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Tuesday, November 16, 2021

The Sword of Hope / Sword of Hope II

A short-lived and mostly-forgotten duology of RPGs for the original Game Boy, Sword of Hope was also a rare entry in the genre from Kemco, a developer mostly known for licensed tie-in games.  But does Sword of Hope have anything to offer RPG fans today, or is it one that's slipped into obscurity for good reason?

The Game Boy was of course Nintendo's big contender in the world of portable gaming, and it wasn't hard to see why it became such a big hit, having a huge battery life compared to its competitors (in no small part for lacking a backlight or color) and a surprisingly strong library of games; hell, it launched with Tetris, which is arguably the most popular video game of all time even today.  RPGs were a fairly uncommon sight for the platform, though, at least before Pokemon came along and became the worldwide phenomenon it is today.  The first three SaGa games were localized as "Final Fantasy Legend" and the first Seiken Densetsu as "Final Fantasy Adventure", but for the most part RPGs remained Japan-exclusive on the Game Boy.  

Sword of Hope was one of the few that tried to compete, though, and it was a decent enough effort for the time.  The game was created by Kemco, a company mostly known for licensed tie-in games; however, they did also publish well-received ports of three PC point-and-click adventure games on the NES, affectionately known as the Icom trilogy - Shadowgate, Deja Vu and Uninvited.  They were very much products of their time, with numerous puzzles that didn't make a great deal of sense (requiring you to use the spear to defeat a troll - sword, hammer or sling will all result in death.  Or more famously, opening an already-open star map, taking a star from it, then using it to kill a wyvern) and the barest minimum of animation, but were still pretty well-liked in their time and continue to get rereleases even today, most recently appearing on a compilation called "8-Bit Adventure Anthology".  Shadowgate even had a successful reboot in 2014, reworking it to a more modern style of design while retaining its iconic dark imagery and music, so it's clear these games, flawed though they were, have a lasting and unique appeal.

I bring this up because Sword of Hope is very much built on the same gameplay model, and even uses a similar UI - a small viewing window depicting the current scene, with a mini-map at the bottom showing the directions you can travel in from the current location, as well as a list of verbs to utilize in order to interact with characters and objects you encounter.  Mostly in the form of looking (also used to talk to characters), opening or hitting something, though you will also occasionally have to use an item or cast a spell to proceed too.  In a rather strange twist, the story explains that most people in the world have been transformed into trees, and indeed, they're a very frequent sight - almost every screen on the overworld has some visible, and you can speak with them to get bits of backstory or clues to progress.

The basic formula is interspersed with RPG elements, too - you have stats, experience points, levels, equipment and spells that can only be cast in the thick of fights.  Fights themselves occur randomly when you move to a new screen or attempt to, and at times you'll have to fight several in a row - sometimes as many as six or seven before the game finally gives you a break and lets you go the way you want to.  However, fights are at least relatively quick and painless for the most part, which is a good thing as you will frequently have to grind out levels to defeat bosses and farm money for upgrades from shops in order to stand a chance.  This design ends up being a bit of a double-edged sword - the world is more tightly designed than most RPGs of the time, largely free of huge swaths of empty land that had little to interact with; on the other hand, you still have to grind quite a bit to succeed, and that can get pretty tedious when you're getting into several fights in a row while barely managing to progress to where you need to go next.  It also doesn't help that you cannot sell your old gear to recoup some of the money - as soon as you upgrade to a new weapon or piece of armor, the old one gets tossed and never seen again.  Bizarrely you also don't seem to have the ability to pick targets for spells - they hit enemies or even yourself randomly, which is rather a problem and makes using attack spells rather useless when you can attack with a weapon and reliably do damage to an enemy without risking your own health.

Puzzles, as you'd expect from a point-and-click of the era, are not always clear, sometimes coming down to guesswork or just abusing the game's built in hint system (using the Grace spell at the temple).  The game's translation doesn't help either, with some clunky dialog and occasional inconsistent spelling, sometimes within the same scene ("alter" and "altar" both get used at the temple).  And of course, having to backtrack anywhere is always a pain when you're probably going to get into a dozen fights on the way there and back.  Finally, the game utilizes a password system rather than a battery backup, which isn't the worst I've seen (16 characters); however, it also uses Greek letters and symbols instead of just straight letters and numbers, which can make writing them down a bit trickier.

