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What is this 'Black Galax'?

  • Elder71
  • 10/29/2014 08:04 AM
  • 1873 views
Pre-ramble

This is going to be a tough review to write. On paper, I’ve got everything I should need – notes on all the obvious factors (game play, story, graphics, music) – but in practise, I’m absent the answer to one very important question: how did Black Galax: Revert keep me playing? Compared to this game, everything else I’ve reviewed lives in one of two very polarised good/bad camps. BG:R is a bizarre production that, to my mind anyway, defies the regular reviewing criteria.


For starters…

…it’s very meta; unrestrained demolition of the fourth wall occurs regularly. There’s a citizen pacing around the main city (amongst a handful of copy-pasted policemen who recite, verbatim, the same monologue as their colleagues) who openly asks the question: “Is is the fate of every NPC to wander aimlessly?” What I can only assume is an attempt at playful, self referential humour falls short of making BG:R comedic, though, and instead adds to the game’s weird composite of themes and styles. Ultimately, I'm not sure what it adds, if anything. It's a matter of perspective, really.

If the wall breaking is integral to the design in some way, that'd be interesting. But as a base stylistic choice it seems tacked on, a humour-gimmick that contributes nothing except momentary lapses in immersion.

BG:R is, in blurry-edged parts, a standard RPG Maker game. RTP-style sprites (from that Japanese online generator we’re all probably familiar with? LINK), big, glisteny-eyed anime faces, an array of dichotomous background music that is at times sombre and lilting, at times jauntily upbeat. We’ll come back to these elements later, but for now what stands out is the way that the game’s essential, core pieces are framed.


Jargon.

The writing in BG:R suffers from the familiar problems of poor grammar and typing errors and reads like an iffy translation. I won’t pad this review with examples, but those who dabble in RPG Maker-made projects often (I can only speak for native English-speaking audiences) are likely to know what I mean. The often awkward phrasing that gives away the designer’s less than optimal grasp of English, however, seems almost to fit within this colourful and buoyant world. It’s not perfect, certainly, but for the most part the flaws in the writing simply add a strange extra touch of charm and character.

What compounds this none-problem and pushes it towards being overbearing is the game’s dependence on jargon and on huge amounts of text. The former stands as a minor misapplication of BG:R’s substantial lore, which is delivered in the form of highlighted/coloured keywords spliced into dialogue and comes a little too thick and fast to be fully absorbed. The latter is apparently the crutch that the plot relies on for mobility. We’re frequently treated to info-dumps, sometimes apropos of nothing, sometimes where it makes sense, but all-in-all these are pretty heavy and there are points where BG:R seems to be threatening us with becoming an e-book.

Exposition is divided amongst keywords, stage directions embedded in asterisk that are difficult to distinguish from dialogue, E-Diary/quest journal entries, info-dumps and the ‘brilliant but poorly informed protagonist who must always be asking obvious questions and getting chastised for it by his peers’ trope. It’s immediately obvious that RPG Maker’s ‘Wait’ event command has been used very sparingly here, so this information is presented to us at a rapid pace, as though proceedings are being propelled by hyperactivity and caffeine abuse. Cutscenes are acted out in a single breath, punctuation often sacrificed for the sake of this damaging brevity, and BG:R could be well served by being allowed to inhale once in a while as its cutscenes and set-pieces unfold.


Yet more on jargon.

I’d argue that it’s very telling when, after two hours of playing, I can’t quite relate the significance of the aforementioned jargon.

The history of the game world (a futuristic academy-city masquerades as a location on real life Earth) is structured around the old RPG classic “magic begets technology”. In one of its long chunks of text, BG:R makes an admirable attempt to legitimise and rationalise this chosen framework with comparisons to the way that Alchemy evolved into Chemistry and Astrology into Astronomy. Which is fine and good, of course, and reveals the designer’s thoughtful approach to their project.

But points that anchor BG:R to the Earth history we know are very infrequent, distracted from by the presence of strong and separate fantasy elements. Connecting bridges (such as references to Babylon, Britain and China) are quickly collapsed again as soon as our cast of school children are sent (in place of an obviously present but conveniently inactive police force) to deal with bandits and local super villains. A commendable attempt has been made by the maker to reinterpret real history for use in their plot and even though it comes together, it isn’t exactly ‘whole’ when it does.

