Chantelise: A Tale of Two Sisters review
Play This Game Or Your Shins Get It
Carpe Fulgar scored a hit when they choose to localize Recettear for English speaking audiences, giving us a taste of what the indie developers of Japan can do when they put their minds to it. With that in mind it seemed natural to raid EasyGameStation's catalogue a second time for a followup. That game is Chantelise, an action RPG that technically was created before Recettear. While the game lacks the special kind of hook the previous release had, you can expect good things from them.
Chantelise uses the same kind of sprite and 3D environment mix. All the levels in the game are rendered in 3D and so are some of the enemies while many other elements, such as characters and monsters, are done in 2D sprite style with various forms to account for camera angles. This kind of trick isn't exactly new but it's rarely done to this degree and it strikes me as a little strange. A lot of it has to do with the characters not being in 3D and now being a lot closer to the action than we were before so the differences become a lot more apparent.
That's not to say it is bad by any means. Character designs are wonderful, especially for main characters such as the titular Chante and Elise, wearing the kinds of fanciful garments one would expect of a fantasy adventurer. The enemy designs, while somewhat crude by today's standards, hold a fair amount of variation and charm too as you fight everything from the typical blobs to shielded mushrooms. Some of the special effects look cool too, like a twister tearing through enemies or a foe finding themselves encased in a block of ice. Dialogue sequences are handled through 2D character artwork appearing onscreen, changing between a number of emotional display artworks as needed, which isn't on the level of a full on cutscene but still manages to deliver everything nicely.
The music selection is well suited to the cheery charm of the game and I found it pleasant to listen to in the background as I explored the depths of whatever dungeon I happened to be in at the time. Of particular note would be the boss battle music, a track very distinctive that manages to reinforce the idea of a brutal battle very well.
Voice clips are retained from the Japanese game. For the most part, these occur while you're playing either as battle cries from either sister or cries of pain if you happen to get too friendly with the killer fish trying to bite you. I would have liked to hear a bit more of this during storyline sequences though but what we get is pretty nice all the same.
Unfortunately, the storyline is a rather weak point in the game. The overall plot is how Chante was turned into a fairy by a witch and now the sisters are searching for a way to turn her back. As the story progresses they find out that things aren't even that simple and a grander quest is unravelling before them. In terms of simply moving gameplay along it works fine but it's hard to care quite as much about this story as I did in games like Recettear. It feels a bit too formulaic to truly be engaging.
That said, there has been a lot of effort to make the cast appeal to the audience. You can't help but love the dynamic between the blunt hotheaded older sister Chante and the calmer docile younger sister Elise. Mix in the roles of the protective shopkeeper Aira and the fortune teller Elma trying to find her own answers and you have a small but nevertheless likeable cast. There isn't quite as much humour invoked in the dialogue as the last game but from what there is you can't help but smile at things such as Chante's fascination in solving problems by kicking shins.
This game is an action RPG where players direct Chante and Elise through a variety of monster infested dungeons. Elise is a master swordswoman who can slash enemies to pieces at close range. Options are mostly limited to a simple 3 strike ground combo and a jump attack, although you can also get access to various charge based attacks if you obtain and equip specific elemental crystals. For the most part though it's the former two and despite being basic these are enough combined with dashing around to work well.
Where Chantelise differs itself is the magic system. Each sword slash has a chance to drop a magic gem and more can be found by smashing up the environment like trees or grass. Instead of a magic meter your spells are instead fueled by these gems you can pick up. Each element also grants access to different sets of spells that are accessed by stacking gems as you charge a spell. The Lv1 homing water spell becomes a Lv2 ice blast when two water gems are stacked. Alternatively mixing different element gems will boost the effect of the initial element spell. At first you can only combine two gems but as you progress this amount will increase and so will your collection of accessible spells. It's a clever system that gives you a lot more options for combat.
What also works a treat is how generous the game is with these gems. In most cases I would be fairly tentative in using spells so as to conserve my magic meter, but this seemed largely needless in Chantelise so I found myself having lots of fun unleashing a variety of spells. The game does set a limit of carrying six gems at any given time and Chante will use the gems in the order of most recently collected with no option to rearrange them once picked up. On the one hand, this encourages some strategic thinking so you don't ruin gem combinations, but this can mean having to run back and forth a little in some areas to maximize the use of dropped gems.
Chante and Elise explore random dungeon floors.
Combat is hindered slightly by the camera and lock-on systems. The camera isn't too bad, in that it does at least let you swivel it around to get a good view and typically will stay facing a direction once you've set it there. It's just that it tends to be relatively close to Elise which can make it hard to see threats coming from the camera's direction until it's too late. The other niggle is with the lock-on system. Functionally it's good up to a point, where a targetting circle appears around the enemy you have locked on and the camera endeavours to keep them in your sights. But the problem stems from what the game tries to target, as on quite a few occasions I found myself locked onto something I wasn't trying to and given the large size of some of the enemy mobs you can find yourself losing a lot of time trying to switch the target to the intended one. This is especially bad in boss battles where mook enemies litter the place too, such as the first and fourth bosses. Being bosses that you can target multiple body parts of, it can be frustrating trying to switch from the body to an arm and find yourself staring at one of the slimes instead.
When you're not going on the attack Elise has a few other moves available to her. There's a simple jumping mechanic that, combined with some solid platforming layouts, is floaty enough to be enjoyable. It's helped by the fact that if Elise does miss a jump and falls into the void (or lava or whatever else) then the worst that happens is reappearing back at the area entrance minus a small amount of health. There's also the dash step, letting Elise quickly move to dodge attacks, which seems fairly insignificant until you go up against the first boss. From then on it becomes an invaluable technique.
