In my opinion good RPGs are hard to find. There are a lot of them, but barely any are worth the time and effort needed to see them through to the end. Portable RPG's are even scarcer, and with the competition between Nintendo's DS and the Sony PSP, I was more than a little surprised to find a quality RPG on the GameBoy Advance new release rack. Not surprisingly, it comes to us courtesy of Atlus. One of my favorite publishers, Atlus certainly knows their niche market.
A strange little cartridge, Riviera is a mix of elements, and not at all the standard sort of RPG. It starts out like most of its kin do, setting up a quasi-classical end-of-the-world story starring a young hero named Ein, and quickly grouping him with other party members before setting them loose on their quest for planetary salvation. The central plot itself is nothing really to write home about, but something worth noticing about Riviera is that the main quest is almost secondary to the conversations and relationships that occur along the way.
Instead of the usual knights, rogues, or other standard RPG characters, Ein's band is made up of four females; each has proficiency with a certain weapon type, and two lean towards magic. The interplay between these five is really what the game is all about, and there's ample opportunity to use this concept over the game's 40ish hour span.
The concept of conversation is reinforced by the unusual play structure of Riviera. Lacking a real overworld or traditional exploration elements, the game takes place on a series of hand-drawn screens that are pieced together to form very simple dungeons. On nearly every screen, there are at least one or two "hot spots" that can be used to trigger small events between characters or to earn items. Sometimes these events are simply short chats, and other times (quite often, actually) there are minigame events with win or lose branching outcomes. At the end of each of these events, points are awarded and each female character has her level go up or down accordingly. At the end of each major area, I was given a breakdown of how I did.
When I first started playing, I was a little bit confused as to what was going on, but once I started to understand the focus, I warmed up to it quite a bit and appreciated what it had to offer. Much of the game is genuinely humorous, and although the characters don't really explore the steps of the human soul, I have to admit that I found much of the interaction to the fairly entertaining, not to mention the fact that keeping all four girls happy is a bit of a trick in itself. There are even a few moments when it gets a little raunchy to spice things up, and as immature as it may be, I have to say that I always looked forward to the bathing scenes.
Although the uniqueness of the conversations would probably have been enough to win me over, Riviera also takes a unique tack when it comes to items and weapons. Instead of killing enemies to earn experience, levels are gained by using weapons and items. The twist is that although any character can use any item, the results are different from person to person. For example, if Ein attacks with a spell book, he chucks it at an enemy and scores medium damage. If one of the mages attacks with it, the result is a chunky bolt of lightning or a hefty explosion. Certain items heal in the right hands, or invoke flashy attacks in others. Combine this dynamic with the fact that you can only bring four items (total) into each battle, and that each item can only be used a certain amount of times before it breaks, and the result is an engaging battle system that simply does not get old. I can honestly say that over the course of the 50 hours it took me to complete Riviera, I did not run or quit a single battle.
Although the pace of the game is very slow, the number of different backgrounds could have been larger. And despite the very real possibility of some people being put off by the huge amount of text to get through, I strongly feel that Riviera has quite a bit to offer—not only to people still hanging on to their GBAs, but to fans of RPG's in general.