Tuesday, July 26, 2016

[In-Depth Review] Seinarukana + Info Hub


Seinarukana is an ambitious visual novel / SRPG hybrid that should appeal to fans of anime-style JRPGs like Ar tonelico and Agarest War.


PSP version OP, English subtitled by me



Product page (18+)
Official website
Official trailer
Gameplay video
VNDB
Similar games

Publisher: JAST USA
Voice: All major characters fully-voiced except protagonist
Genre: Strategy RPG, visual novel
Tags: fantasy, comedy, harem protagonist

Mission SS rank requirements
Guide
Game manual
Hard mode clear data (LV55 characters, Narukana route and Eternal difficulty unlocked)

Contents


Background
     Differences between the Steam version and 18+ version
Story
Gameplay
     Overview
     Evaluation
Sound
English localization
Romance and sexual content
Overall
     Highlights
Similar games
How to show your support

Background


Seinarukana is the second entry in the Spirit of the Eternity Sword series and sequel to Aselia the Eternal.  The story takes place some time after the events of that game and in a different sector of the universe, the Time Tree.  The Time Tree is a sort of pocket dimension that keeps outsiders out and residents inside, and as a result Seinarukana is a standalone title with only a loose connection to its prequel.  Those who have played Aselia the Eternal and finished Aselia's route will smile at Euphoria's introduction and recognize some of the shared setting elements, but this is certainly a title you can leap into without playing earlier games in the series.

Released by XUSE in Japan in 2007, Seinarukana's English license was announced by JAST USA at Anime Expo 2011.  Nine years later, the game is finally available in English.  While Seinarukana is a very long game (>50hrs for a single playthrough) and surely took great effort to localize, this game is worth less in today's market than it was in 2007.  In 2007, this was an impressive game with few peers.  In 2016, The PS2-era production values are less impressive.  JAST needs to reduce its turnaround time to stay relevant.

The team that made Seinarukana later broke off from XUSE and established Eternal, where they've released several gameplay-centric titles similar to Seinarukana, including Yumina the Ethereal.  Ironically, Yumina the Ethereal was released after Seinarukana in Japan (2009) but before Seinarukana in English (2013), underlining the problems in JAST's release process.  A non-adult direct sequel in the Spirit of the Eternity Sword series is also in the works, and an English release appears likely (Aselia the Eternal 3 teased - in English!).  This will share characters with Aselia the Eternal, so if you need a reason to go back and play it, there you go (it's an excellent game, though dated).

This is a review of the original adult version of Seinarukana released by XUSE and JAST USA.  A Steam version is also available with the adult content removed and replaced by other content (see below).  Aselia the Eternal was also originally an eroge but the content was deemed inappropriate for English release (further commentary by me), and thus JAST only released a non-adult version.  Readers can stay up to date on censorship in other eroge (such as Baldr Sky) by following me on Twitter or checking my list of censored eroge.

My review is based on a Normal Mode playthrough of Satsuki's route and a Hard Mode playthrough of Narukana's route in the English version.  I also did a Normal Mode playthrough of Naya's route 7 years ago.

Differences between the Steam version and 18+ version


The Steam version, based on the Japanese PSP version, has extra scenes and CG to replace the adult scenes that were removed, as well as a few extra missions that appear to be separate from the main scenario. You can survey the additional mission content (in Japanese) here.  The adult version sold on J-List also includes a Steam key.

Story


Seinarukana follows the dimension-traveling adventures of Nozomu and his band of friends. The story opens in a typical high school in Japan. Nozomu's everyday life is shattered when the school is suddenly attacked by hollow-eyed invaders from another world wielding medieval weapons and fantastic magics. Amidst the chaos he and others awaken to supernatural powers that had long lied dormant--powers inherited from a previous life. When the dust settles the entire campus has dimension shifted, and the students find themselves stranded in an alien world. While at first they simply seek to return to their world, they gradually become entangled in a dimension-spanning intrigue that threatens the entire multiverse. In the process, Nozomu and friends discover the nature of their powers and the true scope of the conflict they've stumbled into.

