Version played – PlayStation 4
There’s no shortage of indie titles available nowadays that capitalize on the nostalgia that those of us in our late twenties and thirties undergo the moment we gaze upon a pixelated sprite running across a screen. For the most part, many of these titles succeed in proving that there are indeed tried and true mechanics at play in those old titles that hold up surprisingly well. And then there are titles that cling to the past a bit too tightly for their own good, archaic mechanics and aspects be damned. And finally, there are titles like Pier Solar and the Great Architects: games that straddle the line between honest fun and formulaic tedium.
Pier Solar is a 16-bit RPG that was originally released back in 2010 for the Sega Genesis (yes, you read that right). The folks over at WaterMelon bequeathed unto the world a game that harkened back to a time when the narrative of a video game was comprised of lengthy, text-driven exchanges and still images of crude, anime-inspired character design. Fast-forward several years, and modern consoles are reaping the rewards of a bonafide HD version of the game, complete with updated graphics, music, and features that assist in pulling Pier Solar out of the 90s and into 2014 with as little fuss as possible.
Taking center stage in this tale is a boy named Hoston, who begins the game watching over his terminally ill father, and must journey to a forbidden cave with his friends in search of the one herb that has the cure for what ails him. What ensues after said herb quest, is a 20-30 hour journey that does little to deviate from already established 90’s JRPG clichés, but I felt an undeniable charm in this approach. WaterMelon clearly had no intention of breaking the mold where the mold didn’t need breaking, as this is in every sense of the word an homage to a time long past. You see so little of these rather innocent stories these days in a market of RPGs with dire, ominous tones and free-roaming exploration. It was nice to sit down again with a nice, simple game with a quaint premise to get lost in.
As previously mentioned, Pier Solar features a 16-bit aesthetic that’s interwoven with high-resolution backdrops that replace the original maps from the genesis version. Sprites look great on these updated maps, and I never found myself feeling like the two visual styles never meshed well. For those that do however, or just want the original Pier Solar experience, WaterMelon has integrated an option to toggle between the new high-definition visuals and the 16-bit original graphics at will.
Also available, is an option to choose between the game’s beautiful chip-tune soundtrack or the remastered audio. I came to appreciate the 16-bit look a bit more myself, but that was partially due to the fact that many of the maps in Pier Solar are a bit convoluted in nature, and the original sprite-based design helped me to differentiate between objects in the environment and traversable paths. I found myself many times in the quest having to make the switch, because it became increasingly frustrating to see what appeared to be a clear path, and having to backtrack because my characters could not fit apparently.
Further criticisms that I have of the map design in Pier Solar stem from the fact that towns are arguably more labyrinthine than the dungeons themselves. In all of the classic masterpieces that graced our SNES’ and Sega Genesis’ years ago, towns were laid out in a very efficient manner. Seeking out the weapon shop or inn was quick and painless, and you were back to questing in no time flat. Pier Solar goes so far as to make you wander around aimlessly getting the lay of the land where this should be a non-issue. I feel that the issue stems from the fact that many of the towns feel needlessly large, with too much open space scattered around. A more conservative approach might have served Pier Solar well in this department.
Combat in Pier Solar is handled with traditional turn-based battles. The one noticeable change however, lies in the “gather” mechanic: a means of accumulating power for several turns, and then using it to unleash stronger, more devastating attacks. Aside from that, battles play out by the books, and can begin to feel a bit tedious over time, as the random encounter rate in Pier Solar might feel a bit high to some. Adding insult to injury, is the fact that any restorative magic needed outside of battle, requires a short animation to cast, rather than a simple, menu-based reflection of its effects. Several hours into the game, I began to loathe myself for not bringing enough healing items along in my quests, as using those take up far less time than casting spells.
Overall, Pier Solar isn’t a bad game by any means. We older gamers might feel a deeper appreciation for it, but I’d like to believe that we’re able to take our rose-tinted glasses off long enough to see that not everything’s as sunny as we might want it to be with this one.