Yggdra Union Review
There's a lot of cross-hybridization going on in games lately. Gone are the days of the “pure” adventure game or shooter; recently, it's like game genres have all turned into the Real Housewives of Orange County—all sporting fancy, hyphenated names. In this era of the action-adventure, the fighter-RPG and the tactical-sim, Yggdra Union, the new board game-card game-tactical RPG on the PSP must feel right at home.
Yggdra Union is an improved port of a 2006 title of the same name, developed by Sting (it's a Japanese company, not that relic from the Police) for the Game Boy Advance. It retains the story from the original, detailing the exile and eventual restoration of Princess Yggdra of Paltina. For those of you who played the GBA version, the new and improved Yggdra can offer you better graphics, as well as new tactical cards and skills.
At game start, things aren't going well for Yggdra. Her kingdom has been conquered by Emperor Gulcasa and she's forced to flee for her life. Carrying the Holy Sword “Gran Centurio”, she escapes into the wilderness, where she meets up with her first ally, Milanor the thief. Swearing revenge on Gulcasa, she spends the rest of the game gathering allies, from Durant the knight, to Rosary the witch, to Nietzsche, the mermaid-who-can-somehow-move-on-land. (By the way, the names in this game kill me. Some of them make sense as fantasy names but others—like Rosary, Roswell and Nietzsche seem to have been chosen at random from an English encyclopedia.)
The core of the game is party combat and to succeed at it, you have to learn a complex system of weapon affinities, character skills, union formations, and tactical card usage. It takes some patience getting to understand all of this and while the tutorials do their best to teach the mechanics, many players may be annoyed by the time it takes to get into the game. The first hurdle is the UI. This clunky and unintuitive Frankensteinian control scheme contains a lot of layered screens accessed by the directional pad/L and R buttons, combined inconsistently with the X and O buttons. You're likely to find yourself doing a lot of random button pressing, praying that a screen you saw before somehow comes back
If you can get past the UI, then you have the tutorial to contend with. The tutorial tries to cover a lot of information. No, I mean a lot. Even Milanor, when explaining how to fight says, “I don't know if you numbskulls can understand it all.” Aside from providing almost too much information, the tutorial sequences appear throughout the game, and they have the same effect on the pacing as a rock does on a skateboard wheel. You're going along, finally getting into the swing of things, picking up speed, and then another tutorial thingie pops up and you go flying head over heels and wind up with some some serious road rash. Ok, maybe not, but it does force you to punch the X button repeatedly, so you can get back to the fight.
Speaking of fights...combat in Yggdra Union goes something like this. You encounter one of many enemies: bandits, Imperials, militia and bounty hunters, and before the battle, you prepare by equipping your party members, topping up their morale points and choosing tactical cards. There are 30 tactical cards in all, and you gain these as you progress through the game. Each card has a movement value which determines how many spaces your party members can move, as well as a special skill and weapon affinity. Some skills—like Refreshment, which heals your party—can be used by all party members but most—like Crusade or Shield Barrier—are specific to certain weapon types.
Once your cards are chosen and your party's equipped, you advance across battlefields, encountering terrain and enemies of various types, including some enemies I totally wanted to punch in the face. Emilia, I'm talking to you! Emilia is a bonnet-wearing little kid who's somehow a general in the Imperial army and she says things during battle like, “I'm gonna throw a tantrum!” Ugh...
Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah—terrain. Although the terrain type is supposed affect the outcome of battles, the effect is minimal in all but desert and swamp lands, where movement is significantly reduced. Otherwise, the terrain differences can more or less be ignored.
When approaching an enemy, formation is key. When characters are placed next to one another, they create formations called Unions, which allow them to attack the same enemy multiple times. The character that initiates the attack is the designated Union leader and determines the shape of the Union. Female character Unions are “+” shaped while male Unions come in the “X” variety. Whatever the formation, use these often to increase the power of your attacks. Beware, though; enemies also form Unions based on the same rule set, so be conscious of their positioning.
Once battle is initiated, the attacker gets the first hit. If it's a critical hit, the Union leader of the enemy army will be knocked out, making it impossible for that army to use any skills. Battle advantage is indicated by icons located under each character at the bottom of the screen. These represent a loose prediction of the battle's outcome but can be overcome by skillful use of tactical cards.
Skills come into play through the use of Passive/Aggressive attacks and the Rage meter. These sound like something right out of my family's holiday gatherings but what they do in terms of Yggdra Union is allow you to use the L and R button to hold back while building your Rage meter, or to press the attack, increasing damage. Once your Rage meter is full, you can execute one of two kinds of skills: a passive one that can be activated repeatedly without losing any Rage, or an active one that totally depletes the Rage meter. Effective use of these is dependent on careful observation of your enemy's attack mode as well as careful timing.
Combat starts with four to eight members on each team; the team to run out of members first is the loser. Winning means more XP and an increase in power for your equipped tactical card. Losing means losing morale points. Lose enough of them and you're out of the battle for the duration of the map. And if Yggdra or Milanor run out of morale or your party runs out of cards, it's back to the level start for you.
The game features a wide variety of maps, enemies and win conditions, which keeps it interesting. Since the whole game is nothing but battle, battle, battle, it's nice that the story ties in so well with the combat. You'll be fighting to free Popes and opening flood gates and racing to reach rally points. It's a good mix. And you'll be on the edge of your seat as the plot twists and the characters change alliances like they change their socks.
There's quite a bit of good gameplay in Yggdra Union, but sadly, it's often overpowered by tedium. For one thing, the combat isn't very engaging. Yes, you get to choose your cards and position your party members but once battle is joined, you're more or less sitting there, watching the game play itself. The Passive/Aggressive modes and Rage meter make some difference on occasion, if you and your opponent are really closely matched, but if you align yourself well before battle, you can almost start the battle and walk away. As you can imagine, this gets very dull when you've been fighting battle after battle. Bless you developers for putting in a fast forward button! I made ample use of it - but it also demonstrates just how dull combat can get.
The other uninspired element of the game is the story. It's your run-of-the-mill fantasy story, with nothing compelling or unique about it. What's worse is there are so many threads and so many locations and so many named characters, I started zoning out during the narration like I did during all those boring senatorial scenes in Star Wars: Episode I. “And Yggdra shall defeat the Valkyrie Aegina and be crowned in the Holy land in order to access the true power of the Holy Sword Gran Centurion and to vanquish Emperor Gulcasa, who has awakened Brongaa, the sleeping dragon of destruction...” Z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z...
Huh? Sorry—lost consciousness there. Anyway, in spite of the so-so story and the so-so gameplay, the game looks pretty good and sounds pretty good. There's an option to listen to the original Japanese soundtrack which to me is always preferable and even more so in this case, considering all the English voices sound like they were done by two actors. The orchestral map and narrative music is extensive and mood-setting but the combat music is that acquired-taste brand of hyperactive rock and roll characterized by 80's-sounding guitar solos that the Japanese so love.
Yggdra Union had the potential to be a really compelling tactical game, but due to a lazy storyline, a cumbersome UI, and a brand of gameplay that excludes the player 50% of the time, it couldn't help but fall short.
The Good: Nice artwork, well-balanced, good combat/story integration
The Bad: Poorly designed UI, tedious story, too much passive gameplay