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Baroquen Spirit 

Atlus' Baroque imagines eternal life in gaming limbo. It isn't pretty.

Wednesday, Apr 23 2008
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First of all: God bless Atlus. As a publisher devoted to bringing obscure Japanese gaming gems to the West — basically, the much-needed heir apparent of Working Designs — Atlus is the only hope for gamers who crave oddball, strange, or downright niche titles from the Land of the Rising Sun. It's the closest thing we have to an underground label in gaming, something we desperately need — which is why I'm not going to totally crucify Atlus for Baroque.

Contrary to the description on the back of the box, Baroque is not a "dungeon-crawling RPG" — not exactly, anyway. Rather, Baroque represents a subgenre referred to as "roguelikes": titles that throw players into randomly generated dungeons, where they gain experience, items, and treasure, only to lose it all when they leave the dungeon or get themselves whacked. Baroque isn't a traditional roguelike — the combat here is real-time rather than turn-based — but otherwise, it's the same animal.

The game begins in a small, hazy, post-apocalyptic colony populated by self-tormented beings, who spend their days lamenting their wretchedness. A key figure in this strange place, Archangel, instructs the player to take his Angelic Rifle, find his way to the bottom of the nearby Neuro Tower, and put a deranged, crazed god at the bottom level out of her misery. Sort of like Old Yeller, but with way-cooler weaponry.

This task — something other games might spend 40 hours on — is one that players can accomplish in less than an hour, at which point there's a cut scene, the player is teleported back to the colony, and the cycle begins all over.

"What's the point?" you ask.

Exactly.

There are bits here and there that add some dimension to the experience: The others in town often plead for some special item from the tower, a limited number of which you can smuggle back to town like contraband, unlocking some new conversations. There's also a rudimentary story to piece together. But at heart, the actual game is the repetitive storming of the Neuro Tower, getting to the bottom floor, shooting the deranged god, and repeating it over and over until you feel like turning the Angelic Rifle on yourself.

Simply put, Baroque doesn't possess the game play to pull this off. The randomized levels are bland-looking. The enemies are easy to defeat, and they're not even worth the trouble; why get jazzed about wasting someone, when the experience will only be erased the moment you leave the tower?

Yes, the character designs are intriguing and memorable, and it has a distinct mood that's both unsettling and wearying. But the game play itself is, in essence, a hamster wheel, with some fever-dream wallpaper lining the cage to distract from its simplistic design.

They might consider renaming Baroque "Sisyphean." Often, it feels like a bizarre experiment to see how long you'll stick with a game that has excised all conventional reward systems. So if you're looking for a game that works as some sort of Zen koan on the lesson of impermanence, add three points to my score. Otherwise, say a prayer of thanks to Atlus — and save your money for its next game.

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Gary Hodges

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