This Monarch is No Butterfly

If Henry VIII ever actually said that “It’s good to be king,” he obviously didn’t have to deal with the things the protagonist of Izar (Out Now, $2.99) does! Fresh off his dangerous exploits in a faraway land, he docks at his fortified seaside bachelor pad only to find it lying in ruins, the surrounding area packed with unfriendly elves, ogres, and even giant squid things. Confronted with such a mess, he does what’s expected of any feudal regent worth his snuff: hire a small army of willing mercenaries and head out for some lawn mowing, medieval style. While he’s out leveling those responsible for trashing his realm, he’ll also be looting the raw materials he needs to reconstruct his castle.

Those who have already played SVP’s King’s Hero will know exactly what to expect here. For those who haven’t, Izar serves up a feather-light tale that provides an excuse to slay hundreds of foes in small Turn-Based Strategy skirmishes as the player completes a linear series of quests. Grabbing lumber, gold, iron, and other resources during the journey allows the player to head back to home base and upgrade it. Rather than stand on its own as a full-fledged sim feature, castle upgrading feeds directly back into the battle system by allowing the protagonist’s vassals to learn more advanced skills.

As such, the player spends the greater portion of Izar exploring environments connected via world map and tapping upon small isometric battlefields once the horse-riding protagonist runs into enemies. While the knightly lord’s equipment and stats affect the number of troops he may command, he does not enter battle himself; rather, the player directs a mercenary force of short range, long range, and monster attackers in his stead. While there isn’t much room to maneuver on Izar‘s limited battlefields, movement nevertheless plays a central role. A unit may either move or attack in any given round, so the dominant strategy is usually to pummel approaching enemies with archers as they make their way over to the player’s force, or to take out enemy archers first. The player may intervene with a spell once per turn, and these run the expected gamut of effects, from inflicting damage to rendering enemies temporarily immobile. By lying in wait for enemies to approach, the player’s short range units get a free whack at each enemy that has spent its previous turn closing in.

In a bit of a twist, unit endurance is measured not in the RPG genre’s traditional HP but in number of sub-units; apparently each character onscreen is a giant stand-in for an entire squad, its maximum size depending on the lord’s charisma rating. This is a rather confusing way of finding a middle ground between the large scale battles TBS fans would prefer and the party system RPG fans are used to. In the end, the number of sub-units attached to each character in battle ends up being a less exact proxy for HP anyway. It’s also too bad that the player has no control over which categories of troops to bring into battle — there’s no packing the playing field with only archers or knights, for example. On the plus side, as the player ventures around completing objectives he or she can view enemy composition before rushing into battle.

As the lord’s mercenary force gets whittled down, the player will want to make regular trips back to his castle and spend some acquired gold replenishing it. In what is easily the most ingenious RPG design decision this year, Izar remembers the player’s last coordinates in each environment so he or she can hop around the world map without losing a single hoofbeat. Talk about convenience! The player will spend non-cash resources upgrading the lord’s castle as a pre-requisite for spending more non-cash resources researching new spells and passive skills that can be brought into battle. As quest objectives are satisfied, new types of soldiers become available for hire — though force composition always retains the basic short range/long range/monster scheme.

Lacking a meaty narrative to glue everything together, and with all its systems riding on quest completion, Izar absolutely screams for non-linearity — and players looking for something fresh will quickly tire of the game once they realize it simply isn’t happening. When it comes to soldier upgrades, spell crafting, and new areas to explore, the player doesn’t experience the thrill of strategic choice; there is only “forward.” Giant well-like holes leading to an underworld in each location offer some hope of optional dungeons early on, but these are barred off long enough that most will lose interest before the game does anything interesting with them. As such, Izar ends up feeling like an ill-formed marriage of Western RPG and JRPG that lacks the strengths of each.

At least Izar is solidly built. I have no complaints with its user interface, though the manual save slots that supplement its autosave could stand to be a little bigger on its save management menu. I’ve always been a fan of tap-and-go in 2D RPGs, and it’s used beautifully here; sometimes a treasure box or resource will be in visual range but the path to it unclear, yet the player’s horse-mounted avatar will dutifully find his way to it if so instructed. A font color system that ranks weapons and armor by quality helps the player determine which pieces of loot to keep handy and which to sell off in the feudal lord’s equipment menu. On the other hand, the game could use an interface tutorial for those not already well-schooled by experience with King’s Hero. New players are bound to spend a fretful half hour figuring out what does what in the game’s various menus, although this may end up being part of the fun for RPG veterans.

Izar fares better aesthetically than screenshots suggest. Sprites are a bit on the grainy side but sufficiently animated, and environments are mapped with plenty of attention to detail. Players will probably want to bring their own medieval themes in for Izar though — its single minimalistic environment theme wears thin immediately, and what promises to be a soaring battle track mischievously fades to silence after a few seconds.

iFanzine Verdict: While it scores major points for user convenience and packs a journey lengthy enough to satisfy fans of SVP’s previous King’s Hero, Izar makes the mistake of pulling gameplay systems from many genres without capitalizing on them. It’s a JRPG lacking a strong plot; a linear Western RPG; a sim game without in-depth city management; and a Turn-Based Strategy game with closed-in battlefields and only limited class micromanagement.

Those starving for an RPG, period, would do well to take the Lite version of King’s Hero for a whirl, as this should set the player’s expectations appropriately.

[xrr rating=3/5]