Riviera: The Promised Land (GBA) Review – Riviera is one of the best handheld RPGs ever!

I wrote this review in January and February of 2006, after playing the game.  Yes, I really loved it; it was one of my favorite console games of ’05.  This review needs no alteration, unlike the last one.  The only things I would add is that there is also a PSP port, with better graphics and a little bit of added gameplay content but a little bit more censorship, but I haven’t played that yet; I’ve beaten the game already, after all, and loved it on GBA.  Also, this game was successful and there is now a series set in the same world, called the Dept. Heaven series, but each game has very different gameplay.  They are mostly various types of strategy games, and while I like strategy games more than I do RPGs, I don’t like any of the sequels anywhere remotely near as much as I do Riviera; indeed, that it was a followup to Riviera was one of the many reasons that Yggdra Union was so disappointing.  It wasn’t just buggy, tonally horrible, and somewhat unique but frustrating to play, it was also supposedly a “sequel” to one of my favorite GBA games.  YU also has several Japan-exclusive sequels, but I haven’t played those, and being spinoffs of the worst game in the franchise is not encouraging.  Knights in the Nightmare, a weird but good strategy game with bullet-hell elements, is a lot better than Yggdra Union is, but it’s still no match for Riviera.  It is the second-best game in the series, though.  And the most recent one, Gungnir, is a more generic game than the previous three; it’s pretty much just a standard tactical strategy game.  Solid game though for its genre.    But yes, the first game is the best.  I love Riviera, and will surely replay it sometime.  But on to the review.

  • Title: Rivera: The Promised Land
  • Developer: Sting
  • Publisher: Atlus
  • Released: June 28, 2005 (US GBA release; Japanese GBA release was November 2004)
  • Platform: Game Boy Advance
  • Genre: RPG
  • Game also available on Bandai Wonderswan Color (Japan only, released 7/12/2002) and Sony Playstation Portable (11/06 in Japan, 7/07 in the US, 4/08 in Europe).

Riviera: The Promised Land is 2005’s major Game Boy Advance RPG. It is a unique title that, in one mark of a good game, both fits within numerous conventions and innovates. People expecting a standard console RPG experience won’t get it here, and this is probably for the better. Trying to do new things and succeeding is somewhat rare in videogames.

Gameplay: Riviera is, at its core, a traditional console RPG, complete with turn-based, menu-driven battles and an epic plot. However, the differences from normal become quickly apparent. First, there is no direct movement of your character in this game. Instead, you move between screens, like some kinds of old PC-style RPGs or adventure games. The character is in the center of the screen and arrows displayed on the screen show which ways you can go. If that was all there was to it, however, it’d be too simple. And indeed, it is not.
There is also, of course, looking at your surroundings. In normal console-style RPGs the challenge comes from dealing with all the (usually random) battles you must fight to get between places, or with the confusing level designs you can get lost in. With only set battles, not random ones, the fact that the game has an onscreen map of the area you are in always on the screen, and the simplified movement system, this game minimizes that — there is an important exception of the puzzles, some of which are truly challenging, (but even these could definitely be solved with some logic and a piece of paper to write down the pertinent information on) but the game minimizes it just the same. So instead, the challenge is not finding the items. Pressing ‘A’ will switch between movement and observation mode, where pressing a direction will intereact with the onscreen trigger point (so, like with movement, you are limited to four points per screen).

This is not to say that there is no challenge in interacting with those points, however. To activate a point and see what happens there, whether it’s a conversation or an item, you need Trigger Points, or TP. These are gotten in battlehe game has a points and rating system. Depending on how well you do in combat, you will get a rating from C to S. The higher the rating, the more TP you get… This means that sometimes you will see chests or items you wish you could get but cannot because you didn’t do well enough on the battles before it in that level. It’s an interesting solution to the question ‘what do you do when you make the exploration so simple?’, and it works well.

