Since its announcement last year, FDG Entertainment‘s Across Age has been one of the app store’s most hotly anticipated titles. FDG has not been shy about its RPG, fueling the flames with a steady stream of screen captures, trailer videos and grand talk. And with successful titles such as Bobby Carrot, Kryzer and Parachute Panic already under their belt, Across Age is coming from fine pedigree. Gamers have had every reason to be excited about the release.
Across Age is an Action RPG reminiscent of 16-bit era genre classics, played from a top-down perspective and with a focus on environmental puzzle solving. For these reasons it has drawn pre-release comparisons to the SNES’s The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and, perhaps to a lesser extend, Secret of Mana — the standard go-to titles for generating Action RPG buzz. Now that I’ve had hands-on time with the game, though, I find these comparisons somewhat off the mark. Across Age does draw some obvious influence from A Link to the Past, but more closely resembles Falcom’s Legacy of Ys series in its mechanics and gameplay. Despite the relative obscurity of the Ys franchise in the U.S., the series has enjoyed great success in Japan, spawning numerous sequels and remakes since its 1987 debut.
The story follows a boy and a girl out to save the world. An evil count has been ravaging the people, causing citizenry, roads and even towns to vanish. The sage and grand mage of the land have disappeared, and we join the knight Ales as he arrives in a small village to investigate reports of a new grand mage. Instead, he finds Ceska, daughter of the previous grand mage, capable of casting the ultimate spell — Across Age, a spell of time travel — but otherwise incapable of casting even the most elementary of magics. Nonetheless, he takes the girl, Ceska, under his wing in hopes of uncovering her latent power and bringing an end Agrean’s madness.
Across Age presents well, but fumbles in execution. In melee combat, the game follows too closely in the footsteps of Ys. Most Action RPGs give you greater control over combat than is granted in Across Age. They allow you to move in, swipe your sword and withdraw to avoid retaliation. In Across Age, as in early Ys titles, melee combat is based on collision. Players must steer Ales into enemies, bumping up against them until either he or the enemy dies. By attacking from a diagonal space, Ales is able to avoid reprisal. No lunging, no dodging, no excitement. Across Age is an Action RPG, in that it takes the action right out of the fight. Instead, combat boils down to the droll mechanic of watching two sprites crash into each other over and over again. This involves no tactics, requires no skill, and is no fun. It’s also how you will spend most of your time above ground, traversing the distances between towns and dungeons.
Delving into the caves and dungeons is where the game becomes more interesting. The dungeons are full of monsters, so the lame combat persists. But the dungeons also house most of the game’s puzzles, and here the game borrows heavily from A Link to the Past, though it never manages to live up to its inspiration. Players simultaneously control both Ales and Ceska, swapping between them at any time by tapping their portraits in the lower portion of the screen. Usually one leads the other, the leader being actively controlled by the player, engaging in combat and interacting with objects in the environment. But the two can separate and often must do so, using their unique talents cooperatively to solve puzzles and traverse obstacles. Ales can push, pick up and throw objects; he can also pick up and throw Ceska to reach areas inaccessible by foot, across gaps or on higher ground. Only Ceska can use warp zones to travel through time.
Ceska’s time traveling is very similar to Link’s ability to visit the “Dark World” in A Link to the Past. Players will often find dungeons greatly altered when time traveling, to extents beyond what Time should be capable of. Ceska’s manipulations in time will often affect the present, opening paths by which the pair can progress further in the present. In my experience, the puzzles have been relatively straight-forward. No real mind-benders here; just a lot of pushing stones, stepping on pressure plates and the like.
Character Art: For those characters lucky enough to receive the artistic treatment during conversations, the character drawings are quite nice.
Visual Presentation: I’m a big fan of 2D sprites, often favoring them over polygons. Across Age is a visual treat, with vibrant colors and crisp graphics hearkening back to the days of 16-bit glories. The design of the game is a little too cute for my tastes, but it’s quality work nonetheless.
Audio Presentation: Across Age’s soundtrack is a far cry from Zenonia’s short, tinny loops. This I much appreciate. Each locale enjoys its own theme, and obvious effort went into producing a score with melodies, hooks and distinct (albeit synthesized) instrumentation. I wouldn’t buy the soundtrack separately, but the music is more than passable, and doesn’t get too repetitive.
Script: The script is clean and error free, a welcome first for app store RPGs. The story is standard fare for the genre, but well written and helps to drive the quest. It’s also nice to see a story driven RPG, rather than yet another that leans constantly on fetch quests, like Zenonia, Inotia, Blade Master and so many others.
