US Release Date: September 2, 2008
System: Xbox 360
ESRB Rating: Teen
Price: $56.99 at Amazon.com
Infinite Undiscovery is a Japanese action JRPG brought to you by Square Enix (the company that brings us Final Fantasy and thus the reigning god of JRPGs) and tri-Ace (the developer behind a number of well-received series including Star Ocean and Valkyrie Profile), which is why I picked it up in the first place. The game promises an engaging storyline, beautiful graphics, a seamless real-time battle system that encourages strategic thinking, a vast number of characters, and other goodies. From the blurb, the fantastic cover art, and the absolutely stunning animation that plays over the opening screen, it’s very exciting. This, you think as you pick up your controller, is going to be AWESOME.
And then you start to play.
And all your hopes and dreams for the next 30-40 hours of your game-playing life come tumbling down.
[ad#longpost]One caveat that you should know going in to this review: I usually make it a rule not to review games I haven’t finished, but I hated this game so much I literally could not finish it. I got about eight hours in before I just couldn’t take it anymore. (Ironically, the only other game that I have felt the same about was Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, a title which, incidentally, was ALSO developed by tri-Ace and published by Square. Hmmm.)
I’ve read other comments on this game where people say, “Oh, it starts out slow, but you really have to play past the first 5 hours” (or 8 hours, or 10 hours) “and then it gets really good!” And it seems to be getting decent reviews, sixes and sevens, by the usual suspects, so perhaps that’s true.
My take on this is, if I have to spend 5-10 hours performing unpleasant activities? That’s called WORK. As in, the opposite of play. Which is what games are theoretically for. If you can’t hook me in the first hour or two, O Video Game Industry, that’s a major design flaw. And I’m more forgiving than most. I played 8 hours of this game — 8 hours of my life that I will never get back — because I was sure that as soon as I got through THIS very next stage, it would get fun. Never happened.
Not that I’m bitter, or anything.
I’m going to start with the most instantly annoying thing about this game, which is that the font is incredibly tiny. If you are playing on a giant-ass HDTV, you’d probably be able to read it. I was playing on a normal TV — a TV which, granted, is only regular-D, and which is about five years old, but which was quite nice when I bought it and which is still in perfect working order and upon which all the other games I’ve played on it look fine. Not so Infinite Undiscovery. The text is so tiny that it is literally impossible to read from normal play distance, and anytime I needed to do menu work, such as putting on equipment, using an item, creating an item, etc., I had to sit on the floor about two feet from the screen. And squint. On top of that, a fair number of the cut scenes don’t have voiceovers, just captions — and the captions go away on their own rather than waiting politely for you to push a button to let it know that you’re done reading them. So basically, I had only the vaguest idea of what was happening half the time, because I couldn’t read it.
Also, whenever a new game element or control was introduced, they give you a few splash screens of instructions, all written in that same impossibly minuscule text. And instead of naming the buttons (“right trigger”, “back button”) they use little icons of the ones they mean, which are invariably too tiny and blurry to read even when you’re up on top of the screen. So each new control element is basically a guessing game until you figure out that “dark gray blotch” is a trigger button and “lighter gray sort-of-rectangle” is a shoulder button. And there are a LOT of control elements (more on that in the gameplay section.) There is NO NEED FOR THIS. If I wanted to play a game while having only a vague idea what was going on and how to play, I would just get a Japanese console on eBay and play untranslated imports. I suppose this is my punishment for not having hopped on the HD bandwagon yet — but you know, some of us have mortgages, O Video Game Industry, and do you really want us not to buy ANY current-gen games until we’ve scraped together the cash to upgrade? I thought not. So make your damn fonts legible. Or at least give me a text size option in the menu. ANYTHING. I just want to READ IT. IS THAT SO MUCH TO ASK?
Okay. Deep breaths.
Text size aside, Infinite Undiscovery is actually a very good-looking game. The graphics are pretty, the characters avoid the uncanny valley, the character animations are fluid and realistic. See? I can be nice. Sword slashes and special attacks are also animated with big fancy swaths of light. Unfortunately, in a heated battle, the screen can fill up with so many attack effect animations that you can’t see what you’re doing, and the camera tends to be touchy, so it’s hard to adjust it for maximum visibility. Also, all those effects can cause the battles to get a little laggy. I often found myself whapping away at a dimly seen figure only to realize it’s one of my party members, and the real enemy was standing behind me the whole time, hitting me on the head with a club or something. Battle visibility is not great, is what I’m saying.