Not much has fundamentally changed in Sword of Hope II, which came out the following year in Japan but took another five years to appear in the west, debuting in 1996 - a time when the Game Boy's popularity was fading (and would continue to do so until Pokémon debuted in 1998) and the handful of people who had purchased the original game had probably forgotten all about it, especially since several high-profile RPGs like Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy III (VI), Phantasy Star IV, Shining Force II and Chrono Trigger were all out by then.  A bit of a shame, as the sequel is an improvement over the original in virtually every way.  With a revamped UI that features a much larger viewing window, far greater detail in its visuals, more animation, better music, a more polished translation with a lot more dialog and story to experience, and some basic features that were absent in the first (selling items, battery-backup saves, and you can save anywhere you like) being implemented.  You also get more party members this time, which makes combat a bit more varied and strategic.  It's a significantly better game than its predecessor, though its long-delayed release left it little hope of competing with other big names of the time, which resulted in it selling poorly and becoming a rare and expensive title in recent years (though it is available on the 3DS eShop for however much longer that lasts).

Kemco's Sword of Hope is a name that's rarely spoken these days, and after playing both games, I can definitely see why - the original was very much a product of its time, with clunky and rather dated adventure game design paired with a mostly forgettable, awkwardly-translated RPG experience.  Its sequel was denied its due owing to a long-delayed western release, so despite being a substantially better game and even a decent RPG for the Game Boy, it simply had no chance of competing with all the amazing titles that were being released on the 16-bit platforms in the intervening years.  They might be worth a quick look to RPG buffs or big adventure game fans as a novel and relatively obscure series, but if you're looking for high-quality '90s RPGs to add to your collection, there are simply too many better options to spend your money on over these.

Developer: Kemco
Publisher: Seika (SoH1), Kemco (SoH2)
Platform: Game Boy, 3DS Virtual Console
Released: 1991, 1996, 2012
Recommended version: The 3DS version is an emulated port of 2.

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King

Dragon Quest's first non-remake Playstation 2 entry was a surprisingly big event, going on to become the series' best-selling title outside of Japan (until XI broke the record years later) and garnering quite a bit of acclaim even among those who barely paid attention to the franchise beforehand.  But was this just because people were hoping Square Enix would prove their worth in the RPG arena again after several baffling missteps, or was there a genuinely good game to be found here as well? 

Dragon Quest as a franchise of course needs no introduction, especially for Japanese gamers - it's pretty much their bread-and-butter over there, selling millions of copies with each entry and most stores famously refusing to sell it on weekdays so kids don't cut class to go buy it. It never had quite the same impact in the west, though. While the original game was notable for having some 400,000 copies given away as an incentive to subscribe to Nintendo Power magazine, the franchise was mostly relegated to niche status throughout the NES era and got no western releases at all during the period when JRPGs started to get big. Yep, while Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasies 6 through 9 and Secret of Mana were making bank, Dragon Quest got zero representation from Enix. Well, aside from a late and little-promoted release of VII on the Playstation 1 which was met with middling reviews and mediocre sales, resulting in Enix's western branch shutting down shortly thereafter.

However, after Enix merged with Square, they would make another attempt at turning Dragon Quest into a household name in the west.  They commissioned Level-5 - a newcomer hot off their success with Dark Cloud 1 and 2 - to develop it, and under them the series saw a significant upgrade.  Formerly noted for its relatively low production budget and minimal animation that stuck with it even up to the Playstation 1, Dragon Quest VIII moved the series into true 3D, with colorful and lushly-detailed environments, well-animated and expressive character models, and a cel-shaded visual style very similar to Dark Cloud 2's that gives the game the look and feel of a well-produced anime. For the western release they went even further, adding CD-quality orchestral music and full voice-over for plot scenes - a major leap over the Japanese version which had comparatively dull synth music and didn't feature any voice acting at all. Dragon Quest VIII also reaped the benefit of a heavy promotional campaign, being released alongside a limited edition controller shaped like the series' iconic Slime enemies and having commercials aired on channels like Cartoon Network and Spike TV.  As a result, the game ultimately sold around 650,000 copies in North America and another 750,000 in Europe - fairly low next to Japan's 3.6 million, but certainly not a bad showing for a series western gamers had been largely apathetic about for so long.

