Cool Girl Games: Chantelise

Text version and links:

Welcome to the first episode of Cool Girl Games, a show dedicated to celebrating cool video games with female protagonists! Today we’ll be looking at 2006’s Chantelise, a Japanese indie game Developed by EasyGameStation for Windows PC, and then localized into English and released on Steam by Carpe Fulgar in 2011.

Chantelise follows the adventures of Elise and her older sister Chante as they search for the witch who turned Chante into a fairy, in the hopes of undoing the curse which has been placed upon her. After a short, fairytale-esque sequence explaining what happened to Chante, the game opens with the girls exploring a forest some time into their travels, when they hear the cries of a startled woman and decide to go and help her.

Most of the dialog in Chantelise occurs in brief exchanges between its principal characters at the start and end of each of the game’s five chapters, which correlate to the five dungeons which players will explore over the course of their adventure. These dialog scenes are fairly straightforward and brief, but the characters are given just enough livelihood and the plot has just enough mysterious intrigue to keep players invested in it, even if the story isn’t the primary focus of, nor the best reason to be playing, this game.

Only a few of these scenes are voice acted, and the game features only the original Japanese audio–which is pretty entertaining for those who can appreciate it. Aside from the audio, Carpe Fulgar really brings the dialog to life with their localization, which eschews literalness in favor of comedic personality and comes out better for it. Chante is a rude but lovable rough-and-tumble type who’s quick to pick a fight, regardless of how she’s been transformed into a tiny fairy. She’s also extremely protective of her sister Elise–though with said sister’s polite demeanor and ironclad will, she hardly seems like the one anyone needs to be worried about. Elise can come off as a bit of a blank slate at times, but her dynamic with Chante is effective, and carries them reasonably well throughout the story.

After rescuing her in the forest at the beginning, the sisters become acquainted with Aira, the proprietor of the town’s item shop and overall kindly, sisterly figure. Aira gives the girls a place to stay in town and advice on where to go next by sending them after the town’s local fortune teller, Elma. Tracking down and later following the advice of Elma leads the girls through the various elementally-themed ruins surrounding the town, and through a not-terribly-complex web of intrigue which both Aira and Elma are more tied up in than they first appear.

Most of the game’s dialog consists of idle chit-chatting between the four main characters and, optionally, the people walking around town, along with buildup towards the reveal of the story’s central mysteries over the course of the game. While the plot is not particularly deep or engaging, it also never takes up too much time or gets in the way of playing the game. When dialog does come up, it manages to remain a welcome and refreshing respite from the action, as opposed to an overlong slog which takes up more time than its worth.

Once the player has control over their character and begins navigating the game’s environments, the first thing they’re likely to notice is the somewhat peculiar graphical style and control scheme. Chantelise is comprised of two-dimensional sprites for the characters and enemies imposed onto a three-dimensional backdrop–a style which has not been seen much in mainstream gaming since the Playstation One or Sega Saturn days, and which can take a little bit of getting used to at first.

Considering that Chantelise was pretty much entirely created by just three guys, self-released at Japan’s Comic Market, and is never sold for more than ten dollars at the absolute most on Steam, I think that the dated artwork is more than forgivable–especially considering the amount of value which comes out of the game’s mechanics. Even if the art style isn’t the most eye-catching at first glance, the game actually does a lot to make itself visually memorable, and to keep the environments from looking as bland as they likely could have.

The game’s world is structured around one small town and five dungeons, which are divided into seven stages apiece. (This is without including the four-stage bonus dungeon that can be unlocked in the post-game, or the three-stage tutorial area which comes at the start.) Each of the stages within each dungeon is unique in terms of size, number and placement of enemies, environmental challenges, design, and overall aesthetic. Some stages are super tall, some are super long, some are just little rooms with tons of enemies, and some are almost labyrinthine, requiring players to hunt for the exit.

In order to progress through each stage, the player has to exterminate every enemy in the field, which usually requires navigating the entire stage to accomplish. There’s a very good chance that players will find themselves revisiting the same stages multiple times, and will eventually know a lot of them like the back of their hand–so the fact that each stage is so unique is imperative to keeping the game fun and interesting.

In addition to the simple goal of taking out every single enemy in the area, the player also has the optional goal of obtaining a secret treasure in each stage. The methods for obtaining these treasures vary greatly from stage to stage, but they usually involve navigating the area in a specific way, or finding a secret spot, or performing some kind of specific action in a specific location. Some of these treasures are fairly intuitive, and the player might discover them just through interacting with the environment–while others can be highly difficult to guess.

