Sands of Destruction certainly lives up to its name in certain respects: there are a few characters that seem to get off on being extremely violent, to the point where it’s disturbing. Just as well. If one plays their cards right, “destruction” is the only adequate word to describe what happens when the heroes engage in combat.
However, the way in which the title suggests a story about the destruction of the planet is the one place where I’m left wanting. It’s a pity, because the premise of destroying the world to bring about its salvation had a lot of potential. Maybe some ideas are better left untouched?
In the world of Sands of Destruction, humans are generally treated as lower-class citizens by Ferals: anthropomorphic animals of varied species from wolf, to shark, to elephants. Some humans simply resign themselves to such a fate, while others fight back. However, there is one radical group of human anarchists with a very extreme perspective; the World Annihilation Front believes that the state of world affairs is so awful, that the only recourse is to bring about its end.
Enter Kyrie, a young, sheltered country bumpkin that you’ve seen in so many different anime and JRPGs it makes you sick. Our naïve hero du jour finds out through a contrived series of events that he has some sort of latent power to destroy the world. Soon enough, a member of “The Front”, Morte, finds Kyrie and prompts him to destroy the world. It’s not that simple, though; Kyrie has no idea how to use the power at will. So, Morte decides to take him with her, hopefully helping Kyrie discover how to bring about Armageddon.
Thus sets the stage for a story with a very grave premise. Morte brings Kyrie along with her because she is sure that, upon seeing how terrible things are outside of his backwater village, he’ll definitely see that the world’s destruction is the only way to relieve the world of its blight.
What makes this disconcerting, however, is the tone of the storytelling, as so many of the story cutscenes are deliberately funny. Sure, there’s important exposition here and there, but it’s so mired in goofy jokes and general lightheartedness that it’s hard to take the situation seriously.
Rarely seen are any examples of human oppression by Ferals, and what examples are seen are not nearly enough to support the notion that the world is beyond any hope. In fact, you see far more instances of humans and Ferals coexisting in harmony than any grave injustices against humankind. This does not reflect well on the World Annihilation Front, who come off more like a bunch of rebels without a cause rather than a group of humans who are truly doing what they think is in their brethren’s best interests.
Speaking of “The Front”, the absolute worst part of the story is that the first half of the game focuses more on our heroine, Morte, than Kyrie. Her main reason for wanting to destroy the world is the extreme oppression from Ferals, but she comes from a remote village where humans and Ferals get along great. Why on Earth, then, would she want to destroy the world? If the majority of the human race is discriminated against by the Ferals, then, more than most other people in the world, she should understand that the ability to coexist is possible.
She supposedly puts on a gruff n’ tough act to guard the fact that she’s a caring person with a soft side, but it’s a hard sell when she takes such a liking to the genocidal orders given to her by the World Annihilation Front. Morte is just a terribly unrealistic, unlikeable character – a pile of contradictions in the most unbelievable, deplorable way.
Thankfully, the supporting cast sports some really interesting characters, especially Taupy – tragically pronounced “toe pee” – who is remarkably well-characterized without the need for a tragic backstory (although the game manages to tack one on for every character, anyway). He is a bounty hunter, a consummate professional, wise, well-traveled, and quite the charmer. When a character acts and reacts like a real person, I believe that no need for overstated character development exists.
Finally, I will admit that the story gets pretty interesting later in the game, when the narrative finally starts focusing on Kyrie. But, the foundation for the serious story premise is nowhere to be found by the end, and the story ultimately falls back on a bunch of predictable, seen-it-all-before plot points.
Despite being a country bumpkin who works as a chef’s assistant, Kyrie, like all other typical JRPG heroes, manages to be crazily skilled with his weapon of choice. Kyrie and co. do battle by way of a familiar turn-based JRPG combat system. The main twist is that each character has two types of attacks: Flurry Attacks, which are multi-hit attacks that deal low damage, and Blow Attacks, which are single, powerful attacks with special abilities (increased critical chance, possibility to inflict status effects, instant death, etc.). Each hero also has a few offensive and healing spells in their arsenal, allowing each character to fulfill a variety of roles.
