Normally with these retrospective articles my aim is to provide more information for video games that people may have heard of before. As an example, I doubt a lot of people have played Panzer Dragoon Saga mainly due to rarity. The quality of the game spread by word of mouth and is now considered a cult classic. The same applied to Vagrant Story and many other games that I’ve done. However, as a self processed “video game connoisseur” in the field of cult classics, even I would have NEVER have guessed that a game like Wachenröder existed, even less so that it would be without a doubt one of the most unusual experiences that I’ve ever had in a video game.
To give a short description, Wachenröder (German for Guard Killer) is a tactical role-playing game released for the Sega Saturn in Japan on August 6th 1998 and it has one of the most bizarre development teams in video game history. For starters, the game was worked on by the TRPG devision at SEGA who had most likely finished making Dragon Force I+II as well as the Sakura Wars series. The creator of the game’s concept and everything that followed after was Yasuyaki Ueda who is best known for the other masterpiece he concepted, Serial Experiments Lain. Ueda brought his close friends from the animé industry Yoshitoshi ABe (Who also worked on Lain) and Range Murata (character designer for Last Exile along with a series of other projects from GONZO) to work on the art direction while SEGA brought in the help of Yasushi Yamaguchi, creator of Tails the Fox from the Sonic The Hedgehog series to work on the character designs. If the idea of ‘Sonic The Hedgehog meets Texhnolyze’ isn’t interesting enough, then perhaps the music might change your mind. While most of the soundtrack is by Satoshi Miyashita who is most famous for the OST’s of the Sengoku Basara series, the game also contains tracks by Ian McDonald, former member of the band King Crimson and one of the most influential musicians of all time, but more on that later.
The story takes place on the island of Edoald which uses steam power as a primary resource of energy for the countries machinery, vehicles, weapons in place of electricity. All of this power requires the implementation of wastewater treatment plants by the upper class citizens that make the commoners contract illnesses from the hazardous waste and contaminated drinking water. One such person is the sister of the game’s protagonist, Lucian Taylor. After his sister dies, Lucian vows to go after the Sword Emperor Dulan who is rumoured to be behind the construction of the treatment plants in the local area so that everyone without the status that he has will die.
In terms of setting, Wachenröder is unlike any other video game out there. From the game’s opening cinematic which combines CGI with plastic model of the characters to when you get your first steam-powered chainsword (Yeah, you heard me) to the game’s amazing genre fusion at the end, Wachenröder constantly impression with its visual finesse and attention to detail in the scenery (Panzer Dragoon Saga wishes it aged this well). This style also comes through in the language. Along with the bilingualism of Japanese and German that juxtapose really well for the game’s vernacular, there are numerous references to outside culture that helps to give the world a sense of character that most video games lack (A couple of examples being that there is an area called Crimson King after Ian McDonald’s band, the main character is named after the protagonist in The Hill of Dreams and most of the side characters are named after British artists in the same wake as King Crimson such as Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers).
The music also deserves a special mention. Wachenröder has fifty-four music tracks in total, three of which are done by the aforementioned Ian McDonald. Satoshi Miyashita does a great job of creating tracks the inspire tension, sadness and excitement all of which are necessary when the game progresses. However the three tracks by Ian McDonald really do stand out, especially in the amazing opening sequence.
This where I discuss the strangest thing about Wachenröder, for as much as people like to point fingers at Final Fantasy XIII for being a series of hallways with no room to explore or learn about you character, Wachenröder surpasses FFXIII, and every visual novel ever made and even text-based adventure games such as Zork! as the most linear game ever made. There are exactly thirty-one battles which take place at pre-determined sections of the story on brilliantly designed maps that are rarely reproduced. There are no opportunity’s to control your character or your party outside of these battles and along with twenty-two save points, the rest of the game consists of CGI cut scenes, sprite cut scenes and character dialogue cut scenes in front of Yoshitoshi ABe’s artwork. This is a TRPG in the loosest sense of the world as the “RP” part barely exists in the “G”. The “T” however, is rather ingenious.
While the Tactics Ogre model of combat exists as a framework in the game such as the square based grid, the ability to attack the sides or the back of another character to do extra damage, the innovation comes in the games action point system. Each character has 99 action points. These action points can be spent on a number of actions such as moving, using items, and healing party members (only female characters can do this and I have no idea why) and attacking with regular attacks or special attacks (the special attacks have rather hilarious low polygon 3D models that make Mega Man Legends look like Crysis). This system takes the two most fundamental TRPG questions of ‘can I get my character over there’ and ‘Can I do enough damage to him so he dies’ and combines them into one system that encourages prioritization of enemies and character placement over the usual systems of spamming magic spells at far away monsters till they die or remembering to equip the sword against the axe based enemy (this system has scarcely been used since).
The other interesting innovation to Wachenröder‘s combat is the inclusion of a heat system. Since your weapons are steam based, if you use them too much they can overheat. You can control how much steam goes into a regular attack, so that you want to be able to do exactly the right amount of damage so that you don’t overheat. This works better than you might think as a level 5 steam powered jet hammer to the back of the skull gives a gravitas you wouldn’t really expect from a turn based game and conversely an overheated weapon feels weightless and lacking any real power behind it. A nice touch is that after each turn there’s a weather report. This may sound useless but effects such as the temperature and the weather control how much power you can put in yoru weapon before it overheats.
Wachenröder is a video game that will never happen again. This wasn’t a game created by a “dream team” in the same way that Chrono Trigger was but rather it was a group of professionals in their area deciding to create a project together for the sake of art. This project turned out to be a video game, which is a statement that is backed up by the Wiener Werkstätte logo that is present on the boxart, the CD and in the game itself. The game was only released in Japanese for the Saturn and there is no fan translation patch for it, but is rather inexpensive due to lack of demand and there is an excellent translation for the game and the instruction manual on GameFAQs by gar3 that catches every nuance from the Japanese original from Bellebete’s narrations of the game’s events from the perspective of a blind woman to the Duran’s Machiavellian conduct towards the system he was once a part of. Even if Wachenröder is not the greatest game ever made, it soars and flies beyond most others and I hope this analysis has given you insight into a lost classic.