At the start of the second chapter, a priest character is introduced in town, who will give the girls hints towards the locations of a stage’s secret treasure in exchange for some of their overall life points. Unfortunately, most of his hints are incredibly esoteric, and not worth the hefty price of cutting your life force down–considering that building it up can be costly and difficult in the first place, as I’ll get into later. A lot of the hidden treasures are hugely beneficial to the player at every step of the journey, if not outright necessary during the final confrontations; so I find it really frustrating that some of the harder ones to discover weren’t given more direct hints, when said hints come at such a high cost. As much as it sucks to say something like this in a review-like video, I advise playing this game with an online walkthrough handy in the name of obtaining any of the treasures which you can’t find on your own. If the treasures weren’t so helpful towards completing the game, and if getting them otherwise wouldn’t involve a ton of grinding for money, then I would advise otherwise; but I really think that the game overall flows better and is more fun and forgiving if you continually collect secret treasures along the way. Of course, if you’re okay with a few hours of grinding or experimenting for as long as it takes to try and find the more difficult treasures, then by all means, have fun with that.

What I would consider this game’s most defining feature, and the core of what makes it fun to play, is its uniquely intuitive control scheme (assuming, as I will, that you play this game with a controller, since I imagine keyboard and mouse feeling much more strange). Elise is controlled with either the left joystick or the gamepad, while the player can move the camera with either the right joystick, or with the L and R buttons. What’s great about these controls is that Elise moves in directions which correlate with whatever direction the camera faces, meaning that you can essentially control her entirely using the L and R buttons while holding forward on the joystick or control pad.

Elise moves at a very satisfying pace, and the environments are almost always very open, giving her a lot of room to run around and circle enemies. The combination of steering Elise with the shoulder buttons and moving her around freely with the joystick gives the player impressively tight control over the character, so that they can keep moving and weaving in and out of combat constantly. As the game goes on, mastering the controls will become necessary, as different combinations of enemy types require the player to juke around and time their attacks precisely if they want to avoid damage. Getting these controls down was for me among the most satisfying controller experiences to ever come out of an action-RPG.

Adding to the ease of movement is the fact that Elise swings her hook sword in a very wide arc around her body, which doesn’t require the player to be precise, but instead encourages them to move in quickly, attack, and then move away, often in an attempt to group enemies together and attack them all at once. It would be difficult to imagine the 2D-on-3D character sprites or the movement-heavy control scheme working at all if the attack animations weren’t exactly the way that they are–which is probably why the hook sword is the only weapon in the game.

However, that isn’t to say that there are no other methods of attack. In addition to the basic three-hit combo and powerful jumping slice, Elise can also utilize four different kinds of magic attacks by picking up and using the elemental stones which are randomly dropped by enemies when hit with her normal attacks. Elise can only hold up to six elemental stones at a time, but enemies drop them almost constantly–so it’s encouraged that players use their spells frequently on the go, and then pick up more stones in the middle of combat. Certain enemies can only be killed with magic, and a lot of them have different elemental weaknesses, so the player will have to think about which kinds of stones they want in their inventory, or to use on which enemies, and will likely make a lot of considerations about which stones to look for when they start learning the levels better towards the end of the game.

Where things really get interesting is in the fact that Elise can also combine stones in order to cast a wider variety of spells. At first, the water, fire, and wind spells only focus on subtly different forms of attack, with their combinations mostly leading to more damaging attacks. However, the ground stones will first cast a magic ball that encircles the player, and then, when combined, provide temporary armor which prevents Elise from getting knocked back by enemy attacks. Later, when Elise unlocks the ability to fuse three spells at once, she gains attacks that can trap enemies in a tornado, area of effect spells, and even a crucial healing spell that comes from combining three water stones. Considering that the player is completely unable to carry any healing items in the game, and can only pick up immediately-effective food items which are randomly dropped from enemies, the healing spell can massively change the player’s priorities during the game’s later, more difficult stages.

Among the most unique features of this game compared to other action-RPGs is that there is no experience or levelling system in the game whatsoever. Instead, the player can purchase different forms of equipment to increase certain stats, or drop their cash on hit point upgrades which become progressively more expensive over the course of the game. Many of these items can also be discovered as treasures–secret or otherwise–in the dungeons, while a number of them are ONLY available as secret treasures–which is a big part of why I think that hunting for secret treasures is so crucial.

At the start of the game, Elise can only equip two items at a time; and by the final dungeon, she can only equip four; meaning that even as the player collects a greater variety of items and finds more powerful ones, they will still have to make situational decisions about which items to use at which times to reflect their playstyle. Each item makes a dramatic difference in the player’s baseline stats, meaning that the player really has to base their approach to each situation around what gear they’re using, especially in the late-game stages. Some items will buff up magical power or defense, while others buff up physical power or defense, and others offer things like speed bonuses, drop rate increases for different stones, money, or food, status resistance, and elemental power boosts.

For the most part, as long as the player continues to have the strongest items available to them at any given time, it can be pretty easy to strike a balance between equipment. I played most of the game with speed, physical attack, and physical defense boosts equipped, dropped tons of money on hit point upgrades, and tried to dodge my way around most of the magic spells, while making sure to match my spell usage to the enemy’s weakness when I used spells myself. However, players could just as easily equip nothing but magical attack and stone spawn rate boosters and run around raining hellfire on enemies from a distance–which feels a hell of a lot more satisfying than using magic does in most action-RPGs.

