PSP Fanboy review: Brave Story: New Traveler

RPG's have taken a while to get their bearings on the PSP, but lately there have been a much larger influx of the genre onto our favorite handheld. One of the most recent releases is Brave Story: New Traveler. The game is based off of a manga, so it instantly has a stigma against it -- much like movie-licensed games have a stigma against them. How does this game work out, then? Is it an open and shut case, or there a diamond in this game that you'd be a fool to ignore? Here's a hint: there's a sparkle in my eye when I say that.

So, you went out and purchased a copy of Brave Story: New Traveler. May I be the first to clap my hands and congratulate you. You've made a fine decision, because Brave Story is far and away the greatest RPG to hit the PSP since its inception. It's not a marginal victory, either. This game is fantastic compared to everything other role playing game released and I've got plenty of reasons why.

First and foremost, you've got two surprises right off the bat when you start the game. This is based off a manga, right? So you'd expect some third party company to half-ass a crappy license, right? Wrong. You are greeted not only by Sony's Japan Studio logo, but the very competent and downright impressive Game Republic (who are releasing the PS3 title Folklore in October). That's right -- this game was taken seriously by Sony and it shows. For now, let's keep it to programming. The load times in this game are amazing -- some of the best I've seen on the UMD. Towns and dungeons load in a matter of seconds, whereas battles load almost instantly. It's impressive for such an epic adventure.
The game itself has a very interesting premise to start you off with. You're a gamer in the game -- seriously, you're in the park with your supposed girlfriend, playing your PSP and rightfully ignoring all the senseless babble she's spouting while your dog, named Kratos, is off sniffing some flowers. To make a long story short, your lady friend falls ill and just when you're about to howl out in anguish, a voice beckons you to change your destiny and enter the land of Vision. Your journey begins! It's a nice premise, but I've got some issues with it that I'll address in our negative portion of the review near the end.

In addition to the story having a fresh start, it's important to note the dialogue between characters. Namely, how wonderfully it's been done. If you've ever been suckered into an RPG with substandard writing and dialogue (angered glares toward the cookie cutter Atelier Iris games), you'll be very surprised at the care taken in the translation and effort put into this game's dialogue. If I could compare it to anything, brace yourselves because a lot of you may disagree, the dialogue and characterizations are most like those found in Chrono Cross. Why? Every piece of dialogue fits the character speaking it. Yuno, the female lead, is remarkably like Kid from CC, in that she's sassy, bosses the silent protagonist around, and can steal from enemies. Luckily, Yuno doesn't have an annoying accent in her dialogue, but it still matches her personality perfectly. Know what I mean? It's a very skillful thing to pull off, but this game did an excellent job with matching dialogue and personality.

Did I talk about the graphics yet? Even if so, I'm going to again. The visuals are absolutely stunning. If you kind of cross your eyes while playing Suikoden III, that's about how good it looks. I say kind of cross your eyes because the textures are, admittedly, a bit lower, but the style of art is fairly similar. I'd dare to draw another parallel to Chrono Cross, but Brave Story looks much better than that game. Especially notable are boss battles, where obvious design choices pop up -- a boss crab's claw looks amazingly detailed compared to other parts of its body, or the multiple legs of a giant squid moving independently. The main characters, of course, look the best of all and the lack of jaggies only serves to make it better. By the way, the hero of the story looks like a sword-wielding brown and gray MegaMan, but that's just a humorous aside I thought of a moment ago.
We come to the battle system, which is classic in the Dragon Quest VIII sense, but spiced up like, again, Chrono Cross. It's a classic turn-based system, but there are certain bits of freshness to keep it from becoming a generic "hold down X and win" system. Every time you attack an enemy, for example, your attack animation will be slightly different. Well, not every time, but each character has several random attack animations. That's a cool touch. Also cool is the effect whenever you hit an opponent -- a comic-book like "Blam!" will appear, but I couldn't even name all the different words used. There's "Ker-poooow!" and "Clang!" and "Shink!" and "Zfffft!" and a multitude of others. It's hilarious and keeps your attention just for fun. The thing that makes it similar to Chrono Cross as well as any other number of RPG's is the ability to learn "Unity" attacks with other characters, like combo attacks. I've got an issue with those, too, but I'm not quite done praising the game yet.

This is a very personal and nitpicky note, but for years I've often wondered while playing a game "I just need 1 experience point to level up, but I have to fight three enemies? Why don't I level up when I kill one of them?" It seems Game Republic heard my pleas and did just that. Yep, you level-up mid-battle if you gather the experience. It's more helpful than you'd think -- I was dying, but one of my characters leveled up mid-battle and learned a skill that saved my ass during the next turn. Thanks, Game Republic, and may other RPG's take note of this simple tweak.
With all this praise, what's wrong with the game, you ask? First I'll start with the minor gripes. Unity attacks. Perhaps my way of playing prevented it, but it seemed every combo attack required the main hero of the game. Why? Why couldn't those other two characters learn something to do together? This is a small error, but it can get annoying when you're trying to do three combo moves, but your main character has so little BP (MP, basically) that he can't pull off more than two.

A second complaint is the story -- yes, I praised the premise, but the story itself has some issues I really wish were resolved. First, you're allowed back to the real world to see your supposed girlfriend a total of five times. This is all well and good, but the sequences last a matter of seconds. I would have loved to see more interaction with the real world, like the switching of dimensions in Chrono Cross. Why the hell am I talking about that mediocre game so much? Probably because Brave Story has the potential to be everything that game wanted to be. Anyway, being able to walk around a town in the real world would have been fantastic, or just giving the option to do anything in the real world. It's a small complaint, but if you play the game, you'll probably understand my plight.

Another issue with the story are the characters who haphazardly join your party. A lizard who says "I must raise my son properly, he's the most important thing with me!" who then turns to the main character and says "Let me leave him behind and come with you!" Yeah, it's a little weird. Another main character abandons her post, duties, responsibilities, and subordinates to travel with you. A knight joins you after hearing his sob story (which one character humorously calls "pathetic and/or cliche") about his wife who lost her memory and how he needs to stay by her side to help her get better. I know, it makes no sense, but that sixth slot needed to be filled!
Finally, the story progresses in a very bland way. Enter a town, get alerted to a horrifying event taking place, go to a dungeon and fight a boss. Then you move on to the next town, another tragedy strikes, another dungeon, another boss. It grows generic enough so that when you enter a new town, you mutter to yourself "so what will happen this time?" It forces a very linear, formulaic plot progression on you. There is a quest book that fills up when you complete side quests, but for the majority of the game, you won't be able to easily backtrack to old towns, so it's mostly worthless. So is that damned BirdBrawling mini-game, which I'm not even going to go into.

It's a classic RPG experience at its core, but to some, it might be a bit old-school with a linear plot and high encounter rate. To me, though, it's refreshing in almost every way. Sadly, due to a fairly linear plot and generic progression, the overall experience is hindered a bit. Even so, it's easily the best RPG on the PSP, but with heavy-hitters like Jeanne D'Arc and Dragoneer's Aria due out next week, I'm worried this game will get overshadowed. Don't miss out on this gem -- it's worth every penny.

PSP Fanboy Score: 8.5

This article was originally published on Joystiq.