When I first loaded up Hironobu Sakaguchi's latest game "Archaic Sealed Heat", I have to admit I was put off by the somewhat "bad" balance between the 2D sprites and 3D graphics. They just don't look quite as impressive as S-E's recent offerings on the DS. However, after giving it a few hours of play, I found there was much more to this Mistwalker SRPG/RPG.
Maps start out in typical SRPG fashion with units spread out individually on the map, ready for you and the enemy's commands. The difference this time is that every unit is part of a team with a leader and for every turn, you're only allowed to issue commands to those members. All commands including "move" and "fight" require Action Points (AP) and so you can issue as many as you want as long as you have enough which kind of works like Hoshigami's RAP system.
In ASH, any unit can initiate a fight but instead of attacking with a single unit, you'll be thrown into an RPG style battle with all the other members of your team. Here you have your standard affair of RPG commands such as arts (skills) but the interesting thing is, the distance between your members and enemies on the map determines how effective these commands are.
For example, if one of your members are many squares away from the enemy he/she is attacking, you'll find their attack will be weaker and more likely to miss. If the unit is very far out then they'll just attempt to throw a stone which as you can guess, is an extremely weak attack but not completely useless. It's usually good enough for finishing off those enemies with only two or three HP left! Enemies don't throw stones but they are also affected by range. So, taking advantage of this, you can keep your units with weaker physical defence such as mages, further out in the battlefield.
Apart from your normal attacks and skills, a single EX Gauge utilised by all your teams also builds up as you receive or deal damage. It works like a limit break, allowing a team leader to unleash their special attack to deal some heavy damage. You can't skip the video sequences but fortunately they're only a few seconds long and, you won't just be sitting watching the attacks go by because you can time taps to increase the overall damage too!
Team battles and the AP system makes the SRPG aspect of ASH a much more interesting faster paced experience. Although most of the objectives mean defeating the boss or all enemies, sometimes you just have to reach the end of the map along with a few other story based objectives which, helps to keep the gameplay feeling fresh.
Unlike in an RPG where you get to travel around the world freely, the story takes place in ASH takes place in chapters. Once you complete a chapter, you're allowed to replay the last two or three maps if you feel the need to level up units but, not once have I needed to spend time grinding. That's not to say the game's easy because the difficulty level feels just about right. Once a leader dies, the whole team is gone and if Aisha (or "Aisya" using Japan's Kunrei romanisation) dies, it's game over. There are also one or two bosses where you'll have to work out their weaknesses or your teams end up getting wiped quickly. Most of the time the characters will say something to give you hints.
Before starting a chapter you can also set up your teams and equipment. As you defeat enemies and earn good grades in maps, you'll earn some "ELE" which allows you to shop and summon new ASH units. There's a nice small mix of seven different units available such as the Itemer who is well, good at using items! But I tend to stick to the White Mage and melee unit combo. What's more, you can also revert summoned units to ELE too with no penalty and new units are always close to your current leaders' levels.
You won't always want to revert your units however because what's interesting about the teams is, as you win battles with your team members, the relationship between them grows. You can then merge your summoned units with the team leader by "engaging" them so that the leader will gain stat boosts. The downside is of course you will lose that unit forever.
For controls it's stylus only but works out very well. As with a few other titles such as Luminous Arc, it can be hard selecting the right units due to the small nature of the sprites but, you'll find you'll have to double-tap on almost everything so you shouldn't make any mistakes. You can also change camera angles but it's a bother to do so because you have to cycle through them all to get to the one you want. Area effect spells and skills on the other hand are all executed very quickly by a quick tap and drag which I found to be very well implemented.
As I mentioned earlier, part of the game doesn't look too good and that's the real-time graphics. Somehow the maps rendered in 3D look very drear and so do the sprites. They don't seem quite as impressive as FFXII Revenant Wings. The sprites are so tiny you'll be straining your eyes if you gazed at them too long. That said, once you engage in battle you'll be presented with some beautiful pre-rendered animated characters and still backgrounds. A number of videos are also used to aid story telling and to show off character specials so you can see why it's the first game to use a 2Gbit card!
Music composition is fairly good although nothing memorable and there's plenty of voice effects. What I liked about the voice effects is that they aren't used repeatedly for every attack you make so that they sound like zombies. Instead you'll find the game alternates between two or three different phrases and, will also stay silent so that you can hear the swing of the weapons or casting of spells clearly.
On the story side of ASH, it's a fairly interesting story with the charm of large kingdoms at war, fantasy settings and a few twists. However, it still very much can't get away from the typical good versus evil with an ancient power in the background flow.
In the end, there aren't that many SRPGs that keep my interest long enough to finish the game but ASH is certainly one of them. An enjoyable 38 hours of play!