Vay (rhymes with “rye”), an obscure Japanese RPG from the Sega CD’s mid-nineties library, is an odd candidate for an iPhone port. Unlike Square Enix’s early Final Fantasy games–Vay’s clear sources of inspiration, as well as its rough contemporaries–Vay was built for a failing console, and therefore lacks any notable modern following. This is not necessarily because Vay is a bad game. There is a lot of enjoyable content here, and at $4.99, the price is right. However, those hoping for a classic JRPG experience will be disappointed by Vay’s general lack of polish.
Vay’s story hits every stereotypical JRPG theme on the list. You play as Heibelger, the prince of a peaceful country attacked by loathsome thugs from the Danek empire. In order to repulse Danek’s mechanized soldiers and recover your kidnapped bride, you must quest after five magical orbs, which, when combined, will supposedly power a suit of legendary armor and restore justice to the world. The orb recovery business is as difficult as ever, so you’ll need to recruit some friends to your cause, from the wise-cracking elf to the congenial bard. Some of this stuff might have been fresh in 1994, but it is old news in 2008.
Happily, Vay makes up for its hackneyed story with an abundance of sharp, nicely written dialog. The towns are filled with people to chat with, all of whom have unique, interesting, and occasionally hilarious things to say, and the main characters, though stereotypical, have well-developed personalities. Every so often, Vay will also throw a chunk of full-motion video at you. These brief anime cartoons not particularly high quality, but the voice acting is kind of funny. They flavor the story and provide respite from the many dungeon-crawling sessions that constitute the bulk of Vay’s gameplay.
Exploring the world of Vay is a snap. Simple touch controls suffice for movement; a double-tap makes you sprint in the direction you’re facing, which is a boon for covering large amounts of territory. The dungeons are generally well-designed and fun to explore, with lots of obscure nooks and crannies for treasure chests. Whether you’re jaunting between towns on the world map or searching a cave, you are subject to the same random enemy encounters that have driven JRPGs since the dawn of the genre.
Combat is where the experience starts to break down. The controls are appropriately simple–you pick your choice of action off of a menu and touch the appropriate target–but the activity itself is boring. As you are rarely in any real danger on the default difficulty setting, you will find yourself using the automatic combat option to help you blaze through most non-boss fights at top speed. The hard difficulty setting is indeed more difficult. How could it not be, given that spells cost more to cast, enemies do more damage, you gain less experience, and the random encounter rate seems to jump markedly? None of this actually improves things, though. You’ll just start running away from every battle instead of turning on autopilot.
Vay is also rife with minor design flaws. For instance, the game lacks a mapping feature, meaning you may find yourself backtracking more often than you should in the more complex dungeons. Also, instead of having a dedicated UI, Vay’s menus seem to be built out of bits and pieces of Apple’s default iPhone UI, so they don’t match the rest of the game’s look. The game’s options reside in the iPhone’s Settings application, so you have to quit out of the game to access them. Finally, there does not appear to be an item that restores your characters’ magic points; they only regenerate when gaining a level or sleeping at an inn. These niggling issues indicate that Vay’s production is not as professional as it could have been.
Vay’s presentation is best described as adequate. The game’s non-combat graphics are straight out of 1994. The backgrounds are bright, and you can tell one character from another, and that’s about all you can expect. The game uses updated character art and animations for combat. They’re cute in a funky, Kingdom Hearts kind of way, but they don’t add that much to the experience. Purists may prefer to play with the original sprites instead. On the other hand, Vay’s creative and energetic soundtrack is a relative bright spot.
Thematically, Vay is stuck between worlds: it’s far too casual to satisfy JRPG fans for long, but it still has more than enough JRPG weirdness to alienate passers-by. The game’s production values are also uneven. If you like Final Fantasy-style games and are willing to overlook such issues, you will probably get $5 worth of enjoyment out of Vay, but we suggest saving your money until something better comes along.