Dragon Quest's fundamental design remains relatively unchanged - turn based, random battles (though thankfully, the rate at which they appear is relatively subdued compared to earlier titles), and a group of prefab characters on a journey to - what else - save the world from evil.  It doesn't have the clever narrative gimmicks of some earlier titles, like 4's chapters that follow different characters or 5 following the hero's entire life, but what's there is well-told and memorable thanks to its strongly-written characters and a solid sense of humor.  It also has a relatively small cast of four playable characters (with two more added in the 3DS version), though each is quite distinct and can be customized over the course of the game; each character can put points into one of four weapon skills, which will give passive bonuses when wielding them and unlock new techniques (spells for staves), and each also has one unique skill category, which generally adds new special abilities and passive bonuses.  For example, the hero can use swords, spears, boomerangs or fisticuffs, and his unique Courage skill gives him useful utility spells that let him instantly return to visited locations, cure negative statuses or reduce MP cost of all of his spells.  Some of these are humorously overpowered, too - Jessica's Twin Dragon Lash is famously one of them, hitting twice for 1.5 times the damage of a normal attack and costing only 3 MP (nerfed in the 3DS version to 0.9 times, but still quite beastly).
A new mechanic for this entry is "Tension", which basically lets you save up energy for a turn (or several) to give your attacks or spells significantly more punch - great for dealing with enemies that have very high defense and would just absorb normal-powered blows, or getting more mileage out of MP used for healing magic.  Saving up for one turn will give your next one a 1.7x multiplier, and up to four will give you a whopping 5x effect, letting you deal devastating damage or heal your party very efficiently. Later in the game one unlocks the ability to randomly enter Super High Tension, where a character basically buffs up Dragon Ball Z style and gets a whopping 7.5x multiplier instead.  However, most later bosses have a move called "Disruption Wave" that will instantly dispel any stored tension, so relying solely on Tension-buffed attacks is a very poor strategy.

Dragon Quest VIII also features a crafting element in the form of the Alchemy Pot.  By speaking to King Trode after a certain point in the story, you can combine two or three items together to create a new one; everything from stronger medicine to weapons and armor (in fact, some of the best pieces of equipment in the game can only be created this way).  Experimenting with various items can sometimes yield good results, but your best bet is generally to explore towns, checking bookshelves whenever you can to learn new recipes.

But of course, no PS2 RPG is complete without side content.  The series' trademark game-spanning search for mini-medals is back once again, ensuring that you'll be searching every corner of dungeons for treasure chests and smashing every piece of pottery you can for them, as they can be turned in to unlock all sorts of useful rewards.  There is once again a casino where you can gamble for coins to trade for rare and useful treasures, and even a side dungeon or two to explore.  Probably the most substantial one overall is the Monster Arena - after a certain point in the story, you gain the ability to track down and defeat "Infamous monsters", which can then be pitted against progressively tougher fights in the arena to win rare prizes.  While not as deep as something like Pokémon (or even the spinoff series Dragon Quest Monsters), it's nonetheless a fun little diversion.

Dragon Quest VIII may not be the deepest RPG ever made, or even the deepest one within its own franchise.  However, what it lacks in originality it more than makes up for in presentation, taking the franchise into true 3D and utilizing a cartoony, fun visual style that makes its vast environments a joy to explore.  The characters themselves benefit from this as well, having very expressive animations and personalities that play off one another brilliantly throughout.  Dragon Quest's defining element - the impeccable level of polish in its mechanics - definitely does not suffer under Level-5's watch either, with a surprising amount of strategy and planning being required to overcome many of its challenges, and relatively few abilities that feel overpowered or totally useless.  A charming, well-made adventure that easily ranks among the finest on both PS2 and 3DS, as well as Level-5's best game to date.

Developer: Level-5 (PS2), Square Enix (Mobile/3DS)
Publisher: Square Enix, Nintendo
Platform: Playstation 2, Android, iOS, Nintendo 3DS
Released: 2005, 2014, 2017
Recommended version: The 3DS port has some added content, including two new playable characters, and you can see dungeon maps at any time on the second screen, whereas you have to go to a separate screen for them on the PS2 version.  This version also features visible enemies instead of random encounters, and battles can be sped up to make mundane fights quicker.  It doesn't have quite as nice graphics (running at a lower resolution and missing some lighting effects) and it sadly loses the orchestral score of the US PS2 release, though it does at least feature a higher-quality synth soundtrack than the Japanese PS2 version.

Monday, October 25, 2021

Ten RPGs in need of a remake/remaster (that probably won't get one)

In no particular order.

Darklands (MicroProse, 1992)

