Retro Review: Langrisser IV (Import)
Do you like obscure tactical RPG games from the 1990s that were never released outside of Japan? Probably not, but Langrisser IV’s appeal isn’t as limited as you might think. From start to finish this is an epic and engrossing adventure, and one I’m surprised hasn’t appeared on more ‘hidden gems’ lists. Welcome to the world of Langrisser.
These days it’s only a handful of games that aren’t released in the West (and most of these are pretty terrible) but Langrisser IV belonged to a period when we were denied things we might have, y’know, actually liked. Along with Policenauts, Shining Force III Scenarios 2 & 3, and most of the Fire Emblem series, Langrisser IV was never officially released in English, and if you get your hands on the fan translation then you’ll be asking why the hell not.
The story is really interesting, and it’s nice to enjoy a game that someone, somewhere, fifteen years ago, presumably thought you wouldn’t. The dialogue has a very direct feel because of the way it’s been translated. Nothing has been re-interpreted or re-written to feel more ‘Western’ and as a whole the game is thematically more mature than your standard RPG. If you enjoy the style of writing found in something like the Persona games, then Langrisser is likely to satisfy you in the same way. It’s perhaps worth noting that developer Career Soft went on to create both the Growlanser series and Shin Megami Tensi: Devil Survivor, so Langrisser is about as similar to an Altus game as you’re going to find without the actual logo on the box.
Langrisser IV is a war epic, telling a tale of conflicting nations, power mad tyrants, and mythical swords. This works thanks to some sharp dialogue, interesting characters, and branching storylines, but the game’s main strength is how the narrative effectively ties into the gameplay. Every scenario is justified by the plot, and individual objectives not only give the levels a strong sense of variety, but allow the game to tell its story through the way you play it.
The level design may be a personal highlight, but of course it’s the well thought out mechanisms by which Langrisser IV functions as a tactical RPG that really holds everything together. Your commanders are determined by the story, but strategy comes from hiring and positioning the right troops, before making sure as few people as possible die in the battle that follows. If a commander is killed then so are all their possessed troops, but as they are also generally stronger this makes for an interesting risk/reward mechanic. Likewise, enemy commanders can be killed to quickly free up the battlefield, but taking out the troops one by one will result in the biggest XP bonus.
As well as the same weapons triangle used in Fire Emblem, Langrisser IV also operates on a unique combat mechanic known as the ‘Judgement system’. This defines the order in which troops move, which varies on each character’s unique stats, as well as how much attacking and moving they underwent in the previous turn. For the most part this is an entertaining and dynamic system, but it’s not without a couple of flaws. Most notably, characters that remain stationary receive more turns than those on the move, and it can be a bit tedious to watch defensive enemies repeatedly wait out their turns as you slowly advance on them.
If you’re playing on Sega Saturn then there are a few additional flaws too, although these won’t apply to anyone enjoying the fan-translated PlayStation One game (subtitled ‘Final Edition’) that implements the refined battle system used in Langrisser V. Whilst the sequel is yet to be translated, Langrisser IV is generally considered to have the better storyline, so to also have the best battle system effectively makes it the stand out game in the Langrisser series. Also, having the game on PlayStation means that it can be converted to play on PSP. Whilst the lengthy battles aren’t too much of a problem on console thanks to a decent save system, there’s no denying that Langrisser IV is even better on a portable device.
As with many RPGs from the era, Langrisser IV has a bit of a learning curve and the difficulty level is pitched at a notch higher than many gamers today are likely accustomed to. Fortunately you can’t grind in Langrisser, and the challenge is actually pretty enjoyable, rather than something that needs to be worked around. The sense of achievement is always massive, and success is very rewarding.
What’s less desirable is the uneven difficulty curve, and I found the first few scenarios to be by far the hardest in the entire game. Some of these took me three of four tries, and each time I’d be an hour in before I realised I’d need to start again, re-order my troops, and try a different strategy.
Still, it’s perhaps for the best that the difficulty decreases in the game’s second half, as the levelling system at play means that an under-levelled player could theoretically reach a point where progression becomes impossible. There’s only a finite amount of XP available, and whilst it’s (thankfully) pretty much impossible to progress without at least some of your party reaching a suitable level, I did find that the characters who died frequently in the early scenarios eventually became too weak to be of any use at all later on. At this point I started relying on only a couple of commanders even more, and by the end Landius (the game’s protagonist) was pretty much invincible, whilst the rest of my squad was pretty much useless.
Of course issues like these are fairly minor, and I only picked up on them because I spent so much time playing what is otherwise a pretty fantastic game. It’s also aged very well, with the previously mentioned difficulty level being the only element that really gives things away. Admittedly a few of the menus are a little primitive, and equipping and arraigning troops is unintuitive, but these mechanisms still function correctly, and the overall presentation values are very high.
The graphics may have once been a little underwhelming for a PlayStation game, but now the fact that Langrisser IV now looks like an exceptionally refined SNES title certainly isn’t a bad thing. Its defined style and well drawn characters are what now stands out, and these give the game a really unique feel.
On top of this there’s the fact that Langrisser IV is a simply massive game, and offers an immersive experience that’s well over twenty hours long. This is thanks to huge levels that take real strategy, and there’s no padding or filler content. You’ve also got three distinctly different story paths, and unique endings that are subtly tailored depending on both choices you made in the narrative and how you actually played the game. As with the rest of Langrisser IV, this demonstrates a masterful blend of story and gameplay that still feels unique, refined, and exceptionally engaging.