Baroque (2008)

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So for my second game review for this site I have chosen…another obscure Wii game, but this one really is one of my favourites despite being near universally panned by critics. Baroque is a game like no other. Horrendously difficult in ways no other game has even conceived, uncompromisingly bleak and hauntingly profound all at once, it still finds time to be a tense, well designed action/horror RPG. It has some issues, not so much with what it tries to achieve but with why it was trying to achieve such things, but I cannot for the life of me fathom why this awkward little gem took such a drubbing in the reviews.

You play as an unnamed mute amnesiac told by an impressively trench-coated angel to go to the bottom of the foreboding Neuro Tower to atone for an unremembered sin from the past. After a very brief opening cinematic which explains none of this, you appear at level 1 in an eerie, silent, red-skied world with no clue as to what to do or where to go. Like everything else in the game, you must figure this out for yourself. Developer Sting and publisher Atlus are notorious for their love of cryptic, horribly difficult games, but even by their standards Baroque throws you in at the deep end. And it doesn’t get any easier.

I’ll get to the gameplay in a minute. Baroque isn’t just difficult in that sense. It does what few other games would attempt by making it an incredible challenge just to figure out the plot of the game. The manual of the game tells of a world-destroying event known as The Blaze, and of survivors escaping into dark mental fantasies or Baroques which eventually consumed them, but that’s just the beginning. Pieces of the surreal, pessimistic plot are scattered around the game in the form of cinematics, conversations and fragments of cryptic, opaque dialogue. Ever so slowly you uncover what is really going on in this dark, twisted world. The bulk of the game takes place within the many floors of the Neuro Tower, where you will meet various characters who will give you obscure hints as to what is going on, often in exchange for certain items you’d have not much reason to give them save sheer experimentation. Example: to unlock a key cinematic with the character Doctor Angelicus, you not only have to have unlocked everything up to that point (and items and people are presented in no particular order), you also have to have not used a single shot from the angelic rifle you are given at the start of each attempt through the tower. The only way you could possibly know that is if on your first attempt you saw Angelicus and heard her warn you not to use the rifle (even then it’s quite a stretch of the imagination). I didn’t, and so was totally non plussed as to why her scene wasn’t triggered. I almost recommend playing with a guide, but I also think figuring everything out for yourself is part of the appeal.

Each time you die you re-appear outside the tower with all items and levels gone save what few items you sent back from the tower via the scattered consciousness orbs. Outside you can pick up more shreds of info from the various twisted mutants who are left there after the world-ending events which preceded the game. Reaching the bottom of the tower leads to the same result: so either way you’re gonna be heading to the bottom of the tower an awful lot of times. Each time you get out the twisted ones will say slightly different things to you depending on who you met in the tower, and their clues will lead you to who you need to go back to on your next run. And so gradually things move along. After specific events the tower will expand, leading to more randomly generated floors of the toughest dungeon crawling you’re ever gonna come across.

It’s not just that the enemies are tough. Don’t get me wrong- a single foe can take you down at any time if you lose your concentration. But every single other mechanic in the game is designed for maximum challenge, so that difficulty is found in places it never would be in other games. Take the HP system. You have two meters; HP and VT (vitality). So long as you have vitality, HP will slowly recover. But VT slowly goes down all the time and when it runs out, HP depletes. Most enemies will take chunks out of your HP but there’s one sneaky bastard who will drain your VT instead. So even wandering around for too long can be fatal as there are no in built healing stations. Recovery items are scattered around the floors or dropped by fallen enemies, but even here there are dangers. Meat items will heal HP but burned meat will also deplete VT, and rotten meat will lower stats. Often there’s no way of telling what kind of meat it is you’re holding until you find a special parasite to identify it or just bite it and hope for the best. Most items can also be unidentifiable in this way, especially in the later floors of the tower. Equip-able items like swords and coats can remain unknown until you put them on, and sometimes they are un- removable once equipped. Boxes contain useful items, but some explode upon opening and others steal items from you. In the world of Baroque, even gearing up for the fight can be fatal.

