Party like it's 1991.
Why Nostalgia is named such is not entirely clear, though if I had to venture a guess, the most sensible choice would be that it perfectly describes the game’s foundational strategy: to provide a traditional, textbook jRPG design that principally reconstructs the experiences we all cherish from twenty years ago. In that regard, it certainly succeeds; but is success based on regression truly a triumph?
Nostalgia’s refusal to embrace the evolution of the role-playing genre is both its gimmick and its greatest weakness. It’s practically paint-by-numbers RPG design, with the same basic narrative, sense of progression, and character roles you’ve come to know time and time again. You’re a group of kids who stumble into a situation that is ultimately many times greater than anything imaginable, and, as usual, it’s up to this particular group to save the world from impending doom. The dim fate of the world, in turn, hinges upon several magical objects—in this case, tablets—that a single special girl can control, and thus, as you might expect, it’s up to you to protect her and acquire these tablets. If it sounds familiar, it’s because it’s just like every other Japanese RPG you’ve ever played.
But don’t let that discourage you just yet. Before we approach these comparisons with more force, let’s back up a bit and examine just how Nostalgia gets the job done. From the beginning, the most impressive aspect of the package is the presentation: visually, the game is among the most stunning DS titles to date, and the music is melodic and catchy, harkening (once again) back to the days where harmony and ambience barely stood a chance in chiptune form. The entire game is presented in 3-D, much like the two recent DS Final Fantasy remakes that the development team was also responsible for. It’s gloriously evident through every complex vertical dungeon and beautifully-rendered town environment that the game engine has been polished and optimized to a ridiculous extent. Even simply flying around the world in your airship is a sight to behold; this game truly taxes the hardware.
Looking beyond aesthetic design, the other major presentational component of every RPG is its story. You know from above that Nostalgia’s is standard fare, but there are some interesting variations on the theme at work as well. For starters, the game takes place on Earth in an alternate 19th-century reality, where airships and adventure are the rule. Your quest will take you through many major cities and landmarks, such as London, Tokyo, and Mount Fuji. It’s a bit surreal to fly across bodies of land and water resembling that of our modern-day world, and it’s cool to be able to visit the areas of different true-to-life cultures and then unlock their secrets (in that cheesy National Treasure kind of way).
The instigating factor of this quest of yours is the disappearance of your father, Gilbert Brown, who is well known as perhaps the world’s greatest adventurer. Sporting fedora and satchel (unmistakably Indiana Jones), along with the requisite undying sense of adventure and courage, Gilbert is quite the role model indeed. So when he goes missing in the midst of a mission, it’s up to his son, Edward, to pick up where he left off and follow the trail. This career change for the young Edward ends up landing him smack dab in the middle of a monumentally important (and equally dangerous) adventure against a brooding threat known only as the Cabal. This terrifying cult is up to no good, and it’s up to Edward and his diverse gang of allies to foil their evil plans.
Basic is right
Right from the outset at your home in London, you’ll receive your transportation: an airship, of course (it’s actually your father’s). Similar to Skies of Arcadia, all travel takes place by air; you can’t even hoof it if you want to—and why would you? Of course, that doesn’t exempt you from battles in the overworld. The entire time you’re flying around, you’re subject to random battles (we’ll come back to this in a bit). As the game progresses, you’ll also develop a choice of altitudes—and you’ll even encounter different enemies at different heights.
There are four active controllable members of your party at all times, and, like just about everything else, they follow the time-tested traditional RPG template. Characters like Edward (the knight/swordsman), Pad (his firearm-wielding buddy), Melody (the black mage), and Fiona (the white mage). Personalities are also equally cookie-cutter, with the brash and unswervingly optimistic leader, the wisecracking sidekick, and the damsel-in-distress white mage whose powers are sought by the bad guys. These sorts of colorful personalities are appreciated, but they’re hardly fresh and unique. Throughout the game you will also find a fifth party member tagging along with you, but their actions are limited to the same attack or technique each turn, and they’re controlled entirely by the CPU.
In terms of gameplay, things are comparably ordinary and predictable. The battles are standard turn-based RPG fare, and as previously mentioned, they are indeed random—meaning, of course, that you’re unable to see your enemies before they attack you. The battle system is just what you’ve come to expect—nothing more, nothing less. While there are no Active Time Battles, an “Order” indicator which details when each combatant will be taking their turn is a nice touch.
Beyond the usual HP/MP system, you’ll also earn new skills via graphical skill trees using party-shared skill points (SP) gained along with your EXP. Each character has a modest repertoire of these unlockable skills, each of which is specific to that particular character. Equipment-wise, you’ll find four standard item slots and two accessory/relic slots (called “Gadgets”—you have to have them appraised for 1,000 Gold before they’re usable).
In addition to the land-based battles, Nostalgia’s most innovative (if you could call it that) modification of the formula is the airship battles. Again like in Skies of Arcadia, it’s possible to encounter enemies while flying around in your airship. And, further extending the similarities, in this game, the airship itself takes part in those battles.
