every other game a thousand times. Mostly, these felt to me like they were applied to the dungeons as an after-thought, included because the designer felt obligated to have them than out of any real sense of designing a level around it. The only puzzle idea I really felt was applied well was changing water levels, since it could radically alter the layout of a dungeon.

I want to take a moment to point out a phenomenon in this game I think is distressingly common in games, and that seems to be including dungeons because the designers felt like the game needed to be longer. While in the first half of the game there is a reason for every dungeon you enter, the second half seems to include an onslaught of dungeons just “because.” Rather than these dungeons arising organically out of the characters and the situations, they are imposed as arbitrary barriers the player needs to cross to get to the next part of the plot. These dungeons are purely filler, and since very few worthwhile treasures are to be found in the game, they are hardly worth exploring even for the loot.

In short, don’t feel like you need to add six dungeons to your game because you want your game to be longer.

Characters 2.5/5
Now we get to the heart of the matter. This is a political drama, self-termed, and the core of any political drama is the relationships between its characters. In fact, the core of almost any story is the relationships between its characters and their subsequent development. And that is perhaps the most crucial misstep taken in the conception of this game. Because astonishingly little time was spent developing its characters.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. In fact, for a very large portion of the game, one of the central characters, Roland, has quite a bit of characterization. You see, in the midst of a revolution against a tyrannical king, Roland is one of the generals who have remained firmly loyal to the monarchy. He threatens to stamp out any criticism of the king or country, treats his men like crap, and reveres his liege despite the fact that King Carlsev is clearly a lunatic (and Roland certainly realizes this). He has hints of a dark past and something is certainly bothering him lately. He has an internal struggle to deal with. Can he remain loyal to a king who is clearly a maniac? Towards the end of the first half of the game, it looks like Roland’s struggle is about to come to a head and he’ll be forced to make a choice.

Only instead of resolving this story arc, it is simply abruptly terminated with no clear resolution and the implications of what it all meant are never so much as mentioned again. Instead we are shuttled off to control another completely different party with no relation to the previous one.

I know find myself controlling another character, Soren. Who is Soren again? I guess he was a knight who served with Deckiller. And he has blue hair. That is literally all I know about him. But I guess he’s my character now and he’s off to do something. He has other characters in his party, but I don’t know anything about them either. And that’s pretty much it really. Outside of Roland, I know nothing about any character I ever play as in the entire game. Now, I’m not saying we need to have the character’s life story before we ever take control of them, but in a story of high political intrigue, where people are constantly going to be backstabbing each other and questioning their loyalties, establishing some kind of connection between the characters is essential. If character A betrays character B, it is hard to feel sad for character B or angry at character A if I know nothing about either of them, what their goals where, how they felt about each other, or even what this betrayal means in a larger sense. These characters barely even have anything as simple and basic as a motive. They don’t have “personalities,” they have “stage directions.” “Act cheerful and upbeat.” “Act morose and snarky.” It is good that characters are developed through their actions instead of giving a monologue about their personality, but sooner or later you have to go past the minimum surface features if you expect the player/reader to develop any kind of connection to them. These characters never do. As a result it was incredibly hard to care about any of them because I didn’t know any of them. They were characters who existed to fill roles in the party, vessels to carry me from plot point A to plot point B. They had no story of their own. I cannot care when characters randomly betray each other when I don’t know these characters. I cannot care when people die abruptly when I didn’t know these people.

So by the nature of the story there is no clear main character, instead the story jumps around to random viewpoints representing the various factions in the game world. And the man at the center of all this turmoil is the Knight called Deckiller, and the events happening around him. We never learn what his deal is either. We don’t spend very much time with him. But in a world where pretty much every single named character is plotting against someone, if only out of obligation, Deckiller is but one player among many. Most story arcs wrap up giving his perspective on events, so he is probably the most reliable source of information we have.

This is another major flaw. He is the closest this game comes to having a protagonist, but since we spend no time with him, learn nothing about his motives or goals or ambitions or the means by which he accomplishes his sometimes impressive feats. It is possible to do a character like this well, a character removed from the central focal point and yet still important overall, and such characters can be extremely interesting, but this only works if we are able to see how this person operates, how they think, how they work. Deckiller never says a word about how he does. Apparently we’re just supposed to be enthralled with how awesome he is. Loved by all. Unstoppable warrior. Master strategist. Cunning schemer. Did I forget anything?

