Sands of Destruction -- Hey Soul Sister (Ain't That Mr. Mister On The Radio?)

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Wait, was that the ending?  It can't be.  Wow.  Not only was this a short game, but it didn't feel like it should've ended that way.  I'll elaborate.

This game has been linked closely to Xenogears by both the creators and the fans.  Many of the people behind Xenogears played a part in the making of this game, and considering that it took most people between 80 and 100 hours to beat Xenogears, the 25 to 30 hours that it takes to beat Sands of Destruction seem like a gyp in comparison.  There don't seem to be any minigames either (none that I found, anyway), and any bonus side quests that exist are hard to find, since the game is largely linear.  It's so linear that the characters openly objected whenever I tried to go where I wasn't supposed to, to the point where they refused to take another step in that direction.  This applied to both areas that I wasn't allowed to explore yet and areas that I'd already been.  It's possible that there's a point or two where I could've gone back to explore further, but the game does a very good job at discouraging you from taking a break from the main story.

It's not like you'd have much opportunity to explore your surroundings anyway.  The world map is, as is the norm these days, a point and click interface.  With the lack of minigames and extra features, the majority of your time will be spent in battle anyway, and most of the rest of your time will be spent exploring the various dungeons scattered throughout the world.  Occasionally, you'll spend a few minutes in a town, but only long enough to purchase new weapons and armour, sometimes visit a smithy if one is available, and talk to the one important NPC in the entire city.

Those few minutes in town will mostly be taken up by the various plot events in the game, sometimes centered around the one important NPC.  True to the usual modus operandi of the developers, plot events can take a while to get through, but that's alright.  Only some of the scenes are voiced, and it seems random which ones are and which ones aren't.  Most of the voice actors seem like they were cast well, except for the occasional ham (one such character whose voice actor I didn't like was reduced to sand anyway, so it's all good), but overall, I had no objections with the voice work... that is, when I could actually hear it.  The music and spoken dialogue are not balanced well, and at some points, I could hardly hear what the characters were saying over the sudden swelling of music.  There is an option to change the levels of both in the settings, but gamers shouldn't have to do the developers' work for them.

It's a good thing I know how to read British.

Controls, like in Xenogears, are confined to the X and Y axes and their diagonals only.  The dungeons, however, seem designed for an analog stick or some other dynamic movement system, as opposed to the stiff movement present in this game.  There are times when your characters are forced to zig zag when taking curves, rather than just taking them naturally.  It doesn't help that the camera also moves a set number of degrees every time you move it, so you can't try to compensate for the movement system with the camera.  There is one thing to be grateful for: you don't have to make awkward jumps like in Xenogears.  It seems that they learned an important lesson from making that game.

It would've been nice to control the movement through the touch screen instead, because then it might've been a little easier, but there was absolutely no touch screen support present in this game.  It was like playing a PSP game, but with two screens instead of one.  In fact, it would be easy to throw away the dungeon maps on the top screen and just port the game to the PSP, if not for the battle system requiring both screens.  It's probably possible, though, to port it to the PSP without losing any of the dynamics of the battle system.  Square made flying enemies out of reach of normal attacks in Final Fantasy VII, but didn't offer any alternatives other than equipping long range attack weapons and using magic.  They did, however, show this all on one screen.  The same could be done with this game, except better, since a character has two different sets of attacks depending on whether an enemy is on the top or the bottom screen, so if ported to the PSP, a flying enemy should suffice to signify a "top screen enemy".

Speaking of the battle system, it will be confusing at first.  It seems like, the way it's set up, timed button presses are important.  They are, but only to a point.  To chain together your attacks, you do have to select your next attack right after the previous one ends, or else you lose out on a large chain bonus to your CP; CP are points you can spend to level up your various attacks and spells.  Also, you can only have up to six BP in a turn; BP are the points used to determine how many times you can attack.  Confused yet?  There's more: your first critical hit on the enemy will add one BP to your total for your turn, and ten consecutive hits upon the enemy will add another BP.  Your various skills can hit more than once, and once you've earned enough CP, you can level up your skills and set them up in chains to get the most out of your BP, so it's not like you're at a complete disadvantage.  Certain characters, though, are worse off than others.  While your best characters can set up a chain of 12 hits on one BP, there's another character that can only go up to 7.  This wouldn't be too bad, if the developers had stopped there.  Apparently, certain characters can have their morale affected by the story, rendering them suddenly useless in battle.  Ordinarily, a character receives 2 BP at the start of their turn, which is more than enough to make up for a deficiency in hits.  But a depressed character becomes less effective in battle and only receives 1 BP at the start of their turn.  If the character only has a chain that hits 7 times, then they'd better hope they can crit on their first turn, or else they're going to be pretty useless against a boss.  There is nothing you can do to change this, either.  The developers have apparently decided that certain characters must be rendered completely useless during certain sequences in the game.  It does help that sometimes, characters will have high morale and therefore receive 3 BP; it doesn't help that the Quip system adds an extra layer of luck into the battle system.  Occasionally, your character will spout a line that somehow affects the outcome of battle.  Either they'll gain an extra BP, or they'll boost their defense.  At the end of battle, gold or experience may be doubled.  And so on.  There's no way to increase how often these quips activate, and it seems like each quip has its own frequency associated with it: an experience doubling quip will definitely not activate nearly as often as a gold doubling quip, for example.

