Archaic Sealed Heat opens with a panoramic view of a beautiful city full of lush green trees and red-roofed houses. In the center of the city is a huge castle, and there a ceremony is being performed for Aisha, the young ruler of Milleanear. As she processes up the long hall of her throne room, her soldiers salute her and call out her name. At last she arrives at the end of the chamber to stand before an artifact, her aide Bullnequ, and the priest conducting the rites. It's at this moment that the tranquility of the land is broken: a huge creature made of flame attacks. The castle is in a state of panic. Bullnequ and Aisha rush outside to see the entire city burning. As the creature turns its gaze on Aisha, Bullnequ sacrifices his life to protect her.
"the overall experience... has been downright great -- addictive, challenging gameplay meshed to... refreshing, original core SRPG systems."
Later, the castle is in ruins, with Aisha the only survivor. As she readies her sword and gun to protect herself against the fire elementals left in the castle in the creature's wake, a most surprising thing happens. The ashes scattered across the ground coalesce into the form of Bullnequ, who draws his sword once more to defend his princess. With her protector at her side and the mysterious power to summon her deceased soldiers back to life, Aisha sets out to follow the creature and find out the reasons behind her land's destruction.
So begins the second game by Mistwalker, Hironobu Sakaguchi's new studio. ASH has been promoted as a mix of strategy RPG and traditional RPG, but in playing through it, there's definitely more of an emphasis on the former than the latter. The game plays out in standard SRPG format -- after each battle there will be a story cutscene followed by battle followed by story cutscene. Before progressing to the next chapter, the player can also engage in free battles -- completed chapters where enemies can be fought to increase levels. Additionally, prior to each new chapter, there's a status and management screen where the player can organize his teams, summon new soldiers, change equipment, absorb ash soldiers, and buy items from the store. It's the team arrangement that is perhaps the most important element of this.
Players create teams of up to three characters. During the battle, each member of the team is represented as a single character and can be moved across the map individually. Some magic spells, like healing, can be used on the map like in a standard SRPG. Moving consumes up an AP bar, which the entire team shares, so it's important to balance out the movement of each of the three team members. With a team of three front-line fighters, it wouldn't make any sense to surge one member of the team as far ahead as possible and leave the other two unable to progress. However, because of the big role positioning and range plays in battle, it may be a very good idea to move two front-line fighters ahead and leave a mage much further behind.
When the attack command is selected, ASH shows its traditional RPG influence. Only one character needs to select attack and the entire team will be brought into the fray, regardless of how close or how far away they are. Battles play out with the three team members fighting against whatever enemy is targetted (sometimes enemies will be solitary; othertimes they'll be grouped together in a team just like the party). These fights are structured like a traditional RPG: a small line at the bottom displays character and monster turn order. As each character's turn comes up, you select their move from a menu: attack, defend, standby, flee, item, magic, arts (special skills), or EX skills (moves similar to limit breaks that the team leader can pull off by building up a gauge through dealing and taking damage).
The positions of all the characters and monsters matters a great deal, as every option in the game has a certain range -- and there are different effectiveness levels at different ranges, too. If Aisha is three squares away from the enemy, she'll have no problem attacking it with her sword. If she's five squares away, she'll still be able to attack, but it may not be as effective. If she's too far away to use her sword at all, attacking will just have her use a fairly ineffective move similar to how squires in Final Fantasy Tactics throw stones. The system opens up a ton of tactical options and it makes positioning play an enormous role in engaging in battles most efficiently. If the player puts Bullnequ very close to the enemy, he can use his sword strikes easily while the player can put Aisha a bit further back and have her use her MP-consuming shoot arts. Meanwhile, a black mage standing nine squares away can hurl his spells with relative safety. Of course, if the character is left too far away entirely, they'll be completely useless in battle.
When a player begins one of these fights, it will last until either the enemy or the player is defeated, or until the player chooses to flee. If the enemy engages the player in a fight, each monster will get to act for one round before the battle ends; the player characters don't get a turn when they're attacked. Because of this, it's always more strategically sound to initiate battles and to try to defeat enemies before they can ambush a player team. There's also the fact that if the enemy chooses the terms of the engagement, they can go for a weaker character further back.
Living story characters like Aisha serve as leaders of the teams, which consist of characters like Bullnequ and the generic ash soldiers. Though initially Aisha is the only leader, as the story progresses she's joined by other characters like the warrior Dan or the young wood child, Emu. Most of the story characters have their own unique sets of abilities -- for instance, Aisha has elemental Shot powers through the use of her gun, whereas Dan has various Break abilities that not only damage an enemy's targetted stat but also supplement his own. The generic soldiers can be summoned as one of seven different classes. While black mages and white mages function about as expected, there are more interesting classes, too. Monster mages draw from the power of the land to cast essential buffing spells, and they can also create shadows to attack for them. Stealers mug the enemy with every attack and rely on their high speed and martial art skills to defeat foes. It's essential to note the importance of the team leaders -- if a team leader is defeated in battle, his entire unit is taken out of the conflict.
