Baroque has been wronged. There is no other way to put it.
I held off on getting this game until fairly recently, when I saw it for sale at $20. I wasn’t willing to buy it at $50 because I had heard all about how terrible the game was; crippling difficulty, a complete lack of story, no carjackings or Nazis, and so on.
A few months ago, RPGamer ranked it as the best Wii RPG of 2008. Granted, I don’t always agree with RPGamer – but then, I like Opoona, so my tastes are already pretty weird. Plus, look at the competition. Tales of Symphonia 2, Opoona, maybe a couple others. None would rank best RPG of the whatever on any other system. But my interest was piqued enough to consider Baroque.
I bought this game about a week ago and booted it up on a whim. I was getting a little bit tired of Valkyria Chronicles, and figured I’d take a short break and then get back to killing Imperials. The next thing I noticed, it was rather late and I was in the middle of a dungeon, poisoned, and my character had decided to take his armor off for no apparent reason (I had thought the Exposure Coat’s description was a joke – apparently it was more along the lines of a warning).
I can still hear the shrieking of the woman-slug-pointy-arm-things. Please make it stop.
So what had hooked me? What could possibly distract me from driving a tank around and sniping unwitting troopers? Atmosphere was the first thing that sucked me into Baroque. You start off in some twisted town with no idea what’s going on and no ability to speak. To your left is a grubby-looking kid with a giant bag on his head who rants about collecting items when you come near. Wandering through the town, you find a horned woman in a chair who speaks your thoughts, another woman in a giant bag, hanging from a rope, who appears to have an eidetic memory, and a few other bizarre characters. Your only means of communication is attacking the townspeople. Find the exit and a holographic angel shows up, blames you for the world going crazy, and tells you to take an oversized gun into the dungeon and shoot whoever’s at the bottom to atone for your sin. So you do. Or at least, you try.
From the start, Baroque is an exercise in confusion and inferring what the hell is going on from things people say seemingly in passing. Events in the dungeon and in town give you clues as to how to progress the plot, and you gradually figure out more or less what happened to cause the world to go crazy – which is a more cohesive (if not believable) story than I thought it would be. Sometimes, it’s an exercise in frustration – for example, one event that I thought would be relatively minor actually turned out to be integral to the game’s progress (a hint so you can avoid similar frustration: note what NPCs in town ask you for). But to hear other reviews say it, the plot isn’t even the most frustrating part.
I came into Baroque fully expecting the game to hate me and kill me over and over. Baroque is, after all, a Roguelike in the noble traditions of Shiren the Wanderer, ADOM, and, of course, Rogue. So, being a weakling and not a huge Roguelike fan, I decided to go for Easy mode. Apparently not a single reviewer considered doing this, because, appropriately enough, I had a pretty easy time of it. I only died in a dungeon twice, and one of those times was deliberate (I wanted to see if I could kill myself by eating the game’s equivalent of explosives, and whether anyone would ridicule me for it). If you don’t like tough games, and you don’t mind Roguelikes terribly, Easy mode will be your friend. You can still die by making mistakes, but it is nowhere near as evil as any other dungeon crawler.
Like any other Roguelike, Baroque employs randomly generated dungeons that might be filled with candy and rainbows, but more often are filled with enemies who want to feast on the flesh of your still-warm body. There is a plethora of items available for the finding, and like any good randomly-generated game, there are tons of entertaining and unbalanced ones. I particularly enjoyed finding “Box” items, which contain other items when opened; among the Boxes are the Addition Box, which contains the last item you obtained (pick up an Addition Box and immediately open it to find another inside!) and the Don’t Have Box, which contains an item you don’t have in your inventory. There are a host of “modifying” items that affect your equipment or character, and several trap types to play with (beware the Food Trap turning your equipment into rotten meat).
However, unlike other Roguelikes, Baroque is real-time. It pauses when you shuffle through your inventory, but there’s no other way to stop and consider your next move. Even on Easy mode, this lends the game a survival horror feel – you never know when some horrifying-looking monster will sneak up behind you, steal an item or poison you, then run off. It happened to me when I was talking to an NPC in the Neuro Tower several times. Like any other dungeon crawler, there is always a possibility for everything to go wrong at once. Your sword and the Angelic Rifle (which serves as a low-ammo emergency bazooka in addition to a plot device) could be stolen in rapid succession, then you could get confused and randomly wander over a food trap five times, ensuring any items you couldn’t eat before are now quite edible and otherwise useless. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s important to know that things can get frustrating.
Likely your first conversation in the game.
“But”, you might ask, “what makes the game so terrible it averaged a 50% review on that review aggregate site?” What, indeed. This rates the game somewhere between “My Horse and Me” and “Celebrity Sports Showdown”. Perhaps it was frustration that the game gives so little guidance early on. Maybe it was a distaste for games that are randomly generated. Could be that a story that you have to figure out how to progress equates to “no story”. Another possibility is that “My Horse and Me” is really a good game and 50% is actually an average score. I’d argue that Baroque deserves better, but then, I think it (like many others) defies scoring. It is a very strange story-driven post-apocalyptic horror Roguelike. That puts it solidly out of the mainstream and more along the lines of a minor tributary stuck in a niche end of dungeon-crawling RPGs. If that sounds appealing to you – hey, welcome to the club. I liked it better than Shiren the Wanderer.
It may not be the best game ever, but it managed to get me to think, panic, and wonder (sometimes all three simultaneously) more than any other Wii game has thus far. If you think the Wii needs more games that will keep you up at night and you haven’t played Baroque, you should.