Venturing into a brave new world

Seinarukana's story is a mix of high school comedy and high fantasy, but ultimately suffers from a lack of maturity in the characters and writing.  The game reads like a typical anime series aimed at teenage boys.  You'll find the typical comic banter peppered with fanservice, episodic storytelling punctuated by over-dramatic plot twists, archetypical villains drunk on power, and a very ordinary mild-mannered protagonist that is given a leadership role and becomes the center of attention--despite clearly lacking leadership qualities and there being several far more qualified leaders in his immediate surroundings.  Nozomu (literally "hope" in Japanese) is a boring collection of tropes embodying typical JRPG cliches such as "overcoming any challenge with the power of friendship", and making him the pivot point of the narrative was a mistake.  I play eroge in part because the maturity level is a step above your typical anime-style JRPG, and in that sense Seinarukana disappoints.  Even more disappointing is that the prequel Aselia the Eternal told a far more convincing story with mature characters and themes--ironically using an art style that was so "young-looking" that JAST USA passed on bringing it over uncensored.

Nozomu to Narukana about wielding her:
"If I can do it, I will.  If I can't, I'll do it anyway.  That's just how I am."
The immaturity of the writing is a shame because the setting has depth to it and is genuinely interesting, yet the characters (especially the villains) seem out-of-place in it.  Seinarukana can be best summarized as an episodic journey where Nozomu and his group confront a series of abruptly introduced villains.  The problem with this plot structure is that the encounters end up feeling contrived to maximize suspense, and we get the sense that these villains exist solely to be foils to the protagonist (read: villains as plot devices).  In some cases, we later learn that some of these characters had a larger role in the setting, but all we see of them is their single-minded antagonism towards the protagonist and his allies.  The antagonists don't feel like they have lives and goals of their own, which is essential to creating a vibrant setting.  Silvachief also comments on the inadequacy of the antagonists in his review.

Seinarukana's story is a mostly linear experience interspersed with a few optional scenes before the route branch, which correspond to which heroine events you choose in the dialogue options.  The route branch starts in the last third of the game but doesn't manifest in the main story until the last 15%.  Most of the text is shared between playthroughs and the experience is not significantly different between routes except that Nozomu pairs up with a different heroine to overcome the challenges.  Most interesting to me were the past lives of Nozomu and the heroines, yet this was only explored more than superficially in Narukana's route.  Route branching is determined by a combination of (obvious) dialogue choices and the heroine (if any) that Nozomu is paired with during gameplay segments.  There are no "bad" or "normal" ends in this game, so you'll end up with a heroine end no matter what.

Because a Japanese high school setting wouldn't be complete without a maid cafe

Seinarukana is a very long game, and some people will have questions about which routes to play and which to skip since battles can't be skipped on subsequent playthroughs.  Heroines with routes include Satsuki, Nozomi, Katima, Ruputna, Naya, and Narukana.  Narukana's route is likely the True Route and unlocks on the second playthrough.  The general community consensus seems to be that Satsuki and Nozomi's routes are the most developed and relevant to the setting of the initial five routes.  Narukana's route provides some additional backstory on Nozomu and Narukana's past, but the experience doesn't differ dramatically enough to justify another playthrough (unless you really like the game).

Gameplay

Gameplay video of Mission 1

Overview


Seinarukana's turn-based strategy system is an evolution of Aselia the Eternal's simple but elegant system.  Each chapter features 1-3 missions, usually sharing the same overland map.  The mission objective is typically to capture an enemy-held town, and you deploy your units and try to capture the town and surrounding towns as quickly as possible.  Faster clears with all enemy towns captured and enemy units destroyed award bonus mana to the player, which is used to level-up units and construct buildings, and early access to higher level battle skills.  Battle skills are also rewarded for killing specific enemy units and capturing certain towns.  Furthermore, the majority of mana available to the player is earned from capturing towns.  Given that missions can't be redone once cleared and both mana and battle skills are in limited supply, killing every unit and capturing every town is much more important than clearing missions quickly.

