Baroque is a Playstation 2 / Wii remake of a Playstation remake of a game originally made for the Sega Saturn, and although I am happy, in a way, that it traversed this long chain of production I cannot quite figure out why it did so. Even loose Roguelikes are not usually a winning commercial proposition, the popularity of Persona 3 notwithstanding, and Baroque lacks the concessions that would allow it succeed more broadly. For all its faults, though, there are some interesting ideas in Baroque that deserve some thought.
Baroque takes place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and while the fact that it is a wasteland is apparent immediately, that it is post-apocalyptic is something that you must learn, because the main character begins without any memory. Now, Wlad and Michael Abbott and maybe a few others of you know that I usually loathe amnesia as a narrative mechanic, but I did not mind it here. Mostly this is because the majority of games use amnesia as an excuse for long explanatory monologues, while Baroque just tosses you into the story without explaining much of anything. As you stumble forward in the world you encounter an Archangel who gives you a special gun and urges you to make your way to the bottom of a place called the Neuro Tower and use the gun there. “Use it,” he urges, “There is meaning in you using it.”
The Tower is a dungeon filled with creatures that were once human, but who became twisted into something else by “baroques”, twisted ideas that come to dominate their minds. In the world that exists after the apocalypse, ideas that distort the mind can warp the body, and sometimes they remain in the form of a crystal after the body’s destruction. By gathering these crystals, and exploring the tower, the nameless main character learns more about the world and its past. The catch, however, is that the Neuro Tower allows travel only in one direction (downwards). To depart the tower and learn from the people in the outer world, the hero must die. He then reappears in the world, having lost all his items (though some can be transferred from the dungeon and found outside) and progress (he is reverted to level 1). To proceed in the story, he usually must enter the dungeon and make his way to the bottom once more.
The hero learns that he, the surviving one of conjoined twins, was fused with God, whom the Archangel had driven mad in part by removing her pain. The Archangel separated the hero from God, causing the apocalypse. The hero must return certain ideas and pain to the multiple personalities that split off from God, and then fuse with her to adapt some kind of livable world from the current existence.
This whole scheme, in my opinion, is practically bursting with potential. One ideal route would be to highlight that the repetitive mechanics make the traversal of the tower a baroque for the main character (or the player). The idea of pain as necessary for sanity, and the parallels between the hero’s and God’s feelings of incompleteness make for interesting thematic territory. If you wanted to turn the game into a commentary on games and gaming (despite my love of No More Heroes this is not something I generally advise), the subversion of traditional RPG goals would give you a lot to work with. Yet Baroque never really does any of these things; it is simply satisfied to present its minimal story and its Roguelike dungeon and to let you imagine the wonderful things that could have been done with this premise.
Part of the problem here is the repetition; putting repetitive tasks in a game always involves walking a fine line between holding the player’s interest and annoying him, and Baroque definitely teeters over into the latter. The real-time combat is dull, and the hero doesn’t really become any stronger by leveling up. Instead, the character’s strength is almost completely dependent on the items he finds in the tower. Because so many of the items he can find are harmful to him (a common element of Roguelikes), the hero’s ability to fight and survive is almost totally random. Because of this, actually fighting through the levels is, after a certain point, a total waste of time. It’s better just to run whenever you can. I am still on board for this, but if fighting through the levels is not a worthy end in itself then a game needs to have something else to draw the player along. Baroque doesn’t.
Baroque just has too little content to support even the minimal amount of play necessary to finish the game (judging from some FAQs, the game can be completed only entering the Tower 3 times, though it took me 10 attempts to fumble through). Part of the problem here is that the most interesting parts of this tale happened in the past. The backstory of the game is very tense, very emotional, and involves some interesting ideas, but the reality is that you are just playing the epilogue of that epic. Although the pace at which the past is revealed is good, the story doesn’t really have an arc, or develop any tension beyond the player’s increasing annoyance at going through the Neuro Tower again again. Moreover, the Christian and Kabbalistic imagery is pretty worn at this point, though perhaps it was fresher when the game was first made.
I won’t fault Baroque just for being a Roguelike. However, it is fair to complain that the dungeon crawl just isn’t entertaining enough to sustain a game on its own, the story isn’t strong enough to compensate, and the thematic possibilities never become realities. From its confusing beginning to its end, Baroque repeatedly flashes signs of brilliance, but it never really delivers on the promise. Somebody could make a great game out this.
Sadly, nobody did.