With a string of well-loved strategy RPGs spanning the glory days of the Mega Drive, Super Famicom and Sega Saturn, Masaya's Langriser is a storied series. Its unique art style, large-scale battles and Germanic-inspired lore earned it a passionate following; now, nearly two decades after 1998's Langrisser V, Aksys has delivered a new entry in Re:Incarnation Tense. Unfortunately, when fans (including our own Damien McFerran) hoped for a revival, this definitely wasn't that they had in mind; Langrisser Re:Incarnation Tensei drags the Langrisser name through the mud with an achingly mediocre SRPG effort.
Langrisser's story kicks off with a town aflame and under attack from the merciless Imperial Army. You play as Ares Lovina, a local spiky-haired youth who, in the middle of the flames, stumbles into a church and across the legendary Langrisser sword. Taking up this ancient, obscenely powerful blade, he manages to push back the army and liberate what's left of his home village. Setting off with the survivors on a journey to put an end to the conflict, Ares meets and can eventually team up with members of the armies of light and darkness, along with the imperial forces — choosing who to side with at various points in the story will send you down different paths. Aside from the three-faction set-up and branching storylines, it's not a noteworthy narrative. It's also told with a slipshod translation that bounces around in both tone and its use of grammar, making it all a bit moot.
Once you've got your marching orders, Langrisser's basic gameplay uses a familiar strategy-RPG template: you'll control a squad of diverse troops, moving them across gridded maps in turns, and having them attack enemy units when they get within range. Battles play out as automatic skirmishes where units deal out and receive a predetermined amount of damage, aside from critical hits or misses. In its execution it feels very much like Fire Emblem, and winning campaigns is a matter of methodically moving your army into strategic positions and thinking at least a turn or two ahead.
Fire Emblem fans will also recognise plenty of other familiar features in Langrisser; units can team-up with nearby allies for increased attack and defence, there are powerful, class-based skills that consume MP to heal allies and deal damage, and a weapon triangle between infantry, lancers, and cavalry determines type weaknesses. There's even an implementation of the dating action seen in Awakening and Fates; between battles you can have conversations with your allies to get closer to them, and eventually see a confession scene and accompanying in-battle boosts. While the conversations are nowhere near as well-written or entertaining as in Fates, we like the fact that they include dialogue choices, which gives them a nicely interactive feel.
So far, these are all familiar elements, but as a series Langrisser has always had some particularities that help it stand out from the SRPG crowd. Several of these return in Re:Incarnation: Tensei, including the signature Mercenaries system. Langrisser separates its units into two types: Commanders — the main characters and named enemies who have personalities and portraits — and Mercs, the nameless, expendable grunts who serve their Commanders with absolute loyalty. Mercs are tied to their generals so loyally, in fact, that if you defeat an enemy commander all their associated underlings will disappear from the battle. They aren't just for the antagonists either — you can hire Mercs for all your own soldiers in the Guild as well. Commanders will earn their Mercs' EXP, even if the grunts die before the battle's finished, so you can feel free to think of them as friendly cannon fodder — though they'll also recover HP by standing next to their lords.
The Mercs give Langrisser a different feel from most SRPGs on the 3DS, and a good deal of that comes from their disposable nature; after Fire Emblem's permadeath paradigm urging players to spend all their energy keeping individual units alive, it's quite a change of pace to have some of your soldiers engage with such impunity. The fact that they fall with their leaders also adds an interesting layer of strategic potential; targeting commanders to thin out the field is almost always a good idea, and aiming for the higher-ups for efficiency gives "destroy all enemies" missions a welcome speed-boost.
Units also have a fixed turn-order in Langrisser, so unlike in Fire Emblem you won't be able to decide who to move first during your turn. In theory this also adds to the strategic mix — you'll have to think carefully about how to set-up assists and when to move healers — but the implementation is frustrating and clunky, with only a tiny, icon-based line alerting you to the upcoming order.
Similarly, skills can only be used before moving; you can't move a character to a new location and then have them heal or fire off magic attacks. Again, in theory this should set up some interesting decisions — especially when combined with the fixed turn order — but in practice it feels too restrictive and slow. Instead of adding any actual strategic value, it just ends up turning one-turn ideas into two-turn processes, and that contributes to the feeling that you're spending most of your time marching everyone around instead of actually doing anything.
