Alcahest
  • Genre:
    • Action Adventure
  • Platform:
    • Super Famicom
  • Developer:
    • HAL
  • Publisher:
    • Square
  • Released:
    • JP 12/17/1993
Score: 80%

This review was published on 10/10/2015.

Alcahest is an overhead action adventure video game developed by HAL Laboratory and published by Square for the Super Famicom. It was released in Japan on December 17, 1993. Thus far, the game isn't officially available in any other region on the planet that is Earth, though it may be available on some other planets. Luckily, the emulation community produced an English fan translation for the game on August 13, 2002. Normally, HAL makes games almost exclusively for Nintendo, most notably the Kirby series. Due to that, one may be under the impression that HAL is a part of Nintendo, but that's not the case. HAL is its own separate company, and occasionally, they make games independently or for other organizations. Alcahest is a good example of a game made by HAL with no involvement from Nintendo. Anyway, it truly is a shame and lame that this game never came out of the tame land of fame. What I mean is, it sucks the game never got released outside of Japan, because it's really good.

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Long ago, the radiance of an ominous star shone throughout the heavens. This ill omen brought about the appearance of the demon god, Alcahest, which caused chaos and ruin to spread across the land. When matters were at their darkest, a gallant swordsman emerged from the shadows to bravely stand against the evil demon. The savvy swordsman then used the sacred power of the four Guardians of the world to slay the demonic Alcahest. 1,000 years later, a tyrannical emperor ruthlessly marches his army across the land in an attempt to conquer the world. The megalomaniacal ruler launches an assault on the Kingdom of Panakeia, but the Kingdom successfully defends itself with the help of its knights. Yet again, a star of an ominous nature shines bright in the sky, signaling the revival of Alcahest. Will another courageous swordsman defend the world from danger once more? The answer is yes, and that swordsman is you. There is a moderate amount of story sequences and dialogue throughout the game, but you can skip these if desired. The plot isn't terribly deep or anything, but it does a good job of making the game feel like an adventure.

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This game looks and sounds good, especially for 1993. The sprites and backgrounds are large, detailed, and have more color than a bowl of Lucky Charms cereal. However, similar to many of the Castlevania games of the time, some character sprites lack detailed facial features like noses and mouths. In regards to the music, it sounds almost identical to the soundtrack of Kirby Super Star, another title developed by HAL, except Alcahest predates that game by a good few years. The actual compositions are different, but the synthesized sound effects for the instrumentation sound eerily similar for both games. Not that this is a bad thing, as the soundtrack to Kirby Super Star is some of HAL's best work. Alcahest's music isn't quite on the same level of greatness, but it's still fairly good. Fantastic artwork and killer tunes earn Alcahest an A in the presentation department.

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You take control of a swordsman named Alen, who just so happens to be the protagonist of this dandy adventure. Alen is equipped with a sword and a shield; swinging the sword is as simple as pressing a button, whereas you automatically block with the shield by remaining still. Actions like attacking and walking will cause Alen to lower his guard, which prevents the shield from being crazy overpowered. Walking around is obviously done with the directional pad, and double tapping any direction will cause Alen to run in that direction. Attacking while dashing does more damage than normal. You gain experience points by killing baddies, but instead of leveling you up, they give you extra lives. To actually upgrade your capabilities, you must locate items inside treasure chests that increase your maximum life gauge, MP, and SP. The controls are simple, responsive, and precise, making for a smooth playing experience.

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Partners will occasionally join you on your quest to do whatever it is you're supposed to be doing. They're a motley crew that includes wizards, princesses, knights, and even cyborgs! When on your side, partners will automatically follow you around, attacking enemies whenever you swing your sword. Most of them shoot projectiles, like fireballs, so you don't have to worry about aiming their attacks too much. Each partner has a big special attack or ability they can perform that costs SP, which you manually use through a button press. This is usually a massive attack that damages all enemies on the screen, but can sometimes be something else, like a healing spell. For the majority of the game, partners aren't permanent, as they will join and leave you at predetermined points in the plot. You never get more than one at any moment, either. Near the end of the game, you get the ability to freely switch between all of your pals, but you're still limited to only having one out at a time. The partner system is definitely cool, but it would be nicer if they didn't constantly abandon you. That's so inconsiderate of them.

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Throughout his quest, Alen will obtain the aid of the four Guardians of the world. Each Guardian represents one of the elements, like fire, water, earth, and wind. Guardians will join Alen at key points during the story, often after defeating a powerful boss, and they bestow him with an elemental sword. You can switch the currently equipped Guardian and sword on the fly by pressing the shoulder buttons; what Guardian Alen has equipped is signified by the color of his clothing, which changes to correspond to the element. The first thing you can do when equipped with a Guardian is hold down the attack button to charge up a special sword attack. This is similar to the spin attack from the Zelda games, except there's a different one for each Guardian. You can also temporarily summon the equipped Guardian to assist you during battle, but this comes at the cost of MP. The concept of Guardians is neat, because not only does it give you something to look forward to as you play the game, but it also acts as a form of story driven character progression.

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Despite its obvious similarities to Zelda, Alcahest is far more action oriented. The game is also divided into multiple stages, giving it a more arcade-like feel. As such, the stage design focuses more on killing enemies, beating bodacious bosses, and all around survival. There is a little more to it than that, though. Prevalent throughout the game are panels on the ground that make Alen dash attack into enemies or jump across chasms when he touches them; these spice up the game play a tad. Nearly every stage also has a specific set of exclusive key items needed to advance. For example, early on you'll encounter a fiery cavern where you'll need a gasmask to survive the toxic fumes, ice boots to walk on lava, a hammer to break cracked walls, and a torch to see in the dark. All these items are passive, so their effects are always active once you grab them, and they vanish when the stage is over. Finding items and navigating the environment is pretty straightforward, reducing the likelihood of getting lost. The steady supply of action and robust combat make all the stages enjoyable.

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Another thing that sets this game apart from Zelda is the fact that it's totally linear. There is no sprawling world map to explore and you can never return to previously visited areas. This is kind of disappointing, especially since you can forever miss out on important goodies like permanent life upgrades. The stages constantly cut off the paths behind you, too, preventing you from backtracking. While it's good that the game rarely forces you to do backtracking, it's still nice to have the option. More options are always better than less. One stage does let you briefly explore a town in order to speak with villagers, which serves as a nice break from the action. Unfortunately, this is an isolated incident, as there are no other sections like this in the game. If only there were more.

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Even though it's a Zelda-styled action adventure game, Alcahest doesn't save your progress and instead opts to go with a draconian password system. This is a little bewildering, especially since save systems were already fairly common by this point in the Super Famicom's existence. The way in which this game utilizes passwords is pretty original, though. Instead of cryptic codes comprised of a mixture of letters and numbers, the password for each stage is simply the title of that stage. The title of each stage is a general description of what you'll be encountering in it, resulting in passwords that are fairly easy to remember. As spiffy as this concept is, a save system still makes more sense for a game like this, and is also far more convenient.

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Overall, Alcahest manages to provide a jolly good time. The graphics are spectacular, the music is good, the controls are solid, the length is decent, the bosses are cool, and playing the game is fun. Isn't fun what games are all about? I think so. The game does face two problems, though: it's completely linear and uses a password system. Both of these things feel a little out of place in an overhead action adventure game, especially one that takes after Zelda. Neither of those things really put a hamper on the game's fun factor, though, so it's all good. If you like Zelda, but prefer something that's more intense, then you should consider trying Alcahest.

Word Count: 1,635

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