Just over a year since its release in America, the PlayStation 2 is finally starting to hit its stride as a platform. The big names that motivated the masses to buy one in the first place are finally seeing release, some interesting niche titles are on the horizon, and, yes, the RPGs are finally starting to arrive. In the short holiday window before the first certifiable RPG blockbuster, more than a few publishers are scrambling to get a game to market before the big one hits. In this unexpected wave of almost totally unhyped titles comes Tsugunai: Atonement from Atlus. The game received little attention when in was published earlier this year in Japan by Sony, and it's easy to see why. Tsugunai is often so low-key that you can hardly register a pulse. Whereas most RPGs are globe trotting epics, Tsugunai takes place in a single small town and its central conflicts are personal. In a genre often full of epic bombast, Tsugunai is an interesting change of pace, but not quite one that manages to live up to its initial promise.

  Cut The Mullet
"Wait a minute... I have a mullet?"

   The main story is introduced by a flashback. Reise, a mercenary for hire, is sent by the Lord of Walondia to recover a sacred relic called the Treasure Orb. Reise manages this task easily, but not without incurring the wrath of Danu, the Goddess of Light. As punishment for his transgression, she separates his soul from his body and dooms him to walk the earth as a spirit until he makes reparations for his sin. To atone, Reise must "heal the hearts" of the local townspeople and help them with their problems. Though Reise can't interact with the physical world himself, he can take the peoples' problems on directly by possessing their bodies for a brief time.

   With a drunken, surly gnome named Navi as a guide for this spiritual quest, Reise must hop from body to body, solving problems ranging from rampaging monsters to a lost hat, until the Goddess is appeased. The story plays out in this episodic fashion; Reise wanders the town eavesdropping on the troubles of the populous. When he finds someone whose heart is full of sadness, the player can possess him or her. While Reise retains all his battle skills and equipment from person to person, many of the playable characters can't fight at all. Many of Tsugunai's small stories are based more around familiarizing yourself with the small town of Walondia and its inhabitants.

Leise gets help from Lil' Gallagher

   However, there's still plenty of dungeon crawling to be had in the areas surrounding the town. There are four "main" characters that Reise must possess multiple times over the course of the game, and their scenarios tend to be more combat-oriented. Tsugunai's battle system is a fairly standard turn-based affair, with requisite attack and magic options. There is also a Limit Break-like "Stage Gauge," which fills as the character deals or receives damage. As usual, filling the gauge gives you access to a more powerful attack.

   The more interesting part of Tsugunai's battle system, however, is the method of defense. Each of the four face buttons on the PlayStation controller activates a different defensive tactic. These are all timing based and must be activated at the right moment during the enemy's attack. Each of the four has its advantages and disadvantages. The Counter Guard, for example, is much harder to time than the Normal Guard, but it also unleashes a powerful counter attack. The Stage Guard blocks less damage, but charges up the Stage Gauge. The Back Step will let you avoid an attack altogether - at the cost of one quarter of the gauge.

   Tsugunai's battle system may not be the most innovative, but it gets the job done. The guard system manages to keep you constantly active during the battles without overburdening you with button presses. Most of the game's battle strategy lies in learning the exact timing for each type of enemy. But while the basic system is enjoyable enough, it's also severely hobbled by the game's adherence to a single character party. Reise works alone throughout the game, and solo tactics are limited to simple attack and defense patterns. The story-based scenarios offer a break from the combat, which is increasingly needed as the game wears on - Tsugunai's short, bland dungeons are reused numerous times throughout the game and quickly become tedious. Thankfully, enemies are visible on the field map, so players can zip through the dungeons when revisiting later.

  I apologise for that "baroque" pun.
Oratorio Tangram

   Like many RPGs, spells in Tsugunai are made available by equipping special items, in this case amulets. The amulets can hold several runes, each of which represents a different spell. The catch is that the runes come in different shapes; a cure spell may be a small triangle, while a more powerful fire spell is represented by a larger rhombus. Fitting the proper mix of spells into an amulet is a puzzle very like a tangram. "Solving" the puzzle by filling in all the spaces with the appropriate mix of spells gives you access to the powerful summon pictured on the amulet itself. These summons fight along side you in battle and will attack every round as long as you have enough magic points. Unfortunately, you don't have any control over their actions, so the summons do little to alleviate the simplicity of the single character battles. And while the shape-based magic system is certainly clever, it's also horribly unwieldy. By the eighth time you're forced to rearrange all your spells just to fit a new one on the board, you'll begin to wonder if it's worth the bother.

   The quality of Tsugunai's graphics is difficult to pin down. While the characters are well designed, they're all so hidden under the game's bland environments and uniformly brown palette that it's difficult to notice their quality. Thankfully, the music more than makes up for it; the game is scored by Yasunori Mitsuda, best known for his work on Chrono Cross and Xenogears. And though the game's graphics may not be too diverse, the music is -- Mitsuda has composed over 40 songs in his distinct Celtic style, including multiple standard battle themes. While the score may not be Mitsuda's best work, his style fits the game well and adds some much-needed personality to Tsugunai.

The town color forgot.

   And personality is the most important thing the game lacks. Without an epic tale, fantastic visuals, or particularly innovative gameplay, the weight of the game falls squarely on the shoulders of its characters - and they simply aren't fleshed out enough to support it. While Walondia itself manages to become a living town, it's populated by mostly forgettable characters. A bigger problem is that the scenarios themselves are often too self-contained. Despite the small size of the town, the different characters you meet and possess have little contact with each other, and their stories rarely overlap in any meaningful way. Instead of an interweaving tale told from many perspectives, the player is only given a series of separate short stories. Worse yet, the scenarios too often fall back on standard RPG clichés that are tiresome even within the context of a much more interesting plot. Far too many are simplistic fetch quests, dull dungeon crawls, or a combination of both. The variety of characters and goals helps to keep things interesting, but Tsugunai's promising narrative mechanic is largely wasted on a string of hackneyed scenarios.

   Despite all these criticisms, Tsugunai is still a worthwhile game for those in search of something different in an RPG. The final game is not all that it could have been, but the low-key plot, small scope, and lack of melodrama give Tsugunai a simple charm that will appeal to those who've grown tired of usual collection of spunky teens banding together to save the universe.

Review by Zak McClendon, GIA.
Tsugunai: Atonement
Developer Cattle Call
Publisher Atlus
Genre RPG
Medium CD-ROM (1)
Platform PlayStation 2
Release Date  02.22.01
 Late November 2001
Atlus officially announces Tsugunai, Wizardry for U.S. release
114 screenshots
4 character portraits
Japanese box art