Time, unfortunately, comes in a finite supply. And, in the world of video games, nothing underlines this fact more than trying to decide which RPG will consume your dwindling hours.
This scenario stood as the trickiest dilemma facing the audience for 2010's Resonance of Fate (originally titled "End of Eternity" during its Japanese release), which launched just a week after Final Fantasy XIII in the United States. It's unlikely this unknown quantity with a generic JRPG name would have taken the console world by storm, but it didn't stand a chance next to one of the most long-awaited games of the last generation. Finally, Final Fantasy would come to life on HD consoles—and we'd been waiting for nearly four unbearable years for it to happen.
History has been written, and, unfortunately, Final Fantasy XIII won't ever rank in the top RPGs of all time. It represented Square's initial inability to come to terms with the demands of a new hardware generation, and XIII's fugitive plotline seemed like nothing more than a flimsy excuse to string along a collection of HD assets that had no real connection to each other. Though its battle system provided a revolutionary twist on the typical turn-based Final Fantasy encounters, at best, XIII felt improvised, rather than a team's fully formed idea come to life.
So if you happened to miss Resonance of Fate during Final Fantasy XIII's cycle of hype, then backlash, then backlash to the backlash, I won't blame you. Resonance would have been off my radar completely if it didn't show up in my mailbox for the sake of a freelance review back in March of 2010. In the end, I gave it a C+, which I consider one of my biggest mistakes as a critic. Before I became a massive fan of the Souls RPG series, which features a similarly hands-off style of player guidance, I faulted Resonance for having an overcomplicated battle system that didn't bother to explain itself very well. I focused on this initial frustration, and downplayed all the fun I had following the 10 hours Resonance's battles had me stymied. Now, in those precious few moments the game comes up in conversation, I have nothing but good things to say about it—and if any of you Metacritic people are willing to let me take a mulligan, I'd like to bump that score up to at least a B+.
If the comparisons between Resonance and FFXIII seem unfair, I'm not trying to pick on the latter—it's just odd these two RPGs came out so close together and have a completely different take on the genre. Final Fantasy tried to modernize, but the game's approachability led to a battle system that unfolded much too slowly. Resonance, however, has one of the most complex battle systems a JRPG has ever seen, and isn't shy about shoving all of its ideas in your face immediately. And your only assistance comes in the form of (optional) poorly worded tutorials that do their best to summarize the rules and their many contingencies. In all fairness to Tri-Ace, teaching players this system through words alone seems like a nearly impossible task—like any good board game, it's best learned through action rather than study.
And Resonance of Fate's battle system stands as the biggest highlights of the game: It feels kind of like Valkyria Chronicles', but with a faster pace, a bigger emphasis on teamwork, and many more variables that can affect the outcome of battle. The game uses a lot of its own lingo, so stick with me on this: Resonance's battles mainly involve successfully performing enough Hero Actions—a run-and-gun attack that sends you to a chosen location on the battle map—to unlock a combo attack that lets you circle enemies and blast away with your entire party at once. And just how you attack these enemies can greatly affect your rewards: Juggle them into the air long enough, and if they reach a high enough point, you're given the chance to stop a meter in the right location and keep them in the air for even longer. Knock an enemy into the air, then jump, and shoot from above them, and you'll smash them into the ground, which yields plenty of treasure. Though it's easy enough to rely on the cycle of Hero Action-combo-repeat, Resonance's battlefields offer plenty of variables to shift strategies, like changes in elevation, explosive environmental objects, and even cover to hide behind. Enemies can also have many parts, so taking them on effectively often involves figuring out the way to reach their most vulnerable areas without disrupting your plan of attack.
For me, an RPG lives and dies by it battle system, which is why I recommend Resonance so wholeheartedly. Even when I reached the final boss, the fighting failed to grow old, mostly because the game makes you feel absolutely awesome for playing well. If you know what you're doing, it's possible to completely wipe the floor with enemies on your first turn, and dispatching them stylishly brings in some great rewards. These feed into Resonance's character customization system, which allows you to build the insanely improbable gun of your dreams—if one scope gives you greater accuracy, why not add five? The world map also allows for customization, as you can't make progress until you earn the properly colored hexes to build a path to treasure or an out-of-the-way dungeon. Compared to Final Fantasy XIII's static world of colorful tubes, Resonance of Fate almost feels like SimCity.
I didn't say much about Resonance's plot, but that's because it's a game that's mostly held aloft by its interlocking mechanics and systems. That said, the story borders on forgettable, but thankfully Resonance understands its strengths, and the narrative never feels overbearing—though, as expected, it tends to oversexualize its entirely-too-young female lead too often (her most expensive costume essentially gives your battles endless panty shots). Even with these minor flaws, Resonance feels like an excellent throwback to those wild RPGs of the PlayStation era, where developers were suddenly given a CD's worth of space after years of being inured to limitations of cartridges, so they tried out any crazy idea they could think up.
To be honest, PSN's asking price of $19.99 for Resonance may be a little much: It's definitely worth the money, but, from an economical standpoint, it seems the people who would have paid that much for this game would have done so a long time ago. Still, if you're counting down the days to the next big console RPG release, Resonance of Fate is a great way to pass the time. And hey, Square essentially hired Tri-Ace to fix the further installments of Final Fantasy XIII, so Resonance's retail failure doesn't have the worst ending possible. Still, it'd be great for more people to know about this deep, quirky RPG that Sega dropped into the world at the worst possible moment.