Chaos Rings 3 ($19.99) is hauling a lot of baggage with it. It carries the hopes of a series that seems to be hanging on by a thread, the expectations of a fanbase who were heavily engaged by the storytelling chops of the series to date, and potentially the future of original, premium mobile RPGs from Square Enix. Like the protagonists of the previous games, it’s a creation pulled out of its context, struggling to find relevance in a changed world that offers little mercy. The entire game feels like it was heading down a particular path only to get yanked in an entirely different direction just before it was finished. This whole situation likely explains why this game has a lot of cruft and loose ends hanging from it. It feels like they threw in everything, the kitchen sink, and the whole housewares department while they were at it. As a result, I think this game has a little something for everyone, but few people are going to indulge in everything. It’s just the sort of messy RPG that Square Enix used to fill our bellies with on a regular basis when they weren’t quite so risk-averse, and I personally love it for that.
I’ve already written a lot of words about Chaos Rings 3, with some fairly in-depth impressions posted a few days after its release in Japan last October. You would think that would leave me without much to say in this review, but the nature of Chaos Rings 3 changes dramatically the more time you spend with it, and having spent almost four times the amount of time with the game now than I had then, there are a lot of things I want to talk about. This is, of course, the latest in Square Enix’s Chaos Rings series, developed by Media.Vision of Wild Arms fame. The first game was one of the earlier big RPG efforts from any major company, launching in the spring of 2010. Most of the assets from that game were recycled to make a quick prequel a year later in the form of Chaos Rings Omega ($6.99). A year after that, Chaos Rings 2 ($14.99) debuted, adding in a few twists and taking the Chaos Rings ($6.99) formula to perhaps its ultimate form.
No other original RPG IP released by Square Enix on iOS has been able to match the success of Chaos Rings, and it seems like the publisher has stopped trying. I suppose it’s hard to blame anyone involved for that. These games are somewhat costly to produce and are priced appropriately with that budget in mind. At the same time, by App Store standards it’s a high price for a customer to pay for an unknown quantity. Then there’s the nature of the market itself, which has changed greatly in the half-decade since the first game in the series debuted. In the face of that shift, the very existence of Chaos Rings 3 is a little bit surprising. Particularly since it seems to have kicked the unreleased free-to-play Chaos Rings Sigma to the side on its way out the door. I feel like today’s mobile gamer is more used to seeing the opposite of that situation occur.
When I first started playing Chaos Rings 3, the cynic in me couldn’t help but smell a couple of rats. While this is a turn-based, single-player RPG that uses familiar spell and item names, with a familiar mission-based structure and emphasis on rounding out a collection of special gene attacks, it’s a massive tonal shift from the rather unique flavor of the Chaos Rings games prior to this one. Cold, immaculate spaces give way to lush, vibrant vistas. Grizzled, aged protagonists have handed off to a pack of veritable high school kids. While it has its moments, it never quite hits the sort of oppressive tension the older games did. Is this really Chaos Rings, or did Square Enix think the only way to sell an original RPG on iOS was to stick the familiar branding on it?
Then there’s the game’s economy, for lack of a better word. Collecting cards through random draws, fusing them to create new ones, sacrificing them to other cards to help level them up. A rare currency that the game doles out a little bit each day or upon completion of a mission. A temporary VIP membership you can buy with that currency to boost your rewards for a period of time. A battle arena with time-limited events where you can spend your rare currency on boosts and try to win prizes. This feels suspiciously like a modern Japanese social RPG, but there’s not an ounce of IAP to be found in the game, and it plays just fine without going online. One can’t help but wonder about the motivations here.
Playing through the whole game put a rest to some of my skepticism on both of those points. While the game is still very different in its tone from the others in the series, it hasn’t quite given up its tendency to swing into some very dark places. The combat system feels like a solid evolution of the one found in the other games, while still offering up its own quirks. The expanded size of the party shakes up the system found in the other three games, but party members can still team up to deliver more powerful attacks if you time things right, and as the familiar break gauge returns, there’s still a heavy emphasis on keeping momentum. The new gene system draws in elements from the previous games along with a few dashes of Persona and modern social RPGs, and while it’s fairly different in its implementation, the resulting abilities are taken from the same trusty line-up as before. The structure of Chaos Rings 3 is also quite familiar, retaining the designed-for-portable, mission-based set-up and expanding on it in satisfying ways.
After you get through the introduction of the game, you’ll find yourself able to choose the missions you’d like to take on. Many of these involve going into a stage you’ve been to in the story and finding certain items or killing certain monsters. Some of them just require you to run around the town areas a bit and talk to certain people. Only a small portion of these missions are directly connected to the main story, and while you can tackle those exclusively, your levels are going to fall behind pretty fast. This might have resulted in some terrible grinding, were it not for a few things. First, the side missions usually tell mini-stories in and of themselves. It might just be a couple paragraphs of text, or it might be a tear-jerker cut-scene or two in the style of Dragon Quest, but there’s always something to try to give you a higher reason for your return trips. The side missions change each day, and I found myself getting more lost in these mini-stories than in the main plot.