There are three kinds of triggers. The first require no TP to use and are mostly people in the town and triggers you have already activated. The second are normal triggers that give a conversation or an item. The third will, in the course of the conversation, set off a minigame, or rather, a timing challenge. Shenmue-like, you must do things like pressing A at a specific time, or copying a complex button combonation quickly, or tapping a button some number of times within a short time. These are challenging and are very frequent. Some are for the ubiquitous traps on chests, but others are at story-relevant points. Sometimes, it isn’t your choice to take one path or another — sometimes failing at a minigame will force you onto one you did not expect. It helps liven up the game and keeps your reflexes quick… and also increases user interation in a game otherwise lacking anything that requires reflexes. Of course it’s best to play it through and resist the urge to retry things until you “get them right”, but I wasn’t able to every time… sometimes, though. It’s definitely different, to be able to fail and keep going, and sometimes actually take a different route thorough that part of the game…

The battles themselves are equally unique compared to what may be expected. While they are not random — they occur at specific screens and are set up with dialogue — they are typical in the sense that they have no movement and you just choose from options on a list. Even here though, like in every aspect of the game unique features are evident. Before combat, you choose which party members to use — you get five in the party, but can bring only three — and then which items. You see, you may only bring four items into combat. Your inventory holds 16 (also an issue, as you constantly have to choose whether to keep some new weapon or item or drop it, as that 16 fills up fast and once you have something you keep it until it’s used up), but you may only take four. Also, like in Fire Emblem, all weapons have durability — so once you use that sword fourty times it breaks. Before I got the game, I heard about this and imagined that limiting you to four items in battle would be a major problem — only four weapons in each battle? How boring! However, there are several mitigating factors. The main one is the fact that no two characters do quite the same thing with each weapon. In fact, every character has a slightly different action with every item (or at least, every weapon; many items do have the same effect on multiple characters). Fia, for instance, heals with rods while Cierra does magic attacks and Serene does nothing useful. You see, each character is ranked in each weapon type. This means that instead of having four weapons, you really have twelve, assuming a party of three. There are even more, including the special attacks.

That ranking also directly effects the other part of the combat system: the special attacks. With every weapon type the character in question is ranked with (they will have one rank 3 weapon, 2 rank 2’s, and 3 rank 1’s), that character gets a special attack of that magnitude — so each character only gets level three specials, the strongest ones, with their ‘signature’ weapon type. But how are these special moves activated? Well first, the special move has to be unlocked. Each time you get a new weapon, you need to use it enough to unlock its special move for that character. Also, in battle, in another interesting design decision, and perhaps one taken from fighting games, Riviera has power meters. Each time you hit or get hit, your meter rises, and gradually fills. Each time you use a special move, that many levels of the meter get drained. The enemies have a meter too; it only has two levels, but functions the same. When their meter fills, some enemy will use a special. So between having to carefully select your party and your items, and the interesting, unique power-meter system in combat, Riviera’s combat is quite unique and engaging.

All this talk about combat naturally brings up a major issue in any RPG: levelling up. Remember how you unlock special moves by using weapons enough, sort of like Final Fantasy Tactics? Well, that’s the level up system. Each time a character unlocks a new special move on an item, they gain a “level” (though it is not called such). When combined with the abovementioned fact that all weapons have a durability, this could be a concern… well, they have a solution. Practice battles. On one of the pause menus, you can choose to fight a battle against a selection of enemy groups you defeated in the previous level. In practice mode, durability does not decrease. You don’t get points or TP for practice battles either… However, the experience with the weapon is still recorded, so each time you get a new weapon, the best thing to do is immediately fight practice battles until all of your characters who can have gotten their special moves (and levelups!) off of it. This also has the effect of lenghtening the otherwise fairly short levels, and game.

There is one more important thing to discuss, the issue of death and healing. Lose a character and there is no penalty, they just come back at the end of the battle. Win a battle and all characters get their health filled up — there is no carryover of low health to the next battle. And with the power bar powering the special ability system, you also don’t need to worry about running out of “mana”. Similarly, lose a battle and you simply get a chance to retry it — and it’s made a bit easier. This serves to keep the game fun, while not making it too easy, due to the good job of balancing it all the devlopers have done.

Singleplayer/Story: Riviera is broken into seven levels. Each one takes maybe four or five hours. They are broken up into many stages, and you can save each time you reach a new stage — during a stage you just get an interrupt save option. So, it is a bit short. It tries to make up for that with the branching level design that forces you forward, making you responsible for your actions (so you can’t just go back and get those other items on that other path without reloading an old save game) and with the replay value.

