Game Name: バッケンローダー (Wachenröder)
Media: 1 CD-ROM
Publisher(s): SEGA
Developer(s): SEGA
Genre(s): RPG
Release Date: August 6th 1998
Serial Number: GS-9183
Region: JP

Wachenröder ScreenshotOn its surface layer, Wachenröder is a striking game. A dark steampunk setting, a distinctive visual style, and a battle system which is innovative and fun immediately catch the player’s interest. As you dig deeper, however, it becomes apparent that Wachenröder, which hit Japanese stores just three months before the Dreamcast, was horribly rushed. Tragically, in that rush most of the game’s potential was left untapped.

The protagonist, Lucian Taylor, lives in an over-industrialized city afflicted by “heavy water”(acid rain, basically). Due to the contamination of heavy water, his twin sister was born with “frightening light syndrome”, so called because even the least bit of light burns the flesh of those afflicted with it.

Though bedridden for life, his sister is accepting of her condition, but Lucian is embittered and tormented by it. In part to fulfill a childish promise to “be your knight”, Lucian enters a Colosseum-style competition. After killing a few fellow warriors, Lucian goes home, only to learn that his sister died from a massive attack while he was gone, calling for him the whole time. The story picks up four years later, where a stinking drunk Lucian mistakes an outlaw for his sister and attacks the authorities pursuing her.

Wachenröder ScreenshotIt’s a strikingly grim steampunk opening to the story, all the more so because of the presentation. While animated sprites are used in the opening cutscenes, many of the scenes are instead depicted using evocative stills that look like oil paintings. The imagery is startlingly grey and austere, especially for a Japanese RPG.

Unfortunately, this intro is not the least bit representative of the game. The “oil painting” stills never appear again, not even in the ending. Most cutscenes use plain text accompanied only by cheap-looking CG stills. For instance, a scene in a crowded bar is conveyed by a still of an empty bar and the usual portrait-and-text. There are several FMVs, but they only display whatever building your party is headed for. Which begs the question: Why bother using FMV if what you’re showing doesn’t even move?

The story is even less a reflection of the intro. It’s not steampunk at all, and in some cases doesn’t retain steampunk even as window dressing. The plot: Lucian becomes involved with a princess in disguise(yes, really), and the two of them team up with a band of traveling circus performers(yes, really) and the heroic Sword Emperors(yes, really) to save the noble and kindhearted king(yes, really) from the evil high chancellor.(yes, re- Okay, so he’s actually the evil prime minister. But same difference.)

Wachenröder ScreenshotEven if there were significantly more to it than tired cliche, this would be an immensely disappointing story – and there isn’t. But it gets worse. In perhaps the most conspicuous sign of how rushed this game was, several scenes are unfinished. For instance, at one point your party is imprisoned at a forced labor facility. While listening to a conversation between two officers doing an inspection, suddenly, BAM! you’re in a battle with a bunch of guards, with no explanation for how you got free, where you got your weapons, or what happened to the two officers. One such unfinished scene is so appalling that I wrote a fanfic to complete it(shameless plug). If not for the fact that the same jumps in the story occur in the fan translation, I’d have sworn they were errors in my copy of the game.

The gameplay is reasonably simple but effective. There is no town wandering, only tactical battles linked by cutscenes and (oddly) a non-interactive world map. In battle, each character gets 99 AP each turn to spend on movement and actions, much like Sakura Wars: So Long My Love (Wii, PS2). Using a stylish gauge, you can actually control how much power you put behind each attack. The more power a weapon uses, the hotter it gets. If it overheats, the character won’t be able to attack even if he has AP left. Weapons cool between turns, and you can use AP to make them cool a bit faster.

Wachenröder ScreenshotThe real key is positioning, though. If you expend most of your AP on movement, you won’t be able to make a decent attack that turn – and the same applies to enemies. Also, attacking a unit from the side does more damage than from the front, and hitting one in the back does more damage still. But most important of all is elevation; an attack on a unit from below will do only a fraction of the usual damage, while attacking from above results in increased damage.

It’s a good battle system, but as with the story and presentation, it sours after the opening act. Battles use character sprites on 3D battlefields which are loaded with walls and valleys, so visibility is an issue. Shining Force III uses the same setup, but thanks to selectively transparent scenery and a camera with a full 360 degrees of rotation, it’s never difficult to see everything. Wachenröder’s scenery is always solid, and the camera is limited to the four isometric viewpoints. This means that anyone and anything standing between two walls cannot be seen, period. To make this major aggravation even worse, you can’t change viewpoints during the enemy’s turn and there’s no simplified map like in Mystaria and Shining Force III. Just figuring out where party members and enemies are can be a royal pain.

Wachenröder Screenshot

Furthermore, the game is too easy. The AI is below average, almost half the playable characters are conspicuously overpowered, and most bosses go down with just two good hits. A few battles towards the beginning and end offer decent challenge, but it’s not enough to make you feel you’ve had to master the battle system. They’re hardly epic battles, either; not one of the 29 battles has more than 10 enemies, and most can be wrapped up in about 20 minutes.

Despite all these flaws(and more I won’t mention), Wachenröder is reasonably fun, and I’d be surprised to hear of a Tactical RPG fan who doesn’t like it. However, on the Saturn it is buried under a pile of superior Tactical RPGs. Mystaria, Dragon Force, and most especially Shining Force III are all far longer, deeper, and more fully-realized experiences that should at least be tried out before you consider picking up Wachenröder.


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