Nostalgia Review

By Michael Thomsen - Posted Nov 10, 2009

Nostalgia is an awkward mix of 19th century colonial whimsy and the rigid gameplay of old school role-playing games. It has all of the right ingredients to be a crafty throwback, but its repetitive formula and rote combat take all the sweetness out of the cake.

The Pros
  • Environments and characters look great
  • Lengthy quest with lots of side missions
  • Flying in the overworld
The Cons
  • Plodding combat
  • Obscure menu system
  • Mindlessly easy
  • Seriously repetitive mission structure

Nostalgia is an awkward mix of 19th century colonial whimsy and the rigid gameplay of old school role-playing games. It has all of the right ingredients to be a crafty throwback, but its repetitive formula and rote combat take all the sweetness out of the cake.


Is That An Anachronism In Your Pants...

Cult developer Red Entertainment (Gungrave, Sakura Taisen, Thousand Arms, Tempo) and project director Naoki Morita have been hoping to bring an alternate history RPG to the world since the mid-90’s. With the worldwide success of the DS and the 3D technology from Matrix Software’s remakes of Final Fantasy III and Final Fantasy IV, the time was finally right. Nostalgia offers a rollicking fable that shares more than a little Anglophilia in common with Professor Layton and Valkyria Chronicles.

You’ll play as Eddie, eager son of English adventurer Gilbert Brown. Gilbert disappears after a surprise meeting with a strange woman in the Tower of Babel. When word reaches Eddie that his father has gone missing, the Victorian scrapper sets out on a mission to find him. After a few hours of collecting mysterious allies for your adolescent dirty dozen, you’ll discover the conspiracy of the Cabal, who are chasing around the world collecting the scattered pieces of a key that is purported to open the gate to heaven.

To prevent this celestial catastrophe, Eddie and his friends will race against the Cabal, and explore dungeons in exotic locales such as Cairo, Mount Ararad, Easter Island, and St. Petersburg. Red Entertainment has given the young bloods an airship touting a giant sword as hood ornament to make the exploration a little more expedient. The story is alarmingly naïve, even though its themes and locations from 19th century British colonialism are loaded with the potential. One of the most embittered and violent eras of human conquest is used as backdrop for a teen romance. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but neither is there much worth defending in Red’s execution of a formulaic melodrama with an evocative backdrop.

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…Or Are You Just Happy To See Me?

In regard to its battle system, Nostalgia continues in the heralded role-playing tradition of turn-based combat.  In the best permutations, this system becomes like a tactical Rubik’s cube where there are lots of potential actions for each character but only a few effective ones. In addition to a standard melee attack, each character has a Skill option in battle. This option is where magic attacks and healing spells are filed for mages and healers. Other characters also get Skills that are unique to their character traits. Compatriot Pad uses a gun so his Skills allow him to buff his chance of a critical shot or appear invisible to enemy attack for a few rounds. Eddie is a sword-based fighter and has a skill that allows him to string together several hits into a single turn.

After battles, you’ll get both experience and skill points, which can be spent to upgrade various skills and unlock new ones on a small grid. It’s a fine enough system, but the game’s difficulty makes most encounters a forgone conclusion. At one point in the early going I had a melee weapon for my mage character that did more damage than either her magic attacks or Eddie’s sword attack.

There are air battles in the overworld, and these have a little more depth. Instead of separate health and magic points, you’ll have a single EVO meter. You lose EVO both when you’re attacked and when you use skills, which is a great twist that has a real sense of consequence for using special moves. You can also fight enemies in front and on your left and right flank. As you progress, you’ll notice some weapons have strong frontal attacks but are weaker on the left or right. Like the ground combat, the difficulty level is so dialed down that most fights become button mashers. You can choose any strategy or attack that you like, most of them are likely to be effective. It’s a Rubik’s Cube that solves itself in a few moves, no matter which way you turn it.


After All of That, You Receive This

I have vivid memories of hearing that Dragon Warrior was finally coming to North America back in the late 80’s. It was a revelatory idea that after the running and jumping of Super Mario Bros. became overly familiar, a game could contain a small encyclopedia of stats, weapons, and enemy types. Nostalgia takes all those dreamy RPG elements and makes them marginal. The hidden systems just beneath the abstract art and the marionette-work of the story are so forgiving they might as well not be there.

It’s clear a lot of love and imagination has been applied to the art and world design. The most charming moments in Nostalgia come from its historic reductionism; in which sailing from Cape Town to Delhi feels like navigating a miniaturized snow globe pulled from Continental folklore.  For all of its evocative potential, the world never comes to anything more than an adventure serial that hits on all the narrative clichés in the genre.

There’s a lot to do in Nostalgia, the main quest is a long 25-35 hours, and there’s a whole series of side quests that could easily double that. But it’s a game that doesn’t have much to give back for that time investment. Younger players might take to the colorful world and forgiving difficulty, which is ironic since those youngsters will have the least to be nostalgic about in the first place. I’m not that young anymore. Could I ever have been?