Throwing it all away

After Der Langrisser made all that effort establishing the series’ most recognisable formula, Langrisser III then goes and throws most of what worked straight out the window. The branching multi-multi-path scenario’s gone straight in the bin and been replaced by a linear set of 30+ battles (as well as five optional and easily missed additional stages). The battle system’s been drastically altered, the cast are all new (bar just a small number of returning faces – if you’ve played the previous two games you can probably guess who), and there’s a new romance system in the game as well that I’ll explain in a bit.

I am absolutely happy with all of that: I love seeing old series try something new, and with the benefit of hindsight it’s easy to see that we’ve got plenty of Langrissers cut from the second game’s cloth, so what harm is there in stepping outside that familiar comfort zone once or twice?

This particular entry in Masaya’s fantasy wargame series debuted on the Saturn in 1996, making this the first Langrisser game developed exclusively for a 32-bit CD based console. The extra muscle granted by the improved hardware really shows in every area, as even in its most visually ordinary moments Langrisser III always exhibits a level of detail and colour that wouldn’t have been possible on older formats. In this context – a grand overhaul of the series’ foundations released somewhere new and playing very differently to the games that came before it – this level of polish is a reassuring sight, a visible sign of the thought and care poured into the project.

One of the first things anyone playing is sure to notice is the increased focus on storytelling. Lengthy conversations between two or more sprites often occur in unique locations that will never see a sword swung or a spell cast, shifting Langrisser III away from the “A series of battles bookended by a little plot” presentation of old and more towards typical SRPG stylings. Sadly this expanded chinwagging completely replaces the fancy (and no doubt prohibitively expensive) cutscenes used in PC Engine and PC-FX entries in the series, and as sensible as this change is in the lulls it’s hard not to think that fewer words, better presented, would have left a stronger impression.

The pixel art used to convey these scenes is naturally far more detailed than the Mega Drive/SNES art of old, although there’s also a distinct shift in visual tone to go with it. The colour palette’s noticeably muted this time around and the locations look more realistic (relatively speaking) rather than just more detailed, imbuing Langrisser III with a harsher atmosphere than the series had before. This art is backed by more traditionally orchestral sounding music filled with “soft” instruments, the two components combining to create something closer to Nintendo’s SNES-era Fire Emblems than anything else. It’s not a bad thing – there’s no lack of quality in either area – but it did leave me thinking rather bitterly that Langrisser used to remind me of Langrisser.

One unexpected but very much appreciated upside of this move towards a more serious sort of fantasy is an improvement in the costumes of the wome-teenage girls you encounter. Their designs are still a parade of ridiculous boob socks (the link will take you to a SFW photo of a shirt on a hanger at a store) and armoured nipples, but I do feel that for once I’ve definitely seen more of their faces than their asses, and many of the costumes are (broadly) in line with standard fantasy RPG fare.

Many of these girls are of course waiting for Langrisser III’s hero, Dyhalto, to romance them, this blossoming passion taking the form of sporadic dialogue choices (ones that often influence multiple girls) and the occasional in-battle action. The trouble is none of these choices are actually romantic and rarely even express any direct concern for a particular character, so not only does it not feel like he never gets any closer to whoever you happen to like best but we’re once again in an icky situation where the hero gets a girl of his choice because he was a nice guy in a very ordinary way and nice guys deserve to get something back for adhering to basic standards of human decency.

Further undermining this new multi-girl system is the presence of a fondly thought of and obtainable (with great effort) childhood friend who obviously thinks the world of him and has done so for years, even though she’s tragically/predictably on one of opposing sides in the game’s multifaceted war. Because she is obviously the one true choice, the one the story’s elbowing you in the ribs to obtain, that means everyone else is a lesser prize and the “choices” are in practise between the right one and some other people.

The battles ditch the concept of ally/enemy turns entirely, opting instead for a system where both sides decide where they’re going to move their leaders to (observing typical genre rules – mounted characters move further than those on foot, flying units ignore most terrain types, etc.), with all troops attached to them only appearing after they’ve arrived at their new destination. There’s no need to worry about this automatic sprinkling of forces falling outside their general’s sphere of heroic influence, as that feature no longer exists. I love everything about this. It dramatically speeds up the “admin” side of Langrisser’s unit-heavy battle system, and makes fights feel a little more chaotic and out of control.

