I’ve gone from one Lagoon to another!
Before we get started on this astonishingly slick looking game I need to issue a little warning to potential players: The title splashed across this page isn’t a racing game. Racing Lagoon calls itself a “high speed driving RPG” and it’s really important to take that to heart when giving it a go because this is not “Gran Turismo with spiky hair” or “Metropolis Street Racer with lots of dialogue”: The story is as integral to the game as the racing, to the point where there are whole nights (as the game refers to its chapter divisions) where you’ll do no racing at all and are instead expected to take an interest in leading man Sho’s life as well as those of his friends and racing rivals. Even your ability to travel and race around Yokohama is dictated to a large extent by your place in the plot, and as in any other RPG there are side quests and other optional challenges waiting to reward inquisitive players.
As you’d expect from a Square RPG there’s plenty of script to get through, although Racing Lagoon’s is… is often… it’s very special, in… in a, um, in its own very special way. It’s like the Japanese and English languages violently collided and nobody bothered to untangle them. Imagine Google Translate used only on a random smattering of words and you’re about halfway there – just about any sort of narration or scene-setting text is a glorious untamed jumble of multilingual words. It’d be easy to grab a random sentence and have a good chuckle at its expense but you know what? Here, it works. OK so it doesn’t “work” in the traditional “People would actually say this” (or understand it) kind of way but there’s no doubt it fits Racing Lagoon’s spirit of cool unconventional individuality like a (driving) glove, and as headache-inducing as “warriorナラgoalマデ全開！！ COOLヨロシクwant you !!!!!” is to look at the game is better for it and I wish more games played with language as freely and enthusiastically as this one does.
Sho’s frequent stretches of internal monologue have a similar anything-goes tone, his reflective thoughts the perfect match for the game’s slightly unreal city nightlife atmosphere than the burnin’ rubber and matching team jackets might imply. I’ve made up a theoretical quote to try and give you a condensed crash-course (sorry, couldn’t resist) on his unique style:
“…The cold night air flows over my car like a river…
…What does it mean, to race?…
…As the city lights flit overhead like fireflies, my heartbeat and the rumble of my car’s engine become one…
…And I realise it is only through speed that I feel alive…”
As my example hopefully illustrates it’s all art student level “deep” talk on racing and what it means to be alive, and another opportunity to cherry-pick a few daft lines to knock the game down with… but I can’t, because when taken in the proper context they give these mostly nocturnal events that slightly surreal and “apart” ambience they should have. There’s more that divides day and night than the absence or presence of sunlight, and Sho’s ellipse-riddled fragments of introspection convey that intangible difference well.
There’s no way text this exceptional could possibly be contained within the neat and tidy character portrait/text box structure found in lesser games, and it’s a real pleasure to see Racing Lagoon so often ditch that traditional method of dialogue delivery and go so far as to not even necessarily show you an accurate visual representation of the current scene, but perhaps a character’s inner thoughts, a mood-setting landmark, or the subject of the current conversation instead. Even more routine shots are framed at unusual angles and bathed in impossible highlights, featuring a cast of characters that appear to be 90% shoulders posed in whatever way best makes them look most like ultra-fashionable drift racers. It’s a beautiful way of viewing events, turning otherwise ordinary talk into images you want to capture and hang on your wall, over and over again – you really don’t know what you’re going to see next, but you know for certain it’ll look good. Regardless of the great leaps forward gaming technology’s made since the game’s 1999 release, Racing Lagoon’s detached hyper exaggerated representation will always stand out from the crowd and gaming is a poorer place for being so quick to treat “more detail” or “better reflections” as the only sort of visual advancement that counts. I’m not going to go as far as calling the game art because this is a PlayStation RPG about street car raci- actually yeah, let’s do it – this is art. Visual elements are deliberately introduced and positioned to evoke a particular mood – it’s more than just a case of “sparkly lighting”, animated details, or the effort that went into reflecting a facsimile of Yokohama’s skyline off the shiny bonnet of a fancy car on the original PlayStation – Racing Lagoon’s imagery deliberately uses unrealistic or over-magnified slices of dreamily-animated scenery and body posture purely for art’s sake.
