Azure Dreams (PS1) Review
~Review by tankMage (January 2019)
Score: B+ (8.7/10)
This is what You get when You Mix Waifus and Pokémon
Azure Dreams is one of the most unusual titles I’ve encountered on the PS1. A mixture of Japanese Roguelike, dating SIM, and Pokémon-esque monster collection RPG, this title stands out even 21 years after its release. For those not familiar with Roguelikes (particularly the Japanese flavor) the genre is centered around navigating procedurally generated dungeons, collecting loot, and fighting monsters in turn based combat. Dying in a Roguelike usually results in the deletion of your character (perma-death) though the Japanese version of the genre is usually far more forgiving, simply kicking the player out of the dungeon and penalizing him or her in some way rather than deleting their character. Azure Dreams features a tower that the hero must climb and monsters, known as familiars, that he can collect in the tower. These familiars will assist him in combat and possess a number of traits ranging from magic spells to passive effects. There’s also a town building mechanic and a variety of NPCs (some of which become Koh’s girlfriend) the hero can interact with. Oh and dying in the tower will cost the player all of the items they are currently carrying; luckily it’s usually possible to teleport back to town using an item called a Wind Crystal if things get hairy.
While Azure Dreams is riddled with problems, particularly those associated with shitty localization, and wasn’t well received by critics at the time, it has managed to garner a modest following. For all of its flaws, Azure Dreams is a unique game that is filled with oddities and mysteries. So much so that I encountered more myths and rumors surrounding various aspects of this title than I have any other game. At any rate, it’s worth playing if you are looking for something different and can get past the grindy gameplay, horrid music, and sometimes garbled dialogue.
Japanese Roguelikes tend to have more of a story than their western cousins and this one is no exception. Interestingly, the plot serves more as a backdrop for the town of Monsbaiya and its inhabitants as the game focuses on their development. Players control a teen named Koh, whose father (Guy) was an elite treasure hunter famous for exploring the massive tower that stood in the desert and served as the center of the town. Guy never returned from the tower one fateful day, leaving his family to fend for themselves. The adventure starts on Koh’s fifteenth birthday, the day he can enter the tower, and the youth sets out immediately to find his dad in the massive vertical dungeon. At the entrance Koh meets Kewne, a monster who gives him a collar that will allow him to control other monsters. Kewne also assists Koh in his adventures.
After that, the main plot of the game fades into the background until you get close to the top of the tower, which can take quite a bit of time. The focus is primarily on Koh, who was quite the mischief maker and the daily lives of the townspeople. The cast is smaller than that of most RPGs, but even minor NPCs have a fair number of lines. The various girls Koh can date and his rival, Ghosh, are major characters that Koh will interact with the most. While Azure Dreams is not a paragon of character development, the town’s denizens have more depth to them than you’d find in most games and the town takes on a life of its own. The player even has quite a bit of freedom and can act like an upstanding citizen who builds Monsbaiya into a better place to live or be a total ass that constantly insults people.
Of course, one cannot talk about this game without mentioning the dating SIM aspect of it which is an optional, yet significant element of both the story and gameplay. The characters’ personalities are the sort of simplistic two dimensional cliches common to RPGs and anime, but some of them grow as Koh interacts with them. This makes the process of visiting the girls over and over again in order to get them to fall in love with Koh more interesting. With that said, progress with these relationships peter out after a while since the player cannot get married like in Fable, though Azure Dreams has more interesting NPCs, which makes up for this.
The main plot comes back into play near the end of the Tower when Koh reaches the top floor. The entire affair is just a big exposition dump, but it works in its own way, mainly thanks to the excitement of reaching the final floor, which enhances the experience. However, the story is a lot less impressive than it initially appears to be if you stop and think about it. I won’t go into detail, so I’ll just say certain events are far fetched even in video game land. The tower itself remains a mysterious place even after them main game is completed and it’s fun to speculate on why it exists. In the end, Azure Dreams story is propped up by its lively and often eccentric cast, but it’s nothing to write home about.
