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Magna Carta: Tears of Blood (PlayStation 2)

100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
5 point score based on user ratings.
Written by  :  אולג 小奥 (168715)
Written on  :  Mar 31, 2006
Rating  :  3 Stars3 Stars3 Stars3 Stars3 Stars

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Attractive and fairly original, but lacking in too many aspects

The Good

"Magna Carta", the first Korean RPG that gained world-wide recognition, being part of a successful series in its homeland, is a double-edged sword. The developers obviously put a lot of effort into the game, and it shows. Too many things went wrong, however, so in the end it would be hard to accept the game's many shortcomings and to concentrate on its positive sides.

You will read a lot about the gameplay of "Magna Carta" in the Bad section, but its gameplay system deserves praise at least for its originality. Although the role-playing in this game follows the standard Asian RPG template, the battles in "Magna Carta" are unlike anything you have seen before. Think of a combination between the ATB system of Final Fantasy, free battle screen-roaming like in strategy RPGs, and additional action/arcade element similar to the Judgment Ring of Shadow Hearts. Your must navigate your party members around the battle field to target the enemies, wait for your turn bar to fill, and finally press three buttons with correct timing to execute your attack. No matter the execution of this system, the idea itself was good and quite original.

The game has other interesting gameplay-related innovations. When you wander in hostile areas, you must watch out for enemy ambush, but you can also ambush them by carefully sneaking around and attacking them when they turn their backs to you (all enemies are visible on screen). There is an interesting chi system: each area has its own chi, i.e. element, so the attacks based on this element will do more or less damage, respectively. Each party member can also master techniques of different elements ("styles"), and switch them in battles. Learning stronger techniques of the same style requires you to repeatedly achieve perfect results when pressing the three attack buttons. Also, as you get more and more perfect results, you accumulate special points, which you can later "unleash" at any time, to significantly increase the damage of your next attack.

Other fun stuff includes item-combination (making your own powerful items from those you can buy in stores) and "trust-building", which is a mini-game in "dating sim" style: you talk to your characters at save points and can make them happy, indifferent, or angry depending on what you choose to tell them.

The story of "Magna Carta" is actually quite good. You can't connect to the characters very well, but the plot itself, the way it is thought out, is fairly intriguing, even bordering on deep. There are many characters in the game, and most of them are very colorful. Unfortunately, the reason for that is not their dialogue lines or the roles they play in the game, but mostly their graphical design. They certainly look unique and extremely detailed. The character graphics is probably the strongest aspect of "Magna Carta". Sometimes you'll want to continue playing the game just to see how your next party member will look like.

The rest of the graphics is pretty good as well, although the awful camera nearly ruined my enjoyment from them. Musically, the game is also solid, as some of the background tracks can get quite moody and fitting.

The Bad

"Magna Carta" has a lot of flaws. Some of them are simply too big to ignore.

I'll start with what is arguably the most interesting feature of the game: its combat system. As much as it is innovative and original, it just doesn't work very well. The battles are not exciting. The reason for that is the unsuccessful mixture of strategy and action. I can enjoy long-drawn strategic battles, like for example in Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, under one condition: they should involve strategy. I also have nothing against an action element, such as the Judgment Ring of Shadow Hearts games. But I want this action element to be just that: an element. A little addition to spice turn-based combat.

Now, the battles in "Magna Carta" are supposed to be strategic. You can move your characters freely on the battle field, position them wherever you like, take advantage of the enemy's location, use a variety of ranges, etc. And yet there is the strange, to say the least, decision to limit your turn to one party member only. That's right. Instead of assigning commands to your party members, you control only one. You can choose which one, and you can choose another character next turn, but only one character can act in one turn. The other two characters are just standing there and do nothing! Strange? You bet. Also, even though you master stronger moves the more you use a certain style, you always start with the weakest and must go through all four stages to reach the strongest attack. Why? I understand you should pay some price for the strong attack. So let it drain you in some way or whatever, but why not to make it accessible right away?

