For those who have followed developer Sting's games, it is a well-known fact that many of their titles favor complex and unique battle systems and gameplay mechanics, which are notoriously hard to get into but are incredibly rewarding for those who put their time into learning them. Hexyz Force is as far away from this as it's possible to get, with its gameplay mechanics rooted in the classic RPG style fans have come to expect, but with a portable aspect. With many of the RPGs on the PSP being either fetch-quests or console-RPGs-on-a-handheld, does Hexyz Force fall into the same trap - or does it surpass it and become something greater?
Hexyz Force takes place in the world of Berge, which is split into two sides, Lustrous and Dark. The former is in perpetual sunlight, the latter in perpetual darkness. This was caused generations ago by a battle between the God of Destruction Delgaia and the Divinities of Creation, in which the divinities were able to seal the god, but at the cost of their own lives. An event called the God's Remorse separated the two sides of the world by creating a phenomenon called the Black Precipice, which bars travel between the two areas by warping whoever or whatever enters it. The divinities' Force, the backbone of how everything forms in Berge, was passed down to the people. As the god Delgaia stirs, the people who possess the Force of the divinities and their weapons (Ragnafacts), called the Hexyz, will decide if Berge walks down the path of Creation or Destruction by their actions.
One of the unique aspects of Hexyz Force is the ability to pick from two different character's stories, that of the knight Levant and the cleric Cecilia. Both sides have different playing styles, as Levant is more attuned to the blade while Cecilia is attuned to healing arts. Each side has its own group of characters which accompany Levant and Cecilia, with both sides eventually joining forces near the conclusion of the game for the final battle. As with many of Sting's titles, after completing one side of the game the player can save clear data, which can be used to carry over specific items and stats to the other character's side, as well as altering the dialogue choices made depending on what the player did beforehand. This "dual protagonist" approach also carries on into a secret third ending, which requires players to play through both sides and perform specific actions to unlock it. The storyline, especially on Levant's side, doesn't surpass a Final Fantasy game, but there are enough twists and turns to keep players interested without bogging them down in too many details, a trap which many RPGs on the PSP fall into. An in-game log, as well as the ability to bring up the most recent conversations at any time from the menu or during dialogue, makes Hexyz Force easy to pick up and play for short burst, even if the player hasn't played the game in a few days.
Being a portable RPG on the PSP, one would expect the gameplay to include a massive list of fetch-quests and huge dungeons and towns in which to roam - Hexyz Force does neither. Early on in the game, each character is accompanied by a mysterious flying animal which can speak and has the ability to fuse items and equipment right from the menu. By giving players access to a shop at any time during the game, Hexyz Force is able to do away with the throwaway towns which only serve for equipment upgrading. This also allows for the towns that do exist to pertain directly to the story at hand and allows for them to be only as big as the current turn of events requires. The game's side quests, unlike many of the RPGs on the PSP, are completely voluntary and only serve to give rare, unique items, some of which help to unlock the secret third ending. This approach allows the player to decide what quests they want to do and when to do them instead of the developer's assuming they know what's best for the player.
This aspect also plays into the overall design of the game's overworld and dungeons. The world map uses a point-and-click interface allowing the player to move from area to area using the directional buttons and switch between the Lustrous and Dark sides of Berge using the L and R buttons. Hexyz Force's dungeons also follow this "less complex is better" method by reducing the unnecessary switches and obstacles that plague the genre, only using them when necessary or to protect treasure which is completely optional for the player to pickup. In addition, the dungeons have at least one set of save points and restorative areas, which are usually before the boss, or in multiple areas in the larger dungeons near the end of the game.
While the above advancements are well and good, an RPG isn't much of anything without a competent battle system. Unlike the consoles-RPGs-on-a-platform type of RPG, Hexyz Force features a trimmed down battle system, which is very basic but has enough intricacies to keep things interesting without bogging down the experience. Before a battle, characters can equip up to four weapons, which includes curative items and the Ragnafacts. Ragnafacts use up the character's Ragna Points (RP), while regular items have a set durability rating which decreases depending on how much the skill in question costs. Depending on the item equipped, each character might have access to one or more different skills, each ranging in their cost. Each item also has an innate elemental affinity, which comes into play in the game's "Hexyz Charge" meter, which increases as specific elements are used in succession. There are three types of elements, each with a weakness and an advantage over the other two. If elements are used in the correct order the gauge will increase, making the character's attacks more powerful. However, this also applies to the enemies, so players must think ahead to get the most use out of it. Another gauge, called the "Force Burst" gauge, increases as the characters deal attacks and get attacked, which can be used to execute special, powerful attacks on enemies. Ragnafacts can learn new skills by using Force Points (FP) outside of battle, as well as increasing in their attack power and lessening the amount of RP each skill on the weapon expends.
This "ease-of-use" mantra also applies to the game as a whole. Load times on both the UMD and PSN versions are incredibly fast, and with an optional data install the UMD version becomes just as fast as the digital version. For those who hate slow battle animations or don't care to watch the pre-boss dialogue of a boss that just gave them a Game Over, by pressing the R button at any time the game will fast-forward. This cuts down on the tedium of enemy encounters, which are visible from the dungeon map and can also be avoided if the player so wishes, and makes leveling up quite "invigorating", as one of the characters in the game would say.
There are some minor issues with the game, however. While most of the dungeons warp the player out after a boss battle, there are a few which require the player to trek all the way back out - having a spell of sorts to warp back out would have been welcome here. In addition, since enemies reappear the moment the player leaves the map, an already worn out party is forced to refight enemies all over again, unless the player wishes to use some of their precious FP to heal the characters. This is compounded by the fact that some of the dungeons oddly remove the restorative points but keep the save points, requiring players to spend time trekking back to the last restore point, fight until they level up and restore their HP/RP, or use RP-restoring items. Considering the game up until this point always gives the player both, and some of the other dungeons afterwards do the same, it seems odd that the developers would forgo it all of sudden in the few areas this occurs.
All other developers should take note - Hexyz Force is a prime example of how you do an RPG on the PlayStation Portable. It's perfectly designed for the system and it's definitely intricate enough to keep the hardcore player interested and entertained with its optional side-quests, battle system and story. There are some minor issues such as the mysterious lack of restore points in some areas and some dungeons not warping out the player after a boss, but if you're a gamer who enjoys a good RPG but doesn't care for the baggage that many PSP RPGs carry, this game should be right up your street.