Riviera: The Promised Land
In 2002, game developer Sting crafted an awe-inspiring tale of a Grim Angel who questioned what his true purpose in life was. Alas, this RPG was Japan-only. But then, in 2004, they ported it over to the GBA and saw fit to localise it in English not too long after that. By that time, some dated mechanics made it less of a big deal than it was originally, but it was definitely a worthy addition to the stellar line-up of RPGs that that portable bombshell possessed. Another 2 years passed after that, and guess what? Yep, Sting has (re)done it again! This time on the PSP – This time with an impressive, but unnecessary widescreen display – This time, with super-sharp sprite-work and full dual-language tracks. But should we care? Deep down inside, Riviera: The Promised Land is still the exact same game with the exact same flaws that made it a second-rate RPG to the big boys back in the days. And nothing has changed in 2007.
If you like your RPGs based around a male lead supported by a unique ensemble of female-only characters, you may enjoy the story of Ein: a Grim Angel who gets whacked on the head early on, suffers temporary amnesia, only to regain his memories once he has an epiphany and starts fighting for the noble cause. The plot is far from epic, so don’t be expecting anything otherwise, even after the incredibly tense expose. But for what it lacks in narrative, Riviera makes up with some witty, and very much kinky dialogue, like you’d expect from a tale which revolves around one guy, five girls and a horde of demons.
To further itself from the typical “I’m an emo hero out to kill a demo-beast” RPG, Riviera eschews the standard conventions of repetitive exploration, countless random battles and a multitude of sidequests – that last point obviously NOT being a good thing. The game is played out like a page-by-page Fighting Fantasy novel in a way; you guide Ein and his gang of lovely ladies screen-by-screen across the serene town of Elendia and its neighbouring grimy lands, prompting him to move up/down/left/right to the next one if, and only if, you are given one of those choices. There may also be items of interest on a screen that are highlighted and of which you can examine, much like a point-and-click adventure, but again, only if the game tells you that you can. It sounds incredibly restrictive doesn’t it? Add to that the fact that you have to spend trigger points (earned in non-training battles) to do something as simple as reading a sign, and the answer is a resounding “yes”.
Riviera makes it clear early on that it’s not an RPG made to fit all shapes and sizes; if you enjoy slow-burning, hand-holding quests, this land is very promising. If not…
The battle system will make or break how much you get out of this remake of a remake. Upon encountering a foe, you can opt to run away (back a screen) and return later to see if the monsters left for a couple of shots after growing bored waiting for you, or you can do the honourable thing and fight. Before the battle commences you select a simplistic formation (attack or defence), the three characters that you will bring into the brawl, followed by four items from your infinitesimal inventory (by RPG standards) to bring along with you. From thereon in, it’s pure turn-based combat. Zzz. Four (or five for the US) years after the original iteration of this game, you’d think that the battles would play out faster, but no, you still have to sit through some good-looking, but soon-tiring animations that are lengthy enough to make the average battle last at least six minutes instead of three.
The item system is broken too. As already mentioned, you can only bring four along with you into any given battle (including the final boss). Let’s say that you pick your trusty Einharjar diviner sword (which is a must!), some sort of healing item, another that heals/causes status effects, and lastly a weapon that the girls can wield which doesn’t have a 90% miss rate – you’ve just excluded a whopping chunk of your (already limited) inventory and left no room for experimenting and some fun! Because of this set-up, if you unknowingly bring a useless arm into a match eg. a weapon that can’t hit flying foes when facing off against a dragon (This game doesn’t always tell you the full composition of your next battle.), you’ve pretty much nailed shut your coffin; very frustrating unless you’ve ‘ubered’ yourself up by grinding a long while for abilities. Speaking of which, the ‘overskills’ look nice (compared to boring simple slashes) and it feels extremely satisfying to lay waste to an enemy’s life bar with the selection on offer. But then your weapon breaks (due loss of hit points), and you’ve got nothing left to attack with except for a couple of eggs you can toss for 1HP damage at a cheap-ass scythe-wielding Grim Reaper; it sucks when you know you’ve met an end, but can’t restart the battle again until you let your opponent own your ass, which may take more than just a few minutes.
And so this is why Riviera is a relatively long ride for a portable RPG. You’re looking at about 20 hours here for a no-frills play-through (if you aren’t already familiar with the previous versions which are essentially gameplay-identical), but about half of that consists of grinding (is this really a surprise?) and waiting for attacks to actually execute (it adds up). Granted, if you are able to overlook these flaws, the interaction between Ein and the girls is adorable, opening up a can of whoop-ass (after an exorbitant grinding time) never gets old, and the sense of adventure – dutifully enhanced by a wonderful soundtrack, both musically and vocally – is briskly energetic. Riviera distances itself well from the mainstream RPG fare, but this is both a blessing as well as its curse.