Tales of Illyria: Destinies Review
Not too long after putting up my screenshots for this game, I received an email from developer Little Killerz that clarified why they chose to go the route they did with the third game. This was surprising, of course—I only write up a little blurb about each game as a teaser for the upcoming review, and even then only because the added text helps the screenshots to rank higher in search results and drive traffic to this site. As you’d probably expect, there were some interesting tidbits in this email, such as the fact that Destinies has already made as much money as the second game has to date. Apparently players weren’t too keen on playing as a fixed dark-skinned female character and the reception to the second game was therefore less-than-stellar, which is incredibly depressing because I really think the second game is my favorite in the series. None of the information in the email affects this review, of course, and the developer having understandable reasons for moving toward in-app purchases doesn’t change the fact that I loathe IAPs with a fanatical passion, but it was nevertheless nice to have that all-too-rare added perspective.
First, let me make something perfectly clear
I may criticize the IAPs and some miscellaneous elements of the game here, but I’m still recommending Destinies. I’m doing so not because I’m a fan of the series—though I am—or because I got an email full of explanations, but because the gameplay is virtually identical to earlier games and there are enough interesting and unique events to be worth the price (and as I mentioned when posting the screenshots, the game is apparently going to go free at some point in the future, which will reduce the risk of trying the game to zero). That doesn’t change the fact that it’s my least favorite entry thus far, but it kept me entertained for something like a week regardless.
Let’s talk about character creation and stories
One of the reasons I typically prefer games with fixed characters, or at least custom characters with a fixed back story like in KOTOR and many of the classic isometric games, is that the story doesn’t have to contort to accommodate all of the possible characters you could be, allowing the writers to focus on who the main character is. Even popular games such as Dragon Age: Origins include various back stories only to shoehorn you into the same basic plot, and it’s simply impractical to expect otherwise.
Destinies has gone in a different direction for better or worse, giving you the ability to create a character from one of the world’s six kingdoms and having an entirely different story for each. I played through two of these to completion, starting with a character born in Vasena. Apparently this is the hardest origin to play through, and I can attest to its story quests being a fairly significant spike in difficulty compared to the random events that precede them, though my experience with the previous two games helped me get through without many problems. Two things stood out once I had finished the story. First, it was a surprisingly short experience. I suppose it only makes sense that writing six different main stories would necessitate a shorter length for each, but this was to the detriment of the game since it didn’t allow much time to become familiar with the characters. That lack of familiarity ties into the second thing that stood out, that being that the reasons for the things that happen in the story were never made clear. I can’t get into too much detail without spoiling the Vasena story outright, but suffice it to say that the villain’s abilities (particularly those regarding longevity) aren’t adequately explained, nor do they make much sense when compared to your own character’s experiences.
I wasn’t about to play through a single origin story and judge the entire game based on that, however, so I set aside my do-gooder Vasena playthrough and began a new game. In this new game, I chose the Tortha origin and decided to play as an absolute monster; not only was it unexpectedly amusing to play through the game as a titan of immorality, but I found the Tortha story to be far more coherent and enjoyable as a whole. This wasn’t the case at first, mind you—for the longest time, I couldn’t figure out how to progress the story at all, only to discover that I needed to camp for things to kick into action. Apparently my unexpected combat prowess and reliance on inns was the culprit, and as soon as I had allowed enemies to damage me enough to be able to camp throughout the night, things began to kick into full gear. Again, I’m not going to spoil the plot, but I will say that it’s a far more straightforward revenge-type story that reminded me a bit of the first game. Even better than the main story, however, was discovering a character who came out of nowhere to join my party because I was so evil. Not only did this unexpected addition have the best dialogue in the game (some of which I’ve included in the screenshots at the end of this review), but she also had the best companion quest where she got to show off her evil nature. That was the point where I knew that I had to give Destinies a positive review.
