You can find this review in full at GBAtemp.net:
Published by the same creative team behind the Disgaea series, The Longest Five Minutes puts forward a new spin on the classic JRPG formula. Aiming to blend time-old gameplay with such a heavy narrative focus, just how much could Nippon Ichi Software fit into this five minute tale of life and loss?
The title screen is a story unto itself. Simple and elegant, it features the heroes in the final hour of their quest gazing off to their final objective—the Demon King’s castle. Paired with a sorrowful and quaint piano melody and an ambient breeze blowing across the pixilated landscape, you have a scene rarely appropriate for the title; one of conclusion. It beautifully introduces you to the idea of the end without giving away significant detail of what is to come, nor what has happened.
Starting the game soon gets you up to date on the heroes’ quest. Scene after scene flashes before you, dyed an aged tone of sepia. The events feel new—they are new, but they’re presented in such a way as to feel familiar. As if one by one, lost memories are revealing themselves; or fond memories are being reduced to nothing. With a new appreciation for the value of memories, this daydream soon comes to an end; an unknown presence appearing before you.
The Beginning of the End (But Also Just the Beginning)
The Demon King? Who’s that? On that note, who are you? Panic and dread soon wash over the hero as he remembers nothing of his quest as it should be coming to a close. What’s your mission? Why are you here? How did you ever plan on beating the Demon King? One after another, questions rapidly race through his mind. With a grand and exhilarating score playing in the background, everything is in place for this final confrontation, much to the confusion of both the player and the hero. Five minutes to finish the quest; five minutes to defeat the Demon King; five minutes to remember your story, your friends, your hardships. This truly is the longest five minutes.
Of course, even veterans of the industry such as NIS can’t fit a fulfilling story in just five minutes of gameplay. While time continues to march forwards in the final boss encounter, our hero Flash Back finds himself thrown into the past, piece by piece putting together the events that lead him and his party to where he currently stands. And this is where the game’s core mechanic lies.
Meet Flash Back
Flashbacks serve as the backbone to the gameplay, providing a classic-feeling RPG experience for the player in a game that is anything but. At set points in the final encounter, our aptly named hero is thrust into his own mind, recalling events relevant to the fight; questions such as “who are the people in my party?” being answered by playing the part of the story where they set off together. While this approach is largely linear, the game does a good job in giving the player freedom to explore within the constraints of the flashbacks. Much akin to classic Final Fantasy games, you are often given the freedom to go the entirely wrong way, walk into the wrong dungeon, fight the wrong foes. Much of this doesn’t necessarily have an impact on the way the story plays out, but such freedom is a joy to see in a game that could be so easily walled off. This freedom aside, player choice is used as means of divergence in an otherwise linear-feeling experience. The outcomes of these choices stood out to me as being surprisingly varied. You want to see what happens if you tell the Demon King you’ll slay your party? Be prepared for the consequences. This element blends seamlessly with the RPG elements to create a sort of visual novel hybrid.
No particular element of the story stood out to me as I played; there was no ground-breaking nor revolutionary plot twist, each part knew its assigned role and stuck with it—perhaps even to the point of cliché. Despite this, the radiant light shined upon these cliched scenes by their presentation transformed even the most mundane and predictable reveal into a revelation for the ages; an uncovered secret. This predictability also has a secondary effect of making you feel as though you’ve seen a number of these events before. It puts forward an experience that feels dated, yet refined. The game presents both the fondest encounters, and strenuous struggles of the heroes’ adventure; all the moments you’ll remember from your childhood JRPG. Nothing feels particularly new—instead coming across how I remember these older games; something I believe to be a greater feat.
Relive, Redo, Reexperience
While the flashbacks do what they aim to well, they complicate a number of standard RPG elements; growth and side quests in particular. Were you to play an average RPG, measuring growth is a simple affair; you level up. You’re too weak to fight a boss? Go fight some monsters and gain experience. You have a simple but effective loop of gratification as you become stronger. It could be argued however this system is flawed. It relies in the player being in a sweet spot of experience; strong enough to deal with enemies, but not so strong as to lack challenge. The flashback system counteracts this in its very nature—after all, you aren’t playing the hero’s story in its entirety. By joining the party at specific moments in the quest, you cut out parts of the experience; for better or worse. What you lose here is a reliance on grinding, and travelling long distances to the next destination. These elements do still exist in the game, but to a much lesser extent than one would usually see in an RPG. As well as the traditional level, which is set by the flashback, you have a secondary Reexperience stat. This is the stat you increase and grow through battles, acting as a buff to the character on top of the true level. This approach gives you the same gratification of levelling up, whilst removing the reliance of it. I never found myself feeling too weak, and yet the Reexperience never seemed to put me so far ahead of the enemies as to make the game too easy.
Side quests still exist in The Longest Five Minutes, but much like the rest of the game, their presentation is altered to fit the flashback mechanic. Instead of being spontaneous and sporadic, they’re listed as bonus objectives, each providing Reexperience for their completion. Despite being a fairly good source of Reexperience, this was never the reason I decided to tackle them. From such simple tasks as talking to lonely old lady, to delivering meals to sailors; these objectives charmed me. They provided depth and life to what could be seen as a stoic world—at least for the most part. Though I enjoyed a great majority of bonus objectives, a select handful stood out for all the wrong reasons; artificial padding to an otherwise lacking flashback. These are few and far between, but true pain cannot be understood without first having to score 20k points on a poorly conceived arcade game.
The Long and Short of It
The Longest Five Minutes works with conventional RPG tropes better than any game I’ve seen before it. If you’ve seen them before, the events feel like a reimagining of any classic adventure, you unlocking these long-since put away memories as the story progresses. Should you be new to the genre, the world, the tropes, the characters, they’ll all seem new, perhaps confusing. It’ll take time to adjust, and you might not understand the gravity of the situation Flash is in. The beauty of this game is that both approaches are equally well thought out, and both allow for a reasonable degree of empathy with Flash. It’s a brilliant concept executed well from start to end.