KEMCO brings a nice throwback to old-school JRPGs with Revenant Saga, but does it all congeal?
While some Nintendo fans may associate KEMCO with their NES ports of “MacVenture” games like Shadowgate and Deja Vu, they’ve actually become quite the prolific mobile developer. A quick glance at their website shows dozens of games they’ve localized and released on mobile devices (and some consoles) in recent years. Paging through the releases, it’s easy to identify KEMCO’s jam: colorful, anime-inspired, 16/32-bit JRPGs.
Revenant Saga is one of these titles. Originally released on mobile devices in 2015, and then ported to PlayStation 3/4, Vita, and Wii U earlier this year, Revenant Saga now arrives on Switch. While at first glance, the game seems like a whimsical romp, the early moments are surprisingly dark. We learn of the Revenants, undead creatures that mysteriously appeared and have no real goal aside from wiping out human civilization. Judging from the opening story segment, they seem to be doing a solid job at that. The attacking demons bring with them “The Plague,” an incurable disease that claimed protagonist Albert’s parents. The adventure begins when Albert’s childhood friend Anna’s parents contract the disease, and Albert sets off in a misguided attempt to find a cure. What happens next was genuinely surprising and continued the dark theme presented in the opening moments.
While I enjoyed the unexpected sinister twist, the presentation was underwhelming, rendering the story beats far less effective than they could have been. While the localization is certainly competent, precious little “flavor” is packed into the script. As you may expect from a JRPG in Revenant Saga’s style, the storytelling features quite a bit of character-portrait-and-text-box dialogue. Important plot points are undermined by the dry, matter-of-fact character reactions. This problem is exasperated by the fact that these dialogue boxes are the primary source for how the story is communicated; Revenant Saga’s character animation is far too limited to convey action, let alone emotion. One early scene in particular stands out in this regard- a character undergoes something significant, but the scene comes across glitchy and comical rather than horrifying, due to the limited animation.
Other areas of Revenant Saga’s presentation fare much better. The menus are clean, logical, and fast. A positive byproduct of its mobile roots, the game allows you to save anywhere with a quick press of the “+” button. While the visuals pale in comparison to other retro throwback RPGs on Switch such as I Am Setsuna and Project Octopath Traveler, Revenant Saga has some nice touches in its early-PS1-RPG graphics. For one, a day/night/weather cycle on the overworld looks pleasant. While essentially window dressing, seeing clouds pass and rain begin while wandering is an artistic and nostalgic flourish. A somewhat more impressive graphical detail is the switch to polygonal 3D visuals in the game’s turn-based battles. The character models are simple, but I appreciate the vibe.
If you’ve been playing JRPGs for the last 25 years or so, you can probably look at screenshots of Revenant Saga and imagine the soundtrack in each moment. Town music is your typical inoffensive chipper fare, while the overworld theme evokes an Ys-esque piano-rock style. It’s all solid stuff, but don’t expect any Secret of Mana / Chrono Cross style surprises in the OST (or much variety- there are only a handful of tracks in the game).
Not expecting surprises is a good way to approach Revenant Saga in general. For better or worse, nothing is really hidden, be it obscured stats or secret combat mechanics that require you to pour over an FAQ. In my Normal difficulty playthrough, I was able to cruise through the game, mostly auto-attacking, with no real need to grind. Just buy and equip new gear when you hit a new town, and upgrade your weapons using the rudimentary “Custom” option in the menu, and you’re good (though you may want to save your weapon upgrades until late in the game, when you’ve settled on your final weapon). Transformations are an option in combat, and offer some powerful abilities, but I seldom used them due to the fact that characters cannot be healed while transformed. There are also Easy and Hard difficulty options you can switch to at any time if you find the challenge not suiting your playstyle.
In the 15 or so hours it took me to finish Revenant Saga, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of missed potential. None of the mechanical ideas, from character transformations to customization of weapons felt fully fleshed out, balanced, or compelling. The interesting plot is hampered by one-dimensional characters and endless text boxes in which characters talk a lot, but say very little. That all said, Revenant Saga is a slightly above-average throwback RPG on Switch, with a 10-20 hour main quest (there is also a post-game dungeon if you’re into that sort of thing). For a budget-priced retro-style JRPG on Switch, Revenant Saga mostly delivers what it promises. Just don’t expect to see anything new or done better than the games it was inspired by.