Windows Phone Role-playing fans welcomed Square-Enix’s remake of the original Final Fantasy with open arms last year. At last, we had a lengthy and well-made RPG in the Xbox Windows Phone lineup. But the RPG genre has advanced dramatically since the first Final Fantasy dawned on 8-bit Nintendo consoles. The remake’s modest enhancements couldn’t prevent the game from feeling dated.
Thankfully Square-Enix did not choose the equally dated (but still good) Final Fantasy II as its next Windows Phone RPG. Instead, the publisher followed up with a port of Chaos Rings. Originally released on iOS in 2010, Chaos Rings is an original Japanese RPG (JRPG) designed exclusively for mobile devices. How does it stack up against modern RPG standards? Read on to find out!
Small size, big heart
Whereas Final Fantasy understandably offered a threadbare narrative, Chaos Rings features a tale that is relatively small in scale (character-wise) and yet surprisingly complex and dramatic.
Developer Media Vision wisely understood that smartphone users play games in shorter and less predictable sessions than console gamers. Make a game too long or put too many characters in it and a busy mobile player might not remember a character or plot detail the next time they start the game up.
As such, Chaos Rings consists of four shorter scenarios (and a brief final scenario) that add up to tell a complete tale. Each scenario stars a team of two protagonists for a total of eight playable characters. Factor in five NPCs and the entire cast only numbers 13 large!
Despite (or perhaps because of) its economical nature, Chaos Rings’ story still creates quite an impact. In fact, I would argue that it carries more emotional resonance and coherence than Final Fantasy XIII, a much larger and higher budgeted console game. The tighter focus and more singular vision in Chaos Rings make all the difference.
Four teams united and divided by adversity
A strong premise helps as well. As Chaos Rings begins, five pairs of humans (each male partnered with a female) awaken together in an unknown location following a mysterious eclipse. None of them knows how they got there (or do they?), but soon an ominous Agent informs them of their purpose: the couples must battle to the death in a tournament. The victors will win eternal life.
Each of the playable scenarios follows one of the kidnapped duos as they participate in the tournament upon threat of death. If one team wins, that means the others all lose (their lives), which creates some highly compelling scenarios. You’ll go from playing as one team and sympathizing with their plight to the next scenario in which your new team has to kill the last one. Few games allow players to experience a conflict from so many sides, let alone one as harsh as this.
The danger in retelling one story in four different ways is that the audience could lose interest after the first telling. Indeed, after completing Escher the mercenary’s scenario first, I didn’t connect nearly as well with Eluca the royal executioner’s plot. But then the third scenario involving Olgar (who knows something about the tournament) throws some serious twists into the mix. I didn’t think Ayuta the stable hand’s scenario could provide any surprises, but it does – as well as tying up a lingering thread or two.
It might even seem that some characters’ personalities differ from scenario to scenario. Those discrepancies are just one of the mysteries wrapped around the tournament. All becomes clear by the time the four scenarios wrap and the final one begins.
Presentation to match
Nearly flawless presentation greatly aids that narrative in its impact. Visually, Chaos Rings follows the lead of the seminal Final Fantasy VII. Characters are always polygonal, and much more detailed than those of the seventh Final Fantasy. The environments they navigate are generally two-dimensional, though in battle and cut scenes the backdrops become 3D.
Low resolution textures and thin black borders on both sides of the screen (more discreet than Final Fantasy’s single larger border) are the only real flaws in Chaos Rings’ visuals. Otherwise, it stands among the most beautiful games on Windows Phone – even compared against Windows Phone 8 titles.
Chaos Rings also sounds great, with a well-composed (though not iconic) orchestral soundtrack. Japanese voice actors speak about eighty percent of the dialogue, with the rest going unvoiced. English voice acting would have been highly welcomed, but the Japanese seiyu deliver stronger performances than we’re ever likely to hear from a Gameloft title.
Battles in Chaos Rings move at a brisk pace despite their turn-based nature. At the beginning of your turn, you can select to direct the two protagonists individually or as a pair. Attacking as a pair is faster than not. But each enemy attack will target both party members when you perform a pair attack, which could prove dangerous to your party.
Both characters can also equip three genes collected from various types of enemies. A gene grants access to six skills when fully developed. Some skills are passive, like EXP boosts, while active skills allow the party to cast attack and defense spells.
Most spells conform to one of three elements: fire, water, and gale (wind). Casting a spell temporarily imbues the player or enemy with that spell’s element. The elements have a rock-paper-scissors relationship, so water attacks do extra damage against enemies who use fire attacks, etc. You can typically ignore the element system in favor of physical attacks during normal encounters. But smart element use could mean the difference between victory and defeat during tougher boss clashes.
The game also has a “Break” system in which both sides compete for momentum against the other during battle. Breaks don’t have much impact on the flow of battle though, and can be safely ignored.
Combat isn’t the only thing that will interrupt the exploration. Each of the five dungeons contains several puzzle rooms that players must solve in order to progress. Puzzles come in several varieties, all involving manipulating blocks or candles. Most aren’t too hard, though some users might get stumped and seek a guide for help.
I assume the developers included the puzzle rooms because puzzle games are so popular on mobile devices. The puzzles don't fit all that well with the rest of the game, but they don’t harm it much either.
Save anywhere, why not
The first Final Fantasy betrayed its console origins in that it disallowed saving during certain hours-long dungeons. Thankfully Chaos Rings lets players save absolutely anywhere outside of story scenes or battle. With no unnecessary save file selection option, recording your progress is fast and easy. That’s good because the game does crash occasionally. You’ll want to save often, just to be on the safe side.
Most of Chaos Rings’ Achievements come naturally from completing the various scenarios. The Achievement for reaching level 100 takes a little grinding, and the one for defeating 1,000 enemies requires a lot. It should take about 30 hours to get the full 200 GamerScore.
Two Achievements (one of which is secret) involve winning hidden boss fights. The game hunts at those bosses, so players might end up discovering them on their own. But we also reveal their locations in our exclusive Achievement Guide.
Chaos Rings stands tall as the most expensive Xbox game on Windows Phone. Japanese publishers like Square-Enix are infamous for pricing their mobile games higher than average. But Chaos Rings justifies its price with an intriguing and mature story, nearly flawless presentation, and approximately 30 hours of gameplay (more if we count New Game+).
New releases of this caliber sell for thirty dollars or more on portable consoles. Role-playing game fans, don’t let the price tag deter you from owning one of the best mobile RPGs of all time. We all need to pony up and show Square-Enix our support. If this one sells well enough, maybe they’ll release the prequel Chaos Rings Omega and Chaos Rings II to Windows Phone as well.
- Chaos Rings – Windows Phone 7 or 8 (with 1GB of RAM) – 775 MB - $9.99 – Store Link