Oh...right…



Deckiller is just too flat a character for us to accept this sort of behavior, and ultimately he just comes across as an unappealing character. Almost every other character is similarly flawed. And ultimately, this makes the story fall apart for me. Story events like betrayals and character deaths are not intrinsically engaging. They become engaging because of the emotional bond we have invested in these characters and their relationships with each other. If these characters have no relationship and never have any meaningful interactions outside of plot exposition then I won’t care when they stab each other in the back because there’s literally nothing there to care about.

Storyline 1.5/5
Considering this is a plot-focused game with an emphasis on political mind-games and lots and lots of backstabbing, you’d figure this story could almost not help but be entertaining. But most of the characters fell down on the job. So what does that leave us with?

Well, first the good. The story quickly dispenses of any sense of conventional morality or notions of right and wrong. From the moment you partake of a life or death training exercise using slaves dressed as enemy soldiers, you realize this is a world where good and evil are notions long since forgotten. There is only the various shades of gray pervading the amoral world of political ambition, and very few characters are depicted as truly good or evil, especially when almost no one is who they appear to be. Each nation is only interested in what is best for themselves and their people. This is high politics as it should be, so I’ll give the game some points here.

The setting, too, is fairly well-developed, with thought given to the origins and political circumstances of many key locations. Each nation has its own technology and goals and treaties and governments and thoughts about the other nations. In a way, the setting is the true main character of this game, in a way none of the actual characters could ever be.

For the first half of the game, the pace of the plot is breakneck, circumstances of entire wars change in minutes and within an hour, nothing you knew at the beginning of the game is even relevant anymore because so much has changed. Many times the story is interrupted by a narration telling us exactly what has transpired and how much has changed. But then something weird happens. We gain control of our second party, and everything plot related ceases entirely as we just crawl through dungeons for three hours. The characters do not talk to each other about anything but their next destination. A small sub-plot about pursuing enemy forces is dealt with as quickly as it appears. We occasionally get a cutscene showing the happenings elsewhere, but this never amounts to anything but boring discussions about political relationships or uselessly vague exposition about some as of yet unseen entities. I couldn’t find anyone to talk to except merchants and I couldn’t even explore the game’s setting by checking out cities because they were all just decorations on the world map. It’s almost like the game ran out of plot.

This is another flaw common in writing, especially in the fantasy genre, and one that is prevalent in many RPG Maker games. The characters are incapable of carrying a story on their own merits, so instead the game focuses more on the cool things that are happening in the world. A revolution is cool. A fight to the death in an arena is cool. Invasions are cool. And whenever things slow down, the plot throws more cool things at you. The problem is it requires increasingly bigger and cooler things to keep the player interested. New armies! Dragons! An even bigger army! I predict eventually there will be a nation with lasers and robots to keep up with the plot’s demand for more cool things.

I feel like this is a major problem, and a very sad one, because stories are about more than just a lot of cool things happening on screen, any more than political drama is about the politics and betrayal. Stories are about people, how they deal with the things that are happening around them, how it changes them, how they deal with or feel about being backstabbed or betrayed or having their country invaded. The characters in Carlsev Saga are merely puppets, empty shells to be lead around a plot.

Music and Sound 2.5/5
It’s a “who’s who” of famous RPG soundtracks mixed into this game. From Xenogears, Final Fantasy Tactics, Suikoden, chances are you’ll be recognizing a lot here. While these are great songs you’ll generally be seeing them used in exactly the same manner as they were originally used for. I feel like the developer was trying for an epic feel here, using songs he knew were good in order to create a specific effect, but when you rely on such well known music it makes the moment you create less your own, I think. Additionally, I also feel like a lot of songs were added because the creator liked them and wanted to use them somewhere, rather than because they were strictly necessary. This causes the music to jump around an awful lot.

Overall 2/5
I have mixed feelings about this project, since it had such a promising premise, and as I mentioned before, it feels like a shell of what it could have been. All the elements are in place, so to speak, the problem is not enough attention was paid to why these things are the elements in the first place. Honestly, this game isn’t bad, but neither is it exceptional in anyway. The political plot lacks any flavor, tension, emotion, or drama. It reminds me of high school students reading Romeo and Juliet, where they’re just going through the motions and none of them really care what’s happening. And if the characters don’t care, why should I?

Posts

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Deckiller
Just a random RMNer once again.
18122
I don't even know where to begin. Well, sorry you didn't like the game.
I'm a bit surprised the storyline score is so low...
Deckiller
Just a random RMNer once again.
18122
comment=40781
I'm a bit surprised the storyline score is so low...

