Following a warmhearted path of storytelling Watermelon's "Pier Solar and the Great Architects" aims to draw in the gamer with a lovable trio of friends, and their quest to escape the norm as they discover their fantastical past. Starting off on a somber note akin to another indie RPG release (A Tale of Two Brothers) we find young Hoston, the game's main protagonist in a dire situation regarding his ill father. Gathering up all the courage he can muster he defies his mother's demands, and travels along with his two friends Alina, and Edessot to a nearby cave in hopes of securing a plant that can hold off his father's sickness until a doctor can arrive. Upon entering the expressly forbidden caves the trio of friends happen upon a long forgotten garden, and stumble into a world of mystery only known by few. They not only obtain the special herb that Hoston seeks, but in trekking deeper into the cave they get drawn further into an ancient lore of Goamen, and a seemingly familiar goddess. It's this intriguing mystery that has the band of unlikely heroes abandoning their homeland, and seeking out the truth regarding the myths of their culture. They travel far, and wide as they meet up with different persons of interests, and battle the many monsters that stand in their path to knowledge. It is a heartwarming tale filled with the retro goodness of a gaming era long gone.
Gameplay within 'Pier Solar HD' is a basic yet proper nod to older 16bit RPGs. It features graphic options in three different varieties including a fully 16Bit experience, An HD experience filled with HD environmental elements as well as the traditional 16Bit character sprites, and a full-on HD experience (HD+) that gives the game a unique watercolor appearance. As you travel from location to location exploring the world around you, and battling the random monsters with your trailing trio of heroes you will be using a simple menu system to perform various actions that tie in with the RPG nature of the game. Each character, while different in their own way brings to the party a unique set of skills complimented by equipped weapons, accessories, and armor. Hoston, who is the leader of the group is a botanist at heart, and can cast botanical spells as well as deal sword based damage to any enemy he encounters. Alina, who is the only female of the group is the scholar type, and can heal her friends with spells as well as deal damage with a bow. Lastly, Edessot, the youngest of the three is the inventor of the group, and uses elemental spells as well as some workshop style tools that can deal damage like a sword. Edessot's attack options also allow him to throw objects at the enemies including stones, and even explosives. All three characters play a huge role in your survival on the battlefield, and must be managed wisely lest you end up as dead as a sack of hammers.
Since this is a traditional 16Bit RPG akin to the SNES 'Final Fantasy', and 'Secret of Mana' games you will find that battles in the game are a turn based ordeal, sometimes unfairly so. As you walk/run ("CIRCLE") through the semi-overhead dungeon areas you'll randomly be drawn into battle (Think 'Final Fantasy'), and will have to choose to go about the battle in a manual ("MAN") approach, or an automatic ("AUTO") approach. Each type of battle management option has it's pros, and cons accordingly, and must be selected wisely. Once you have selected how you wish to approach the battle at hand you will be selecting one of four actions for each character upon their turn (assuming you choose the "Manual" approach) including that of attack, defend, inventory, or spell. The "Attack" option will allow you to perform basic weapon based attacks, and 'Spell' will allow you to use MP draining special attacks that deal even greater damage. In regards to 'Inventory' you'll find that it is the equivalent of 'Item' in the classic FF games. The 'Inventory' option will allow a character to use health related items during the battle phases of the game. When it comes to the 'Defend' option you will find that it doubles as a means to defend, and as means to adjust character formation during battle. By choosing 'Defend', and selecting the secondary option 'Move Back' your selected character will move to the back row lessening their damage intake should they be targeted by the enemy. Choosing which action best suits the current situation will depend heavily on your turn, and the enemy/s you are facing.
Other key battle features offered include a unique mechanic known as "Gathering". By giving your characters certain obtainable fruit, and vegetable items you can open up the "Gather" function in their action selection menu. By selecting "Gather" as your character's action you can build upon the damage that they deliver when they are given the command to attack. The coolest thing about using the 'Gather' function is that 'Gather' energy can be sent through a secondary 'Gather' option (Send Gather) to another character making that character's next attack a truly powerful one. Using 'Gather' will mostly benefit your party when facing the stronger enemies such as bosses. Aside from that extra battle feature it should also be noted that battles in general do indeed have a random nature about them outside of the encounter factor. Sometimes you'll enter that battle on neutral terms without either side having an advantage, and sometimes your party, or the enemy will gain an advantage. In the latter case you will know that you have the advantage when the word "Advantage" appears on the screen, and will know that the enemy has the advantage when "Ambush" appears on the screen. The truly unfortunate part about the battle system though lies with the fact that your turns, and actions therein will not always play out immediately like they would in a normal RPG game. This can leave you at a huge disadvantage if your character has low health. The only real way around it is to be stocked with the necessary health items as well as plenty of MP refill stock before heading out to any dungeon area. That way you'll be prepared should you find yourself in a pinch. Be sure to use your 'Heal' spells, and health items sparingly though as the game doesn't really offer many options for refilling either one.