Puzzling: Combat being not a strength of the game, it’s good that Across Age brings in some puzzle elements. While the puzzles are not particularly challenging, they do help to spice things up and make the game more interesting overall. In fact, I’d go so far as to say the puzzles are the game’s saving grace. If Across Age relied solely upon its dungeon crawling and combat (both of which I consider to be broken), the way most Action RPGs do, it wouldn’t be worth experiencing at all.
Melee Combat: Watching Ales walk around the landscape bumping heads with monsters is ridiculous, and the combat is cheapened by his refusal to reach out and hit things. What would be run-of-the-mill encounters with peon monsters in a normal Action RPG — stick, move, kill — becomes a tedious chore in Across Age, and a bland exercise in depleting your health reserves. Rooms that Link could clear without a scratch make perilous travel for our intrepid knight Ales. If you attack an enemy at close range, you will receive damage. It can’t be avoided. By his fifth adventure, even Adol Christin learned how to swing his sword, and that was years ago. Someone obviously forgot to tell the Across Age developers, but Action RPGs have moved on since 1986. Apparently, Ceska’s not the only one who gets lost in time.
For all of Ceska’s implied uselessness in the game, I found her to be the more capable combatant, at least until her MP runs out, leaving her utterly defenseless. While she can still throw spells, though, she’s much more entertaining to play, as she enables you to deploy some tactics in the field other than mindlessly headbutting your opponents. Ales must be an Irish knight.
Controls: The controls are floaty and imprecise, leading to several problems. When slogging through combat as Ales, you can avoid damage by attacking an enemy from a diagonal space. But the controls are so floaty that it’s nigh impossible to find or maintain a diagonal position. At other points in the adventure, the heros are forced to traverse narrow causeways, such as bridges. Such areas must be tackled with great care, lest you go tumbling off the edge to your death. Especial care must also be taken when combating monsters near drop-offs, as you can easily be pushed or fall off. Ales and Ceska move like leaves in the wind, and it’s difficult indeed to keep them on course.
Death is Cheap: You will die frequently, not because Across Age is genuinely challenging, but because it’s genuinely unfair; because the combat is cheap and the controls are lousy. Fighting is an endurance test to see whose hit points hit zero first, and even when you win you will often have lost a great deal of health. Otherwise, you will constantly find yourself falling into holes, off of ledges, into lakes because it’s nearly impossible to walk in a straight line for any length of time. And when you fall, you begin the screen over again, the enemies having respawned. Same when you die. The game isn’t difficult; it’s frustrating in ways that games should not be frustrating, and there were often times I just wanted to stop playing it.
What’s more, the collision detection is awful. This makes it pretty easy to hit enemies with ranged attacks, even when your shots don’t line up. Unfortunately, it also means that enemies’ ranged attacks also hit you too easily, and are often impossible to avoid. Enemy attacks also mess up your facing sometimes. During the first boss battle against the plant monster, I often found myself being pummeled just as I released a spell, sending it off in the wrong direction and wasting precious MP.
No Map: Maps are pretty standard in RPGs these days, but Across Age offers no love for fans of in-game cartography.
Interface: Text buttons are too small and difficult to press, and many of the buttons are not as responsive as they should be. I often find myself having to hit a button two or three times to make things go. This lack of response has gotten me killed more than a few times. It’s difficult to select items in your inventory, and the menus can be frustrating to use.
Sound Options: A personal gripe perhaps, but I fail to understand why developers so often fail to offer separate volume controls for background music (BGM) and sound effects (SFX). I sometimes like to turn off the BGM while I play, leaving the sound effects on. Whether because I want to listen to my own music, or because I’m just sick of the game’s music, it’s a nice option to have. Across Age doesn’t have it.
My time with Across Age has been disappointing. At first glance, it appears to be a top-notch Action RPG, but quickly reveals itself to be a poor imitation of better games, a pretty face that lures you in then bores you with tedium and mess. It looks like The Legend of Zelda, but it plays like Legacy of Ys, and ultimately feels like Final Fantasy Mystic Quest. For those unaware, that is not a compliment. Rather, it’s like jumping into a clear, pristine lake, only to touch bottom and sink to your waist in muck. While the puzzling is a nice touch and the game scores points for presentation, it fails to raise the bar for app store RPGs, and in most ways fails to outshine existing offerings. Zenonia and Chronicles of Inotia: Wander of Luone will continue to be my go-to titles for using my iPhone to scratch the RPG itch. And while I usually prefer not to comment on app pricing, I do not think Across Age lives up to its premium $6.99 price tag.