Overland map

A unit consists of 1-3 characters, and up to 6 units can be deployed at a given time.  Unit movement on the overland map is determined by the unit's IP rating.  Units with higher IP can move more often, allowing them to reach objectives quicker.

Buildings can be constructed by characters with the Construct trait, but the only useful buildings are Mana Converters and Sands of Time.  Mana Converters take free mana and convert it to bound mana.  Free mana is unusable, so this system compels the player to pause at towns and build Mana Converters.  A Sand of Time (limit of one per map) increases the IP (turn frequency) of all units.   Since players have to stop at towns to recover skill usages, level units, and construct buildings, some downtime between assaults is inevitable.

Each character is assigned a role within the unit formation: attack, defense, support.  Battle skills are classified by role (i.e., the attacker can only use attack skills).  Units with one character can be set as All-Rounder, allowing a single character to assume all roles simultaneously.  Each skill can only be used a limited number of times, but skill usages recover when the unit is stationed inside a town.

Status screen

When two units come in contact, a 10-round battle commences with the attacking unit going first.  Rounds alternate between the player and enemy, with side A's attacker going first, then side A's supporter (with some exceptions), and then the enemy's attacker and supporter.  Generally-speaking, attackers attack the opposing defender, and the defender mitigates the attacker's damage with her defense skill.  The player affects the course of the battle by choosing the best formation to counter the enemy's formation (or selecting different skills if the unit is an All-Rounder).

Pre-battle screen

Unlike Aselia, after the first few missions enemy units will start changing formation on their round.  Players can respond by changing their own formation based on the timing they select: either before their attack or before the enemy's attack, allowing you to optimize for either offense or defense.  Enemies use pre-set attack routines to try to get the upper hand, and will also respond to the player's formation.  If the player is using powerful attack magic, they'll try to interrupt it or switch in a defender with high magic defense.  If a defending character is low on health, they'll switch her to a different role and try to heal if they have a healer.  Likewise, they'll try to switch in an attacker that's effective against the player's current defender.

Characters are defined by their elemental affinity, which serve as the "classes" of Seinarukana.  New to Seinarukana is separation of attack and defense into physical (material) and magic (force) damage, which expands the tactical options available.  Partly due to this change and partly due to the much larger variety of skills, classes are much more versatile in Seinarukana, and indeed even characters of the same class are differentiated by the particular types and strength of skills they have access to.  For simplicity's sake, I'll speak here in generalizations.

  • Blue spirits: High physical attack, high magic defense.  Can cancel enemy support skills.  Directly counter red spirits in all roles.
  • Red spirits: High magic attack, high magic defense.  Have access to powerful AoE skills and skills that bypass the enemy defender.  Effective at countering green defenders and red attackers.
  • Green spirits: High physical defense.  Have access to powerful healing skills.
  • White spirits: Deal and defend against combined damage with a focus on physical.  Have access to buffing and minor healing support skills.  Their support skills can't be canceled.
  • Black spirits: Deal combined damage.  Poor defense in Normal Mode.  Have access to skills that ignore the enemy defender as well as a utility skill that increases overland map movement speed.  Their support skills can't be canceled.  Become much more powerful in Hard Mode due to stat scaling and skill buffs.

Battles are completely non-random and mostly predictable (even the enemy's formation shifts, to some extent), but a number of factors go into determining the result.  The primary factor is the base power of a skill, modified by the relevant character stat modifier for that skill (e.g., physical attack power 150% for a material attack).  Terrain modifiers can apply a bonus or penalty to skills of a given element.  Previously-used skill can also buff or debuff other skills for a set duration.  Finally, the skill can only be activated if the character has enough combat mana to use it.  Characters gain 2 combat mana per round, but some skills require more than 2 combat mana or can activate multiple times per round.  The rules for Banish skills (which cancel/interrupt enemy support skills) are particularly complex, requiring an alignment of several factors in order to activate and stop an enemy spell.  Some beginning players have complained about this, but as they say: it's a feature, not a bug.

