“So here’s a compiled review of I, Omega, and II before I start the main dish.”
— awesomecurry in Chaos Rings I + Omega + II Review, December 1, 2014
Chaos Rings is a series of mobile RPGs developed by MediaVision and published by Square Enix. Back when Chaos Rings I came out, it stood out as a game that had impressive graphics and smooth controls for being on the smartphone. The gameplay wasn’t too hot considering how you could feel the system reaching its limits about a quarter of the way into the game, but Chaos Rings II was a much better game while keeping the two-person party concept and mobile game-level of convenience that allows for short play sessions.
Years later and not only did smartphone adoption explode, but so did the mobile game market. Gacha is a thing. A very massive thing. It is the business model that brings in millions per month for the popular games that are usually free to play, pay to have a chance at getting that character you like whose draw rate is 3% or so (varies between games) and each draw is 300 yen but you can pull 10 times in a row with a guaranteed SR result (no guarantees for an SSR, yet somehow the majority of the character list is made up of SSRs that have a draw rate of some single-digit%) for only 3000 yen! Granblue Fantasy and Fate Grand/Order bring in more cash per month from gacha than your favorite game will bring in with its lifetime sales.
Chaos Rings III came out at a time after Puzzle and Dragons but before Granblue Fantasy and Fate Grand/Order. The previous two games were designed as 手軽 RPGs where the story is short and the system was relatively simple. CR3 is an upgrade in nearly every technical way with a much longer story, a battle system that uses 3 party members, a Persona-like skill system where Genes (equippable cards that give you your skills) are collectible and you can fuse two together to create a new Gene with a new set of skills that you can equip, and full 3D graphics with a fully rotatable camera in dungeons. It’s closer to a console (or at least a handheld) JRPG in every way, except that somehow, someone decided that Gene gacha, and a second premium currency is a good system to put in a single player game for non-profit reasons. There are no in-game purchases or DLC — you can’t buy the premium currency with real money or anything. You get 5 coins each day for logging in, one coin per quest you clear, and a certain amount for each story chapter you clear. These coins are used to fill item sheets (which give you set items and Genes), draw random Genes (with two Genes that are gacha-exclusive per month), or buy premium weapons and outfits that change the actual character models’ appearance.
The rates are not bad compared to an actual soshage (the term for these online mobile games) — the exclusive Genes are relatively easy to draw and there are a multitude of ways to obtain SR versions of strong Genes naturally in the game. It’s like a gacha simulator for people who like the way you acquire characters/cards through gacha in soshage but don’t want to spend actual money. There are 138 Genes in the game, and each one has a strength rating from 1-5*, where 5* genes have much better stats and powerful skills at max level. Each Gene has Normal, Rare, and Super Rare versions that affect their level caps and skills learned. Normal Genes go up to level 30 and get 3 skills, whereas the SR version of the same Gene can get to level 100 and learns 9 skills (but you can only keep 6 of them). What the game expects you to have when challenging the final boss is a party of characters equipped with 5* SR Genes, and to be honest you can acquire that quite easily without going the gacha route by doing a shitload of quests to get coins and opening golden chests in dungeons…which begs the question of why the game went so far as to employ this system. It could easily have used a more intuitive collection system, considering how the Gene fusion system is also like a poor man’s Persona 3. Also since it is not an online game, it gives you the “daily login bonus” depending on your system clock. You can keep advancing the Vita’s clock by a day to get infinite coins.
Actually the gacha system is great, I love gambling with infinite free money and the ability to soft reset if you pull bad Genes.
The rare 5* Genes from the Gene gacha change every month and so does the battle mode (a mode where you ignore the scenario and just fight battles) item sheet prizes. These too can be manipulated by changing the system time, though I suppose the idea was for you to play the game a little bit each day to get all the prizes in a month. I can’t see myself doing daily logins or challenges for a Vita game but maybe if I actually played soshage…I shudder at the thought (got into a soshage once, actually spent money on gacha a few times, walked away from the experience with regret and a vow to just buy normal games with the amount of money two 10x gacha pulls cost).
Since there are no 課金 elements in CR3, my theory is that the devs actually thought people liked soshage’s premium currency gacha/cash shop system as an actual gameplay element and decided to incorporate it into an entirely single-player experience. Maybe people do like it considering how widespread soshage and its game design are. Chaos Rings III features a full camera that you rotate with the right stick, proper 3D models that can look better than PS2 games, attractive 3D environments, lengthy cutscenes done using the in-game engine, and also a good number of FMVs. It’s a handheld game that controls better on the Vita, has proper production values to potentially attract people who are already into console JRPGs, yet is designed to remind you of soshage almost all the time. It’s this bizarre mash of handheld JRPGs and soshage that can only be explained by it being a by-product of what was an evolving and experimental mobile game market. It doesn’t earn much money like a real soshage (it’s a single-player game sold as a one-time purchase of $20 which automatically pushes away the large number of people who refuse to pay more than $5 for a phone app), but the way the game is designed to constantly be in mind of the fact that the player could be playing it on a phone for a few minutes a day out of their busy lives prevents it from reaching satisfying levels as a proper handheld JRPG.
