From old-school platformers like Shovel Knight to the pixel-art renaissance, what's old is new again these days, and retro revivals have made for some wonderfully received games in recent years. The best of these projects leverage clever design, modern sensibilities and plenty of polish to craft experiences that feel like games as we remember them, rather than how they might have actually been. Unfortunately, that's not exactly the case with Kemco's latest eShop adventure, Alphadia, which picks up after Wii U title Alphadia Genesis in unabashedly harkening back to the 16- and 32-bit era of JRPGs. While Alphadia offers a decent serving of comfort-gaming for players missing those glory days, it suffers from a lack of personality and fails to hold up as well as its actual retro inspirations, or really to make much of an impression among the rest of the 3DS' stellar library of JRPGs.
Alphadia kicks off in a world in turmoil. With the 'Energi' wars of the past century fading into memory, the uppity Schwarzschild Empire has taken advantage of the ensuing peace to stage a return to military might, and has taken up arms to conquer and colonise its neighbours one by one. As Schwarzschild extend their reach across the globe, the conflict comes to the far-flung frontier town of Heiland via a mysterious young girl named Shion, who runs into unassuming young guardsmen Ash and Karim while escaping the empire. After they help fight off her pursuers they learn of her mission to help the Resistance, and — along with a few other friends and family — get swept up in an adventure that will change their lives forever.
If Alphadia's story sounds familiar, it's doing its job. Calling back to RPGs of yore, it gets a lot of milage out of its "plucky upstart underdogs on a quest to save the world" premise, and while it's largely predictable, that feels like the point; the story isn't there to surprise, it's there to remind you of old-school RPGs in general, and it definitely does so, although — as you might imagine — it ends up coming off as mostly nondescript in the process.
The gameplay follows a similarly well-travelled path: moving your band of heroes around both in towns and over a Dragon Quest-style world map, you'll fight in turn-based battles, upgrade your equipment at shops in each new city, talk to NPCs for plot details and to take on side quests, and see your characters become more powerful as they level up through experience points.
In battle you'll be able to attack, guard or use Energi, with the latter serving as Alphadia's magic system, and the main distinguishing feature of its combat. There are some neat ideas in Energi, including different types — characters can use either Water, Fire, Wind, Earth, Light or Dark Energi, and can learn to control other types later on — and a corresponding elemental weakness chain, combination skills that use more than one Energi element, and independent leveling up through Skill Points earned in combat. You'll also be able to swap party members in battle, with up to four on the field at a time chosen from a larger caravan, and even characters who don't actively participate will receive some Experience Points at the end of each encounter.
Alphadia's combat system is certainly competent, but it doesn't always feel as refined as its retro influences. Random encounter rates are as high as they were back in the day, for instance, but the level of challenge of non-boss fights is low enough that it's hard to actually get invested in individual battles. And though equipping and powering up different Energi types offers a bit of customization, it's not compelling enough to ever really suck you in like the best character growth systems do.
A few thoroughly modern touches help — like a decent auto-battle, the touchscreen UI keeping the top screen clear, and a handy map with objectives marked — and the ability to save anywhere is very much appreciated, but these add convenience rather than fun, and can't save Alphadia from feeling a bit flat. In theory, it's not too different from the gameplay in Final Fantasy games of the SNES or PlayStation days, but without the storytelling and world-building to put it in context it's significantly less exciting.
Part of the problem also comes from the fact that Alphadia's gameplay is dressed up in a presentation that's decidedly below par. The anime character portraits look nice, and the battle backgrounds and enemy sprites have their moments, but apart from those it's unimpressive and severely lacking in soul; towns and shops look like RPG Maker templates, with assets chunkily tiled together, battles are brought to life with stiff, puppet show-style animations and awkward effects, and there's no stereoscopic 3D effect at all. Worse, moving around anywhere outside of battle involves twitchy, jittery screen scrolling that never stops being distracting.
The soundtrack suffers a similar fate, though it's not for a lack of quality in the music itself. The synthesized score recalls the RPGs of the era very well, and taps into the nostalgia vein perhaps better than any other aspect of the game; from swirling, crystalline atmospheric tracks and martial, call-to-arms battle themes to eminently hummable town tunes, everything's pleasant to listen to and a perfect fit while playing. The problem is more in the packaging: Alphadia's audio is noticeably compressed — sounding tinny and grainy on both headphones and the 3DS' speakers — and loops are often far from seamless; some tracks will play for 30 seconds to a minute or so, trigger a brief pause that feels like a CD switching tracks, and then launch back into the opening measures as if nothing had happened. It's not the biggest issue on its own, but combined with the constantly stuttering screen movement it makes for a package that feels poorly optimised for Nintendo's portable.
On the plus side, the translation stands out as wholly well done. The writing is still very matter-of-fact, and characters can struggle for personality, but it's a mostly error-free script in natural English, and it's clear that the localisation was handled with care.
Alphadia definitely does what it says on the tin, serving up an old-school JRPG with turn-based combat, a familiar story and a SNES-era aesthetic. Unfortunately, it does so without ever really aspiring to any sort of excellence, and with a few telltale trappings of a mobile port, including jittery movement, noticeably compressed sound and a lack of stereoscopic 3D. Alphadia isn't a bad game — and players looking for pure comfort-food gaming will certainly find some old-fashioned fun here — but on a system with what is hands down the best library of JRPGs in recent memory, 'not bad' isn't enough to stand out.