Combat screenshot

A character that is KO'd during combat is incapacitated until the next town is reached.  This also affects your mission rating, so it's best to avoid KO's whenever possible.

Players who clear the game can carry over their character levels and start a new game on Hard Mode with a higher level cap.  This has no impact on the story but the different skills and stats, together with harsher skill usage limits, make for a different experience.  Black spirits in particular are much more powerful in Hard Mode.  Those who clear Hard Mode can move on to Eternal Mode.  I've uploaded my Hard Mode clear data, which includes LV55 characters and unlocks Narukana's route and Eternal difficulty.  If you choose to play on Eternal difficulty, spend the first mission leveling all the characters to LV60.

Further details on the system can be found in the game manual.

Evaluation


Seinarukana's gameplay to story-segment ratio is about 50/50, and the gameplay is its strength.  The system is a marked improvement of Aselia's, giving the player a large number of tactical options to deal with a given challenge.  Combat in Aselia was very rock-paper-scissors, but Seinarukana adds a layer of much-needed complexity and strategy.

With the added complexity comes a higher learning curve and a more difficult game.  Seinarukana punishes impulsive styles of gameplay, especially since if even a single unit is wiped out it's Game Over.  Likewise, players who don't full clear every map will fall behind in levels and skills, leaving them unprepared to deal with the challenging initial boss encounters.

Boss encounters are unique because their attack patterns are often pre-set, and many have skills that will instantly KO the entire party if certain conditions are met.  This makes boss encounters more like puzzles than traditional stat-focused combat.  Losing a character during a boss encounter often affects your overall rating for the mission, so one of the challenges is completing these fights with 0 KOs.  Some players have complained about getting stuck on these battles, resulting in many Internet tears being shed.  Unlike most games, the challenges in Seinarukana can't be overcome through grinding--there is no grinding--and I consider that a feature.  I wrote a brief gameplay guide to help players who are stuck or who just need a little advice.

Fragments of a violent past

The combat DOES get monotonous after a while, especially after the first playthrough.  In part, that's because at >50 hours for a playthrough (it took me 90 hours), the game is very long, and some fatigue is to be expected.  One glaring problem is that the mission objective is always "seize the enemy town".  That becomes monotonous.  The game at least has an option to partially or fully disable battle animations, greatly speeding up battles.  The game really needs an option to skip previously-completed missions on subsequent playthroughs.

The game also has multiple issues which make movement on the overland map and turn management unnecessarily tedious.  First, a unit can only be ordered to move towards the nearest predetermined waypoint (usually a town).  Second, in the case of a fork, there's no indication which fork the unit will take.  As a result, movement has to be micromanaged.  This problem could have been solved by allowing players to specify multiple custom waypoints for units to follow.  Also, at points the player has to pass time for extended periods (usually at the end of the map, while waiting for mana to convert and leveling units).  As it is, the player has to repeatedly pass turns manually (again, tedious).  Being able to queue actions or specify a time to wait would've been useful.  Also, the target time for a clear at max rank isn't given to the player and must be looked up online (here).  Since the player has to juggle clear time with mana conversion and character leveling, the target clear time should've been given to the player in the mission conditions.

Unit customization is also a bit lacking.  The only way to customize units (other than level them at different rates) is to change their equipped skills.  I would've appreciated more RPG mechanics like skill masteries, accessories, or even character affinities.  The system feels a bit barebones in this regard compared to later titles like Venus Blood Gaia or even spiritual sequel (but chronological JAST prequel) Yumina the Ethereal.

Sound


The BGM for the game is pretty good, and several songs from the OST such as the Final Boss theme (remix of the original theme from Aselia the Eternal), the regular battle theme, and the original OP really stand out.

Sample the soundtrack for yourself here.