Kyrie Eleison
Down the road that I must travel
Kyrie Eleison
Through the darkness of the night
Kyrie Eleison
Where I'm going will you follow
Kyrie Eleison
On a highway in the light

Regular enemies in battle aren't too bad.  Bosses, on the other hand, can be hell if given a chance.  They possess skills that are mysterious and apparently boost their stats and abilities.  This seems to extend to their BP, which is on a hidden meter and I swear it goes to eleven.  Occasionally, bosses will suddenly draw upon an infinite pool of BP to completely fill their meter up, spam skills that delay your characters enough that you'll die before you can take another turn, and in extreme cases, they'll start hitting characters one at a time and keep going until they kill the character (which should ordinarily end their turn), then will move on to the next character until you've suffered a complete party wipe, often from as much as full health, especially if you've just healed everyone.  The only thing I can think of is that maybe the speed boosting skills that bosses use can stack, but there's no indication that this is the case.

When it comes to music, the game seems to straddle the line between modern full orchestral compositions and old school style tunes that you can actually make out.  Although you might not end up humming the songs from the game, they do have tunes you can hum.  Although I know that Yasunori Mitsuda composed some of the music for this game, it seems like he's long over his Celtic period, so I only partially recognized his style.  In a way, it helped to distance myself from any expectations I would've had for the music.

To further the comparison with Xenogears, I would say that the music was a little more light hearted this time around, especially near the beginning.  But then again, there was a lot less Man Vs. Everyone in this game, and although the theme of the game is world destruction, the story treats it with a more romantic angle than most would.  Although you fought a bunch of enemies that were oppressing your race, none of them really stood out as a big bad, so there wasn't an epic feel to the game either.  The majority of the game was spent in a Man Vs. Himself mindset, kind of like if Fei from Xenogears was allowed to be angsty about Id for the entire game.  The main character, Kyrie, finds out in the first hour or so that he's a weapon meant to destroy the world.  He's activated by a mysterious bell during a confrontation, and his power goes out of control and reduces the nearby landscape and all the people within to sand.  From there, he is forced to join an organization whose goal is to destroy the world, and finds himself nursing a crush on his female companion.  The character that ends up being the bad guy is subtle and doesn't really count since he's not visibly hounding you during the game.  He doesn't lift his hand against you, nor does he send any minions to kill you.  In fact, while most RPGs put your characters on the defensive for the majority of the game, Sands of Destruction breaks the mold by having your characters seek out and kill most of the powerful enemies present in the world.  Also unlike most games, recurring villains are very scarce.  There was only one that I could recall, and you dispatch him for good about a third of the way into the game.

When it comes to graphics, the designers went with the style they employed in Xenogears, placing low-detail sprites in a 3-D environment.  If I didn't know better, I'd suspect that these sprites were leftover from Xenogears, since they're about the same quality.  Although I've seen better on the DS, the graphics do get the job done, especially since most of the game is spent in a rather drab, sandy world anyway with four continents themed after the seasons.  I guess if the winter continent is perpetually winter and the summer continent is perpetually summer, then the autumn and spring continents are always autumn and spring?  However that works.  Meanwhile, you sail around the world (presumably, since it's point and click) in a ship that somehow sails upon the sand.  And this is no ordinary sand.  It's sand that magically will not clog engines, unless it's required by the plot that it does.

By the time I was a few hours into this game, it was clear that, although there were some similarities to earlier games made by the same team, I was playing something completely new and different.  Although there were a few missteps (sound balance needing work, occasional unfair advantage of bosses in battle, initially confusing battle system, too linear story), I would say this was an enjoyable 30 hours.  Take the above criticisms with a grain of salt.  Chances are, anyone who plays this game will enjoy their experience as much as I did.

Screens stolen shamelessly from
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Now that you've finished the game are you planning to watch any of the Sands of Destruction anime?

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  • Joseph Daniels: I was considering it. But I'm so behind on anime read more
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