Review by Kamatari47

"A truly innovative RPG masterpiece"

Introduction

Venus & Braves ~Majou to Megami to Horobi no Yogen~ (Venus & Braves: The Witch, the Goddess, and the Prophecy of Destruction) is a RPG unlike any other. No other role-playing game ever made has anything like its blend of stylish graphics, soul-stirring music, captivating story, fantastic characters, and innovative gameplay. However, the nature of its game mechanics, as well as the relatively high level of Japanese mastery it requires of its players, mean that this game is not for everyone.

Graphics

Simply put, the game looks great. In fact, it was the graphics that drew me to this game in the first place, though once here, I found plenty of compelling reasons to stay with the game and thoroughly enjoy it. Everything in the game is done with a dazzling spectrum of color and given a stylistic "brushed-over" feel that comes out quite nicely. The character portraits are beautiful and carefully designed to match their personalities, and their battle-mode sprites are slightly cartoonish yet detailed. The monsters range from the ferocious to the bizarre, but none look "silly," and the background scenery always suits the tone of the locale (the capital city looks bustling and urbane, whereas the abandoned fort looks neglected and forbidding). In short, nothing graphics-related in this game disappoints, as Venus & Braves proves that you do not need 3D graphics to razzle and dazzle.

Sound

Simply put, the game also sounds great. The score is full of flowing, evocative orchestral pieces which really set the tone for whatever is going on at that point of the story. The game also features one of the most impressive voice-acting casts in recent history, and the seiyuu really do a great job at bringing their characters to life. A small complaint is that very little of the game is actually voiced: maybe about half of the story-related events that occur in the game are accompanied by voice-acting. Considering how good the voice actors are, I for one would certainly have liked to hear more from them.

Story

"This is the chronicle of the battles fought by a goddess who stood for a world in crisis, an immortal man, and the nameless heroes who stood with them."

-- Opening FMV of Venus & Braves

The story is the crowning jewel of Venus & Braves. In the year 999, you take control of Blood Boal, a 345-year-old knight who was given immortality and eternal youth after a deadly battle three-plus centuries ago. In the three hundred-odd years since that fateful event (details of which Blood remembers little), Blood has had many friends and lovers, only to lose them all as they inevitably age and die. During the year 999, he is commanding a band of Robin Hood-like vigilantes, the Golem Bandits, when he finds himself defending a small town from rampaging monsters. In the thick of battle, a mysterious woman tells him that he is the "chosen one" who must continuously fight the forces of darkness over a period of 100 years, lest the world succumb to the fate prophesied for the year 1099:

"1099: And then, the entire world...shall die."

-- The Prophecy of Bel-Barius

During those one hundred years, Blood must recruit brave men and women from across the Acral Continent and lead them against Nagzosaal --an ancient evil known as the Dark, Infinite Disaster-- as well as the four Wings of Disaster, Nagzosaal's trusted lieutenants. Along the way, Blood discovers more about his mission, meets new friends, and loses old ones (often under truly, truly tragic circumstances). At every step of the way, the player is truly made to feel that Blood's mission -- to save the world -- is a genuinely titanic struggle befitting its scope. Over the course of the hundred-year war, Blood will make painful mistakes, attain Pyrrhic victories, suffer catastrophic setbacks, and emerge all the stronger due to his perseverance. The rich storyline of Venus & Braves, as well as the deep, evolving nature of its characters, will lead the player to truly care about the squad of heroes and its gargantuan task of trying to save the world.

Speaking of characters, they are a dazzling bright spot of this game. Each and every "story" character is brought to life through their dialogue and interaction with the rest of the party; in many cases, they evolve right before your very eyes, as they come to understand their quest --and each other-- better with the passage of time. The memorable cast includes Ariah, the goddess who disregards human concerns in favor of doing the greater good -- i.e. preventing the fulfillment of the Prophecy of Destruction (she grows to understand and empathize with those mere mortals much, much better by journey's end); Vivid, the eternally beautiful great witch who paid a dear price for knowledge and cares nothing about using her powers for anything other than her own amusement; Wahlrus, the grizzled, battle-savvy monk raised from childhood by Blood himself; Flee, the bumbling young archer who becomes a steady, dependable soldier; Miletta, the spirited witch who backs down to no one; Leo, the jaded, sarcastic adventurer who learns to enjoy doing the right thing; Feeny, the fairy servant of Ariah whose disdain for the lives and travails of lowly mortals cracks and shatters as he finds --and loses-- an unlikely mortal friend; Meeray, the adorable little orphan who dreams of growing up to become Blood's bride; Mayura, the taciturn, immortal clocktower-keeper who finds friendship in Blood and his crew, for which she is dealt a harsh fate; Yuma, the ninja/explosives expert who loses her old life --and her family-- to acts of greed and selfishness; Surugi, the samurai whose only goal in life is to protect Alvi, the rigid, "do everything by the book" daughter of a mayor; Igor, the warrior nicknamed "the mad dog killer" who comes to care for his unlikely companions; and many, many more.

