Review: Langrisser I & II

3 Mar 2020

Finding old JRPGs that never got released stateside is frequently a wild experience in a lot of ways, not the least of which being that you’ve almost certainly played games that were influenced by them.

Langrisser was originally a 1991 title published on the Sega Genesis, and it was actually localized for North American markets as Warsong with a translation that changed basically all of the names and some of the plot points. However, it was alone in its series for a very long time with regards to an American version, as the next six titles in the franchise were never localized or released over here.

The result is that Langrisser as a franchise is virtually unknown over here, and even its original title which was released is functionally a forgotten element…until we got this remake of the first two games in the franchise, with Langrisser II having never seen release here. Moreover, the remake is not just a re-release but an updated and rebalanced version of the original games, which means that in large parts you’re getting an improved version of games you most likely never saw in their original form.

And as mentioned, the weird part is that Langrisser was no doubt a game that various other JRPGs you likely have played were no doubt influenced by, making this a bit like hearing the other half of the conversation. So Langrisser I & II was always going to be fascinating to people who enjoy finding out more about obscure JRPGs.

But is it actually any good? I mean, the world is littered with the bones of remade and re-released games that just don’t hold up, and the JRPGs of years past are often parts of a different culture in ways that more modern games simply aren’t. So for those who just want a fun game, does the remake pairing deliver?

Langrisser I & II comes out on March 10th on both Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4. The Switch version was played for this review.

One or That Which Langrisses

First of all, let’s get something out of the way – “Langrisser” isn’t just letter salad, it’s actually the name of an in-universe sword, and the name is German for “lung ripper.” Pleasant!

When it comes to the story, refreshingly enough, Langrisser I & II is a beast of two parts only insofar as the first game takes place before the second. The two games are very much contiguous in their universes, with the entire franchise actually having at least a vaguely unified storyline (more on that in a moment). That having been said, the two games are still very different simply in terms of how they expect the story to play out.

Langrisser I has what feels like a much older and definitely much more bare-bones story, which actually works out all right insofar as it lays out the principles of the world clearly. It’s a more linear path in which you play as the young prince Ledin, first fleeing after an attack from the Empire on his beloved home kingdom of Baldea before returning to…oh, yeah, you guessed all of that. Yes, the Emperor is the bad guy but not the worst guy, and ultimately it sets up the world’s dichotomy of order vs. chaos in broad strokes.

It’s simple, but it’s all simple in that refreshingly unassuming way a lot of Genesis RPGs could be. Yes, everyone is an arch character painted with the broadest strokes, but the game spends exactly enough time making it clear what the stakes are and who the characters are in those broad strokes and then moves right the heck on. A simple story, but well-told and hoping that the mechanics will paper over any failings.

Meanwhile, Langrisser II is where things get more wild. You’re now playing as the wandering swordsman Elwin, traveling with his friend Hein only to get waylaid unexpectedly when Imperial troops attack the village Hein and Elwin are staying in. They’re there to meet a friend of Hein’s, Liana, but it turns out the Empire wants her for some reason…even though it’s also clear that the Imperial forces don’t want to just rampage and hurt people and, in fact, have a very different agenda on a whole.

The story here still starts on a linear path, but even as early as the second mission you’ll find yourself making some important choices (like whether to kill or spare one of the enemy generals, which will have major impacts later). Indeed, the story has four separate “major” paths this time around, with Elwin being able to follow the path of the Goddess of Light, wind up with the Empire, strike a wholly separate path of his own making, or even descend completely into a lust for power.

It’s very clear what the “right” choice is, but that doesn’t actually narrow the overall field of outcomes, and it’s also clear that some of the choices you’re making on the ostensible Light path are actually not entirely good picks. The result is a game that has a lot of different twists and turns, and while your overall path from start to finish is going to be about as long as the first game, you can then easily go back and have an entirely different experience, often having major split points even within the same basic route.

It’s a much more in-depth and nuanced story even while the characters remain somewhat stock types. Sure, it might not have the psychological depth of newer games, but in some ways that just helps you paper over the rough spots in the path with hand-waving.

Langs and the Rissing Thereof

For all the talk of story choices, a lot is going to come down to the much more mechanical issue of tactical gameplay. After all, who’s going to sit through a story when the game itself isn’t fun? Fortunately for Langrisser I & II, the gameplay is still fun…even if I am entirely the wrong person to explain all of the differences to anyone.

And there are differences from the classic games, let’s be clear. The entire premise of the rebalanced combat is that the entire experience has been rebalanced and retuned, and I suspect it’s been brought more in line with the mobile game (which is available locally already) in terms of mechanics and numbers. If you’re going by old guides to the game’s systems, you’ll note that a lot of numbers are wrong, usually winding up far lower than the health or damage values in the current game. Fortunately, what has not changed is the core idea.

