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2002’s Rance 5D (finally localised into English in 2017) is probably one of the most unusual RPGs you will ever play.
At least part of its rather distinctive nature is due to the fact that it is actually developer Alicesoft’s fourth attempt at a fifth Rance game, hence the “D” on the end of the title — A, B and C were all failed attempts that never saw the light of day.
Thankfully, Rance 5D did, however, and it’s nothing if not a memorable experience, both from a narrative and mechanical perspective — and from the perspective of its rather troubled development history, too.
A turbulent time
“After Kichikuou [Rance, a non-canonical but extremely well-received installment in the series], development started on a large-scale RPG,” explains lead developer TADA in Rance 5D’s developer commentary section, Alice’s Mansion. “I think we planned for four people to handle the art and three to write the script, but a lot of things happened and it failed.
“It was a bit of a disaster since it was such a big project with the company’s future riding on it,” he continues. “I felt pretty emotionally defeated, and I wondered if the whole company was gonna go under. But I managed to turn myself around somehow and started planning a new Rance 5. But that fizzled out too, though it was only my planning, so the damage was minimal. Then after a while I tried to start it up again as a final challenge. We cut the size and staff of the game to half of the initial plan. The content of the game changed a lot, too. And the system. Everything went along pretty smoothly. But we had to toss it. It’s cursed…”
After three failed attempts at a canonical fifth installment in its flagship series, Alicesoft was on the ropes, so the team decided to cut its losses and try something new. The result was Daiakuji, a conquest game similar to Kichikuou Rance in execution but with a whole new setting: a parallel universe in which a feminist-dominated America won World War II and forced a female-centric constitution on the defeated Japan.
Daiakuji was enough of a success to turn Alicesoft’s fortunes around, thankfully, and thus the team decided to make another attempt at a fifth Rance title — this time keeping the scale small and manageable.
“If it was small, maybe it would work,” explains TADA. “We didn’t have the willpower or the material to put into an ambitious RPG any more. We’d had three tries already… three tries had been buried in the darkness of the past. But if it was a stupid little game… we were afraid of failure, so we decided to make it with the smallest possible number of staff. And we somehow managed to complete it. Phew.”
TADA and his team drew up a plan for what would become Rance 5D, coming to the conclusion that they wanted to make a return to the simpler days of the early Rance games but to keep things mechanically unusual and distinctive. Most importantly, it should be “stupid”.
“When I asked [TADA], he said the concept this time was ‘stupid’,” explains artist Orion, who took over art duties on Rance 5D after working on Daiakuji. “So he came to the stupidest artist to do stupid Rance. I did the original art while under so much pressure I thought I might die. No, seriously, I almost did. But, you know, I was happy to get the opportunity to draw Rance.”
Despite his self-deprecating comments, Orion would continue to serve as the main illustrator for the Rance series from Rance 5D onwards to its eventual conclusion in 2017’s Rance X. And his distinctive style would come to be seen as an important defining characteristic of the series, so it’s fascinating to see the beginning of this era for Rance.
Rance 5D marked the beginning of a new era for Rance in another way, too: it acted as a “soft reboot” to the series, reintroducing the main characters Rance and Sill Plain to a new audience rather than advancing their arcs significantly. It also introduced the heroines Rizna and Copandon, both of whom would go on to be important figures in the rest of the series. And over the course of the decade since the release of 5D, Alicesoft has gone back to remake the earlier installments of the series for modern computers with updated art and mechanics, often retroactively adjusting the narratives from their original NEC PC incarnations to include characters who are now series regulars, too.
In short, Rance 5D turned out to be an immensely important game for Alicesoft, and for the Rance series in particular. But it’s also the first one we’ve seen officially localised for Western audiences, so it’s still in a very interesting position even some 15 years after its original release.
The birth of the “roulette RPG”
Rance 5D is described as a “roulette RPG”. What this means in practice is that there is a strong emphasis on randomness and luck, largely through virtual dice rolls, as in tabletop role-playing games and RPG-inspired board games.
“5D’s a dice game,” explains TADA. “Or rather, a game where everything is left to random numbers. You can make slight adjustments, but it’s really based on luck. ‘Rolling dice… Doubles! Alright! I never thought I’d win, but I did…’ That’s the kind of feeling I wanted to produce.