In fact, this is a defining feature of Langrisser Re:Incarnation: Tensei as a whole. There are plenty of ostensibly interesting ideas here, that should in theory combine to create the kind of deeply strategic mix that SRPG fans love. But in practice they're poorly implemented, and beset on every side by a seemingly endless series of shortsighted design decisions.
Perhaps the most salient problem is an issue of geography; Re:Incarnation features absolutely enormous maps, populated strikingly sparsely. There's nothing wrong with large playing fields in an SRPG, but the ratio between map size, movement ranges and enemy spacing here is an absolute mess. It takes forever for your soldiers to actually get anywhere in battle — it feels like each mission takes place in outland Siberia instead of a field or town — and we spent far too many turns in nearly every mission just trying to get within shouting distance of an enemy. Again, that would be less of a problem if the UI were snappy and turns were fast, but neither of those things are true, and as a result every bout of turn-based combat in this Langrisser is necessarily proceeded by a shuffling parade of turn-based walking.
These problems are compounded by an impressive variety of UI missteps, which start from the moment you boot the game and find 'A' mapped to 'back' and 'B' to 'confirm' on menus. It's an immediately off-putting swap that makes the game feel like a quick PSP port (it's not!), and years of 3DS muscle memory are tough to overcome; we were still ending turns prematurely by pressing the wrong button many missions in. Continuing on, you'll find no way to fast-forward through enemy turns — and they take a while! — no soft reset, and no quick save option, an absolutely killer omission for an ostensibly portable game. As you start to customize your characters, you'll notice the lack of visible stats on equipment, and the conspicuous inability to remove a piece of equipment except by replacing it with another one; Langrisser's heroes are commendably committed to modesty, and woe befall the soldier who runs out of spare pairs of boots! Perhaps the best indicator of the lack of care given to basic user interface here is the fact that both your units and your enemy's units are displayed as red dots on the battle map; that's as surreal and unhelpful as it sounds.
A similarly scant amount of polish comes through in the overall presentation. In its earlier incarnations Langrisser owed a great deal of its unique personality to Satoshi Urushihara's stylistic character portraits and, with Urushihara out of the picture, Re:Incarnation's reinterpretation makes for a poor replacement. Characters are cast in a generically flashy anime-style where everyone looks just a bit wonky — like they were drawn mid-speech or just about to sneeze — and the preponderance of prepubescent girls in nipple pasties makes Code of Princess' cast look downright well-dressed. Independent of vanishing bikini-armor, these are character designs by committee, and they're neither memorable nor terribly original.
The polygonal presentation falls sadly short as well, most noticeably in the battle scenes. These zoomed-in, slowly panning 3D clashes take place on mostly featureless plains, with chibi renditions of the combatants who enact their epic fights to the death by sort of running into each other at sidewalk-safe speeds. These scenes have the visual finesse of early Saturn tech demos combined with the aesthetic sensibilities of mobile generica, and though it's strangely amusing to sit through the first few times, we resorted to skipping every battle with a press of the 'A' button rather quickly. There are a few nice touches to be found in Re:Incarnation, like some surprisingly cute menu sprites and nice-looking water effects on the field, but overall it's bland at best. Technical issues further mar what finesse there might have been, with muddy textures and blurry fonts, a temperamental stereoscopic 3D effect, and sprites blown up well beyond their native resolution on the battlefield.
Close your eyes and plug in a pair of headphones, however, and a relatively bright spot in the darkness appears. Tensei's soundtrack sees the return of Noriyuki Iwadare — who's worked on Lunar, Ace Attorney, Grandia and Steel Empire, in addition to the original Langrisser games — and the music is appropriately on a different plane than the rest of the experience. While it's not the composer's best work it's still worth a listen, and the synthesized-symphonic score is filled with heavy, martial marches, electric guitar-based battle themes, and jazzy interludes. High-quality partial voice acting in the original Japanese rounds out the audio package.
With sluggish gameplay, off-putting presentation and bafflingly poor design decisions at every turn, Langrisser Re:Incarnation Tensei is an entirely underwhelming revival of a once-beloved series, and a subpar SRPG besides. It's clunky and charmless, and suffers all the more from its considerable company; on a system with multiple Fire Emblems, stylish standouts like Stella Glow, and cheap-as-chips eShop options like Mercenaries Saga 2, it's hard to think of a place for Langrisser. Maybe someday Masaya's storied series will rise again, but for now, this is one SRPG best kept sheathed.