There's no denying that Nintendo's DS system has seen quite a few Japanese RPG releases over the years and is quickly becoming the system of choice for fans of the genre. Imageepoch, comprised of former developers of such legendary RPG classics as Xenogears and Grandia, have once again combined their talents to create Sands of Destruction, their newest addition to the ever-increasing library of RPG titles for the Nintendo DS. But given the genre's recent criticisms of offering very little in the way of originality or innovation, does this title bring enough new ideas to the table to warrant your time and money?
If you're a fan of the Japanese RPG genre, you should be able to get a grip on the gameplay system in Sands of Destruction fairly quickly. While you'll spend quite a bit of time exploring the various caves, prisons, and dungeons in the game (not to mention a steady dose of random enemy encounters), you won't have to travel between areas in the game on foot. Instead, you'll basically be taken to a world map where you can select the area you wish to visit next. While this might seem like it takes some control and leveling time out of the player's hands, it makes going back to previously visited areas much more convenient and also works quite well in allowing the story to unfold without a lot of needless grinding involved.
The combat system itself is fairly standard turn-based fare, although there are some unique and playable additions to it that allow you to concentrate more on the task of doing battle and less time fumbling through a clunky list of battle commands. Battle selections are mapped to the various buttons on the DS, which make them easy to access during battles. You still have the standard Attack, Defend, and Use Items commands, but you can also upgrade your attacks in several different ways, which will often allow your characters to learn new and more powerful moves in turn. So not only are you allowed to upgrade your character's equipment, but you can also have a hand in how their attacks and special moves develop throughout the game as well. It might seems like a small nuance, but it proves to be quite useful when you begin to progress to more challenging areas in the game. Of course each character also has their own set of special skills that cost the player skill points in order to execute. These skills generally provide healing or stronger attack spells that can be particularly useful against the stronger enemies and bosses you'll encounter throughout the game.
As if these upgrades and special skills weren't enough, your characters can also learn their own unique Quips as you progress through the game's story which, when equipped to one of your characters four quip slots, will allow them to add unique circumstances, such as increased defense or attack power, when your character voices the quip out loud during their battle turn. Once again, it's a small feature, but one that further allows you to customize your characters and their abilities.
The game features an almost never-ending laundry list of areas to explore, and even the constant random enemy encounters aren't so numerous as to become annoying and are spread out quite well as to not become too repetitive during these moments of exploration. The intricacies of the areas are also not so confusing and difficult as to cause you a lot of wasted time wandering around as well. The game always manages to find a good balance of difficulty, although this might prove to be a bit too easy and forgiving for RPG fans who prefer a much stiffer level of difficulty in their adventures. When you combine this smooth playability with the game's host of unique gameplay features, you end up with an RPG experience that feels familiar and comfortable, but still interesting enough to keep your attention for the duration of the quest. While this might end up making the experience a bit too predictable for some long-time RPG fans, you can't help but appreciate the game's accessible gameplay system.
When it comes to 3D visual presentations, the DS generally produces a mixed bag. We know the Nintendo DS system is perfectly capable of executing 3D visuals, and even as amazingly detailed as some areas in Sands of Destruction can be, there are many times when you can't help but think that a polished 2D effort might have given the game a more crisp and clear look to it. The 3D is nice for giving the game a smooth scrolling and fluid appearance, but it hinders some things like facial expressions and far off landscapes. It's a small gripe, and it certainly doesn't take away from the game's extremely well drawn 3D visuals, but on a portable system like the DS, it sometimes feels like a bit of a stretch for the system's graphical capabilities at times. Thankfully the developers did manage to include a stunning amount of variety in the many different locales of the game and you'll certainly never be at a loss for new areas to explore and enjoy from a visual standpoint.
Anytime you have a legendary video game music composer like Yasunori Mitsuda, who's worked on amazing soundtracks for games like Chrono Trigger and Xenogears, you know you're going to be in for a real musical score treat and Sands of Destruction doesn't disappoint. Not only are there a huge number of music tracks scattered throughout the game, but the range of melodies and moods between the various tracks is staggering, to say the least. While maybe not on par with such greats as the aforementioned Chrono Trigger and Xenogears, the soundtrack still features the type of high production value you'd expect from such talent and does an outstanding job of carrying the huge range of emotions the game's engaging storyline brings into play throughout the game. Even the voice overs, while a bit overacted in a few instances, do a great job of establishing the varying personalities of the different characters in the game. It's nice to see such time and effort put into a DS audio presentation and it really pays dividends in the finished product.
In the overall scheme of things, Sands of Destruction doesn't tend to deviate too far from many of the traditional gameplay aspects fans of the Japanese RPG genre have come to know and love over the years, yet somehow it still manages to introduce enough new twists into the mix to at least make the game stand out from the crowd. Sure the game is a bit on the linear side and the toned down difficulty might prove a tad easy for seasoned RPG fans, but if you can appreciate a well designed RPG experience that doesn't try to do more than it's capable of, you'll likely find Sands of Destruction right up your alley. What it lacks in originality, it more than makes up for with its unique charm and engaging storyline.