Going away from the topic of gacha, the plot is also a massive departure from previous games. With CR I, Omega, and II, the series established itself as a darker deal than the template JRPG. In I you fight to the death in an arena to save the world and in II you sacrifice your friends to save the world. The games were upfront about its premises and started quickly. CRIII takes the whole PS1/2 era roundabout route where you play as a teenage boy living in a colony on a ship orbiting a post-apocalyptic Earth, with dreams of exploring the blue planet and searching for Paradisos, the legendary place that his dad wanted to reach before his disappearance. It’s a classic tale of adventure and friendship as he makes friends with two other kids his age who want to become Explorers for their own reasons, and it takes a while before the Real Deal plot reveals that prompt the protagonists to save the world.
Unlike older RPGs that really do provide a rich sense of adventure, the mobile-minded design of CR3 actually serves to limit its expression. For one, the entire game flow is done via a quest system like a soshage. It doesn’t really feel like exploration when you are just accepting quests from a central hub and getting teleported to “new” areas. The dungeons are all disjoint locations that you teleport to (any connection between them are only stated in the scenario), and there is so little to do in the actual dungeons besides fighting random encounters and opening treasure chests. Some of them try to put in gimmicks like blocks that you have to deactivate before proceeding, but they’re so uninspired and simple they might as well not be there. There’s a marker that tells you where to go next to arrive at your quest’s goal not because the maps are complex and large, but because there’s no dungeon map (only local area map) and the areas are all similar looking and uninteresting branching hallways. At least the 3D environments look nice (IMO the only Vita game that looks nicer in screenshots is Ys VIII).
Since your party members don’t die and you have a whole party to work with for most of the game, the gameplay feels a lot more like a proper RPG with its various subsystems. Battles are with a party of 3, and while there are a number of legit boss fights, the game is still extremely easy to break like its predecessors. Your team’s level is how many unique Genes you’ve acquired, so it’s easy to become overleveled simply due to playing around with fusion too much. This is balanced out by the fact that a good part of your stats depend on the Gene equipped. For the most part it’s a standard turn-based RPG with 3 party members where you can choose to attack, use skills, use items, etc. There’s a gauge that gives advantage to the side that gets the first attack in battle, and increases as they deal damage while decreasing (at a faster rate) when they take damage. You also have a chain system that increases damage the higher your chain goes, and unleash a special attack if your chain ends on a regular attack and a previous character in the chain dealt a critical or exploited an enemy’s weakness. The idea behind this system is not bad but doesn’t make the game any more fun to play than any other turn-based RPG. It’s probably my fault for breaking the game balance in various different ways (first unintentionally, then intentionally when I got bored, but then accidentally broke it even more due to discovering a series of bugs).
Gene fusion is also unfun if you’ve played any sort of MegaTen. So you have 138 Genes with 3 rarities each, and fusion always leans towards the lower rarity unless both things you’re using for fusion are at their MAX level. So if you fuse two max level N rarity Genes, it’ll result in an R Gene. But if you fuse a max level N Gene with a non-maxed R, you’ll still get an N Gene! So you have to max your R Gene in order to get a resulting R Gene when fusing it with your maxed N Gene. Fusing Genes also gives a lot of repeated results, and it’s actually extremely difficult to find a combination of 3* Genes that make a 4* one. I never found one myself, and the best way to make 4* or 5* Genes is to just get more 4* and 5* Genes from other methods to use in your fusion. You only get 4+* Genes through pulling from the gacha, completing a dungeon’s item sheet (still requires coins), gift fusion, or Battle mode. Either way the game expects to you play it casually over a long period of time or spam quests if you want to clear it. By the time I’ve owned every 3* or below Gene once, I just used every 3* Gene I got as power-up fusion fuel (works the same way as power-up fusing in most soshage) and didn’t bother with the N rarity for anything. Fusing two Genes lets the resulting Gene inherit 2 skills from its parents that can’t be overwritten with any skill it naturally learns later on. The skills chosen for inheritance are random, enjoy exiting and reentering fusion like in Persona 3.
The music and graphics are pretty good and the story scratches a certain PS2 era itch for the magic x technology x LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP adventure that you might still crave for from time to time deep down. I don’t find the characters memorable enough to remember them later but they were alright except for the silent protagonist who is just implied to have the generic young hero personality with some dialogue choices that affect nothing and even gets voiced lines here and there with the main heroine. A silent protagonist might let you have some fun in roleplaying with dialogue choices and pretending it’s -your- adventure, but the adventure part is already gone due to the system and the dialogue choices affect nothing (most of the time the two lines you choose from are barely any different) so it doesn’t feel like roleplaying at all. It’s been 2.5 years since I played CR2 and it’s not a game I remember too vivdly so I doubt I can really compare it to CR3 fairly considering how it had a pretty simplistic system and quest-based progression as well. I’ll just say that in CR2 the protagonist was given a real edgy purpose and not the adventure of exploring the Earth so I cared less. CR3 does have more developed character arcs since it’s double the length so it’s probably a better experience overall. The latter also has some cool finale where (BEGIN EPIC SPOILERS) you punch a massive intergalactic invader away from your planet (END EPIC SPOILERS) so I can’t say bad things about the last quarter of the story.
It’s an 王道 JRPG story that ends up being a bizarre offspring of handheld JRPGs and soshage. After the Yokoo game marathon I did you’d think I would be more open to breaking down game genre barriers, but I guess that doesn’t apply here where I am left scratching my head at the design decisions of this game. I’d go as far to say that despite the superior controls with real buttons and joysticks, CR3 is a game more suited to smartphones solely due to the mindset you approach a phone game with vs. the mindset you approach a console/handheld game with.