While in battle, characters can sometimes talk to NPCs on the map or open the various treasure chests scattered around. Sometimes these will hold simple healing or MP restoring items; other times they'll hold more valuable pieces of equipment. The equipment seems to be random, and it isn't identified during the chapter. For instance, in one fight I found an accessory, but the game didn't tell me what it was. After the mission objectives are cleared and the chapter ends, the items are identified. My mystery accessory turned out to be something that would confer a regeneration status on the user, so I gave it to Aisha -- definitely a useful item for her to have. The randomization of the valuable items is pretty fun, because it's possible to get some really great stuff, and you're never quite sure what'll turn up.
As each chapter progresses, mission objectives can sometimes shift as conditions change or as the heroes get closer to achieving one objective. For instance, in one chapter I went through multiple objectives -- first to wipe out a group of enemies, then to defeat another group of enemies in a limited number of turns, and then finally to reach a potential ally and help her. Maps can also get pretty large the further in I go, and some chapters actually consist of multiple battlefields -- as you clear all the objectives in one, you'll get the option to revisit your status/management screen before going on to the next area. Those concerned about having too long a fight in a portable SRPG needn't worry too much -- the pacing is excellent, and the game has a quick save feature, and it doesn't force a game exit on quick saving (also, quick saves are not deleted upon loading). It's a nice feature that makes the battles a bit more forgiving than in games like Fire Emblem, without diluting the challenge too much. There's still a big emphasis on planning ahead and thinking strategically, and it's always in the player's interest to clear the battles as quickly as possible (while still defeating as many items and getting as many treasure chests as possible), because at the end of each chapter a grade is given on various achievements, along with bonus items and experience points.
The game is, with only a handful of exceptions, controlled entirely through the touch screen. Tapping on a unit will select it; tapping on a space will move the unit there. Tap an enemy to attack it, and double tap menu choices to make a selection. Equipping items and forming up teams is very simple -- simply tap and drag. There's very limited use for buttons -- one shoulder button adjusts the angle of the 3D maps, while another rotates them entirely. The B button can be used to cancel out selections. While most of the touch interface is very solid, at the same time there's no reason to have made the game almost entirely touch exclusive. There are absolutely ways in which the controls enhance the game, but there are some ways in which buttons and dpad would've worked better and are sorely missed -- for instance, scrolling across the map is a pain with the touch screen, and a quick scan through the dpad would've worked better. Pressing a button to progress through conversations would've been more convenient than tapping the screen. Overall I'm mostly okay with the controls -- they just could've been better, and there should have been some options available. The biggest glaring flaw with the interface is the fact that when I go to a shop to buy something, I can't compare items against the current equipment on my characters. This is a royal pain and is definitely a notable design error.
The story and characters of the game, from what I've seen so far, seems pretty interesting. Unlike most SRPGs, like Fire Emblem, Front Mission, and Matsuno titles like Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre, there isn't a heavy focus on nationalist politics or clashes of religious principles. Instead, most of the chapter cutscenes so far have focused on the characters themselves, their quest to find out about a supernatural power, and the history and lore of the world. Most of the story is told through cutscenes on the top screen showing a background overlaid by static artwork of the speaking character -- a familiar layout to fans of Fire Emblem. On the lower screen, small and disappointingly low quality sprites act out the sequence. There are also occasional FMV sequences for more important, emotional, or action-packed story segments. There's some voice acting, but not a ton -- the opening had VA and a couple of later sequences did, but that's about all so far.
In the visuals department, there are some contrasting styles being used, and some of them are very, very good, while others aren't so exceptional. As mentioned before, the sprites used on battle maps and in story cutscenes are pretty low quality and there's not a whole lot of animation. They're about the same level as the GBA Fire Emblem map sprites in quality, if not just slightly better. This wouldn't be so bad if they were only used in battlefield maps, but when they try to act out elaborate story sequences, it just looks a bit silly and sometimes detracts from the serious tone of some of the events. On the other hand, the stillframe artwork (background and character) is wonderful, and most of the FMVs are really good too. The actual traditional RPG battles look excellent. By using prerendered sprites in these battles, Mistwalker was able to make characters and enemies look on a higher level even than the PlayStation Final Fantasy games' in-battle models. There's also lots of animation (though not as much as the aforementioned FF titles), and it's all really fluid and smooth. There are lots of different enemies to fight, too, which is a treat (I think I've seen about a dozen so far), and they have quite varied and unique designs.
While the visuals have some high points and low points, this is not so with the music, which is flat-out exceptional. It's done by Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata, the same team that composed Tactics Ogre and Final Fantasy Tactics, and while the two of them have provided a few disappointments in recent years (Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis, Stella Deus, and Final Fantasy Tactics Advance all come to mind) and a few soundtracks mostly done by Sakimoto's flunkies (Odin Sphere and Grim Grimoire), ASH is on a whole other level. This is classic Sakimoto and Iwata all the way, and the two brought their A game. Everything I've heard suggests this score is just a notch below some of their best works, and it's full of intimate, mysterious themes and rousing battle anthems. Though as I mentioned there's limited voice acting in the story sequences, there's quite a bit in the battles, so that makes a nice supplement to the action.
Archaic Sealed Heat isn't perfect -- there are a few rough, unpolished edges that I wish could've been better (the lack of button support, the issue with shops, and the poor quality of the map sprites). However, the overall experience of what I've played so far has been downright great -- addictive, challenging gameplay meshed to one of the most refreshing, original core SRPG systems in quite some time. While things may suddenly completely fall apart a bit further in, so far ASH is one of the best strategy RPGs I've played in years.