Arelite Core

Arelite Core is a nifty little JRPG-esque game that doesn't quite stick the landing, tending to hit 'pretty good, but really needed to be a little bit better'.

On the technical end, I was impressed that the game can be played entirely with a mouse -or not, whichever- and 99% of the time it's really smooth in that regard... but on the flipside there's crashes, graphical freakouts, and physics glitches trapping me. On the plus side, the game autosaves every time you transition to a new room, so the vast majority of the time technical issues are only a brief irritation, but the game clearly needed more Q&A work regardless. Notably, the game crashed during the ending, cutting it short for me, where I wasn't doing anything to justify a crash. Also notable was a relatively early sequence where I entered a cave, figuring it was a optional content, only to trigger a cinema involving a character being in my party that I didn't have at the time, where I clearly wasn't supposed to be able to travel that deep into the cave before acquiring him.

On the graphics end, the work is consistently solid and the style of the enemies in battle is actually fairly interesting. Instead of attempting to pattern itself after classical JRPGs with static sprites and whatnot, enemies all have an idle animation, at least one attack animation, and a flinch animation, and they mostly look pretty good. Also positive is that the game does an unusually good job with perspective tricks, with an early deep drop really coming across like the ground down below is genuinely far away rather than obviously just a different graphical layer. On the other hand, that aside none of the art really stood out as memorable in a particularly positive way; only one design felt reasonably clever or unique (Sephrade), the environments were generally typical staples of JRPGs (Caves galore, a desert, etc) with no twists to connect them to this particular story or setting, and the final boss in particular ends up suffering from the art style, coming across as silly rather than vast and dangerous. (Watching him perform a whole-body flinch in response to being hit for minor damage or in response to one of my people going on the defensive rather undermined the whole 'extradimensional kaiju' thing)

The gameplay is a solid framework for a cool JRPG experience, with an unusual combination of mechanics that pull together into something that has the potential to be deeply engaging... but the game doesn't quite manage the final steps necessary to get past 'potential' into 'deeply engaging'. Battles against non-bosses in particular, by their very nature of being quick fights, end up making the stun and Blitz management mechanics only mildly relevant, and very few enemies do anything to break up whatever one strong strategy you come up with, so no matter how many different enemy types and formations an area might have you tend to do the same basic things over and over, aside the few opportunities the RNG has to vary things. The boss fights are consistently fun and interesting thanks to being able to fully leverage the core mechanics, but as Arelite Core follows a typical JRPG format they make up a minority of the action.

Musically, it's generally... vaguely JRPG-ish. When I first heard one of the town themes, I was left with the vivid impression I'd heard it in some older JRPG, such as Breath of Fire 2. 'Is vaguely JRPG-ish' is about the extent of the musical identity of the game, though. The music isn't bad, but none of it is memorable either, and it often feels a bit off and out of line with what it's being played over.

The plot, meanwhile...

... I actually like it? Kinda?

It's flawed to be sure, but I like enough of what it's trying to be that I'm able to some extent forgive its faults, particularly since its faults aren't egregious. The worst thing I have to say about the plot as a whole is that it feels sort of like it was imagined as fanfic that then had the serial numbers filed off -not as a slight to fanfic, but as in the context that would've made decisions particularly awesome is missing.

For example, one of your party members personally executes a handful of the more egregiously awful enemies in the game, and the handling of the whole thing feels to me like the author was pushing back against the trend in JRPGs to inexplicably let horrible people off the hook -often for no obvious reason- without even discussing the possibility of punishing them for their crimes. If the story were a fangame of a particular JRPG, the whole thing would probably resonate readily with a lot of players. But Arelite Core does not, itself, create that context; the character engages in posturing as if he expects to get pushback on this decision, but no such thing ever happens, and the baseline moral and legal standards of the world are never properly established. Is he particularly more brutal than other people in the world? More practical? I dunno. We never get to contrast his decisions with anyone else, even though the handling of his decisions implies we're intended to take him as pragmatic and/or ruthless.

Another example is that the plot seems to be trying to be a bit subversive with the main character by making it so that, in the end, the individual who wields the Chosen Sword Of Destiny to slay the Eternal Evil etc etc is... not the main character, but rather some other dude who you meet one time fairly early in the game and then probably forget he exists until suddenly the plot is treating him as important. The idea behind the attempt is interesting, but once again it feels like something that would have more strength behind it if it was a fangame rather than an original game. Alternatively, if the game had simply passed the Chosen Sword of Destiny off to one of your party members and just had it not be the initial male lead, that would've been a bit of a shocking swerve relative to JRPG norms while avoiding the awkwardness of passing Major Plot Importance off onto a character the player knows barely anything about and probably doesn't care about at all.

But overall I was pleasantly surprised by the kinds of decisions the story was willing to make, and especially the handling of the details. Many a JRPG is unwilling to ever let anything meaningfully bad happen to any party members, not and have it stick more than briefly. This is true even of JRPGs that are willing to, for example, rip out a character's capabilities and replace them with a whole different set, rendering any arguments about 'but killing off a party member hurts gameplay' dubious arguments. Non-Japanese attempts at the genre are often, if anything, worse about keeping the party members immune from negative consequences, missing opportunities to do good and interesting storytelling as a result. In particular, the JRPG genre is, for whatever reason, extremely fond of dangling the idea of consequences in front of the player and then snatching away actual consequences at the last second -a party member elects to sacrifice their life for the cause, and then the plot contrives to make it unnecessary. A party member is struck blind by an evil infection, and this takes thirty minutes to run down a magical herb that undoes the blindness permanently with no secondary consequences. Etc.

Arelite Core doesn't do that. When something bad looks strongly likely to happen to a party member... it happens. It has real consequences. It's not magically undone thirty seconds later. Sometimes the details are awkwardly handled (One character undergoes their event and leaves your party, but only changes their graphics to reflect their new state when they rejoin the party much later), but I heartily approve that the story is willing to do this at all.

("Ghoul King", I hear some of you saying. "Final Fantasy IV and VI already did all that stuff ages ago." Yes, and part of why those games are so memorable is that they do this stuff where much of the competition... doesn't. Including other Final Fantasy games)

The story is never amazing, with only one decent 'you'd written that thing off ages ago, but hey it's relevant again and it makes sense that it is' moment in the whole game, but neither is it bad. There's things that I'd rather have seen done better, or explored more thoroughly, but generally the plot holds up okay. Critically, it doesn't shoot itself in the foot, blatantly contradict itself, or otherwise directly and significantly undermine itself. (Minor exception: you get a teleporting party member. Initially their range is explicitly line of sight, with this being just how Their People Work. The deeper you get into the game, the more it forgets about this limitation, until eventually it's completely ignored whenever it's plot-convenient to ignore it) It didn't necessarily elicit the emotion it was going for in scenes that are emotional, but neither did it have me cheering on the death of a character the plot wanted me to love or anything of the sort.

This level of effectiveness is rarer than you might think.

More abstractly, the game does suffer from pacing issues. I spent the last four hours of the game either thinking I was thirty minutes away from the end of the game or thinking this latest 'looks like I'm nearly at the end of the game' sequence was essentially another accidental fakeout. The gameplay had also largely stopped shaking things up at that point, with the party ceasing to shuffle around as the plot moved forward and character levelups having ceased to provide new content and whatnot, so the whole thing was a bit of a chore by that point.

So: not a great game, but there's some genuinely good bits to what underlies its design. I could imagine a successor made by the same people being a very strong game without a radical change in team composition or the like.

That's fairly positive, really.


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