Most RPGs feature a team of teenagers who are inexplicably the only ones who can save the world. Sands of Destruction keeps the teenagers, but flips the convention by putting them on the path to destroy the world — and no, they’re not the villains. The world is divided into two general races: the animalistic ruling class of the Ferals (led by twelve Beastlords) and the subservient Humans. Most Ferals treat Humans like lesser life forms (some more than others), and understandably a few Humans have taken exception to this. The most extreme of these rebel factions is known as the World Annihilation Front, and it is that faction which main hero Kyrie (“kee-ree-ay”) finds himself unwittingly joining.
Kyrie meets up with WAF member Morte — aka “The Scarlet Death” — shortly after a mysterious force turns his home town — and everyone in it but him — to a pile of sand. The two meet up with others along the way, eventually accumulating a party of six (three of which are active at any given time), but they’re the primary focus of the narrative. In addition to the Beastlords, the heroes will also have to deal with opposing Human factions as well as elemental forces known as Primals on their path to destroying the world. At least, that’s the goal in theory. In practice that mission statement changes (somewhat predictably, somewhat annoyingly) about halfway through the adventure, but the general sentiment is still the same.
While the story may lose some wind, the combat system remains fairly strong throughout the game. Each character has a strong attack (“blow”) and a weaker, combo-oriented attack (“flurry”) in addition to various skills (offensive “blood skills” and defensive “life skills”); these are accessed by hitting the corresponding buttons (navigating menus in the case of skills/items). Normally each character has two Battle Points (BP); each action consumes one BP, and when you are out of BP — or when you use an item — your turn ends. However, certain conditions can grant you additional BP; having a high morale, your first critical hit per turn, every ten consecutive hits in a combo, stunnning/KOing/tossing an enemy for a follow-up attack, and other factors can build your BP total to a maximum of six. Once you hit six BP, you can unleash a powerful Special Attack or Special Skill that will inflict serious damage on your opponents (or greatly help your party). Special Attacks require a five-button sequence to be entered quickly for maximum effectiveness, with three stages of power (fast entry, slow entry, and incomplete entry); an ability granted by some items can turn that sequence into nothing but Xs for rapid entry, but the sequences are specific for each character’s Special Attack and you can memorize them with little effort (Morte’s just alternates Y and B, for example).
In addition to cash, items, and xp, winning combat will earn participating characters Customization Points (CP). CP can be spent to improve the accuracy or damage of your various attacks (cost/power for skills); regardless of the move’s type, increasing one aspect decreases the other, so some sort of balance is usually in order. As abilities reach certain thresholds you can unlock new ones and intensify their effects. Combo moves can be chained to their more advanced follow-ups to enable truly ridiculous flurries with the press of a single button and thus one BP; one character can get in a crazy seventeen hits per flurry when fully chained, virtually guaranteeing a Special Attack against an enemy that doesn’t just die outright to being on the receiving end of a 40-hit combo.
When combined with the fact that high combos provide CP bonuses, you might think that there would be no reason to ever use the slower but more powerful blows. However, some enemies — often bosses — have an ability that increases their speed (and thus affects when they move in the turn order) with each hit they take. If you unload with a thirty-hit combo, you might find yourself on the receiving end of several devastating turns in rapid succession in retaliation. Additionally, flying enemies (and those on the upper screen for other reasons, like being enormous) are harder to combo against since you have to jump to hit them (even if your character is using a gun or whip…); blows can often knock them down to ground level for easier pummeling. It really is a nicely-balanced system that keeps things interesting, even if skills are usually vastly inferior to the attacks (except when the skills allow for hitting multiple opponents at once).
Also keeping things interesting is the “quip” system. As you progress through the story, your characters will pick up catch phrases that are retained for future use. You can assign up to four of these quips to trigger at specific times in battle; they can happen at the start of combat, when you get hit, or several other times specific to each quip. A quip gives you various bonuses, like increased defense, higher morale, or doubling the gold earned. They don’t fire all the time, and several assigned quips can be competing for the same trigger, but they do provide a nice break to what can be an otherwise fairly mechanical combat. Kyrie’s “It’s probably my fault” quip is one of the strangest, most self-depreicating things I’ve ever heard a primary hero utter.
Overall, Sands of Destruction is an above-average RPG on a system that attracts them. While I didn’t care for the change in tone (and the other changes that came with it) in the middle, I did appreciate the neat little combat system and enjoyed the characters. I’ve certainly played worse RPGs, and Sands provides several opportunities to customize the game from CP to quips to being able to enhance weapons at blacksmiths using items dropped by beaten foes. It may be a little trite towards the end, but it’s never boring. The quest itself should occupy about 30 hours of your time, which isn’t a bad deal for the now-standard $35 DS RPG price tag.
Plays like: most other RPGs. There is innovation here, but still fairly standard stuff.
Pros: Unique two-screen combat system; amusing “quips”; solid cast of characters
Cons: Poor “documentation” when it comes to the nuts and bolts of the world (which elements are superior/inferior to which other ones, what certain abilities do, etc.); disappointing plot shift about halfway through; awkward automatic camera in towns.