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Ancient Magic: Bazoo! Mahou Sekai

Ancient Magic: Bazoo! Mahou Sekai

Ancient Magic: Bazoo! Mahou Sekai is a fairly unknown JRPG released only in Japan.  Whilst browsing the web, I happened to find a screenshot and was drawn right in.  It doesn’t really do anything new for the genre, and there aren’t any big, flashy special effects or 30-minute long summon spells, but what you have is an endearing adventure, likely to please any old-school RPG enthusiast.

GAMEPLAY

Yes, I’m talking about gameplay in an RPG.  Everyone seems to be so preoccupied with an RPG’s story, but gameplay is still important.  It doesn’t matter how good a story a game has if it’s something you can’t stand to play.  The game is on the slow side, but that’s to be expected.  Tell me the last Dragon Warrior/Quest game you blew through with its fast-paced battle system and lack of need to ever stop and grind.  I know that kind of game design is shunned in today’s gaming culture, but for those of us accustomed to a slower pace, it’s not really that big of a deal.  It does have a few things to expedite gameplay over RPGs of the Third Generation, but those who started with something newer will likely be bored.

OVERWORLD

Exploration is done fairly well; it implements a wonderful feature that many great RPGs have figured out: a dash button.  It sounds nitpicky, but when you’re running through the same town buying supplies yet again, a quickened pace can do wonders to alleviate tedium.  The dungeons are designed fairly well, too.  They’re complex, but not overly so, for the most part.  They provide just enough stimulation to keep you from getting bored without making it their mission to see that you become hopelessly lost.  There are even a few that have multiple paths to the end, each with their own advantages and disadvantages.

The overworld itself is uniquely implemented; at least, it’s done in a way that I have never seen before.  When you leave a town or dungeon, you have an overworld to explore, just like you’ve seen hundreds of times, but rather than having one big, cohesive overworld, you have regions.  Leaving a region shows a zoomed out world map upon which your characters automatically travel to the next.  At any point, you can reach into your inventory and pull out your own map, which looks just like it does when traveling from region to region.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t show the paths, so finding your way to any particular town or dungeon from far away can be confusing, especially if you haven’t been to the area in a while.  Most towns, though, have both ships and carriages that will take you to a predetermined location automatically, giving you the option to circumvent the whole thing.

Traveling from one region to another.

 Of course, the design is not without its faults.  There are quite a few secret passages and stairways to find, which can be problematic. Final Fantasy 4 did the same thing, but you could see them, most of the time, by their being in a different color from the walls.  Personally, I didn’t find it to be too big of a problem, since most of the places that have hidden staircases or doorways take place during a time when you have a character who will sniff them out for you, saying something like “There’s a hidden staircase here,” which makes them pretty hard to miss.  The other main flaw is that there are a few dungeons that are a bit convoluted, such as the ones with many doorways in the same room, all but one of which lead you back to the beginning of the dungeon.  These are few, but they can be frustrating and cumbersome.

I don’t know if she’s blind or not, but she finds stairways like nobody’s business.

BATTLE

The battle system is mostly the standard turn-based system you’ve seen in countless old RPGs, which is tried and true.  Sometimes lack of innovation isn’t so bad if the default is sufficient.  Ancient Magic does, however, have one new element: movement.  Now, it’s not like Final Fantasy Tactics or anything; the movement is entirely one-dimensional.  The enemies begin a certain distance from your party.  Giving the command to attack causes your party member to rush forward a certain distance.  If said party member reaches the enemy he or she will attack; if not, his or her turn will end there.  Now, while that may sound like a big game changer, keep in mind that once the gap is bridged, the element disappears completely for the remainder of the battle.  Also, your main character is primarily a magic user, and magic, along with bow attacks for the few characters who have them, can travel the entire length of the battlefield, regardless of what it might be.  So, while adding movement to a battle system in an RPG usually screws me over completely, because I’m more of a bulldozer than a strategist, here it seemed tacked on as an afterthought, so I didn’t find it terribly restrictive.  The only real problem is a certain brick wall boss at the end, who appears after a non-stop gauntlet of resource-draining bosses and gives you no chance to heal afterward.

Yeah; that’s the guy. It’s like he’s got some kind of ancient magic or something.

