I’m putting my cards on the table: this is my first KEMCO JRPG. We have an in-house KEMCO Specialist (KEMconnoiseur?) but they were unavailable for this one. If anything, I’m majorly curious: what is it about the KEMCO JRPG that means they can put out seven or eight a year? And why do people keep coming back? Congratulations, Justice Chronicles: you get to be my key to understanding a series that I’ve never understood.
This is the story of Kline, a Grinsil soldier in the nation of Ilumica. He’s a rookie knight who’s subject to a bit of nepotism: he’s the foster son of one of the Grinsil leaders, so he gets to join his first mission before he’s old or competent enough. That mission is also vital, as he’s going to spy on Laft, the ‘world in the depths of the earth’ – basically the sketchy underworld nation to Ilumica’s surface nation.
The Grinsil soldiers each have a Guardian Beast, a kind of power-animal that’s tied to the soldier by a crest on their arm. Kline is yet to get his, but in the throes of the mission he is betrayed and finds himself falling into a cavern where he finds one. It’s an evil beast, who offers to help if Kline sacrifices years off his life. The relationship between Kline and his Guardian Beast isn’t too far off a Venom movie. And together, they have to survive the unknown depths of Laft.
That’s not a bad set-up, all told. Even from what we have written, you can probably guess some of its twists. Has there ever been a foster child in a fantasy story where the original parents weren’t important? And will the elitist and warmongering Ilumicans stay the good guys? Probably not. But the two worlds, Guardian Beasts and prophecies around Kline are all clear enough and keep the story rattling onwards. There’s at least one fantastic moment where the game doubles in size, as the world becomes significantly bigger than you imagined it to be.
Our problem was that Justice Chronicles doesn’t know when to stop. It has a habit of stacking on three or four major plot points in the space of a single piece of dialogue. It’s not necessarily complicated, it’s just convoluted. We even got to spotting a pattern: every single character in the game, at some point, revealed that they were something else entirely, a being that had enough power to swallow the current plot gobstopper. If there was a meteor about to hit the planet, one of the characters would reveal that – actually, all this time – they were a Meteor Puncher, just waiting for a meteor to punch. Then someone else would pipe up and reveal that – wait – they were the Assassin of Meteor Punchers. The whole plot’s like this, and it makes me want to tear my hair out.
It’s also a big chunk of plothole cheese, as characters reveal something that doesn’t make sense with the plot that came before. Or it does make sense, only after there is a long and convoluted explanation of how it might have been possible. Justice Chronicles is overburdened with this plot exposition, to the point that entire characters – poor Fred – have been with you the entire twenty hour game, yet you have no concept of what their personality might be.
Part of me wonders if this is the point; that this is the joy of a KEMCO JRPG. I’m half wary, half intrigued to find out.
The gameplay is stock JRPG turn-based stuff. I know enough that KEMCO dabbles in different gameplay, but Justice Chronicles is extremely conservative. Battles are static encounters with up to three enemies visible, and you choose to Attack, Defend, use an Item or Flee. The only wrinkles are that your Guardian Beasts are also present, a kind of automated ally who attacks or buffs, and you can unleash combos with other characters if a) you have used them enough together and b) have filled an invisible bar of damage that means it is triggered.
They amount to a couple of sprinkles on some vanilla ice cream, as this is basic to the point that it doesn’t offer much strategy. You will soon find optimal plays for the harder enemies, and revert to an Auto-Attack system for easier enemies. In fact, you will be spending most of your time automating Justice Chronicles, simply because it’s numbing to actually pay attention.
It does mean that the strategy is moved outside of the battles, and this is where Justice Chronicles is at its best. While there is a lack of weapon, armour or materia-like loot, which initially surprises and saddens, it becomes clear that there’s a half-decent crafting system here. You rinse dungeons for materials, and then hop to a crafting screen (recipes unlock from dungeon chests) and begin to make improvements to the gear you have. There’s also a neat little mission system, where you can help witches with quests to unlock the ability to purchase some of those materials, making it easier to fulfil their requirements.
But just as I was enjoying this little loop of ransacking dungeons for materials to make me more powerful, Justice Chronicles used it as a Trojan Horse to introduce my least favourite aspect. It’s a grindfest. The grind is lightweight and maybe even enjoyable in the first fifteen hours or so, but – to unlock the ‘proper ending’ – we had to grind unbroken for another six or seven hours. It was a difficulty spike that was more like a colossal mountain, and we could feel a hand in our back, pushing us to replay the same dungeons hundreds of times to upgrade the many different things we could upgrade. ‘We recommend fighting the final boss at level 99’, one guide told us. You could audibly hear us sigh.
We get the feeling that we missed the point: that this is what KEMCO lovers enjoy about their RPGs. That the grind is meditative in some way. But the grind was uneven, lumped in the final few moments, blocking a sense of resolution. And the rest of the game mitigates the grind with some well-worked witch missions. At the end, the grind is naked and ugly.
But underneath these bad JRPG habits, there were still enjoyable moments. The story may be hokey and convoluted, like a panto with ideas way above its station, but it was fun to play a game of ‘who will betray us next?’ or ‘what celestial being will be introduced now?’. In the early moments, some low-level grinding to make ourselves overpowered, enough to actually automate the battling, was great – there’s a strange joy in unlocking the ability to stop paying attention. Some of the art, too – particularly in the Guardian Beast design – is genuinely imaginative.
As our first KEMCO RPG, though, Justice Chronicles was probably a poor choice. In its gameplay, it’s about as unadventurous as you can imagine, and its story is overwritten pulp fiction where the writer was paid by the number of twists they could include. Some reasonable ideas shine through in the crafting system and characters, but ultimately Justice Chronicles is a lumpen grind that you could justly do without.
You can buy Justice Chronicles from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S