You've gotta hand it to the folks over at Watermelon. Taking on a project as ambitious as Pier Solar and the Great Architects is by no means an easy task. Originally conceived in 2004 as a small homebrew project known as Tavern RPG for the Sega Genesis, development swiftly transformed into something much bigger. As the team puts it, it “evolved into the biggest 16-bit game ever." After a successful and limited print run (the game was packaged to look like an authentic Genesis release), Pier Solar is now ready to make a splash onto current consoles with updated graphics, an enhanced soundtrack, and some new additions to the adventure. But is Pier Solar and the Great Architects worthy of standing beside the classics it was so obviously inspired by? The answer is muddled at best. While the desire to play a game so infused with the essence of SNES and Genesis RPG's is indeed appealing, Pier Solar unfortunately falls short of greatness.
Things open up quite predictably in Pier Solar and the Great Architects. You play as Hoston, a young botanist living in the peaceful village of Reja, who hears about a special herb that can help cure his ailing father. Against the wishes of his mother, he — alongside his close friends Alina and Edessot — chooses to venture out in search of the herb. Of course, like most Japanese games in this genre, finding the herb eventually leads to our main characters saving the world. The story is simple and easy to follow, it's just not very engaging and most of the major plot points feel recycled and unexplained. The characters follow that trend too. For the most part, they're fairly likeable and the conversations between them can be enjoyable at times but they aren't anything we haven't already seen before.
On paper, Pier Solar sounds like a match made in heaven for fans of such classics like the Final Fantasy, Lunar and Phantasy Star series. It most definitely looks the part with beautiful, bright 16-bit graphics. Exploring the menu settings allows the player to switch from the highly-detailed HD version to the Genesis one and it's fun switching back and forth to see the differences, but we recommend leaving the HD mode on for the best results. Environments are a joy to discover and each has a distinct look to them, although we did sometimes have trouble finding our way around them (more on that a bit later). Sprites are nicely designed and well-animated, but the novelty does tend to diminish after seeing the same enemy types over and over again. The music is wonderful and is probably the single best defining aspect of Pier Solar, with clear nods to many memorable tunes from Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger. A few presentational nitpicks aside, Pier Solar does a great overall job in nailing that early 90's RPG flavour that made many of us die-hard fans of the genre. Sadly, the cracks begin to show specifically in places that matter the most in RPGs of this nature: combat and dungeon design.
"A few presentational nitpicks aside, Pier Solar does a great overall job in nailing that early 90's RPG flavour that made many of us die-hard fans of the genre."
Battles in Pier Solar are standard turn-based affairs. Outside of a basic command list — Attack, Defend, Spell — there is some depth to be found here, thanks to your party's ability to Gather. Gathering uses a turn, but it does ensure your attacks and support spells/items are stronger the next time. Anyone in your party can gather up to five times, and you can speed up the process by sending gather stored from one member to another. For some of the lengthy boss encounters (and there are some truly LONG ones), using your Gather ability is practically a necessity. You'll undoubtedly come up with your own tactics, but we mostly always had two members on the attack, two gather-collectors, and one healer. The truth of the matter though, is that the battle system becomes far too tedious far too early. Aside from unlocking more powerful abilities when you level up, we found ourselves dreading the far-too-frequent random encounters in the game's many explorable areas. We probably wouldn't be so quick to hit the Run Away option if the battles ran a touch bit faster. Attack and Spell animations take too long to finish and when most of your time is spent fighting enemies, you'll wish there was a skip or fast-forward option. Hoston's Avacodo Blast spell does significant damage, but having to see a giant avocado slowly move to the target enemy before exploding is agonizing to watch. And Kruller's basic Attack move involves him juggling before launching the balls in the air, then watching them slowly land on your enemy. You'll want to pull your hair out after the first 100 times.
"The truth of the matter though, is that the battle system becomes far too tedious far too early."
There's no discernible way to tell, but the game will sometimes either give you an Advantage over your foes (letting you attack first) or to get Ambushed (enemies attack first). We found the game would favour the enemies over us, meaning standard monsters would end up doing some serious damage to our party, even at full health and with better equipment, before we had a chance to make a move. In one particularly punishing stretch, you'll encounter waves of enemies one after the other without a single resting place. We had to resort to using nearly all the restorative items we had to overcome this gruelling section, all the while wondering how on earth this wasn't noticed during testing. Pier Solar isn't a game that holds your hand and neither do we want it to, but its combat — while occasionally great and even smart — causes more frustration than we believe the creators ever intended.
In addition to the excessive enemy encounters, you'll have to tolerate the often confusing Labyrinthine dungeons. We found ourselves getting lost a number of times, and there are branching paths practically everywhere. In one area, you're expected to walk around in circles before triggering an interactive scene with no hint whatsoever. Other times, paths are intentionally blocked so it's difficult to see where to go. We lost count the times we thought we had hit a dead end, went to explore elsewhere, only to arrive back to the same spot to poke around and uncover a way through — all the while falling victim to the same tedious battles that had been peppered throughout our travels.
Pier Solar and the Great Architects could've started a revival for 16-bit old school RPGs, but it misses the mark on a few key areas that matter the most. Kudos to Watermelon for taking on and pulling through on a project as grand as this, and the effort shines through on much of the game's overall presentation. If more time was dedicated to polishing the battle system and weaving a more original narrative, Pier Solar could very well have achieved recognition as high as our favourite 90's RPGs. If you're feeling particularly nostalgic and in need of an RPG that harkens back to your childhood, then Pier Solar may be capable of scratching that itch, just know that there's a good chance you probably won't have much fun doing so.