But now you should also add to this the action element. You see, when your turn comes, you should press three buttons on your controller, so that they fit into a spinning circle. If you fail to hit one of them correctly, you'll miss your attack. Sounds fair? Not really. First, why should you miss the entire attack if you failed to hit only one of the buttons?! But that's not all. If you miss, you also get a penalty to the time elapsed until your next turn, revert back to your weakest attacks, and you lose all your trinity points, which are accumulated bonus damage to your next attack. Why was it necessary to punish the player like that?

So you have a combat system that depends too much on elementary precision. Combat system which induces frenzy and frustrates without being truly challenging. Its strategic aspect is weak, its action aspect is too arcade-like. But there are other problems as well. The whole system is just too complicated. Usage of chi is a nice addition, but when all your characters run out of their respective chi elements, you are forced to switch back and forth between them without any good reason, and as a result the battles become too long. Many weak combat systems can be saved by fluent, fast-paced battles, but here we have a system which is weak and slow.

There are many other gameplay-related flaws in the game. You cannot allow yourself to run at all, because if you do, you'll always be ambushed by enemies. The dungeons, however, tend to be fairly long, so you'll have to walk through them instead of running, which adds too many empty hours to a game which is already very long. You'll also have to backtrack a lot and visit the same areas with different parties, which is really annoying and boring. And you'll have to fight all the enemies you meet, because you'll need the experience. You'll be in control of several parties, and you'll have to level up each party member, because you never know which party the game will force you to play. You cannot really choose and build up characters properly, because they come and go much too frequently.

The game is disastrously linear. More often than not you won't be able to access areas you'd like to explore, be confined to limited town or dungeon-like sections, unable to travel on the world map - even not jumping from dot to dot. Everything is done automatically by the game. There is no sense of exploration in "Magna Carta". What's worse is that even the areas you can explore are uninteresting. Dungeons tend to be bland and boring, they lack color and structure. Add to that the backtracking element and you'll get a good recipe for tedious gameplay. In towns, you rarely can do something beside buying equipment or talking to some lonely NPCs. You are unable to enter most of the buildings, they are just standing there as a decoration.

One of the worst aspects of "Magna Carta" is its camera. It is fixed, which is automatically a flaw in my book. There is no reason why a 3D game shouldn't have rotatable camera. Suikoden IV or Dragon Quest VIII show how much such a camera adds to the feeling of immersion. But I'd accept the fixed camera if it were good. In "Magna Carta", the camera is horrendous, one of the worst I have ever seen in a 3D game. You are forced to look at the game world from weird, improper, unexciting angles. This hurts exploration aspect as well as battles enormously. When you begin a battle, you often have no idea where some of your characters are, you also don't see the enemies until they draw near and attack. When you navigate your character through the game world, you always feel how awkward the camera angle is. Really, this aspect alone can ruin the whole gameplay experience.

Unfortunately, the story and the characters of "Magna Carta" don't really redeem its gameplay shortcomings. The characters look cool on the surface, thanks to the excellent graphical design, but they sorely lack charm. It's really hard to like those characters; they are weird, but they are not truly exciting. I didn't care for any one of the game's heroes; I found them annoying at best. It is particularly disappointing because they really look interesting. As for the story line, it looks good on paper, but suffers from mediocre execution. There are many clichés in it, including the omnipresent "mysterious innocent girl who is sought by the enemy". Granted, the plot itself is pretty smart and can even get deep, but the dialogues often feel too artificial, and the lack of warmth by the characters seriously hampers the enjoyment. And, although there are proper cut scenes in the game, a lot of dramatic events and conversations are presented as weird dialogues boxes over totally still backgrounds.

The Bottom Line

"Magna Carta" bites more than it can chew. It tries really hard to be complex and deep, but as a result lacks balance and completely neglects some cardinal aspects of gameplay. The characters are interesting, but not really memorable; the story is well thought-out, but isn't told particularly well; the gameplay system is complex, but fails to be entertaining. It is by no means a bad game, and it deserves praise for its original and fresh ideas; but as a whole, it is too flawed, and just doesn't have that certain something that makes a great Asian RPG.