1997 first-person dungeon crawler Boundary Gate: Daughter of Kingdom was briefly a PC-FX exclusive… until a PlayStation port showed up on Japanese shop shelves a few short months later, presumably because Pack-In-Soft needed the game to sell to a userbase larger than the programming team that created it to turn a profit. Just so you’re aware before I go rambling on: I’ve only played through the original version of the game so that’s the one shown in all the screenshots here and also the only one I’ll be talking about below. A quick check shows nothing more extreme than a few minor visual changes between the two – that’s not good news for anyone hoping to find a game that would finally justify the money they’d spent purchasing a PC-FX [coughmecough], but good news for anyone hoping to give the game a go on conveniently bountiful hardware or a more reliably emulated format.
If you dare play it, that is: I bought the game many moons ago and then happily left it in a dark and forgotten corner of my disorganised mountain of retro, intimidated as I was by the serious-looking (and utterly gorgeous) cover trying to entice me in to what can all too often be a very unforgiving genre. It’s not that I didn’t want to play it at all but more that whenever I thought I did there was always a more welcoming alternative to take care of first, a game that whether it turned out to be good or bad definitely wouldn’t make me cry as I guided a party formed from an overly complex character class system through floor after floor of twisting labyrinths the way Boundary Gate was probably going to.
I am officially a giant honking idiot.
Boundary Gate’s nothing like my imagined fears at all; in reality it’s a concise and well-balanced RPG with a likeable cast (Melissa especially – I do love a robed magician woman who refuses to play the part of the polite girly girl), a game that always hopes to challenge its players but never wishes to push so far it becomes frustrating. I don’t even need to attach “for the genre” to the end of the praise above either: It’s a fair game by any standards, a game that’s even gracious enough to dedicate a few pages of the manual to an annotated map of the opening area and also pack in some helpful advice on the opposite page, allowing new players to get on with accidental hero Finn’s initial job-hunting quest with the minimal amount of fuss. This supportive forward momentum persists not just through the opening act but the entire game: Boundary Gate never tries to trip players up with optional-but-not-really content or have the story insist on urgently rushing the cast into a nearby dungeon that only contains battles those who spent an hour beforehand walking in circles can survive. It’s the sort of game where you can find a new weapon shop and expect to walk out of it with everyone wearing the latest line of equipment and still have enough money left over to spend on an array of useful items – which includes a limitless supply of extremely cheap warp scrolls, saving anyone playing from the tedium of having to retrace their steps out of a completed dungeon (bar a few story-based exceptions).
These tangles of stone and monster are as evenly-balanced as anything else you’ll find in Boundary Gate with not one invisible wall, nightmarish warp puzzle, pitfall to a lower floor, damage tile gauntlet, or any of the other oft-misused dungeon crawler “features” designed to inflict unwarranted levels of misery on would-be explorers ever rearing their painful head. There’s even an incredibly useful mini auto-map sitting in one corner of the screen, always giving you a firm sense of place within your inhospitable surroundings while still being restrained enough to never overstep into the realms of brainless hand-holding. Even with all of this kindly assistance Boundary Gate’s locales never feel plain or hollowed out and along the way you’ll find plenty of people to rescue, one-way doors (don’t worry, they’re honestly fine), hidden treasure, flooded paths, and other interesting mysteries to keep your journey feeling fresh and engaging – it’s just that cutting a puzzle-path through to the end of a dungeon isn’t meant to be the sole source of the game’s challenge or player satisfaction.
Not that anyone would mind spending longer than they had to wandering around these beautifully detailed overrun towns and dark caverns crawling with demons as the maps are constructed from an entire range of barricades, half-height surfaces, uneven piles of rock, and other impassable objects that you can actually see over or sometimes even through and into the darkness beyond. None of this makes any practical difference to your grid-based pathfinding – these details are no more interactive than the standard-issue floor-to-ceiling brick face – but turning to one side and seeing some sort of inaccessible tower plunging down into an impenetrably dark gap, walking through an iron door at the end of a tight corridor and out into an open area framed by a dramatic sky, peering at a cascading waterfall you’ll never reach or visiting an ornately designed room draped with fabrics is so much more exciting than being fenced in by another plain wall a few inches away from your party’s noses. This play with height and distance would be impressive enough on its own but what’s really incredible is when you realise how many of these finely detailed tilesets are only used for a floor or two in one single never-to-be-visited-again location, and they actually reflect what your party are supposed to be looking at, and the wonderful knock-on effect of all this artistry is that even when nothing in particular’s happening the world around your party always feels alive and worth investigating.