During an airship battle, each character still takes his or her turn as usual. However, the commands have changed: instead of fighting as usual, party members assume positions at different weapon stations on board the ship. For instance, Edward can ram enemies with the ship’s bow, while Melody mans (womans?) the cannon. Each character can learn new skills (again, via SP) that are specific to aerial battle as well. Enemies can appear on different sides of the ship, providing an additional complicating factor; for instance, some techniques can hit multiple enemies, but only if they’re grouped together on the same side of the ship. There are even different status effects (on fire, electrocuted) for the ship, as well as weather variables (snow/sandstorm affect accuracy, rain affects attack power, and so on). Like each party member, the ship can be outfitted with upgrades as well to each of its weapons and its hull. It’s a cool element of depth that easily tops the (short) list of novelties that Nostalgia provides.
Adventure, Treasure, and Tedium
Nostalgia’s design seeks to exalt exploration and adventure through such inclusions as the Adventurers Assocation. This organization is a foundational part of 19th-century culture in the game, holding headquarters in seven of the world’s largest cities and providing all manner of resources—quests, gadget appraisals, and general assistance—to anyone who belongs to it. (Of course, Edward’s father, Gilbert, is a world-renowned member, considered to be one of the greatest alive.) These Adventurers Association headquarters will supply you with optional quests throughout your adventure which, upon completion, carry rewards (of course). You’ll also gain a special type of experience called Adventurer Points (ADP) which improve your rank as you undertake more quests.
Similarly, fifty special landmarks called World Treasures—basically equivalent to Skies of Arcadia’s Discoveries—are scattered across the globe, and in order to uncover them, you have to fly your airship perfectly over them (they’re invisible until they’re located). Clues as to where these are located can be found by speaking with local townspeople, making the expedition a bit of a geographic puzzle. Once discovered, you can report them to an individual in London for additional rewards.
Unfortunately, while all this adventure sounds fabulous, the game’s design works against these goals as much as it attempts to support them. As was the case with Skies of Arcadia (but even more so with Nostalgia), the biggest obstacle in the formula—and I realize that I’ll probably be lambasted for this by purists—is the random battles.
We’ve come a long way since the RPG was invented, and while the original blueprint was certainly appealing in its own right, twenty-plus years has seen some welcomed refinements, as well. Perhaps the most widely embraced of all of these is the gradual phasing-out of the traditional random battles system—a necessity of early role-playing games that almost certainly spawned as a result of the sheer inability to animate moving enemies throughout the overworld of early games in the genre. To a degree, random battles can indeed still work (see Pokémon, in which it’s possible to capture your enemies… making battles as much a reward as they are a threat).
However, the right circumstances must apply, and in that sense, Nostalgia simply doesn’t fit the bill. In spite of its intentional glorification of all things classic RPG, it doesn’t provide an environment conducive to the implementation of a random battle system. The game’s main storyline forces you to retread areas you’ve already traversed a number of times—and that doesn’t even take into account the optional Adventurers Association quests, which usually add two or three additional visits to the tally. Those quests are rarely more than boring scavenger hunts (finding lost rings/pendants, defeating X number of monsters in previously-completed dungeon), meaning that unless you have the patience of a saint (and an abundance of spare time), you’ll give up on them in no time.
Meanwhile, while the World Treasures are a fun addition, locating them can be time-consuming, and maneuvering the ship precisely (as is required during such searches) can be a tricky feat. Random battles, of course, simply make it even harder to enjoy these elements of the game—to the extent, in fact, that most gamers will probably choose to simply ignore them. It isn’t much fun completing scavenger hunts of any type when you’re constantly punished for your explorative efforts with inescapable battle sequences—sometimes with the same old enemies you fought hours earlier in the game.
Skies of Final Fantasia
You might have noticed that I’ve made several references to Skies of Arcadia throughout this review. That’s because this game feels extremely similar in a number of ways. Apart from the obvious fact that a significant portion of the gameplay is centered on aerial travel and airship battles, the game bears an uncanny resemblance in other areas as well. Notably, it’s centered on the same core of adventurism and exploratory spirit as Skies. The attitude is quite similar in all its lightheartedness—though Skies’ storyline is considerably more riveting overall. And the two games even feature similar characters; Skies’ Fina is—get this—in many ways comparable to Nostalgia’s Fiona… coincidence?
While Skies is certainly Nostalgia’s closest comparison, in truth, the game relates to a great many classic RPGs, thanks primarily to its strict adherence to the conventional recipe. However, as we’ve addressed already, this is not necessarily a good thing. While it’ll certainly bring back memories of simpler times, Nostalgia will also quickly remind you of just how far role-playing games have come after all these years as well… and it will leave you scratching your head at its regression. Yes, it’s a solid RPG—a beautiful, melodic, expansive one, at that—but if you’re expecting something entirely new, you might want to check your expectations at the shrink wrap.