Long ago at the top of this page I took pains to stress that Racing Lagoon is an RPG about cars and not a racing game with text boxes and that’s still true, but it’s also true to say that your own driving skills are required to win even if you’ve been riding around in a perfectly tuned speed machine as all races put you in direct control of your customised vehicle. Maybe they should have gone for something more out of the ordinary or RPG-like, but what would that look like? ATB-based racing? An RNG-reliant AI system that uses nothing but pure stats to determine the winner? Either of those might have worked, but they’d struggle to be as thrilling as sliding around a hairpin before powering past an opponent for yourself.
But that’s the only significant gameplay deviation from the traditional RPG template, and their inclusion doesn’t feel so out of place once you realise these battles are only encountered via one of the oldest RPG conventions around – the overworld map. Cars drive around the streets of Yokohama all night long, and any with their lights on are up for a race if you bump into them – or if they bump into you. It’s not always possible to avoid a race you don’t want to take part in (or catch up with a car you’d like to go up against – each miniature vehicle represents a specific opponent), but as you can usually see them coming you at least have a chance to pull over to the side if you’d rather just get to wherever you wanted to go (and on that note: While every other car obeys traffic laws you don’t have to and aren’t penalised in any way for barrelling down the highway in the wrong direction). Once triggered these battles between warriors – which is the only acceptable term for all road users from now on – take place on short pieces of street track based on which part of this virtual Yokohama the run-in occurred. This might set off a few alarm bells as there are clearly only so many roads and an awful lot of game to get through – but don’t worry, it’s perfect. Tying named streets to specific tracks meant I had favourite racing spots before I’d even worked out how to corner properly, and there’s enough variation in them for your car to do better in one area’s long straight or another’s sharp corners – or to deliberately tune your car to your favourite stretch of road and destroy anyone who dares approach you.
Even if you don’t have any particular preference between the Bay Lagoon Short Track or Takashima Victory Road’s “chicken” race it’s still extremely important to deck your car out in the best bits and pieces you can afford (or win from other drivers) unless you want to be left chasing after your adversary’s tail lights for an entire battle. I thought I had a decent setup… I was wrong. There were times when I’d start an important race and my opponent would pull away with such power or complete a lap so far ahead of me it was obvious that no amount of personal improvement was going to bridge that gap – “I can’t possibly win with the car I’ve got! That’s not fair! How’s he going so fast?!” and so on. Then I had a little light bulb moment: This is exactly the same struggle as any troublesome RPG boss I’ve ever faced. I’d need better equipment if I wanted to take on tougher opponents, and specialist gear to win certain battles. The presentation and terminology may be completely alien to me (I am very much a “Yep, that’s definitely the, uh, the front… I think” kind of car enthusiast – it may not surprise you to hear that I’ve never taken a driving lesson in my life) but after spending time with the game I can see the underlying processes aren’t all that dissimilar from the usual save crystals ‘n’ novelty transport affairs I’ve grown up with. Now you may ask why anyone would even want to play a super-cool night racing driftathon RPG if they don’t know much about cars, but this yawning chasm in my vehicular knowledge has never stopped me from thoroughly enjoying Ridge Racer, Daytona USA, Sega Rally, or indeed anything else along those arcade-y lines. The finer points (and many of the un-finer points) of Gran Turismo may be completely lost on me, and I only know what a Skyline is because my friend owns one, but as far as games go I find I can still make the shiny metal box go fast around the bendy road place with a bit of practise.
The trouble is Racing Lagoon with its gearboxes, chassis, filters, turbo wotsits and all the rest requires me to know my way around these strange and unfamiliar systems well enough to win – there are plenty of times where the story demands nothing less than first place, and the balance is such that pure driving skill wasn’t enough to make up for that grab-bag of hastily cobbled together older parts I’d been calling a car.