The musical soundtrack is fine — nothing too annoying, but nothing really stands out, either. The voice acting is a mixed bag. Your protagonist, Capell, has a Luke-Skywalker-power-converters sort of whininess that I’m sure is just a mask for his inner hero or whatever, but it’s pretty annoying to hear him yell “cut it out!” every time an enemy knocks him over, which is fairly often in some stages. (Like the one with the dragon. More on that later.) The localization people seem to have fallen down on the job a bit, because some of the translations are fairly awkward, the dubbing is not great, and there are a goodly number of cut scenes that have moving lips and were obviously intended to have dialogue but are silently captioned (did I mention that the caption font is tiny and unreadable?) instead, for no readily apparent reason. In fact, sometimes a captioned scene is right before or after a voiced scene of equal seeming significance, or even BETWEEN two voiced scenes. Did they run through their voiceover budget too soon? Did they lose a stack of scripts until the last minute, or something? This is just way too sloppy for a current-gen game from a top-tier company.
There has been some effort made to use directional sound to add a level of strategy to the game, which works okay before a battle starts, I guess, but once you start fighting all the characters are grunting and yelling out catchphrases or the names of their special attacks, so fights become pretty cacophonous.
Infinite Infuriation (I’ve got a million of these)
Infinite Undiscovery is an action RPG, so it places a lot of emphasis on how the combat is seamlessly integrated into the game, and it’s so innovative, blah blah. Basically, it plays a lot like Everquest. You walk around places, you see enemies, you fight the enemies, and you have party members who fight near you and occasionally heal you if you ask for help. Sadly, the game developers were not content with this, and decided that they needed to gussy up the basic EQ hack’n’slash gameplay. So they added combos, and special attacks, and “connecting” attacks (where you are able to briefly control another character in your party), and basically made the whole thing fussy and overworked. Due to the aforementioned tiny text, I was never more than halfway sure how I was supposed to do a certain move, so every battle ended up a button-mashing muddle. It was worse than playing Smash Brothers Brawl, because at least in that game I got to see Princess Toadstool kick ass with a giant mushroom or whatever. To make matters worse, it’s basically impossible to use healing items during combat, because the game continues in realtime while your menu is open, and so while you’re scrolling through the practically illegible menus trying to figure out where your Red Berry Potions are, your enemy is beating you into a bloody pulp.
During the course of the game you only control the protagonist, Capell, although a large number of people drop in and out of your party with great frequency. You are allowed to set them on one of five AI modes, such as “Conserve MP” or “Focus”. For the most part, the AI is decently okay, with some caveats. I will be the first to admit that I am not a fan of the AI-controlled RPG party members, ever since Kingdom Hearts, where thrice-damned Goofy and Donald kept waltzing out into the line of fire and getting themselves killed and wasting their magic points and getting in my way and… well. Suffice it to say, I’m not a fan of that. However, the AI here is mostly OK. It’s just that when the AI falls down on the job it’s usually with tragic results. In one level in particular, you have to walk a certain path in order to avoid setting off traps in the floor. The traps cause damage and then bring a gargoyle to life. So you thread your way carefully past the trap, go a few steps down the hall, and then behind you you hear an explosion and lots of screaming as your AI companions step on the trap and are killed by the gargoyle. And then the gargoyle comes after you, and since you can’t open up the item menu to get any revive items and your party is dead and can’t heal you, you are quickly finished off yourself.
The level design is intensely frustrating. You start in prison, and have to escape; rather than a boss battle, you have one of those timed chase sequences where you have to flee from a giant enemy who is way too strong for you to fight. It’s quite difficult, especially because you have to use the clunky “connect” system to connect to your archer party member and shoot explosive barrels and she’s hellishly hard to aim, but once you’ve gotten through it you think that now things will settle down to the real gameplay. Not at all. You are dumped into a dark forest sporadically lit with torches. At first the goal is to learn to hide in the darkness and sneak around, which is cool as far as it goes; however, outside the circles of torchlight the forest is SO dark that you literally can’t tell the difference between a path you can go down and a cliff blocking your way. You have to bumble around by trial and error looking for the path. And there’s no option to adjust the brightness of the screen. (I couldn’t adjust the brightness of my TV, because the cat had knocked the remote way under the couch and we hadn’t found it yet. But the brightness it was on had been just fine for like five other games that same week.) Anyway, just when you’re getting into the swing of things, the same boss you just ran away from finds you and you have to do the same thing, only in the forest, in the complete dark. It’s incredibly frustrating, and very hard, not in the fun challenging way that makes you stretch to improve, but in a stupid way, because you’re getting your ass handed to you by an ogre because the screen is too dark for you to be able to see where to run.
