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Royal Stone: Hirakareshi Toki no Tobira

Genre: Strategy/RPG Developer: Sega Ent. Publisher: Sega Ent. Players: 1 Released: 1995

If there’s one thing I’m pleasantly discovering about the Game Gear, it’s that there is an incredibly solid library of RPGs to be found there. Sega went out of its way to give the little handheld some great representation in the genre, and there are a slew of titles that stand the test of time. Strategy/RPGs also have some great entries here, and while many may know of the wonderful Shining Force: Sword of Haija and its Japan-only sequels, Shining Force Gaiden and Final Conflict, there’s actually another series on the Game Gear that’s just as good.

Crystal Warriors was the first of two awesome strategy/RPGs to be released in portable Sega form, and just as with Shining Force, its sequel never crossed the Pacific. Western gamers got screwed once more, as Royal Stone improves on its predecessor in many different ways and offers an incredible experience of which too few people are aware. Geez, Sega… that’s two you owe me now!

The story focuses on a female knight named Eva, who is accused of betraying her father and kingdom of Martalia and banished. Now, she’s out to clear her name and stop the true threat to the kingdom. Royal Stone features some great plot development , and over the course of its 16 rounds the entire saga of Eva’s banishment and struggle to redeem herself is explained very well. Team members come and go, and they add their own insights into her reputation and perception among the townsfolk. Towns provide sanctuary and a chance to further the plot, and here players control Eva’s companion Cocotte, sent by the god Sacrelux to watch over and protect her. It’s while using Cototte that players can upgrade weapons and armor and save the game, as well as explore each of the richly-detailed towns.

And that’s a term that I am not using loosely. Royal Stone is simply gorgeous, with a level of color and detail that could easily be mistaken for an early Genesis game. Its visuals are simply among the best on the Game Gear, and it looks leagues better than many of the handheld games of the era. Seriously, whenever a Game Gear vs. Game Boy argument breaks out, Royal Stone is one game that should be tossed into the mix. No one would deny just how great it looks. It’s a true testament to the underused power of Sega’s little machine. The audio is just as good, completing a level of presentation that had me shaking my head on several occasions. Why on Earth didn’t this come out in the West? How the hell is my Game Gear doing this?

It’s really important to emphasize all the great features Royal Stone has, and while some will be quick to point out that it bears more than a passing resemblance to Shining Force, that’s not a bad thing at all. It’s great company to be in, and Royal Stone holds its own in terms of gameplay as well as presentation.  The eclectic cast of characters comes from the typical backgrounds that fans of the Shining series should know, such as knights and healers. The gameplay is also very similar, as is the town/battle/town design. Moreover, just like in Shining Force, should the main character Eva die, the battle automatically ends.

Where the game branches off from its competition is in the way the characters themselves are handled. Certain classes are more effective against specific enemy type than others, so some strategy is involved, but Royal Stone oddly lets players equip any weapon or armor to any character. Knights can use staves and mages can use platemail, but the effectiveness applied is going to vary according to situation. While it may not seem wise to put a wizard in heavy armor, being able to give my healer some extra protection was a welcome change. Players will have to experiment to see which weapons work best for each character, but I basically kept to the same type each was using when he or she joined my team.

Each member of Eva’s team identifies with one of the four elements: wind, water, fire, and earth. This affiliation makes them stronger against certain foes (water vs. fire) and weaker against others (water vs. earth). It’s important to know where to send team members, and Eva has a useful scan spell that will provide data on combatants. They’re otherwise all faceless until engaged, so her magic provides a small window for moving characters to best spots. Additionally, some monsters may be recruited to fight alongside the group, and they too have their element identification. A water-based monster will not move as quickly over land and vice versa, and this adds yet another layer of strategy to the already-strong gameplay. Fans of games like Dark Wizard will recognize this element and how it can affect battles (you haven’t played Dark Wizard? What are you waiting for?). Also, experience is only obtained by defeating enemies, so healers and mages will have to actually deal the killing blow if players want them to level up. The cap is set at level 16, and only select classes can be promoted, and unfortunate departure from the Shining Force formula. Still, most of them get strong enough to keep around, despite not advancing any further or gaining promotion. Moreover, magic-based characters don’t have spell points, so healers can be all over the map (usually in the back) to help keep team members alive. It’s a questionable trade-off though, since all that healing provides no experience.

Royal Stone is rather short, especially when compared to the Shining Force games. Thankfully, its length is tempered by the fact that once a player character dies, he’s lost forever. I learned this fact the hard way, losing half my party on the very first battle. This made the next few rounds a bit more challenging, since I was down two fighters. Once I recovered, however, the game was never too difficult. I did decide to go back and restart so that those characters wouldn’t be lost, and I’m glad I did.

There’s really little else to say about Royal Stone except that anyone with a Game Gear and a taste for strategy/RPGs needs to play it. The original cartridge is in Japanese only, but there’s an excellent FAQ that makes it entirely playable. Anyone with a Game Gear Everdrive should check out the great fan translation done by Aeon Genesis. It finally allows us to understand all the intrigue and drama of this excellent game. In all honesty, titles like Royal Stone make owning a Game Gear a complete joy, and I can’t recommend this one enough. It’s a notable step up from Crystal Warriors and just as good as Shining Force. Try it. Play it. Love it.

SCORE: 9 out of 10

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