Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Critical Comparison: "Chaos Rings" and "The World Ends With You"

By Kirk Hamilton

Though reviews are still relatively few and far-between, Media.Vision and Square Enix's new iPhone RPG Chaos Rings has gotten a very positive reception. Many critics appear compelled to describe the game as good despite its platform, comparing it favorably to Square Enix's recent console releases. According to IGN's 9.0 review, "Chaos Rings is not an amazing adventure game for the iPhone. It is an amazing adventure game – period." Destructoid gives the game a 9.5, stating that "Chaos Rings isn't just a superb iPhone RPG, it's a truly terrific RPG in its own right. Better than Square Enix's recent console output, this title outclasses many recent JRPG experiences." Seth Scheisel at The New York Times isn't afraid to cut to it and name names, writing that "as an overall entertainment and design experience, Chaos Rings is more successful and ultimately more enjoyable than Final Fantasy XIII."

I beg to differ with those reviews, though not about the quality of the game. While I do want to walk back a bit of the praise I gave in my recent post concerning its amazing music, I still find Chaos Rings to be a very enjoyable RPG and well worth its $12.99 asking price. My point of contention lies with the comparisons those reviews draw to Square Enix's previous releases, specifically the choice to contrast Chaos Rings with Final Fantasy XIII. While I understand the desire to present a David/Goliath scenario in which the plucky portable game bests the console megablockbuster, I submit that the more appropriate comparison is with Square Enix and Jupiter's 2008 DS game The World Ends With You.

To start with, the two games' narrative setups are as similar to one another as they are distinct from Square Enix's other releases. Both stories concern characters who have been kidnapped from around the world, paired up, and forced to compete in a mysterious tournament. In each game, a male protagonist finds himself tied unwillingly to a female partner with no memory of how he came to be entered in the competition. The rules of the game and the identities of those who control it are shrouded in mystery - all that's clear is that only one team can win, and failure means death.

The similarities continue as the games' stories progress. Gameplay is tied to a teamwork mechanic, and only by combining their forces can the individual characters overcome their enemies. Though there is initially animosity between them, both games' protagonists begrudgingly begin to appreciate and care about their teammates, eventually learning to fight as a unified team. As they work their way through the tournament, the teams occasionally cross paths with other competitors and come to know, respect, and care for them as well. Some characters are revealed to have been through the gauntlet more than once and gradually share their knowledge of the game with the protagonists and their partners.

But despite all those broad plot similarities, the two portable RPGs are very different games. Where Chaos Rings is traditional, The World Ends With You is fearlessly innovative; Chaos Rings's characters are as stock and clich├ęd as The World Ends With You's are different and refreshing. What's more, Chaos Rings's combat interface feels comfortably familiar while The World Ends With You's feels hectic, confusing and frantically exhilarating.

The most immediate difference concerns the games' graphical styles. The World Ends With You's gameworld is rendered as 2D sprites against a multi-layered 2D backdrop, and dialogue sequences depict the characters as hyper-stylized, fantastically expressive comic book characters conversing via overlapping voice bubbles. Chaos Rings, on the other hand, is rendered as 3D polygons against a 2D backdrop with conversations between characters depicted as text beneath mostly static illustrations of each character's head. It's flat and traditional, and the facial expressions do little to show the characters' emotions.

(Above: Dialogue in The World Ends With You and Chaos Rings)

Beyond the way they are rendered onscreen, the characters themselves are quite different from game to game as well. In contrast to Chaos Rings's (frankly, yawn-inducing) big-haired, giant-sword-wielding heroes, The World Ends With You revolves around angsty modern-day teens fighting fantastical monsters in a parallel-reality version of Tokyo's Shibuya district. They are obsessed with fashion, shopping, friendship, and their own petty jealousies - in other words, they're normal young adults coming to terms with the kinds of people they want be. The modern, real-world setting of The World Ends With You feels refreshing and the story has so many original ideas firing at once that it hardly even feels like a JRPG.