Darklands didn't get a ton of attention when it was released back in 1992, but it was actually quite an innovative and unique game for the time, implementing a sense of open-world freedom, choice and tactical combat that many of its competitors wouldn't embrace until years or even decades later.  Taking place in a low-fantasy medieval Germany under rule of the Holy Roman Empire, you would venture across the land in search of fame and fortune, duking it out with all manner of bandits, devilish forces and creatures from folklore, and losing a fight wasn't always an immediate game over - being bested by bandits would have them steal most of your valuables and dump you somewhere, while losing to town guards would get you arrested and imprisoned.  Weapons and armor are probably the most realistically handled in any RPG I've seen; short swords are very quick and effective against most unarmored or lightly-armored foes, for example, but virtually useless against a knight in platemail; using a great hammer, a longbow or even a firearm (rare and expensive as they are) are all better choices there.  'Magic' wasn't really a pervading element (save for the villains), but Alchemy and praying to various saints could grant you the miracles you need to overcome dangers.  Combat itself was also relatively unique, playing like a real-time strategy and having you command your individual characters to take actions, but with the ability to pause and adjust your tactics at any time - like Baldur's Gate but six years early.  Sadly it was denied its due owing to its unimpressive graphics, a number of prominent bugs (in an era where releasing patches to customers was extremely difficult) and its overall repetitive design, but with MicroProse back to making games again, I'd love to see them take another crack at this type of open-ended RPG gameplay.

Final Fantasy II (Square Enix, 1988)

Final Fantasy II is widely considered one of the worst Final Fantasy games, and it's an assessment I largely agree with - the leveling system, while fairly unique for the time, just adds tons more grinding to the game, dragging the pacing to a pained crawl and ensuring that I just spent nearly all of my time in  dungeons running from battles rather than fighting them, as it was far more efficient to have my party members park in front of some weak enemies and hit each other than actually power up in the field as the game intended.  Still, Final Fantasy II isn't completely without merit - it had a surprisingly good, grim storyline for the period, thrusting the player in the midst of a hopeless war against a bloodthirsty empire and trying desperately to turn things around.  The Emperor is also pound-for-pound probably has the most badass, ruthless and effective villain the series has ever had; the guy wipes out something like ninety percent of the planet's population during his crusade, showing that he only values power no matter the cost he has to pay to get it.  And even after you crush him in battle and leave him to die, he conquers hell itself and tears open a portal back to Earth to take another swing at you.  Bad.  Ass.  Granted, I doubt it's high on the list of games fans are demanding a remake of, but if Square Enix can commission a reimagining of the first Final Fantasy and have it look like this, why not do something similar for 2?

Grandia III (Game Arts, 2006)

Grandia is definitely one of my favorite RPG franchises; hell, I listed all three mainline games in my top 100 games of all time.  Admittedly, though, Grandia III is definitely its weakest entry in terms of design and writing, with the plot all but disappearing around the midpoint and several prominent characters getting virtually no explanation for their presence or even motives in working with the big bad.  Still, it's probably my favorite one to play simply because the combat system in the game is brilliant - fast paced, genuinely challenging and working in an air-juggle combo system that is both fun to watch and really lets you rack up the damage; easily one of the most fun and enjoyable I've encountered in any game.  Get a remaster out there that fills in the holes in the story and while you're at it, put Game Arts to work on Grandia IV!

Koudelka (Sacnoth, 2001)

The predecessor to the acclaimed Playstation 2 franchise "Shadow Hearts", Koudelka was an odd mashup of gameplay elements, with the exploration, puzzle solving and visual style of Resident Evil but an RPG-style leveling system and turn-based strategic combat.  The latter definitely worked against the game rather than for it, though - the breakable weapons, the fact that your characters had no defining differences gameplay-wise besides starting stats, and the fact you could just pump all your points into HP, Defense and Magic and steamroll the game, all made it feel rather poorly planned out.  Combat was just arduous rather than entertaining too, forcing you to watch characters slowly shuffle around the field in between each action and watch the same handful of slow, repetitive animations over and over, and the constant leaps in difficulty necessitated hours of grinding to even stand a chance.  Still, the game had a surprisingly good production team behind it, with a lot well-rendered CGI cutscenes, some very detailed visuals, a decent script and even surprisingly good voiceover for the most part.  But the disparate gameplay design was another perfect example of too many cooks spoiling the broth.  I'd love to see it get remade as Hiroki Kikuta originally envisioned it; or at the very least, Sacnoth/Nautilus's publisher doing something with the IP again, as they haven't even attempted any re-releases, merchandise or even entertained the idea of a sequel since the PS2 era.

Mega Man Legends 1/2 (Capcom, 1998)

Mega Man Legends was a promising new turn for the franchise, taking the series into 3D, giving it a creative setting, a colorful and charming cast of characters, and working in some Zelda-like elements - upgrading your character, building weapons out of spare parts, solving puzzles, navigating dungeons and fighting bosses.  All good stuff, but hampered by some clumsy controls (built for the non-analog PS1 controller), frustrating difficulty fluctuations and some generally just dated design elements, like being unable to lock on to enemies and move at the same time.  But the worst part is that we were frustratingly close to seeing a proper update realized - Mega Man Legends 3 was teased for a long time before Capcom abruptly cancelled it, leaving us all high and dry.  Come on guys, there's clearly demand for more of the franchise; hell, you cashed in on it yourselves after Mighty #9 flopped by making Mega Man 11.  Dust off those old design docs, port the Legends series over to Unreal, polish up the controls a bit, and let us enjoy it again!