Combat is Baroque is un-sophisticated but does the job. You have a basic attack, charged attack and can swing the Wii-Mote for a special spin attack. The staggering amount of weapons and items available adds surprising depth to the simple combat system as you combine items, set traps and fuse parasites to yourself to add all sorts of extra effects. The ability to throw any and all objects at enemies is a fun touch and seeing enemies explode or be transformed into healing items when hit by special cursed bones is incredibly satisfying. Accidentally lobbing your sword or your coat at a raving horde of freaks yields less reward.

Environments in the Neuro Tower aren’t very varied but are well designed and seem to get more dilapidated as you go further down. The main background music is likewise a bit repetitive but of excellent quality. The score overall is fantastic- a jarring, sinister mix of techno, metal and choir, and is used to fantastically evocative effect in the various cutscenes. The enemy design quality is similarly high. Enemies in Baroque are humans who have succumbed to their darkest fantasies and have been warped beyond recognition. Their design reflects this- monsters are grotesque parodies of human beings: a circular torso with an eye in the centre and a tiny head balanced on top; a woman’s torso dragging the body of a snail; a pair of young lovers fused together so that their eternally clasped hands become a vertical mouth that tears at you mercilessly. Nothing induces dread like being surrounded by hordes of these monstrosities, which are all capable of eating you for breakfast until you learn how to evade properly. Enemies follow you when you run and some wander through the tower so you are never safe. The dark atmosphere in the tower combines perfectly with the enemies and music to create a truly frightening experience which can go from gloomy exploration to a frantic fight for survival in a second. Forcing your way to the bottom of the tower is enough challenge in itself, but some may find the moral choice to make once you get there (as opposed to a giant raving monster to own) a little underwhelming.

Probably one of the less terrifying people you'll meet in Baroque since he's not trying to tear your face off.
Probably one of the less terrifying people you’ll meet in Baroque since he’s not trying to tear your face off.

There are, naturally, multiple endings, but only one true end. None of them are particularly cheerful, and more than a few make very little sense. You do at least get some feeling of closure. All the voice acting is tremendous- the Archangel and the Absolute god in particular are a joy to listen to, even as they are telling you about the end of the world or being surrounded by pain. Religious imagery abounds in Baroque, as do warnings about giving in to fantasy and craziness, questions about reality and predetermination and sombre tales about the necessity of pain. The solitary ray of light comes from, of all people, the coffin man, whose jovial, foul mouthed demeanour is totally, hilariously at odds with the nightmare world around him.

Baroque is a game only for the hardcore of the hardcore. Difficult not just in its combat but in the way it turns RPG conventions on their heads to create layers of strategy and risk to calculate, Baroque will also alienate a good many people with its impenetrable story and often frustrating method of telling it. Even compared to other Sting titles like Yggdra Union and Knights in the Nightmare (two of the finest handheld RPGs I’ve played, incidentally) this one really does itself no favours by leaving you so totally in the dark. I get that all this was intentional, and I admire them for sticking with it to the absolute extreme, but I also think if Sting had toned down the insane obscurity a little bit they’d have gotten a much warmer reception. This becomes all the more frustrating since almost every other aspect of the game is so good- the sound and design are impeccable, the gameplay is simple but robust and infinitely challenging, the graphics are dated but suitably minimalist and the controls and interface are as smooth as you could hope for. Originally made for the Dreamcast and remade for PS2 and Wii without much improvement in reception, Baroque is either a misunderstood masterpiece or a deranged mess depending on whether you ask me or…anyone else. That’s a slight exaggeration- Baroque has an impressive cult following- but it still annoys me how little attention this game gets. If you’re into the Rougelike subgenre of RPGs or just fancy something a bit different then grab yourself a second-hand copy and give it a try. At the very least it’ll provide you with a unique, menacing post-apocalyptic world and a new frame of reference for the word “difficult” in relation to games. If you give it a chance to unfold then I suspect you will find Baroque to be one of the most frightening, mind-bending and utterly fascinating experiences you’ll ever have on the Wii.

– Review by Paul Ewbank

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