All major characters (except protagonist) are fully-voiced in Japanese in typical anime-style.

English localization


Moon runes are scary.

JAST has had problems recently with quality assurance, and I have basic competence in understanding Japanese, so I listened to the Japanese voices and compared with the English dialogue.  In approximately 30 hours of dialogue I identified 14 translation errors worth noting.  They are largely confined to the line and fairly forgettable.  However, one error blemishes an important emotional scene and another corrupts an explanation of dimensional travel that is important to the setting.  These errors would not be identifiable without Japanese knowledge.  JAST has stated that some of these errors will be fixed by the time the game releases on Steam.

A detailed account of the translation errors I uncovered along with my commentary can be found in the article below.  If you're interested in the kinds of mistakes professional translators make, it might be worth a read.
Lost in translation: How errors slip into professional VN releases

Other than translation errors, the English writing is smooth and typo-free.  Overall I find the translation to be above-average and it should meet the expectations of all but the most demanding readers.  It is not perfect but visual novel translations rarely will be.  Perhaps more importantly, the English release is bug-free as far as I can tell.

Romance and sexual content


Satsuki dreams of a White Knight to sweep her off her feet.  Instead, she got Nozomu.

The romance in Seinarukana, like many eroge (unfortunately), was fairly unsatisfying.  The romantic side of the relationships in Satsuki and Naya's route did not get much development and the sex scenes happened a bit abruptly.  The romance in Narukana's route developed more smoothly and felt more "real".

The sexual content in Seinarukana is mostly an afterthought.  Each heroine with a route gets 1-2 vanilla scenes with the protagonist.  Two scenes with non-heroines are included as non-canon bonus scenes that unlock in the gallery if you view their events in-game.  Most players will likely miss the scenes unless they know to look for them.

Overall


The Eternity Sword wielders assemble to gawk at Nozomu.

I spent a lot of time criticizing but let me reiterate: this is a solid visual novel / gameplay hybrid.  For the time being, it's also the best gameplay hybrid eroge with an official release in English (not that it has much competition).  For an MSRP of $45 you get over 50 hours of gameplay, and even more if you play through the game multiple times.  (Or you can spend 40 hours reviewing it and get it for free, like me.)  Fans of nostalgic text-heavy JRPGs like Ar tonelico, Agarest War, and Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky will undoubtedly be pleased, as will visual novel fans looking for greater interactivity.  Hardcore visual novel fans looking for mature storytelling, players easily frustrated by difficulty spikes that can't be grinded past, and Steam gamers looking for a pure gameplay title should look elsewhere.

Highlights


Pros:

  • Classic JRPG storyline mixing comedy and high fantasy
  • Streamlined battle system with decent depth and no grind
  • Good value even at full price
  • New game+ adds replayability 
  • Choose the heroine Nozomu ends up with
  • All major characters except protagonist fully-voiced in Japanese, some good BGMs


Cons:

  • The game is less impressive in 2016 than it was in 2007
  • Like many JRPGs, the characters and writing lack maturity
  • Stereotypical harem protagonist
  • The gameplay doesn't have the depth, especially in customization, of some mainstream JRPGs
  • Route branches aren't sufficiently different to justify a second playthrough
  • Combat becomes monotonous after a while, especially on subsequent playthroughs


Similar games


  
  

Aselia the Eternal: Prequel to Seinarukana, stronger storyline with mature themes
Yumina the Ethereal: Story-focused RPG with dungeon-crawling elements, spiritual sequel to Seinarukana
Brave Soul: Action-RPG focused on combat
Littlewitch Romanesque: Lighthearted raising sim where you train struggling apprentice mages
Beat Blades Haruka: Power-ranger ninja, sexual training, and sexual humiliation.  Has some RPG elements.  Focused on the sex.
Sakura Dungeon (Review): Lighthearted dungeon crawler with copious girl-on-girl fanservice

How to show your support


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A review copy of this game was provided to me by JAST USA at my request.

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