MAGIC

The magic system is pretty interesting, as well it should be if that’s what the game’s about.  There are eight schools of magic, each of which has eight spells.  You purchase scrolls from magic shops, which can either be used as an item to cast the spell, or can be used to teach you that spell permanently for a nominal fee.  While some schools are more useful than others, there is a lot of overlap.  For instance, the Elemental and Summoning schools are the predominant attack magic, but nearly every school has at least one attack spell, even when it’s counterintuitive to do so.  That would make sense were you relegated to just one school, or even two or three.  However, you can pick and mix as you like; you can even have something from each of the eight schools.

Bloat isn’t the biggest problem, though; what holds the system back is that you are limited to eighteen spells at a time.  Do the math; there are sixty-four spells, and you are forced to pick only eighteen out of them.  For the choice of spells, I didn’t expect to be able to have it all, but the amount to which you’re relegated is very limiting.  Most of the Level 8 spells are useful, and enemy weaknesses go by school, rather than elemental, so let’s say that’s 14 spells right there.  Okay, now the higher (and group) healing spells are ridiculously expensive, so you’ll want some lower-level ones to save MP for times when you have to fight 3 bosses in a row without a break – potent magic restoring items are extremely rare, so you can’t rely on them.  Even at unreachable levels, your MP doesn’t break the 300 barrier and the lowest-costing group heal is 25 MP.  For that reason, you’ll need to bring some lower spells; I’ll be stingy and say 2.  There’s nowhere to identify items to tell you what they do, and they’re not always intuitive, so you’ll need a spell for that, and since you have an attack spell from each school, you should have a spell to gauge enemy weaknesses so you know which one to use.  That’s 18, and now you don’t have a bunch of other spells you’ll likely need, such as something to dispel magic effects, and something to cure status ailments, which can cripple a party even late into the game.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m very glad that there was a limit – it cut my grinding time down a lot – but for a game that emphasizes magic, you should be able to have more than what they give you.

This is actually cut down quite a bit.

GRAPHICS

CHARACTER DESIGN

Now, when I give graphics a high score, I am never rating how realistic they look, but rather how pleasing they are to the eye.  Now, if you’ve read some of my other writings, you’ll probably be surprised to find that it was the aesthetics of this game that pulled me in.  They aren’t terribly colorful, nor are they even otherworldly.  What they have boatloads of, though, is charm.  What has turned me off to many RPGs of the modern era is the character design.  You either have some gritty-looking man-bear caked in dirt that looks like he hasn’t touched water in several months, or a chibi anime-style aesthetic that’s so overly saccharine, it could send you into a diabetic coma just by looking at it.  Character design can be cute or colorful, or even both, without looking like every anime that’s come out in the past 10 years.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m not down on anime, but I do think that its visuals are overly prolific in the genre these days.

Enough about what I don’t like, though.  This game perfectly walks the balance between the two polar opposites that have almost completely permeated today’s market.  I am well aware that this game was released in 1993, but I don’t understand why designers can’t look back to it for inspiration.  When I first began the game, I put my character together.  I selected a female, as I often do, and I figured that if I had to play a magic-user, a healer would best suit my playing style, so I went with that.  There’s no default name, as far as I am aware, so I went with what I’d name my own daughter if for some reason I’d totally lose my mind and decide to bring a child into this world of ours, and from the first moment I laid eyes on young Lydia, I was compelled to see her adventures through to their very end.  I know it sounds corny, but seeing that cute face with those little red lips and big blue eyes full of wonder put a faint warmth in that blackened sludge pump I call a heart.  Almost all of the characters have that certain sense of charm without being overly cutesy.  The monsters range from decent to cool, but nothing mind-blowing.

Don’t you just want to hug her?

ENVIRONMENTS

The environments were nice, too.  They weren’t colorful at all, save for a few areas near the end of the game, but, even to an utter chromophile like myself, copious amounts of color would have looked very out of place in the charming aesthetic of Ancient Magic.  Despite its trees having their leaves green and intact, it has this late autumn aesthetic that’s hard to describe without actually experiencing.  To me, there’s something very special about autumn, and this game really does a great job of capturing that.  You travel through plains, forests, caves, and deserts; you know, the usual fare, but there are some less common biomes as well, such as a wasteland with dead trees spotting the landscape and poisonous marshes.  This is one of the most realistic landscapes that I have ever enjoyed viewing, and that takes a lot, given my affinity for the surreal.

A nice, relaxing day in the countryside.

