Sting is a relatively long standing game development company, but not necessarily a well known one. Many of their early games were confined to Japan, and even when Atlus started picking up localizations for some of their games in the sixth generation of consoles, they were very niche games for system that were usually nearing the end of their lifespan.
If anyone knows Sting, it’s probably from one of two things–either the extremely strange and disturbing rouge-like Baroque, or their self dubbed Dept. Heaven series of games. We first saw the Dept. Heaven games in the West with the Game Boy Advance remake of Riviera: The Promised Land (originally released on the WonderSwan), and the game was released over six months after the Nintendo DS hit store shelves. Needless to say, both Riveria and the Episode II to Dept. Heaven, Yggdra Union (which released on Game Boy Advance a year later) were mostly ignored by the gaming community. Despite PSP remakes of Riviera, Yggdra Union, and Knights in the Nightmare (Dept. Heaven Episode IV… no, there’s no episode III), Sting’s Dept. Heaven games are still relatively niche and unknown, and that’s really a shame. The four games in the series (the last one is Gungnir, since I’m naming them off) are all very unique games, twisting and stretching genre conventions in such ways that you’ll never play anything like them… even within the same series.
So, let’s start at the beginning then, shall we?
Riviera: The Promised Land tells the story of Ein, a Grim Angel. To understand what a Grim Angel is, though, requires a look into the game’s backstory. A thousand years before the beginning of Riviera, the ancient prophesied battle of Ragnarok took place. As per legend, the battle is supposed to wipe everything out… but the gods of Asgard broke their deal of the ancient pact, and instead of dying on the field of battle, they sacrificed themselves to create the Grim Angels. These Angels fight the demons of Utgard and eventually defeated them, turning the land of Utgard into the peaceful realm of Riviera.
Fast forward a thousand years, and according to the Seven Magi (entrusted with the knowledge of the gods of Asgard to watch over Riviera) the demons are beginning to resurface, and it’s up to Ein and his partner Ledah to stop them, although it will destroy Riviera in the process. However, they fail, and Ein is struck with convenient amnesia, to give him the chance to bond with the citizens of Riviera and learn the true, dark secrets of the Seven Magi.
Riviera doesn’t really have a revolutionary story–it’s really just there to give the player a reason to go from point to point, and why exactly they’re fighting in the first place. All of the plot twists are foreshadowed far in advance, and anyone with a passing knowledge of JRPG plots will know how Riviera will play out. But this game’s brightest point isn’t the story; instead, it’s in the game’s deep and complex mechanics that Riviera really shines.
Instead of dungeons, Riviera is separated into different ‘Stages’. While you explore them a bit like dungeons, you can’t just run around them, and they’re split into separate rooms with their own events to trigger. However, you can’t just check everything in every room all willy-nilly… you need Trigger Points to perform most actions in a Stage. Not only that, but not all actions are beneficial to your party, just being a waste of Trigger Points or downright hurt someone (even with permanent stat decreases!). So, it’s very important to know when and where to use Trigger Points to your benefit.
You may be asking, though, how do you get more Trigger Points? By doing well in battle! Battling isn’t much like an average RPG, either. It is turn based, and theoretically you use attacks and items to win the day, but even these seemingly simple concepts are changed into something far more strategic.
I’m don’t think that I’m the best one to explain the battle in and of itself, so let’s take a bit from Damian Thomas’ RPGFan review of the game from long long ago:
Every now and then, when you enter an area or activate a trigger event, you’ll encounter demons. If you agree or are forced to fight, you are given lots of options. First, you can check out the enemy, including their stats, formation, weaknesses, and receive some handy hints on tackling that particular enemy or group. Next, you choose the three party members that will fight the battle and what formation they will take. Finally, you get to choose four weapons/items to take with you into battle. This can sound limiting, but it’s really not that bad, and it forces the player to implement a strategy, rather than just hack away with whatever they have on.
As the PCs and enemies trade blows, gauges fill up. The enemies have a “Rage” meter and when it fills up, the next enemy to attack will use its Max move, which can be pretty damaging. Fortunately, as they attack, the enemies use up part of the Rage meter, thereby staving off the threat of a Max attack. As you kill off enemies, the Rage meter shortens to a maximum of half its original size, making it easier for the enemies to get Max attacks.
The other gauge is the three-level Overdrive meter. As mentioned before, mastering certain weapons/items unlocks an Overdrive move. When the players give and receive damage, the Overdrive meter fills up. If the meter fills up enough, the character can use an Overdrive move linked to one of the weapons/items you took into battle. These can range from powerful attacks to cooking, but are always very helpful; doubly so because finishing a battle with an Overdrive move, combined with the amount of time it took to complete the battle, helps increase your rank for the battle. Higher rank results in more trigger points and better loot.
Basically, do well in battle and understand the system, and you’ll be rewarded with your effort with more Trigger Points and better items, to make both exploring and battling easier.
However, there’s also the matter of weapons and items, and how differently even those work. Each weapon and item (aside from Ein’s Diviner) has a limited number of uses, and will break once you use them all up. However, each weapon also has an Overdrive move that characters proficient in that weapon type can learn by using the weapon (or item) a certain number of times. Additionally, it’s the only way to ‘level up’ your characters, as mastering a weapon or item is what gives your characters stat ups. But, it’s an odd situation… if weapons break after enough uses, you have to use them to get better, and you can’t buy new ones, what are you supposed to do? Thankfully, players can engage in practice battles that will not use up weapon or item, allowing you to grind out weapon experience as needed (don’t worry, it never takes too long). Of course, practice battles don’t give you any Trigger Points or any decent items to work with, so it’s only really good for grinding weapon experience out so that you can do your best in real battles.
All of this might seem odd or convoluted out of context, but when playing Riviera it clicks really well–you’ll get the hang of it really quickly, and have a blast. There’s even more there that I haven’t explained, but it all works quite well together and makes for a truly unique RPG system to play with as you progress through the plot.
There’s also little things I like about Riviera, that really help me remember it fondly. I like how the character with the highest HP in the game is the person with the stereotypical ‘mage’ look, messing with that typical mage archetype. I like how, in the Japanese version of the game, during the conversation before the final battle, Ein uses clever advantage of Japanese honorifics, beginning as respectful (-dono) and becoming less and less so as the antagonist shows just how evil he is. I really like the game’s soundtrack, something that as a portable game, players may never hear:
It’s really a shame that Riviera and Sting’s other Dept. Heaven games aren’t as well known as they should be, but that doesn’t stop anyone from playing them now! I would recommend the PSP version, of the two available–it’s easier to get (as you can buy it digitally), the graphics are improved, there’s a lot of voice acting, and there’s even an extra chapter you can try to do after beating the game. There’s a lot going on there. But, if you can only pick up the Game Boy Advance version for whatever reason, that one is great too. Make sure to give this great game the good old college try!