JRPGs are one of my greatest gaming loves. They’re definitely not everyone’s cup of tea, with their propensity towards verbose narratives full of junky tropes and slow turn-based battles. I love that kind of stuff though, and every now and again I get the urge to dip into the history of the genre and see where we’ve come from.
The Sword of Hope (GB)
Released Dec 1989 | Developed: Kemco | Published: Seika
Genre: RPG | HLTB: 11 hours
The Sword of Hope is pretty vintage. Released in 1989 and localised for the West by 1991 it tells the tale of the young Prince Theo, heir to the land of Riccar. Unfortunately the realm is under a curse. His father, King Hennessy is corrupt, and in his madness he murdered the Queen. The people of the land have been turned into trees, the 3 wizards who maintained the kingdom’s balance have been exiled, and the great castle has sunk beneath the land. Theo was rescued by a kindly old man who raised him to be the hero that would save the kingdom, and now a teenager the young prince is tasked by his mentor with finding the 3 wizards Martel, Shabow, and Camu and reforging the mystical Sword of Hope with which he can defeat the King.
While it’s not a revolutionary story, it feels like quite an elaborate one for a Game Boy game, given the limited scope of the system. The translation could definitely have done with some serious work though that’s for sure. Sometimes words are condensed into slightly mangled forms but that’s excusable; that’s a flaw (or quirk, if you prefer) of the character limit on Game Boy games. However, other offenses are less easy to let off, such as the myriad egregious grammar errors, spelling mistakes, and otherwise odd elements of translation. I suppose if you can look past them and focus on the game then you’ll have a better time, but the game is quite wordy (a necessity it seems as there are more or less no animations) and so you might find trying to parse whatever it is the game is trying to say a total headache. The poor translation also makes the dialogue really weird, though that works in concert with the already strange world of Riccar; for example, the wizards are each accompanied by a pigeon, all of which can speak to you. That’s fine, it’s a fantasy after all, but the way they speak is baffling; because you have an extremely restricted set of ways with which you can interact with the world, the way characters react to your actions are sometimes somewhat unfathomable and disconnected with what you do.
The Sword of Hope is a first-person RPG. It will be a familiar setup to fans of old dungeon crawlers: a text box lays out your array of actions in a given situation, and these change depending on whether you’re in combat or not. These commands are largely self-explanatory (Look to inspect an object, Use to utilize an item in your inventory, Hit for some sword-based percussive maintenance, and so on) though it takes a moment of experimentation to find out that Look is also a hidden Talk action as taking a glance at an NPC is interpreted as an invitation to start chatting. This obfuscation might seem minor but it belies a greater issue within The Sword of Hope: that of hiding things from the player.
The Sword of Hope is not always particularly forthcoming with details for the player, and instead it demands you press things and hope for the best. For example, you can learn an impressive selection of magic spells but the game never cares to give you an inkling of what they do. Some make sense, such as Teleport functioning as a fast travel, and the Rec- line of spells are quick to establish as healing magic, but others are much less clear. Grace, for example, is learned in the early game, but without an in-game (or indeed, an in-manual) explanation of what it does you’re left fumbling until you stumble on its application. In a further frustration it’s used for maybe two things in the game, one of which is needed to progress. Often when you’re confronted with that kind of opacity of mechanics there’s a tendency to start trying to use it at every step available in case it’s used later as well, but in this case you’ll just be wasting your time. It’s an issue endemic to The Sword of Hope; though there are ways to glean clues about the world, some of which are I genuinely enjoy, such as Theo being able to hear the whispers of his people that have been transformed into the trees of Riccar, all too often you find yourself stuck in the loop of just wildly guessing what steps you need to take to progress through the game, rather than following any sort of identifiable logic.
