The thing about Rogue Galaxy is it’s almost obscenely of its time. There were a lot of things we knew to be Facts in the mid-00s; one of those Facts was that the more cutscenes in your game, the more Artistic it would be.
The bulk of an RPG involves navigating through menus; in many ways, a traditional JRPG has a lot in common with a spreadsheet. The particular genius of companies like Square was taking those spreadsheets and putting them in gorgeous packages. Final Fantasy VII is an ugly mess today, but at the time, it looked so badass. Final Fantasy VII, the Citizen Kane of videogames, a game which inspired pretty much every game to be a little more like an RPG and which inspired RPGs to become dramatic as shit. Square’s aesthetic has always been extremely operatic, extremely theatrical, and not a little camp; whether influenced by Final Fantasy or whether it’s just a general trend in Japanese media, it doesn’t really matter: To be a fan of RPGs in the mid-00s meant you were, at least to a degree, a fan of melodrama.
And so Rogue Galaxy is frontloaded with sweeping cutscenes all about how protagonist Jasper Rogue wants to free his planet from Occupation but he’s always wanted to go into Space and here are two people looking for a legendary bounty hunter that they confuse for Jaster and there’s a near miss involving tons of sandworms and a crash landing and everything is goddamn adventuresome. But if you want to talk lu-do-nar-ra-tive dis-so-nance, Jaster and his friends are romping around in danger while I, the player, am sitting on the couch doing bong rips. It’s up to you whether or not that’s a problem.
Let’s be honest: I can’t say that the story is particularly great. It’s the kind of teenagery anime fodder that you’re embarrassed to have your 24-year-old roommates catch you watching. Its romance scenes are cheesy, its comedy scenes are a little too goofy…and yet, there’s a charm to the proceedings that makes it all forgiveable. The art’s a lot of it. Level-5 is known for its cel-shading, and Rogue Galaxy is one of those games whose art direction prevents it from looking dated. No one’s gonna mistake it for a PS3 game, certainly–there’s jaggies all over the place, for example–but it’s a good looking game. The biggest difference between last generation and this generation, for me, has not been polygon counts but the amount of stuff that’s in a typical game environment these days. A lot of PS2 games look extremely empty, but Rogue Galaxy is wonderfully if repetitively detailed. Everything’s bright and colorful, and it’s lush but not garish.
Mostly, though, of everything I am a sucker for, I am a sucker for a well-done skill tree system, and I love Rogue Galaxy’s. Each character has a board with empty spaces on it, into which you place certain items which get repurposed into abilitieswhen you complete groups. It’s a nice and clean system.
I got about 20 hours in the first time I played Rogue Galaxy; I’m roughly 3 in this time. Like most of Level 5’s games, like most RPGs of the time, it’s a huge Pile of Shit To Do–not only are the dungeons sprawling and crawling with monsters, there’s a weapon synthesis system, an item creation system, an insect collection tournament, a billion other optional sidequests. Nearly all of this is optional. We hear talk, sometimes, about Games These Days being afraid to include anything the player might not necessarily see. Stuff costs Money, and why bother spending money on something the player might miss? Rogue Galaxy is the opposite of that to an almost overwhelming degree.
Well, it’s pretty and I enjoy grinding–the battle system is a well-done if standard action RPG button masher–and that’s enough for me for now, at least.