RPGreats now has a Discord! Come on in to talk about game music, games in general, submit reviews or just hang out!

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Spoony's Ten Most Underrated/Overlooked RPGs

I figured it was high time for this, considering I've had a "most disappointing" list up for quite a while but never gave any attention to the other side of the equation.  Of course, most of the candidates I had in mind have since gone on to become cult classics, so I had to dig for some fairly obscure picks in order to not sound like one of those lists the hacks at IGN put out occasionally in a desperate bid to convince everyone they're not just a bought-and-paid-for propaganda mill for Sony, Sega and Microsoft.  But regardless, here's some of my favorites that I don't see a lot of other people talk about.

Honorable Mention: Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride (Chunsoft, 1992+)

It's a bit absurd to say any Dragon Quest game is underrated since it's basically Japan's bread and butter, but it never really got much traction in the rest of the world until the PS2 rolled around; definitely not aided by the fact that it completely skipped the fourth console generation and barely snuck onto the fifth with a very late release of Dragon Quest VII on PS1.  As a result we didn't get Dragon Quest V until its 2009 DS version, and it mostly went unnoticed in favor of other IPs.  Which is kind of a shame, as it's easily one of the biggest emotional rides I've had in a 90s-era RPG.  It's the story of the hero's lifelong journey as he endures a life of love, hardship and of course, vanquishing an ancient evil, with a surprising amount of tragedy conveyed through its tiny sprites and strong writing.  It's one that really does need a rerelease on modern platforms as the DS release goes for over $100 nowadays...

Startropics (Nintendo, 1990)

A game that was moderately popular in the NES era but is mostly forgotten nowadays; mostly because Nintendo hasn't done anything with the IP in three decades other than the occasional token re-release on digital platforms.  I always quite liked it though; think Zelda with a more irreverent twist, an outlandish plot about aliens and a lot of quirky western humor.  Your main weapon is a yo-yo, you get pickups like bolas and baseball bats and kung-fu shoes that hit everything on the screen in an eyeblink, and the dialog is downright goofy at times; hey, you jam bananas into your ears to stop an alien from harassing you telepathically.  It does get downright difficult and have its share of cheap deaths, particularly in the late stages, but it's a lot of fun once you adapt to the classic Nintendo Hard.  If you bought it back in the day it also had a pretty clever gimmick in the form of a letter you'd dip in water to reveal a passcode; although it did kind of backfire big time since most people who bought the game used probably didn't get the letter in question and spent hours looking everywhere for an in-game item that didn't exist...

Ys IV: the Dawn of Ys (Hudson Soft, 1993)

The fourth Ys game is a strange beast for sure, mostly because there's four different versions of it made by four different companies; while all are adaptations of the same basic script, they're all very different takes in terms of both plotting and design.  Dawn of Ys was only released in Japan for the PC Engine CD and was very much inspired by the first two games in the series with its touch-based combat and overall presentation; in fact, you return to the locales from the first game early on.  Being an early CD-based game it also takes advantage of the medium with a high quality Redbook audio soundtrack, some animated cutscenes and voiceover to accompany the plot, which was all pretty mindblowing stuff in 1993.  Like the series it was spawned from it remained relatively unknown in the west for many years before coming back into prominence in the late 2000s, but it also built up enough of a following to get not just a fan translation, but a full blown fan dub; that's pretty awesome.