I digress.
In my opinion, if renaming something adds nothing new, it isn’t worth doing. Nobody reads some new fangled term in the place of the word 'magic' and assumes that the wheel has been reinvented. It's all unnecessary fluff, in my opinion, to try and disguise a simple, default (some, including myself, say 'classic') battle system by overloading it with tons of jargon - the Groucho glasses of game design.

In BG:R we have “Gamer Techs”, “Vecreas” and “Systema Spetnaz”. While the motive for these renamings is clear, i.e. to match the terminology to the game world, in this instance it is overkill. The game’s skills, though fancifully named, are simple carbon copies of classic RPG magic attacks and sword skills. Not a game breaker on its own, but when three characters have three supposedly different skill sets and each do exactly the same thing (deal elemental damage, do some healing) there really is no need to complicate things by giving each its own title. “Techs” would cover the lore’s interpretation of RPG ‘magic’ succinctly and would go towards reinforcing the central concepts rather than diluting and spreading them out.


Battling.

There’s little to report here other than what I outlined above.

RPG Maker’s default first person system is used, though complemented by some neat visual effects like coloured pop-up damage and enemy HP bars. Despite being prompted to save often, stock up on medicinal supplies and pay attention to status boosts and ailments, I wasn’t challenged until I faced the bandit leader (no spoilers) and could comfortably rely on spamming enemies with my strongest magic attacks until they fizzled and vanished.

It may be that BG:R stands as an example of how to put the standard RPG Maker battle system to its best use.

Despite the presence of a tired old ‘attack, get attacked, heal, repeat’ formula and the generally misfired relevance of ‘states’, the battles here are fun. They have a rapid fire tempo and don’t make the mistake of trying to simulate difficulty by padding the enemies’ HP bras with zeros. Said enemies can deal a lot of damage, but not enough to make the battles a constant scrabble to heal. Healing items are affordable and while they are packaged with side effect warnings (such as “May cause drowsiness”) I never once noticed these side effects having any appreciable impact on my strategy. The characters (seemed to) level up quickly, which offered an ever present sense of reward for winning fights and gave me an inexplicable (sorry, it just is) feeling of getting stronger rather than arbitrarily leveling alongside the enemies.

On a dourer note:

One of my bugbears is empty skill windows. It’s a minor gripe I admit, but it bothers me when a character has immediate access to a skill set but none of its skills. It got to be a little bit irritating trying to remember which entries on each character’s command list actually contained any abilities or attacks. This is rectified later on as new attacks and spells are learned, but it doesn’t make the characters feel more complete by loading them out with unoccupied skill types from the very beginning.


Another focal point – music.

Again, there’s little more to say here that I haven’t already mentioned. The tone of the selected soundtrack isn’t congruous and the music shifts jarringly between its range of composers. I’d argue that each piece is individually well chosen, but there’s too much disparity between styles. I’m a big proponent of well placed music in RPGs and, in the end, my goal in writing this review is to pinpoint exactly what it is about Black Galax that gives it such a strong, vibrant and even surreal appeal. Perhaps I can put part of it down to the soundtrack, which at the very least does a good job of creating a unique vibe. The track that plays whilst Damien and co are exploring the main city gets a little grating after a while, but that could eventually be said of any looped music.


Story.

I arrive late at the plot because it is one of BG:R’s less striking features. The plot is centred around a Garden-come-magic academy, an all powerful artefact, its associated legend and a basic line-up of androgynous, overtly anime-type heroes. I say androgynous because, aside from the wide eyes and extravagantly spiked hair featured on the entire cast, one of the characters (Vincent) is unintentionally presented as a cross dresser. I’m not poking fun and I understand the field of limited resources, but Vincent (whose masculinity is fairly strongly implied by his name…) is represented by an obviously feminine sprite. It’s another element that adds to Black Galax’s surreal undertone, wherein things don’t seem entirely right and odd little details repeatedly beg the question: was that included on purpose?

Like, for example, the little game play tutorial that Damien plays through as we first meet him. Black Galax flirts with a ‘matrix’ type concept, though in early stages it’s a plot driver rather than a plot point. It was during this wee tutorial section that I encountered BG:R’s most bizarre moment.

We meet Erik.


