JRPGS are back, in collectible jpeg form

As you may be aware a fellow Owl was recently condemned to gacha hell for all eternity, what you might not know is that this was my doing.

Hello! I’m Ashley Yawns and this is my trial.

So fair warning: this article is going to mostly be me telling you to play a gacha game which is at least a little morally dubious. Since much of the inherent evil of these things was covered already in our previous piece I’m going to largely skip over all that stuff and just nod towards my less compromised colleague while I have all the fun talking about a weird croissant owl thing.

I’ve been playing a lot of games on my phone! I got a new phone! My last one was cracked and didn’t charge right and was about 4 versions of whatever the fuck they call the Android OS behind! It’s overwhelming! My prescription drug induced executive function backfired on me by making me download all the cool anime gachas my friends talk about all the time!

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In fairness I didn’t technically only just discover the genre (if it can be called that), but after flirtations with Fire Emblem Heroes and Granblue Fantasy a year or so ago I felt kind of over these things for a good while. Both (at my level at any rate) felt like stripped down RPG games that were more time consuming than interesting, I didn’t much care about where the games would go, what characters I’d pull or what challenges I could overcome. Not to mention that Fire Emblem Heroes gacha setup is the most miserable I’ve personally experienced due to the theoretically infinite ceiling for wanting to pull copies of the same ultra rare units again and again (Granblue on the other hand I still log into just for the ludicrous amount of free rolls they give you which is, admittedly, a fairly damning statement about both me and the genre).

It was a friend nudging me to download Bandori (or “BanG Dream! Girls Band Party” to its parents) that landed me firmly in “oh shit these are actual games huh” territory. It turns out that rhythm game merged with yuri manga that won’t quite technically call itself that was a winning combination for the Ashley hunting vultures at Bushiroad. This article isn’t about this game, but while I’m being self-indulgent, I’d also recommend checking this out if you’re in the market for gay shit. I’ll add that if you’re mostly there for the characters then your skill at rhythm games, paying for rolls or obsessively playing aren’t necessary at all. Everything can be unlocked with very casual play, gacha rolls increase high score chasing power, give outfits and short vignettes but all other storylines are unlocked regardless – missed events can be viewed and playing enough of an event for the free characters is very low intensity. So essentially, without trying to be too much of an advertiser I’m just here to say that if you like gay shit in games, check out Bandori please.

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Bandori opened up the phone game Pandora’s Box in me and, over the last couple of weeks, I have launched into a project trying many of them (admittedly influenced by both depression and spending my days laying on the sofa with my wife instead of on my PC). Long story short, only 3 remained alive on my phone by the end – Bandori, Fate: Grand Order and Sdorica. I’ll save you the Fate spiel as it’s the kind of thing you already know about if you’re the kind of person that’s going to get into it, and many of my compliments for it echo ones I’ll make for Sdorica anyway.

So, apologies for my characteristically long preamble but here we go it is finally time for the article!

Sdorica is a really cool game and I think anyone who likes RPGs should check it out. The reason I’m writing about it like this is prior to scouring the internet for phone game recommendations I’d never once heard of it, and even during that process it was only coming up in the odd enthusiastic comment here and there. I don’t know if this game is especially unpopular, but amongst my circles it might as well have not existed.

The short pitch is that it is an absolutely beautiful looking and fluidly animated storybook of a thing that charmed me from the instant I started it. It has the story of a good JRPG with royal family infighting, civil wars, subterfuge, institutions without clear allegiances and so on. The cast livens it up and while neither they nor the story itself is by any means all that remarkable on their own, they do enough to sell the world, an investment in its developments and an attachment to seeing these people do their RPG combat routines again and again. The gacha component is very “generous” (in the upsetting terms these become inevitably framed in) owing to a system where any character can be pulled at any rarity level and upgraded to the higher ones, multiple pulls of the same character building towards an upgrade of that one and pulls of a higher rarity version refunding the lower rarity one. In human terms – I’ve played it only a week or so and I have a lot of top rarity characters. In addition, the story missions mostly force you to use certain members to fit the events and you don’t need to own them to use them.

