Resonance of Fate Review — Guns Over Swords, Laughter Over Tears

by Austin C. Howe

Note: If you are prone to motion sickness, you are not recommended to play or watch Resonance of Fate. More than one person has become motion sick as a result of watching the author play this game.

Resonance of Fate has possibly the best combat ever devised for a Japanese role-playing game. Very few complex systems are this elegant. Very few sets of choices are as self-explanatory. Very few sets of rewards for given actions are as clearly balanced against one another. And while every other thing in Resonance of Fate is an experiment with JRPG form that is as bold as its reinvention of combat, the results are incredibly mixed to say the least.

In battle, you inflict two types of damage in Resonance of Fate: scratch and direct. Scratch damage fills up quickly but cannot damage an enemy directly and, therefore, cannot kill an enemy. Direct damage can take out an enemy but builds up slowly. If this dynamic seems reminiscent of the relationship between magic and physical damage in Final Fantasy XIII, Resonance of Fate is like Final Fantasy XIII if the latter knew what it was doing.

This is the fundamental flow of combat: you use a “hero action” to send your scratch damage dealer, a party member equipped with submachine guns, running across the battlefield to fill up an enemy’s green life bar with blue, then you use another hero action to send a direct damage dealer, a handgun user, in similar blazing fashion to convert that damage into death. In this process, you’ll have spent two hero actions — out of a beginning set of three that expanded to around 10 in my personal endgame — and hopefully regained one action for killing the enemy, maybe two if you blew off the enemy’s armor in the process. Destroying armor and killing an enemy are the only ways you can refill the hero gauge, and if you fail to do either of those things quickly, you will enter Condition Critical where you take damage much more easily and, most of the time, lose the battle. In this way, Resonance of Fate is cutthroat. Early decisions more or less determine the course of battle. I often found myself making a mistake on the first turn, then immediately pausing the game and pressing “Retry” because I knew I had already lost.

Thankfully, good planning is rewarded with the opportunity to do even more damage and prevent that sort of thing from happening. The key weakness of your three-person party is that only one character can move at a time, while all enemies can move at the same time. Granted, this trade-off comes with the advantages of moving swiftly, jumping through the air, dealing highly concentrated damage, and avoiding attacks, but it also means your other two party members who aren’t trying out for the circus will inevitably take some amount of damage throughout the course of battle.

To subvert this weakness, you have to perform Tri-Attacks, which enable all three characters to attack together, but Tri-Attacks require Bezel points. When you move your submachine gun user across the line between your other two party members, you collect a Bezel point. When you send out your first handgun user and cross the path between the submachine gun user and the other handgunner, you collect another Bezel point. The only way to collect Bezel points is through these meticulously planned hero actions, taking stock of the battlefield and drawing routes in your head. Such thinking often resulted in me considering as many as three turns in advance. Managing Tri-Attacks is the only way to win most of the major battles in Resonance of Fate. I usually find myself opposed to systems that strongly dictate a single play style, but unlike the Dark Souls games, which present multiple styles even though only one is actually interesting, Resonance of Fate works hard to push you toward the only style that will allow you to beat it.

Sadly, the razor-sharp thought and design behind the combat does not come through in the plotting, character development, or thematics. Resonance of Fate replaces melodrama, one of many JRPG conventions that the game defies, with comedy. I have probably laughed more times while playing Resonance of Fate than during any other game that resembles it (or even just a video game in general). That said, far too many of the jokes rely on the mistreatment and objectification of Leanne. I laugh, but the laughs leave a bad taste in my mouth. In particular, Vashyron and Zephyr, both male characters, will often say things like “easy on the friendly fire” during combat to deride Leanne, but she is mechanically the same as both Vashyron and Zephyr, a glaring example of ludonarrative dissonance and misogyny that I’m surprised survived playtesting or script edits unquestioned, and that only reinforces how little thought is put into how women in video games are written.

The characters are generally undeveloped, which is a shame given their likability as a group. Vashyron is a military veteran who survived a botched operation, but his survivor’s guilt, his relationships with other soldiers, and his reason for sticking with Zephyr and Leanne are all left ambiguous to the point where I wonder if I’m meant to assume certain details based on his character stock type. Leanne has supposedly died and come back to life, but what her second chance has changed about her remains a mystery. Zephyr really gets a shaft: he massacred a number of people at the church in which he studied to be a clergyman. Zephyr’s murders are revealed in the game’s introductory cutscene, but the game treats this as a secret that Leanne slowly learns about, and her reaction to learning about the violence does little to alter her and Zephyr’s relationship, which is, in true anime fashion, a romance that goes nowhere. The plotting also spends an astounding amount of time in cutscenes with the primary anti-villain, Cardinal Rowen. Even though Rowen is a very interesting character, he takes little action that drives the protagonists’ actions. Rowen does not interact at all with your party until too close to the end, at which the writing flails with flaccid attempts to increase the stakes of the drama. Rowen creates next to no conflict.

Then again, taking the text as a whole, Resonance of Fate’s lack of conflicts is, to some degree, the point. The game intends to focus on the day-to-day lives of Vashyron, Zephyr, and Leanne as bounty hunters. My biases and taste may lean too heavily toward the social observations and protagonist-villain interactions that drive, for example, Xenogears. But Resonance of Fate tends to undercut its subtexts as well. Bazel, the world the game takes place in, has a clear gradient scale between the rich, middle-class, and poor as you move from the top of the structure to the bottom, yet that class aspect feels significantly unaddressed. Most of Bazel’s citizens express no displeasure for this class division. Some will even, for example, show empathy that a Cardinal’s wedding day has been ruined. The game also clearly structures its dominant social class, the Cardinals, after the Catholic church from which that term emerges. And while there is plenty of typical JRPG atheism and anti-theism on hand, there is very little discussion of this connection between faith and wealth, even though such a connection could be drawn easily. I don’t claim these things lightly: the intensely developed sidequests will have you visiting more or less every location in Bazel and talking to most of its inhabitants at least once. The lack of social and political awareness in Resonance of Fate is especially tragic given that the bottom of Bazel contains some of the best-photographed, most gorgeous, and most desolate depictions of urban dystopia in a video game since Final Fantasy VII.

Such is Resonance of Fate, a game brimming with confidence and not shy about being more than 50 hours long, yet somehow registering as incomplete. It’s frustrating how close Resonance of Fate comes to being a genre-defining masterpiece. Other games, particularly Xenogears, share its problems, but very few share its strengths: its humor, its unique gun-grey steampunk aesthetic, its shockingly casual soundtrack, its astoundingly complex combat. Despite those strengths, Resonance never manages to convince me of an imperfect-yet-undeniable genius that can be seen in essential games like Terranigma, Resident Evil 4, or Xenogears. The game often plays as a proof of concept that needs and deserves a good writer. As it stands, I’d recommend playing Resonance of Fate on the strength of its combat alone and approaching its other experiments with more distance.

Austin C. Howe writes the blog Haptic Feedback and does a weekly, public-radio audio criticism series called Critical Switch with Zolani Stewart, which you can support on Patreon. He is in the late drafting stages of his long-delayed book of essays on Final Fantasy VII, for which he is currently seeking a publisher.