The localization of this game is so terrible that I decided to make a category for it. Before I go into criticizing the translation, I want to address some of the rumors concerning the localization of the game. There are claims that the North American version was censored, removing the ability of players to get married and date Ghosh, who is Koh’s male rival. These are most likely untrue from what I’ve been able to uncover about the Japanese version. It also doesn’t make sense that the localization team would remove marriage or dating Ghosh, while keeping bars, bloodshed, Koh flipping the player the bird, and 13 year old waifus in bathing suits.
In reality, the localization is plagued by its sloppy translation. Misspellings crop up frequently and the translators often spelled names of major characters incorrectly or inconsistently. For example, one of the girls Koh can date is called “Cherrl” rather than “Cheryl” and Ghosh’s surname oscillates between Rhodes and Rode. The grammar is also terrible and not in an informal English sort of way. Many lines of dialogue are garbled and difficult to understand, especially in instances where Koh has to respond to a question. This often lead to me choosing the wrong reply in some situations, which caused a variety of problems and forced me to reset the game in one instance. It’s pretty sad to see a supposedly professional game have more translation issues than any of the ROM Hacks I’ve played to date.
As for things that were removed or censored out of this game, they did change the cherub that appears in the beginning (which is fine, because the one in the Japanese version is a horrifying mutant) and the voice acting was dropped in the NTSC release. Now, voice acting was often terrible in PSX games, so I don’t think we missed out on anything in that regard. It would have been cool if they kept the original Japanese VO and let players turn it on in options or something. At any rate, this is the laziest translation I’ve ever seen, so much so that I had to seriously take it into consideration when reviewing this game. Good job Konami.
The combination of 2D sprites and 3D environments which Azure Dreams uses worked pretty well in most games of this era. There are some beautiful examples of sprite work on the PS1, too bad this isn’t the case with this title. Many of the visuals are downright ugly and look even worse on today’s HD screens than they did on CRTVs since their flaws are even more apparent in 1080p. At the same time, a considerable amount of effort seems to have gone into monster design and the tower itself has a surreal, otherworldly vibe to it that contrasts the dull desert town of Monsbaiya, so there are some good aspects to the graphics.
Public Enemy Number 1 on the ugly graphics lineup are the human character sprites. The NPCs and even the hero are all gangly and deformed looking. Heads, limbs, and bodies are all disproportionate to one another… and not in a cute stylistic video game/anime sort of way. Koh is one of the worst looking of the bunch as he walks around town with one hand open and the other clenched in a fist, which may work in the tower where he is holding a shield and weapon, but in town he looks like he has some sort of syndrome with an unpronounceable name, which we’ll just call “Koh’s Disorder”. Compounding the issue is the fact that Koh’s sprite merely flips when you change direction so that his shield is always facing the player. All the supposedly beautiful girls he dates all look like Muppets on screen along with the more generic NPCs. While it’s true that this game was made back in 1997, there were plenty of games that had nice looking sprites that predate this one and I’m not sure why Konami (which was in its golden age at the time) thought these sprites were passable… though I would venture to guess that maybe the art budget went towards monster design.
Yep, the monsters in this game are really interesting and look really good. In fact, I wonder if they were pre-rendered, because they have that flattened out look to them. At any rate, this game always left me with the feeling that Konami was trying to capitalize on the upsurging popularity of Pokèmon by including a host of quirky collectable creatures in their game. A fair bit of work must have went into the monster designs and animations, especially those of Kewne, the game’s mascot. Regardless of Konami’s intentions, the monsters stole the show and saved Azure Dreams as far as graphics go.
Monsbaiya, the town where everything takes place, is what one would expect from a desert town. While the dull earthy tones used for Monsbaiya are fitting and contrast the tower nicely, the town is far from pretty, even after the player builds it up. On one hand this gives the place a sort of realism, on the other hand it made me want to not be in the town. It would have been cool if the devs had added more color or if the buildings got renovated as the player progressed, but there’s no changing that now.
