A big game for a dead console

Der Langrisser FX appeared on the PC-FX in 1996, about two years after the game’s original Mega Drive debut as the more straightforwardly titled Langrisser II, one year after Der Langrisser, the first of what would turn out to be several remakes, appeared on the Super Famicom, and roughly a year before the game finally made the leap to PlayStation. Very much a transitional game, this upgrade takes Der Langrisser’s 16-bit framework and then adds on a few “next gen” bells and whistles – including a smattering of fancy full screen FMV video as well as the generous quantities of spoken dialogue that naturally go with the move to optical media – the later CD-based revisions of the game would end up either reusing as-is or further expanding upon themselves.

The game opens with an extended grilling from the goddess Lushiris on everything from personal preferences to your opinions on war, with your responses having a direct impact on everything from leading pauldron-wearer Elwin’s starting class and abilities to whether some branching paths further down the line are already decided for you or left for you to choose in the moment.

There are over seventy scenarios in total split across multiple routes of equal length (twenty one battles each) that either see Elwin usher in a brave new future for the land of El Sallia, condemn it to the brutal rule of darkness, or something in between. This malleability is the core of Der Langrisser’s experience, and the main thing that set it apart from the original game‘s linearity at the time (until later remakes introduced new branching paths to that story too).

And if I’m honest, it took me a little while to get used to it. In its PC Engine form the first game felt like it had slapped me across the face as a quick “hello” and then superglued me into the front seat of the world’s most dangerous rollercoaster, whereas this sequel wants to be more like a long hot bath, something to become gently enveloped in and spend more time with than is strictly necessary.

Once that difference has been adjusted to though the benefits of the route system start to shine through: every major decision you make listened to and acted upon, every significant success or failure accounted for. This new feature inevitably affects the story too, with the option of an imperial-aligned route giving the Rayguard Empire’s – this game’s proponents of the “True peace is when there’s no-one left willing or able to fight us” concept – generals much more depth throughout every path than they would have had otherwise.

Although… the awkward truth is the empire’s characters never quite manage to break free from their initial role as the game’s primary antagonists, and this somewhat harms the route concept as a whole. It’s a wildly ambitious idea (and the additional workload must’ve been phenomenal) – branches of branches permanently taking the story in drastically different directions – but the issue is there’s one path that it so clearly the right and official one that the end result is there’s the true route you know you should be taking and a selection of academically interesting alternatives. It’s not like Tactics Ogre, which presents a more morally grey situation where every choice isn’t going to work out well for someone but you’re still made to choose what you feel is the least worst option at the time; here there’s the Big Hero of the Goddess route and then a selection of narrative dead-ends – it doesn’t matter if you made Elwin go down some shocking bloodstained path at the earliest opportunity or decide he’s going to fight everyone, because you know in your bones it’s not the route Langrisser wants its magic sword heroes to take.

This enormous focus on branching scenarios also tends to leave many of the battles themselves feeling more… “traditional” than they were in the first game, more willing to fall back on unvarnished “defeat this person” win conditions rather than holding your ground or making a break for a specific point. Scenarios still have surprise enemy reinforcements turning up at the worst possible moment, unexpected allies suddenly revealing themselves, and there’s often dialogue unique to that stage when generals clash for the first time or something new pops up, but these fights are built more around something you do (or don’t do) now paying off in a skirmish or three’s time rather than playing out dynamically before your eyes. It’s not worse, it just reflects the direction they wanted to go in at the time.

Battles by and large play out the same way they did before, with a few subtle refinements to smooth out some of the original’s rough edges. Archers can now attack from several spaces away (as they always should have been able to, but didn’t), although this tactical advantage is offset by their expected weakness against melee units and in later stages their unexpected nigh-uselessness against anything other than flying enemies. At least you’re more likely to encounter flying enemies this time around, as your opponents’ forces now contain a mixed bunch of troops rather than one single type per commander (however in the Der Langrisser games you are still restricted to just the one), leading to some tactical squirming and sacrificial make-do’ing as there is rarely a clear case of “They have [X], so I need to bring out [Y]” any more.

But best of all is the way every allied general now earns a good chunk of experience just for surviving until the end of the battle – often enough to level them up. Not only does this help to keep everyone at roughly the same level, it also allows you to play in a manner that’s more concerned with making good tactical decisions rather than trying to eke the maximum amount of XP out of everything.

