Pier Solar and the Great Architects (or Pier Solar HD) is an updated re-release of a game that launched on the Sega Mega Drive in 2010, and in truth, that tells you just about everything that you need to know. This unashamedly stodgy RPG trades in genre tropes with wild abandon, while brazenly attempting to tug at your nostalgia. And in many ways, it succeeds, providing an experience that feels like it could have been plucked straight from the 1990s. However, if you aren’t prepared to embrace its more passé peculiarities, you’re unlikely to enjoy your time.
The game predominantly concerns Hoston, a young botanist, whose father is on death’s doorstep. So, as is the wont of spiky-haired JRPG protagonists, he takes two friends and attempts to ransack a nearby cave in order to find a remedy for the ailment. Predictably, the intrepid teenagers find much more than a simple herb garden, and are soon swept up in a political sandstorm, attempting to successfully navigate ancient prophecies, fierce rivalries, and secret societies. In other words, it’s a fairly vanilla plot.
Indeed, the writing is wildly inconsistent, constantly vacillating between clever and cringe-worthy. You’ll probably grow attached to the characters, but it’s unclear whether this is thanks to sound scripting, or Stockholm syndrome. At any rate, there is some genuinely witty and interesting dialogue here, and the narrative – while not mind-blowingly brilliant – certainly never detracts from the experience in any meaningful way.
Similarly, the title's core combat is pretty standard. As each of the characters has a fairly rigid set of skills, and their stats are upgraded automatically, there isn’t a great deal of strategy to be found in customisation. You are presented with a few equipment options later on which add some depth, but the ‘best’ loadout is usually pretty obvious.
The real tactical meat is found in the game’s battle system. Its main hook is ‘gather’, an intriguing resource which results in some neat strategic flexibility. If you so desire, you can order one of your units to spend their entire turn charging one point of ‘gather’. As each individual character’s ‘gather’ increases, so too does their overall offensive power. What’s more, some of the stronger attacks require a couple of points in order to be used.
Crucially, these points can be freely swapped between characters, allowing the creation of some interesting dynamics. You might use one fighter as a ‘gather’-farm, their sole purpose being the doling out of this precious resource. Or, you might save up a small stash at the start of a battle, and then swap it between characters as needed.
Unfortunately, the title doesn’t do a very good job of explaining how this mechanic works, so you’re often left to flounder. Indeed, many of its more mercurial mysteries are left glaringly unexplained, which can ultimately be chalked up to its decidedly retro core. Make no mistake, this is an RPG in the classical style: you will need to grind to progress; you will need to endure patently absurd character names such as ‘Edessot and ‘Goamon’; and you will come across bosses that, if underestimated, could potentially kill you in one turn.
Let’s take a few more examples: one section around the middle of the title requires you to trek all the way through a monster infested forest. When you reach the end of your journey, your party comes to the conclusion that in order to progress, you’ll actually need to meet up with someone back at the start of the area. After you make you way back, you’re told that there is a quest-related item hidden in the middle of the forest. You comb through the level, finally find the item you’re looking for, return to the beginning, and are then instructed to make your way through the entire forest again.
Here’s another: you encounter the very first boss around twenty minutes into the game after a short dungeon, but in order to defeat the horrible monster, you’ll almost certainly have to grind a few levels. Oh, and assuming you hadn’t already guessed, the title is linear. So linear, in fact, that it’d probably make the designers of Final Fantasy XIII blush. It’s these sorts of quirks that you’ll either find totally charming, or utterly insufferable depending on what you value.
However, the game does feature some design choices that are totally inexcusable. The optional map, for instance, is almost completely unusable, and will undoubtedly be remembered as one of history’s most cataclysmic cartographical catastrophes. What’s more, there are several puzzles that are entirely too cryptic for their own good. There’s something to be said for mind bending mysteries that provide a change of pace, but when you find yourself talking to each NPC twenty times just to progress the story, something’s gone wrong.
Thankfully, this is an HD remaster in the truest sense of the term, and as such includes a myriad of graphical and musical options. You can choose to either experience the game in its original 16-bit glory, or an updated version which adds a hand painted modern veneer. Similarly, you can listen to the standard bleeps and bloops, or if you prefer, the lusher soundtrack created to emulate the capabilities of the Mega Drive’s CD add-on. All of these options look and sound great, and there’s something bizarrely satisfying about switching back and forth between them.
Stating that ‘you’ll enjoy this game if you’re a fan of the genre’ is arguably the most meaningless and overused video game review cliché of all time. But in the case of Pier Solar HD, it's startlingly accurate. This is a retro RPG down to its very core, and if you aren’t prepared to accept its charmingly archaic quirks, you probably won’t relish your time with it. However, if you are willing to embrace its idiosyncrasies – some amiable, some aggravating - you’ll find a veritable wealth of content to explore.