The Monster Tower is a strange chaotic structure that changes every time the player visits. The polygonal blocks used to build the rooms and hallways have a variety of interesting textures that change as the player advances, invoking a sense of real progress as the floors become increasingly exotic. Being procedurally generated, the layout lacks the nice little touches one finds in hand crafted dungeons, but this is offset by the fact that they will always be different and players will encounter oddities produced by the game engine. The Tower does suffer from the problem of having a lot of empty rooms and hallways (a problem Nethack players can relate to) which gets boring. Also, the background of the tower is always in motion and while I liked the dynamic feeling it gave the dungeon, it may bother some players.
Lastly, this game has a few cinematic scenes and some pretty nice character portraits that pop up when talking to the more important NPCs. The cutscenes are rare, but actually look pretty good, though they are mostly just distant shots of the Monster Tower. Still, it seems like Konami was trying to get away with doing the bare minimum here and it would have been nice to see CG versions of some of the monsters. As for the character portraits, well… they range from ok to pretty good. It’s hard to pin down my complaint about the portraits, but there’s something slightly off about them even though they look like garden variety anime characters. Maybe it’s just the overall artistic style, which is rather generic. At any rate Azure Dreams won’t win any beauty contests.
Azure Dreams’ UI is functional and dependable, but it leaves something to be desired as far as convenience goes. All of the controls are responsive, but the menus take some time to navigate. This is a result of the complex tactical nature of the gameplay and the devs made some commendable efforts to add shortcuts that allow the player to quickly command the two familiars that Koh can control. Even so, players still have to push several buttons and cycle through options in order to get to what they need. I can’t really complain about this much, because hotkeys and shortcuts in console titles were still a novel concept, so the fact that they even appear in the user interface at all is to Konami’s credit.
Music and Sound
The music in this game sucks. Imagine listening to the same screechy violin tune sawing away in the background for hours on end and you have a good idea of what the soundtrack is like. To be fair, there are remixes of the main theme that play as Koh climbs the Tower and a very slim minority of them actually sound kind of good. The fact that the person who composed the theme was able to remix it so much is also impressive in a strange way.
As far as sound effects go, those that appear in this game are well done, especially those used for magic, though they lack a sense of depth and texture. Still, the sounds of combat and Koh landing after a jump help make the entire experience more immersive. The Japanese version of this game had voice overs and while it was cool hearing Kewne shout “Flame Swordu!” in his Pikachu voice when I watched footage of it, I’m happy they eschewed it in the North American release. Voice acting in this era of gaming was often a joke and having some 5th rate hack stumbling through the awful translation of the dialogue would not have helped.
At this point you may be wondering why I gave this game a B+ when I have so few good things to say about it, well it’s the gameplay that makes Azure Dreams special. The combination of Roguelike adventuring and SIM make it a unique adventure, even if things get a little cringey at times. I would say that Azure Dreams has something for everyone, but this is very much a niche title. Still, there’s plenty to do despite the small size of the game world and the dating SIM feature is totally optional, so players who are not interested in it do not have to talk to Nico or Selfi ten billion times to get things they need to go adventuring in the Monster Tower. If only other titles took notes on this…
I’ll start with the Monster Tower, which is the main event. The goal is to get to the top of a 40 floor tower whose levels change every time you visit them. This can be done in one go with a lot of knowledge about the game and some luck, but it’ll take most players quite a few tries to reach the top. Koh uses a sword or wand to battle the monsters that patrol the tower in fluid turn based combat that is a more modern version of what one would encounter in older Roguelikes. He also gets a friendly monster (such creatures are called familiars) early on that he can order directly in combat or allow to act independently. Familiars can cast a variety of spells, use melee attacks, and even cast spells on Koh’s weapon to make it more powerful. Some familiars have special abilities like Manoeva’s morph skill, which allows it to mimic other creatures. Koh can only control Kewne at first, but will find other familiars in the Tower and gain the ability to control two at once. In addition to things to fight, there are traps, treasures, and elevators on every floor.
