Utawarerumono is a series that is hard to pronounce, harder to explain fully, and nigh impossible to spell without an eidetic memory. While it might be the most recent release, Prelude to the Fallen is actually a refurbished version of the first title now officially available in english.
Utawarerumono first released on PC back in 2002, and was only ever available to English speaking audiences via what I believe was a fanslation, or freeware English patch if you prefer. As a fan of grid based tactics games, a vaguely recall many years ago taking a stab at the original, although this was before the English Patch was available, so I lost interest rather quickly. Thankfully, we are now blessed with Prelude to the Fallen, an official English translation with updated specs.
For those of you unaware, Utawarerumono also has an anime, as well as two other “major” titles in the series: Mask of Deception and Mask of Truth, both of which occur after the events of Prelude to the fallen. But I digress, you aren’t hear to learn about the sequels, you’re hear to learn about the first/prequel, depending how you look at it. Prelude to the Fallen follows the daily life of a man who was found injured in the woods with amnesia. He awakens to find a girl with animal ears and a tail tending to his wounds, Eruruu. Now bedridden in the equivalent of a feudal era remote village, he is nursed back to health by Eruruu, her sister Aruruu, and their grandmother, Tuskur. The amnesiac man, who Tuskur names Hakuowlo (Hakouro?) after her deceased son, makes a place for himself in the village, as a man of knowledge, planning, and engineering knowledge, despite having a weird mask stuck to his face that he can’t remove.
Unfortunately things won’t stay peaceful forever, and Hakuoro and his myriad of companions are drawn into conflicts, armed rebellions, and a religious crusade. The story of Utawarerumono is actually really in-depth when you get into it, with a lot of background and interesting characters and their motivations. And let’s be honest, Utawarerumono is basically a story with some combat tossed in to keep your attention. About ten hours in and I had only fought about 10 of roughly 30 or so battles, so be prepared for a largely story driven content, with the combat thrown in to break up the monotony. This actually works fairly well though, as you can replay battles and there’s a training missions option once you get to that point in the game.
As I mentioned before, Utawarerumono as a series is basically a visual novel with some grid based combat thrown in here and there. That isn’t to say the combat is done poorly, far from it, for the most part. The combat in Prelude to the Fallen can be roughly summarized as “complexly simple”. All the basics are there, and you can largely ignore the aspects that are more unique to the franchise, but it also has the potential for some interesting strategy involved as well. The combat stages of Prelude to the Fallen are, technically speaking, objective based. More often than not, the conditions are generally “defeat this person” and “Don’t let Hakuowlo die”, but can also require you to reach a certain panel, or to survive a set number of turns. Combat can largely be described with:
Grid-based Basics: the standard fare across most of these types of titles. You have a grid based map, usually composed of squares, and you can sign units and move them around and attack or use skills or items on a turn by turn basis. Unit order is determined by speed, which is a hidden value but you should pick up pretty quickly, and all the units you acquire are unique characters, in personality if not in function. Units are not permanently lost if one dies, although certain characters may be required to remain standing throughout the stage. You have both a movement and action each turn your units get, and there’s an elemental rock/paper/scissors game going on in the background for damage calculation. You may select any units available for deployment before battle, and you can earn items and equipment that you can give to you units for healing or stat increases.
Utawarerumono Basics: Experience is earned through smacking enemies upside the head, not through delivering the final blow, and the experience is based damage dealt, or health healed. This gets particularly amusing when you find a particularly burly rock that gives four to five times the exp than the enemy commander. Stages can be replayed to acquire missed items or for experience, and there are bonus missions, or training missions, that can also be undertaken. In addition to the standard exp for leveling your units, upon clearing a map you will also earn BP, or bonus points.
These points are individually awarded to battle participants, and may be used to increase one of the three stats a character has. Yes, you can replay stages to earn BP, and no, there is no “effective cap” on amount of BP you can earn, other than the characters stat cap. Yes, you can replay that first mission a billion times and then roflstomp your competition with just those units that can be used in that mission. No, I don’t recommend doing that unless you’re really struggling with the game.
Your three stats available are Attack (or healing for healers), Defense, and Magic Defense. That’s it. Nice, neat, and concise, tell if you’re a Mongol or a Turtle, because I know some of you reading this though “I’m dumping all my points in one stat”. Yes, that’s an oddly viable strategy, but you’ll find out rather fast that having high defense means very little if you have to kill any given enemy by hitting them 300 times, and high attack means little if the ranged units can pick you off before you melt the boss. Yes I’m speaking from experience. I regret nothing.
Free battles, the replayable version of the missions, are always available after they’re unlocked, and you can even play them while preparing for another map, making it really easy to go back and farm some levels or BP if you start struggling in an area. Your units also have innate skills, so pay attention to those. As an example, units adjacent to Hakuowlo receive reduced damage. Very handy for the squishy units. Additionally, units are affected by direction, so attacking or getting attacked from behind results in more damage being dealt.
Now, the one thing I haven’t really touched on is Zeal. Essentially, attacks in Prelude to the Fallen are “active”, meaning there’s a sort of timed button press for you to hit, and if you get it on time, you earn bonus Zeal. You also earn Zeal from being attacked or attacking. As you level, you also learn more chain moves, which will tack on after your current attack finishes, and failing too hard at the button timing stops the combo, although the timing for continuing the combo is pretty lenient itself. So what does Zeal do? Well, at full Zeal you get some interesting things. Some characters have passive skills based on Zeal, but mostly what you will be concerned with is the fact that consuming a full Zeal gauge gives you a bonus attack and finishing move, although you can toggle this on or off to preserve Zeal. I’ve got to say, the combat feels really well rounded, for how little of it I feel is actually in the game.
So, let’s talk a little about the graphics and soundtrack. Both have gotten a nice upgrade from the original version. Seriously, go take a look at the old combat graphics. No longer 2D sprites on a 3Dish map, now you’ve got fully 3D units and environments, although the camera angle and map orientation can go take a long walk off a short plank. But ultimately that’s mostly personal preference. The new combat graphics are a major improvement, and the well-drawn character art, illustrations, and backgrounds are really well done.
While the characters aren’t “animated” like other companies do, such as Compile Heart, there are a wide range of expressive options available in the character portraits presented, and there is almost always something that can fit with the conversation or event that is happening. While I didn’t really notice any grammatical or translation issues, although I have started to become numb to these, there was one point where a character references a definitely-not-western creature, and an actual description of what it was was added in brackets next to the name, which was quite convenient.
The soundtrack is also on point, with the option for both the traditional soundtrack and remastered version available. I have to say, the Utawarerumono franchise has never failed to impress me with their music selection and choices in the past, and they certainly aren’t letting me down here either. You know it’s a good soundtrack when it gets stuck in your head.
While Prelude to the Fallen may not appeal to those who have no interest in Visual Novels, the story and characters are quite unique and in-depth, and I tended to find myself truly invested in the characters. Each character has their own unique personality and are fairly easily discernible from the other characters. The storyline also takes a nice hard look at what it means to be someone who stands above others, and how the title of “hero” is subjective to those who are wearing it.