Erik the default protagonist to be discovered on opening the actors tab of any new RPG Maker project. Damien interacts with him. Erik complains about his name being misspelled. He relates the tale of his tortured soul, doomed to be eternally reincarnated as the hero who defeats the dark lord. I couldn’t decide if the following irony, where Erik (or Eric, as he apparently prefers) laments the overuse of clichés in RPGs, was intentional. I’m happy to leave that question subject to your individual conclusions.


Anyhow.

There is always a sense of direction. Part aided by the E-Diary and part reliant on it for clarity, the plot succeeds in maintaining momentum without holding the player’s hand. It makes a point of telling you in various ways where to go next and the presence of a few linear maps make seeking out these locations easy and enjoyable.

I mentioned that plot is one of BG:R’s less striking features because, ultimately, it feels superficial. Character development is a little too reliant on our familiarity with their archetypes, most notably in the case of Isabel, a haughty bossy boots at once adored and feared by her male peers in true, matriarchal anime character fashion. For easy exposition purposes she’s a know-it-all; star pupil at the ubiquitous magic academy and revered by the student council despite her aforementioned (and wearisome) ease-of-outrage. As has also been mentioned, the protagonist ‘Damien’ (who is sometimes actually referred to as such by the cast…) is at an extremely exclusive elite school, but is a bumbling know-nothing where it serves the game’s purposes to have things explained at length. He’s also cowardly, bursting with sentiments like “What? Me? Fight that?” and “I’m too weak!” and “I don’t wanna die!!” but switches split-personality-style from this attitude to one of limitless bravado and courage wherever the story halfheartedly calls for it.

In summary of the plot…

The whole ‘teenage school goers called upon to enact dangerous quests because magic’ could, in itself, be a basis for a serious plot that explores themes of maturity and maybe even (in a darker world than this) child abuse. But instead, BG:R repeats the trope’s most favoured use as an arbitrary plot device to flimsily explain why a safe and familiar cast are out in the world doing RPG things. Balamb Garden was at least open about its policy of raising child soldiers, but BG:R’s academy excludes students who don’t meet the grade, so it’s to be assumed that there was a choice to go there made at some point by its students’ parents that’s never looked into. It's hard to know if the plot is deliberately minimal and streamlined or if it just comes across that way despite wishing to do more.


And so, in actual summary…

Nothing about the presentation, be it the audio or the graphics, quite fits together. But this is not necessarily a bad thing.

Custom images used as backing for menu screens are a nice touch. The maps aren’t stellar, but suffice in providing a ‘sense of place’. Static enemy battlers and the first person battle view are present reminders that this is an RPG Maker game, but it otherwise stands out, for better or worse, as unique amongst the titles I’ve reviewed thus far.

I mean this as high praise, but with an overhaul Black Galax: Revert could be an ideal RPG for children or younger players. Its dalliances with profanity struck me as out of place in a game that has no pretentions towards mature themes. It’s colourful, it’s eccentric, it’s supremely playable because of its simplicity. The characters are 2D (literally and figuratively), appearing as little more than the expected memes of RPG cliché, but that makes them ideal templates for introducing younger players to a genre whose roots now lie mostly in the minds of an older generation.

(The only problem with that, of course, is that the classics are thought of as such because they have already been done and done well. I'm not suggesting that groundbreaking originality is always essential by any means, but BG:R is not original except maybe in its endearing weirdness.)

Amatuer/independent games that strive to do too much set themselves up for failure without masses of work, testing and refining. Aside from its convoluted lore, a fragmented and clustered something about resurrecting gods with the help of ancient artefacts and jewels, Black Galax: Revert has its modest ambitions clearly in check and under control, which is to the designer’s credit. The execution is lacking in polish, but the game’s oddities give it the hint of a fever dream that was so central, I think, to my enjoyment.

Now I’m conflicted on the subject of scoring.

Poor spelling and grammar are one thing and partly excusable, but typos show a lack of thoroughness in proofing. The combat is solid and entertaining; despite being burdened by a load of extra gimmicks that sadly don’t seem to have any influence on how fights play out at all. Maps are good and colourful, though the main city is a bit lifeless because half of the NPCs have nothing to say or reference things that happened ages ago in the game.