I'm shocked. I know I went conservative in the second half of the game, but I guess he really didn't like it.

Oh well, to each their own. I'll take the constructive criticism and put it to good use...
Corfaisus
"It's frustrating because - as much as Corf is otherwise an irreedeemable person - his 2k/3 mapping is on point." ~ psy_wombats
6412
I disagree with most of what was said in the review.
I don't want go into anything long winded; I'm kinda tired.
But basically I thought the overall "quality" of the game was higher than you put it out to be.
Deckiller
Just a random RMNer once again.
18122
comment=40786
I disagree with most of what was said in the review.
I don't want go into anything long winded; I'm kinda tired.
But basically I thought the overall "quality" of the game was higher than you put it out to be.


I've been having a lengthy conversation with him via IM, and I generally agree with what he's saying about some of the characters, and I've already been planning on addressing some of these issues. I personally don't see how it warrants a 1.5/5 story rating or a 2/5 balance rating, but he's been a tough grader recently.
Solitayre
Circumstance penalty for being the bard.
18062
After talking with Deckiller I think a more adequate explanation for my reaction to this game is that it is really two different games, the first of which is quite decent with an interesting main, the second of which is not nearly as interesting. I may update parts of the review to reflect this.
Well, I certainly had a higher opinion of the combat, but I do agree that the second half had its share of superflous mandatory dungeons and underdeveloped characters, and that we never get to see the 'real' Deckiller when he's not explaining his master plan. It seems like the "develop the characters later" approach was not very favorably looked upon.
Deckiller
Just a random RMNer once again.
18122
comment=40822
Well, I certainly had a higher opinion of the combat, but I do agree that the second half had its share of superflous mandatory dungeons and underdeveloped characters, and that we never get to see the 'real' Deckiller when he's not explaining his master plan. It seems like the "develop the characters later" approach was not very favorably looked upon.

I think it's one of the downsides to having a trilogy of small games instead of one large, 40-hour adventure. I'll color what we have here (Soren, Krystle, Mari, and maybe some flashbacks), but there are limits to what I can explore and reveal in this installment. There definitely is room for improvement in that second half. I can work on what characters we have in this standalone arc.

Edit: Thanks again for all your constructive feedback.
TFT
WHOA wow wow. two tails? that is a sexy idea...
366
i like how all 4 or so other reviews give it like, a 4+ but this is a 2. another good job sol, you obviously know what you're talking about.
Deckiller
Just a random RMNer once again.
18122
comment=40860
i like how all 4 or so other reviews give it like, a 4+ but this is a 2. another good job sol, you obviously know what you're talking about.


You didn't care for the game for pretty much the same reasons?
comment=40824
comment=40822
Well, I certainly had a higher opinion of the combat, but I do agree that the second half had its share of superflous mandatory dungeons and underdeveloped characters, and that we never get to see the 'real' Deckiller when he's not explaining his master plan. It seems like the "develop the characters later" approach was not very favorably looked upon.
I think it's one of the downsides to having a trilogy of small games instead of one large, 40-hour adventure. I'll color what we have here (Soren, Krystle, Mari, and maybe some flashbacks), but there are limits to what I can explore and reveal in this installment. There definitely is room for improvement in that second half. I can work on what characters we have in this standalone arc.

Edit: Thanks again for all your constructive feedback.


I like taking things in small doses. I still need to finish Hero's Realm by the way... and I started that earlier than Carlsev D:

Hero's Realm is still a great game though ;)
Corfaisus
"It's frustrating because - as much as Corf is otherwise an irreedeemable person - his 2k/3 mapping is on point." ~ psy_wombats
6412
comment=40860
i like how all 4 or so other reviews give it like, a 4+ but this is a 2. another good job sol, you obviously know what you're talking about.

Sarcasm can be a beautiful thing if used artistically.

EDIT: I apologize, I re-read what was written and understand his stance now.
comment=40866
comment=40860
i like how all 4 or so other reviews give it like, a 4+ but this is a 2. another good job sol, you obviously know what you're talking about.
Sarcasm can be a beautiful thing if used artistically.


Yeah I also took it to be sarcastic.... could be wrong though.

I'm slowly trudging through this game at the moment, and the only big complaint that I have is the characters, like Soli said. So far, none of them are likable, and I keep hoping that will turn around eventually. I skipped the spoilers part so I'll have to keep playing and see.
Deckiller
Just a random RMNer once again.
18122
comment=40914
comment=40866
comment=40860
i like how all 4 or so other reviews give it like, a 4+ but this is a 2. another good job sol, you obviously know what you're talking about.
Sarcasm can be a beautiful thing if used artistically.
Yeah I also took it to be sarcastic.... could be wrong though.

