Riviera: The Promised Land

In 2002, the Sting Entertainment-developed Yakusoku no Chi Riviera saw its release in Japan for the Japanese-exclusive handheld WonderSwan Color. Two years afterward the game saw a port to the Game Boy Advance, and the following year saw its North American release, thanks to Atlus, as Riviera: The Promised Land. The year afterward saw an enhanced port, with full voice acting, to the PlayStation Portable, the remake seeing its release outside Japan in 2007, and providing a solid twist on the typical role-playing game experience in spite of some flaws.

Long ago, Asgard, home of the gods, and Utgard, home of the demons, fought a war, Ragnarok, that brought chaos to the world, with the former suffering gravely, and breaking an ancient taboo, the gods sacrificing their lives to bring black-winged reapers known as Grim Angels into battle, which, through their fierce fighting, successfully terminated the war. The gods sealed away the demons in the heavenly island of Riviera, the gods soon following. A millennium later, signs of the demons’ return are imminent, and the Seven Magi, proxies of the gods, decide to unleash the hidden power within Riviera through the Retribution, with a pair of Grim Angels descending upon the sacred isle…

Riviera is divided into several chapters, most of which commence in the town of Elendia for a few story events, and afterward progress to a dungeon with several floors and rooms, where exploration is rather simplistic, the player able to alternate between movement and exploration modes, where in the latter mode, players can expend TP to trigger story events such as observing part of the scenery or opening a treasure chest. Sometimes, the player, during one of these events, must input a sequence of button presses to disarm a trap or avoid an environmental hazard. Rooms may occasionally have sets of monsters the player must fight to advance the game.

Before battle, the player can choose up to three of five characters to participate in combat in a formation consisting of one character in front row and two in the back row, or two characters in the front row and one in the back row. During character selection, the player can also glimpse the encountered enemies to decide which weapons to bring into battle, which is helpful since most foes have exploitable elemental weaknesses. After confirming the fighting party, the player can select up to four items to bring into battle, each with a limited number of uses within battle except for protagonist Ein’s Einherjar sword, whose use is infinite.

The real fun begins once the player has confirmed their item selection. The player’s characters and the enemy take turns depending upon agility, each having a wait gauge that, once empty, triggers their respective turns. During a character’s turn, the player can choose one of the four items to use against the enemy or on that particular character. Each character has an affinity for certain items, something to consider before battle when setting things up; for instance, if a character is not proficient in use of a certain weapon, they’ll simply “throw” it at the enemy for weaker damage and a high miss rate, but otherwise, the item will normally strike an enemy or have an effect on the user.

As the player and the enemy exchange blows, an overdrive gauge gradually fills up to three levels, and allows characters, if they’ve used certain items a specific number of times (with item mastery coming after battle if a character is still alive), to consume one, two, or three of the levels for a special effect on the party or enemy. Some overdrive skills, such as that which comes with the Einherjar weapon, shatter the overdrive gauge, forbidding overdrive skill use for the battle’s remainder. Overdrive skills are, in some instances, the difference between victory and defeat against tough enemies, specifically story bosses, with the enemy having their own gauge that fills gradually that, when full, will trigger a powerful skill on their part that completely empties their gauge.

Battle ultimately ends in either the player’s favor or the enemies once all members of one side are deceased. Player death results in a Game Over that gives players the opportunity to retry the same battle with items reset to their pre-battle uses, each enemy’s HP partially drained, and the overdrive gauge filled one level. A secondary death results in the same pre-battle setup of item uses, enemy HP drained even more, and the overdrive gauge filled two levels, while a tertiary death does the same with respect to item uses while completely filling the player’s overdrive gauge and reducing antagonist HP to its lowest level, with no health decrease in subsequent attempts.

If the player is victorious, however, characters that have completely filled item skill levels and are still alive will gain a special overdrive skill to use with that item as well as an increase in stats, alongside TP usable within dungeons. The player also receives a ranking based on battle performance and their number of retries, not to mention the occasional item, the game capping the number of weapons and other consumables they can carry at a time, which slightly gives Riviera the feel of a survivor-horror game. Outside story battles, the player can fight “practice” battles in which limited item uses don’t expend (but are still vulnerable to durability-decreasing abilities by slime foes, so avoiding practice fights containing slimes is definitely a recommendation), but skill levels still increase, and given the game’s occasional difficulty spikes, taking time to practice with the player’s items is certainly a must.

So long as the player takes the time to master items, Riviera is not a terribly difficult title, with this reviewer, for instance, barely winning the final boss fight without any retries and one character standing despite dying a few times against a few prior bosses. The game mechanics tend to work well in spite of unskippable ability animations on both sides that tend to drag out fights (there is an option to turn off part of enemy overdrive sequences, but that’s it), alongside the inability in all but perhaps one or two dungeons to back out of a floor to save and fight practice battles, but otherwise, the battle system certainly helps the game more than hurts.

Aside from the slight stinginess of the save system and frequent points of no returns in dungeons, the game interface is okay, with a linear structure that always keeps the player moving in the right direction and in-game maps, although one dungeon-wide puzzle necessitates heavy note-taking, with no in-game preservation of said puzzle’s critical information. In the end, interaction is passable.

The story is perhaps Riviera’s low point, putting quantity above quality, given the frequency of story events that do little to advance the central storyline let alone develop Ein and his fully-feminine party members, although the ending can vary depending upon Ein’s relationships with his comrades, and the translation, in spite of a few errors and oddities such as Lina’s addressing herself in the third person, is more than adequate.

The audio, however, is one of the game’s high points, with plenty of catchy tracks such as a few of the battle themes and beautiful pieces such as the serene song for the town of Elendia. The voice acting is decent, as well, in spite of some squeaky-sounding characters such as the fairies and Lina, not to mention occasional audio glitches, but otherwise, Riviera is fairly easy on the ears.

The visuals, though, could have used some polish, with the character sprites showing little emotion, their character designs doing most of the work in this regard, and the game heavily recycling dungeon room visuals, featuring palette-swapped enemies, and battle animations consisting of the player’s characters and enemies telekinetically using their abilities against one another without actual physical contact. The static anime scenes are the high point of the graphics, which are otherwise lackluster.

Finally, the game isn’t terribly lengthy, taking somewhere from fifteen to twenty-five hours to complete, with few sidequests although good replayability in the form of the aforementioned multiple endings.

Overall, Riviera: The Promised Land was in its time a decent start to Sting’s Dept. Heaven series, what with its strategic combat system that, while slightly sluggish in execution, is largely solid, alongside great aurals. Its other aspects, however, leave some room for improvement, what with its countless points of no return, slightly-stingy save system, weak storyline, and lackluster visual presentation. Despite these shortcomings, the development of further installments of the Dept. Heaven franchise, not to mention the number of ports for the game, indicate a solid legacy for the series’ first installment.

The Good:
+Good strategic combat system.
+Great soundtrack.

The Bad:
-Battles can be slow.
-Points of no return galore.
-Paper-thin plot.
-Lackluster visual presentation.

The Bottom Line:
A good Sting game.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation Portable
Game Mechanics: 7/10
Controls: 6/10
Story: 4/10
Music/Sound: 8/10
Graphics: 5/10
Localization: 8/10
Lasting Appeal: 9/10
Difficulty: Easy
Playing Time: 15-25 Hours

Overall: 7/10

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