That would be annoying enough but The Sword of Hope is also hard. Old games had a tendency to be tough as nails as a means of increasing your playtime and regrettably sometimes that difficulty came in forms which aren’t terribly enjoyable. The Sword of Hope unfortunately falls into this trap: alongside the maddening puzzle of following whatever passes for the game’s internal logic, the combat is also deeply unforgiving. Combat is turn-based, with Theo facing off alone at whatever enemies jump out at him. Unusually for games of this type, combat isn’t entirely random; dots show up on the map screen to indicate an encounter will happen if you travel in certain directions, which at least allows you time to prepare. Once in a fight you can select from a few options, such as bonking them with your sword or casting magic. Again though the game’s systems work against the player: physical attacks seem to have a high chance of missing and if enemies drain Theo’s agility at all (a depressingly common occurrence towards the endgame) you’re more or less guaranteed to whiff. Even if you do hit there’s no assurances you’ll do any damage – in one especially frustrating example I found myself up against a late-game boss but even armed with the best sword in the game my attacks were hitting for 1 or 2 points of damage and I was relying entirely on critical hits to deal any actual harm. This means your physical attacks can come down entirely to the whims of the random number generator.
Magic suffers from exactly the same issue as outside of fights as there’s no explanation of what spells do. Some are kind of obvious – you can correctly surmise that BageFire, for example, is a powerful fire-based spell, and BageFire2 is an upgraded form of it – but how are you supposed to guess that its next incarnation, BageFire3, harms you as well as your opponent until it’s too late? Why then would you take the risk with BageFire4? These exacerbations are enhanced by the enemies getting progressively more finicky to deal with. It’s worryingly easy to run up against foes which are immune to certain attacks or have absurd agility stats so they’ll rarely get hit, and once you’re in that fight you’re stuck until your near-inevitable death. Although dying is a slap on the wrist as you get instantly respawned back at the first location in the game, it’s still supremely irksome to have to trek back through to where you were and take another stab, hoping that the random number gods don’t screw you over again (but deep down you know they definitely will).
In what I’m sure is wholly unsurprising news, the difficulty necessitates grinding. Running into enemies isn’t hard as they show up on your map very regularly but it’s exasperating that when you choose to move to a new screen and that direction is blocked by a battle, after the fight your decision is reset; you remain on the screen you wished to move from, and must reselect your direction. On top of that, the screen reset also resets enemy encounters, so you can still find yourself with another fight standing in your way of moving on in that direction. This leaves you completely at the mercy of the RNG as to whether or not you’ll get to move on, and in the worst case you can find yourself locked into several fights before getting a clear run – and all that just to change screens once.
I can at least be positive about something: I’ll always love GB chiptune. There’s something about them that strikes up my nostalgia in an exceptionally effective way. Take the Forest Theme, for example. It’s not a great piece of music by any stretch – it’s sluggish and lacks any kind of particularly effective harmony or dynamic movement – but just listen to those tones! I can’t help but love them as they ring out in triumph. I know the capacity was there for more complex and engaging songs though, as the Church Theme shows given it manages to have overlaid melody and chords. The galloping rhythm of Mirror World is also creative and captures the frenetic feeling of trying to avoid the enemies and carve your way through the end of a difficult dungeon. The Tricky Cave Theme captures a similar unsettled sentiment through the use of the driving, undulating bassline as the accompanying melody slowly rings out with each note, though the loop is far too short. Finally, while the music itself isn’t too remarkable, I love the use of stereo in the Graveyard Theme to craft an eerie atmosphere, and given this is happening on a Game Boy, it makes it all the more impressive
Though I can’t say The Sword of Hope has been a game I liked, or even really a good game, I am grateful for having played it. I think there’s a real value in going back and examining where things we liked came from, and seeing how early entries in the genre managed to get it wrong and even how they managed to get things right. The Sword of Hope doesn’t lack for ideas but it’s couched in a melange of obscure steps, random chance, and anti-player decisions. I spent a couple of days pushing through it, but I can’t recommend you do unless you, like me, have a real urge to dig back through JRPG past.
2/7 – POOR.
A disappointment. Best not to bother with this unless you’re desperate for a naff time.