The iPhone is an interesting platform when it comes to gaming. It seems like about 80% of the games available are little more than glorified Flash games, but every once in a while, something fairly awesome surfaces. There have been some pretty decent old school-style RPG’s (Zenonia 2 and The Quest both come to mind), but nothing that seems to be taking full advantage of the system’s real potential. As they have done many times before, SquareEnix comes in and completely raises the bar with the fun, engaging, beautiful Chaos Rings.
The main thing that stands out about Chaos Rings are the absolutely incredible graphics. If I didn’t know better, I would swear I was playing a late PS1-era Squaresoft JRPG. The character, monster, and overall art design reminds me a lot of Final Fantasy 8, with realistic characters, detailed environments, and superb animations. Even after playing some of the graphical “heavy hitters” on the iPhone, I didn’t know the system was capable of rendering some of the beautiful environments found in Chaos Rings. The levels are somewhat JRPG cliché – a jungle level, a lava level, a snow level – but each one provides a level of graphical detail that we haven’t ever seen on the iPhone before. I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed in the presentation, and it certainly opens up the possibility (at least technically) for some of the older Square RPG’s to be ported over (oh please, oh please, oh please…)
All that eye candy does come at a price, however, which manifests itself in two ways. First, there are only 5-6 different areas to see, and only about a dozen different monster types. Each one looks amazing, mind you, but this isn’t like the old Final Fantasy games where you’ll be seeing a wide array of amazing vistas. I assume this was done to keep the install size down, but it’s a little disappointing to see the same area and monsters over and over and over again. The second problem is that you’ll see a significant amount of slowdown when fighting some of the larger enemies or slinging attacks and spells that use a lot of particle effects. It’s nothing that’s a game-killer, mind you, but you certainly will notice. To be fair, I’m on an older 2G iPhone and have heard reports that while things fare a little better on the newer models, it seems that at least some slowdown will be standard across the board.
In terms of gameplay, Chaos Rings is pretty standard turn-based JRPG fare, but adds a couple unique twists. You will always be playing in a team of two, and every action you take gives you the opportunity to choose “Solo” or “Pair”. Paired actions essentially double the effectiveness of whatever attack, Gene (spell), or item you choose, but also means that when the enemy attacks, they’ll be hitting both of you at the same time. Solo actions are less effective, but only allows the enemy to target one character at a time. This system brings a very unique level of strategy to each battle, since you have to decide between a heavy assault, cure, or defense at the expense of possibly taking significant damage to both characters from your opponent. In addition to the Solo/Pair system, there is also an elemental mechanic in play during each battle. Casting Wind, Fire, or Aqua spells will change your aura accordingly. This has a rock-paper-scissors effect on damage to your opponent, depending on which aura they currently posses. Since both you and your opponent can change elemental auras at will, battles can turn into chess matches to try and outthink your opponent in order to do the most damage.
Skills and spells are available through a unique Gene Plate system. The first time you fight an enemy, you gain their Gene Plate, or a template of their DNA. You have the ability to learn any skill a monster uses against you, and can master all the skills and abilities in their DNA. Things start simple with your characters gaining genes from Mouse and Dog, but by the end game, you’ll be grabbing skills from Devils, Dinosaurs, and Elephants…just to name a few. Both of your characters can equip up to three different gene plates, which allow for huge flexibility on skills and spells.
Each dungeon is laid out in a Zelda-style map, with doors and teleporters moving you from area to area. In addition to lots of random encounter combat, you’ll also run into a number of rooms which contain logic puzzles that you must figure out before advancing. These start out fairly easy, but can become quite devious by the end game. I found them to be a nice change of pace, but I can see how they could get rather frustrating as well. As you progress, you are given the chance to take on each dungeon at a higher level (i.e. Level 1-10, Level 11-20, Level 21-30, etc). Bumping up to the next level will mean tougher enemies, but will also lead to more powerful skills and better treasure. You’ll need to weigh risk vs. reward as you progress through the dungeons and your characters become tougher.
The story behind Chaos Rings is a little odd, but it works. A being called The Agent has gathered the best warriors from around the world to compete in a battle arena of sorts, with the promise that the last couple standing will gain immortality and eternal youth. The couples will need to collect a ring from each area, as well as defeating the other participants in scripted head-to-head battles. You initially begin with the option of two different couples, and the story is told specifically from their perspective. When you beat the game, you have the option of beginning again with a new couple, so you can see the story through their eyes, as well as unlocking some specific story bits from the previous groups. So even though Chaos Rings is quite short (it only takes around 8-10 hours), you’ll actually need to play through it multiple times with each new set of characters in order to unlock the entire story. With a total of 6 different pairs to choose from, there is a ton of replay value here. The problem, however, is that you’ll be playing through the same areas and fighting the same monsters each time. This is OK the first couple run-throughs, but once you get to your 5th or 6th time seeing the same low-level enemies, you’ll likely have had enough.
Minor issues aside, Chaos Rings is a fantastic new IP for Squeenix, and easily the best RPG available on the iPhone. The presentation is amazing, the combat system is fun and strategic, and seeing the story unfold through different character’s eyes is a unique way to tell the tale (at least for a while). It’s a little expensive for an iPhone game at $12.99, but if this were a DS or PSP game, I’d still heartily recommend it at a $30 price tag. If you’re like me and you remember fondly the days when getting a new PS1 Squaresoft RPG’s was a treasured event, you’ll want to download Chaos Rings immediately. Anyone looking for a solid, fun RPG will certainly not be disappointed.