One thing I like about the Alundra games is that although their puzzles are not that much different from what you've seen in Zelda-style adventures before, they often have unique twists and are very challenging. The same could possibly have been said of Dark Savior had the developers focused more on the action and puzzle sequences than it's quirky parallel story gimmick. Dark Savior seems to want to be a tough action-platformer at heart, but the parallel system holds it back.
In an opening that borrows heavily from Alien3, your adventure begins on a ship headed for a prison island. The ship is transporting a murderous creature called Bilan to the prison to be executed. Bilan breaks free and kills everyone on board, leaving only the hero Garian and his helpful avian sidekick, Jack. As Garian, you'll get your baptismal vows in this difficult first stage as you try to track down Bilan before he escapes. The actual time it takes you to reach Bilan will determine which of three possible story lines you'll play through in the rest of the game. This is Dark Savior's parallel system, and although it's interesting, it simply doesn't work too well.
There are three major game-affecting results of the parallel system. The first is that Parallel 1 (the one that gamers are most likely to start with) is not very good. Granted, it's "supposed" to be the "worst" parallel, but it should be just good enough to hook you and make you want to play more. I can imagine gamers playing through it and thinking, "What the heck was that??" When I first played this parallel, I reached a point where I had to throw blocks onto moving platforms in order to hit switches that'd open a path forward. It was very difficult to time the throws correctly. Since this was fairly early in the game, I took this as an indication that the game was going to be really good, and keep getting more challenging from there. But that was it! After that section was over, nothing else was difficult at all!
The second result of the parallel system is that we get a bunch haphazard story lines that go nowhere. Parallel 1, again, is the worst offender. In that scenario, every story element that's set up is wantonly destroyed by Bilan's rampaging, and it ends on a very unsatisfactory note. Some of those threads aren't even resolved in the other parallels, either. For example, this issue of a prison revolt comes up in every parallel, but nothing much ever comes of it. Tons of clues that point to Bilan being the "Dark Savior" are pitched at us, but then nothing is done with them, and the real issue of the Dark Savior comes out of nowhere at the end of the third parallel. Parallel 2 has the best resolution for all of the characters, but since each one ends in a distinctly different way, it's impossible to tell what is the true "canon" ending of the story. Maybe it's left up to the gamer to decide. I dunno. I'd like to have an official word.
The third result of the parallel system is that it detracts from the game's energy level. You'll often redo areas and sometimes without any challenge. In Parallel 1, for example, you do an Ancient Tomb area in which you must solve puzzles to advance from room to room. You redo this area in Parallel 2, but the puzzles are already solved, so you're just running through it, doing nothing.
A problem that's present in all parallels of Dark Savior is its awkward battle system. The boss fights are one-on-one in a pseudo-fighting game style (it's also reminiscent of the NES/Genesis game, The Immortal). Although it seems a lazy cop-out of having to create clever traditional adventure game boss battles, I wouldn't entirely mind the idea of having fighting game-style battles if they were good. But since your moves in Dark Savior are limited to attacking, jumping, blocking, and a charge attack, that means every fight can (and must) be won by either button-mashing or standing back and using a charge move over and over again. Sometimes, you can even trap yourself "inside" an opponent where he/she cannot damage you and then button-mash with impunity. Let's face it, this system needed work.
In the interest of not sounding like a complete crabapple, I will say that what's good in Dark Savior is very, very good. The best, and most challenging parts are almost mind-blowing in their ingenuity. My favorite area of the game is Paralell 2's Silver Castle Clock Tower stage. This place has to be seen to be believed. It's a floating sky-high level full of nightmarish jumps and obstacles in which even a simple mistake can leave you falling to your doom, or impaled on a bed of spikes. This stage really takes advantage of being in 3D by having floating blocks and platforms moving in all different directions. You'll feel more like you're playing an action-platformer than an adventure game when you traverse this area, and it can be nerve-wracking if you have a fear of heights. Although I've become so proficient that I can now complete it rather easily, it took a long time for me to get that good. If you beat this area on your first try, hang up your controllers because you'll never find anything challenging.
Dark Savior also has the best mine cart sequences of any game I've yet seen. Mine cart rides are usually more like bonus stages (as in Super Mario RPG) or very irritating (as in Young Merling), but the ones in Dark Savior require precise timing of jumps to cross the gaps in the track. No matter how good you are, you'll inevitably fail on your first few attempts, because some turns come up quickly and you really need to know ahead of time when to jump, so memorization is also a factor.
I also enjoyed the puzzle-solving aspect of Dark Savior, particularly the Ancient Tomb and the Gold Castle. Many of the puzzles are the "put heavy object on switch" variety, but of course, the situation changes for each. Sometimes the "heavy object" is hidden; cleverly so in one case where you can see it behind a wall, but seemingly can't get to it. Other times, it's a matter of putting certain objects on certain pedestals in a certain order designated by some written and visual clues. And in others you'll have to carry the "heavy object" to a switch while riding and/or jumping across moving platforms.
Another sequence I liked involves a sliding block puzzle. I'm usually not too fond of those kinds of puzzles, but this one had lines drawn on top of the movable blocks. You could tell where you had to slide them to by matching up the lines. Of course, you can see how to do it, but you're still required to think it through, so that you don't push a block the wrong way and mess the whole thing up.
Dark Savior also has a very sinister 4th parallel that immediately follows Parallel 3. It requires you to complete a number of the game's toughest areas all in one shot, without dying, and under a time limit. These areas even include, yes, the aforementioned Silver Castle Clock Tower. The designers of this game obviously wanted you to be proficient at that area.
Another positive aspect of Dark Savior is that it looks and sounds beautiful. Although the 3D graphics are not as sophisticated as modern 3D, they are very colorful. I said in my review of EVO that I had never seen greener hills in a game word. I stand corrected. I don't even mind Dark Savior's slightly-pixelated appearance because it gives off that "impressionest painting" style. The 2D characters, especially Garian and Jack, are fluidly animated and work quite well in the otherwise polygonal 3D environments.
The music is also quite nice, with my favorite song being the main theme, "Lonesome Soldier - Theme of Garian". (I wish I could get an mp3 or decent midi of it.) The dungeon themes are energetic, the cinema music is emotional enough, and the battle music isn't half-bad, either.
I have completed all five possible parallels of Dark Savior and replayed most of them (a replay of any given parallel only takes a couple of hours if you know what you're doing.) I really do like the challenging parts, but it feels like only 75% of a good game. What Climax should have done is scrapped the entire parallel system and made one grand-spanking huge adventure, focusing on all the best parts of the game and story and expanding on them. It's a good thing they learned that lesson with the Alundra games.
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