While the premise is simple, the fact that every monster has an elemental genus that has a rock-paper-scissors relationship to the other monster types adds a layer of strategy to the gameplay. Players will also have to deal with enemy spells and can equip Koh with a sword or a wand as well as a shield. Swords are mostly geared towards direct physical damage while wands boost certain mixture magics and some can even inflict negative status, like paralysis, on monsters. Combine Koh’s arsenal with the dozens of monsters he can enlist (many of which can be fused with another monster to create a familiar with special powers) and you get a game that leaves plenty of room for experimentation. While players have an array of abilities, the monsters that inhabit the tower have their own and can present a fair bit of challenge. I should mention right now that players can lose all of the stuff they are carrying, including familiars if they die in the tower, but this can be avoided if you save your game at Koh’s house before entering the tower and reset if you die.
Unfortunately, Azure Dreams can be something of a grind, because most players will likely want to power up their weapons and familiars, which will require them to visit the tower dozens of times. This is due to the fact that Koh will not retain his levels upon leaving the tower and has to power his equipment up using red and blue sand which is found rarely in the tower. The SIM elements of the game come to the rescue here, because visiting the tower causes a day to pass in town and things will be different when the player returns. Players can improve their house, build things like theaters, and develop relationships with the townsfolk, particularly those of the female persuasion. Talking to girls or building new amenities for the town will often advance these relationships and make the player feel like some real progress is taking place while they raid the tower for treasure.
To be honest, I have always had mixed feelings about the dating SIM aspect of this game, because I prefer to play games that allow me to do things that can’t be done in ordinary life, like explore alien worlds or monster filled labyrinths. Talking to a bunch of anime girls always felt mundane in light of that, but there’s also something endearing about it that sets this title apart from other Roguelikes. There’s plenty of free will that can be exercised as the player can choose to simply ignore the SIM elements of the game or be a total dick to the NPCs, which is something I appreciate. Sometimes games force players to undertake tasks that they would otherwise find dull (remember Onimusha 2’s trading system?) in order to unlock things. Azure Dreams’ SIM features are more of an added bonus. There are even a few simple quests that involve the tower players can pick up in town that build upon the story, but they are not necessary.
The momentum of the SIM slacks off very abruptly once the player builds everything and wins the heart of every maiden. Players can continue to explore the tower after reaching the final floor, which contributes to the SIM’s lack of closure, though it is nice to be able to continue playing the game after the main quest is done. Being able to continue the adventure after floor 40 is especially important, because collecting monsters is one of the main draws of the game.
Finally, the last boss was anticlimactic. Read the rest of this paragraph at your own risk, because there are minor spoilers ahead. Most players will probably expect to meet some sort of ultimate monster on the top floor, which is sort of the case. A powerful boss does inhabit the final floor, but it’s impossible to lose the fight with him unless there’s a sudden power outage and your PS1 shuts down, which is a bit of a disappointment considering how much it takes to get to the top.
Azure Dreams is certainly a unique adventure. I played this game many years ago and was really impressed by the punishing mechanics and complex monster system. Most of the people I’ve encountered who’ve played this title were also left with a good impression of it and I was surprised to find out Azure Dreams was largely panned by critics of the time. Much of the negative reception can probably be attributed to the sloppy localization and less than stellar graphics, but it’s also true that Roguelikes are niche games, so most of the critics of the time probably didn’t understand what they were dealing with and simply dismissed it. For those of us who actually know what a Roguelike is and enjoy the genre, Azure Dreams is actually a strong title with a lot to offer, you just have to get past the ugly surface.
Azure Dreams for the PS1 is a good choice for fans of the genre and newcomers alike.