Sands of Destruction - Staff Review  

Do Not Let the Sands of Destruction Get In Your Lunch
by Mike Moehnke

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20-40 Hours
+ Interesting story and characters
+ Excellent musical accompaniment
+ A fascinating battle system...
- ...except when it gets abused by the enemy
- Cutscene voices paced poorly
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   Sands of Destruction is the work of a veteran group of RPG designers that tried to create a truly excellent DS title. The group's work does come very close to excellence, but a few problems that are impossible to overlook keep it from the top tier of the system's RPG library. Sands of Destruction is easy to like for long periods before something comes along to infuriate the player anew, which is unfortunate when it could've been a contender.

   Sands' combat is superficially similar to umpteen other Japanese RPGs, with random turn-based exchanges being the format. Several items differentiate battles in Sands from any other game, however, and the first is that a character's number of actions per turn is not fixed. Using physical attacks can earn player characters additional actions, either by landing ten or more hits in a row (made possible because characters can attack with flurries of multiple blows) or by executing a critical strike. A character can gain up to six actions per turn in this fashion, but the sixth action operates according to different rules. At this point either a special attack that strikes everything onscreen can be unleashed, or spells that are unusable at any other time will become accessible. To further distinguish its combat from other games, Sands uses the DS's top screen to display flying enemies that must be attacked using entirely different techniques than are available when destroying denizens of the ground.

   In the spoils received after battles, Sands' characters garner Customization Points, used to enhance both physical attacks and magical strikes. What distinguishes the customization system is its attempt at balancing increased attack power with the diminishing of physical strikes' accuracy, and similarly correlating increased spell power with the cost of magical attacks rising. Upgrading attack power and diminishing its negative side effect is not hard if the player has plenty of points to spare, but the effort by the developers to restrict endless attack increases is appreciated. Every technique's effect can be enhanced after a certain number of upgrades, but only one subset is fundamentally altered by its upgrades: the three ground flurry strikes. Upgrading these allows the player to chain them together, turning what demanded three actions into one, and making most enemies fall with the greatest of ease.

   Several things combine to make the game's battle system extremely unbalanced, either negating all challenge or unpleasantly increasing the difficulty. The first is the aforementioned ability to chain ground flurry attacks together, which makes almost every enemy on the ground die quickly. The second is occasionally powerful enemies that show up, which still die quickly but if given an opportunity will rip the player's team apart with attacks that do a lot more than the single digit damage most adversaries deal. The third is the ability of most bosses to magically acquire more actions and bombard the player with attacks repeatedly, which may not individually do much damage but collectively can spell a Game Over. The inconstant nature of combat in Sands bedevils it and makes boss altercations in particular often aggravating.

2 damage per hit, even in a combo, is pathetic for this game. 2 damage per hit, even in a combo, is pathetic for this game.

   Combat in Sands of Destruction may not be all that it could, but the story driving it forward is actually quite good. It begins with the introduction of Morte, top agent of the World Annihilation Front that apparently seeks just that. Morte is poorly disposed towards letting the world continue existing and takes actions more in keeping with terrorists than any kind of conventional hero. After her introduction Kyrie appears as an unremarkable young man who is summoned for questioning by the feral leaders of the world, whereupon a mysterious voice addresses him as the Destruct and he shows an amazing ability to accelerate climate change's effects by turning his hometown into sand. Kyrie did not desire this destructive power and it does not manifest again immediately, allowing the feral authorities to take him into custody. Word of the massive destruction wrought means Morte makes a beeline for its source, and Kyrie finds himself in the awkward position of being capable of laying waste to the world when he has no desire for destruction. The tale that follows may not be great literature, but the characters are entertaining and the narrative moves along well.

   The menus of Sands are mostly functional and effective. Combat is a little different than other RPGs, with each of the face buttons on the DS either initiating a physical strike or bringing up magical options that are also chosen from one of the face buttons, but players will quickly become accustomed to it. Shops display the effects of new equipment before it is purchased, and the shopping experience as a whole is quick and painless. The only real problem with interaction resides in the game's paltry information on what the effects of many accessories are, a rather annoying setback since these pieces of equipment can be quite important.

Lots of running water and no visible toilets -- could this be a poor decision? Lots of running water and no visible toilets -- could this be a poor decision?

   One facet of Sands that can receive unrestrained praise is its soundtrack. Yasunori Mitsuda, Shunsuke Tsuchiya, and Kazumi Mitome have turned in a set of compositions that is consistently captivating. The game features quite a bit of voice acting by DS standards, which is variable but never terrible (Taupy and Agan being two particularly good performances). The main problem with the voice acting is that it seems to have been timed exactly to the Japanese actors, and the timing was not altered in English. There are long pauses that break up the pacing of key scenes, with the irritating effect of detracting from the story.

   Visually, the game is workmanlike, doing little to stand out for good or ill compared to other DS titles. Its moderately expressive sprites and good animation are balanced by some of the most blatant palette-swapping of enemies seen in an RPG and a lot of painful closeups on pixellated protagonists. Completing Sands of Destruction will require somewhere between twenty to thirty hours, with that time being influenced greatly by a number of optional quests that can be taken on near the end.

   Sands of Destruction could have been excellent, and some aspects of it indeed do approach greatness. Unfortunately, its many irritations in combat cause the game to fall short of the lofty status it wanted to achieve. A sequel to Sands that irons out the game's inadequacies would indeed be welcome, but the potential of the future does not impact the present game. Sands of Destruction is not a bad game at all, and its combat flaws are not game-breaking, though they may demand copious grinding to overcome. The world presented in the game is an interesting one, and its flaws should not prevent an audience prepared for some frustration from having a good time with it.

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