If it isn’t Baroque, don’t fix it. That is, unless it is Baroque.
I have been wanting to blog about this game for a long, long time. I’ve been wanting to say how good it is, how effective the atmosphere is, how balanced the gameplay is… but instead I’m going to have to dub this game pure evil, and I am its bitch. Which is fitting, because this particular review is dedicated to one James Jones of Radio Free Nintendo podcast fame (or infamy?). For those who aren’t aware, Radio Free Nintendo is an excellent podcast dedicated haphazardly to Nintendo (they cover games/news across other platforms too). It’s my favourite videogame related podcast: the RFN crew have consistently delivered a top-quality weekly podcast since 2006, an absurd feat given that these guys are hobbyists with full time jobs, partners, rent, pets (probably) – in short, real lives.
Anyway, on a recent Christmas-themed episode of RFN, Mr Jones made me laugh good and hard with his damning comment about the 1997 “Christmas-themed Sega Saturn bundle, AKA Lump of Coal Edition”. It’s funny because it’s true. No one can deny that the Saturn release schedule in the West was pretty barren, and a massive contributor to the console’s woefully short lifespan – a measly 3 year run from ’95-’98. By contrast, the Saturn endured in Japan and had a long list of releases – over 800 games. Which brings me in a long-winded fashion to the irony of Baroque: this 1998 Saturn game was faithfully remade on PS2 and Wii in 2008 only to become one of James Jones’s favourite games.
As for myself, I had this one coming. I deserve this. For all my pretensions about being into “obscure” games, “hidden gems” and all that rubbish, I’ve strayed from the comfort of games that have had (in some cases literally) their ROMs dumped in a .txt file on GameFAQs – and I don’t like it. If I get confused or stuck, I want to be able to get the solution, quickly. Perhaps this has something to do with being brought up on walkthroughs: the internet has spoiled us all, and no one can concentrate anymore, and I’m going to check Facebook, my email and then watch some YouTube before I continue writing this post.
Alas, the internet has not saved me from Baroque, in part because it belongs to a genre of videogames, the rogue-like, that has inaccessibility as part of its DNA, but also because of the language barrier, and what I’ll call the obscurity factor. There is almost nothing written online about Baroque on the Saturn (or for that matter the enhanced Playstation 1 port). Baroque is not your average pick up and play game. Thank goodness for the remake’s release in English – despite a 10 year gap between them, the differences between the Saturn original and the PS2/Wii remake (as far as I can make out) are almost entirely aesthetic. The Saturn version adopts a first-person perspective, while the remake is in third-person perspective by default. There’s also some extra bonus end-game achievements or some such junk in the remake. In terms of the game itself, the remake has a different save system, and an added adjustable difficulty setting. This is lucky for the Western audience, because this game is punishing as hell and I would love to simply choose “Easy” mode at this point and be done with it.
The dramatic difference in the saving system was made all too clear as I was watching a Let’s Play of the PS2 version. The player had gotten to a pretty advanced stage in the tower when he was killed by enemies.
“Oh sugar,” I thought, “is he going to keep the video going while he trawls through those last umpteen floors again?!”
Imagine my surprise when he simply hit load, and resumed on that very same level he died on. What the hell! You see, in the Saturn incarnation, Baroque will only allow you to create permanent saves after you reach the bottom of the game’s expanding central tower – while traversing the tower itself you can only create temporary, one-time use saves. Each time you successfully make it through the tower, the tower expands downwards. Once you’ve passed the relatively easy 8 or so initial floors, the tower will possess 16 floors. Dying, especially in the lower floors of the tower, can potentially render multiple hours of gameplay totally meaningless. That’s no idle threat either, as this is not an easy game, and you undoubtedly will die in Baroque. [UPDATE: If you have a backup memory cart or Action Replay, you can create a backup copy of your temporary save. It’s not streamlined like on the PS2 (I presume it’s the same on the Wii), but it’s enough to save your ass.]
The save system (or lack thereof) will probably be biggest turn off to prospective players, and if that’s not turn off enough then the language barrier could well be the finishing blow. The game is not entirely impenetrable thankfully, and the Let’s Play videos of the remake are useful for getting to grips with the basics, such as what different items do and how to use them. It is also questionable to what extent familiarity with Japanese is necessary, because the game is littered with items that have random effects. The effects of these items dropped by enemies, known as bones, only becomes clear once you using it on yourself or an enemy – it can cause warping, damage, temporary invincibility, healing, among other effects.
Having said that, there is a lot of extra trial and error that comes with the language barrier, in a game that is not forgiving of trial and error. To my relief, just today I have discovered this nifty website which lists the game’s items in Japanese, and through the miracle of Google Translate I can then proceed to get a rough idea of any item’s name and then compare that with an item list in an English-language FAQ for the Baroque remake, which will then hopefully tell me what effect the item has! Yay, laborious double translation! To summarise: Item in game -> Japanese list -> Google Translate -> GameFAQs. Simple, right? It’s essentially the modern internet-era equivalent of the draw-your-own-map-on-graph-paper ethos from the NES era. You need to heavily invest, in other words, and I don’t know if I’m prepared to do that for this game. I’m only too aware that these complaints echo the trial-of-fire that every Japanese game importer faces at one point or another! That makes me one of the gang now, right? Right guys…?
Still, despite the combination of gauntlet and migraine that constitutes Baroque… I really like this game. The cut-throat gameplay, in which you’re always looking for any advantage, means survival is the name of the game. And survival is actually meaningful because death is irreversible (just like real life 😦 ). It’s tense, addictive, and satisfying. The atmosphere is also really well done. Baroque feels like Silent Hill’s sci-fi-obsessed cousin. Enemies and friendly NPCs alike are extremely weird and creepy in design: one NPC inexplicably wears a brown sack on his head that moves as he breathes. The music and sound design is very effective. The environments are suitably foreboding, and are more interesting than other randomly generated dungeon hauls I’ve played *cough* Persona. The aesthetic elements in the Saturn original are in my opinion far superior to its remake’s teenage, emo, anime stylings. The music in particular suffers in the remake: the Saturn version’s highly atmospheric, soothing and eerie soundtrack gives way to the PS2/Wii’s ear-grating industrial metal. (On a technical note I was surprised to find a widescreen option in Baroque, a rarity in 1998 although there are a few other games on Saturn that have this, such as Nights Into Dreams and Panzer Dragoon Zwei.)
I wish I could say more about the game’s progression, but I must admit that (and this is only partly down to the language barrier) I’m awful. I’m currently unable to progress beyond the second iteration of the tower, despite numerous attempts at besting the 16 or so floors. It didn’t help that my Saturn’s internal battery died recently, demotivating me by forcing me to repeat the initial 8 floor tower. Lame excuses notwithstanding, I’d recommend this game for survival-horrorists with a very high tolerance for steep learning curves, and for nobody else.