“RPGs lately have a lot of planning so that you can only have a certain type of equipment or level at each part,” he continues. “Lots of the time, the order of events that occur in the dungeon is predetermined, but that’s not very exciting. You and other people end up playing the game the exact same way. With systems where you have to use your head, everything’s limited for the sake of balance. You know, I wanted to make something that you could look at someone else playing after the fact and go ‘wow, you can do it like that?'”
The basic way that Rance 5D works is that you spin a roulette wheel to determine what happens next in the chapter you are on. Different orbs on the wheel represent different types of encounters, be they groups of monsters, traps, treasure, areas that can be searched, special events or plot-advancing main events. The wheel can be spun in three different ways: a normal spin simply lands where it lands with no questions asked, a slow spin allows you to choose from the two adjacent orbs as well as the one it lands on, while a cautious spin allows you a total of five orbs to choose from.
Each type of spin has its own pros and cons. Normal spins are obviously leaving things entirely to chance, so this is balanced out by two things: firstly, each time you do a normal spin, your next spin is made more likely to allow you to advance to the next story event by adding more orbs of this type; secondly, your last three normal spin results are recorded, and getting three of the same colour in a row results in something special happening. For example, getting three orange (monster) orbs in a row means you’ll encounter some “Can Can” enemies, who are basically experience piñatas.
Conversely, while the slow and cautious spins have obvious benefits, these are counterbalanced by the fact that they take more time from the limit you have to complete each chapter, meaning they can’t be relied on exclusively if you want to ensure 1) that you have enough time to complete all the story events and 2) have enough time to level Rance and his party sufficiently to overcome the challenges they will be up against in that chapter.
The time limit is turn-based rather than real-time, so you don’t have to rush your decisions. However, once you do make a decision, everything you do takes a certain amount of time, including every action you take in an encounter, every turn in battle — even picking up items, levelling up and accessing the status screen.
Between spins, interaction in Rance consists of an adventure game-style interface in which you’re presented with various “cards” representing the different aspects of the scene. Rance and his party members are a stack of cards on the left, and can be switched between in order to interact with the other elements of the scene just by clicking on them. The background of the scene can be searched by clicking on it, anything important happening in the scene appears as a large card in the middle, and other characters present appear as cards on the right side of the screen. Sometimes you’ll have to complete a tabletop RPG-style “check” by rolling dice and achieving a particular number of successes to accomplish something, with different characters being better or worse at various things.
In most cases, there is only really a single “correct” solution to each situation in which Rance and company find themselves, but part of the enjoyment of Rance 5D is experimenting in various ways to see how the different party members respond to different situations, what happens when you try and use certain items on things, or the many and varied ways in which you can get yourself killed. Thankfully, the game encourages experimentation by auto-saving each time you enter a new encounter, and if you really mess things up, you can restart a chapter from any of its major scenes with your inventory, time remaining and statistics from the last time you reached that point fully intact.
When Rance and company find themselves in combat, battle proceeds in a turn-based fashion, with the actions taken by friend and foe alike determined by the roll of a six-sided die. Each character and enemy has six skills, one per die face, and once the die has been cast, everyone does the action they have in that slot, with the order determined by what kind of action it is — healing and buffs first, then physical attacks, then magic. While it may sound like this is leaving things completely to luck, you can actually increase your chances of success considerably in a number of different ways.
“The battle system is completely unprecedented,” explains Moomin, the developer of the battle mechanics. “When I heard TADA-san’s specifications, I doubted my eyes and my ears. But I was like ‘well, it’s TADA-san, so I’m sure something will work out’, and I did my work quite worrilessly. Now, this battle system… what you can influence is the locations of each skill and party member. At first glance, you don’t appear to have any control at all, but there are really some tricks to this. In some cases, just changing out your second or third character can make a huge difference.”
Indeed, you generally have a lot of options at any point in the game, and so long as you’re not actually in battle at the time, it’s possible to swap skills between slots, swap out party members, change equipment and even make use of supporting characters that show up in battle and perform functions such as healing your party each turn, increasing the experience points you gain from a successful battle or even ensuring that certain numbers come up more frequently on the die.
In a similar fashion to how Idea Factory’s MeiQ featured combat that was more about prior preparation than micromanaging your tactics in battle, Rance 5D places a strong emphasis on setting things up effectively beforehand — and learning from your mistakes. Rance 5D assumes you’re going to fail numerous times along the way, which is why its auto-save system is so generous. And there are plenty of times where it takes the opportunity to troll you through mechanics that you might have come to rely on.
