Flaming fantasy

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Weirdly sexy battle princesses may be something of an overused cliché but at least Aisya, the leading lady in Mistwalker’s Archaic Sealed Heat, begins the very first battle brandishing a sword and ornate rifle of her very own and isn’t shy about using either, following the Ashelia B’nargin Dalmasca style of hands-on princessing as opposed to the tedious reticence of the “If only there was another way…” crowd. The game is equally quick to reveal the meaning behind the prominent “A.S.H” acronym on the game’s cover/cart too: The big twist here is that the majority of your units are not fresh recruits from the local pub or battle-scarred mercenaries but made from the magically reconstituted remains of loyal friends, soldiers, and subjects, all reduced to ash (see?) in the prologue by a malevolent fire worm rampaging across the land.

More than just a slightly grim gimmick, this detail forms the basis of some key battle mechanics: Your small band of leader-class units (these are plot-critical named characters) are backed up by a few supportive party members and an infinite well of generic battle units, called forth by Aisya from the ash. These generic units are chosen by you from a compact list of well-defined and more than likely very familiar classes – there’s White Mage, Black Mage, a Paladin-like “Battler” and a few more, all with clear Final Fantasy job system analogues (considering this game’s scenario/game design lead is none other than Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi himself this feels less like ideas stolen from Squaresoft’s classics and more someone getting the chance to play with their own toys again). Each fulfils a specific role, from support to status effect application (good and bad) to all-out attacks, Archaic Sealed Heat’s enforced “Leader plus two” grouping (up to four of these parties of three make your complete battle team) giving you enough bodies on the battlefield to have your own tactical preferences and group specialities, without being so restrictive you simply pick one of each for balance’s sake nor skewing too far the other way and drowning you under a too-broad selection of ever more niche character classes.

Now in strategy games like this it doesn’t take long before a few star units start racing away with all of the experience points and post-battle MVP bonuses, and over time this difference only becomes more pronounced until you have two characters capable of wiping out everything with ease and the rest of your roster’s filled out with a few others you only bring along because somebody needs to go collect items from a distant corner and it may as well be that one guy who seems to collapse in a bloody heap if he so much as trips on a blade of grass. Archaic Sealed Heat avoids this common problem beautifully: It may be true that if a generic party member dies then they die forever, but the unit you summon to replace them will always already be at your group’s average level regardless of how weak (or – unlikely as it may be – strong) the last one was, will have every skill and spell a unit of that class and level should have, and will either be auto-equipped with the recently-deceased’s gear or if you’re summoning a duplicate and have no spare items you’ll have to pay a great deal more ELE (the game’s summoning/shop currency), but in return you’ll receive a fresh party member fully kitted out with serviceable gear and capable of pulling their weight. You can even go so far as to de-summon a lagging unit and then summon more powerful replacement before heading out to fight so long as you’ve got the ELE to do so, and the overall result is a game that keeps every job you want to use viable without having to grind or obsessively babysit the crit-prone until they’re capable of standing up for themselves.

Mistwalker seem to enjoy taking traditional RPG formulas and then adding their own twist to them – The Last Story, the Blue Dragon series, and Lost Odyssey are all old games done in new ways – and Archaic Sealed Heat is no different. In screenshots it looks a lot like any other SRPG – move around, whack things in range, repeat – and in some ways it is… but in more ways it’s not. While you’re looking over the battlefield with its typical SRPG grid everything you can do costs AP – Action Points. How you choose to spend each team’s independent pool of AP is entirely up to you: If you want to have one character roam far and wide, collecting distant items as they go, you can. If you’d rather have one cast supportive magic over and over until every single member of every team can walk into battle with HP Regen/MP Regen/Shell/elemental attacks and more active you can do that too. Planning on attacking an enemy that’s already nearby and then using your remaining AP to attack another in range? Go for it. Nothing stops a team’s turn other than you deciding to end it or a complete lack of AP preventing any further action –  you can have one member of your team rushing ahead to cast Heal on another group, then move everyone towards an enemy so your party of three can fight them to the death, then move another of them off to grab an item afterwards so long as you’ve got the AP to do so. The only rule here is that while unspent AP does carry over to that team’s next turn they can only ever have a maximum of 150 AP at any one time, meaning it’s not possible to hang back for a dozen turns, build up a comical quantity of AP, and then unleash an unstoppable deluge of enemy-destroying moves.

With all this moving around going on range is naturally a consideration – just, as with so many things in Archaic Sealed Heat, not in quite the way you’d expect it to be. Any unit in a team can initiate combat, and once they do all three of them are immediately whisked away to what appears to be a standard turn-based battle system – the main difference being everyone is fighting from where they were standing at the time (enemies included), making it important to get your melee range fighters in close before picking a fight, while mages will still be effective even if they’re standing quite a bit further away. It’s an interesting merging of two often unmerged battle systems; restrictive enough to make you keep each classes traits in mind, but not so inflexible offense becomes little more than constantly shuffling units around into their optimal positions – you can still attack outside a character’s preferred “zone”, the only problem is they damage they cause will be reduced and if you stand too far away they’ll be able to do nothing other than throw small stones at the enemy.

All of this tactical play, character summoning, and everything – everything – else bar rotating/tilting the camera angle out in the field is controlled with the DS’ stylus. Every menu selection. Every purchase confirmation and item quantity alteration. Every save file select and party member swap. This does make Archaic Sealed Heat more of a tabletop game rather than a portable one – lone hands just weren’t designed to support any size or model of DS by themselves for the extended periods of time an RPG requires – but the game does at least feel committed to its wrist destroying gimmick, the manual even giving over two whole pages to explaining the difference between tap-touch and slide-touch – these were (at least in the field of mainstream handheld gaming) uncommon ideas that needed explaining properly after all. In play tapping squares on a grid to indicate where someone needs to be is as intuitive as any traditional alternative (and something I’d like to see as an option in more modern SRPGs if I’m honest), and I have to admit that smoothly sliding the stylus across the allies or enemies I want a skill or spell to include feels easy and natural. Extended periods of touch-exclusive play may not be physically ideal for the play environment the hardware was designed for – DS’ are for trains, sofas, and bedrooms; not desks – but even someone as stylus-averse as me can see what’s here has been carefully considered, and what’s here works.

All in all this is a well put together RPG with a fresh sort of familiarity to it, a game with no desire to reinvent the genre but an overwhelming urge to try and take these worn old pieces and rearrange them into something new and exciting. There are plenty of unexpected events and interesting quirks in the battle scenarios to stop even straightforward “defeat everything” stages from playing out exactly as you’d expect them to, and although the plot may really only be the glue holding all of these skirmishes together it’s enjoyable enough and does at least have strong and direct ties to many core components of the battle system. Has the rest of the world been cruelly denied yet another legendary classic that could have shaped the path of all that followed if only it had been localised? No. But even so Archaic Sealed Heat is entertaining and absorbing enough that when the low battery warning light popped on the only thing I did was plug the power cable in before settling back down and carrying on – and that doesn’t happen very often at all.

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