Phantasy Star III: Generations of Doom (Sega, 1991)

Generally regarded as the black sheep of the Phantasy Star franchise, but I've always been a fan of it (and besides, that title rightfully belongs to the appalling Phantasy Star Gaiden on the Game Gear).  It's a uniquely bizarre game with some weird enemy designs, an overall grim tone and a setting that appears to be a standard fantasy world, but quickly delves into heavy science fiction elements too, all with a very human element and some surprisingly good music throughout; I especially like the fact that as more characters join your party, it adds more instruments to the overworld music, gradually changing it from a sad, solemn tune to more hopeful and upbeat.  Not to mention some relatively unique mechanics for 1991 - namely, the ability to view three out of seven potential storylines and four different endings depending upon your choices during the adventure.  Sadly, the game was also rushed, resulting in a lot of dungeons being cut down, enemies going unused and the story being trimmed down a lot from the original script, so it never achieved the same level of acclaim as the others in the series.  I'd definitely love a remake or remaster that fills in the gaps and shows us the full experience that Alisa III has to offer.

Ultima 8: Pagan/Ultima 9: Ascension (Origin Systems, 1994/2000)

 The final two games in the Ultima franchise are regarded as disappointments by most, and while I do think they have some genuine redeeming qualities, I have to agree with the critics for the most part.  Pagan was a bizarre new turn for the series, moving more into being an isometric action-platformer with mouse controls (not a good combination) while trying to retain the puzzle-solving and storytelling aspect of the series.  In the latter it does a slightly better job, though it suffers from being rushed, with large portions of the story and planned dungeons being abruptly dropped or cut completely, not to mention an
extremely anticlimactic showdown with the big bads at the end.  9 at least feels more like a proper Ultima game, with a spanning, seamless world realized in full 3D for the first time in the series and a much more sensible UI and control scheme; however, it was also very rushed, resulting in a lot of bugs, near-constant crashes in some places, and the original storyline being mostly dropped in favor of one that felt for lack of a better word, childish. This was not aided by some very unimpressive voice acting and cringe-worthy dialog ("What's a paladin?"  "What's the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom?" etc), not to mention a lot of laughably trite speechifying.  It was still a fairly fun game to play at the end of the day, but a far cry in storytelling quality from the series' golden days.  That, plus EA abruptly ending support for the game before many of its bugs could be patched, has left it as a disappointing end to the series for most.  Sadly, while Richard Garriott has tried on many occasions to buy back the IP from EA, they're adamantly holding on to it for reasons that only they know, so we may never see Ultima get the sendoff it truly deserves.  But we can always hold on to the glimmer of hope known as "fan remakes", I suppose.

Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines (Troika, 2004)

VTM: Bloodlines is a fan favorite for its grim atmosphere, dark humor and open-ended gameplay reminiscent of Deus Ex, but it took a lot of fan patches to get there; the game was rushed out by Activision and they disbanded Troika shortly after it debuted, so only one official patch was ever released (which didn't fix many prominent issues the game had).  Even with the amazing fan overhaul it's still not a perfect experience, though - the combat in VTMB is very mediocre (having very weird hit detection and mostly consisting of mindless button-mashing) and the janky physics, spotty enemy AI and lack of alternate means to complete many quests often lead to frustrating roadblocks.  I feel that even just updating it to a newer version of the Source engine could benefit it a lot, but with Activision holding the rights, I doubt it's going to happen.

Xenogears (Squaresoft, 1998)

Xenogears is an RPG loved and hated in about equal measure.  On one hand, it might just be the most impressive cinematic experience ever released in a PS1 disc - the camera work, environments, soundtrack and writing are all lavishly-produced and have some amazing moments that shine even today.  On the other hand, its got some serious pacing issues, repetitious combat, mediocre dungeon design and an uneven tone, as well as the fact that it was released very unfinished, which earns it a lot of ire too.  It was a game that was just a bit too ambitious for its time (and had a few too many cooks in the kitchen), and while Tetsuya Takahashi has tried again to replicate its success with games like Xenosaga and the Xenoblade Chronicles franchises, neither has achieved quite the same level of acclaim as the first one he made under Square.  It'd be a lot of paperwork to sort out all the legalities and reassemble the original dev team, and convincing Nintendo to give a budget worthy of its scope would be a nightmare in itself, but I would love to see a remake that tells the tale of Xenogears as it was originally envisioned.