A major problem faced by smartphones today is app clutter. With millions of apps out there, it can be difficult to sort through all the half-hearted efforts and find something really great. In my case, I sought after a good JRPG that wasn’t merely a port or remake of an existing game. What I ended up with at the end of my quest was Chaos Rings.
So I know that this game has been out for a couple of years and has already spawned a sequel and prequel, but I still wanted to make this review because, if you’re like me, you’d prefer to play a series from the start even if the sequel claims superiority over its predecessor. And indeed, even though Chaos Rings II offers a few enhancements, Chaos Rings the first is still a very worthy addition to your app collection. I also wanted to take a bit of a look backwards because the latest offering from developer Square Enix, Drakerider, simply fails to be a worthy smartphone JRPG in my opinion. So without further ado, let’s take a look.
In Chaos Rings you will play as one character out of several master warriors who are chosen to be spirited away to an unknown place and forced to compete in a kill-or-be killed contest run by supernatural beings and known as the Ark Arena. The rules are simple: everyone must fight in assigned pairs, no one can refuse to compete, and no one may fight outside of the arena. Fail to do any of it, and as the game demonstrates early on, the consequence is immediate death. Come out victorious, on the other hand, and the reward is immortality. Of course there’s more to the Ark Arena than just battles, and everyone must also perform other tasks to prepare themselves for the main events…if they can survive that long.
These kinds of stories are always interesting what for the dynamic character relationships they create–not all the pairs are happy with who they’ve been assigned to, allowing that aspect of the story to really shine. In typical Square Enix JRPG fashion, you learn about the characters’ various backstories as you go, and what you get is decently well developed. With the possible exception of Piu-Piu the vendor, none of the characters feel annoying or overdone in personality–a rare but refreshing change from many JRPGs, even those made by the same company.
The story is developed and paced for smartphone gaming, though, so don’t expect it to compete with the likes of JRPG favorites like Final Fantasy VII in depth or in length. However, despite platform-based challenges, the story does manage to be sufficiently deep and well executed in its roughly 30 hours of possible gameplay.
Of course one of the most important aspects of any JRPG is its battle system, and Chaos Rings does very well in this regard. The system here is both unique and yet familiar, requiring little time to learn new mechanics and instead applying existing ones in new ways. The game controls almost identically to the Final Fantasy III remake for smartphones, which works well enough. A virtual analog stick for movement appears when you touch the screen, and a simple tap will trigger an action when a “!” bubble is present over your character. The battle menu can be navigated either through on-screen commands or by dragging and tapping to select enemies as they stand on the battlefield.
The thing that saves Chaos Rings from being a traditional turn-based RPG is twofold: first, you have a new Genes system, and second is the Pair system the game’s party is based on as a whole.
Genes can be obtained by fighting various creatures with unique sets of abilities. Upon defeating them, a set of creature genes is added to the inventory. Each character in the party can then equip up to four sets of genes to add these creatures’ abilities to their own arsenal. But as you might have guessed, using obtained abilities drains a bit of MP.
The Pair system is basically what it sounds like; both characters in the party (for there are only two) can perform an action simultaneously to increase that action’s effect, or they can sacrifice quality for quantity and each execute a move of their own. Whichever you choose, just bear in mind that you can receive damage the same way you deal it, meaning both characters have the potential to be injured by a single attack when in pair mode, but this is a nearly impossible occurrence when going solo.
To make up for so few characters being in the party, Square Enix has given players the choice between the substories of four different pairs–effectively eight characters total. Personally I found Escher and Musiea to be by far the most interesting couple to play (as I believe was the developers’ intention), but having choice is always nice, especially in a party that is severely limited compared to most games in the genre, and especially since every couple competing in the arena is so vastly different that gaining an alternative perspective yeilds a lot of further insight into the story. Access to the story’s final boss serves as the main incentive to complete all four storylines, which each take six or seven hours to complete.
Though not a Final Fantasy title, Chaos Rings’ connection with that series’ creators comes through quite clearly. From the Moogle-like Piu-Piu to the burst of feathers that descend upon someone being revived in-battle (with Vín Brûlée, not Phoenix Down), the similarities to Final Fantasy make it clear who was behind the game’s development. I consider this a good thing, as it successfully bridges the gap between the staple JRPG series and more unique, standalone JRPGs.
Aside from battles and certain key moments, the game’s backgrounds are entirely pre-rendered, giving it a great classic feel. I found it mildly disappointing, however, that these backgrounds are not animated at all. For the most part this won’t be noticeable, as most areas wouldn’t require animation anyway, but when you come upon a rushing river capped by a waterfall, it would be nice to see at least a few frames of simple animation. I’m not sure why Square Enix elected not to animate these areas, since neither memory nor processing power would be an issue–it seems most likely that they simply didn’t want to take the time to do it, which is disappointing.
In regards to the 3D elements of the game, what’s there is certainly not going to showcase the power of modern smartphones, but it is plenty well detailed to be enjoyable. If the mobile version of Final Fantasy III was a Nintendo DS graphics equivalent, Chaos Rings is the same to the Sony PSP. Nothing mindblowing, but nothing distractingly bad, either.
Of all points in last July’s Drakerider, the music was the sorest one for me. It was nothing short of awful. Thankfully, Chaos Rings does not suffer from the same issue. In fact it’s hard to find anything to complain about at all. Every piece harkens back to the classics without ever directly copying any of them. It is all original but fitting in such a good way that you feel like you’ve heard it all before. Now, I wouldn’t say that all of Chaos Rings’ OST is as memorable as some other RPGs, but for a mobile app it is surprisingly good, and as with several console RPGs, you’ll likely end up pausing in a few locations just to hear certain tracks a while longer. At any rate, Square Enix was compelled to release the soundtrack in iTunes by popular demand, so that should give you some idea that what we’ve got here is good.
The steep $12.99 price point might be a turn-off for some, but bear in mind you’re getting an RPG good enough to pull you away from the console for a while.
That being said, Chaos Rings as a whole is not perfect, and additionally the lack of English voices will disappoint some (others that go out of their way to get English subtitles with Japanese voices will obviously not take issue), but overall the game is one of the best JRPG experiences original to smartphones I have yet played, far exceeding certain newer titles like the aforementioned Drakerider.
If you’re a fan of everything the JRPG genre stands for and want to have a stellar example of it with you on the go, look no further than Chaos Rings. Just be prepared to get hooked into buying the entire series after starting the first game!