The most common tagline associated with any review of Square-Enix’s Imaginary Range is “50% comic, 50% game, 100% awesome.” Actually, it looks like all those reviews might be quoting the same early review and just running with the tagline. Whatever the case, it’s a very high bar to live up to, and while what I’ve seen is promising, it’s way too early to make any pronouncements.
I don’t know exactly how the time is divided up between the two, but Imaginary Range is indeed a combination of comic book storytelling and games. Specifically, Imaginary Range tells an ongoing story in the form of comic-style panels although these differ from traditional comics by incorporating occasional animations, zooms, and pans. There is never anything elaborate, but it does add a little cinematic touch to the proceedings. If you have ever seen the web original series Broken Saints, you will have an idea of what I’m talking about.
From time to time, Imaginary Range will also present mini-games which you must complete in order to move forward. They range from a missile-guiding game resembling Flight Control to simple hidden object searches. Some effort is made to integrate the games into the plot with varying success. For the most part, you probably won’t care. The games are well-done, and some of them are surprisingly addictive. After finishing the main storyline, you can unlock a mode which allows you to replay three of the mini-games to try to get higher scores. My favorite is a vertical shooter in which you must control a laser which can skewer a series of bombs heading toward the buttom of the screen, Space Invaders style, and then set the bombs off to destroy even more bombs. Playing the games also earns you coins which you can use to unlock concept art in the gallery.
The skewered bombs end up looking like martini olives for some reason...
Unfortunately, the story itself is a bit nonsensical. What’s included in the app is basically an introductory chapter, and as such things go it’s pretty substantive. We get a decent introduction to a set of characters, watch them fight off an alien force, and even get a flashback which seems to develop a relationship or some kind of background between two of the characters. It’s far too early for me to get a good idea of where the story is going, but the bigger problem is that what I can tease out about the story makes absolutely no sense. From what I can tell, there are two heroes fighting off an alien invasion of some sort. One of them is carrying a Tablet (yes, it’s capitalized as if it’s a proper name for a product) which can create anything imaginable as long as they draw imaginary energy from objects around them. That imaginary energy comes in the form of…well, random shapes and posters scattered around the pages of the comic. The whole system seems completely arbitrary and suspect. Hopefully we’ll get a fuller explanation in future chapters.
Imaginary Range also has a bad habit of having its characters speak in obtuse, vague language which merely leaves the reader confused. I have to wonder if Square-Enix is having localization problems since they have a history of shaky translations (e.g. Final Fantasy VII). Then again, a lot of the anime I watch also tends to be deliberately obtuse, often to the detriment of our understanding and for no particular reason other than to make us feel smart if we actually can figure out what’s going on. As it is right now, I’m willing to wait for more details, but I have definitely been left feeling rather unmoved so far.
At least the art work is excellent. Character designs are attractive and distinctive, and the action is conveyed clearly (although sometimes you will want to zoom out on the page so that you can see the flow of panels properly). This is also crucial for some of the gameplay since the hidden object puzzles depend heavily on being able to distinguish between what you can interact with and what is merely a background object.
Imaginary Range’s biggest flaw has to do with the implementation of its gallery. I don’t mind the idea of unlockable concept art, but I find it hugely problemmatic when the unlocking mechanism is entirely luck based. As I mentioned before, playing the mini-games earns you coins which are used to unlock gallery art. However, you don’t use the coins to buy unlocked pictures outright. Instead, coins are used to buy scratch-off cards (the type you see in a lottery) which you then scratch off using your finger. Uncover 3 icons under the 9 circles and you unlock a gallery. However, whether or not there are actually 3 icons there to uncover is entirely random, and I spent a lot of time buying cards and scratching them off before I finally got one which unlocked a gallery. It gets tedious after a while, and for the life of me I can’t understand why Square-Enix chose to implement their unlockable gallery this way.
Take a look at the number of coins I have in the upper right hand corner...
...compared to how much I had when I finally uncovered three moogle icons. And that was for just one piece of artwork.
Of course, I can’t get too annoyed with Imaginary Range’s foibles considering that it’s currently free in the iTunes App Store. I’m sure Square-Enix is using this release as a teaser for paid content to be released in the future. It’s worked on me to the extent that I would be interested enough to buy the next installment, assuming it has a reasonable price. However, Imaginary Range still has a lot to prove before I’m convinced that it’s truly “awesome.” If the story doesn’t get any better and the gallery continues to be unlocked by scratch-off lottery cards, I’ll have to declare it “good” but not “great.”