A caveat: to truly enjoy the storyline, you must be fairly skilled at reading Japanese. Venus & Braves contains few FMVs and fewer voiced segments than could be expected, so in order to truly understand the characters and what happens between them, you must read through lots of unvoiced dialogue (the game is much like a visual novel in that regard). If you skip through the unvoiced dialogue, you will not be able to get the full picture of the characters' personalities, backstories, and interactions with one another, and they will consequently feel less fleshed-out and less "alive" than they would otherwise.

Gameplay

The gameplay in Venus & Braves is truly unique. As Blood Boal, you command a squad (originally the Golem Bandits, though you get the option to change its name to the _______ Knights, where the blank represents the name you choose) of up to fourteen fighters and spend most of the 100 years defeating monsters before they can destroy the various towns on the Acral Continent and make the Prophecy of Destruction come closer to fulfilling itself. You are regulated by the Scale of the Spirits, which is a clock-like device that gauges the "safety rating" of the world: destroying monsters raises the rating, whereas failing to do so will result in the rating plummeting from year to year. Should the Scale of the Spirits ever show a negative value, you'll have exactly one year to raise the rating to a positive number or lose the game. Journeying on the overworld map takes time, and a year will usually pass after 4 to 5 monster fights. Your squad will usually contain 3-4 "story" characters, meaning that you must recruit or breed 10-11 other fighters to round out the party. Each player character in the game will belong to one of seventeen classes (Warrior, Barbarian, Knight, Monk, Cleric, Magician, Adventurer, Wizard, Witch, Archer, Valkyrie, Samurai, Ninja, Sibyl, Shaman, Paladin, and Warrior Mage), each with its own strengths and weaknesses. In battle, you send out up to seven of your fighters and arrange them on a 3x4 grid facing the enemy. Fighters in the front row attack; fighters in the second row provide assists to the front row or (if they're Archers or Valkyries with no one standing in front of them) attack indirectly; fighters in the third row use healing skills, if they have any. After every round, you have the option of keeping your formation the same or rotating (a process in which the front row fighters jump back to the third row, and the other two rows move up) so that damaged characters can heal and fresh troops can get a crack at the enemy. There is no character-specific EXP assigned from battle, as character growth occurs mainly through the passage of time and through the accumulation of battle experience (by participating in a large number of fights), though each character can earn up to five levels by delivering the final blow to an enemy (with each "level-up", the character will gain a +2 increase to one of his/her stats).

In the Venus & Braves system, it is not only possible but recommended to plan every battle in advance -- using a calculator, you can predict the outcome of each battle, right down to who gets to score the finishing blow (though random critical hits will screw up your planning from time to time). Planning battles in advance allow you to manipulate character relationships, level up younger characters more quickly, and preserve your characters against the stat-lowering effects of fatigue (as well as prevent them from dying due to fatigue-induced lack of durability), all of which help you construct a better, more powerful squad. However, this is also one of the main reasons why this game is not for everyone -- it requires extreme patience to plan for each of the hundreds of battles that will occur in this game, especially as you face more difficult enemies: higher-level monsters will have more HP, higher attack power (forcing you to rotate more often and making it hard for you to use the younger, weaker members of your party), and annoying abilities like initial defense (the monster will shrug off some of the damage from the first attack made by each row of attackers), healing (the monster will regain some HP whenever you rotate), and petrification (a secondary effect of an attack that immobilizes one of your fighters and generally force you to rotate or absorb extra damage, as well as costing the petrified fighter his/her attack this round -- if he/she hasn't done so before being turned to stone), all of which serve to make your calculations that much more complex. Not everyone will be patient enough to do all this planning to "get ahead of the curve" as far as crafting a powerful team is concerned, and those players who do not may grow frustrated with the game as the bosses and the higher-level monsters chop their teams into sausage.