In battle, each character gets a few Battle Points (BP) per turn. Each action done by a character costs 1 BP, and items end the turn instantly. There are, however, ways to get additional BP during your turn; the first critical hit a character lands will net them an additional BP, and they will also get one extra BP for every 10+1 hits they land (i.e. a BP is gained when the combo reaches 11 hits, 21 hits and so on).
All abilities are leveled up with Customization Points (CP), which can be used to level up an ability’s attack/healing potency, accuracy, or even reduce the amount of Skill Points (SP) needed to cast a spell. After leveling up a Flurry/Blow Attack or Spell a certain amount, a character learns a new respective attack or spell. Instead of equipping Flurry/Blow Attacks, they are used in sequence. For example, when Kyrie does a Flurry Attack, it always starts with “Flurry Attack 1″, and the next Flurry Attack used in that turn will be “Flurry Attack 2″, as long as he has learned it.
Unfortunately, thanks to the skill Customization system, combat is absurdly easy to break. The problem lies in Flurry Attacks; after just a few hours of gameplay, Flurries deal much more damage than Blow Attacks. Even worse, after leveling up an ability to level 7, players are given the option to either raise the level cap for an ability, or they can choose to “Fortify” the ability.
Forifying a Blow Attack causes the special effect associated with it to occur more often. On the other hand, Fortifying a Flurry Attack allows the character to “chain” one Flurry Attack into the next. For example, if Kyrie Fortifies his “Flurry Attack 1″, using it in battle will perform “Flurry Attack 1″ and “Flurry Attack 2″ using only 1 BP instead of 2 BP. Fortify all of a character’s Flurry Attacks, and, well, the damage dealt by Flurry Attacks is completely above and beyond that of Blow Attacks, which do not chain together when Fortified.
With all a character’s Flurry Attacks chained together, characters not only do ludicrous amounts of damage, but they get high combo accounts, which rewards them with even more BP in combat, allowing them to use their strong attacks even more in one turn. Combine this with the fact that all healing spells in the game target every character, heal for 50-90% HP, cost almost no SP, and can simultaneously remove status ailments and even revive fallen characters, and you have yourself the easiest RPG ever created. It’s almost like playing Doom with God Mode enabled, except that, over time, you become even more godly.
Despite this super-easy mechanic, I did have fun with the combat. It’s quick enough that it doesn’t feel tedious, and it’s pretty hilarious how your characters become unstoppable killing machines that can only be defeated if an enemy can kill off the whole party in one turn (and, no, it never happened to me). Just don’t expect the combat to be a challenge.
The puzzles, on the other hand, are done quite nicely. Most of the dungeons have a different puzzle or gimmick to them, making them all pretty interesting to explore. It may not be the best dungeon design ever, but it’s a cut above the usual cookie-cutter dungeons that populate most RPGs. Kudos to Sands of Destruction for that.
In the end, though, I’m not sure who would enjoy a game like this. When the story isn’t completely contradicting itself, it’s relegated to predictable RPG fare. Although I was in the right mood to enjoy unnecessarily easy combat, I don’t think I’m wrong to assume that the majority of players will find that boring.
At some point along my journey with Kyrie and co., I asked myself, “Why destroy the world, anyway?” I guess, at some point along the way, the writers asked themselves the same question, only to find that they had no adequate answer.
The visuals consist of a beautiful display of 2D sprites, juxtaposed against nice 3D backgrounds.
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Superfluously easy combat mixed in with decent dungeon design comprises the gameplay: there's nothing frustrating about it, but it's not exactly riveting, either.
Yasunori Mitsuda, the main composer of the Chrono Trigger soundtrack, handles the game's musical score wonderfully.
I finished the game in about 17 hours, and there's a modest amount of side-questing to be done.
Sands of Destruction looks good, and sounds good. But the story premise collapses under its own weight, and it may very well be the easiest RPG I have ever played in my life. It's an entertaining diversion as long as you understand that you won't be challenged at all.