Riviera’s story is mostly fairly typical anime or console RPG stuff. You are, shockingly, a male warrior-type character named Ein — the “young male warrior hero” so typical to of 99.98% of RPGs. Ein is a type of being called a Grim Angel, tasked by the Gods to judge and protect Asgard, the land of the gods. He, another Grim Angel, Ledah — the “older, experienced mysterious male warrior” — and Ein’s familiar, a flying cat that can talk named Rose (yup… the story is pretty standard anime stuff, for sure… which is mostly good, in my opinion. Others may disagree, of course, but I would definitely say that it works quite well. There is a lot of story, too, for a game of this length, sort of like Fire Emblem… but with player choice in how the story progresses, to a degree.), go to Riviera, a land where an ancient evil has been sealed away that is on the verge of escaping, with the task of destroying the place. Of course, things don’t quite turn out that way. Ein and his friend Ledah seperate from your friend and travel to Riviera and set out on an epic adventure. There, you meet your new travelling companions, four young female characters, Lina, Fia, Serene, and Cierra. of course, this being anime, all four like Ein and, depending on your choices in conversation points throughout the game, and on how often you use them in battle (they get more attraction for winning battles, and less each time they die in combat), you hopefully will get a high enough attraction with one of the female characters to get one of their endings. Including the bad ending and the various good ones, there are a total of six. When you add to that the multiple routes through levels, the sidequests which require items from specific levels (which, of course, you cannot return to once completed), and the special items to find that unlock the sections of the bonus menu (sound test, bonus (but dissapointing) boss battle, display of the cinema scenes, character images, etc), there is definitely more than enough replay value to keep you going past the 25 or 35 hours it will take to beat the first time.

Multiplayer: None.

Graphics: The graphics in Riviera are very, very good. The backgrounds are very well drawn, something very important for a game mostly about looking at static images. The character artwork and cutscenes, anime style, are also fantastic. The ingame character artwork is more standard for a console RPG, with small, stylized characters, but they look great and have a lot of animation, even if they don’t move much, so that also works very well. This game is one of the titles that shows why it’s somewhat unfortunate that the GBA has so many Super Nintendo ports: the GBA is capable of so much more than the SNES was!

Sound/Music: The sound and music are equally fantastic. The game has a significant amount of speech for each character, with voices for special attacks, victory in battle, exclamations while adventuring, etc, and a good, solid RPG musical score. This is about as good as the GBA gets audio-wise.

Final Notes: Riviera is a very good, and original, game. It’s a console RPG without random battles… without money or buying items… without complex level designs that are easy to get lost in… without a traditional level-up structure based on how many enemies you kill… and yet, it is a console RPG with complex, challenging puzzles that make you think back to the PC or SNES days of writing down what goes where or what was said in order to figure out the puzzle… with as many practice battles against past foes as you want… with a complex branching mission path that virtually requires replay to see everything… with timing events… and with characters and as story you’ll become interested in, even if it is somewhat cliche.

So, in conclusion, Riviera is a mass of contradictions. It both streamlines and rolls back the clock. Reviews are somewhat mixed — if “sevens through nines” is mixed — however, and that is probably because of how different it is. Some people will like the unique elements of the game more than others. Some surely wouldn’t like how different this is from normal RPGs in so many ways, but I loved it in a large part for that very fact. In addition, the game has very few things that could be truly called Perhaps the ending is a little bit dissapointing (though there are six endings, providing replay value), but maybe that’s as much because I was loving the game and wanted it to go on longer as anything actually wrong with the way the game ended… that is really the only thing that is wrong with this game. It is unique and great fun and ends well before your interest in its unique system has faded. It is great, then, that it has those six endings, and all those branching paths, to give it replay value, because it was needed. So in the end the game’s one flaw does not matter and the game stands out as an example of what a game can do when it tries to be more than just your average, formulaic title that follows all of the conventions of its genre irregardless of whether those conventions are actually for the better or not. In questioning that hopefully Riviera is a sign of more good things to come from the console RPG genre. And even if that doesn’t happen soon, the game still stands as a symbol of just plain great game design.

Gameplay: 10/10
Singleplayer: 9/10
Multiplayer: N/A
Sound: 10/10
Graphics: 10/10

final score: 10/10 (not an average) – A+. This game is definitely one of the single best on the GBA.

Riviera is a genre-redefining game that hopefully will influence the industry to move away from old, tired ideas of what an RPG “must” be.

About Brian

Computer and video game lover
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