MYSTIC ARK / Enix / Super NES
Mystic Ark is sometimes tooted about as the sequel to the 7th Saga, but that's not really true. It shares the same game engine, with a similar-looking battle system (minus the Mode 7 rotation gimmick) and that world map radar that allows you to sometimes Bo Jackson your way out of oncoming enemy encounters. It also recycles some monsters (probably just for budget purposes) and there's a few shared elements like the Tetujin robots. But it appears to have no story or universe connection to 7S whatsoever.
More importantly, it doesn't really take the interesting ideas that were introduced in 7S and build on them. Once liberated from the terrible difficulty balance and tedious map design, things like having a cast of frenemies who travel independently and make decisions about whether to betray you or not on their own could have made for an excellent game. Mystic Ark fixes the difficulty issues and introduces a little more imagination and vibrancy into the game world, but also reverts to a more stock, plodding sort of RPG experience that doesn't really do anything innovative in terms of gameplay.
Well, at least the core concept is inventive, and would be totally ripped by Dragon Quest 7 later -- the game is centered on a mysterious shrine, in which seemingly common objects open portals to other worlds. We open the game with your character (a choice of one prefab male or female) wandering a cave and being captured by some sort of floating wooden floor tile, turned into a figurine and transported off to the shrine. The intervention of some mysterious goddess allows you to escape, however, but you're stuck at the shrine with no way home and surrounded by similar figurines. The goddess says that by exploring the worlds linked from the shrine, maybe you'll find a portal to your own world eventually. So off we go.
Dragon Quest 7 would actually do this idea better, as the worlds are interconnected and you need to hop between them there, and here it's just one after the other in linear style. But this game certainly takes the cake for weirdness. The first world, the tamest of the bunch, is a dried-out desert inhabited by anthropomorphic pirate cats who live in the wrecks of ships. Later worlds include a giant watermelon, a world where there's no adults, and a world where either color or sound disappear on you depending on where you are.
The worlds are interesting and inventive, but tragically the game experience is not equally so. In fact, it's often quite tedious. Worlds tend to be a series of linear fetch quests that send you plodding back and forth through the same territory, often to obnoxious levels of repetition. Battles are samey, grindy and for the first 4 hours of so of gameplay you have only your main character, who pretty much can only do a generic attack and healing spells. After the first world, you get a swappable cast of six party members and can take two at a time with you, and things get slightly less tedious there. But there's never really any inventive battle strategy, and if you hit a difficulty jag in a certain dungeon the only answer is to simply level- and loot-grind until you're strong enough to smack and heal your way through. Adventure game elements are incorporated in that you can look at certain objects to get a close-up and use other items with them, but you soon learn this only used in a really cursory way and doesn't really end up adding much of anything.
And while the game worlds are inventive and the overarching plot maintains a level of mystery that keeps things at least a little interesting throughout, the supporting characters just sort of appear and serve to replicate the character classes from 7S. They don't really have backstories and they don't really get fleshed out in any way. They're like the generic characters from a PC dungeon crawl. You could just leave them all back at the shrine and solo the game if you cared to and it wouldn't really make much of a difference.
I think what Enix was going for here was a Quintet sort of dark, pseudo-philosophical vibe with the overarching story, but the ultimate payoff is a garbled vague mess that's really unsatisfying. There's some moments along the way, but the game puts you through an awful lot of tedious action to get to them. Aside from just having a generic and bland format, it likes to spring these incredibly obnoxious movement-based puzzles on you throughout that bring everything to a screeching halt as you try to figure out exactly what the vague instructions mean for you to do. One utterly unforgivable maze of invisible walls toward the end seems to simply require random experimentation for an hour or more.
The presentation is OK, with the background art being much stronger than the character sprites. The music is a real mixed bag that isn't anything like the moody, low-key and surprisingly good soundtrack of 7S. It's good in spots here, such as in the central Shrine, but it really sounds like two or more people were writing it with no real coordination with each other. One was going for a Dragon Questy sort of symphonic ambience, and those tunes are good, but it sometimes abruptly switches to a style that sounds like the composer was trying to emulate Breath of Fire 2's oddball synths and anachronistic jazz, and those pieces don't come off very well.
This game had a fair amount of hype and mystery surrounding it because it took years and years to get a fan translation of the text together, and in the meantime Japanese-speaking nerds were overpraising it like they tend to overpraise things that are only available in Japan. Upon finally taking it out for a test drive, it's a solid RPG fundamentally, but it's hard not to be disappointed after all that buildup. It was made to sound like one of the Great Untranslated Gems in some quarters, but instead it turns out to be just a solid second-tier SNES RPG with a number of significant flaws, nowhere near the lofty heights of a Chrono Trigger, FF6 or etc.
* Translation Patch by Dynamic-Designs
* Gameplay Video