Uncle W.A.F. Wants You!
The DS, like the PlayStation and PS2 before it, is by no means lacking RPG support. In fact, Nintendo’s Dual Screen is ‘the little console that could’ for traditional JRPG enthusiasts. This is especially true considering current-gen home consoles have relatively barren libraries for lovers of the genre. Fortunately, high quality entries for Nintendo’s portable just keep coming, sating pent up demand.
Sands of Destruction (SoD) is yet another entry for the console that squarely hits the mark. While I won’t go so far as to say it’s a must-buy title, it certainly provides players with a wonderful story, fairly high production values, a fluid battle system, big boss fights, and an engaging character customization mechanic. All these elements combine to make SoD a complete and worthwhile experience on the go, though a few bothersome design bits and the game’s short length hold it back from greatness.
Sands of Destruction tells the tale of a young human named Kyrie. Kyrie grew up in a tiny village with his uncle, managing the family tavern, not hoping for anything more out of life. You see, in this fantasy world, anthropomorphic creatures called Ferals rule. Humans are essentially indentured servants, in the best of cases, and are frequently little more than expendable slaves. Kyrie is a courteous yet ignorant youth that has lived an incredibly insulated life, thanks to the respectful and gracious governance of Ursa Rex – a stately bear that treats humans with dignity despite their lowly status.
Shortly after Kyrie is introduced as the protagonist, he is beset with a grave problem. Summoned to present himself at the governor’s manor, Kyrie is put under arrest for suspicion of being a subversive; an active member, perhaps ringleader, of the World Annihilation Front (W.A.F.): a human resistance group seeking to destroy the Feral-controlled world. Though Kyrie was initially unjustly detained, a latent power within him awakens and lays waste to his village before he is hauled off by the authorities. This lethal power, along with the help and tutelage of the leader of the W.A.F. – a woman named Morte – sets on a path to destroy the world.
Along the way, players will cruise the Sand Sea and take on massive bosses in a quite charming narrative. Some players might feel like their being railroaded a bit too much, however, as Sands of Destruction features no overworld or side quest structure. Essentially, you’ll be making a beeline through this tale. For me, this was perfect, as I’m not one for dawdling and futzing around as an NPC errand-boy. That being said, the lack of padding does make SoD a rather short game when compared to most other JRPGs out there. In fact, the game lasts anywhere from 12-15 hours, depending on how many random battles you participate in.
Yes, the game does pad its length with random battles – perhaps the most annoying feature of traditional JRPGs. The good news is that the random battles aren’t quite as incessant and obtrusive as they are in many older classics. Still, you can’t help but feel they get in the way of progression, doing little more than adding XP to your characters’ growth.
Thankfully, character growth is rewarding. In addition to improved attributes and larger special point (magic) and hit point reservoirs, players are rewarded consistently with ever-better loot and Customization Points (CP). Customization Points are particularly valuable, as they allow you to ramp up the power and accuracy of existing abilities, which will eventually open up new techniques. All of these are classified as either mundane or special skills. Routine attacks are keyed to the X and Y buttons (depending on whether they are Blow or Flurry attacks) for quick access during fights. The more powerful Blood and Life Skills require players to choose from a list of acquired skills. Blood skills do direct damage to enemies or blight them in some way, while Life Skills deal out healing, act as a curative for status effects, or drop boons and boosts on your party.
Using any of these attacks or skills will tap into the selected character’s reserve of battle points (BP). In Sands of Destruction, rather than selecting one attack per turn, you’ll actually get to use as many attacks and skills as you have battle points remaining – the more powerful the attack, the more BP it will use. This lets you pull off more complicated strategies such as healing your party, blighting the opponents, and then steeling yourself for an incoming attack with a defensive stance, all in one turn. Naturally, elemental attacks also prove to be quite important. That’s why you’ll also want to have a fortified inventory of items. Items can be accessed at any time during your turn, but once you use an item, your turn will end. Finally, Special attacks are the most powerful abilities in the game. These are enacted by following onscreen button prompts, which, if done correctly, will unleash your destructive fury on your Feral foes.
Working in concert, your party can really wreak havoc on your enemies; of course, the opposite is also true. Helping to fortify the game’s concentration on teamwork, a player’s characters will learn Quips over time. These catchphrases are said automatically and get a bit annoying, but they do give your party mechanical advantages during a fight. For example, when Morte shouts out “There’s more than enough destruction to go around!” at the beginning of combat, the paty’s morale count will raise.
While the vast majority of battles in SoD are more or less repetitive grinding, fights pass very quickly due to the wonderfully streamlined battle mechanics. Within minutes, anyone will be able to romp their way through the encounters. While this doesn’t make for much of a challenge, it does make you feel like your characters are indeed special. Additionally, fights in SoD are across both screens of the DS, so you’ll want to have a good mix of aerial and ground attacks at your disposal, which does lead to a smidgen more variety. Utilizing both screens also means you’ll be participating in giant boss battles. Graciously, the repetitive random battles are frequently punctuated by mini- and big boss battles, which further highlight the user-friendly battle system, but also require a lot more strategy to get through.
The graphics, for the most part, are good. The characters and enemies are interesting (though baddies are often simply differentiated by color only), and their attack and power animations are fluid. Environments are attractive, but there isn’t entirely very much detail on hand; the pixel art is professional but by no means jaw-dropping. Moving the story along and adding depth is a load of anime-like cutscenes. It’s easy to tell these were all really well drawn initially, but they look really bad on the DS’s top-screen. Mobi Clip video codec was used to bring the cutscenes to the portable, and, as usual, the amount of pixelation makes it difficult to see what’s going on in the cinematics.
Music and sounds in Sands of Destruction fare better than the visuals. The musical score, in particular, is quite good; it does a great job of bringing out the feel of a scene or a fight. The only very minor downside with the music is that, at default levels (which are adjustable in the options menu), they tend to fight with the frequent voice work for center stage. That’s right; Sands of Destruction features an extensive amount of voice work. While none of it did a whole lot for me, I’m sure JRPG enthusiasts will enjoy the quantity as well as the quality of dialogue. After all, this game launched all the way back in September of 2008 in Japan, so they’ve had a lot of time to get the English version down. While the localization still isn’t perfect (see any Mario & Luigi title for Nintendo handhelds), it is certainly much better than the Engrish company mantra plastered across developer ImageEpoch’s main website, “Do Good Work, Do Good Live.”
Certainly Sands of Destruction isn’t one of the top JRPGs on Nintendo DS. However, it is a very competent one that portable RPG enthusiasts should definitely put on their list (or queue). The fast-paced battles, unique customization system, and interesting narrative go a long way toward surmounting, but don’t entirely overcome, the glut of random battles.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.3 Graphics
Character and enemy models as well as animations are good. Environments lack detail and the cutscenes are far too pixelated to enjoy. 4.4 Control
The touch screen has gone out the window, but accessing your attacks and special skills is an utter breeze that makes combat more enjoyable than it should be. 3.6 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The background music is well composed, and the vast amount of voice over work is professional. 3.7
Though the game only lasts a dozen hours or so, and features mostly random battles, the story and the battle system make the experience worthwhile.
3.8 Overall Rating – Good
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.