Gaming on the iPhone, as much as it’s galvanised the industry in terms of distribution and user interface, still feels rather stigmatised. Its low-price point and perceived hardware restrictions have fostered a gaming catalogue that thinks small and consequentially our expectations as gamers have stepped down to meet this. And while very successful in some cases, there’s still a want of ambition for something bigger. The extrovert spectacle that RPGs thrive on is all but missing on iOS and it’s meant slim-pickings for gamers who want an epic story-driven experience on their fancy-pants smart phone.
Chaos Rings is a step in the right direction. It’s a Square Enix RPG in the style of its elder Sony console siblings: lavishly designed 3D characters that move about in beautifully prerendered environments and find themselves embroiled in a story full of surprising twists and intimate character moments. It’s reminiscent of PlayStation-era Final Fantasies in scope and presentation, while still feeling distinctly its own game. And while its aspirations are bigger than the usual poorly translated Korean fare on offer, Chaos Rings works well as a mobile game.
It’s in the Way That She Walks
Developers Media.Vision (Wild Arms) employed the services of art director supremo Yusuke Naora (Final Fantasy) and his visual flare gives Chaos Rings a gloss comparable to any major JRPG. Expressive portraits accompany dialogue, monster and character designs are pleasing to the eye and move with fluid animation. Games like Infinity Blade might impress technically, but Chaos Rings still has them pegged on creativity of vision.
Its battle system particularly marries a relatively deep design with brisk, strategic action that suits the pick up and play mentality of a portable system. Based on a standard turn-based model, your characters, a pair, have the option to act alone or together to bolster their actions. The cost is that if they fight together they get hit together, which can be a dangerous strategy for the mage of your warrior/mage duo. The former might be able to take a beating while the latter almost always feels the pain of a strong attack. Luckily the player can dominate proceedings with the right choice of elemental attack, taking advantage of the enemy’s weakness and hammering away until they’re nothing but a puff of sparkly purple dust. It’s a play style that those familiar with the Shin Megami Tensei games will understand immediately and one that’s easy enough to master for those less versed.
At the heart of the combat is Chaos Rings‘ skill system. Along with experience-based stat levelling, your party has the opportunity to learn skills and techniques from felled enemies. These come automatically at the end of each battle and more frequently if you completely annihilate the opposition. They can be equipped like armour/weapons and are categorised by the variety of monster you fight. Each group has particular benefits and usually an elemental association, so some strategic thought is encouraged to get the most from each skill set. It’s a simple system but a satisfying compliment to the usual character development, and one that invites a streamlined approach to customisation. There’s not much in the way of equipment variety in Chaos Rings, but with its skill system in mind you won’t be left wanting.
The story of Chaos Rings ties directly into another interesting aspect of the title: it’s a game that has to be played repeatedly to reach the ultimate conclusion of the narrative. Split up into four compact scenarios, you play a different pair of characters every time and each presents the same events from a different perspective. It sounds repetitious and in a small way, it is. You’ll go through the same environments and complete the same light puzzles, but every time something new and interesting will be revealed, and you retain all of your previously learnt skills. It’s a satisfying solution to the problem of grand narratives on portable systems: instead of presenting its story in one giant chunk, Chaos Rings compartmentalises its plot to allow for frequent, shorter play sessions. The story itself benefits from the constant elaboration too, being full of the melodramatic (but enjoyable) convolutions JRPGs are known for.
Even a year after its release, Chaos Rings feels out of place on the App Store. A JPRG with more in common with its console forebearers, it stands alone as the best, most accomplished roleplaying game on iOS. It’s beautifully made with attention paid to every aspect of its visual and musical presentation. It acknowledges the platform it runs on and is thoughtfully designed around portability with a swift battle system, cleverly compartmentalised storytelling and intuitive controls. Anyone with an interest in the golden age of Square Enix’s output, particularly the PSone era, would do well to try Chaos Rings and see what they think because, as it stands, there’s very few games on the App Store that rival its quality.