Homeland: A home[land] away from home

The warm earthy tones of this online-enabled GameCube RPG released in 2005 by Chunsoft may look like they’re a world away from Phantasy Star Online‘s laser swords and bright colours but underneath the artistic design the two are, at least in spirit, closer than they may appear: Both were created primarily to be a console exclusive and online-focussed cooperative experience, games where informal teams of whoever was around at the time worked together to overcome enemies, find rare treasure, and clear dungeons. Coincidentally enough Homeland‘s distinctive visual style would be a perfect fit for Sega’s Dreamcast, its world one of deliberately low polygon models sporting clean edges and crisp textures – not quite cartoonish, but definitely not realistic either. As with Sega’s futuristic trailblazer a full offline experience is also included for those who either could never afford or find a GameCube broadband adapter at the time (which was a heck of a lot of people, if memory serves) or happened to be decades late to the party and find themselves playing solo no matter what accessories they’ve stuck on the underside of their console because outside of highly select groups nobody’s online to play with anyway (Homeland was always designed so that one GameCube acted as a host for the other players to log in to, negating the need for dedicated servers – or a subscription fee).

But Phantasy Star Online is just one conveniently familiar reference point, and in reality there’s far more that’s different than the same between the two titles – and that’s partly because Homeland merrily pilfers some key stylistic choices from an even more famous RPG series: Dragon Quest (not that Chunsoft can really pilfer their own work). Here the parallels are found more within the moment-to-moment gameplay than the overall structure, small details that build into an experience that gently echoes the cheerily streamlined soul of classic Japanese RPGs. There’s plenty of grinding for gold and experience points, an already highly limited inventory made even smaller by sharing its free slots with equipment and plot-related items (between monster drops and tempting treasure chests found out in the field will soon leave you having to pick and choose what to carry), and areas you can technically venture forth into bursting with powerful enemies that’ll swiftly send you back to the nearest town, half your money gone purely because everybody knows that’s the classic RPG rule.

This familiar Enix-published approach to role-playing even carries through to your interactions with everything and everyone, online human and NPC alike. All communication is written using kana-only text in the style of many fondly-remembered Japanese RPGs of the Eighties, every interaction with Homeland’s charming people and places is performed via a text-based command wheel rather than a context-sensitive button press (for example, you must approach an NPC or object and manually select “Ask” or “Investigate”), and every last player-created sentence must be input using a virtual keyboard (which isn’t half as cumbersome in Japanese as it would be in English), apparently ignoring the fact that ASCII’s excellent keyboard/controller hybrid was already a few years old by that point in time.

But even saying “Dragon Quest ideas in a Phantasy Star Online world” still doesn’t quite get to Homeland’s heart.

As appropriate for the name Homeland has a distinctly comfortable and “soft” feel to it found in everything from the opening sequence that sees your child avatar finishing up their homework to the laid-back acoustic guitar tracks that accompany your adventure, and there’s an appealingly innocent charm to the world, from talking bug-people and visiting the rainbow’s end to lower-level enemies running away in a blind panic if your overpowered party gets too close for comfort. When online the host player is not only the server for this temporary world but also has the privilege of playing a god-like figure, someone able to actively help or hinder players on their quests – or even just leave them be, allowing players to get on with things without any outside influence, the existence of the world help enough. For solo offline or standard online users Homeland’s a pleasant and relaxed experience where just about every problem faced can be solved either by hitting monsters or helping people out; simple by design rather than due to a lack of thought or imagination, a game that wants to give players the space to make their own adventures amongst themselves instead of having them constantly butting up against an overly fussy story structure. This is why the plot is more malleable than most, your own actions and interests having a direct impact on which events unfurl and which of the multiple endings you’ll reach by the time it comes to an end.

The game’s also one of the most welcoming experiences any new RPG enthusiast could ask for, using straightforward terms anyone could understand – you’re a Quester using a Mascot (essentially an avatar for your in-game character, each with their own strengths and weaknesses) off on a quest, and the hub world is called Quester Park – and uncomplicated design ideas that have kindness and cooperation baked into their cores. The biggest of these is the hand-holding system, a mechanic that allows long chains of fellow Questers to literally hold hands (offline this is replaced by the ability to summon and then hold hands with an AI-controlled Mascot) which cumulatively powers up the leader (a chain of six is stronger than a chain of four or five, for example) and also gives them access to their friend’s skills – and also ensures new or underconfident players don’t have to worry about using their abilities correctly or getting lost because they are quite literally holding someone’s hand.

Homeland’s accessibility applies to the amount of time players are asked to invest in it too, eschewing the expected hundreds of hours of repeated runs in the hope of finally becoming powerful enough to overcome the final boss (and then do it all again on a higher difficulty setting) in favour of being completed (fairly) quickly and easily; the joy coming from unlocking new Mascots, playing with old friends or making new ones in a stress-free environment, and enjoying the atmosphere. There are no DPS checks, no tricky boss mechanics to remember (or worry about being berated for forgetting in this turn-based title), and no need to intimately know your chosen role – turn up, do the best you can, and if you need some help then just reach out for someone’s hand. It’s a relaxed and easy-going experience, an adventure to be savoured and enjoyed entirely at your own pace. The small scale of the game’s setting coupled with the nostalgic lack of more overt directions gives the numerous optional sidequests a more personal feel, something that has to be completed by noticing and caring enough to remember where the NPC mentioned in an item’s description – such as a love letter – lived. And because it’s so “Whatever you want to do, whenever you’re ready for it” about everything the game doesn’t feel empty when played alone, or that you’re being artificially held back for not playing as you’re “supposed to”. Would it be more exciting with friends? Of course it would – what isn’t? But the Homeland most people today (most people ever, probably) get to play is a generous, forgiving, and memorable undertaking in its own right.

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