2019-Oct-09: Chaos World: Probably Better as an Idle Game

Chaos World's an odd one. It's a Famicom RPG by Natsume that never made it to the US, and perhaps for good reason. It also has the honor of being one of Aeon Genesis's first translation projects, and the translation patch has some properly rough edges to show for it. That said, a remake of the patch is apparently on AGTP's shortlist for future projects, and what we have now is very playable if you can ignore some occasional output garbage.

The game itself has some really solid concepts, none of which mesh together into a cohesive, fun experience. I think that's the real shame of Chaos World: it consists of a bunch of neat ideas that were lovingly designed but at no point did anyone perform the integration test of "does this make for a fun game?". Having been released in 1991, Chaos World was also quite late in the NES lifecycle, but made a lot of the playability mistakes of older RPGs like Dragon Quest and the original Final Fantasy, as well as had the general appearance and quality of life features of an RPG from that era.

Chaos World boasts a rather impressive startup in which you create a character from seven classes, each having two gender variants. Once you get into the game it becomes clear that the seven classes basically boil down to the classic four of Fighter, Thief, Magician, and Priest with some slight tweaks. The three additional classes are the Knight with slightly more damage and less defense than the Fighter (which seems backwards to me), the Shaman which is a jack of all trades a-la Red Mage, and the Bishop which is a dual-type caster with absolutely abysmal physical and defense stats. The gender variants are typically limited to a few percent of one stat being moved to another.

So there's nothing really new there but it is a pretty impressive start. Throughout the game you get access to every class/gender combination as a party member, so you get to try them all eventually. Whatever you pick to be your hero simply vanishes from the game and your hero character takes their slot in the full game roster. While a couple of characters are thrown at you by plot, more are recruited from guildhalls spread throughout the world. It's here that, in addition to finding new allies, you take on jobs. Jobs give the party members on your bench something to do to contribute to the party; each job has a gender and/or class requirement and takes a certain amount of in-game time to complete. Doing them gets you mandatory plot progression, money, and gear. In some cases the gear you get from jobs far outstrips what you can get from shops and dungeons at any given time, so they're worth doing.

There is however a dirty trick in the form of one job that cannot be completed. Any character you send on it is lost permanently. I don't know if this is a bug or not; it's somewhat lampshaded by NPCs around town talking about the job. Nasty either way if you send a main line character on it.

Outside of the class variety and the guild system, the game's a pretty standard Dragon Quest clone. You go from town to town figuring out what to do, doing a dungeon or two at each town and having to grind several levels at each stop to be able to survive the next trek. New gear is thrown at you fast and furious for the first half of the game, and far too expensive to keep up without yet more grinding. After that the well dries and you're left with a few slivers of high powered equipment found via jobs and dungeons. Progress comes mostly from levels at that point.

But all of this ignores the two biggest black eyes Chaos World has...

First is the extremely messy plot trigger thread the game has. It's a very common thing to finish a quest and just be left with no idea what to do. Clearly the expectation was for you to be left warping from town to town trying to figure out which NPC to talk to to progress. I may blame the translation partially for this; even AGTP admits a lot of text was cut. I can't say for sure where the fault lies. Then you have the appearance of two invisible land masses late in the plot. You're told they should be visible now, but not where, so you're left canvasing the encounter-heavy ocean inch by inch trying to find where in the giant sheet of water you explored already the thing appeared that you need next. Doing this once is understandable, but twice? This also results in a very shallow disjointed story that doesn't ever really find depth or meaningful interaction with the player. You just kind of go a place because you were told to, then things happen. It's not engaging.

Second is the battle system. This is the pink elephant I've been avoiding until now. In Chaos World, all battles are completely automated. I've heard it described as "Final Fantasy XII with no direct control and no gambit editing" and that is not far off. Upon getting an encounter (and they are random encounters in the style of old Dragon Quest games-- really frequent ones too), you're presented with three options: Fight, choose a Plan, or Flee.

