It's pretty obvious that "Nostalgia" has been an anticipated title of mine for some time now. First released in Japan last year, Tecmo seemed uninterested in localizing the title for North America, but thankfully Ignition came in to pick it up for release. "Nostalgia" packs a lot of appeal for fans of titles such as "Skies of Arcadia" and it seems that the developers at RED entertainment were big fans as well. In the end, though, the real question is, does the game live up to those classic RPG games that came before it?
The actual programming and level design of the title was handled by Matrix, the same development team responsible for "Final Fantasy III," "Final Fantasy IV," and "Avalon Code" on the Nintendo DS. If you are familiar with those titles then you know that Matrix is responsible for pushing the 3D capabilities on the hardware. "Nostalgia" is a brand new IP, and doesn't come from the largest of publishers. As such it does not have the same budget as either "Final Fantasy" title from them. It still looks and runs smooth for a fully-3D Nintendo DS title, but don't expect any graphical leaps over their previous games. The setting is Earth in the 1920's judging by the automobiles around town. Each town and most of the dungeon settings are based on a real world location, or at least some approximation of it. While this gives the title a unique flair, it has to be said that the areas can be a little underwhelming. Large cities such as London and New York are reduced to a small series of square buildings. Being entirely 3D inherently limits the graphical capabilities of the title, which in effect ends up seriously down-scaling the scope of the areas. This is made all the more curious by the games camera which is always fixed on an overhead perspective. With absolutely no control over the camera in towns or dungeons, it begs the question as to why Matrix decided to stick completely to 3D. The end result is a title that never lives up to its concept artwork, or even the real thing. Which is a shame, since the title could have really burst to life graphically on another console. Still, the game manages to run smooth throughout the course of the adventure and remains mostly free of any graphical-based glitches or slowdown.
The music of the title is composed by the anonymously titled "T's Music". The title screen and opening cinematic are well composed, and each city has a unique flavor and music style to accompany it. Other than that though, the soundtrack never really seems to take off. It's not that the music is bad, it is far from it. It just never seems to reach the lofty heights of most classic RPG titles. Naturally, the title is entirely MIDI-based, and don't expect any special vocal tracks either. In fact, the title is completely without any voiceovers whatsoever. This never seems to be a problem, and in fact it you probably will never notice it. The game does let you individually raise or lower both the background music and sound effects at any time should you wish to do so.
"Nostalgia" is a traditional turn-based RPG. However, the actual combat system seems to be a derived from multiple titles. You only control four characters in battle, and it keeps the same group of adventurers through the entire game. Each character has a specific type of weapon and class. Think of the way "Final Fantasy IX" was structured and you will be on the right track. Swords always go to Eddie, guns always go to Pad, etc. The flow of combat is tracked on the bottom screen, which actually has an order bar. This shows whose turn is coming up for the next six moves. This part of the battle system is reminiscent of the PS2 hit, "Final Fantasy X." Also like "Final Fantasy X" is the grid system of special moves. At the end of each battle you accumulate experience points, gold, and also special points. The special points are shared amongst the entire group, but each character has their own specific grid. You use the special points to upgrade your special moves, and after leveling up a move enough, it will unlock the move next to it. The grid acts like a flow chart, in that arrows will indicate which box will be unlocked next to each special move. You can also sometimes unlock special moves by leveling up the character themselves. Advantages to leveling up special moves are that they cost less magic points to use in battle and also boost their effect. Battles themselves are also ranked from "S" being the best to "C" being the worst. Defeating an enemy while taking little or no damage is generally how the rank is determined. Earning a better ranking means you will get bonus experience and special points, as well as extra gold. All these components add strategy to the otherwise simple menu-based combat. They game does a good job of clearly spreading everything out as well, so you're never lost or confused as to how it all works together. Besides the combat on foot, there are also airship battles. These are mixed up a bit from regular combat. In the air, each character mans a particular area of the ship. This also means that equipment and weapons need to be purchased separately for the airship. In the air, you have three different points of attack. Enemies can be directly in front of you, or to the left and right sides. If more then one enemy is facing you in a single direction you can make use of special attacks to attack all of them in a given direction. Each character also has a separate area of the grid for upgrading ship-specific special moves as well. Airship battles are only instigated on the world map area, so you won't be fighting in them as much as ground based combat. Your airship does not level up in the game at all. This requires you to manually upgrade it by purchasing better armor and weapons, however only the major cities of the world offer airship parts, which can lead to some lopsided battles in the air. "Nostalgia" uses the random battle effect for starting battles. Personally, I have never been much of a fan of random battles, and while "Nostalgia" never reaches the encounter rates of "Skies of Arcadia" on the Dreamcast, there are some moments where it will test your patience. Another test of your patience will be the enemies encountered in the highest altitude. Even with your airship fully upgraded, the enemies encountered have a ridiculous amount of HP and take way too long to kill. You won't be in any danger of losing, but you will be waiting around for a long time to finish them off.