It’s in these atmospheric locations your party will get into random scuffles with the game’s wide variety of demonic and mechanical creatures: They have a sort of early Shin Megami Tensei look to their designs, carefully pixelled horrors that are monstrous in an atypical way, vaguely familiar myths and legends contorted in unusual and mildly disturbing ways (nothing on a par with a chariot-riding wang though). No matter what form they appear in you can always count on them towering over the party in a wonderfully terrifying way that many RPGs fail to effectively convey, and this is achieved by actually showing your team standing in front of whatever clawed horror’s trying to turn their insides into outsides. This uncommon point of view gives battles a tangible physicality, especially as your entire party possess a comprehensive range of actions and reactions to just about everything that can happen to them: Watch your team swing their weapons, cast screen-filling and highly animated spells, or crumple to the floor when their health becomes dangerously low. This is all showy stuff for a genre that normally isn’t even prepared to guarantee named party members a decent character portrait squirrelled away in a status screen somewhere, but the incredible thing is Boundary Gate does all of the above and then goes even further, making characters raise their arms to shield their face when a spell goes off or literally turning and running away if you’ve commanded them to escape a fight. Just watch as a badly beaten ally briefly stands up to cheer alongside the others before collapsing back to the floor – it’s impossible to not feel you’ve just been an active participant in a deadly battle when you can see the toll it’s taken on your team.
Of course there is only so far some fancy (and optional) animation can and should carry such an integral part of the game – there still needs to be a decent battle system working away in the background to hold all of that descriptive animation together. It should come as little surprise by this point in my gushing wall o’ text to learn that Boundary Gate has a few tricks up its sleeve here as well – even the most fundamental aspects of battling have been given their own twist. Basic physical attacks – the most “whatever” of all RPG combat choices – have differing behaviour based on their weapon type: Axes have an incredibly powerful swing but only hit once, longswords are less powerful than axes but hit twice per attack, while shortswords and rods are less powerful again but can hit three times or even four times every single turn, easily balancing out their statistical deficiencies with a flurry of light blows. This small addition transforms weaker equipment into a safer bet and the more devastating cutlery into more of an all-or-nothing affair – if does hit it’s going to really hurt… but it might not hit at all. Magic is a little more straightforward when compared to the genre’s usual web of elemental attributes (“Use lightning on mechanical creatures” is about as far as that side of things goes) but it more than makes up for this by making spellcasting a highly effective tool in all its possible roles and is one of those rare RPGs that actually grants your party the MP pool needed to use them as often as they’re required. So while this means you still spend a lot of time blasting whatever’s ahead with some sort of epic firestorm Boundary Gate also makes sure its small selection of status effects and party buffs are for once actually worth using – attack-boosting magic can stack, leading to a single character potentially dishing out triple or even quadruple their usual damage per turn, and if a monster – even a boss – turns out to be a magic-hurling troublemaker the learned-early silence spell has a realistic wow-this-is-actually-worth-casting chance of sealing their magical capability for the rest of the battle. You don’t even have to worry about how far away you are from a restorative sleep at the inn thanks to level ups completely replenishing a character’s health and magic, almost completely preventing the need to show any magical moderation to whatever is unfortunate enough to cross your path, and the stat gains are so significant you can feel the difference immediately – levelling up always feels like you’ve made purposeful progression, not wasted your time with a soul-sapping chore.
And that sentiment can be equally applied to Boundary Gate as a whole: The game’s a subtle but remarkably thorough shake-up of all the usual pitfalls found in the genre wrapped up in a shockingly refined package, a game strong enough to hold its own even on the RPG haven/den of lions that is the original PlayStation. With the ominous mood of the key art, the realistic-leaning fantasy world shown on the back of the box, and the… uneven… quality of the PC-FX’s slender library I expected something of a well-intended but overly complex slog; what I actually got was a tightly-knit adventure starring an interesting band of convention-dodging heroes (the plot largely revolves around surgically separated and mechanically reformed magical conjoined twins) within a game that always wanted me to have a good time.