This is a title that I've had on my shelf for a few years. I picked up Sagashi ni Ikouyo in 2007, messed around with it a bit, then moved onto bigger titles. Perhaps I should have kept with it longer, as it's turned out to be a good little game all around.
The theme of the game, as loudly proclaimed on the back cover of the case, is friendship. The main character has just moved to the town of Riz with his blacksmith father, and the first part of the game is all about meeting and interacting with the local children over the course of several short adventures. Halfway through, the kids hear about a legendary place, an eternal land of promises and friendship, and this becomes the goal of the entire story.
Sagashi ni Ikouyo is a very plot-centered game, and the writing backs it up well. The ten friends the player makes in Riz each have their own personalities and voices in the dialogue, and the setting has a fair amount of history backing it up. While the game is kept to a manageable twenty hours or less to complete, there remains the feeling that it could have been much longer considering what it had at its disposal. There is even a moment right before the end where the plot takes a right turn into Twilight Zone territory, and while it all turns out as expected given the overarching themes of the game, the developers could have taken the game into some very odd directions if they'd felt like it.
Aside from the main story, the main character's friends may come to visit him at home as their friendship deepens. These events have little to no bearing on the story as a whole, but they do reveal a lot about each character's personality and background. There are also plenty of adult NPCs — though amazingly few parents — and their dialogue changes frequently as events in the game progress. Often an adult will comment on previous happenings, make a random observation that becomes important later, or even provide a "goal," which in the game means a new quest.
I really wish better screens of this game existed on the net...
The battle system itself is simple and turn-based, and it manages to find a good balance that keeps things challenging but never impossible. Battles are infrequent and often at set points, though there are a few cases of recurring combat spots if the player wishes. A friendship meter takes the place of experience in this game, with battles being the slower means of raising levels. The main character has his own sword and armor courtesy of his dad, and likewise his ten friends are all decently prepared. Three friends can tag along at any time, except in one particular area where only two are allowed. The cast is pretty well balanced with five boys and five girls, of whom four are fighters, four are magic-users, and two are mixed classes. Many basic attack abilities are shared, but everyone eventually learns some individual attacks.
There are a few things that could have been done better, however. The attack skills are left undescribed. The actual details are to be found in the manual, but the first few battles may still include some trial and error for the player before the workings of some of the spells can be sorted out. Most of the information for equipment is included in the item descriptions, but as text, not numbers. It can be difficult to tell if one sword is actually better than another. These are only minor nuisances though, as combat is not what this game is about.
Far more important than the combat are the exploration and puzzle elements of Sagashi ni Ikouyo. In order to make progress in quests, the main character will have to trust in his friends and their abilities. There's a total of ten skills in the game, two to a character, which include such things as speaking or reading other languages, magical effects, lock-picking, fast-talking, or simply having strong arms. Each skill appears on two different characters, so there's rarely a situation where one particular character must be used. This allows the player to choose favorites, raising friendship as he or she desires, and increasing replay value in the process. Different characters react differently to the events of the game, and while these aren't enough to actually change the flow of these events, they provide some extra flavor. Completing an adventure raises the friendship levels of all characters involved significantly, and some characters get bonuses to friendship in specific scenarios.
This is all done with the in-game graphics engine.
The graphics in this game look surprisingly good, all things considered. This game was developed and released in the first nine months of the PlayStation 2's lifespan, and the results must have looked nice to gamers circa 2001. The character models are still a bit blocky, but they move well, and it's even possible to identify some of the playable characters by body language alone. The handful of environments in the game are all rendered in great detail, and while the camera controls could use some work, they don't actively fight the player either. The main point of concern while playing this was that the graphics were too good for the game itself to handle. Sagashi ni Ikouyo was printed on a CD-ROM, and it apparently taxed the resources of the PS2 to get it all running nicely. There's no other way to explain the extreme vibrations that went through the PS2 while reading this disc.
The music, as near as can be told, is the handiwork of a company called Aqua Vision. This company no longer exists, but the three named members — Hideo Suzuki, Genki Hibino, and Daisuke Kodama — all seem to be involved with music in some way or other. Whoever did it, the music in this game is easy on the ears and mixes well with the artistic style of the surroundings. Unfortunately, there is no voice acting in Sagashi ni Ikouyo, though this is a game that could definitely have used it.
This is a game that managed to do a lot with fairly little, and do it well at a point very early in lifespan of its system. While it may be more niche of a title, it does stand out as a well-crafted game that did what it was designed to do. That is, it provides a simple, friendly RPG experience for younger players while providing decent, likable characters and a surprisingly deep plot considering its total length. While it won't ever win an award for excellence on the PS2, it was definitely a good omen for what was to come to the system later in the decade. That makes it a good friend to all the RPGs that followed, in my opinion.