Langrisser I & II is very much a strategy game in the vein of older Fire Emblem titles; the strategic maps are turn-based affairs, units are weak or strong to various damage types, and standing on different tiles affects defense or offense accordingly. What is notably different are numbers. Right from the start in both games, you’re controlling two characters…but each character also can hire numerous mercenaries to work in concert, usually starting out with four mercenaries for most characters at the start.

Each unit also has a “command range,” with every mercenary you command getting stat bonuses whilst within that range. And this is true for enemies as well, which means that maps consisting of three named units on either side quickly swell to having dozens of combatants.

It also adds to the strategy, as defeating individual mercenaries takes time and can be difficult, while defeating the stronger commander will immediately kill all of their mercenaries. However, experience is only gained when you kill a unit (or cast a healing spell on someone), which means that just killing the enemy commander is also denying yourself valuable experience.

The result is that you immediately have a lot of tactical depth to access right from the start, compounded by the fact that the branching class promotion system for each character also determines which mercenaries a character can hire. That can be as important as having new skills, spells, and stat boosts. The result is a game that’s pretty easy to understand in the broad strokes but winds up having a lot more going on under the hood.

It’s all a lot of fun, honestly, directing your squad to chew through enemies and smash their mercenaries until you realize you need to kill the commander now or you’ll be in a bad position. There are some quirks to get used to, of course; it’s a bit counter-intuitive that you can only cast spells before you move rather than after, for example, and sometimes you’re more or less forced to move all of your mercenaries individually which can get tedious. (You can set standing orders for mercenaries like defending or attacking and they’ll automatically move in formation, which can be useful.) There’s also no way to just have your turn auto-end, or at least none I found; you have to manually end it even when all of your troops have moved.

Changing one important aspect of the original games, as near as I can tell, is the fact that this version of the game does allow for both grinding and backtracking by letting you select earlier story branches and zap back to that point. This ensures you don’t get stuck in a fight you can’t win for being too weak, while also letting you re-make choices your earlier playthrough missed without starting a New Game + over from the beginning. It’s a worthy change, I think.

The game also gives you the option for an “easy start” if you want one; I was worried this would functionally destroy the challenge of the game, but instead it gives you a chance to basically start with one class promotion earlier and gives you some early items right off. It does make things easier, but not egregiously so.

Hi-fi Rissery with Lo-fi Langs

Visually, the game looks wonderful, with chunky sprites that have plenty of personality, lavish backgrounds, and expressive character art. And that’s however you choose to view it.

Yes, the game can be played in both classic or enhanced versions, but rather than making it a simple toggle, players can choose any combination of new or old character art, new or old sprites, and new or old music. The new art all looks gorgeous, but it is a very different style from the…unmistakable early 90s anime designs from the originals. Even the classic version is still sharp and well-done, however, so you can feel free to choose between the two however you wish.

More to the point, you can change between these options mid-battle if you want to, so it’s not a one-and-done change.

The game also features voice acting, but that is all in Japanese. It’s… fine, as these things go? It never jumped out at me as being mandatory, but it also didn’t seem like it was tacked on just to say that it had new voice acting.

You’ve also got a lot of other quality-of-life changes, like being able to automatically skip the largely perfunctory battle animations automatically; you can also skip them manually, if you’d prefer. It’s nothing ground-breaking, but it sort of shows just how much care went into the whole package from top to bottom.

One downside that the game does have is remarkably long loading times when you’re first starting up. Everything runs fairly smoothly once you’re actually playing, but at least on the downloaded version I found myself facing long wait times between selecting an option and the game waking up to actually let me do stuff. It’s a mild irritation, but a persistent one.

However, when everything else works so well, it’s the sort of thing that’s easy to forget once the game has loaded.

That’s a Nice Lang; Mind if I Riss It?

All right, I freely admit it, I am an easy mark for weird old JRPGs in the first place. But Langrisser I & II is weird in a lot of other ways. It’s got a rock-solid translation, fun art, good music, and a whole lot of nice little touches that make the whole thing a joy to play. I have a feeling I’d be praising this even if it were a familiar re-release.

But it’s not; this is a collection of two games, one of which is largely forgotten and was localized in a way that excised a good chunk of its identity, the other of which was never officially released here. Langrisser II is a worthy game all on its own, and when it comes in a remake this well-handled and this expertly presented, it becomes an absolute dream.

This is the sort of thing that I recommend people buy anyway because it sends a message that even if it’s coming over some two decades late, we do want these titles we’ve never seen before. It’s also the sort of thing I recommend people buy because it’s just a darn good remake in terms of attention to detail, and it’s also the sort of thing I recommend people buy because it’s a good game underneath all of that. That’s a lot that went right.

Langrisser I & II isn’t for everyone. But I think it’s for a lot of people who may never have even seen the originals, and I strongly recommend it to everyone on a whole lot of different levels.

Wait, except I’m pretty sure I never actually ripped someone’s lungs out with this sword. Never mind, forget the whole thing.

~ Final Score: 8/10 ~

Review copy provided by NIS America for Switch. Screenshots courtesy of NIS America.