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More important though is that, due to how the combat system works, I’ve found almost everyone useful at different times. This is the real hook to Sdorica – combat works off an orb matching puzzle(-ish) game where the RPG command menu would normally be. While this in itself is nothing new, it’s the ways these orbs impact your character’s skills and how those skills impact others that makes this system sing. Characters are separated into 3 types, each with their own colour of orb, a party consists of one white orb character (healer archetype), one black orb character (damage archetype) and one yellow orb character (tank archetype) and their orbs are randomly distributed onto the board. Each has 3 skills that are activated by selecting either a single orb, 2 connected orbs or 4 connected orbs of the same colour. What makes this interesting is that while typically the 4 orb skill is the “strongest”, it remains a unique skill relative to the other two and thus not always the best choice. Compounding that is the knowledge that knocking the orbs you select off the board is going to shift the position of the others and make other skills either unusable or available next turn. Passive skills and two slots to bring extra characters as “advisors” who can be additional passive effects of their own or active abilities that can allow you to influence the board itself.

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Different enemy conditions and encounters can demand drastically altered approaches and more than once I’ve found myself repeating an encounter over and over refining a battle plan where, if I can get this effect to go off, then it’ll let me do this thing and, oh no wait that’ll get countered by that, etc etc. This feels like a cycle the game is built around, unlike most free to play gacha phone games Sdorica has no AP system, the only time limitations being on a few resource generating missions being a once a day affair. This means that not only is there no upper time limit to playing, there is also no pressure to boot it up to make sure you don’t waste any of the resource letting you play at all, but most importantly, it also means that by experimenting with missions and failing you aren’t being asked to stake any limited resources but your own human lifespan. I think a lot of what I love about this game flows from the confidence that gives the developers in being able to design the game around experimenting with its systems like this, essentially it feels like a real ass game wearing the clothes of a scam phone money sink.

Messing around with character combos feels extremely rewarding to me, just introducing a passive to your initial healer character that makes her 2-orb damage skill repeat cast itself for free if you cast it multiple times in a row instantly changes how you see the board, and then even more so when you add the fact her 2-orb skill also deletes the first white orb from the top left down every cast. It means every party set up and every situation changes how the simple triple coloured board looks to you, it means there is always a lot to consider and plan for, and that itself means that pulling off big combo turns is extremely fun. A great example in a team I’ve built is a healer slot character whose 2-orb skill has her enter a knife throwing stance where she marks every hit you land on an enemy with a skill and then throws that many knives out at the end.

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On its own that skill is unremarkable, but combined with an anglerfish-man tank who taunts enemies to attack him and then counter attacks with an AoE, it means that now every enemy hit results in all of them being double attacked. Even further complicating it is a passive equipped on an “advisor” character that gives him a 25% chance of using his 4-orb skill when he gets hit, which immediately makes all the enemies attack him again and so by the time his taunts and counters and taunts and counters chain has finished, the original knife thrower suddenly has a whole lot of knives to throw and it has only been one turn.

It is difficult to convey the mechanics of this elegantly in writing, just as it is difficult to convey how beautiful and satisfying the animation work makes pulling this stuff off feel in screenshots. The point of all this preamble about gacha games and the pleading with you to check this out in spite of being one is that it is honestly the most fun I have had with an RPG combat system in a long time. It rewards you for creativity, just thinking through character interactions feels fun, it gives characters across the spectrum uses and you’ll find yourself coming back to old ones with new ideas. Even the tank, healer and damage roles are more of a guideline than anything, I find myself very rarely using honest to god healing skills and my current primary tank character specialises in creating tons of armour while being saddled with a passive that removes it all at the start of every one of your turns. Parties can be built around all kinds of strategies and through some of the harder missions you’ll have to try a bunch out.

So yeah, long story short, I think you really ought to check out Sdorica if any of that sounds appealing to you. I’d like to once again both remind and caution you about the nature of gacha games and grovel about how this one feels extremely good even as a non-paying player to the point where I haven’t even been tempted so far. Even with the ability combo system being something you’d think would be severely hampered by not having the right characters, I’ve not run into a single issue due to the amount of characters and character upgrades I’ve received from just playing. A frustration that some may have is that outside of the very small number of daily limited missions, levelling can start to slow down in the midgame, but even then I’ve had very little issues, and for some this might be a bonus.

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So, uh, yeah check it out, I like it a lot and I thought it was weird I’d not heard about it before! (There’s cute girls and a buff tiger man for the people who like that sort of thing.)

Oh also I’m extremely guilty obviously.