Horizon's Gate (Rad Codex, 2020)

The game that introduced me to Rad Codex - a very talented one-man development team that's made several similarly styled turn based strategy RPGs.  They're all quite good, with mix-and-match classes and character building reminiscent of Final Fantasy Tactics, but Horizon's Gate stands out by adding an open world exploration element similar to the Uncharted Waters series.  So in addition to dungeon crawling and a bit of town building, you get ship-to-ship battles and get to board one another's ships to duke it out hand to hand.  There's even a touch of Divinity Original Sin's improvisational element - knocking enemies down pits, channeling electrical attacks through water, et cetera, so there's no shortage of creative tactics to employ to win battles.  I've gotten more mileage out of this obscure $20 indie game than I have out of virtually every AAA game of the last decade 

Crusader of Centy (NexTech, 1994)

Zelda was of course the hot property in the late '80s and its popularity only grew as the 90s rolled on, so there were countless attempts to try and cash in on its success. From Rambo to Wonder Boy to Neutopia to Landstalker, it really can't be understated how influential a series it was (and continues to be).  One that got overlooked in its time is Crusader of Centy, a creative little game where your protagonist gains the ability to talk to animals, recruiting several as allies with various powers - Mac the dog can pin enemies in place, Charlie the cheetah doubles your run speed and so forth.  Up to two can be combined at a time, and their abilities can even combined together for added effect, like letting you throw your sword and steer it mid-flight.  Clever stuff, and the surreal setting and creativity make it one of the best the Genesis has to offer.  Sadly it wasn't a particularly strong seller in its time and is now quite rare and expensive, but recent releases on the Sega Genesis Mini 2 and the Nintendo Switch Online service have made it available again to modern gamers without having to shell out a boatload of cash.

Symphony of War: the Nephilim Saga (Dancing Dragon Games, 2022)

In 2022 when everyone was talking about Fire Emblem and Triangle Strategy, I was perusing recent Steam releases and came across this little gem.  It's made in RPG Maker, but aside from a small handful of familiar sprites and spell effects in cutscenes you'd honestly never guess, as it utilizes a custom combat system coded from the ground up.  Imagine Fire Emblem's map conquest and character interactions blended with Ogre Battle's party based combat, and you've got a good idea of what to expect - crafting squads of up to nine characters and sending them out to capture cities and resources as they progress across surprisingly large battle maps.  Of course, there are also some clever mechanics to get you out of a jam, like getting emergency turns or dealing damage over a large area as once-per-battle powers.  It's deep, engrossing and really fun, and easily one of the best indie RPGs I've played in recent years. I just need to go back at some point and try out the DLC...

Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter (Capcom, 2003)

I briefly considered having Breath of Fire 1 here since every time I mention liking it some GameFAQs-worshipping shitheel pops out from under the nearest rock to dispense some mindless Pavlov response about how trash it is and 2 is obviously so much better because it panders to their anti-religion hobby horse; never mind that it's mechanically clunky, has an infamously awful translation and is pretty poorly balanced and paced, the rich religious conservatives running Capcom know how to pander to me for an easy buck SO IT'S GOOD DAMN IT!

...But instead, I chose Dragon Quarter - another game people seem determined to hate on despite the majority who do never bothering to actually give it a fair shake.  They really should though, because it's a brilliant genre blend that clicks together surprisingly well.  Combat resembles a gridless turn-based strategy game, with a focus on controlling space and lining up enemies for attacks.  The overall setup is somewhat akin to a survival horror or a roguelike, with a focus on conserving limited resources and randomized loot; plus the more you play through it and the higher a rank you get, the more story scenes and extra content you unlock.  The story is also a quite good one, taking the fantastical elements of earlier games and adding in some dystopian sci-fi - a bit fan-fictiony perhaps, but it's well written and captivating.  Hell, as popular as roguelikes have gotten in recent years with games like Slay the Spire, Darkest Dungeon and Hades I'm honestly surprised Dragon Quarter hasn't gotten more attention as a forgotten classic of yesteryear.

Ikenfell (Happy Ray Games, 2020)

"Earnest RPGs" modeled after Earthbound have kind of become a punchline in recent years for being overdone, especially by indie devs, but there are a few I do genuinely love and Ikenfell is one.  A genuinely sweet tale of a girl who heads to the titular witch school in search of her sister, making new friends, finding love and being caught in the midst of a complex conspiracy that threatens the stability of the entire world.  The relatively unique tactical combat system, charming, earnest and often quite funny cast and smartly written dialog make it shine, as does the fantastic soundtrack by aivi and surasshu of Steven Universe fame.  Just a wonderful experience, and easily one of my favorite indies of recent years.

