From one-man development studio Dragon Slumber Games, Arelite Core is a JRPG that is firmly rooted in the 16-bit era. With a turn-based battle system, a chiptune soundtrack and hand-crafted artwork, there are few concessions to the modern era in its design. This serves as both a strength and weakness for a game that tributes the NES era of RPGs lovingly but at times feels held back by its old school approach. Through its roughly twenty-hour story experience, Arelite Core tells a compelling tale full of memorable characters. However, a lack of opportunities to branch out and explore its world outside of the main plot harms the 'epic' nature of the tale and leaves few reasons to revisit the world and its heroes. It's a well-told story will please fans of narrative driven games but those looking for a modern-day Chrono-Trigger may leave disappointed.
The premise of Arelite Core is interesting. It sets out to tell the tale of the blacksmith Karden and his quest to improve his craft which ends up entangling him in a battle against an ancient and unstoppable evil. In doing so, it attempts to emphasize the role of the weapons maker, who is so often sidelined to NPC status in these kinds of stories, over the spiky-haired hero who wields them. Practically speaking, this makes little difference to the overall direction of the story in comparison to your average hero tale. As the player, you are still the catalyst that drives the plot forward and you're still the one fighting the bosses. Apart from some emotional development of the main character and a final sequence that does its best to represent Karden's 'supporting' role, this aspect of the story feels underutilized after being emphasized in the game's introduction.
Original or not, the plot itself is well told. There's a good twenty hours worth of storytelling and each event, character, and location is fleshed out and feels relevant to the situation. The companions that you will meet on your journey may have abrupt introductions but they each have their own backstory and motivations that will be revealed as you progress. Your journey is a fairly linear one, rarely giving you the opportunity to stray off the beaten path, but you're never left without a sense of direction or purpose. With its well thought out character development, a consistent pace, and some motivating emotional hooks, I thoroughly enjoyed the story that Arelite Core had to tell.
The only slight disappointment here is that there's no opportunity to dig into these characters or the lore of the game other than through what is directly presented via the main story. Conversations with NPCs who aren't related to the plot are as perfunctory as they come, with several examples of villagers and townsfolk who will give you the same banal line about whatever crisis they are facing even after you've solved it. This lack of distraction is found throughout the game. There a couple of secrets to be found, such as a group of collectibles that I'm led to believe unlock a secret boss once assembled, but overall there is little impetus to use the limited window for exploration that the game gives you. It's perhaps telling of this aspect of the game that you will only gain the ability to revisit old locations prior to the very final portion of Arelite Core's story.
The turn-based battle system makes up the majority of the gameplay in Arelite Core, as you would expect. A JRPG style game of this nature can be made or broken almost entirely by how much depth fans can eke out of its combat mechanics and Arelite Core doesn't disappoint in this regard. The idea seems simple at first; you can attack (strike), defend (parry), or use special techniques (blitz). Each option affects where your character's portrait ends up on the turn counter, with special attacks usually taking longer to recover from. Here's where it starts to get complicated. As you level up, you'll gain additional 'stance points' for your character. These allow you to add modifiers to your three combat options, you might add stun effects to your attack, give one character healing or status healing on a parry, or improve the speed of your attacks so your turn comes around faster next time. The variety on offer is impressive and it allows you to further specialize the diverse characters who all come with their own unique party roles.
The depth doesn't stop there either, peel another layer of onion and you'll find that this system is intrinsically linked to combat's other main wrinkle, combos and 'combo crashing.' As you attack an enemy, you'll build up a combo score base on the number of hits and certain special attacks allow you to 'crash' the combo, dealing additional damage the higher the combo and resetting it. Combos also reset when the enemy takes a turn so when you consider that the stance points mentioned before allow you to speed up your characters or add additional combo hits on attacks, you can see how your options start to multiply. As well as taking damage from attacks, your characters and your enemies build up a 'stun meter' when hit. When full, this stuns the character, causing them to skip a couple of turns allowing you to build higher and higher combos on enemies or, conversely, allowing enemies to pound on your helpless characters. The point is that there are multiple systems at play that feed into one cohesive whole to create a battle system that keeps offering variety right up to the end of the game.
Party composition, however, is contentious. Despite the fact that there are six playable characters for your four person party, you're never in control of the members that make up your party at any given time. Instead, this is entirely dictated by events central to the plot. Given the events that lead to the various characters' comings and goings, this approach makes more sense in this game than allowing you to switch characters at will but it's still a surprising approach. Both in the locked parties and the fact there aren't a few more companions to meet along the way. This narrow focus does allow for each character to add something unique to your party, though. The way that each portion of the game is balanced as well means that you should never feel like your party is lacking regardless of the enforced changes.
The other major mechanic of Arelite Core, if you can call it that, is the crafting system. As mentioned, main character Karden is a blacksmith and that means he can use any forge he finds in the world to craft weapons and armor for your party. Given the protagonist's occupation, you'd think this system would be a bit more fleshed out. Instead, you have four base metals that range in quality and a few fairly powerless attachments to choose from. Craft the strongest thing you can at your crafting level and that's it. It stays useful throughout as the items you make will have a slight edge on what you'll find but it's an uninspired system to say the least. Added to that, at the time of writing there's also a game-crashing glitch whenever I attempt to craft using the unique and powerful attachment that serves as a reward for getting to the final stretch of the game. You can avoid this crash just by not using it, so it's hardly game-breaking, but it's frustrating nonetheless.
Technical issues like this aren't frequent in Arelite Core but they do occur. As well as a couple of other unidentifiable crashes to desktop, I encountered a couple of enemy animations that don't execute correctly, causing a blurring effect on the character models and one area where instead of leaving a town through its exit I was transported to an inaccessible part of the map and forced to reload the game. Unlike the crafting glitch, I found that most of these couldn't be replicated, so I couldn't say that these occur frequently enough to serious hamper enjoyment of the game.
There's some good artwork in the game, character and enemy models especially are nicely detailed and varied. The animation doesn't quite match up, though, with various basic attacks looking as stiff and unnatural as in the games that are being tributed here. Some of the more powerful blitz attacks add a nice bit of visual distinction to an animation style that otherwise sticks a bit too close to its source material. In an equally tributary move, the sound effects are straight out of the 16-bit era, for better or worse, where explosions sounded like static and laughter reminds one of someone torturing a robotic dog. The soundtrack does a somewhat better job at evoking its predecessors. There's some interesting composition that makes the most of the limited tonal pallet of the chiptune style and the main theme and battle music, in particular, stand out as memorable tracks among a variety of nostalgia-inducing tunes.
As a story-driven experience, Arelite Core succeeds. Its core battle system is deep enough to carry players through the entire adventure enjoyably while watching the entertaining plot unfold. As an RPG, however, I expected a little more reason to want to level my characters and explore their stories and world. There's the core of a good game here, a decent story, deep combat, but it could have done with a little more flesh on the bones, a more robust crafting system, more to explore, for example. Fans of a good turn-based JRPG will find some enjoyment but if you're looking for an NES classic, cartridge games remain your best bet.
Arelite Core was reviewed on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developer.
- Good Character Development
- Deep Turn-Based Combat
- Wide Variety Of Enemy Designs
- Weak Crafting System
- Low Replay Value
- Very Linear