I forgot how much I loved retro JRPGs. There is something so uniquely pleasant about them: the innocent yet enrapturing music, the turn based battles, the top down exploration, the old-school sprites. It had been a while since I had played a new one or replayed any of my favorites, so booting up Kemco’s retro-styled Alphadia was a breath of fresh yet familiar air.
At first glance, Alphadia has everything one might want from the genre: an appealing art style, great music, a world with an interesting and storied history. Unfortunately, it soon becomes apparent that the game does not offer a compelling story or much long-term gameplay depth, and nothing changes with the visuals or music for most of the game. This all makes it an altogether mediocre experience – albeit one still worth experiencing for those who love the genre.
Alphadia tells the tale of Ash, a dude with blue hair. That is about the extent of what I know about Ash. This is because the main characters are barely even caricatures, displaying no traits except the desire to always do the right thing (and to say they always want to do the right thing) and who, even when they do/say mindblowingly dumb things, usually still wind up getting along just perfectly. The side characters are a bit more interesting, as they have personalities. Even here, sadly, there is a general lack of nuance, and none of the characters ultimately wind up particularly interesting.
The story isn’t much better. While the set-up is classic JRPG goodness – nations at war, princesses, nobodies from a small town forced into something bigger than anything they’d known – the lack of compelling characters and the poor writing (or possibly translation) makes it hard to really invest into what is happening. The fact that the story moves at a very slow pace for how much conversation there is doesn’t help much, either.
Alphadia has some classic looking visuals. The sprites and environments, from the overworld to the battle screens to the towns/dungeons, all just scream “classic JRPG” in the best way. The problem is, none of it evolves over the course of the game. Every town looks identical, every dungeon has a slight color swap at best, every building is the same. It starts to feel early on like it is all just copy and paste, and it doesn’t lead to much excitement in terms of adventuring to new places: after all, it’s likely the same as the old place. Still, that doesn’t disqualify the fact that the game does look good in its faithfulness to classic JRPGs and that the characters are well drawn even if a bit generic.
Music follows a similar path. At the start, Alphadia is filled with excellent tracks that bring the world to life. The overworld has a sweeping, epic theme playing while the battle has an exciting one. The dungeon and town themes aren’t bad either. Some of these tracks start to get old over time, though; the repetition of music is a problem that has plagued the genre since the beginning, so it’s easy to give the game a break, but at times it can be egregious. The town theme started to grate pretty early on.
Gameplay is pretty straightforward for the genre. There’s a large overworld and a map marking your next destination. You will travel to that destination, where you may find a dungeon or a town. As you travel across the overworld, battles will randomly initiate, sending you to a battle screen. This occurs in dungeons, as well. In fact, that is almost all there is to dungeons: straight paths, occasionally with a treasure chest, forcing you to fight random enemies along the way.
Now, that is not a problem necessarily exclusive to Alphadia – many retro RPGs do similar things – but there’s a sense of openness, of exploration, of variety to how the best classic JRPGs lay out their dungeons. Alphadia just has straight paths, and the occasional attempts to mix things up are rather unsuccessful.
Towns tend to all be the same: a weapons shop, an item shop, and an inn to restore your health and magic. Then there are some sidequests and chests scattered around, with houses and random NPCs present as well. While I enjoyed wandering around the early towns, finding everything and talking to everyone, it soon became so repetitive that I just moved on from a new town as quickly as I could.
This all means that the sense of exploration evaporates fairly quickly. Wandering the world map is as fun in Alphadia as it is in any JRPG, but without a truly desirable destination, without a varied world, without a new place I really, really wanted to see, it is just not as fun as it could have been.
Fortunately, combat is very well done – if a bit easy. It is turn based, and you can see the order in which the enemies and player characters will be allowed to attack. Four characters are in your party at a time. It’s pretty standard stuff: you can do a normal attack, with every character using a different weapon/having different attack power. Every character also has unique “energi” abilities, which are basically just magic abilities. It is split up into various elements (light, dark, water, fire, earth) and certain enemies are resistant to or vulnerable to certain elements. It works well; early on it makes the battles absurdly easy, but there is a level of strategy and challenge that comes into play pretty soon.
The thing is, not much later in the game you gain the ability to equip characters with Energi Rings. These let characters use abilities of elements that they couldn’t already use. It is a cool idea, but you can pretty much become invincible with this if you give most of your characters Light rings, thus letting everyone heal. Even so, it’s a pretty fun battle system that is enjoyable in its ease, simplicity, and – honestly – total lack of innovation. Much of this is due to the fast loading times, and the fact that you can run away. Battles don’t take long to get set up or wind down, and if you don’t want to fight, you don’t have to (though running can make future battles more dangerous.)
Of course, there are heal/magic refill items and more powerful weapons you can buy, among other things. There isn’t much to the quests, but the fact that they are there helps flesh things out a bit.
Alphadia is a game that is faithful in its homage to JRPGs of yore, yet cannot quite match them in its execution. Environments are all the same, the story inches along, the characters are barely characters, and the combat lacks the depth it should have. And yet I still had a lot of fun playing Alphadia. It’s… simple. It’s pure. Its problems do not keep it from being obscenely charming. Alphadia is not a great game; but it is a good one. For those that desire the experience of a classic JRPG, and do not mind that this one does nothing new and has loads of problems: Alphadia may actually give you a better time than it has any right to.