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SummaryMagnificent space opera that transcends the boundaries of its genre
The GoodAlshark is, together with Emerald Dragon and Illusion City, one of those distinguished classic Japanese role-playing games that originated on computers and were later ported to console systems, sometimes with enhanced content. Both Alshark and Emerald Dragon were created by Atsushi Ii, one of the greatest Japanese RPG designers of the time. There are several versions of Alshark; opinions vary as to which is the definitive one, though I certainly prefer the PCE CD variant for numerous reasons: it has voice acting, more cutscenes, full screen graphics, tweaks to ship navigation and mini-maps, doesn't encourage grinding as much, and has noticeably faster battles with a reduced enemy encounter rate.
Alshark is truly a wonder, a phenomenon among Japanese RPGs. The author's ambitious vision resulted in what must be the most expansive, most generous representative of the genre ever. Many Japanese RPGs, even the genre itself, have been described as "epic". But this word can mean different things when applied to a video game. Games are a peculiar medium that, in a way, exist both in time and space. They are played from the beginning to the end, but much of the enjoyment also comes from traveling through the game world without necessarily advancing the time aspect, i.e. the plot. A long, twisted narrative doesn't necessarily imply a vast world - in fact, the two often contradict each other. Thus "epic" Japanese RPGs end up being linear affairs where the player is guided through the story without being able to take advantage of the space, basically turning into interactive melodramas with reduced control and exploration.
This game, on the other hand, is one of the precious few Japanese RPGs that has a vast world that the player can explore at his own pace. Sure, there is a linear plot to follow and some planets can't be safely explored without falling prey to overleveled enemies populating them. But in general, venturing into an unknown space sector, narrowly escaping intimidating ships, landing on an unknown planet and simply walking around, exploring it, trying to get to a populated area before hostile wildlife puts an end to unrestricted curiosity - all that is possible. Alshark is wonderfully open-ended, and has no equals in that regard among other games of its sub-genre.
Alshark gracefully complements traditional Japanese RPG gameplay with elements from Western space exploration games. You can physically navigate your ship through space and land on planets, exploring them on foot or in various vehicles. It is by far less sophisticated than games like Starflight, since there is no trading and space combat is only marginally important. Still, fighting in space by engaging other ships in simple dogfights (which can be automatized) brings you scrap, which can be either converted to credits and used to buy better gear on the planets, or given directly to your mechanic Scrap Joe, who can outfit the ship with better frames, engines, turrets, and fighters. Again, ship customization cannot be compared to similar elements in Western space exploration games, but it is there, and it adds more depth and more excitement to the game. Alshark is the closest possible thing to the great Western space RPG hybrids such as Hard Nova or Planet's Edge in the world of Japanese games.
But the brilliance of Alshark also lies in its adherence to the best elements found in its own genre. Unlike the aforementioned games, Alshark has a tight plot based on characterization. In fact, its story was decidedly one of the best in its time. It is a rare example of a game that is truly epic in both meanings of this word, both in size and freedom of exploration as well as story-wise. The plot is long and ripe with dramatic confrontations, rich background history, twists and turns, and everything else needed from a good space opera. Already the beginning is loaded with contradictory emotions: your girlfriend's father has killed your own, and you have to find out why and figure out what to do about it. This premise is almost Star Wars-like in its intensity, but Alshark goes further than most RPGs of its era by keeping the plot focused at all times. Things keep happening in the game, and emotions always run high.
Alshark is not afraid of learning Western gameplay elements, at the same time proudly preserving its Japanese anime heritage. I actually found its story superior to most of its contemporary RPGs. It is also character-driven, and most characters come across as colorful and charismatic. Particularly cool is the "Talk" option, allowing you to converse with your characters at any time. These conversations change frequently and help the plot flow when you don't know what to do next. The PCE CD version further enhances the dramatic aspect by adding more full-screen cutscenes.
Alshark is set in a rich world with its own history and lore. There are political tensions, wars, alien races and different civilizations, mysterious ancient ruins and huge futuristic cities, spaceports and space stations, abandoned facilities and remote caves. Even though many graphics are re-used, the amount of different settings is still astounding, considering the time of the game's release and the limited possibilities of its engine. There are lush green planets, ice planets, desert planets, and others. There are tiny native village and huge imperial capitals. There are high-tech installations and dark natural passages beneath the surface. There is so much to see and to do in Alshark, and it never gets boring. No two planets are alike, and all are populated by NPCs with unique lines, creating an illusion of a living, breathing world.
With all this goodness thrown into one game, one must wonder how the basic, core elements of Japanese RPG are handled here. Interestingly, Alshark is fairly minimalistic in that respect. You can only control the leader in combat, though you can outfit all the five party members with weapons and gear, and the AI does a remarkable job conducting their actions, casting healing and offensive spells for them when they are needed. Usually, I strongly oppose such lack of control, but I welcomed it in Alshark. The reason is that there is so much to do in this game besides fighting enemies that you don't actually need to micro-manage your companions. With the AI handling four out of five, the battles are often resolved with minimal player input, so outfitting characters and keeping them at reasonable levels has priority over tactics, giving battles a delightful real time-like flavor.
Alshark is a game of exploration, and it's a role-playing game in the sense that you grow and become stronger. It's not about combat, and it's good so, because typical primitive combat of Japanese RPGs should not be the focus of gameplay anyway. Gaining levels, on the other hand, is always pleasant, and Alshark makes full use of that mechanic: you level up ridiculously fast, and grow all the time. I'm not even sure what the level cap is in this game or whether it exists at all, but finishing the game at level 160 is not uncommon.
The BadThere is very little I did not enjoy in Alshark. It does the things it focuses on so well that you stop paying attention to other components of RPG design that it neglects. For the sake of objectivity, though, these should be mentioned here. Alshark lets you control only Sion in battle, while other characters are managed completely by the AI. I normally can't stand this in Japanese RPGs and was astonished when I realized it didn't bother me in this game. Only in a few instances I wished I had more control. For example, a fight against a much tougher enemy would be lost more quickly than necessary because the AI won't have four characters healing each other constantly.
Another aspect I value in Japanese RPGs is dungeon design. Again, to my utmost surprise, the relative blandness of the dungeons in this game did not in the least ruin my enjoyment. They are kept relatively small and not particularly interesting in their layouts, contain no treasure, and generally exist only for you to go in and complete a quest. One must keep in mind, however, that, considering the game's immense scope, tougher and more twisted dungeons would probably impede its perfect flow. Same applies to the difficulty level, which is frankly too low in the PCE CD version. But the reduction of random encounters totally makes up for that.