As far as plot movement is concerned you'll find that it is mandatory to speak to the right persons of interest in order to progress. Sometimes this entails speaking to the same person/s multiple times in a row, and sometimes you'll need to speak to a lot of different people before you can move on. It should also be noted that you will find merchants, and side quests amongst the different places that you travel to. Merchants while limited in what they say offer an often times humorous quote while trying to sell you, and your party the latest goods. The side-quest characters that you'll run into from time to time will also play a role in your journey in that they will offer you a variety of different errand related tasks to do that further enrich the lore at hand. All characters in the game, whether they be of your party, or otherwise are each crafted of sprites not unlike those found in 'Final Fantasy' games, or games of a similar 16Bit design.
The optional graphic options, and interesting soundtrack in 'Pier Solar HD' are, but two aspects of the game that make it as impressive as it is. Having the option to go fully retro, or take it up just a notch with some HD details makes the visual journey so much more enjoyable. The soundtrack, which is a mixture of classic RPG tunes (optional 'FM/PCM') comes complete with some real-life crowd effects which greatly enhance the ambient nature of the game. In a nutshell 'Pier Solar HD' is an example of a good retro RPG tribute attempt in the indie sense of the meaning. It not only stands on it's own with it's own unique story, and lore, but it also mostly stays true to one of the greatest RPG eras gaming has ever known. The fact that each of the main characters come complete with faux anime avatars akin to the 16Bit era offerings makes the game shine even more. In fact I absolutely love Watermelon's unique anime inspired art style. While it's not purely anime the art style definitely enhances the mood of the game. The added fact that the anime-like character avatars react to the various story, and battle driven situations is icing on the cake, so-to-speak.
Aside from the core experience you'll also find that Watermelon has offered up some unlockable extras in the form of several mini-games, and a 'Jukebox' that can be accessed via the main menu. The mini-games become available once you encounter them in-game. Most of the time the mini-games are competitive single, and local multiplayer experiences that will have you, and up to three other players trying to beat each other at various round oriented tasks. The "Collect the Watermelons" mini-game for example will have each character refilling a water canister at a fountain, pouring said water on watermelon sprouts, and collecting the watermelons once they are fully developed. Of course it goes without saying the player with the most collected watermelons ate the end of the round/s wins. The unlockable mini-games are more, or less party style events that don't really add much to the game other than something interesting to share via Twitch, or Ustream. The 'Jukebox' however will allow the gamer to listen to the game's soundtrack outside of the core experience.
The Verdict ...
Pier Solar HD (aka, Pier Solar and the Great Architects) is a "partially" well designed nod to the 16Bit RPG era of gaming. The game design in general stays basically true to the 16Bit genre throughout the game's plot driven gameplay scenarios, and even offers up some new features you've likely not seen before. While the story isn't as grand in scale as a 'Final Fantasy' adventure it is made well enough in it's own way, and plays out in a way that truly compliments the gameplay at hand. The main, and supporting characters who play the major roles within the story all seem as if they matter, and their various predicaments are heartfelt enough to pull on your heartstrings from time to time. In fact some of the situations they find themselves in even mirror real world issues, and problems. With the enchanting soundtrack, and additional anime inspired artwork the game comes to life in a brilliant way.
When it comes to downsides you will find that I do have one, or two nagging complaints about Watermelon's 'Pier Solar HD'. In the area of issues I found that the combat, and random encounters leading up to said combat scenarios were flawed. The fact that there was no viable reasoning behind me getting a mixture of encounters that gave both my in-game party, and the enemies an advantage hurt the gameplay. I do understand that the dev probably thought that older RPGs played out this way as well, but it did get bothersome at times, and could have been remedied by removing the advantages altogether. Secondly the turn based mechanics in the game were flawed due to the fact that your applied actions will not always play out immediately. This sometimes leaves your party member/s open to a second, or third attack from an enemy, or enemies who had just taken their turn. This was definitely not fair, especially seeing as MP (Magic Points), and health restoration items are a severely limited resource. Aside from those two things I felt the game was alright, and playable to a certain extent at least. I do advise some early level grinding if you hope to survive the longer inn-less spells, and battle heavy areas.
As far as a recommendation goes 'Pier Solar HD' gets an "A+" in effort, and visual/audio design from me. I know it's not perfect battle-wise, and there's other issues as well but there's something about the game that was alluring to me during my playthrough, enough so for me to have recommended it initially. The game could have been world's better, but if you approach it in the right way it can be enjoyable enough (hence the mention of early level grinding). Aside from the thrown-in extras, and the in-game issues that harken back to the battle system, and lack of health/MP options the game falls just short of being recommendable here at 'OtakuDante's Gaming Inferno'. I just hope Watermelon learns from their mistakes which +Defunct Games and the guys/gals at GameFAQs have rightfully pointed out. The game has the potential of being great (Triple A), but missed the mark due it's flaws.