Riviera: The Promised Land - Play This Game Now

After completing Hotel Dusk last week, I had a decision to make: what game should I play next? Although I'm usually playing more than one game at the same time, I tend to focus on just one for completion's sake. Ultimately I decide to delve back into Riviera: The Promised Land, a largely overlooked Atlus RPG for the GameBoy Advance.

Riviera is completely unlike any game you've ever played, and I mean that as a compliment. I would describe it as a combination of an RPG, a dating simulation, and a modified point-and-click adventure. You improve your stats and gain more powerful items, can choose which of your female party members to compliment and impress, and explore the environment through menu-based choices rather than direct movement.

The game is comprised of about 7 large chapters, which are further subdivided. Each sub-chapter has anywhere from 3-10 screens, which you move between, battling demons and spending accumulated Trigger Points (TP) to explore the environment. You can take only 3 characters and 4 items into battles, and regular minigames pop-up where you must input a button combination or time a button press to avoid a trap. For example, in Chapter 1 there's a tribute to Indiana Jones where you must input a short button combination in order to avoid a large, rolling boulder.

There are no random battles, at least in the Dragon Quest sense, only in the sense that you don't know which screen has an enemy encounter. There's also no true movement. Each screen has a Move and Look mode, where you press a direction of the control pad to change screens or search an object, respectively. Every single battle takes careful planning of characters and items. You must exploit enemy weaknesses, and you don't fight the same enemies repeatedly, as in games like Final Fantasy. Each battle is almost a set piece, like a challenge you must overcome to be worthy of advancing.

The main reason I love this game is the choices you are constantly presented with, which I briefly touched on in a previous post. I find myself agonizing over a decision on nearly every screen. For example:
  • Which direction should I move in?
  • Your party is only allowed to carry 16 items, so if I find a powerful new item, what do I throw away?
  • What 4 items should I bring into battle? Is it more important to have a Thunder Sword or a Healing Rod?
  • If I'm running low on TP, should I search a chest or doorway, even though it could be detrimental?

Sometimes it's best to ignore environmental objects. A bad decision can: 1.) harm your relationship with one of the ladies; 2.) prevent you from acquiring useful items; 3.) waste valuable TP; or 4.) even reduce a character's HP by 5-15%. This last one I haven't quite figured out, because it seems as if you get the HP back either after a certain period of time, or after you clear the section. There are so many decisions that it's very easy to miss things. In fact, you pretty much have to miss out on sections of the environment of important items your first time unless you're using a walkthrough.

As much as I love the prominence of decisions, Riviera does have a few lackluster elements. Items have a limited number of uses, but in order to level up, a character needs to use an item a certain number of times. The best way to do this is in practice mode, which exists sort of 'outside' the game world. Although practice mode is necessary, the weaker enemies make it a little boring and it draws me out of the game narrative. Also, I found the story very confusing, largely due to a plethora of proper names that I can't quite wrap my head around. Finally, although I'm halfway finished, I just now feel like I have a good grasp on most of the mechanics. This is partly because there were a lot of new concepts I wasn't familiar with, and partly because I bought a used copy and had no manual to explain some of the finer points.

Other than the Practice mode, I really like how connected the game play is to your ability to find out about the environment and narrative. Essentially, doing well in battle earns you more TP, thereby allowing you to search more areas, get better items, and learn about the game world and characters. This, in turn, makes your characters stronger, thereby earning more TP in battle and so on. The mechanics are a big circle which feed into each other, and doing well in one area allows you to succeed in others. Although the combat system and item limitations seem very stifling and limiting at first, Riviera ultimately gives you a lot of freedom to experiment and try different things. Plus, with a different ending depending on which girl likes you the most, as well as numerous overlooked and ignored areas, there's compelling reason to play through the game again.

On a side note, in between chapters, you return to a home base of sorts. Twice, so far, your female companions have decided to take a bath during this break, and your character is able to go and spy on them. It's nothing too exciting, no nudity, just a static image with dialogue boxes over it. I would imagine that some people would be offended by this, but the game didn't sell well enough to attract any kind of attention. Plus, these scenes are completely tame, gratuitous, and well off the beaten path.

Whew. As you can see, I really have a lot to say about this great, overlooked game. I simply love Riviera. It's a lot of fun, and also quite charming and involving. The whole package is tied together really well, it's both simple and complex, and it's very addicting to just want to advance one more screen and see what happens. I highly recommend it, if you can find a copy somewhere. It's well worth the search.


Mike said...

One of the nice things about having finally bought a Nintendo DS a few months ago is that the Game Boy Advance actually has a pretty incredible backcatalogue of little-known and quickly-forgotten games like Riviera. As someone who takes a lot of business trips, there are few things I enjoy more than solid, portable RPGs, and this looks amazing. Despite the great reviews, I also didn't know much about the Golden Sun series before you mentioned it over at PopMatters...I'm off to eBay to try and find the two Golden Sun games and Riviera.

You have a fantastic blog here - well worth a bookmark. Thanks for the tips, and the link.

Korey said...

Hi Mike. Thanks for the comment. I really appreciate it. I love my DS. It's one of the best, most-used systems I've ever purchased. I did have a GBA before it, but I rarely bought GBA games or played it much. But since I've had a DS, I've purchased more and more great GBA games that I had missed out on. There is a really huge library there.

I'd like to pick up both Golden Sun games. I played the first one a little bit, but then for some reason sold it. And I think Riviera really is one of the best, most unique GBA games available. Thanks for your input.