So the RPG comparisons bubble to the surface once again: I can see these as the equivalent of boss fights where I need to improve my party before they can defeat whatever multi-headed mythological knockoff is in front of me. I can do them, therefore I can do this. I know what the problem is: I’m not fast enough… Or maybe I don’t accelerate quickly enough…? Or is it my tyres…? Or perhaps it’s my cornering technique, maybe…? Hang on, is that down to my lack of grip, or is it due to poor handling?
And this is where my already shoddy attempt to patch over my lack of car-nous with the comfort blanket of role-playing equivalents falls to pieces: I just don’t have the knowledge to pinpoint my issue in any meaningful way (“Cross the finish line before everyone else” isn’t what you’d call illuminating), and even if I did I don’t know which parts I’d need to buy to fix it. This is the exact opposite of my experience with RPGs: I already know thieves and ninjas need DEX, front line damage-absorbers should use lots of VIT-enhancing gear, and healers will rely on either INT, PIE, or MND to boost the efficacy of their spells before I’ve even hit the title screen. But here and now, with cars? They have, uh, wheels? And.. and… and I just don’t know where to start, so I scurry back to the manual in hope of enlightenment.
And thank heavens the manual says a lot, and takes the time not just to helpfully label all of the menu stats but also explain what a power/weight ratio is and offers a few sentences on topics such as torque and understeer – fantastic! However as soon as I go back to the game it feels like I’ve been talked through “straightforward” brain surgery and many questions remain unanswered: I have no idea how heavy a heavy car is, or why I’d want it to be lower to the ground, or have a different body (beyond appearances), or whatever the heck else it is you can do to a car. There’s a test track near the main parts shop for you to race around and I’m grateful it’s there, but the game-changing equipment’s wallet-emptyingly expensive so without a lot of patience wearing reloading to a pre-shopping save it’s not easy to get a feel for the differences between one engine or tyre type over another, which seems like something that would be important in a game where so many equipment choices are valid alternatives rather than definitively better, or only work well within a particular build or race type.
It all left me feeling deflated, disappointed, and unable to get past a race I had to win if I wanted to continue the game’s enjoyable story… much like countless other gamers who’ve thrown an army of armoured do-gooders against a brick wall of a fantasy boss (an on occasion, a literal wall) over the years as I’ve merrily sailed on by. But RPGs are “easy” and “obvious”, aren’t they? Everyone knows the bottom bar’s either your magic or skill pool depending on the game or possibly the class, you should check to see what the game’s height difference/line of sight rules are before loosing an arrow, always fling restorative items at zombies, and make sure you save at the nearest tavern – surely this is all second nature, says the woman who’s been playing these games for decades.
…who’s been playing these games for decades…
Which I haven’t been doing with their car-racing equivalents – not to the point where I could tell you what a filter or a muffler’s good for, or whether I’d want a different sort of one of those things on whatever I’m driving. Racing Lagoon’s greatest strength is that is clearly loves everything about Japan-style street racing, from the machines themselves to (a greatly exaggerated version of) the wider culture that surrounds them, and it rightly smothers itself in this wonderful setting. I would have personally loved it if the game had some form of optional training wheels to allow me to gloss over some of the deeper mechanics until I felt I was ready for them – a choice between “Learner” and “Drifter” difficulty settings, for example – but only because the game’s exposed an enormous hole in my knowledge and I don’t exactly have a lot of racing RPGs to practise with. It’s been thoroughly humbling to be brought back down to the level of an absolute beginner again – and a welcome reminder of how many of “the basics” when you’ve been immersing yourself in a particular genre since forever might feel alienating and overwhelming to anyone no matter the quality or how much of a sincere effort they put into learning the game. Every game can be someone’s first – and for those eager newcomers there is no such thing as too much (optional) assistance.