Riviera: The Promised Land
Based on: The need to both streamline RPGs and color-code girls according to their personalities.
Article by bobservo | September 10, 2007
The problem with Japanese RPGs is that you either play them, or you don't. Those on the "don't" side of the fence abhor the still-in-effect conventions set in stone by moldy old games like the original Dragon Quest, while those on the "do" side of the fence find the cockles of their hearts warmed by these stagnant gameplay mechanics from the mid-1980s.
There has to be a better way!
JRPGs are growing up, albeit very slowly. 2006's Final Fantasy XII took a major step forward by abandoning the battle system the series had been saddled with for nearly twenty years. The change was monumental for fans of the series and will be debated for years after the earth's sun burns to a cold, black cinder.
But Final Fantasy alone is not responsible for shaking things up in RPG Town; one year earlier, the Game Boy Advance RPG Riviera: The Promised Land broke slightly-more-obscure new ground by cramming a bushel of revolutionary ideas into a tiny little GBA cartridge. (Technically, it happened a few years earlier as the game originally appeared on WonderSwan. But since no one gives a fat crap about WonderSwan, we'll go with the GBA version.) With Riviera, developer Sting tried to solve the problems of traditional JRPGs using a new streamlined model. Was it effort a success?
The only way to find out is to break down the genre's problems and Riviera's corresponding solutions.
1. RPGs are too long!
For some of you, this statement is ludicrous. Those out there with steel-plated patience or copious amounts of free time, for example, would welcome the standard RPG length of forty to sixty hours. Riviera weighs in at a slim twenty to twenty-five hours, a rarity among RPGs. But this short length is not because Riviera is lacking anything; it has all the gameplay of a standard RPG, but without the baggage. What baggage? Read on.
2. Curse you, random battles!
RPGs may boast huge worlds, but exploring these worlds can be a chore when you're interrupted every thirty seconds by an overly-long scene transition leading to a random battle full of enemies you've seen and killed a thousand times over. Riviera ditches these relics of the past for a series of preordained battles throughout its levels, making every fight at least somewhat unique and generally meaningful. This lack of intermittent annoyances also lessens the frustration of being interrupted when you're forced to retrace your steps -- which, incidentally, rarely happens in Riviera.
3. Grinding is for chumps!
It certainly is. We've all spent hours upon hours fighting differently-colored blobs of goo just to see character stats increase by a sum of one or two. Was this ever fun? No, but at times, RPGs make grinding a necessary fact of life. Riviera, on the other hand, doesn't even have character levels. All five characters get four stats apiece, and these stats only increase when the weapons and items they use receive an appropriate amount of experience points -- not unlike Final Fantasy IX?. This means your characters' maximum potential is always limited to how often you find new items. Hence, there are times when grinding would be absolutely pointless.
This system isn't completely successful, though. While all the battles are predetermined, you're still given chances to grind. The "Practice" menu command allows you to fight enemies whenever you select it; the benefit with this mode is that your weapons do not deteriorate as they do in normal battles. It's clumsy and it doesn't fit into the reality of the game, but it is a bone thrown to people who enjoy grinding and want to make the most of their finite items -- which brings us to the next problem.
4. RPGs force me to collect every rare item and defeat absurdly powerful hidden bosses because I have gaming OCD!
While medication may be the best solution, Riviera does its best to act as a splash of cold water in the face of obsessive RPG fans: Weapons and items break and can easily be missed -- permanently -- during the course of the game. And since Riviera constantly pushes you forward, there's no going back once you finish one of the game's seven levels. If you're a completionist, this game will no doubt make you want to vomit. Good thing the GBA can follow you into the bathroom as you hug the base of a toilet, thinking about that imaginary sword you've lost forever. Just remember that Riviera isn't meant to be played obsessively; instead, it's a linear path that you will allow you to see different sights on each trip through the game.
If you choose to remain obsessive, feel free to play through the game three or four times just to see everything. But remember, your friends and family will judge you.
5. Exploring in RPGs is always so plodding!
The extreme whittling down of exploration elements is Riviera's greatest departure from RPG tradition. Your characters move from screen to screen of every level like characters in a board game. Each "square" in a level can have up to four things to examine, corresponding to the four cardinal directions of the GBA's D-pad. Examining these objects of interest requires Trigger Points (TP), a finite resource which can only be regained through performing well during battles or during a grading process at the end of a level. Exploration can yield treasure or stat increases through quick-time events (think Resident Evil 4?); it can also give you bits of information about your location or character skits reminiscent of Namco's Tales series. Riviera cuts out the middleman and passes the savings on to you!
6. RPGs are full of cliché characters and derivative stories!
Can't help you here. Riviera is probably the tenth consecutive Atlus game to use the concept of the Yggdrasil tree. But, out of all mythologies, Norse is the most fun to steal from.
7. As an RPG fan, I fear change!
This is to be expected. Of all genres in gaming, the Japanese RPG has likely changed the least since its inception -- but the fans don't really seem to mind. Attempts to turn the genre on its ear, like in Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, are largely derided by RPGers who just want the gameplay they've grown accustomed to for the past 20 years. Riviera, while not perfect, at least recognizes the flaws of its ancestors and tries to do something about them. RPG designers of the future probably won't be influenced by Riviera, but we should all hope that they realize tradition for the sake of tradition is limiting their audience...as well as the potential for their games.
Images courtesy of Hardcore Gaming 101