SCENARIO

STORY

The story itself is admittedly nothing special.  It’s not going to blow any minds, and probably won’t change too many lives.  What it is, though, is a heart-warming tale of a young lady’s journey into womanhood, or a young boy’s journey into manhood, should you choose the other gender.  It is a very romantic (in the literary sense; there is no love story) story about a 14-year-old who wants to follow in the footsteps of his or her father, a great wizard who died.  Once you are accepted into magic school, the story becomes fairly episodic, and seems to lack cohesion.  While the plot seems disjointed and appears to move slowly, everything is tied together in the end in a way that justifies the one-sided understanding of your characters.  The story is honest, too; there are no unnatural happy endings or love stories shoehorned in.  Horrible tragedies remain horrible tragedies, and there are many great lessons to be learned from the story.  In fact, after a certain incident, I felt like a criminal, though I was being praised as a hero.  While I don’t usually go for that sort of thing, it was nice to play an RPG where my main character doesn’t have to fall in love.  What I liked most is that the story never tried to be more than it really was.

CHARACTERS

The characters were all very well sculpted and represented a wide variety of personalities.  The main character wasn’t as bland as you might expect one with such a high level of customization to be.  This may strike you as foolishly sentimental, or spoony, if you prefer, but Lydia became like a daughter to me.  I watched her grow up right in front of my eyes, and she was this genuinely sweet, if naive, young woman who just wanted to do what’s right; a great aspiration figure.  Romal, your faithful companion and cousin, is a hotheaded knight with a strong sense of justice.  At first, you just wanted to smack him for being out of line, but over time, you came to understand that he, too, wanted to make the world a better place.  Across the land, you met many colorful characters, such as a gypsy who watched as her entire village was slaughtered and sold into slavery by bandits, a very intelligent and witty wolf man, and a backwards berserker from a small village out in the middle of nowhere, amongst others.  You meet a great number of people, and they all have distinct personalities that set them apart.

STYLE

I’m sure you’re already sick of hearing me talk about how endearing this game is by now, but that’s a large part of what makes this game so great.  As I’ve said, it maintains a good balance of charm and grit, so it never tips too far in either direction.  The characters all remain more or less consistent, but do grow subtly over time.  Many have internal conflicts that are never resolved.  There is a fair share of downs, but there were a few one-liners that were genuinely funny.  Yes, that rare concept that everyone tries to reach, but most fail to accomplish.  The game didn’t just throw in stupid puns or have people act like total spazzes just to try to get a laugh out of you, they wrote in clever jokes where they actually fit.  Now, there aren’t many of them; I’d say I laughed maybe three times during the course of the game, but what’s there is very clever.  I’m not fond of giving spoilers, but there is a great probability that this joke will be missed, so I will share it with you.  At one point in the game, you have your choice of party members; one of the ones I chose was the aforementioned wolf man.  My party was in disguise, and we encountered a guard, whom we tried to coerce into letting us pass.  He roared, “You’re not one of us!  You smell like an animal!”  Without missing a beat, my wolf man responded, “Well, yes.”  Humor should flow; that makes it a great deal funnier.

This is how humor is done.

SOUND

I’m dedicating this section entirely to music, since I have nothing to say about the sound effects and there is no voice acting.  The music is, strangely enough, what I usually hate in a game: a largely orchestral score.  Granted, none of it was so soft that it fades into the background, like it does in a movie, but that doesn’t make it any less orchestral.  Very little, if any, of the music in the game really gets your blood pumping.  Despite that, I liked it.  See, a really fast tempo wouldn’t work here; just like with the graphics, the music was built around the atmosphere of the game, and the music fits really well.  As I write this, the music that plays in town is what’s on the radio station in my head, and I’m not reaching for the dial.

OVERALL: 8/10

There is a lesson to be learned here: context is everything.  Context is what keeps an otherwise humorous anachronism of a mythological creature doing a dance from modern times from being funny in World of Warcraft: the MMO world’s largest pop culture dumping ground.  Independently of each other, most of this game’s elements would drive me nuts, causing me to pass it off as another uninspired Dragon Warrior clone, but they all come together and make an unforgettable experience that feels like home, though I grew up in the woods, so that might just be me.  If you’re a fan of old-school RPGs, and can live without all of the glitz and grit of modern gaming, there’s a good chance that you’ll enjoy this, even if not as thoroughly as I did.

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