The largest strength of "Nostalgia" is its setting and characters. Even with the nitpicks listed, you won't mind too much because the game maintains a charm throughout the adventure. Almost all the characters are instantly likable, and each features their own side story which helps to enrich the main plot line. The villains are tad undercooked, save for one, but the main villain does have a decent line or two thrown in. As noted before, the game's setting is near or just after the turn of the century, most of the globe has been crossed but many significant discoveries were still being made around the time period. "Nostalgia" capitalizes on these by sending you to some well known locations of the world from myth and legend. These include the Pyramids, the mines of Africa, a temple in Tibet, as well as El Dorado and the Tower of Babel. "Nostalgia" also takes cues from adventure films such as "Indiana Jones" and "Around the World in 80 Days" as well as referencing many other titles through NPC interaction and other homages. The game does a interesting job of combining both the myths and religions of the world together into a sort of giant melting pot. You will walk on Noah's ark, as well as battle Greek monsters in a Pantheon, and then battle against Norse gods in the skies. The game also has a very clever way of explaining how monsters came to suddenly exist in the world, as well as turning most animals deadly. One of the most pleasant surprises of "Nostalgia" turns out to be the "World Treasures" in the game. While on the world map, you may run across discoveries in the world, in pretty much the exact same way that "Skies of Arcadia" did with its own discoveries. What sets these apart is that you learn about these through rumors across the many cities told by the townsfolk. The best part about the world treasures is the fact they are based on real world discoveries. This gives "Nostalgia" an advantage that goes beyond just being a fun video game. It acts as a tool to help you learn about important discoveries in our own world history. Many of these discoveries are fascinating to learn about and will likely cause you to do at least a little research into them outside of the game.
Another area in which "Nostalgia" seems to draw direct inspiration from "Skies of Arcadia" is with the Adventurers Guild. Similar to the Sailors Guild, the Adventurers Guild acts as a mission hub, giving you various extra tasks to complete throughout the game. What these missions tend to do is disguise and remove the grinding parts of an RPG. Missions generally take place in the last dungeon you were in, and completing missions adds a bonus reward of lots of gold. Instead of mindlessly wandering around, the game offers extra sidestory quests which give you a good reason to go back to a previous area and earn a few extra levels along the way. Another really nice surprise found in the game is the vast epilogue. Even after completing the main storyline, there are plenty more dungeons and stories found within the game. This helps give the game world a bigger feel, adding more depth to it beyond all the places you travel to already. While the main storyline is certainly not the longest RPG you will find, the game does a great job of keeping you coming back for more afterward.
"Nostalgia" may not win any awards for originality, but instead of being different it's focused on being good. The battle system seems to take inspiration from some of the better implemented efforts, despite sticking to random encounters. The story may not be too complicated but it does a nice job of staying interesting and throwing a good twist in every now and then. If you want a game that will remind you of some of the very best of adventure stories in classic literature, as well as films and even other video games, then this is a title for you. It is shorter and more accessible than titles such as "Grandia" and "Skies of Arcadia" while still retaining what made those games so great. It also keeps you coming back for more after the credits have rolled, and will genuinely teach you about something new and exciting in the real world. Because of this, "Nostalgia" manages to fly above both its faults and disappointments, and makes for one of the most charming and likeable RPG games this year.