Something convinced me that it was time to finally go back and finish Chantelise: A Tale of Two Sisters. It’s been almost a year since I actually purchased that game, and it’s been mocking me from my Steam list ever since, reminding me of how much I loved Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale, which was developed by the same team, and localized by the (different) same team.
For those unfamiliar with Chantelise, it’s a peculiar beast indeed. In its native Japan, it was Recettear’s predecessor, but localization team Carpe Fulgur brought it to Western audiences after Recettear. This had the unfortunate side-effect of giving people perhaps unreasonably high expectations for it when it came out, since Recettear was pretty much universally loved by everyone who has ever come across it. In Japan, there was a noticeable upswing in quality and creativity between the two games; over here, people misinterpreted Chantelise as being a step backwards, since it appears at first glance to be much simpler and shallower than its shop-running successor.
After over 12 hours with it (probably about 15 in total — I started again for this play sesssion) I can say with some confidence that Chantelise certainly isn’t a shallow game, it’s just very, very different from Recettear. You can see how people would get confused, however, since a good 90% of the graphical assets are shared between the two games, and the music for the final dungeon in both games is almost (but not quite) identical. When you consider this, it becomes easier to see why everyone had such lofty expectations for Chantelise and were then disappointed when it wasn’t what they expected.
Note: “not what they expected” is not the same as “inferior”, though some chose to interpret it that way. While Recettear was an accessible, adorable game combining action-RPG dungeon crawling elements with a simple business management sim (and a surprising amount of hidden depth for those willing to jump down that rabbit hole), Chantelise initially appears to be a rather straightforward action-RPG. Hack, slash, rinse, repeat. Job done.
And while there certainly is an element of mindless hack and slash to Chantelise’s gameplay, the game has a sadistic streak in it that I haven’t seen since Dark Souls. If you do not learn to play Chantelise properly, the game will punish you and send you back to the start of the area you’ve been challenging, effectively putting a big red “X” through your homework and telling you in no uncertain terms to “DO IT AGAIN! BETTER!” And, assuming you’re not the sort of player who gives up after suffering a setback like this, you will get better, because the game will keep punching you in the face until you understand what it’s trying to tell you.
You see, while Chantelise may initially appear to be a simple hack-and-slash RPG there’s actually a considerable amount of depth that many commentators don’t give it credit for. The fact that protagonist Elise doesn’t level up traditionally, for example — all modifications to her stats are achieved through equipment, and she gains HP through finding or purchasing special medicine. Finding the correct combination of equipment to make it through a particularly challenging stage is key to victory in Chantelise — some stages will require that you buff up your physical defense; others will practically require the use of an elemental crystal to defeat monsters with resistances; others will need you to focus on magic. As you progress through the game and defeat bosses, Elise gains the ability to equip more items simultaneously, allowing her a substantial increase in power.
The game’s magic system is an interesting aspect of gameplay, too. Rather than simply allowing Elise and her companion fairy Chante to cast spells as they please, they have to pick up coloured magic crystals in order to cast spells. Each crystal corresponds to an element — red for fire, blue for water and so on. The twist comes when you use more than one crystal at the same time. Using two, three or four of the same colour produces different spells with different effects — for example, one yellow crystal produces a metal ball that spins around Elise for protection, two causes her to gain a great deal of defensive power and resistance to being knocked back, three causes her to drop a giant boulder on her enemy and four summons an earth elemental who casts the other three spells at random for a short period.
But then there’s spells the game doesn’t tell you about. Augment the “two yellow” Super Armor spell with two red crystals, for example, and Elise gains a large amount of both attack and defensive power. Use of this spell is an absolute necessity in the later stages of the game, but it will only be discovered through experimentation (or reading an FAQ), because the game sure isn’t going to let you know about it. Similarly, the game doesn’t tell you that equipping a Darkness Crystal and hitting a baddy with a “charged” attack will drain health from the enemy and give it to you, making it a very efficient means of staying alive against baddies who do lots of damage.
All these factors — the surprisingly brutal difficulty; the uncompromising, punishing nature of the game; the hidden depths of the game’s various systems — combine to make a game that is very much an acquired taste, but one that is infinitely more satisfying than it first appears, assuming you find those aspects of it palatable.
In short, it’s not Recettear. It’s not easy (not that Recettear was, particularly — though with enough determination and patience you’d make it through eventually). It’s not traditionally “accessible” despite the simplicity of its controls. It doesn’t give up its secrets easily. And it wants very much to hurt you, make you scream, and cackle maniacally as you fling your controller across the room at your fifteenth death that session. Yet it does this with the same veneer of adorable characters and a compelling “small-scale” plot, just as in Recettear. You can see why people got confused.
In summary, then, is Chantelise a bad game? Its Metacritic score certainly seems to suggest so, but as we established a while back with Nier, a Metacritic score is absolutely not a reliable metric as to whether or not a game is “worth playing”. And such is the case here — though I certainly wouldn’t recommend the game to everyone. If, however, you fall into that category of gamers who enjoy being punished by their games and figuring out how best to make use of the seemingly-simple systems with which you’ve been presented, then you should certainly check it out. If you feel like doing so, here it is.