Riviera: The Promised Land (Game Boy Advance) - Review by aduckie

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Introduction

Riviera does its best to break just about every Japanese RPG convention of the last decade, and certainly succeeds in that aspect. You will not find a single random encounter anywhere in this game, nor will your characters even level up - or obtain regular experience points for that matter! To begin describing just how unique Riviera is, there has to be some explanation of the basic exploration. First off, there is no player-controlled movement whatsoever, nor is there even an overworld map. How, then, is the game even played?

Possibly the best way to describe the game is as a "hybrid" of sorts between classic point-and-click adventure titles and traditional RPGs. The game world is divided into large "squares" that represent "rooms" of sorts (whether indoors or outdoors), and the player simply points in the direction that the party should travel next. Different pathways open up upon the solving of certain puzzles, meaning that every time you play the game you may find yourself traveling completely unfamiliar territory.

While traveling through these "rooms," players can interact with various objects in the environment in a number of ways. Opening chests, pushing rocks, picking flowers - the variety of activities is amazing. For the most part, these activities are performed by mastering small "minigames" of sorts involving the pressing of different buttons in various sequences. In many ways these resemble the minigames of titles like the WarioWare series. There is a catch though: to perform almost any action, you will need "Action Points," which are acquired at the end of every battle based on the rank the player receives. Which moves us on to our next point: the battle system. The battle system of Riviera is perhaps the most unique and compelling aspect of the entire game. At the beginning of the fight, three characters are chosen from among your party (one must be Ein, the hero) and aligned in a triangular formation of sorts, with either two in front and one in back or vice versa. The player then must select five weapons and/or items to bring into the fight - a unique system that certainly brings a great deal of strategy into combat, especially given the fact that items wear out over time and eventually break.

Once the combat begins, the entire affair begins to feel like something straight out of an anime show. Even the most basic attacks look devastating from a visual perspective, and the "Overdrive" attacks (performed by building up a damage meter) are both extremely over-the-top and extremely impressive at the same time. Unlike conventional RPGs, the player cannot choose targets in the course of the battle. Instead, characters choose targets automatically based on the position they are placed in. Certain attacks have a "piercethrough" attribute, allowing them to strike through the front enemy into one behind, and other attacks have a "sweep" attribute that slices across an entire row of enemies. The battle system is extremely engaging and entertaining for the most part, but can begin to make itself a bore, as battles can stretch on for as long as half an hour against some of the tougher enemies and bosses. Despite the ability to save and quit during the middle of a battle, this can seem a bit much at times, especially when a player is itching to move on with the plot. And the system is certainly not flawless. Perhaps the most detrimental aspect of the whole thing is the grind, a curse that has tormented RPGs for decades and makes no exception for Riviera. To understand just how serious this grind factor is, it's important to realize that no experience is gained for participating in battles: instead, characters gain experience by "mastering" a particular item. While this may seem attractive at first, it has several major drawbacks.

First off, it means that battles feel entirely unrewarding. A player may feel wholly cheated after spending 40 minutes in a ferocious battle only to gain nothing from the affair except a few worthless potions or herbs (almost all good items are acquired out of battle).

Secondly, it means that players must wear out their valuable, fragile weapons in order to gain experience with them. The solution for this is a special "practice battle" mode in which players can fight to gain weapon experience without weapons wearing away and breaking. This may sound like a fine idea at first, but all too soon reveals itself to be the source of the horrible grind in this game: to build up a decent party, a player will probably spend at least 10 hours of his gaming time in this interminable practice system that offers very few rewards. Even worse, this sytem of experience means that the game literally has to force players to take part in battles by placing mandatory, non-random monster encounters at certain points of the map. These battles are generally frustrating and boring to say the very least.

All this is not to say that Riviera's battle system really isn't worth it: on the contrary, boss battles in Riviera are perhaps the most entertaining and compelling fights I have ever experienced in a handheld RPG. Unfortunately, to ruin any value of experience whatsoever, the game allows you to cheat by automatically reviving once your entire party has fallen, and even weakening the enemy to lower the difficulty! Needless to say, this makes the hours of hard grinding feel even more of a waste of time than they already were. But now that we've dealt with the major negative aspects of the game, we'll move on to the areas where Riviera truly shines.

The plot of Riviera is nothing short of amazing, perhaps the most original and fascinating plot I have played through on the GBA. The entire story is thoroughly epic and filled with both moral and situational dilemmas that could never be addressed in a standard E-rated handheld RPG (Riviera is rated T for Teen).

Ein is a Grim Angel who has been sent (along with an elder angel) with the task of destroying the ancient paradise of the gods, Riviera, which has served as a "barrier" to the prison of the Demons. The demons have been to break free, and thus the council has decided that the doorway to their realm must be eliminated at all costs. Ein, however, is soon shocked to discover that Riviera is inhabited by countless peaceful folk of good heart, and rebels against his angelic authority in the decision to aid these people and save Riviera from the judgment of the Grim Angels. It is soon revealed, however, that far more is going on at the cosmic scale than Ein could ever imagine. The characters in the game may be extremely pleasing for some or extremely annoying for others, since all the personalities feel straight out of an anime show. The game is full to the hilt of conversations between Ein and the various members of his party, and quite a few of these are genuinely humorous. The game possesses something of a "love minigame" as a fun diversion, by which the player must constantly make choices of which female member of the party Ein pleases. Make your choices right, and you can create a deep relationship between Ein and that character and even unlock special "hot spring bath" animated clips.

Overall, Riviera is very tight from a plot and character perspective, and will especially appeal to fans of manga.

Graphics

The graphical presentation may very well be the strongest aspect of Riviera. To put it simply, this game is beautiful. Not only are the characters wonderfully-animated sprites with dozens of possible actions, but the backgrounds and portraits are all fully-handrawn paintings that border on awe-inspiring. I often found myself stopping in a room for a few moments just to marvel at the beautiful artwork put into the surroundings of the game. Animations during battle, particularly the Overdrive animations, are visually stunning and certainly contribute to the epic feel of the game.

Sound

Yet another strong point of Riviera. The amount of quality voice-work in this game is amazing, with at least two hours of ingame conversation (most of it found throughout the battles). The music is extremely impressive, a strange yet appealing mixture of gothic and techno that contributes to the overall mood on every level.

Final comments

Riviera is not for everyone, and certainly not for those without a fair deal of patience. But to anyone willing to trudge through the interminable grind and overly long battles, there is a truly stunning game to be found here. Production values are through the roof, and the plot is thoroughly satisfying. Riviera: The Promised Land should not fail to impress the majority of RPG fans on many levels.

Pro: Incredible production values with stunning graphics and epic music. First-rate plot and character interaction. Thoroughly unique in almost every aspect. Battle system can be quite entertaining at times.
Con: One of the most agonizing grinds in RPG history. Overly-long battles, annoying 15-item limitation, and automatic "cheat" system upon death. Entire game drags at far too many points.
Final score: 8

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Boxart of Riviera: The Promised Land (Game Boy Advance)
Platform: Game Boy Advance
Genre: RPG
Developer: Sting
Publisher: Atlus