Each dungeon typically consists of a number of areas culminating in a boss arena. Each time the goal is to defeat all the monsters in the given area in order to unlock the path to the next area. To test your combat skill there are quite a few enemy types to deal with. The game will start off easy, throwing basic mooks like slimes and caterpillars that require little thought to clear out. As you progress the enemies become more tricky to deal with, like enemies that explode upon death, those that require magic to be the killing blow or phantoms that are only vulnerable part of the time. These threats are introduced at a steady pace as you progress so as to not overwhelm the player, which keeps things interesting as you play. Enemies also come after you in groups, adding to a satisfying challenge as you need to figure out how to cope with one set of enemies while worrying about whether something is going to smack into you as you attack.
Bosses take things to a bigger extreme, going the route of pattern recognition and requiring specific strategies to take on. The difficulty here lies mostly in figuring out what to do and then going about doing it. With these enemies delivering a range of experiences like a giant earthen golem and a fire infused crab these are excellent experiences.
Well, once you stop dying to them, and you will die in this game. While certainly not the most challenging thing to leave Japan, Chantelise can still be rather difficult to take on, especially your first time through as you have to figure out how to approach each situation. Bossess especially will tear you apart as you try to work out the trick to them. Fortunately, a game over isn't as penalising as it is in other games. All that happens is that you're sent back to the town and you still get to keep all the loot you collected along the way. On the downside, if you want to try again and progress the story you'll need to trek back through the dungeon from the entrance up to where you died. Any gates opened up remain open so you can feasibly just run through but all enemies respawn so it's not as straightforward as simply having as checkpoint in each area.
There is the option of a practice mode for each dungeon where you can instantly jump to any area you've already reached and play it as much as you want. It's not possible to progress the story with this though, but say you died against a boss then this gives you as many chances to figure it out as you want without having to run the entire dungeon gauntlet again. As a bonus, any loot collected still gets added to your collection so it's a great way to get used to challenging areas.
While the goal of each area is to eliminate every monster to open the gate to the next location, it would be pretty boring if that was all there was to these dungeons. The level layouts themselves have been crafted with such care and attention as to be interesting to explore. Once past the more basic ones like the natural path and hall, you get to deal with more interesting setups like climbing along branches to reach upper platforms or dealing with rolling boulders as you fight monsters. It's proved to be a lot of fun just checking out what each area holds and seeing what secrets are hiding around the corner.
Which brings us nicely onto the secret treasures. While there are a couple of chests dotted around in plain sight, every area you visit also has a secret treasure chest hidden away somewhere. Each of these chests have their own hidden objective that must be completed before it'll appear. At first these objectives might seem really vague until you just start thinking about doing the kinds of things you might do for fun that has nothing to do with story progression. Do you feel like crossing a water themed level by sticking only to the land and lily pads? Or maybe you feel like showing each of the rocks in a forest who's boss. Or maybe there's a pot sitting out on its own out of place that is just asking to be smashed. Try any or all of them and you might find chests popping up. If you're still stuck there is a priest in town who will provide hints but at the cost of reducing your maximum health. As well as providing the player with plentiful of useful items to help with the adventure they also serve as an excellent incentive to play through past levels again. It's also handy that you can collect these even during practice runs.
Speaking of items, this is another areas where Chantelise changes things from the traditional. Unlike other RPGs, Elise doesn't actually gain experience or levels. Instead her stats are governed entirely through what items she has equipped, which can affect her offence and defence skills in both physical and magical areas, in addition to some items offering others bonuses like increased movement speed or increasing the spawn rate of certain loot. This grants a large customising element to the game, as in one area Elise might have a powerful melee swordfighter built like a tank and in the next you might opt to switch out that physical power for magical might to maximize the impact of your spells. In story mode you're free to switch items around as you need to, although in practice you'll be locked into whatever you equipped when you entered. You gain items by either finding them in dungeons or earning loot in said dungeons and using the funds to buy the goods from the two merchants in the game.
Health upgrades work in a similar manner, but instead of equipping them the health boosters are consumed to increase your maximum health gauge. Which you'll want to do a few times at least early on because the game's starting health of 30 is very low for what is thrown at you. This is compounded by the fact that you can't carry any healing items (instead, healing items randomly drop in dungeons and are used when collected) and there is no healing spell until you've cleared the second dungeon. The game's starting equipment slots of two also feels fairly low, although this increases up to a maximum of five at preset points in the story and isn't quite that limiting once you've played a bit.
The last thing to mention then is the lifespan of the game isn't quite up to the same level as other RPGs around this time. The game's level content pretty much consists of the plains tutorial section, five storyline dungeons and one shorter bonus dungeon. The game offers a few neat extras to encourage extra playtime like the aforementioned secret treasures, the timed practice runs, a survival dungeon that essentially throws the other levels of the game at you in a random order and a fishing minigame with an interface similar to digital golf games that provides a nice change of pace from all the fighting. For $10 this is good value but if you're hoping for a longer adventure you likely won't find it here.
If you go into this expecting a game that would blow Recettear out of the water then you might be a little disappointed. Chantelise isn't quite so daring with its game concept. What it does deliver is a very solid and very fun action RPG that suffers from a few mechanics flaws in places but shines with an interesting combat system, enough challenge to keep you hooked and the kind of charm you'd expect.
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