Not all companions are created equal
Previous games stuck you with the same group of adventurers no matter what, but Destinies includes more party members than you can actually use, so you sometimes have to choose between them. After maxing out my level on both my Vasena and Tortha playthroughs, however, only a handful of characters actually had companion quests (which reveal more about them, their history, etcetera) trigger, and these varied in quality. For an assassin who joined, all she wanted was to visit her childhood home, which proved to be uneventful. On the other hand, Busarba, a talking spirit/dog, required traveling to a specific place and fighting a bunch of demons. I didn’t learn quite as much about him and his reasons for joining me as I had expected, but it was still an interesting detour. As for Hazura, the evil character who joined out of nowhere while I was camping one night, I’ve already mentioned that I enjoyed her quest most of all. Strangely, these three are the only quests that actually triggered, and I can’t tell if the other characters don’t have quests of their own [update: I’ve been told that they all do] or if they simply haven’t triggered in either of my playthroughs for whatever reason.
If I had any criticism, it’d be that the game is filled with filler dialogues where a character will point something out and another will respond. These aren’t based on the actual characters in your party, but seem to be reliant on which character is in which spot. This means that if you recruit Busarba first, he’ll sometimes point something out using the exact same words another party member would use if you had recruited them first instead. Unfortunately, this also means that these occasional scenes use a more neutral tone and don’t really reflect anything unique about the characters themselves, and while there are periodic scenes where characters have individual reactions to things (like the assassin staring at a pile of bodies, for example), I found myself wanting to get to know many of the characters more than I was ever allowed to.
The quests are hit-and-miss
Unlike the previous games which gave you missions in a fairly linear manner, Destinies relies a great deal on semi-randomized jobs that you can be hired to perform on behalf of the Fighters Guild and Mages Guild. These are the only guilds available in the base game without purchasing expansions, and their quests can vary from entertaining to tedious. There are several different types of quests (the email I received claimed 60, which would suggest that each guild has 30 each), enough to last you for a single playthrough without too much overlap, and these can range from teaching NPCs a certain skill to slaying a monster. These jobs not only reward you with much-needed money, but also slightly better your reputation with whichever kingdom you perform them in.
There are also quests you can perform for each kingdom, but these are only available when you’re in good standing with said kingdom, which means performing lots of jobs for the two guilds and trying to avoid robbing/killing random people in the area. These kingdom jobs pay well and eventually open up the ability to purchase an estate (which is basically a place you can store your goods and rest for free), but they come with a fairly significant downside: it seems that each kingdom’s goal is to undermine another kingdom, so helping one puts you in poor standing with another. This means that you have to grind jobs in the area you just worked against in order to get back into good standing with them so that you can do their kingdom jobs, and failing to do so will result in the guards attacking you on sight, leading to even worse relations with that kingdom. While there’s nothing wrong with this in theory, you ruin your reputation with that other kingdom even if you performed the task assigned to you surreptitiously and no one was aware of your presence or purpose. Since one of the major advantages of having an estate is being able to use a portal to travel to your other estates, you’re forced to do a number of unnecessary jobs that take forever, by which point you’ve probably hit the level cap and finished the story. I’m sure that may be helpful for those who purchase extra content, but I didn’t find it practical in either of my two playthroughs to do kingdom jobs for more than one kingdom since gold and fast travel is only a problem early on. In fact, jobs in general become virtually meaningless the closer to the end you get, as you’re quickly able to accrue large amounts of gold through random events. Their fairly randomized nature, then, eventually renders them much like the randomized quests in Skyrim, which is to say pretty much worthless to the game as a whole. I continued to do jobs mostly to feel like I had a reason to continue playing in the hopes that I’d stumble onto something or someone as great and unexpected as Hazura again, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was no purpose behind anything I was doing and eventually moved on.
Let’s talk about gold, skills, and in-app purchases
Gold has always been hard to come by in the beginning of Tales of Illyria games, and Destinies is no different in that regard. As always, you’re trying to save up for the best horse and the best saddle so that you can travel quickly between places, but you’re also balancing that with your need to train skills like “hunting” and “discernment” so that you can pass various skill checks in the game’s many events and get the most advantageous outcome. None of this is unusual, nor is quickly running out of money in the pursuit of all of these things. What was unusual was the first option offered to me the second I tried to purchase something I didn’t have enough gold for: “buy 1000 gold for $0.99,” it said, and this wasn’t a one-off reminder that you can purchase gold. No, this option will appear every time you try to purchase something you don’t have enough money for, and there doesn’t seem to be any way to turn it off. At a certain point I would have paid just to get rid of that message.
