While playing Pier Solar and the Great Architects, it’s important to consider what a labour of love the title really is. With origins as a Sega CD homebrew project from the now-defunct Sega fansite Eidolon’s Inn, it was originally meant to star members of that website’s "Tavern" message board before evolving into a much bigger project. It spent six years in development, two of which were after the originally announced release date. It’s filled to the brim with references to an era gone by in gaming, like an in-game collectible Mega Drive cartridge labelled "Probably Tiny Toon Adventures." All these things and more are evidence that the most prevalent ingredient in this game is passion.
This is a love letter to Japanese role-playing games from the late 80’s and early 90’s, and the joy that went into creating it shines through in every facet. Keeping that in mind while playing will give you a greater appreciation for the work involved — despite any reservations you might have about the bigger picture. And you will have reservations; while Pier Solar can be enjoyable, it intentionally carries a lot of the limitations of its era. This is a style imitation, for better and for worse, so your ability to overlook the game's quirkier faults will largely depend on your affinity for SNES and Genesis-era JRPGs.
Pier Solar and the Great Architects spends most of its narrative following a young botanist named Hoston and his two friends, Alina and Edessot, as they slowly uncover the secrets of a lost civilization. From purely a story perspective, there's nothing here you really haven't seen before in a JRPG — it goes through all the motions of obligatory plot twists and utterly nonsensical betrayals and deaths. It's easily the worst part of the adventure, especially the lame dialogue by which the tale is delivered. Like a lot of RPGs, Pier Solar seems overeager in its attempts to make its characters likeable, leading to obnoxious exchanges like "How did you come up with Mazooca? Sounds like a rectal disease!" and the absolutely cringe-inducing repeated gag where Alina insists on calling her male companions "brothers" despite not being related. As a result, a lot of the dramatic moments come off as unintentionally hilarious and the supposedly humorous moments come off as irritating.
Luckily, there's a lot more to Pier Solar than its banal storytelling. The game follows the same classic role-playing formula found in old-school Final Fantasy titles; explore a town, purchase supplies and equipment, conquer an enemy-filled dungeon, rinse and repeat. Unlike a lot of those old titles, however, using the world map to get from place to place has been greatly simplified thanks to an easy area-select screen. This may seem like a bummer to those who enjoy the trek from town to town, but these journeys still take place — just within the context of individually designed areas as opposed to a wide-open map. This leads to a lot more aesthetic variety and a lot less tedium when backtracking, a welcome change of pace for a game that tends to stick firmly to the principles of games from twenty years ago.
The actual meat of the gameplay in those areas usually begins enjoyably enough thanks to a fun battle system. WaterMelon was smart not to reinvent the wheel — all of the tried-and-true elements found in countless other JRPGs are here and accounted for, including both unique offensive and defensive abilities for each party member, magic of the healing and destructive varieties, and equipment that changes the balance of each character's stats. This might have come across as a little blasé had it not been for the unique Gather mechanic — a system most closely comparable to the Brave/Default system from Bravely Default, albeit with some important differences. Party members can spend a turn "gathering," which will add 1 point to their meter out of a possible 5. Having enough gather points not only allows players to execute special moves, but also multiplies the amount of damage they deal out or the amount of HP their magic will heal. In addition, the only way points can be lost is by taking a particularly hard hit from an enemy; using special moves does not cost anything. All of this, combined with the fact that points can be traded among party members at will, makes for some very strategic combat.
Unfortunately, there are two major problems with the battle system that can really ruin your fun. Firstly, the animations for everything when in battle take absolutely forever. Anyone who's played a turn-based RPG before knows that long animations can be agonizing when trying to get through random encounters, and this game is a good example of this problem. It's downright irritating to get into a battle when you're trying to solve a puzzle or figure out where to go because it can take an asinine amount of time to return to what you were doing. This is compounded with the second major issue, which is an astounding lack of enemy variety. Palette swaps and minor edits are frequent fliers in this genre, but each area only has four or so individual enemies. This makes encounters extremely repetitive; though you'll usually begin an area having a good time, by the latter half you'll feel a twitch coming on every time the screen dissolves. In addition, there's a baffling stretch in the middle of the game's story where you won't be able to rest at an inn, ensuring a miserable and frustrating time for your party as their HP and MP slowly dwindles.
Visually, Pier Solar HD is outstanding whether you choose to go with the 16-bit aesthetic or the brand-new HD and HD+ settings. The level of detail put into the presentation makes each area a joy to explore for the first time, and occasional full-screen still images of important scenes are absolutely gorgeous. This reviewer definitely preferred the classic look the game was originally designed in; though the higher resolution does make everything pop, there's something inexplicable lost in translation for the environments and particularly the character portraits — the lighting in certain areas is too dark, and the art of your fellow party members looks overly simplistic when brought into high definition. Sometimes things are literally lost as well, like an inn sign in the first town that magically disappears when playing in HD. Sound-wise, most of the music is forgettable, but nice touches like the calling of seagulls or enthusiastic talking in a marketplace improve the atmosphere for the game's locales quite a bit.
Pier Solar is a labour of love that makes its passion known right from the first scene. It's an absolutely gorgeous title with inspiration from just about every classic Japanese role-playing game released in the late 80's and early 90's. Unfortunately, it drags some artefacts from that era with it, and as a result features conspicuous problems that will get in the way of your fun. If you can ignore the slow battle system, vapid story, and abysmal dialogue, Pier Solar's efforts may win your heart. If you've got no love for this genre, steer clear — this is one for enthusiasts only.