So Der Langrisser FX isn’t afraid of changing the parts that needed some additional work or don’t fit its new style, but it never casts aside the old simply for the sake of accommodating the new. Many well known faces and places make a welcome return, with the game even going so far as to echo old battle maps on a few occasions too. Newcomers will still find everything explained properly and the importance of the now always outweighs any past events, but returning players will find the land of El Sallia treated with care – familiar yet fresh.

What it could have definitely done without bringing back is the “Please let me fight!” “But you’re a girl! It’s dangerous!” “Please!” “…OK, I guess. For now.” conversation Ledin and Chris went through in the first game, played out this time by Elwin and his canon love interest Liana. Worse still variations on this demeaning scene play out several times (route choices depending) over the course of the game, and still occur even when Liana has grown powerful enough to command armoured crusaders and summon goddesses to fight on her behalf.

So when she did finally get left behind and then immediately got captured by an elite team of enemy forces – the same ones that have been trying to claim her literally since the opening scenario – I had to laugh. A stupid idea played out to its most predictable stupid consequence. The only real silver lining here is that there’s definitely a bit more of a relationship, if you can call repeatedly trying to make someone who wants to be with you go away a relationship, between Elwin and Liana than there was Ledin and Chris – although considering how it’s handled I can’t honestly say this is better, just that there’s more of it.

On a related note Der Langrisser FX’s sexism – there really is no other word for it – in general does seem to be a little more at the forefront than it was in the first game. I do realise that complaining about this “feature” is about as productive as trying to scoop up the sea with a teaspoon – and it’s not like I missed the boobs and butt artwork on the way in either – but even so it bubbles up as a matter of routine, even in places where it’s not used as a flimsy excuse to linger on another shot of some jiggly chest kittens, and the game would frankly be better off without it. In this world of war, war, and more war, women are weak and to be protected, and the rare few that are strong despite that disappointing baseline soon find the game takes time out to “put them in their place”, male characters refusing to recognise their power, status, or wishes, the story making a point of bringing them down by highlighting some perceived blemish from their past or making them passively agree with whichever guy decides to order them around regardless of their skills or knowledge. It didn’t have to be this way, and it would’ve have needed to sacrifice a single gratuitous flash of underboob to be better.

It was never going to be easy being a sequel to Langrisser, not even on a strategy-starved (game starved, if I’m honest) format like the PC-FX. The original did so much more than anyone expected some upstart fantasy tactical game to do, and that makes it hard not to see allies defending a castle or recurring enemies swearing bloody vengeance and think “I know where I’ve seen this before“. The drastically increased scope leads to some aspects of Der Langrisser FX feeling a bit thin – the maps are not as keen on giving every major troop type a real chance to shine this time around, and considering the format (one that was betting its continued existence on people wanting to play nothing but FMV-heavy 2D games) there are a surprisingly small number of cutscenes per route, and many of those that are present are over in mere seconds. This wouldn’t feel so bad if the game fell back on simple stills to convey many of its story beats, but instead the game tends to lean on the same sort of text box delivery found in the older – and significantly cheaper – cart-based versions of the game, which not only undermines the idea that this is a meaningful upgrade over the previous release but also feels quite jarring after the PC Engine’s routine use of pre-and post battle (and often animated to some degree) cutscenes – especially as the “lesser” format had these visual niceties three years earlier. It is understandable to some degree as more routes naturally means more art would need to be created (art the player might never see at that) and that isn’t cheap even if a single CD did have an infinite amount storage space, but it feels to a large degree like a known issue of their own making.

Ultimately though Der Langrisser FX is a game that tried to do more than not only than its own prequel but also the previous version of itself – and it largely succeeded, trading the original Langrisser’s tight focus for a broad horizon, a place where everyone seems to have a backstory and the ripples from every decision you make spread out until the credits roll. It’s a grand idea and it’s remarkable how fully realised it is even at this early stage (and on hardware they really shouldn’t have looked twice at), actually letting you live through “What if I didn’t reach the magical thing in time?” storylines until their bitter end.

[Ko-fi supporters made this ongoing series of Langrisser articles possible! Thank you so much to everyone who has, does, or may in the future, help me out!]

5 thoughts on “A big game for a dead console

  1. “…but the issue is there’s one path that it so clearly the right and official one that the end result is there’s the true route you know you should be taking…”
    I have to wonder if this is because the MD original version of Langrisser II only had the one route to begin with, with Der adding in the other routes later. While I’ve yet to play the series myself, I have at least seen a couple takes that the MD original is in some ways a stronger experience, and if that’s true it might come from tighter focus (though that assumes the maps in Der aren’t the same I suppose).

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s