Plan lets you choose from one of about half a dozen AI scripts that mainly determine how often your party will expend MP, Fight begins combat with the selected plan. Once you begin the battle, your characters all act of their own accord, swinging and casting at whatever target they desire until one side dies. Flee of course attempts to run. One saving grace of all this: you have about a 90% chance to flee. I walked out of entire dungeons because my healer died; situations that would have been sure death in a Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy. In Chaos World fleeing is almost guaranteed. I suppose that's good because battles in Chaos World are pure numbers. You can't eek out a win with pure skill if you're outmatched, you don't have that kind of agency.

Aside from picking a plan, your decision-making power is limited to equipping your characters. Gear is a straight linear progression, there are no trade-offs between one stat and another. Spells on the other hand give you some flexibility. Each caster can equip four spells and will generally use them competently. Heals automatically come out when needed, nukes come out based on your plan, status removals are used when necessary and status inflictors are used when prudent. The AI is pretty sound with this stuff, as it has to be to not have an infuriating game. But at the end of the day you still have absolutely no control over battle.

You can hit a butter zone, if you're running a very flimsy healer character like the Female Priest, where you can be knocked down from above the heal threshold to dead. Your healer won't ever account for this and will happily stand there in one-shot range as long as your HP percentage isn't below the magic heal threshold. Usually this is a sign you need a level or gear upgrade, but it is annoying to know if you just had control you could prevent this.

Also in my case anyway, I found the MP drain of offensive casting to be so great that I considered the best team to be three melee units and a healer. The only thing I'd really change from my run through the game is dropping my Priest for a Shaman, or maybe having a Priest AND a Shaman. I equipped the Priest with the weakest healing spell in the game and three status removers, and she was fine all game. Even the base heal spell (of three, and then a group target fourth) was enough to keep my team up from beginning to end. I have no idea why the other spells exist; they just chew up MP faster. There was exactly one point in the game I wished I had AOE magic, and that was near the very end when the game suddenly throws nine enemy molds of weak targets at you. Nothing lives long enough for status effects either.

So really most of the game was getting the best gear I could and being high enough level to make it through dungeons. This was accomplished at first by grinding, but I eventually hit a point where I could just coast. I played most of the game on 4x speed, because between the grinding and the forced auto-battle, there was very little to do but drive my party through dungeons, and I could do that at 4x speed. Despite this, the game took about 8 hours. That's not to say it'd take 32 in real time, but it wouldn't be a short game either! Most of that was spent wandering giant maze-like dungeons and trying to figure out where to go or what to do next.

The plot was... interesting... I suppose. It started out different from the typical affair for these kind of games. In short, an ancient long-dead cult reappears and begins twisting the minds and souls of the people and you're there as it happens and are tasked with stopping it. The game starts with a lot of unrelated disasters befalling people and you lending a hand to make things right. Eventually the main reveal comes in the form of being framed for a murder and being sent after the true murderer, and that spirals into the cult plot arc ending in defeating the big bads only to be told the "true evil" is still out there. Yeah, the game pulls a Zeromus in the final stages. Along the way you have to collect three jewels and six emblems, so you got your classic MacGuffin chasing too. I guess mainly though the plot isn't coherent. It's a bunch of isolated incidents that get vaguely tied together into the cult story. I suppose, again, the translation may be to blame. I don't know.

All and all the story is different, the guild system is neat, the class options are deep and varied, and there's some replay value in playing a different party, but the battle system sucks and none of this joins together to create a cohesive, fun experience. Probably one of the games I'd most recommend giving a pass. It's strikingly mediocre, with very little to actually do. If it was a flaming wreck it'd at least be interesting for that reason, but it's not. It's competent, with just a total swing and a miss on player engagement.

A shame really. I do want to give it a second try if AGTP ever finish the remake of the translation. Maybe better writing would make it a stronger game.