Review – Sands of Destruction

How is it that nobody can make a good JRPG for the DS? Some remakes have been all right, and a strategy RPG or two have been good. But every original RPG for the system seems somehow tainted by the platform. Black Sigil, Nostalgia, Beyond the Yellow Brick Road – hell, even a Suikoden spin-off was barely up to par on the system. Sands of Destruction is sadly no exception.

This isn’t to say it’s a bad game. Sands of Destruction’s problem isn’t that it’s actually bad – it’s just that it’s never good. It manages to be almost entirely middle-of-the-road throughout, with no particularly exciting moments and only a few terribly boring ones. Its plot has an interesting premise, but gets dragged down by bland characters and predictable twists. Combat has the potential to be interesting, but is so easily broken that it ceases to be fun after the 8-hour point. Finally, despite compositions by Yasunori Mitsuda, none of the music is really memorable. It’s really sad when you see a game with this much wasted potential. I don’t think SoD could have been another Chrono Trigger or Xenogears, but it might have managed at least, say, Grandia or Lufia.

I couldn’t help but be disappointed when Sands of Destruction started to fall into the same old JRPG traps. It managed to avoid the one obstacle that stopped any of the games I named above from being really good – the flow of the game is really snappy, which is important when the encounter rate is fairly high.

The most fundamental disappointment, given my obsession with playing games that have good stories, is that SoD’s doesn’t have one. Giving the player the goal of destroying the world could have been interesting. Characters could have had complex (or at least moderately mature) motives for wanting to see the world end. Yet only one character in SoD, Morte, really wants to see the end of the world – and given she’s a teenager, it’s really hard to take her motivation that seriously. The rest of the group just follows her around – or, more accurately, follows the main character Kyrie around when he follows her. Kyrie himself starts out somewhat believable, but he falls too quickly into the stereotypical hero role. Plot twists that occur later in the game are telegraphed more and more – and, although a few parts were well-done, the rest of the game had become too mediocre at that point to really support it. Before long, SoD trips and falls into standard anime-inspired game hell, which has only gotten cheesier since its origin decades ago.

It seems that the easiest way to make a bad battle system is to make a simpler clone of a good one. SoD’s is a nod to Xenogears, in that you get action points and spend them on attacks and abilities. Without the Deathblow system to support it, and with all the special abilities both characters and monsters have, it ends up being simultaneously complex and mind-numbing. In many boss battles it’s better not to attack most of the time, because nearly every boss automatically takes a turn after receiving damage. Despite this ‘feature’ which serves only to frustrate the player, most bosses will go down in the course of a few turns if the skill upgrade system is (ab)used properly. It feels like the developers realized they made bosses cheat, and their solution was to allow players to cheat as well.

I’d be remiss to say Sands of Destruction was totally a disappointment. It runs fairly quickly both in and out of battles, and although many voice actors were sub-par, a few of them were decent. The plot takes an occasional unexpected twist, with one particular part – the fate of a minor villain – particularly well done and unexpectedly dark. Although SoD occasionally drags, the game is only about 16-17 hours total and never bogged down enough that I wanted to stop altogether.

Is Sands of Destruction great? Certainly not. But it is more fun to play than all the games I named at the beginning of this review, aside from Suikoden Tierkreis. It’s a little depressing that there aren’t better JRPG offerings on the DS, but there are at least a few more promising ones on the horizon.

Buy from Amazon: Sands of Destruction
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