It’s been a long, long, long time since Square-Enix was involved in a jRPG that I didn’t hate. In fact, since Squaresoft and Enix merged in 2003, neither of the strengths of either have shown through like they used to; Squaresoft was responsible for Final Fantasy games so great that the series remains milk-able to this day, while Enix was responsible for the amazing Actraiser and a handful of other decent games (Illusion of Gaia and many of their other games weren’t exactly masterpieces). What are they reduced to now, though? Re-releasing Final Fantasy 7 with DRM? Remaking my beloved Lufia 2 and changing a bunch of things? No—for this hideous, ball-less Frankenstein of a company that managed to mix Square’s peanut butter and Enix’s chocolate and come up with manure instead of a peanut butter cup, I’ll show no mercy. Unfortunately for my burning thirst for vengeance, Chaos Rings is actually surprisingly good. Especially for an iOS game.
That’s to say that games for the iPhone/iPad/iTouch/iCaramba/iWhatever are totally hit-and-miss. Every so often you get something with clumsy controls and lag that’s hailed as a miracle simply because people who game primarily on phones and tablets lack the experience to know that better games/graphics/control schemes exist, but then a game like Chaos Rings comes along and blows you away. This may not be an RPG that has quite as much of an impact on you as Chrono Trigger is still capable of having, but it’s certainly the closest anyone’s come in a long, long time.
I’m going to go ahead and attribute a large part of this success to the iOS part of the equation; Square-Enix has proven that they can’t resist forcing developers to add in shiny new technology, throwing meaningless prettiness into anything they’re involved in whenever possible to the detriment of memorable, worthwhile content. It seems likely that the limitations that the game had to work within meant avoiding lengthy cutscenes and other things that Squeenix-published games seem to trip over constantly these days. Even better, in their place are a number of interesting, diverse characters whose stories overlap in a meaningful way. Without giving too much away, you play as one of four male/female pairs who wake up to find themselves in an arena where they’re forced to fight and kill one another. Each pair you play as takes place in a parallel universe where everyone’s personalities, motivations, and relationships are slightly different (like versions of the same people who made slightly different choices), so each group of characters plays a different role in each story.
The first two pairs you play as are fairly vanilla, introducing you to the story and how everything works. They’re not bad at all and serve this purpose quite well, but once you’re done with them you’ll be hoping for something a bit more exotic. Fortunately, the latter two pairs you’re able to play as (which are locked until you finish the first two) are by far the best and most interesting story-wise. Additionally, there are a number of “false” endings; it’s only by loading your save after the ending (don’t worry—your items and stats remain intact) that you’re given another option that allows you to delve even deeper into the story.
Combat is a simplified version of the typical turn-based jRPG. There are no action meters or anything: it’s as simple as “you go, I go,” with the order determined by your speed. An interesting addition to this is the solo/pair option, which determines whether your two characters attack together or separately. Attacking together has its benefits (lower cost for using “gene commands,” which are basically spells) and drawbacks (both characters will take damage if attacked), which should in theory force you to combine the two creatively in order to get by. For how interesting the system is, however, I found controlling characters solo nearly useless; except for a few rare cases where I went against a boss without leveling up and couldn’t afford to allow both my characters to be hit, the pair option proved to be vastly superior. The health of your characters is automatically replenished after every fight, so you’re bound to use pair commands to get through combat faster and shrug off the increased damage you take because of it.
There’s also an interesting rock/paper/scissors magic (gene commands… whatever) triangle. I’m feeling a bit lazy, so just shut up and feast your eyes on this:
Going the opposite direction shows you which are strong against which. Now, these don’t only have an effect in the form of increased/reduced damage, but it also “attaches” the element to the character (or characters, if you’re using the pair command). Say an enemy uses a fire-element attack, for example. Blaze would be attached to the enemy character, at which point it’d be smart to have both of your characters use an aqua-based attack. If you were to do so, your normal attacks would then do more damage, as well (provided your enemy doesn’t use a gale-element attack to try to get the upper hand, but this only happens rarely). You’d think that this makes combat too easy. Well… yes and no. If you level up enough, you can easily breeze through any and every combat situation in the entire game. If you don’t grind at all (though it’s worth mentioning that you level up fast enough that grinding is fast and painless), your encounters are bound to be quite a bit more difficult. I suppose that allows for both those who appreciate a challenge and those who just want to cruise through the story to enjoy the game.
Now, the moment I’ve been waiting for: the listing of the flaws. There’s only one I can think of, though it’s big and frustrating. Okay, more like an irritation that just got under my skin. Some people won’t mind it at all. The problem revolves around the puzzle rooms; throughout the game you’re forced to go through rooms with puzzles in them. These range from mind-numbingly easy to Lufia 2-esque (which is awesome). What isn’t awesome is that the touch controls allow you to move your character by touching the screen and moving your finger, creating a joystick anywhere. What happens is that certain puzzles require touching blocks, so you can accidentally (and frequently) move blocks and have to start over when you’re just trying to move around. Seriously. So much rage. I mean, restarting the room is no big deal, and they’re single-room puzzles so starting from the beginning isn’t that big of a deal, but this happened to me three times in a row once. Ugh.
Here’s what you should do: