This supposed fifth episode in the “Nameless Brave Saga” is, like so many other games with decorative subtitles, actually the first entry in a PC exclusive SRPG trilogy by Chrome Six (as far as I can tell they made these games and nothing else).
At a glance Angelic Vale looks like yet another game straight out of the same old genre cookie cutter: There’s the battle grid, the world map, the dragons, pink-themed princesses, and magic – go on, off you go to do whatever it is you usually do in situations like this. Stick with it though and its soon becomes clear that this is the sort of game keen on rearranging the usual fantasy furniture in unexpected ways: The dragons on the battlefield might be yours, the princess carries a gun, and magic is a resource that builds up over time rather than depleted from a pre-filled pool.
Even the turn system works a little differently from the standard enemy/ally/enemy/ally phases, choosing to instead mix all units – friend and foe alike – into a single list, with their position determined by their agility rating. This seemingly minor alteration makes an enormous change to your strategising: Knowing what’s coming up gives you the chance to guard against an incoming barrage from a powerful general, to wipe out a few soldiers before their turn comes around, to squeeze in one more attack from a weakened spellcaster, confident that the next turn belongs to your healer and not the axe-wielding leader standing next to them.
The small party size – you won’t recruit a dozen named characters all game long – coupled with Angelic Vale’s counter-happy approach to attacking help to keep even the busiest battles moving along at a steady pace, every swipe taken at you potentially triggering a retaliatory attack that will at least damage an enemy if not finish them off. This speedy feel remains even when you include the optional assistance your party can call upon too. Every main hero can command a single generic unit (with fixed stats) of their choice, each one drawn from a pool of nameless whoevers dished out every now and then as post-battle rewards. Strength wise most of these nobodies are definitely weaker than the main cast (giant dragons excepted – and these are balanced out by their impractical size, which makes them unusable in many locations and not as useful as you’d think they’d be in others), although they’re far from useless. They can deal enough damage to mop up any enemies that don’t quite fall to a hero’s blade, use the party’s potions to cure confusion or boost someone’s HP before they get into trouble, and as enemies won’t automatically ignore them in favour of the main team they’re a good way to distribute damage a little more evenly amongst your group – you do have to be careful though, as all deaths are permanent.
As unpalatable as that may sound, Angelic Vale has something even worse in store for the main cast: If any named party member falls in battle, either due to an unlucky opening double crit from a boss positioned just a little too close to a mage’s starting position or a set-upon character who wasn’t quite as robust as you thought they were, you’re instantly whisked away to the title screen. Oh, and you can’t save in battle either. Yes, really. Whether these pieces of information ignite your strategy-loving heart or cause you to immediately write the game off there’s no doubt this decision does make for some tense exchanges. Every incoming enemy is eyed nervously, and the relief when a character blocks any attack at all is palpable. I can’t honestly say I like this system – it’s even more unforgiving than Final Fantasy Tactic‘s turns-to-permadeath mechanic and I have lost entire battles both within seconds of the fight beginning as well as seconds before I could’ve won – but on the Normal difficulty setting (Easy and Hard are also available at the beginning, although once you’ve picked one you’re stuck with it unless you start over) things are by and large manageable. I’m as happy to see Angelic Vale dare to try something different and make me go along with it as I am relieved this didn’t become a genre standard.
At least toughening up your team is nice and easy. All XP is automatically shared between everyone, so you never have to worry about who killed what, or see a weak unit’s experience “stolen” by a stronger team member’s lucky critical hit. By rewarding overall success instead of individual achievements everyone is given the space to play their role to its fullest, the group’s victory the only thing that matters. These gains are applied instantly, and if someone levels up in the middle of a fight then all of their HP and MP are immediately restored – this has been a literal life-saver for me on many occasions. Strictly speaking it’s not the characters that gain XP at all: Everyone in Angelic Vale carries a magical stone into battle, and it’s this that accumulates XP. These can then be passed around the entire team as easily as any other piece of equipment, their STR/DEF/MAG, etc. bonuses going with them.
As I briefly mentioned at the top everyone gains MP per turn, rather than drawing it from a pre-filled pool as and when it’s required. Cast values are extremely low – characters have a maximum of just five MP, usually built up one point at a time – but these restrictions make for a fantastic magic system. Relatively weak spells are forever useful here, their lack of power balanced out by the potential frequency of their use. Higher value multi-hit spells may cause more harm but as they damage everyone within their target area they need to be used with great care, the devastation they cause as much of a calculated risk as they are a field-clearing help. Additional status effects often trigger during these attacks – ice spells tend to put enemies to sleep, for example – and these can stick even if the attack itself deals no damage at all (bosses seem to be disappointingly immune to these additional effects).
There’s a generic shop you can access outside of battle to buy new weapons, armour, items, spell scrolls and special skills. I found it to be an endless source of frustration. There’s no way of telling who can equip what (beyond “They can probably use a tougher version of whatever they’re already holding“) until you’ve bought something and tried to give it to someone or compare something you’re looking at with whatever a party member’s wearing, and unlike virtually every RPG shop there has ever been there’s no way to sell items back to anyone, not even for a pittance.
This wouldn’t be so bad if items weren’t so expensive, much of the game making you feel lucky for walking into a new battle with just two new mid-priced pieces of gear. You literally can’t afford to make any purchasing mistakes, and it’s immensely frustrating to sit on a bunch of old swords and chest plates you no longer have any use for when you’re ten coins away from buying a spell scroll or useful accessory. It would be unfair of me to not mention that Angelic Vale doesn’t expect you to deck everyone out in fresh gear for every battle (not by a long shot), but even so it never stops feeling like a basic system done badly, rather than the unusual take on an established idea.
If you’re wondering how we’ve managed to get all the way down here before I talk about the plot; well, I’m just putting as much emphasis on it as the game does. Events are the thing that happens between battles, and on top of that they’re… they’re not bad, but unlike all the interesting ideas used during combat it does tend to go in one ear and out the other as there’s so little for your mind to cling on to. Every event is an echo of something you’ve already seen somewhere else: The meeting with the wise magic-proficient demi-humans, the kingdom in turmoil, the once trusted traitor, the graveyard where the “unexpected” zombie attack happens, the friend who like likes the leading man a little more than he may realise and all the rest. It’s all fully voiced and there are a few dialogue choices in there (leading to one of several “I choose you!” romantic endings), but over time it comes across more as a barrier between you and the inventive stuff than something you’re actively participating in. At least you can speed these scenes up by holding down the CRTL key, so how much time you spend with the story is mostly up to you.
Angelic Vale is not a ground-breaking entry in the SRPG genre (or, depending largely on how you feel about the save/death/shop mechanics, even a reassuringly “solid” one) but it does make a real effort to try to do something different within a very familiar framework. It sure as heck doesn’t always succeed, but its heart’s in the right place and every now and then you can see how its trying to create something a little more dangerous than expected without making the mistake of confusing “weighty decisions” with “we need lots of frivolous stats and complicated rules”. I’m not sure if the sequels are any better, but I’m intrigued enough by the ideas in here that I hope one day I can find out.