The constant reminder that you can buy gold is an annoyance, but it’s nothing compared to way two skills have been crippled by content that seems to only be available in in-app purchases; your “sneak” and “scout” skills are useful for avoiding random battles and avoiding enemies striking first, and yet there’s no way to raise these skills outside of rare random events with trainers because of the seeming absence of the Thieves Guild in the base game. Putting together all of the hours I played the game over my two playthroughs, I probably found enough of these trainers to max out one of my characters if I combined the number of encounters I received for each. As it stands, I frequently find both characters failing stealth and scout skill checks, and the prospect of trudging around the map for another ten to twenty hours hoping to run into these trainers so that my otherwise godlike characters don’t get preemptively attacked by noticeably weaker enemies is all kinds of unreasonable. Despite the developer’s website claiming that nothing was removed to later be sold as an in-app purchase, I can’t help but be suspicious given the fact that earlier games included the Thieves Guild and let you raise your sneak and scout skills there.
It’s worth noting that I played through the base game without purchasing any of the in-app purchase stuff, so I can confirm that the game is absolutely playable without it, but I still found myself wanting to try out some of the purchasable quest chains. However, each time my finger hovered over the “buy” button, I remembered that message about buying gold that pops up whenever you try to buy something you don’t have the in-game gold for, and this instantly dissuaded me. Something I’d like to see, then, is a purchase that includes all of the quest/story stuff while ignoring all of the “cheat” content (like the absurdly powerful armor, the amulet/rings that give you a +3 to stats whereas the best you can buy in-game is a +1 to your stats, and the incredibly overpowered bombs) and turning off that prompt about buying gold. Basically, a purchase for those of us who preferred the previous two games that would allow Destinies to be more like them, at least in terms of microtransactions. There’s already a “mega bundle” that includes almost everything and a “quest bundle” that’s close to what I’m looking for, but neither turn off the prompt to buy gold and both include some cheat-y or otherwise overpowered equipment that no doubt changes the balance of the game toward the beginning. Turning off that prompt would be a godsend for those of us who would sooner remove our eyes with a melon baller than use real money to buy fake money.
Graphics, music, and some closing thoughts
While I may be critical of many of the changes the third game has made, the new art and music aren’t one of those things. Both seem to get better with every iteration, and since a great deal of both is reused between games, you don’t even need to revisit earlier games to get a feeling for how far both have come. Beyond that, both still contribute a great deal to the unique atmosphere of the game world, and the games would truly be far less enjoyable without them.
Keeping in mind the fact that I play games weeks ahead of when I review them, the things I remember most about Destinies tend to all be positive: murdering an obnoxious jester, randomly finding a kitty and keeping her in my inventory, and even descending into the pits of hell from an innocuous-looking cave opening to fight a powerful demon (though when I did this in my evil playthrough, said demon upgraded my stats, instead). I’ll hate IAPs forever and always, but there are rare mobile games like Hitman Go and Tales of Illyria: Destinies that are entirely playable without them, and while I would have personally preferred the series to move more toward the branching linear paths of the second game, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy a fair amount of this game despite the occasional prompts to purchase gold and the absence of things like the Thieves Guild.
For someone like me who enjoys more linear, focused games while carrying an intense hatred for IAPs, many the changes made will be seen as a negative. Despite that, I’m aware that there are gamers out there who prefer a more expansive game that can be played without reaching a definite “ending” (Skyrim fans, basically), and those types of gamers will probably get more out of this game than I did. I’d like to think that the changes will bring in a large number of such gamers, only to shepherd them toward the fantastic first two games which will then cause them to repent of their sinful, open-world ways. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking.