Publisher: Carpe Fulgur
Platform: PC (Steam)
Hundreds of games filter out from Japan's independent developers each year, and most of them slide right through the industry's digestive system. EasyGameStation's Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale stuck around, perhaps because it had much more to offer than the usual dating sim or 2-D shooter banking on anime heroines. Recettear was an inventive hybrid of dungeon-plodding RPG and item shop simulation, and first-time localizing company Carpe Fulgur brought out an English version last year to cult success. They've returned with Chantelise: A Tale of Two Sisters, an earlier effort by the same team. It's not quite as innovative, but it's just as appealing in some ways.
The two sisters of Chantelise's subtitle are a human and a fairy, though the duo operates on a different dynamic than Recettear's teacher-and-student. Ignoring advice from her now-absent mother, the headstrong Chante ventures out in the woods one inauspicious night, and a witch transforms her into a fairy. She and her younger, less rash sister Elise set out to find the witch again and get back Chante's human form. The still-human Elise gets the tougher end of the bargain as she hacks through monsters and explores dungeons, with the seemingly invincible Chante providing magical spells and threatening to kick people in the shins.
Chante and Elise's trek is arranged as a 3-D action game, though the characters are flat sprites animated from various angles. With her fairy-fied sister hovering over her shoulder, Elise jumps, sidesteps, and slashes through monsters, picking up the items and coinage left behind. It's a fairly typical setup for an action-RPG, though the dungeon design carries it in a few interesting directions. Other ideas lurk in the game's lone village, where a macho priest trades hints for the player's hit points.
Most inventive is the game's magic system. Chante can only cast spells if she has gemstones, so Elise must pluck them off the ground when they burst out of enemies. Each gem launches a different attack, and using two of the same color at once creates more interesting effects. It gives battle a certain rhythm, as Elise scours for gems and puts them in the right order for Chante's most useful spells.
Even with the look of a more open action game, Chantelise has the spirit of a dungeon-crawler. The stages are challenging, and there's only one hub village to serve as a staging ground. In fact, Chantelise ignores some traditional rules. You see, Elise doesn't gain levels and experience the usual way. She's only able to raise her attack and defense ratings by buying new armor, weapons, and energy drinks. This makes her forays into dungeons a bit more risky, as there's no level-up to save you in the middle of a monster-filled labyrinth.
Indeed, Chantelise forgives and punishes in strange ways. A game-over screen doesn't really hurt you that much: your stats remain intact, and any dungeon levels you've unlocked will stay unlocked. Yet there aren't any healing items for Elise to carry early on, and the walnut bread slices and chicken legs she finds in the dungeons are immediately consumed. It leaves her quite vulnerable in the game's initial stages, and it's not amended until Chante gets healing abilities.
Tough as it can be, there's fun game inChantelise. The level progression's compelling despite the early setbacks, and the variety of magic spells makes up for Elise's repetitive, easy attacks. The game's viewpoint is less well-behaved. Without an analog stick, you're forced to use controller buttons to move the camera, and it's annoyingly slow when there are threats all about. It helps that the game's reasonably long, and crazed completists can hunt for a secret treasure in every sub-stage of Chantelise.
Chantelise suffers a bit in comparison to Recettear. For one thing, it lacks Recettear's item-shop side, and a reliance on dungeon-stomping alone leaves Chantelise the less intriguing of the two games. Also absent is a large lineup of playable characters, and restricting the story to Chante, Elise, and a few supporters takes a noticeable toll on an already standard plot. Fortunately, Chante props up most of it with her bratty, forceful ways, while Elise struggles to grow a personality. The game's also technically solid in its appearance, and the soundtrack's only annoying for those players who linger in one area too long. Carpe Fulgur's translation is just as sharp and amusing as it was in Recettear, even if there aren't quite as many opportunities for them to cut loose. As in Recettear, Chantelise is rendered with art that's squarely in the hyper-cute modern anime camp, though it never goes anywhere creepy.
Chantelise may disappoint those who've already been through Recettear, and it's a bit too hard in its early stages. Yet it's an impressive little game in its own right, with enough complex diversions to sate any dungeon-hack fan. And when all's tallied up, it's hard to dismiss a game so earnest and likable.