A good example is Rance’s “Capture” skill, which allows him to capture “Gal Monsters” and put them in his party. Once upgraded to its second level, this effectively becomes an “instant kill” move against any female enemy — and this definition extends to a hideous old hag of the desert that had previously shown up earlier in the story. Successfully capturing her to quickly end the boss fight with her results in a Game Over, because Rance would “rather die” than have such a hideous old crone fawning over him. So he does. This situation can, of course, be avoided by removing Rance from the battle party prior to the confrontation.
Another comes in the second chapter, where Sill finds herself touched up by a perverted otter, which then shows up as its own entry on the roulette wheel. By this point, the game has set you up to believe that chasing down this otter repeatedly will probably result in an erotic scene or other reward of some description, but instead the end result is that Sill “catches otter disease and dies”. Game Over. Don’t do that again.
At the other end of the spectrum, you can defeat the otherwise extremely tough final boss in one hit if you’ve caught a Gal Monster with a one-hit kill ability, so sometimes you have the chance to get your own back on the game. Which is entirely in keeping with the rather silly tone the whole thing sets. “Stupid Rance” indeed.
Heroes and villains
Rance 5D is interesting from a narrative perspective in that it doesn’t really have an “antagonist” as such, and Rance himself can in no way be described as a “hero”, either in the traditional sense or the rather more specific sense established in the series’ deep lore. Instead, the narrative takes the form of a sequence of rather silly but nonetheless memorable events that culminate in Rance escaping from the strange other dimension in which he finds himself trapped with Sill at the outset of the game.
Rance and Sill bounce off one another very nicely throughout the course of the story, with Rance perpetually being a complete asshole to everyone he meets, while Sill frequently attempts to get him to calm down a bit while patiently putting up with his abusive treatment. Sill often acts as the voice of reason, and Rance actually does listen to her sometimes, though he remains blind to the fact that she has clearly developed actual feelings for this colossal jackass over the years — whether this is through Stockholm syndrome or something she sees in him that others don’t is never quite made clear, however, at least not in 5D.
The other major characters complement the narrative nicely, too. Rizna is a conflicted young woman who has suffered a considerable amount of abuse in her past, so is naturally rather hesitant to trust someone who comes along promising to save her — particularly when the first thing said “hero” does is molest her in her sleep, even before they actually know one another’s names. She has an interesting arc over the course of the whole narrative, though, acting as the source of dramatic, romantic and sexual tension at various points in the story.
Copandon is fun, too. Although not all that important to the overall narrative, her side plot of attempting to track down a “guy with great luck” is symbolic of the way all of Rance 5D is built. In order to beat the game, you will literally need to have great luck and thus be immensely appealing to Copandon — though of course, with Rance being Rance, he isn’t above manipulating the odds in his own favour by fair means or foul, and neither should you be as the player.
Even the side characters are memorable. There’s a wonderful scene where Rance and his party get drunk with a group of Hannies, longtime recurring monsters and Alicesoft mascots, and the increasingly ridiculous (and offensive) interactions between Rance and the “Lil Avenger” Gal Monster that has been sent to assassinate him are consistently hilarious.
All of this does, of course, assume that you’re already on board with Rance’s rather dark brand of humour, in which our hero is keen to get his dick (sorry, Hyper Weapon) out at any opportunity, normally with the intention of sticking it in someone whether they want it or not, and his main motivation in life is to bed as many beautiful women as possible. What this means in practice is that Rance gets up to a variety of seriously morally questionable things even over the course of 5D’s relatively short runtime, and you, the player, are dragged along for the ride — likely with some extremely conflicting feelings as a result!
All that said, it’s hard to take Rance seriously, and it’s clear that it doesn’t want you to, either. It is a black comedy at heart, taking joy from its political incorrectness and having no shame in repeatedly demonstrating what a complete asshole Rance is. And yet, somehow, despite his completely irredeemable nature and totally outrageous behaviour… you can’t help liking the bastard.
Rance 5D is an immensely entertaining game, blending unusual mechanics with unconventional presentation and a weird but hilarious story. It’s arguably a rather strange entry point into such a long-running series for Western audiences, but, well, if you can deal with what 5D throws at you, you’re almost certainly ready for what the rest of the series has to offer!
More about Rance 5D
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