Few systems have been blessed with the sheer number of RPGs of Nintendo’s plucky little 3DS, and perhaps no publisher has been as persistent in its contribution to that collection as KEMCO. It's brought more than a dozen titles — most of them mobile ports — to the 3DS’ eShop, alongside a smaller number to the Wii U, and now that legacy continues on the Switch with Revenant Saga. An old-school throwback that borrows from both the 16- and 32-bit eras of JRPGs, Revenant Saga offers a functional but ultimately unimpressive take on the genre, and is hard to recommend as a result.

When Revenant Saga’s curtain rises, our hero Albert is in a bit of a bad place. Demonic beings known as ‘Revenants’ have been terrorising humanity, and a deadly plague is sweeping through the kingdom like wildfire. Albert’s best friend and her parents become afflicted by the disease, and in an attempt to save them he makes a deal with an unscrupulous surgeon to try and scare up a cure. As you might imagine, this doesn’t exactly go as planned — the experiment ends up implanting a Revenant into Albert’s body, and while he makes it out alive, his friend isn’t so lucky. Now sharing his body with a demon and hell-bent on revenge, he sets off to uncover the truth behind the Revenants, picking up a party of scrappy comrades along the way.

After that initial ramp up, Revenant Saga’s story is fairly predictable, and it’s unfortunately not very well told. The writing is strictly serviceable and the translation seems to have a stake in reviving long-lost English idioms — combined, it gives the sense of a script that never knows what tone to take. Characters feel flat and generic, and are also surprisingly verbose — the lengthy, frequent, and slow-moving dialogue sequences drag on well past their welcome.

Of course, JRPGs can certainly rise above their stories, and Revenant Saga hinges its hopes on a classic gameplay template: you’ll move your party across an overhead, Dragon Quest-style world map, heading from town to town in your quest for revenge, fighting random battles in dungeons and the overworld as you go. If you’ve played any other KEMCO RPGs (or really, any RPG) you’ll know what to expect here, and the basic hooks of the genre — levelling up, following NPC clues, sidequests and equipment upgrades — are all present and accounted for.

Revenant Saga does add a neat wrinkle to the proceedings by calling back to not one but two golden eras of JRPGs, juxtaposing its 16-bit-inspired overworld with 32-bit battles. As you walk the world map, explore towns and dungeons, and interact with NPCs, everything’s overhead and sprite-based, with SNES-style sprites and tiled backgrounds. When you enter a random encounter, however, the transition to battle triggers a perspective shift to 3D, with your heroes and enemies alike rendered in the chunky polygons of the PSOne days. It’s a cool effect, and helps give Revenant Saga a distinctive visual identity.

The combat itself is turn-based and straightforward — perhaps a bit too straightforward for its own good. You can choose to attack, defend, use items, or cast skills which consume SP, and while it’s certainly functional — it’s the standard setup for a reason — there’s a distinct lack of the nuance that more memorable examples of the genre offer with similar systems. Big damage from attacks and offensive spells is pretty much always the way to go, and enemy AI and attack patterns don’t offer any clever tricks to offset that issue. The result is that battles feel largely ceremonial, and in fact they can be; auto-battle can carry you through the majority of encounters with little trouble.

There is one standout feature of combat, however, which injects a bit of personality into the system: Transformations. Each party member can choose to ‘Transform’ during battle, which changes their appearance — Sailor Moon or Super Saiyan style — and sends them into an altered state, where they’ll deal more damage, receive less in return, and have access to special, more powerful skills. The catch is that they’ll be unable to heal (or be revived) while they’re going wild, so you’ll need to keep an eye on HP, and spend a turn ‘untransforming’ if anyone needs a top up. It’s a great concept, but in execution it feels under-baked. The ability to cancel the transformation whenever you like effectively kills much of the risk-reward dynamic, for one, and while we enjoyed using transformations for the visual variety and fun of it, they never really felt necessary; most normal battles could be won just as easily — not to mention quicker and with less SP spent — without transforming at all.

Unfortunately, that sentiment sums up Revenant Saga as a whole: there are some nice ideas here, but they’re let down in the details, and especially in the presentation. The graphics have bright spots, for instance — large, crisp character portraits, cute sprites, and weather effects on the world map — but the 2D backgrounds are heavily tiled and achingly bland. The 3D battles have the opposite problem, with interesting, varied backdrops but stiff character models and animations that could generously be described as ‘sparse’; most attack animations boil down to a party member moving towards, through, and then away from an enemy as if on wheels. The soundtrack is similarly uneven; the rocking overworld theme is an excellent, electric guitar-fronted call to arms, but much of the music you’ll hear elsewhere is generic fantasy fare, noticeably compressed and very MIDI.

There are also some significant issues with the interface and controls. The most noticeable of these is the movement, which feels oddly out of sync. Albert tears across towns, dungeons and the overworld at a way-too-quick clip, and the controls can’t quite keep up, making for an unwieldy journey. Text delivery, meanwhile, sits on the opposite side of the speedometer, and there aren’t any text speed options — it’s either agonizingly slow, typewritering out letters one-by-one, or fast-forwarded by holding down the ‘X’ button, and then much too fast to read. Finally, there’s a chat log feature, which lets you look back at any dialogue or narration, and while we found this quite handy — using it to fast-forward through the slow-paced cutscenes and then read them at our own pace after — it’s mapped to the same button (‘L’) as ‘Party Heal’, which means you can only access it if you’re already talking to another NPC. To be fair, that wouldn’t normally be much of an issue, but the ticker-tape speed of text delivery meant we found ourselves using the log more often than we otherwise might, and so this limitation stuck out.

To give credit where it’s due, however, we absolutely have to call out a very welcome feature in Revenant Saga: single-hand control options. A toggle in the menu lets you use a single Joy-Con held vertically to control the whole game, by mirror-mapping the face buttons to the left Joy-Con’s D-pad, and enabling the right Joy-Con’s analogue stick for movement. Being able to control the whole game one-handed is peripheral bliss, and a perfect fit for kicking back with an RPG — a fact borne out by the brief golden era one-handed controllers meant just for JRPGs enjoyed in the PSOne days. It’s also a significant boon for accessibility, and that’s well worth celebrating; we’d love to see one-handed Joy-Con control in more Switch RPGs going forward.

Conclusion

Revenant Saga sets out to offer a simple, throwback JRPG on Switch, and while it certainly ticks those boxes it doesn’t actually end up being very fun to play. An unremarkable story, uneven presentation and interface issues hold this already unambitious effort back, and while it brings some excellent ideas to the table — like battle Transformations and single-handed control — they’re not enough to recommend the experience. If you’re starved for an old-school RPG on the Switch, I Am Setsuna is still your best bet at the moment — otherwise, the 3DS’ treasure trove of turn-based adventures awaits.