The Lufia series has had quite a rocky past to say the least. After the release of the second game in the series, Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals back in 1995 on the Super NES, it wasn't until 2001, after several delays and cancelled games that fans got another game, Lufia: The Legend Returns, but this time it was for a lesser system, the Game Boy Color. While the game was quite excellent considering the platform it was on, it still felt like something was missing. With the release of Lufia: The Runs of Lore on the Game Boy Advance two years later, which was an incredibly disappointing "gaiden" side-story entry, it seemed like the Lufia series was dead in the West. But then comes along a brand-new entry in the franchise, and a reimaging of Lufia: Rise of the Sinistrals to boot, Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals. After such a long break since a new Lufia title, does Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals meet player's expectations and possibly even surpass them, or is this simply just a cash-in on the fans' nostalgia?
Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals begins with a world in which technology is rapidly advancing and everyone is getting along with one another, until out of nowhere, a voice rings out in the sky and reaches out across the entire planet. The voice is of Gades, the Sinistral of Destruction, who declares that he's appeared to wipe out humanity's existence unless someone appears to challenge him.
And in typical Japanese RPG fashion, that hero is you. Playing as the red-haired monster hunter Maxim, you decide to take up you sword and face off against the self-declared god... and very shortly end up getting your butt handed to you. After surviving the fight thanks to a mysterious priestess named Iris, you embark on a quest to travel across the world, finding enough strong warriors to join you in an epic rematch against Gades for the fate of humanity.
For fans of Lufia: Rise of the Sinistrals, the story is essentially the same. And with Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals being a reimagining of that game, it should. Many aspects of the game, such as the heroes, antagonists, enemies and NPCs carry over from the original and the puzzle aspect is here as well, albeit in a slightly different form. However, this isn't just a simple graphical update of the original. Neverland, the game's developer, has made quite a number of changes this time around.
The first major change long-time fans will notice is that the game is an isometric Action RPG now, instead of a turn-based 2D RPG like the original. The d-pad moves your character, the Y button attacks, B jumps, A performs a dodge and X activates the signature ability of each of the playable characters. Each weapon in the game has different abilities which can be switched using the L button, and the R button can be held to charge up special attacks, which use up part of the character's IP gauge.
Unlike the original, except for a few key story events, once a character joins you, they'll stay with the party, instead of permanently leaving at predetermined plot points. This allows for some fun combinations during battle, as players can swap out characters by pressing on them on the touch screen. Once players get comfortable enough with this system, it becomes quite engrossing, as players can easily switch out characters as needed depending on who is the best fit for a particular enemy. The bosses are easily the most impressive part of the game, as many of them span both of the Nintendo DS' screens and are challenging enough without being too hard. And for those who just can't seem to beat a particular boss, the game even allows for the ability to automatically add five levels to every party member at no cost (except for a "Beginner's Badge" key item which stays in your inventory), alongside the options of retrying from the last checkpoint and loading from a previous save.
This swapping technique is also needed in the game's numerous puzzles, which this time are intertwined with the environment instead of being in separate rooms, as enemy encounters only occur during pre-determined, non-puzzle areas of the dungeons. Tia has a hookshot-like weapon which can grab objects from afar and pull characters to posts to surpass large chasms and Selan has a flying disc which can hit objects far in the distance. These are just a few of the various abilities each character possesses. Sadly for many of the characters, namely Guy, these abilities are barely used in only a few of the dungeons, which is somewhat disappointing. However, the puzzles that are there are quite thought-provoking, as some of the game's later puzzles will take quite a bit of time to analyze and derive a proper strategy for. There's also a slight issue with the game's retry system for the puzzles, as the checkpoints aren't given after completing each puzzle, instead being given out at seemingly random plot points, so for later dungeons where multiple puzzles are in a single area, having to reset the puzzles because you made a slight error means you have to redo each and every puzzle over again, as well as re-fight all of the enemies you had defeated. While this doesn't occur most of the time, it's incredibly frustrating when it does pop up.
Graphically, Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals is simply jaw-dropping and surpasses the majority of the games on the handheld. The game is rendered in early PlayStation-like polygonal graphics with some incredibly depth at far distances, although some pop-in and muddy graphics can be seen, namely when the camera zooms in extremely close in a few areas. These times are few and far-between and usually are only noticeable when the player is intentionally trying to find them. There is a cost for this beauty, as at times the game has some slight slowdown issues when too many things are going on at once on the screen. Thankfully this doesn't appear often and never occurs during the game's boss battles and more important scenes, but it does make one wonder if some more time spent tweaking the game might have been able to fix this small issue.
But for many fans of the series, the most important thing is the game's story, and being a fan of the original and playing through Curse of the Sinistrals it's possible to appreciate it all over again. All of the key scenes are here, albeit with a few small changes here and there later in the game. As one might notice from the world map, many of the superfluous areas from the original were axed, leaving only the most important areas and plot points from Rise of the Sinistrals. All of the game's original music is intact, along with a few remixes of songs from the original Lufia game that long-time fans should enjoy. This does make the game somewhat shorter, with the first play through taking about 20-25 hours, but it makes for a much easier to follow storyline that doesn't overstay its welcome, unlike many Japanese RPGs as of late. As a bonus, Curse of the Sinistrals also includes voice-overs for many of the key scenes in the game for all of the main characters and the various antagonists. Their quality is quite impressive for Natsume, who in the past has been known for their questionable voice actors. Guy and Dekar talk and sound just as stupidly and meat-headed as you'd think, and Maxim sounds like the small town monster hunter like you'd expect. It's nice to see that Natsume paid as much attention to the game's excellent script as they did to the voices.
Even with the game's slight issues, Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals is still an amazingly stunning achievement. It's not often that a developer has the guts to completely change things up while updating a treasured classic for a new generation of gamers, but that's exactly what Neverland has accomplished. For fans of the original, it's a walk down memory lane with the same characters and the same major plot points, but with the game's completely new approach, it opens it up to a brand new audience. Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals aimed to be something different and vehemently succeeded in that regard. All Nintendo DS owners who enjoy RPGs or who are even slightly interested in the Action RPG concept should give this game a chance, it's easily one of the most impressive titles on the handheld this year.