Gameplay differences between the two titles are also quite stark. For the most part, gameplay in Chaos Rings is rigidly traditional to the point of homage. Players walk through a typical (though beautiful) fantasy world, engage in random combat encounters, level up, solve puzzles, get new swords and armor from a zany storekeeper and occasionally fight bosses. Combat is as straightforward as it gets, usually involving turn-based battles against various combinations of the same cookie-cutter enemies. While in combat, characters wait their turn to leap across the battle field, delivering attacks in an orderly progression and dealing damage based on character stats. The solitary wrinkle in Chaos Rings's combat system involves the ability to pair the characters to to deliver attacks (but also take damage) in tandem. It's a small twist, and most battles are won handily without even using it.

Characters also team up in The World Ends With You, but with one very big difference - in every battle, the player must control both combatants in real time, simultaneously and on different screens. One character is controlled on the bottom screen via the DS's stylus and the other on the top screen using the directional pad. It's brashly innovative and creatively risky, a hectic and challenging system that requires splitting one's attention between two screens and two fights. After I got used to the rhythm of a battle, it truly felt as though my brain was doing something it hadn't done before, like my two characters really were fighting together in unlikely harmony. What's more, the design matches neatly with the story's themes of teamwork, friendship, and finding a complimentary partner in unlikely places.

The World Ends With You's combat interface is brilliantly put together if a bit cluttered, and it takes full advantage of the DS hardware. Despite its flaws, it's a unique and memorable experience, and it operates in a way I couldn't have imagined before I actually played it. By comparison, most of Chaos Rings's interface feels stripped-down and traditional, exactly what comes to mind when I hear the phrase "Turn-based JRPG combat." The game was designed for the iPhone, but for better or for worse doesn't take advantage of anything unique about the platform - the multi-touch screen and accelerometer are ignored entirely. Inventory and item leveling are both streamlined, and players somewhat unceremoniously gain access to a new sword/suit of armor/jewel with each new world. Magic is pretty uninspired as well, and isn't really required to beat most enemies. It's worth noting that the game's difficulty feels a bit off in general - most random encounters and bosses are a cakewalk after doing a bit of leveling up.

It's also worth bringing up the games' disparate amounts of content. It is a perhaps dubious assertion that a $30 DS game should contain more content than a $13 iPhone game, but regardless, The World Ends With You offers a much more varied array of activities than Chaos Rings. There are dozens of combat pins to experiment with and hundreds of possible pin combinations, as well as clothing and accessories that buff and debuff characters based on the ever-fluctuating trends of Shibuya's neighborhoods. The game also features a persistent experience system that tracks downtime between play-sessions and a junk-food based buffing system that gradually increases characters' abilities as they digest food. In addition to experimenting with various shops, brands and food stands, players can spend hours mastering a surprisingly deep and addictive pin-slamming minigame. In comparison, Chaos Rings offers the ability to play through the game as any of the four main character pairs, but beyond that doesn't offer much by way of added depth.

After taking all of the above into consideration, I don't believe Square Enix and Media.Vision should be quite so universally lauded for Chaos Rings. In fact, I suspect that much of the praise the game is getting is due to the fact that it was released on the iPhone. Don't get me wrong - I think Chaos Rings is a fun, well-made game, and I love its soundtrack. But it is also an unimaginative return to well-worn territory; a good-looking and well-designed throwback, but a throwback nonetheless.

Meanwhile, two years after its release The World Ends With You remains almost disorientingly innovative in its approach to setting, characters, story, interface and gameplay. It demonstrates the kind of forward-thinking and unexpected design that Square Enix and its developers are capable of, and more importantly it's a hell of lot of fun to play.  If ever there were a handheld David to challenge Final Fanatsy XIII's lumbering Goliath, it's this one, and I hope to see more of its ilk in the future.


radiant said...

Ah, so I wasn't the only one that thought Chaos Rings was similar in more ways than one to The World Ends With You.

Do check out my blog post about The World Ends With You and how it tries to modernize JRPGs and solve many of the traditional problems that exist within them:


Kirk Hamilton said...

Cool series of posts - thanks for sharing them! You point out a lot of other things that TWEWY did that seem so revolutionary - man, that is a really peculiar little game. So far ahead of its time (if FFXIII is anything to go by), and frankly a little bit under-appreciated.

I've been coming back to it after writing this post and am still struck by how different it all feels. In a good way. I'd certainly rather screw around in Shibuya than bother with any more tortoise farming on Pulse, sheesh.