I'm slowly trudging through this game at the moment, and the only big complaint that I have is the characters, like Soli said. So far, none of them are likable, and I keep hoping that will turn around eventually. I skipped the spoilers part so I'll have to keep playing and see.


Characters have been probably the most divisive part of the game. Some people like them, some people hate them. I think several of them could stand for more development, of course, but most people have not considered that a game-breaker. It's all about tastes, I guess.
Corfaisus
"It's frustrating because - as much as Corf is otherwise an irreedeemable person - his 2k/3 mapping is on point." ~ psy_wombats
6412
comment=40918
comment=40914
comment=40866
comment=40860
i like how all 4 or so other reviews give it like, a 4+ but this is a 2. another good job sol, you obviously know what you're talking about.
Sarcasm can be a beautiful thing if used artistically.
Yeah I also took it to be sarcastic.... could be wrong though.

I'm slowly trudging through this game at the moment, and the only big complaint that I have is the characters, like Soli said. So far, none of them are likable, and I keep hoping that will turn around eventually. I skipped the spoilers part so I'll have to keep playing and see.
Characters have been probably the most divisive part of the game. Some people like them, some people hate them. I think several of them could stand for more development, of course, but most people have not considered that a game-breaker. It's all about tastes, I guess.


The thing I found is that with all the backstabbing and plotting to further said backstabbing, I had a hard time figuring out who the good guys were, if there were any. The plot in itself was hard enough to understand, though I'm starting to get the feeling that it's just me.
Deckiller
Just a random RMNer once again.
18122
comment=40922
comment=40918
comment=40914
comment=40866
comment=40860
i like how all 4 or so other reviews give it like, a 4+ but this is a 2. another good job sol, you obviously know what you're talking about.
Sarcasm can be a beautiful thing if used artistically.
Yeah I also took it to be sarcastic.... could be wrong though.

I'm slowly trudging through this game at the moment, and the only big complaint that I have is the characters, like Soli said. So far, none of them are likable, and I keep hoping that will turn around eventually. I skipped the spoilers part so I'll have to keep playing and see.
Characters have been probably the most divisive part of the game. Some people like them, some people hate them. I think several of them could stand for more development, of course, but most people have not considered that a game-breaker. It's all about tastes, I guess.
The thing I found is that with all the backstabbing and plotting to further said backstabbing, I had a hard time figuring out who the good guys were, if there were any. The plot in itself was hard enough to understand, though I'm starting to get the feeling that it's just me.

I think that's part of the reason I didn't want to go overboard with characterization: there was already a lot going on, and I knew that the "long-term" protagonists would be getting plenty of development in episodes two and three.

There aren't really any good guys in this installment. The two characters at the end (you know who I mean) are going to end up being the protagonists for the series, but they have their flaws and baggage. Their characterization does not really begin until after everything they've done starts sinking in...but, as ARC said above, this "posthumous" or "act now, develop later" approach has received a mixed reaction. I think I just need to do a better job illuminating the characters and giving everyone more insight on the other characters that really have no "personal" side to them in this episode.

There isn't really a good excuse for not developing Soren and Krystle, or the second half of the game in general. If anything, I need to use the plot-light second half for characterization.
Deckiller
Just a random RMNer once again.
18122
I need to find the balance between shocking players with twists and giving the same players some sort of anchor for attachment and understanding. As it stands right now, it's a love-hate situation.
Sated
puking up frothing vitriolic sarcastic spittle
4064
A bullet-hell game gets 3+ stars and this gets 2? I refuse to take this seriously.

I am being ever so slightly flippant, so don't get your knickers in a twist...
Er, actually I think this review is pretty much spot on, though the 2 stars may be a bit harsh. My main issues were the characters. I honestly can't believe that people had good impressions of them. Deckiller, no offence, was a Mary Sue in all but gender and most characters have one personality point that is rammed down your throat over and over again. Roland at the start of the game being a fairly obvious example of this, with dialogue being variations of 'Complaining about the butter eh? That's very disloyal to our king and his wonderful expertise on dairy products. Perhaps a knife in the genitals would improve your wild opinions on the quality of butter?' I really think Deckiller shows a lot of talent and will probably make some great rpgs. However, this is not one of them.
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