Venus & Braves, more than any other RPG in recent memory, emphasizes the natural aging process of its human characters. Each character's game lifespan is divided into three phases: growth (marked by an upward arrow), peak (marked by a level arrow), and decline (marked by a downward arrow). During the growth phase, the character will have low stats all around, but they will increase dramatically with each passing year. Since character growth consists of raising each stat a certain percentage, it's imperative that you get each character to level 5 as quickly as you can, since you'll reap larger stat gains due to the higher "base" stats (in fact, this results in a snowball effect that will end in your character being much stronger at the end of the growth phase than one with the same base stats who was not leveled quickly). During the peak phase, your character will achieve the highest power level he/she will have during his/her entire life, though the stat gains from year to year will "plateau" and appear minimal when compared to the gains achieved during the growth phase. Finally, during the decline phase, your character's stats drop sharply from year to year as he/she quickly grows infirm and senile; he/she will, if married, stop having children and generally become a burden to the team until you replace him/her with someone younger and fresher. Keeping your team stocked with young fighters, as well as developing your fighters during their growth phases, are keys to success in Venus & Braves.

Venus & Braves also has an unique relationship system that governs the non-story party members in Blood's squad. By having characters fight side-by-side, healing each other, or providing assistance to each other, they will move closer on the Gestalt Board, which charts all of the relationships between your party members. Eventually, characters with a tight-knit relationship will either marry (if they're of different genders) or become bosom buddies (if they're of the same gender). Characters who marry become eligible to produce offspring, which is extremely important to the future of the squad: to have a consistently strong team throughout the hundred-year crusade, you must match strong fighters in the hope that they marry and produce strong children, who can then be matched to produce even stronger grandchildren. Note that you may only have three children between any given couple, and that the total number of children you may have at any time cannot exceed 14. Characters who become bosom buddies do not give you any lasting benefits, but their relationship will give you a third option during battles (in addition to staying and rotating) - summoning the spirit that blessed their relationship, which will deal massive damage to the enemy as well as give your party a variable benefit (that depends on which particular spirit you summoned).

Magic items also play an important role in the game. Occasionally, you'll find a magic item either after defeating a monster or as a result of visiting a place talked about by a rumor in town. Magic items in Venus & Braves grow with the fighters -- you earn one experience point for each battle fought with the item equipped on a participant, and the item will level up when it gains 12 exp (for level 1-3), 16 exp (level 4-6), or 20 exp (level 7-9). While a low-level item offers very little in the way of stat boosts, a high-level item can really make your fighters much more powerful. Magic items may be obtained either as items dropped by monsters or as the reward for an investigation into a rumor circulating around a town or village -- rumors allow you to interact with townsfolk and receive various quests which may result in the acquisition of a magic item or the recruitment of a new party member.

Play Time/Replayability

Venus & Braves is a massive adventure that takes place over a century-plus of game time, so it is not a game that the player can expect to finish in a few sittings. Generally, a quick run through the game will consume around 60 hours, and players can expect to spend an extra 20-30 hours if they fight often or do a lot of planning and calculations. There is some replayability to the game -- once you've completed the Story Mode, you will be allowed to access a Chronicle Mode that allows you to freely play through the hundred-year crusade with a party of your own choosing (i.e. no storyline events, no plot-mandated characters). After the fascinating narrative of Story Mode, however, most players will find Chronicle Mode a little bland, and it's also not entirely a replay option -- you can activate Chronicle Mode at any time via a special button input code.

Final Recommendation:

Great graphics, beautiful music, an immersive, character-driven story, and a truly innovative gameplay system add up to make Venus & Braves one of the classics of the RPG genre. Unfortunately, the hefty requirement for Japanese reading skills (insofar as understanding all the details offered by the rich storyline), as well as the patience and mathematics work required to master the gameplay, mean that not everyone will be able to enjoy this game. Those who do, however, will quickly realize that they are playing one of the finest RPGs ever made. Venus & Braves ~Majou to Megami to Horobi no Yogen~ is a must-play experience for any RPG lover who possesses solid grasp of the Japanese language, and it makes a fantastic gift for gamers who enjoy an expansive adventure anchored by well-developed characters and a one-of-a-kind gameplay system.


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 05/29/08

Game Release: Venus & Braves: Majo no Megami to Horobi no Yogen (JP, 02/13/03)


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