Panzer Dragoon Saga (Team Andromeda, 1998)

The Sega Saturn was a criminally overlooked platform that never got its due, in large part due to Sega's western branches basically throwing it under the bus to focus on PC ports and arcade games.  As a result something like 75% of the system's library never made it outside of Japan, and the few cult classics it does have are rarely mentioned nowadays.  Panzer Dragoon Saga could have been (and by all measures, should have been) the vehicle to get the Saturn back in the race; RPGs were starting to get huge on the Playstation, so releasing a highly polished and immaculately produced title with unique mechanics could have easily made it Sega's answer to Final Fantasy VII.  That didn't happen, of course - Sega released it only via mail order and printed only around 16,000 copies, dooming it to obscurity and instead electing to have no horse in the race for a whole year to hype up the Dreamcast instead (and well know how well that worked out for them).  It's a shame, too, as Panzer Dragoon Saga is great.  With a brilliant blend of ATB-style combat mechanics, a high quality presentation (with all of the dialog voice-acted - pretty unique for 1998!), a unique dark fantasy world, an incredible soundtrack and a captivating story.  It's only recently when Saturn emulation has become more robust that this one's started to build up a larger following, and with the recent remake of the original Panzer Dragoon being released on multiple platforms, we can only hope Sega gets around to finally giving this one the attention it deserves too.

Illusion of Gaia (Quintet, 1994)

Quintet is a name that's rarely spoken much anymore, and a big part of that is that nobody's really sure what happened to them - they made a few small hits in the '80s and '90s, stuck it out as a low key developer for a bit in the early '00s, and then just kind of vanished, with only one of their major games (Actraiser) getting any kind of modern revisit.  Terranigma's also built up a bit of a following over the years as a lost SNES classic (especially as it was passed over for a North American release), but for my money their best game was, and still is, Illusion of Gaia (aka Illusion of Time if you were in Europe).  A journey of friendship, love and globe-spanning adventure as your protagonist returns life and evolution on Earth to its proper course, it certainly isn't lacking for emotional beats and surprisingly dark moments.  The gameplay is great too, capturing that Zelda-style blend of action and puzzle solving in a way so few imitators ever have.  A fantastic soundtrack by Yasuhiro Kawasaki and a real tearjerker of a bittersweet ending (still gets me every time to this day) make it an unforgettable classic, and still one of my favorites.

Suikoden II (Konami, 1999)

The original Suikoden was a moderate success in the early days of the PlayStation, providing a novel turn on turn based RPGs with its blend of three combat styles (one-on-one duels, six-man parties for dungeons and large-scale war battles) and for its relatively large cast, with each game having well over 100 characters to recruit and 60+ playable characters to customize and add to your teams.  Suikoden II came out right in the thick of the RPG craze, but Konami inexplicably limited its release to only about 30,000 copies with virtually no advertising to back it, so it flew under the radar and was almost immediately forgotten, quickly becoming one of the rarest PS1 titles; it wasn't until many years later (when it was rereleased as a downloadable title on PSN) that it started to pick up a larger following, and of course there's that HD remaster that's allegedly coming soon, so it might just finally get the wider respect it deserves.  Still, for quite a long time Suikoden II was one of Konami's biggest forgotten gems - its strong tale, wonderfully realized characters, a fantastic soundtrack, some of the best 2D spritework in a game seen to that date and, of course, no shortage of content or replay value made it an absolute gem.  In a pretty creative twist you could also import your save from the first Suikoden to carry over a few characters' levels and even unlock the protagonist of the first game as a pretty awesome hidden character, so there's just a lot to love about it in general.  One of the best, most overlooked games ever made.