Video Game Archaeology 3: Tsugunai: Atonement

Tsugunai: Atonement is probably one of newest games that will be covered here on Video Game Archaeology. The goal here is to explore forgotten, old games and Tsugunai only barely qualifies as old. Ten years was my intended cut off point and Tsugunai is not quite there. However, Tsugunai meets the other criteria, that the game be forgotten or at least not well known, no question. Even though it is only from the last console generation, Tsugunai: Atonement seems to have been well and truly forgotten.

Developed by Cattle Call, Tsugunai was released for the Playstation 2 on November 29, 2001. Cattle Call’s claim to fame, such as it is, is that they are responsible for the PS2 Arc the Lad games, Twilight of Spirits and End of Darkness. Twilight of Spirits, at least, has something of a following, but like Tsugunai, neither was particularly well received. The only other game they seem to have made is a Lilo and Stitch game for the DS in 2009. Tsugunai was published by everyone’s favorite niche RPG publisher Atlus. The quality of Atlus’s localizations received a noticeable bump in the early aught, but unfortunately, Tsugunai is very much of the old Atlus. That is not to say it is particularly bad, just not up to the exemplary quality I’ve grown accustomed to from Atlus.

Conceptually, Tsugunai has a lot going for it. The player controls a young Raven (Mercenary) named Reise. Due to his actions at the start of the game, he is cursed and has his spirit separated from his body by angry Gods. In order to earn forgiveness from the Gods and free himself from the curse, Reise must possess various people and help them to solve their problems. The game takes place in a seaside village, and its surrounding areas, with each problem solved causing changes to the village and opening up new quests and people to possess. Some of these are just the usual game triggers; finish the mission and a new person spontaneously comes to town, etc. Some, however, are the actual, genuine consequences of the player’s actions, resulting in a world that feels somewhat alive, if small. Though I didn’t reach the end, and I’m sure the stakes rise, I also liked the intimate nature of the quests. While the player is often doing the usual JRPG stuff, the reasons for doing so are often more personal. If the game could have fully realized its concepts, it could have been a truly great game.

Of the 35 quests in the game a third or so of them are helping characters you only possess once or twice, quests that don’t leave the village and feature no combat. These ones generally more greatly affect the status quo of the village. All of the “real” quests, the plot relevant ones that actually feature combat, have the player possessing one of four characters. They are: Fisela, the daughter of a fisherman, who has conflict with her father and often has to sail on her missions, Ifem, an indebted young Raven who does things for villagers to repay the money he owes, Ashgo, a klutzy monk whose quests often have deal with requests from the monastery and Raffer, an ex-guardsman with amnesia. They all have different equipment and a different special attack, but Reise is the one that levels up, so other than for story consideration they aren’t that important from a gameplay perspective. All quests are meant for a specific character, so it’s not like there is any choice over which one to use.

The game falters when it comes to the combat. Since the player only ever controls one character, the player’s party is only whoever Reise is currently possessing. I’m not sure that I’ve ever played an RPG with single character turn-based battles that was not extremely limited, and Tsugunai is no exception. (To be fair the only one I can think of is Dragon Warrior) Cattle Call did try to liven it up at least, but the battle system is still limited and simple. The player has the usual JRPG battle options — fight, item, magic, etc. — as well as a gauge that is very similar to Final Fantasy VII’s limit break. The true attempt at innovation is the involved defense system. By pushing one of the face buttons on the controller at the right time, you can perform one of four defensive maneuvers. X is a simple block that lessens damage taken quite a bit. The square button does a block that stops less damage but fills the limit gauge. Circle is a back step to use against breath attacks and the like. Last of all and most importantly, is the counter, which is done with triangle. It is the most important because the player will be using it against most attacks just to keep the battles from lasting forever. The timing is occasionally difficult, but it keeps the battles somewhat involved, though nothing as tiresome as Legend of Dragoon or Shadow Hearts could be.

Then there are the enemies. Many of the problems come from the enemies. First, there aren’t very many. In the slightly more than half the game I played I saw about 10 different enemy types, repeated constantly. And tiresomely. Second, there are too many enemies. While the player only has one character, the enemies come in waves. The battles are often 3 on 1. Then there is the fact that the enemies have tons of HP. It takes at least three attacks to kill most enemies. This means that many battle last 9 or more rounds if the player is not perfectly using the counter block. It makes most of the quest tedious slogs that they didn’t have to be.

While the game is weak in the play department and the graphics don’t look too good these days, there is one part of the game that is absolutely terrific. The soundtrack. It is composed by Yasunori Mitsuda and it sounds like leftover track from his Chrono Cross soundtrack. No matter your thoughts on Chrono Cross, (I love it), the music from that game is possibly the best from any game. The music in Tsugunai is almost as good. It is absolutely terrific.

Tsugunai: Atonement is not a great game. It is too simple and flawed to be anything but niche. While there is something interesting in the concept, the execution is not quite as good as it could have been. It is a lot of work to enjoy this game, but it is different enough to be somewhat hard to hate. I’m not sure this game deserves to be dug up and remembered. I can’t recommend anyone search it out to play, but I do recommend people take a listen to the phenomenal soundtrack.

See you next month.

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