Falling Stars Review - 06/08/2007

Falling Stars is an RPG aimed pretty much exclusively at children. It features cel-shaded colourful graphics and a simple storyline and pattern based combat, as well as marking TGSN's first review of a children's game.

For these, we are marking games in grades. You may well ask what defines whether a game has been designed for children, and that is simply whether it can be played by adults and enjoyed. Nintendogs for example, can be played by people of all ages, so would be marked out of 10. An 'A' grade is a great children's game, but we have decided to use this system of scoring to avoid comparing children's and adults' games. We will begin to include the grade in 'adult' games as well, so you can see how approachable that particular item is for children. Clearly, Gears of War will not have a grade, but something like FIFA or Harry Potter might.

With that out of the way, welcome to the world of Dazzleon. This is where Falling Stars is set. The genre of the game is firmly in the RPG camp, but there are mixes of other genres and clearly, the gamer has very little impact on levelling up to keep the complexity factor down. There are also mixes of other genres, with developer Ivolgamus clearly taking advantage of trends in games popular with children, with titles like Sims, Nintendogs and Animal Crossing all appearing to inspire the design of Falling Stars.

You play as a spirit, whose task it is to watch over the world of Dazzleon and ensure the balance between good and evil is maintained. The balance begins to shift and so you take over the body of a girl named Luna in order to investigate and eventually restore the balance. The game takes something as complex as the persuasion engine in most RPGs, whereby what you wear, your reputation, power and money affect whether other characters do your bidding, and makes it hugely accessible and attractive for 5-10 year olds. You have to change Luna's outfits, tops, bottoms, bracelets etc. to appeal to certain characters as you need favours from them. Handy meters are available to show you which people prefer what, and while the idea that women should be tarted up to get what they want isn't ideal, but it's very accurate... It's just colours really though, no fishnet tights, hot pants or super-short skirts on offer thankfully.

A huge aspect of the game revolves around the combat. Rather than weigh down gamers with complicated techniques and battle combinations, you simply have to learn the attack patterns of the enemy. There are three colours of attack, yellow, red and white, from weak to strong respectively. You have to use these yourself, and intelligently, so the AI cannot guess your next move (if they do, they can almost completely block it) – similarly, as you progress through the game the enemy are of a higher level, so can attack more frequently, predict your attacks more effectively, and attack you far more irregular style, so it becomes harder to stop.

An interesting twist which harks back to the earlier reference to Nintendogs is that you, Luna, don't fight the battles. Instead, you have a pet, a lovable blue bear-like creature named Komi. With strong hints of Pokemon, you use Komi to battle monsters found while walking around Dazzleon, and in story-based battles. The enemy monsters are wonderfully colourful and well designed – they look really cute, and while you're ultimately supposed to destroy them, they're pretty lovable. They do repeat fairly regularly, but in a game such as this it's not such a huge issue. All the battles take place in a separate arena, complete with birds flying in the background, and lush vegetation-filled scenery – it's a welcome break from the main world, which quickly gets repetitive.

The combat sections do tend to drag on for a bit, but the simplicity of choosing one of three attacks and one of three defensive moves makes the game truly accessible. Similarly, as you walk the paths of Dazzleon, invisible walls stop you from venturing onto the grass surrounding the pathways. While this clearly saved on development costs, the game guides you slightly if you hit the wall, so if you're just holding down up or 'W' or the up arrow, the game will nudge you in the direction you're angling towards, meaning children who aren't quite able to grasp the concept of diagonal movement or two button combinations on a keyboard won't suffer in the game on the PC.

You can discover potions to help you in battle and must upgrade Komi's strength, endurance etc. in an easy-to-understand menu which you access from your house in the game, which is also where you save, change clothes, and update the spirits on what events have transpired. You do have to feed Komi, but it would have been nice to have a bit more of the virtual pet area in there too. The currency in the game is known as 'Moons'. These are used to buy potions, help friends, and are awarded after completing quests and minigames. However, they are by no means essential, and are often forgotten in the background of the rest of the game. A handy map lets you work out where you're going, and while much of the world is accessible without loading, the back and forth can grate on your patience when you have to pass through the same loading gate four or five times just to play messenger to two NPCs.

The game world isn't exactly bursting with activities, but with that said, there's plenty going on in the background. It's a colourful backdrop of green grass, bumblebees, dragonflies and flowers, with occasional landmarks and characters who can give you quests and tasks to fulfil. These are pretty much fetch and return missions, and with the clumsy animation they aren't particularly fun – you can hold CTRL to run, thankfully, but a stamina bar refills hopelessly slowly, taking the pace of the game right down and too slow perhaps for children over a certain age. The world isn't particularly big either, but it means remembering locations is a doddle.

Interspersed with the menial quests are 7 mini-games. These range from piling pillows on top of a train in order to reach your friend's trapped pet, to controlling individual oars while rowing across a lake, and target practice in an archery range, which comes as a welcome break to repetitive Dazzleon. The mini-games are accessible from the main menu as you progress through the game, although confusingly they're in the 'Chapters' section of the 'Game' menu of the start-screen. It's great that they're included though, as for 9.99 on PC, it adds a lot of value to the game as a whole.

Falling Stars does lack that little bit extra to make it a great children's game, the graphics are of a decent quality, charming, but nothing noteworthy except the particles in the air, falling leaves and bustling backdrops. Of course, this means it runs smoothly throughout, and runs on pretty meagre PCs. One area that could have been improved is the sound, as despite some initially catchy Harvest-Moon esque music it repeats frequently, and few of the characters are voiced which undoubtedly makes it less attractive for children.

The game is clearly aimed at girls rather than boys, with the lead character a female and the dressing up section likely to bore the boys. However, with that said, the game is designed specifically for children but with pretty decent production values so younger boys may enjoy the experience. The artwork wouldn't look out of place in Pokemon, but the animation and control engine in gameplay is at times, suspect. A little bit of blur on the edges would have helped graphically too, and the ability to use the joypad of the PS2 easily may be worth the little bit of extra money for that version of the game. For parents with just a PC however, this is a decent choice to ease your children into the world of RPGs, just bear in mind that with a game designed for this audience, it may not be the most scintillating thing if you've previously been buying your family blockbusters from the main studios aimed at the young and old alike, as those clearly have higher production values overall.

In my view, for children aged 5-10 though (remember that the characters are not voiced for the mostpart, so assistance may be required with that) if you need something to introduce them to gaming that isn't plastered with Bob the Builder and poor flash animations, or otherwise guns, blood and gore, you can't do much better than this, with the simple controls, design and story, combined with the mix of the best children's games out there. The long battles and repetitive quests may cause some to lose interest, and there are undoubtedly better alternatives for thrills a minute, but perhaps not in RPG form.

- Mike Hazleton



Pinnacle Software
PC - PS2