As the game goes on, players will be tasked to equip themselves to better suit their situations, and some trial and error will likely be involved. Every time the player enters a stage on story mode, that stage becomes available for instant access on practice mode, which is where the player can pick up hidden treasures that they missed, grind for cash, or simply practice how to beat a certain stage before trying it again on story mode.

Playing through a dungeon on story mode requires the player to go through each room of the dungeon in sequence; though once the player has cleared a stage once, they will always be allowed to simply run straight through it into the next stage. Where this gets weird is that every time the player dies, they will have to start back at the beginning of the dungeon on story mode, and then run through each stage quickly to get back to where they were.

This could become pretty frustrating during some of the game’s boss fights if the player died multiple times and had to run through the dungeon again and again–especially in stages where there’s some degree of platforming involved to make it through. Platforming plays a very small part in this game, and is mostly used to make certain stages unique; but thanks to the 2D-on-3D objects, it can be pretty easy to misjudge the distance on jumps and have to repeat them over again. By far the most frustrating moments in the game for me were when I’d be trying to get back to the boss room after dying, and find myself trapped somewhere repeating a small platforming section over and over again because I misjudged the distance on a jump.

Even with these frustrating moments, however, I found Chantelise remarkably difficult to put down. Having to run back through a dungeon is the only punishment for dying, and the player retains any items which they’ve obtained, even if those include secret treasure picked up during the boss fight. There’s never a sense of having lost progress, and whenever I died, I found myself raring to go again. Even the final boss, which is a very long, arduous, multi-part battle, with an unskippable dialog sequence in the middle, and which took me at least ten or more tries to beat, was not enough to frustrate me out of finishing the game–and I was more than happy to continue playing the bonus content afterwards.

At the same time that the player unlocks the final dungeon, they also unlock the bonus endurance dungeon, as well as the bonus fishing minigame. The endurance dungeon is a sixty-stage gauntlet which selects a random stage from any of the first four dungeons, including bonus stages which are only unlocked by gathering all of the secret treasures a dungeon, and throws them at the player, with a boss battle yielding a powerful item on every tenth floor. It took me one hundred and four minutes to get killed on the thirty-fourth stage, even when I was decked out with all of the loot from every dungeon up until that point–so the endurance test is as much about patience as it is about skill (if not more so). I’d love to eventually play this dungeon to completion, but the time investment is quite daunting.

The fishing minigame, meanwhile, is probably the most grindy thing that the player can involve themselves in with this game, though I don’t think it’s totally boring. Once they’ve obtained the fishing rod, players can cast it into any pool of water in any stage in the game, and catch a huge variety of colorful fish of differing rarity. The man who teaches you how to fish will then trade you all sorts of powerful, exclusive items in exchange for a random assortment of large quantities of certain fish. A lot of these fish are really difficult to find and will take a hell of a long time to catch enough of to make a trade, so again, I’d highly recommend consulting an online guide if you want to catch all of them; and even then, I would only expect the most hardcore dedicated players to invest that kind of time into the game.

Aside from what I’ve described, there are some other minor intriguing features which might drive players to interact with the game more individually. For instance, while players are allowed to sell items, along with random trinkets that they find in the field, these items will depreciate in value every time that they are sold; whereas items that the player buys will escalate in price each time that they are bought. As such, players will often be faced with making a decision between selling one item in order to buy another, while knowing that they won’t easily be able to get the original item back, causing them to really think about the priorities of their stock. Some items will increase the drop rate of coins, and others will even make all of the coins automatically magnetize to the player, which makes grinding easier; so players who don’t use a guide may also face the dilemma of whether to grind and buy all their items outright, or to sacrifice some overall health to receive hints about secret treasures in the hopes of finding items that way. (A lot of these item economics were expanded on heavily in EasyGameStation’s follow-up to Chantelise, the better-known and also excellent Recettear, which I’ll probably talk about on this show at some point in the future.)

All in all, while Chantelise may not be the most deep or best-looking video game out there, its mechanics are wonderfully thought-out and incredibly satisfying to interact with. The game is paced perfectly to become more engaging and deep as it goes, is just long enough to be a fulfilling experience without overstaying its welcome, and offers tons of bonus material for anyone who finds themselves enamored with its systems. Not only is the game only ten dollars on Steam at any given time, but the entire Carpe Fulgar Collection, which consists of Recettear, Chantelise, and Fortune Summoners, goes on sale during pretty much every Steam sale; with the entire pack typically coming in at fifteen to twenty bucks, and each individual game coming in at around five apiece. Considering I got over fifteen highly enjoyable hours out of this game without even getting through the entire endurance dungeon, I’d say I got way more than enough bang for my buck, and would highly recommend this game to anyone who thinks it looks interesting from what I’ve described in this video.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this video, and that you’ll stick around on my channel for more Cool Girl Games in the future, as well as my regular analytical videos on animation. If you’d like to show some support for my work, then I encourage you to share it around; and if you’ve got dollars to spare, then consider becoming a patron, or making a paypal donation. Thanks again for watching everyone, and I’ll see you in the next one!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s