Hoshigami: Ruining Blue Earth


    When Maxfive's strategy RPG Hoshigami: Ruining Blue Earth was first revealed in late 1999, rumors quickly circulated that the game was the first effort from ex-members of the Final Fantasy Tactics team. Much to everyone's disappointment, the rumors were later dispelled; though Hoshigami bears a strong visual resemblance to FFT and its forbearer Tactics Ogre, the teams are entirely different. But as more information began to surface, it was slowly revealed that Hoshigami's debt to FFT and Tactics Ogre was more in terms of inspiration, rather than mere imitation. Maxfive, it seemed, had something more ambitious in mind than a copycat project and the game's interesting play mechanics and deep backstory gave gamers hope that Hoshigami would continue the spirit of the Tactics series.

    Unfortunately, the end result is a striking example of good intentions gone terribly awry. Though the story, world, and mechanics of Hoshigami are interesting and occasionally innovative, the basic gameplay is so fundamentally unbalanced that it leeches any entertainment value the game could have held.

   Like many strategy RPGs, Hoshigami is a tale of civil war and political backstabbing. Unlike many of them, it's relatively straightforward. On the floating island of Mardias, war is brewing. The Valaimian Empire, which invaded the Kingdom of Gerauld fifteen years ago, now has its sights set on Nightweld to the west. Valaim, it seems, is seeking the ancient powers rumored to be held in the Ixian ruins which lie within Nightweld's borders. Thrown into the middle of this is Fazz, an optimistic young mercenary who must uncover the truth behind Valaim's aggression and save the entire content from destruction. The story is simple, but well told, and the characters convey much personality through their excellent design and large screen filling portraits for important story scenes.

  I know it's a pike, but I didn't have the proper screen for this joke.
Justification by axe

    Hoshigami also brings a number of new systems to the standard turn-based strategy RPG formula. Like many parts of the game, the new systems seem well thought out and innovative, but their implementation leaves much to be desired. Instead of jobs or classes, each character can worship one of six elemental deities. The deities each offer unique stat bonuses, weapon proficiencies, and new abilities that can be gained by earning Devotion Points in battle. Unfortunately, new devotion levels are gained very slowly and the bulk of the abilities are simple stat boosts or immunities that don't add much strategy to the game. To make matters worse, there's no clear guide what sort of abilities each deity will grant. Skills can be carried over if you switch deities, but it takes so long to attain the better skills from a single diety that this hardly comes into play.

   Magic is handled through the use of special coins called Coinfeigms. Though a Coinfeigm only casts a single spell, each one has its own unique properties, such as strength, casting cost, and area of effect. Players can manipulate these properties by engraving the coins with special seals. As with the deity system, players aren't given any clear guide of what seals are needed to get which effects, meaning a great deal of trial and error is needed to obtain the higher level spells. The coins also require constant maintenance through engraving if you hope to keep their overall potency on the level with your opponents' spells.

U Rappin' awful
Let's RAP for it!

   But, the biggest, and most problematic, new gameplay mechanic is the RAP (Ready for Action Point) System. Instead of having set phases for movement and action, each character has a RAP meter and every action - casting a spell, moving, attacking, or using an item - fills a set part of the meter depending on that character's stats. Use less of the meter and that character's turn will come again much sooner. Go over the limit with attacks and the turn will be delayed. The system is much more flexible than the norm, but it's also much more unpredictable. By using the entire RAP meter for attack, a character can often down a foe in a single round. This almost always favors your opponents who can afford to sacrifice a few of their vastly superior numbers to take out one of your seven-character party. The RAP system is a wonderful idea, and savvy players can use it to manipulate the turn order to execute multi-character attacks called Sessions, but the system is far too unpredictable here to plan a sound strategy around.

    The RAP system only exacerbates one of Hoshigami's deepest problems: all the tiny variables that go into every battle engagement are exaggerated to ridiculous proportions. Factors such as character facing, elemental alignments, and terrain have always had an important place as nuances in a well-developed strategy game, but in Hoshigami they have all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Case in point: a character may have a good chance to land a blow on an enemy from the side, only to have the hit percentage drop to near-zero when the enemy faces him. It's not uncommon to find your troops doing single digit damage against enemies of some elemental alignments and triple-digit damage against others. It's obvious that Maxfive was attempting to make Hoshigami a deep game with all these extreme variables, but the end effect is closer to horribly random. Hoshigami's battles often play out like a demonstration of chaos theory in action - slight changes in conditions lead to huge differences in outcome. Careful players can try to track and exploit these variables, but inevitably something goes wrong and the result is invariably death.

They Were Expendable

    Death comes early, easily, and often in Hoshigami. The game presents players with stacked odds and ruthless AI -- most of your victories will be Pyrrhic at best. It's unusual to make it through a story battle without losing at least one of your troops and the entire roster will often have to be replaced in the space of a few battles. The game only ends if Fazz himself is killed, so it's also open season on the other lead characters. The story will change and branch depending on whom you keep alive, but it too often feels like those characters are excised from the plot with nothing given to replace them. Unlike the Tactics series, Hoshigami only has a handful of unique characters; the bulk of the fighting is done by hired troops. The non-linear story is commendable, but the end result of all this carnage is that the player constantly has to start from ground zero with a set of new recruits and train them up to the level of main party.

    Attempting to level up new recruits while playing the story battles is nearly impossible - the enemy troops are always at the same level as Fazz (or higher) and anyone more than two levels below won't survive more than a few rounds. The player's only recourse is one of the many tedious Towers of Trial. The towers aren't much more interesting than a standard throwaway bonus dungeon, but in Hoshigami they take up more time than the main game. The towers are the only place you'll be able to train lower level troops, and the only places to acquire most of the game's best equipment and coin seals, but they're still a more or less random assortment of very similar battles. To make matters worse, leveling up is a slow and laborious process. You'll need to fight enemies at about the same level as your troops to get anywhere and, as is the case elsewhere in the game, death can come out of nowhere. It doesn't help matters that the towers only allow you to save every five levels. Leave to save before one of the milestones and you'll have to start again at the last one. But if your newly leveled up characters die in the tower - and some will - you'll have to start all over again with fresh recruits.

War is Hell
Uneven odds

    Hoshigami is more than challenging. It is more than merely frustrating. It is often downright unplayble. After the first few battles, the game quickly degenerates into a constant process of running to stand still. It removes any sense of accomplishment in building your troops because they inevitably die soon after; it makes it hard to feel any pride in your victories because life and death are so random; and it makes it difficult to have any fun because the whole experience feels very much like a chore. All of this may be a spot-on simulation of what war is actually like, but it's hardly enjoyable.

    And that's the core of Hoshigami's problems - for all its interesting mechanics, compelling storyline, and immense promise it simply isn't any fun. Hardcore strategy fans with a lot of patience and a high tolerance for pain might be able to salvage a playable game, but Hoshigami's sadistic gameplay isn't likely to be many people's idea of a good time. Maxfive may have buried a unique game far beneath Hoshigami's flaws, but finding it is simply too much work to be worth the effort.

Review by Zak McClendon, GIA.
Hoshigami: Ruining Blue Earth
Developer Maxfive
Publisher Atlus
Genre Strategy RPG
Medium CD (1)
Platform Sony PlayStation
Release Date  Unknown
E3: Hoshigami: Ruining Blue Earth impressions
93 screenshots
E3: 9 high-res character designs
US box art