I played the original release of Frist Chapter back in 2006 and the Second Chapter in 2008, and now my son (4-yr-old) is playing the re-released on Steam. On a glance this is one of your staple JRPG: cute and seemingly clueless though motivated protagonists, tactical turn-based combat, heavy text-based menu and stats/mechanisms. But beneath that thin layer of disguise, you would have one of the most wonderfully made story-driven RPGs with a plot as dark as the Witcher series (dare I say) you have ever played--if you play all three entries you will reach the same conclusion.
Needless to say the story goes beyond the good vs. evil scheme, but characters in this game also evolve in a believable way. They are very aware of the changing world and interact with each other in meaningful ways. Suffice to say you won't find any one-dimensional character in this game, be it a protagonist or antagonist.
Also worth mentioning is the quality of English translation, which I believe has been to be marvelously done by professionals. It's almost like a re-interpretation of the source material--if you will--in Japanese. This definitely sets this game (and most likely its sequel--Second Chapter and the 3rd) apart from the likes of Final Fantasy and such.
You will probably find choke full o' troupes or cliché common to comics and mangas in this game:
- shadowy groups with profound motives beyond human comprehensions and far reach to every corner of the continent by all means fathomed by only the most conspiracy-minded individuals in the creative industry,;
- mysterious enemy combatants ranked in number not by sheer strength but their legendary reputations;
- villains turned out to be activists manipulated by a greater force each step of the way without a clue;
However if you can look past this and accept that most of the deeper story-driven games are more or less like this, and it's only a matter of expertise to conceal the usage of these troupes, then you will have a wonderful time like me to explore this universe--its lore and its characters. Not to mention this is one of the few REAL steampunk themed games available on PC, or even the entire industry, consider it being a niche not generally looked into. And if you are concerned about cliffhangers since this is the only the first entry, worry not--for each "chapter"(game) conclude its story in a satisfying way, while foreshadowing the next one and leaving room for a respite and a sense of achievement.
Gameplay wise, this game sports both open-world (opened up gradually in the first 5 hours) and meaningful character customizations (able to be re-speced at any time) through assemblies of clockworks and gem-socketing (thus comply to its Steampunk theme). Enemies are varied and requires certain tactical thinking in the manners of both character positioning in the battlefield and strength/vulnerabilities of each enemy type. Character progression is also non-linear, meaning there's no hard coded class definition, so you can have detailed customization of each character's role, while everyone still has their unique specialties.
Aesthetically this is one of the more pleasing JRPGs you'll ever come across. The graphics have been remade into HD and its aesthetic design definitely takes cue from both contemporary and mid-19th century old-world life, and the visual design does a great job taking care of every minute detail in 3D and the textures are excellent if you take into account of the fact that this game is made in the early 2000's.
The soundtracks have been one of my favorites and it certainly sounds like it 's heavily inspired by the work of Academy award winner Joe Hisaishi.
To conclude this review, I would absolutely recommend this game to all RPG enthusiasts, even if you don't usually touch JRPG. When you do, make sure you endure through the first 3 or 4 hours of this game after which point the story really starts to pick up its pace.
Final verdict: first chapter of a deep and story-driven steampunk RPG trilogy, 9.5/10.