It’s a strange one, because the game’s strengths and the game’s flaws are tugging me in opposite directions rather than suggesting a single, overall score. In the end an average of 3/5 is pretty obvious and fair, with the addendum that you should try this excellent game if for no other reason than to see if it's as bizarre and fun for you as it was for me. Flaws all told, Black Galax is definitely greater than the sum of its parts and a clear level of enthusiasm from its maker has, if only to an extent, paid off.

Posts

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Ah my first review (For this game)! It's always a heart throbbing experience for me to read through a review; Especially if it is the first. XD

Yes, I'll admit that my command of the English Language is rather poor with various grammar mistakes that I didn't even realise were one until I was told. Same with 'Stimulation', until recently, I did not know there was a difference between 'Stimulation' & 'Simulation' which made me look like an idiot in front of my friends when they were play testing it XD.

I'll try my best to proofread to the best of my abilities, if not find someone who has a better command in the language than me.

author=review
BG:R is a bizarre production that, to my mind anyway, defies the regular reviewing criteria.

I'll take that as a compliment ;)

author=review
We’re frequently treated to info-dumps, sometimes apropos of nothing, sometimes where it makes sense, but all-in-all these are pretty heavy and there are points where BG:R seems to be threatening us with becoming an e-book.

Believe it or not, that was my original intention, which is why I classified it as a Visual Novel RPG hybrid. - Which may have been an error on my part given that I'm poor in English.

author=review
But points that anchor BG:R to the Earth history we know are very infrequent, distracted from by the presence of strong and separate fantasy elements.

Point noted. But given the resource as well as the plot, I decided to aim for a 'Modern-Fantasy' theme during the process of world building.

author=review
“Techs” would cover the lore’s interpretation of RPG ‘magic’ succinctly and would go towards reinforcing the central concepts rather than diluting and spreading them out.

It that was really the case... (Which isn't revealed in the plot yet. So no fault in your part for the review) I wouldn't bother with the attempt to try to differentiate them.

author=Review
is represented by an obviously feminine sprite. It’s another element that adds to Black Galax’s surreal undertone, wherein things don’t seem entirely right and odd little details repeatedly beg the question: was that included on purpose?

Once I finish this game, you can judge for yourself :D.

author=Review
Black Galax flirts with a ‘matrix’ type concept,

I don't understand.

author=Review
Character development is a little too reliant on our familiarity with their archetypes

That's my habit, I usually start out my characters with a familiar archetype/Cliche before diving into their 'Darker' / in-depth personality as well as their 'real and sometimes scary abilities'.
It works very well especially when it comes to plot twists or character twists. - Or at least, that's my take from some of the RPG games I've played.

author=Review
but switches split-personality-style from this attitude to one of limitless bravado and courage wherever the story halfheartedly calls for it.

Point noted. I will try to make it flow more smoothly.

author=Review
Part aided by the E-Diary and part reliant on it for clarity, the plot succeeds in maintaining momentum without holding the player’s hand.

I was actually worried about this, but good to see that it worked out :D

author=Review
The whole ‘teenage school goers called upon to enact dangerous quests because magic’ could, in itself, be a basis for a serious plot that explores themes of maturity and maybe even (in a darker world than this) child abuse

Yes, you are quite spot on with this game 'being a basis' for a serious plot. The plot of this game is partly influenced by my controversial thoughts on society (Thus the mirroring of Earth) as well as some controversial themes like 'Child Abuse', 'Feminism' and a lot more.

The other half would come from the anime that I watch - Mainly Hayate no Gotoku, again known for not being serious with their plot.

So with that, thank you for taking the time to analyse my game and write a review. I appreciate it and I will take note of some of the issues that you pointed out. Though I hope you will explain to me what is the "Matrix concept". I'm rather curious.

Finally...

author=Review
I couldn’t decide if the following irony, where Erik (or Eric, as he apparently prefers) laments the overuse of clichés in RPGs, was intentional. I’m happy to leave that question subject to your individual conclusions.

Me too...
The 'matrix' is the concept of a virtual world often used in the cyberpunk genre, like a digital simulation. (The 'Matrix' movie trilogy, William Gibson's novel: 'neuromancer')

Ultimately, I really enjoyed this game and I didn't want to say anything bad. It was tough to review because so many of the little issues were what added character and style.
Haha thanks for the clarification and praise! :D
I will do my best to improve it based on some of your suggestions.
No problem at all. Looking forward to updates.
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