Most of the locations in the game are huge but sparse, with multiple paths leading off them in all directions. This gets very frustrating because the only direction you are given is something like, “go east.” And there are like twelve different paths that go east. There is a minimap, but you have to reveal it in absurdly tiny patches — it’s not enough to be on the same screen as an area, you have to literally walk over it to add it to the map — AND there is no goal indicator. So you end up in a situation where you’re in the middle of a giant field, and you’re carrying a wounded party member in your arms so you can’t fight, and a giant dragon is shooting fireballs at you, and when you get hit with a fireball it knocks you over and you take so long to get up that it usually hits you again, and you are supposed to run for it, but all you were told was that you were to go “east.” I literally died four times in a row before I finally gave up in disgust, found a walkthrough on the Internet, and learned where the right path was. And things like that happen ALL THE TIME in this game.
As for fun and value… this game is not worth the $60 price tag. It’s long on style and short on substance from the title on down. (I mean, what IS that? Undiscovery isn’t even a real word! So the title would mean… Infinite… um, hiding stuff? My only guess is that it’s a poor translation of something that is totally badass in Japanese.) And the story… well, again, I missed half of it. There are some aristocratic bad guys who are trying to chain up the moon. Yes, the moon. Apparently this gives them Powers of some kind, but disturbs the Natural Order (ya think?) so that now monsters are eating the peasants. So there’s a ragtag resistance (I know you’re shocked) led by a great hero (you don’t say!) and they all go around trying to cut the chains. That are binding the moon. For EVIL. There’s a safeword joke in there somewhere. Anyway, your character Capell is a traveling flautist who Just Happens to be an exact double of the great hero. Aaaaand… I think we all know where things go from there.
Now, I’m not one to insist that the plot of every RPG has to make perfect sense. I loved the Shadow Hearts series, and the writers of those games were obviously on CRACK. (Remember the sidequest where you have to collect male pinup art to trade to the gay tailor to get him to make new dresses for your attack marionette?) I’m really enjoying Eternal Sonata (review to come!), which is an RPG about FrÃ©dÃ©ric Chopin, for crying out loud. But this one just fails to move me. Also, there are some points in the game that are just terrible. For example: in one part of the game, you meet a woman with twin children (probably supposed to be about ten), whose husband has vanished in a dungeon. She asks you to take the twins as your guides, and help her husband. Well, of course when you get through the dungeon you find that the bad guys have killed the husband. You find his corpse, in fact, and get to watch a little cut scene where the children sob over it. Charming. So when you return bearing the sad news, the mother of course wants to comfort and protect her traumatized children while they all mourn their lost husband and father, right? Wrong. The mother asks you to TAKE THE KIDS WITH YOU TO JOIN THE RESISTANCE. Because it’s what their father would have wanted them to do. That is — dare I say it? Infinite Bad Parenting. It makes you kind of wish that the moon-chain-RPG-planet had, you know, a DFCS or something.
But of course the kids have to join your party, because how else would you get the requisite annoying kid characters that JRPGs are required by statute to contain?
Should you buy Infinite Undiscovery? Um, Haven’t you been listening this whole time? FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, NO! SAVE YOURSELF!
Oh, all right. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Infinite Undiscovery is available for purchase wherever Xbox 360 games are sold. The fact that there are a fair number of people willing to give this game good reviews on the Internet leads me to believe that some people might be able to slog through the interminable opening bits to find the mythical Fun Part. If you would like to try, I strongly suggest that you rent the thing before you drop the cash. Supposedly the whole plotline only takes 20-30 hours to play, so if you’re an experienced RPG gamer, you could probably knock it out in a weekend.
If you DO manage to enjoy it, or if you are a gaming masochist, beating the game on Normal difficulty unlocks Hard difficulty, and beating the game on Hard unlocks an Even Harder difficulty, which I think is called “Infinite” or “Celestial” or something like that. Eventually you can play a bonus dungeon, and if you beat the hardest boss on the hardest level you get a super-special achievement for it. There may be some level of replay value in trying for that. If, you know, you’re into that sort of thing.
I’ve given this game one coffee cup out of five because even though I hated it, it was at least pretty, and it seemed like somehow, somewhere, there was an outside possibility that in an alternate universe it would have been a really enjoyable game. And there weren’t any really heinous technical glitches like getting stuck in walls or having a character suddenly refuse to turn any way but left. So, you know, that one coffee cup is like giving out participation awards at Field Day in elementary school, but there you are.
Note to Square Enix and tri-Ace:
I might have liked this game significantly more if I had been able to read the text and therefore understand the instructions and plot. If you would care to send me a large HDTV and another copy of the game (the copy I reviewed is on its way back to GameFly even as we speak), I promise to play through the whole thing and review it again. I don’t promise to like it, but I will give it another chance. I’m nothing if not fair.