It's been a while since I had played an RPG game. In the late 90s/early 00s it was pretty much all I played before taking a break from games. But since I got my Xbox in late 06 and became a reborn die hard gamer, I think Mass Effect is the only one I have completed, while also dabbling in Oblivion (and finally completing Final Fantasy VII on the PS1 - !!!). So I jumped at the chance to review Lux Pain, as it was an RPG for the DS, which was the perfect combination for my stint at jury duty (in which I would spend nearly three hours of the day sitting around waiting for court to resume).
Before I get to the meat of the review, I want to get something out of the way - this is not a game in the traditional sense. It's more of an interactive graphic novel; I estimate that nearly 90% of the game is simply reading conversations between the dozens of characters that populate the city where the game takes place. "Side Quests" - an RPG staple - boil down to talking to people that are elsewhere before continuing the main story (i.e. if you are supposed to go to the hospital, go everywhere else first and see what people are up to). While lengthy cut-scenes are a staple of RPGs, it's usually a pretty even balance between talk and action, and that is not the case here.
Luckily, the story that you will spend so much time reading is a pretty interesting one. Seems that there have been an inordinate number of suicides among younger folks, all of whom attend or have ties to the Kisaragi school. So your character poses as a new student in order to investigate. He has psychic powers, and can read anyone's thoughts once he extracts a "Shinen" (a sort of worm) from them using his mind (read: stylus and DS touch screen). As with all RPG stories, it's not as straight forward as it seems, and it's not too long before you realize the scope of the situation and how far-reaching it is. I was reminded of the Persona games on more than one occasion, not bad company to keep with (not to mention an example of the rarest of games: the horror RPG).
The nice thing about having such an in-depth story is that you will actually care about the characters. So many games today are so focused on action and showing off their graphics that they forget to make the characters memorable, and then when they die you won't really give a crap. I look at Gears of War 2 as a recent example: they bring in the brother of a guy who died in the first game, but damned if I can remember who the guy was. But here, when a major character dies about 1/3 of the way through the (roughly) 20 hr game, you will actually feel kind of sad about their departure. Likewise, when someone turns out to be a villain, you will more than likely feel guilty for not figuring it out sooner.
The gameplay elements are pretty narrow in scope. Basically, you are either searching for Shinen (use the stylus to "erase" part of the screen and uncover the worm underneath), or fighting monsters called Silent. These are, obviously, more exciting than erasing part of a screen, but can also be somewhat frustrating as well. There are three different types of battle (actually four if you count the rare ones that combine two of the existing types), all with their pros and cons. The one that is particularly grueling is the 2nd type, in which the monster puts up a little shield of sorts. In order to get rid of the shield and land an attack, you need to repeatedly tap the stylus on the shield until it breaks, and then slash away at the monster's now weakened spot. However, the shields don't break easily, and it's often that by the time you break the shield and begin your attack, the weak spot will disappear entirely, forcing you to start the process over again.
Worse, though, is that the game never explains how to do this or offers any sort of tutorial. In all my years of gaming, I can't think of too many other games in which reading the instruction manual is a requirement for understanding how to approach any of the gameplay elements. You pop in Halo, you know how to shoot and how to cover. But here, good luck understanding that you're supposed to "imprint a Shinen" or whatever just based on what's on screen.
Another weak spot of the game is the translation. Being a Japanese game originally, you can expect a few odd grammatical goofs or maybe a "there" that should be a "their", but Lux Pain's translation goes far beyond that. Words are just completely spelled wrong (taht?), apostrophes are thrown in at random (" gonna' " comes up a lot), and words are abbreviated or split hyphenated without any regard to common usage or syllable breaks (at one point, they literally split the word "clear" on a line, so one line ends in "C-" and the next begins "lear"). Worse, there is occasional voiceover, which is not only random (on more than one occasion, you will hear the voice for one side of a conversation, but not the other), but also often doesn't say the same thing that is on the screen. Some are minor and not really a concern (i.e. the text will say "Hi how are you?" and the voiceover will say "Hey, how are you doing?"), but other times the meaning of what is being said and what is written on the screen is completely different. It seems the voiceover is slightly more accurate and makes more sense, but the VO only accounts for about 5% (if that) of the total text in the game. Presentation is pretty important, and I wish Killaware had taken more care in translating the game - especially one so heavy in text.
One part of the presentation that works well is the music. There are a few different themes, and yeah during long conversations you might wish to mute it, but it's a good score nonetheless, and the voice acting is good as well. They've also done a good job with the character design. There are about two dozen important characters, and you will deal with most of them every day, in addition to about as many minor ones. All of their names are pretty similar (for example, in the span of an hour you will meet Ryo, Rui, and Yui), but everyone has their distinct personality and look. You will know who is being spoken about even when they're not around, which is a problem for some games, particularly overcrowded RPGs. The different locations are also unique from one another; you only see an interior and exterior for each location, but I bet after a few hours you'd be able to tell where you were simply from an unlabeled still from the game.
They've also managed to round out the game in a unique, gameworld-logical way. Rather than subject you to more conversations, you can also visit an internet cafe and read a messageboard about what is happening around town and how people feel about certain game events. You can also check your own personal email and watch a daily news broadcast for additional "fleshing out" information. Unless I am forgetting something, I am pretty sure you can go through the entire game without ever using any of this stuff, but it makes it feel more complete, and also breaks up the occasional monotony of talking to people around your school. As with all RPGs, some of the conversations are wholly superfluous (there's one 10 minute segment in a hospital where everyone reminisces about stuff that has nothing to do with the plot), so it's nice to take a break when there aren't any fights in the near future. As the game goes on, you fight more and more Silents, but it's still primarily conversing with everyone.
Ultimately, it's an ideal game for a long car ride or daily commute. The story is interesting, the characters are colorful, and the gameplay is fairly simple (again, once you read the manual). You can save anywhere (after a conversation is done), and you don't have to worry about getting killed if someone distracts you. The game is broken into 19-21 "episodes" (it depends on how you play through certain events), which run anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour or so, and each episode begins with a recap of what is going on, which is always appreciated. The translation errors and occasionally long-winded conversations (it's a few hours in before you fight your first Silent) may turn some off, but for everyone else, it's a story worth exploring.
What say you?