That’s not the only side content where you can power up, either. In addition to the story mode, there’s a battle mode where you can take your characters into the arena to face various challenges. Included in these challenges are special timed events where you can earn some nice rewards. Any experience points you earn in this mode carry over to the main game, so if you feel like you need a little boost and run out of side missions to take on, you have the option to do so here. Sadly, this is the one mode where the game’s lack of English voices actually has a real impact. The whole time you’re fighting in battle mode, a couple of characters from the main story will be providing commentary. It’s pretty funny stuff at times, but the English version makes no attempt to translate it at all, so unless you understand Japanese, all you’ll really get out of it is the feeling, I think.
I still think the rare currency is pretty suspicious, but it ended up being a non-factor over the course of the game. The game gives some to you every day, and you can earn more by doing side missions. It’s pretty easy to rack up a good bunch as a result, but if you’re the sort that plans to binge on the game, you’ll probably have to make do without for the most part. The coins are used for a number of purposes including drawing random gene cards, buying keys to open golden chests, picking up powerful items, continuing if you’re wiped out in battle, and buying buffs to use in the arena, but you can easily beat the game without any of those things. The lowest price of any of those things are the keys, which cost a meager two coins each. Even blasting through the game, you’ll get enough coins to open most golden chests, if not all of them. Those chests usually contain items used to complete certain side missions or pieces to modify your equipment with, and neither of those are necessary for beating the main story. As for gene cards, you’ll end up with plenty of them on hand even if you never make use of the game’s random pulls at all.
The gene system is as complicated as you want it to be. You could get through the game doing nothing more than slapping your best gene cards on your characters and only changing them out when you get better ones. If you want to engage more with the system, you’ll find a Shin Megami Tensei-like fusion system where you can combine two cards to create a new, more powerful one that inherits some abilities from both its parents. You can sell extra cards for more cash, feed them to other cards to boost their levels, or just collect them. Your card inventory does have a limit, as in most social RPGs, and you can of course expand that limit using your rare coins. The more of these genes you discover, the higher your team level becomes, so there’s good reason to sniff them out beyond looking at the pretty art. Most of your party’s statistical definition comes from the genes you’re using. Each character’s element is determined by the gene they’re using, and their core stats are closely connected to their chosen card, as well. In fact, your characters don’t even accumulate experience points or level up. That’s all on the gene cards, and the more powerful they are, the higher the level they can attain.
As in previous games, you can sort of set your own pace with regards to levels. Before heading into any area, you can select what level range the encounters will be there. As you play more the of the story, you’re able to choose higher ranges, which is a good way to make sure even starting areas retain their challenge when you’re going back to them for side missions. The maps are bigger than ever, with more side paths and branches than in previous games. There’s a good variety to them, too. Lots of lush, beautiful, natural environments interspersed with technological creations. There are plenty of darker places, too, more in line with the type of atmosphere seen in the earlier games. As you play, you’ll earn new abilities that will allow you to navigate these stages differently, as well. Some stages build in their own gimmicks, like an early level whose paths are blocked by rivers that can only be crossed on the back of a raptor. You won’t encounter enemies while you’re riding one, but you can’t take it into indoor areas, so you’ll have to get off sooner or later.
While the main plot appears to be trying to cast a wider net than the previous games in the series, I still found it satisfying in spite of the presence of a ton of anime tropes. It’s not as philosophically chewy as the other titles, but it’s not afraid to throw punches, especially after the breezy first chapter. There are a lot of the bizarre touches that the Chaos Rings series is known for, and the main themes of the game certainly fit the overall mythos well enough. I won’t say much else for fear of spoiling anything, but I enjoyed the game’s story. The translation is fairly solid, too, though I’ll mention once again that the voices are Japanese only. You can turn them off in the options if they get on your nerves, at least. I found a couple of typos in the script here and there, but it’s well-translated for the most part and doesn’t fumble on the game’s numerous references to the earlier games.
As you would expect from a Chaos Rings game, the presentation is outstanding. The visuals are gorgeous, the music is varied and catchy, and it all runs very smoothly, a nice change from Chaos Rings 2. The UI is exceptionally well-designed given all of the things it needs to handle, and the game offers a nice array of options to fiddle around with, including the ability to download the extra chapters before you unlock them, in case you happen to be out and about when you hit a chapter end. I like that you can delete chapters as you finish them to free up space, too. Very considerate of Square Enix to include that. Sadly, there’s no iCloud support, so I guess the goodwill only goes so far there. There also isn’t any MFi controller support, an odd omission given Square Enix’s recent push to add that support into older games, and the fact that the game is also available on PlayStation Vita in Japan. If nothing else, let’s at least applaud the arrival of the first universal Chaos Rings game on iOS.
In short, Chaos Rings 3 is a big, meaty evolution of the series that makes a lot of changes. Some of those feel like natural progressions from the older games, while others are obviously coming in from other sources, but the game on the whole is richer for having all of them. Some elements, like the crafting system or the poorly-implemented summons, could probably use more attention if the series continues, but I can certainly appreciate that the developers threw a lot of things in there for people to play with even if they’re not all fully integrated and fleshed out. The battle arena and daily side missions give the game a bit more replay value than the average RPG, a pleasant bonus given the main story is more than worth it on its own. While I kind of missed the more tense atmosphere that Chaos Rings has been known for up until now, I also think the series needed a proper shake-up if it was to continue. As for the burning questions of whether it was always a Chaos Rings game, or if it was always meant to be premium? Well, given the game came out this good in the end, I honestly can’t say I care much about the answers.