Softstar may be keen on churning out Xian Jian and Xuan Yuan Jian games as fast as is humanly possible but one of their other DOS-birthed series, Empire of Angels, has remained a perennial outsider with just five games released over the past twenty three years – and this most recent one only came out a few weeks ago!
When I started taking notes for this blog post it was only meant to be a quick little thing collecting together a few thoughts on the beginning of the game; just something to get a bit of English-language coverage out there and to stop me feeling guilty for not having the time to drop everything and play it through to completion. But time flies when you’re having fun, and as it turns out over the past few days I’ve accidentally played through over half the game in a caffeine-induced blur without even realising it. Never mind eh?
The most immediate appeal, apart from the obvious allure of a game filled with beautiful women fighting other beautiful women in their best battle bikinis, has to be the gloriously colourful and chunky low-poly graphics that instantly reminded me of Falcom’s excellent Zwei 2 - a style that’s as welcome as it is surprising from a country that seems hell-bent on making their modern PC games as polygon-hungry as possible, optimisation be damned. Character designs are overwhelmingly cute with huge expressive faces, and neat little touches like archers firing plungers rather than arrows and allies cheering when they’re healed really crank the adorable-factor right up to eleven sneezing baby pandas out of ten.
In keeping with the charming graphics the storytelling is skewed towards the ‘mild peril’ end of the RPG scale, with our band of plucky heroines charging across the land fending off spiders, medusa-alikes and the general forces of evil as they go. It makes for a pleasant change from the typical Softstar RPG tale, which generally involves people who love each other very very much being forced to spend an eternity apart thanks to fate/death/duty/evil/all of the above.
As all storytelling occurs in set event scenes and the map uses a point-to-point style location system the battles are where you end up spending most of your time, and they also adhere to the ‘simple but polished’ rule used as the basis for every other design decision in the game. The scuffles aren’t going to stretch anyone on their knees begging for another Thracia, but everyone else should find plenty of fun things in here to keep them entertained.
I want to start by talking about something that’s not normally worth more than a quick check over to make sure it works – the UI (unless we’re talking about Vagrant Story, that is). The witchcraft on display here is so wonderful that everyone looking to make a game in the same genre really needs to rip this off (sorry, ‘be inspired by’) right now. Everything’s beautifully streamlined – characters start with their range grid visible and ready to move, and any enemies in range of a standard attack from any particular position are automatically highlighted when you place the mouse over the movement square. All that information right at your fingertips, and you haven’t pushed a single button. After moving the game brings up the character’s attack icons for you – fine details are a mere mouseover away and a single click on a target brings up all the relevant ally and enemy stats you need to see before an attack, including to-hit percentages and the likelihood of a counterattack. I’m sure this looks like I’m making a big fuss over a minor detail because I have a weird fixation with RPG UIs, but when you’re having to perform these simple commands hundreds if not thousands of times over the course of a game it makes a real difference when they’ve been organised in a way that is this convenient and really feels like it respects your precious free time.
Tactically the battles are pretty straightforward on the surface – kill the leader, reach this point on the map, survive so many turns – but these vanilla victory conditions are always supplemented by a range of optional tasks such as rescuing NPCs in awkward spots or clearing the stage under a certain number of turns, with the promise of bonus gold and XP for your team if you can pull these challenges off.
Other interesting little wrinkles come in a wide range of forms - poisonous swamps and locked jail cells that can only be counteracted by a particular character, or enemies that can be cured of their evil-ness and turned into temporary allies. There’s a lot of variety in Empire of Angel IV’s bite-sized rumbles and while they’re rarely taxing they always a joy to play just because you honestly never know what’ll be expected of you next. Heck, even if you do find the regular story battles to simplistic you’re allowed to wander off and take on additional challenges if you like, potentially earning new summonable familiars as well as further gold and XP boosts. You don’t need to do these as the main story route is definitely balanced in a ‘If you cleared the last one then you’re tough enough for the next’ sort of way, but if you’re craving an extra cute-but-deadly challenge then the option’s there for the taking.
Assuming there are no drastic changes in the final three chapters of the game (and from what I’ve read, there aren’t) Empire of Angels IV is a wonderful ‘coffee break’ style SRPG stuffed to the gills with clever ideas and creative flourishes, even if it is light on challenge. It’s not the sort of game you pick up because you want to prove how intelligent or skilled you are, it’s the sort of game you play because you have an hour free and would like to spend it doing something fun. I can’t honestly say it’s worth the trouble of tracking down on import (although you can buy it if you’re feeling brave) if you’re just a bit Chinese RPG-curious, but should the game ever pop up on the likes of Steam (stranger things have happened) I’m sure most people would find it a beautiful and entertaining purchase.
If you’d like to poke around the official Taiwanese website you should head on over here - http://eoa.softstargames.com.tw/zh-tw/home/index?#!post/14/234