I felt a bit burned by Cross Edge
, so please understand that I went in to this review of Trinity Universe with a bit of cautious optimism and very low expectations. By the time I was finished with the game I can say that I was right to not expect much after Cross Edge. NIS, Gust, and Idea Factory have some great ideas on their hands but it feels like too many cooks in the kitchen who all want their idea to be the main dish of the meal. The end result is a bland mishmash of gameplay mechanics that just make the whole experience boring. Where this game does excel is in providing you with an enjoyable cast of characters and a story that contains a lot of humor that NIS is known for, and sometimes that can make up for a lot of gameplay shortcomings.
Trinity Universe tells not one but two tales, one of the Demon Dog King Kanata, and the other of the Valkyrie Rizelea and their opposing stories, where Rizelea wants Kanata to become the Demon God Gem to prevent his world of Empyria from colliding with space debris that happens to occupy the Netheruniverse. But he has the desire to live a care-free life and is the main antagonist to Rizelea's quest to restore order to the Netheruniverse. Each character will encounter a different group of allies from across the Gust and NIS roster, including characters from the Disgaea and Atelier games. Hopefully you enjoy the comedic relief of Prinnies, because they're in here too. The story itself is very light on content but loaded with moments of comedy, some of which actually elicited a chuckle or two from me and I'm pretty desensitized to the brand of humor that NIS brings to their titles. If you can't handle a lot of the anime tropes that NIS likes to use in their games though then expect to get turned off really quickly by all the over the top use of stuff like super deformed characters and saccharin soaked dialog.
NIS also makes heavy use of anime stereotypes like sweat drops over characters during their dialog pieces. These scenes look fantastic using the 'Active Animation Adventure' system (AAA for short) that has characters looking like they are constantly in motion. If you've seen games like Grim Grimoire or Odin Sphere then you have a rough idea of what's happening when you see your characters on screen. They are extremely high resolution and look great on an HDTV. The movements are subtle and the voice acting matches up to the lip-sync quite well.
It's a shame that outside of the character interactions the game looks like a late PS2 title at best and a first generation title on current hardware at worst. The character models are fairly colorful but overall look very flat, which is very strange considering the character designs are very elaborate. The dungeons have a decent amount of variety to them, but they all use the same textures, and if weren't for the provided mini-maps I could see myself getting lost very easily looking at the same generic set pieces over and over again.
You'll be doing a lot of dungeon crawling in Trinity Universe, and even by stating 'a lot' I feel like that doesn't really tell you how much you'll be exploring dungeons. Outside of character interactions all you do is dungeon crawl in hunt of items to power up your characters and defeat optional bosses. To reach these dungeons you have to wait for the gravity of Empyria to bring them in to reach. You'll see some random object fly in to the Netheruniverse or fly out at the start of every day, these objects are where the dungeons reside. There are some static dungeons too but they don't offer quite the rewards that more obscure dungeons do, some of which resemble classrooms at a Japanese high school or a pirate ship. If you happen to find a particularly good dungeon it's possible to anchor them and visit them whenever you please. Some of these visiting objects also contain stores that sell rare items and are worth keeping around.
Nothing breaks up a good dungeon crawl like random battles. Unfortunately they are quite the common occurrence in Trinity Universe, and to make things worse there are also semi-random encounters with over-powered enemies who will boot you out of the dungeon. You can tell when these enemies are coming and have a chance to run from them, provided you equipped the run magic spell (Run magic?! Seriously?!). But if you lose to these enemies expect to start your dungeon adventure over. The first time this happened I nearly rage quit on the game and was going to send Charles the disc back. But I don't think he would have liked that too much. Still, the inclusion of such a mechanic is somewhat ridiculous that a user should be punished for exploring a region they are the proper level for by attacking them with an enemy that is beyond their abilities. Most of these super-powered enemies early on can take a character down in one attack, and if its the character that had the run magic equipped you might as well just skip your turns.When you get to a battle that is manageable (which to be honest is about 95% of your battles) you'll find that combat isn't nearly as bad as Cross Edge, which isn't saying too much, but it is a definite improvement. This is one of the times where I wish Gust would throw everyone out of the office while they get to designing the combat UI. In it's current state it's bland and confusing, opting to use the PS3 face buttons to determine what type of attack you are using. The combat itself relies on the action point system which stores unused points for the next round of combat. Think of rollover minutes on a cellular plan and that should give you the basic idea of how the AP system works. Thankfully the grid placement system of Cross Edge was completely sacked. Instead there is the awkward magic system that requires a large amount of AP to use spells. Spells range from level 1 which can be used with the simple tap of the circle button, or you can charge the circle button for more powerful magic which will require more AP. Some spells in the game are quite powerful, like the Release Mana spell which allows you to use graphics that can be placed on the weapons for special effects like hit point regeneration for the whole team, while others are for the most part are useless and never work, like putting the enemies to sleep or lowering their hit percentage. There are other nuances to combat as well, like chaining your character's actions to increase the damage output and to increase various stats over the course of the fight like your luck or agility. It's a lot to take in and thankfully there is a very handy encyclopedia available in game that will fill you in on everything (provided you've reached the part in the story where they taught you the subject).
Outside of combat there are a myriad of things you can do to augment your character's stats. This ranges from upgrading weapons with various materials found in dungeons, to fashioning accessories with various materials found in dungeons. Yeah, I just repeated myself and, yeah, there are a ton of things you can make, and all the materials come from the same place. It's kind of silly that there are so many different things to change the stats of your characters and yet it feels like you accomplish nothing by doing so. I felt more progress coming from naturally leveling up my characters than from outfitting them with an asinine amount of pieces of equipment. Later on these augments are a bit more welcome as they actually have some bearing when going up against some of the end-game bosses.
Once you finish a playthrough with Kanata or Rizelea you are encouraged to play through it again since the characters are different though the gameplay is pretty much identical between the two main characters. Kanata offers an easier playthrough and is recommended for beginners while Rizelea is big on the whole character augmentation aspect of the game. A typical run through the game takes between 20-30 hours, which is a bit short but combining the two stories puts you closer to 40-50 hours with scenes that cross over being irrelevant since you've already experienced them and can simply skip through.
Trinity Universe is a definite improvement over Cross Edge and overall is a decent title. I just wish it had a better battle system instead of having so much emphasis placed on making your character stupidly over-powered. The dungeon crawling gets old quite quickly but thankfully they aren't terribly long excursions into boredom. The character interactions are what make the game tolerable even though the overall story is kind of a bore but is kept light with a good dose of humor. I found myself enjoying the characters much more than the actual gameplay just because it was far too convoluted just get a party up and running. I attempted to go at the game straight on without any modifications and found myself hitting a brick wall around the fourth chapter that left me level grinding for a significant amount of time. Once I gave in to the character modding I had a much easier time and flew through the rest of the game. Except for when I ran in to one of those random strong enemy encounters, then I just ran for my life right out of the dungeon. If you've got some spare scratch, this isn't a half bad pick up in a summer that is quite light on PS3 RPGs, but otherwise, this one is for the NIS faithful.