Like the Dragon Quest series, the Legend of Heroes (also known as Gagharv Trilogy in Japan despite this being the sixth game in the series) hasn't been very popular so far in the west. However, Bandai spotted an RPG shaped gap in the market for the PSP, and decided to localise and release the game in the US. Is it good enough to satisfy PSP owners who are getting tired of all the PS2 ports and generally poor titles, and who just want something with a bit more depth? Personally, I would say yes, though the game isn't without it's faults. Read on to find out what I mean.
Graphics: 8 out of 10
While the visuals in Legend of Heroes are by no means poor, they could be a little better. Specifically the architecture of the buildings in the many villages is rather square. On this evidence you'd almost think that the PSP can't do round surfaces at all, but that's not the case. Maybe this strange style of civil engineering has something to do with the game being an update of a much older game for a much lower spec system. In those days it was quite an achievement to even produce believable villages in a game, but nowadays punters expect a little more.
Character portraits go a long way towards rescuing the situation however. Every time a character speaks, you get a screen-filling hand drawn painting of the character, in various different poses to suit the mood of whatever the character is saying. This is some beautiful art work, really helping you connect with the characters far more than a simple sprite would ever be able to do. If you've ever played any of the Ys games (also made by Falcom) then you will recognise the style.
Other wise, the characters are portrayed by cute 2D sprites, the like of which you'll have seen many times before if you were playing RPG's back in the SNES era. That's pretty much it for the graphics, apart from some quite nifty lighting effects for spells, sun glare and caves which all contribute towards creating the right atmosphere for the game.
An example of the characteportraitsts, with a boxy inn in the background.
Sound & Music: 9 out of 10
This score is pretty much on the strength of the music alone. It's fantastic - there's some really great tunes in here which can help heighten the atmosphere of scenes which depend a lot on their emotional impact. This game doesn't rely on voice acting or glossy cut scenes to get across what the characters are feeling so it's up to the old fashioned techniques of music and the character portraits to achieve this instead. What's more the tunes don't start repeating until well over halfway through the game, and there are several different battle tunes, so you won't tire of them as fast as you can in some games.
The sound effects are nothing special, just your common spot effects for sword swings, spells, etc but they do the job, and there is no voice acting at all - which some would argue is a good thing as at least then you don't have to suffer poor acting or irritating voices for the whole game. So overall, at best you will find the music to be really well composed, or at worst you will find it inoffensive and won't rush to turn the volume down the minute you start up the game. As always though a decent set of headphones is recommended to get the most out of the PSP's audio - the weedy speakers just don't do it justice.
Plot and Character: 7 out of 10
Legend of Heroes features a large cast of colourful, interesting characters. These are headed up by the Hero, Avin, and his lifetime friend, Mile. You really believe in the bond between these two and the realistic portrayal of friendship goes a long way towards sustaining your interest throughout the course of the game. These two characters are backed up by around 10 other characters who drift in and out of the story/your party, but you will almost always have four people in your party. As soon as someone leaves, you can pretty much bet that someone else will turn up. While the supporting characters are interesting, because they never hang around for long it's harder to become attached to them, but I do like the idea of people that can't just drop everything and travel around the world with the hero, and have other commitments they need to attend to. It makes the world feel more real.
Personally, I rather enjoyed the plot. Other reviews I've read have called it cliched, but as long as a cliche is done well it's still entertaining from my point of view. Look how many books have borrowed the basic fantasy template from The Lord of the Rings - many of them are good in their own right and shouldn't just be dimissed because they got the idea of orcs from Mr Tolkien. There were several twist in the game that kept me interested and wanting to know what happens next. Plus the fact that there is such a fast turnover of characters makes you play on a bit longer to see who will join up with the party next.
One area that really lets this game down is the rushed localisation - there are many grammatical mistakes, sentences that stop half way and examples of "Engrish" throughout the game. For example when you level up and gain a new skill, you're faced with something like "Mile has Demon Flash mastered!". However, despite all this I still enjoyed the story, and when localisation was working well it was actually quite entertaining and witty. A bit more quality control would have been nice.
Game Mechanics - 6 out of 10
If you're familiar with the two Lunar games on the PlayStation, you'll already feel quite at home with the mechanics of Legend of Heroes. It uses the turn based format that so many others have used with one main difference - the distance you are from your target makes a difference. For example, if you choose to attack an ememy all the way accross the screen and your character is holding a sword, he won't have enough strength to get there and will most likely stop halfway across the screen. If he is a magic user or is armed with a bow, his reach is increasesignificantlyly. This brings some basic tactics into the gameplay - it is often better to defend and let the enemy come to you for example, than it is to get halfway across the screen and get spanked as a result.
Battles aren't random in Legend of Heroes, you can see the enemies wandering around on the map. Early in the game you also get a pet, either a rabbit, a cat, or a dog, and if you feed it and pet it, it will find beneficial items for you during your exploration. This did tend to make things a bit easy, as I never had to buy healing items because my dog was constantly supplying me with them. If you are mean to your pet, it goes beserk and sets loose all manner of whoopass on your foes. So either way, you get something out of the partnership, and there's no sign of an in game version of the RSPCA to haul you off to prison for virtual animal cruelty.
So really the mechanics are pretty much like every other aspect of this game - solid, but nothing new or especially remarkable.
Innovation and Cleverness - 3 out of 10
Now I'm going to give Legend of Heroes a few points here for being the first proper RPG on the PSP. Granted, we now have quite a few to choose from but this game got the first and helped fill a niche during the early days of the console. Apart from that, there really isn't anything particularly innovative about the game. I like the way that it's just one part of a bigger, six part story but even that idea has been used before and it's not as if any of the other games in the series have been released in the west anyway (and nor are they likely to be). I've already compared the game to the classic Lunar series, and ironically it does a far better job of capturing the spirit of that series than the official sequel Lunar Dragon Song for the DS, in which the innovation was actually detrimental to the game. I mean, you lost health if you decided to run, even in towns, for god's sake!
Value and Replayability - 6 out of 10
Although the game doesn't actually keep count of how long you've been playing unlike many others, I'd have to say it took me about 30 hours on and off to finish Legend of Heroes. This might not sound very long especially compared to the recently reviewed Dragon Quest 8, but for a handheld game it's actually very substantial.
Of course, being a console RPG the games is really very linear in nature. There isn't even much in the way of sidequests either, and I don't really think the story is really strong enough to warrant playing through again. It's one of those games which is entertaining at the time, but probably won't be remembered very much about a year down the line.
Overall - 6 out of 10
I'd really like to score this game higher, as I did enjoy it at the time and I was very grateful to Bandai for releasing a half decent RPG for the PSP. However, looking over what I've written above, and taking the competition (Tales of Eternia, Popolocrois, Breath of Fire 3) in mind, I've come to the conclusion that Legend of Heroes doesn't deserve any more than a 6. If you see a preowned copy lying around I would certainly consider picking it up, otherwise go for one of the other three games I've just mentioned - they all have better production values, better storylines, and more innovative gameplay.
Ah, but what you didn't realise is that my monster cart is the new XR3i Turbo-Nutter-Bastard edition!