But how can you hit anything if everyone’s moving around at the same time? Thankfully Langrisser III thought about this and introduced a sort of “contact” rule to solve this problem before it had the chance to spring up. Leaders on both sides will physically block an opposing general mid-movement should their paths cross (the detection area’s just the right sort of fuzzy, so you don’t have to get it exactly right), stopping the pair of them in their tracks and preventing anyone you were hoping to hit from annoyingly sailing on by.

Attacks can then be dished out based on who’s standing nearby once the movement phase has been resolved. The redesigned interface makes it much easier to compare raw stats between an attacker and their chosen adversary this game around, enabling you to avoid a stronger foe, wipe out the weak, and generally make good tactical decisions instead of accidentally tossing some poor soldiers against an enemy’s spears or sending strong units in poor health off to die.

Once someone’s decided to attack Langrisser III switches to an overhead view of a generic location-appropriate battlefield, the game politely waiting for you to issue orders to your team before initiating combat.

These commands can be as simple as getting everyone on your side to rush at the enemy general or as detailed as moving individual units into specific positions and then having the 2nd Unit guard while the 3rd Unit attacks the enemy’s 4th (every group’s neatly labelled during this phase so you can always see exactly who’s who). The battle then plays out as directed, the Saturn throwing a billion (ish) little animated sprites around with ease as the camera zooms all over the place as it pleases. The polygonal spell/skill effects seen here are suitably spectacular and it all looks very exciting, the only problem is… there’s absolutely no point in engaging with any of it.

You can head to the options menu at any time and completely turn this entire sequence off, your victories and defeats decided in a fraction of the time, thought, and button presses by raw stats instead. Perhaps there’s some penalty for taking this convenient shortcut? Not that I could see. In my experience the difference between taking full control and having none at all seemed to range from negligible to non-existent, rendering the whole exercise utterly meaningless.

There’s actually quite a lot of superfluous strategising in Langrisser III. Take troop formations, for example: You can decide whether a leader’s troops will encircle them when they reappear (obstructions willing) or take on one of four other arrangements. It feels like it should add some tactical depth, but in truth I couldn’t find any meaningful use for it – outside of some hyper-specific scenarios where it might be of some mild benefit you could forget the feature even existed and still succeed without any issue.

The stages themselves often fall short too, the gimmicks they regularly introduce to try and inject some variety into the action – a wall of fire closing in from one side (as previously seen in Der Langrisser), unlikely allies in strange places, a fog that seals all magic, battles that must be won in a certain number of turns, and NPCs you can order to run or fight – more an attempt to hide the fact that too many maps offer no real tactical interest or engagement in themselves than another genuine layer of interest. There were a few exceptions, but not enough – and not as many as I found in either of the previous games.

Langrisser III is a game with a whole bunch of great ideas… it just doesn’t really know how to make any of them stick. I genuinely like the idea behind the new battle system, it’s just a shame there’s absolutely no reason to use it. Likewise the lead character falling in love with someone over the course of the game based on how the player behaves rather than simply being given a girl would have been a fantastic addition to the series, if only the dialogue options had shown the merest flicker of romance within them at all and the game hadn’t spent so much time making clear which available young woman was the sole correct choice.

I admire the game for daring to wonder what else could be achieved within the grand-scale tactical battle space Langrisser had created instead of timidly fiddling with what was already there, and I’m glad it tried to solve the series’ baked-in problem of having so many units to shunt around all the time with the new leaders-only movement system. I just don’t think any of these changes – at least as they work here – solve more problems than they create.

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3 thoughts on “Throwing it all away

  1. I always heared that Langrisser III is a bit of a disappoint em up, but it’s nice to read that it is more out of untapped potential than anything.

    Shame they didn’t get the romance quite right yet. It’s a side dish I really like in Sakura Wars and those games tend to be good at having you get to know and befriend the women.

    Like

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