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There came a time in the gaming world when the almighty ATLUS (responsible for numerous successful titles throughout the years, like the Persona series, Summon Night, Trauma Center, and many, many more) joined hands with a relatively-quiet game dev studio by the name of Sting Entertainment. They had their merry time together, and the three-year (and still ongoing) partnership resulted in the creation of a couple of unique and down-to-the core jRPG’s, the likes of which have stretched the limits of the once formidable GameBoy Advance, before marching their stride on the PSP. This series of games was dubbed – Dept. Heaven.

The first of these wonders is the “strictly” turn-based world of Riviera.

Riviera: The Promised Land first felt the light of handheld screens way way back in 2002 on the WonderSwan Color (a competitor to the early GameBoy Color) as a Japan-only release. The games first run garnered praise for stretching the limits of the WSC, so much so that two years after that and Riviera gets a total makeover for a GBA remake – complete with redrawn sprites and scenes, plus the inclusion of voices (which at the time, was a big deal). Now, I can’t really say much about the WSC version since I never had the chance to play it, but I did own its GameBoy counterpart for the better part of my GBA SP’s life. Sadly, game cartridges can only last for so long, and before I could finish the game, the saving feature died out on me. Some time after that though, another remake, now for the PlayStation Portable, came to be – with even more enhanced graphics, and full voice acting. Needless to say, I had to have it. (Thankfully, I managed to finish it that time around)

Riviera took turn-based handheld gaming to a whole different level. I’d actually compare the overall feel of the game to a visual novel than a traditional jRPG, mostly because of how the game transitions. For those who are familiar with the genre, standard jRPG’s usually consist of a lot of manual exploration, usually having elements like dungeons and an overworld area to get from place to place. Riviera, however, has none of that. “Movement” in this game utilizes trigger buttons that designate where you can go, while the actual movement of the character is pre-simulated – meaning you can’t walk around like you would in games like Final Fantasy. Instead, the maps in Riviera consist of frames, set-up in a linear fashion with branching paths made optional by triggers. Some of these triggers require “trigger points” or TP, which you can get when you successfully dispatch enemies – which brings us to the combat aspect of the game.

Battles have you forming a team of three, with you choosing two people out of an optional four to accompany the main character. Attacks are based on the weapons you bring to the field, with each playable character excelling at a certain weapon. Sounds simple at first, until the game tells you that you can only bring four weapons to the field and that each weapon (except for the main characters signature weapon) has a durability count, wherein when the number reaches zero, the weapon breaks. This adds a level of complexity (and frustration at times) to the standard turn-based battles, especially at times when your weapons start to dwindle (and given your inventory max capacity of only twenty items, this will happen a lot).

As with almost all turn-based jRPG’s, winning battles strengthens your team via the concept of leveling up. Riviera, again, denies us its use. Instead, it gives us a stat-upgrade system that depends on a character’s mastery of certain weapons. For example, one of your characters masters using a Short Bow. This might give him/her an HP, agility or a luck boost, depending on the character’s preference of using bows. Mastering weapons is done by using a weapon a certain number times in battle. Doing so will also unlock a skill (called OverSkills) that can be used only with that weapon and by that character only. Personally, I found level-grinding (or in this case, stat-grinding) to be a lot more easier than the usual method of repeatedly killing dungeon monsters.

Then again, all these head-scratcher mechanics could turn the casual gamer off. That’s where the story comes in – which, when all else fails for others, is Riviera’s best asset. A thousand years ago in the game’s storyline, Ragnarok (or the war of the gods) had occurred. Demons from Utgard had already entered the sacred realm of Asgard, which was at the verge of ruin. In desperation, the gods of Asgard committed a taboo, and with their lives as payment, they created the ultimate demon killers – the Grim Angels. Utgard fell, and an era of peace followed soon after. A thousand had past, and demons have re-surfaced in Riviera, the land of the Sprites. Our main character is Ein – a kind-hearted yet naive Grim Angel tasked to eliminate the demons by wiping out Riviera in its entirety. Ursula, protector of Riviera and its people, prevented the would-be annihilation by abducting Ein and casting him off to a village in Riviera, and sealing his memories – in hopes that Ein may learn the truth.

In his journey for answers, Ein meets four women willing to join in his cause – (in order of their appearance) the elegant fencer Fia, the energetic archer Lina, the scythe-meister Serene, and the fiery mage Cierra – plus Ein’s cat familiar, Rose. Again, I reiterate, they are all women (cue visual novel similarities). And, as with VN’s, Riviera presents multiple “flags” to try and win over your favorite female. Depending on who you win over most, you will get an ending with her (and in the event that you fail to charm someone, you end up with a pretty neutral ending). I don’t really know if that offers much in terms of replay value, since the endings are at most only ten minutes in length (and you can just take a gander at them at sites like YouTube) But if you enjoyed it the first time around, playing through it again should still be fun.

I’m sure I left out a bunch of other key mechanics, but discovering them for yourself is part of the fun. To which I say, check it out (used copies of the PSP version go for $13 on Amazon). And, yes, I plan on talking about all of the games under the Dept. Heaven series, so stay tuned.