Time after time.
The folks at Sega have a long-standing tradition of making spectacular RPGs. Back in the day, Sega produce classic games such as Phantasy Star and Shining Force. Now, with the next generation of gaming at hand, Sega has once again undertaken the task of becoming the greatest developer of RPGs in the land.
With news of Phantasy Star Online coming later this year, the future of Dreamcast RPGs is indeed bright, but what about Sega's first effort? Will Time Stalkers become a classic, or will it merely become an appetizer for the main course? Let's find out.
The story behind Time Stalkers is initially very good. Players begin the game as Sword, an adventurer who was sucked from his world into a fantastic new realm by a mysterious book (reminiscent of The Neverending Story). This new world is comprised of many lands, all across different periods of time. Sword must unravel the mystery of the book and find his way back home.
While this premise isn't bad, it takes way too long to develop. After several hours and several dungeons, I still felt like the story had not progressed. Sure, you'll meet some new characters and land in some new areas, but trust me, you won't really feel like the story went anywhere. You've got to have serious patience to find out what's going on in Sword's mysterious world.
The gameplay in Time Stalkers has a very familiar RPG setup. The majority of play takes place in one of the land's randomly generated dungeons. Characters are shown running around in third person and enemies are visible. Combat is turn based as usual and makes use of a vitality meter. This vitality meter basically determines how much energy your character has, and each attack consumes vitality points. Running out of vitality points will not leave you defenseless, but it will severely reduce the amount of damage done with each attack.
Another interesting note about combat is that it is usually initiated by the player more often than the monsters. I guess most of the monsters in Time Stalkers are a bunch of wussies... or pacifists. Can't we all just get along?
Speaking of monsters, Sega has seen fit to do something special with the enemies. Yes, in Time Stalkers, you can actually capture cute little enemy monsters and turn them into valuable allies. Hmmm... sounds familiar. All you have to do is battle the critter to reduce its strength and catch it with your Pokeball. From there you can train it through numerous battles and watch your new little friend gain powerful new moves as you continue on your quest to be a Pokemon master. Gotta catch 'em all! Wait a minute, what game was I taking about?
Pokemon jokes aside, this 'monster catching' part of Time Stalkers is actually pretty cool. Without your little friends, the dungeons can be a dangerous place indeed. Training them as you progress through dungeons adds to the interest of the game. There's even a VMU mini game called "Moonlighter" where you can give your monsters more experience! Definitely more fun than "Snake" on your Nokia. If Moonlighter isn't enough of a time waster for ya, Time Stalkers has plenty of other mini-games. Just earn some cash in the game and free up lots of space on the ol' VMU.
Time Stalkers is nothing outstanding graphically. While the environments look beautiful, characters are a bit blocky. Also, "ghosting" (disappearing partially through walls and ramps) occurs in some places. Sound is adequate, pretty much everything you'd expect from a Sega RPG.
One huge, annoying flaw is the fact that your character basically loses all of his or her powers after leaving a dungeon. Strange, ain't it? You spend a whole dungeon's worth of time making your character strong and upon leaving, he's back to a 20 HP weakling who can't even handle the weapon he just used to destroy the last boss. Even though characters "level up" in title after each cleared dungeon, this whole 'back to square one' thing doesn't cut it. It really feels as though the game has just been started over.
Another gripe I have is the loss of item capacity when venturing back into the dungeons. While characters can extract a great number of items from within the dungeons, only four items (including weapons) can actually be carried into a dungeon. This means that once you leave a dungeon, most of your items are only good for a sale in town. With a four item limit, chances are that you won't be bringing most of your goods back into the dungeon.
The characters also present a unique problem. While there are actually six players to control throughout the game, only one can be controlled at a time. What's the point of having all these characters if they can't be together? One hero adventures into the dungeon while the others just kick it and get drunk in town? The way this is set up totally confuses me.
Overall, Time Stalkers is a fair RPG. The fact that it came from Sega, though, makes it a little disappointing. Oh well, at least there's the time killing mini games...