2019-Jul-22: Paladin's Quest: No Paladins in Sight

Paladin's Quest is a SNES JRPG that I only really experienced as a one-time rental in my childhood. The reasons are not so clear to me in 2019, but I experienced it for a weekend and never really felt the drive to pick it up again and try to finish it. In fact, it left such a bad taste in my mouth that even in a recent play attempt I didn't really give it a fair chance and left it to rot in my backlog after just an hour or two.

As such, I did the one thing I usually do when I think I want to finish a game but don't have the drive to actually finish it: stream it.

If I had to describe Paladin's Quest in a word, it'd be "Alien". The graphics heavily lean into garish pastel color palettes, giving the game a strange otherworldly look. The architecture showcases spheres and cylinders frequently; with not a normal house or dwelling to be seen. The monster designs are completely out of control, with only vague references to earthly creatures present. Meanwhile, the game behaves enough like an RPG to get the gist, but then completely breaks the rules by letting you attack with boots and helmets, completely discarding the concept of consumables, and throwing out healing spells entirely.

Of course, the lack of healing spells and the limitations on healing items lampshades one of the biggest twists in the game mechanics: despite your most effective method of combat being offensive magic, there is no MP. Instead, spells draw directly from your HP. It's a pretty unique thing for this era, and possibly the source of a lot of trepidation about the game. Most RPGs in this time trained the player to conserve resources, but Paladin's Quest ties finishing fights quickly in with that resource conservation.

As far as healing goes, you have bottles: charged healing items that can be refilled in towns. Each character can bring one bottle into combat on their belt, and any remaining bottles can rest in your inventory and be used for menu healing. These bottles are your only source of healing outside of inns, and you have access to a limited number of them through the game. Most of the bottles can be found in chests in out of the way places, or quietly tucked away in shelves and cupboards in towns. They're rare for good reason: each one increases your effective well of HP out of town and gives you more flexibility in spamming spells before having to find an inn.

Magic itself is based on elements, each of which has a competency level that is raised by using the element in combat. As you progress, you purchase access to new elements for your two protagonists. Each of the game's spells is expressed as a combination of two elements, so each new element gives you more and more spells to play with. The variety is actually quite staggering.

As you gain elements, you unlock three primary spell types (Fire, Bolt, and Break), with three focus levels (single target, group, and all targets) as your core spells. Then you have a series of buff/debuff spells, a small group of world spells, and finally the "super" damage spells which have unique mechanics of their own. One super spell has an extremely low chance to hit but targets everything, one will only hit the bottom two rows of the battlefield, another the upper two. Leveling up some of these spells increases their range and capability as well. It's all very deep and engaging.

All of this complexity in itemization and combat mostly boils down to one thing in actual practice though: finding the best spells to use in any given situation and using them effectively to reduce HP loss and hence reduce the drain on your bottle charges. Picking the optimal spell in a given battle involves figuring out which element will do the most damage, in which configuration to best hit the foes as they're laid out, and balancing HP cost with that.

That said, once I hit about mid-game I unlocked the spells Storm and Bury which formed the bulk of my offense for the rest of the game. I don't think anything was strong against Bury, and only a few things were strong against Storm (and most of those things fell to the similarly named LStorm). The end of the game kind of falls flat on the forced flexibility as you gain these spells and gain enough bottles to fuel just spamming them and their high HP costs.

Oddly enough, in the final leg of the game, the main protagonist starts finding equipment that turns him into a physical attack powerhouse. Spamming super spells is still the best approach in most trash fights, but for bosses it starts becoming more effective to throw strength and defense buffs/debuffs around and let him go nuts with high tier swords. This new found physical power is short lived, however, as the final few boss fights force you to use the game's version of Ultima: the spell Spirit. In fact, the final couple of boss fights come down to keeping Chezni alive just to spam Spirit as literally nothing else will do more than 15 damage.

As far as highlights: the music is really good in most places, and the plot is actually something different that manages to avoid the era tropes of "find the crystals" or "destroy the evil being of darkness". It does however make its own love to time travel shenanigans, but it does it in a way that at least presents a unique take on that trope. This coupled with the alien feel to every single component of the game makes it feel fresh and unique. I definitely feel like the plot alone makes the game worth a play-through once.

On the other hand, the game has some pretty glaring issues. Pacing is strange: combat can take forever in most cases even with high tier spell spamming. You move abysmally slow on the world map. Also the end of the game seems to just kind of throw several new things at you with no real explanation of what to do. In the final 4 hours I found myself bounced between a strange underground subway system, a ship on the open ocean, and finally an airship. The latter two represent the only overworld fast travel in the game, and come after you've finished everything there is to do in the world but go fight the big bad. The timing is really odd.

In addition, the most obvious and painful issue is that of item name truncation. Sure it may not be a huge deal to have to go shuffling through equip screens to figure out what slot holds a "Btl Ct" or a "Thd Sa", but whew does it ruin immersion to not even know what it is your character is wielding in battle. My stream chat had some fun theories for what these item names actually meant; they were probably not very accurate though.

Finally the difficulty scaling is, frankly, non-existent. Maybe I got lucky and found the spells I needed right away. Maybe I got lost more than expected and over-leveled. Either way I found the game extremely easy. At no point did I feel in danger, to the point that I started forgetting to refill my bottles in town regularly. There's a significant and very jarring difficulty spike in the final dungeon, where you're left healing and scraping yourself back together after every battle-- but by then you have so many bottles that resource attrition is not even a concern.

All in all, I think Paladin's Quest is deserving of a single non-committal play-through. If you feel the urge to stop playing it, meh, you're likely not missing a ton. The story's neat, the enemies are creative and unique, the spell variety is engaging, and the music is solid. There's nothing super memorable here though.