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Review: Chaos Rings (iPhone)

When Chaos Rings was released for the iPhone by Square Enix, the main question asked was, “Is it worth it?” At £7.49 (at time of this writing), this JRPG was priced far above what most iTunes customers were paying for other casual games. Would the storytelling pedigree and production values generally associated with Square Enix games be present, or was the inflated price simply brand-name exploitation at its most cynical?

Four male-female couples suddenly find themselves trapped in a mysterious, baroque mansion known as the Ark Arena. Their host, known only as The Agent, informs them that they have been entered into a competition where they must fight to the death. The victorious couple will be granted eternal life and youth, while the losers will be condemned to oblivion. With little alternative than to play by the Agent’s rules, each couple must struggle through the Ark Arena’s trials while trying to determine just why they have been paired together. For example, why has a lone, cocky mercenary been paired with a woman who has sworn to kill him? Why has a lowly stablehand been paired with the princess of his country, and why is he so adapt at swordplay despite never having held a sword before? And why is there a strange tension between a young prince and his royal bodyguard?

The battle system allows each couple to act independently or in tandem with their partner. Acting together increases the potency of whatever action is taken and allows the couple to share their individual abilities, but comes at the risk of creating a single target for enemies. Magic uses a simple rock-paper-scissors weakness mechanic, with the added twist that you can afflict specific elements onto your enemies to set them up for future attacks. The final idiosyncrasy of the battle system is the Break Gauge: a meter that grants additional power to whoever holds the advantage in battle. Inflicting attacks upon the advantaged party lowers their Break Gauge, at which point a “Break” occurs and the advantage switches to the other side. This encourages an offensive style of gameplay, as defending will only push the Break Gauge further towards the side of the enemy.

Let’s go over the bad things first. There is very little variety in the gameplay. Most of the variety comes from the Puzzle Rooms: fun, two-minute logic puzzles that break up the monotony of dungeon crawling every so often. The rest of the time, you’re running around the same four areas collecting keys or fighting random encounters. The novelty of the battle system wears off when you realise just how little tactical variation there is, and when you fight the same group of monsters for what seems like the millionth time. Because of this, Chaos Rings is best played in small doses, before the novelty manages to wear off. Of course, this tactic is keeping in line with the kind of pick-up-and-play aesthetics that a portable game should have, but those who wish to play for extended periods of time will get bored very quickly. The fact that there are only four unique areas in the game and that each scenario consists of tackling them in a different order- with the same objectives and same enemies- is wearing on one’s patience. Fortunately, the game allows you to save at any point, turn off encounters (after acquiring an early-game skill) and even restore games that are accidentally closed on the off-chance that you actually need to use your iPhone as a phone. The accessibility of a portable, casual game is certainly there.

What Chaos Rings relies on is its character development, and in this area it really excels. Each of the four scenarios lasts about four to five hours, revealing an amazing amount of depth to each couple that changes the very essence of how you view them. They develop both as individuals and as partners, and by the end of each scenario each couple has truly changed: as it should be in any story. Chaos Rings succeeds magnificently in this respect. The overarching plot line regarding the purpose and nature of the Ark Arena is adequate as the staging area for this development, though it does stray into the utterly bizarre at times (as is the nature of JRPGs).

Graphically, this is one of the nicest looking games I’ve seen on the iPhone. The graphical level is reminiscent of Final Fantasy VIII: realistically humanoid and sufficient for immersion. Dialogue is accompanied by well-drawn character portraits, and the design of the characters themselves manage to remain stylish without falling into utter impracticability. The areas themselves use mostly pre-rendered backdrops: an old trick but one that makes for some beautiful scenes. Fitting to a story with such a grim premise, the beauty of the scenery is tinged with sadness and ruin, adding greatly to the atmosphere of the game.

My grade for Chaos Rings is Recommended. This is a great experience for your £7.49, and if you’re looking for a proper JRPG to play as you sit on your public transportation of choice, it’s a solid buy. The outstanding character development is sorely let down by the lack of gameplay variety: it’s a shame that the majority of creativity went into the puzzles instead of figuring out how to make replays more bearable or working out new ways to use a battle system that had a lot of potential for varied, interesting combat. If anything, Chaos Rings shows that it is possible to include the same depth of storytelling without a vast investment in time, something that I wish would be adopted by longer JRPGs that feel the need to draw everything out to reach a predetermined playtime total.

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