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Quickie Reviews #-E

 7th Dragon (Imageepoch, 2009)

7th Dragon is pretty well-known name among RPG fans despite never being localized, probably helped by the prominent names on its staff; it's produced by Rieko Kodama (of Phantasy Star and Skies of Arcadia fame) and directed by Kazuya Ninou (director of Trauma Center and the original Etrian Odyssey).  As one would expect from the latter name, the gameplay is strictly old-school and very tough - grinding, spending skill points wisely and bringing a good supply of items to combat damaging enemies and status effects is absolutely essential.  Especially as dungeons are packed to the brim with HP-sapping flowers that can only be overcome through constant healing or having certain skills equipped.  Fortunately, some charming chibi characters and high-quality artwork, as well as a great soundtrack from the legendary Yuzo Koshiro, help to keep the experience fresh and playable even as it repeatedly pummels you into submission.  It is a bit of a shame that Sega chose to not localize this one for other territories (especially in light of numerous other successful retro-styled RPGs on the system), but there is a fan translation available for those looking for a challenging dungeon crawl.

Publisher: Sega
Platform: Nintendo DS
🗾

Actraiser Renaissance (Square Enix/Sonic Powered, 2021)

Billed as a remaster of the SNES cult classic, Renaissance is actually more of a full-blown remake, adding numerous new mechanics, a redone soundtrack (with Yuzo Koshiro returning to update all the tracks) and a visual style oddly reminiscent of an early PS1 game - CGI models turned into sprites are the pervading graphical element here.  The sidescrolling action stages give you slightly more of a moveset to utilize (tip: your down-slash gives you a crazy amount of invincibility frames), while the city building is much more goal-driven, giving you numerous milestones to hit and occasionally having you defend your settlements in a minigame that feels like a cross between a tower defense game and a real-time strategy.  You set down forts and barricades to slow enemies while moving around hero units to engage them, and when things get too dicey you can also utilize your god-powers (formerly just used to clear terrain for your cities to expand) to deal damage and slow down enemies.  It does have a few strange technical issues - I saw an awful lot of screen-tearing on the PC version, and turning on Vertical Sync in the options didn't seem to fix it; however, turning the framerate setting to Unlimited did.  But even with those, it's a pretty solid update of a well-regarded SNES title, and worth a play for old and new fans alike.

Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: Steam, Playstation 4, Switch, iOS, Android
🎵

Alwa's Awakening (Elden Pixels, 2017)

Yet another game in the indie retro-style metroidvania format, Alwa's Awakening is just another one that seems to have little-to-no appreciation for the games it's allegedly paying homage to and just uses the aesthetic to get easy sales.  Whereas classic puzzlers in this format had a sense of constant discovery in their deceptively deep mechanics that were easy to learn but very tricky to master, Alwa's Awakening starts at bare-minimum and rarely ever tries for more.  The gameplay's far too simple, with very few platforming puzzles, obstacles or enemies that require any thought or planning to overcome, and any problems you're presented with non-apparent solutions inevitably have them spelled right out for you, which quashes any satisfaction you get from solving them yourself.  There's little sense of progression as you get no health upgrades or new weapons and only three spells, and they're all as generic as can be - creating blocks and floating bubbles to serve as platforms, and a long-ranged projectile that fires in a straight line.  You can't even use spells in tandem in any clever way - they all run off the same magic bar and you can only use one when the bar is full, which ruins a lot of fun ideas that could have been done with them.  Imagine if you could, say, create several strategically placed bubbles/blocks to cross a long gap, or redirect a lightning shot with a bubble or block to activate something you couldn't hit with a straight shot, or even set a block atop a bubble to push a switch that the bubble alone couldn't; any of those would add a lot more depth and variety to the game than what we get here.  The game even goes so far as to reference the classic action-puzzler Solomon's Key in the achievement names, which only further exemplifies the problem: why didn't Alwa's developers bother to take any cues from that game's design?  Alas, creativity was passed up in favor of rote filler - there's 99 collectibles to find and an achievement for speedrunning the game in under two hours with less than five deaths, like it's just going through a checklist of every boring modern gaming trope engineered to add a few more hours to your play counter and points to your trophy list rather than provide any genuine entertainment.  Alwa's Awakening does at least some nicely detailed graphics and catchy tunes, but as a big fan of retro titles and puzzle games, this one just wasn't intelligent or captivating enough to hold my attention for long, perfectly exemplifying of the old axiom of "pretty graphics and music can make a good game better, but they can't make a bland game fun."  If you want some classic retro action-puzzler games, there's plenty of great ones to pick from - Adventures of Lolo, Willow, Kickle Cubicle, Zelda 1 and 2, Metroid, Legacy of the Wizard, Battle of Olympus, Lemmings, Faxanadu and the aforementioned Solomon's Key to name some off the top of my head.  Or if you want some good modern takes on the format, play Shovel Knight, Blaster Master Zero, Axiom Verge, Ittle Dew, Indivisible, Shantae or Celeste.

Publisher: Elden Pixels
Platform: PC, Switch, Playstation 4

Arx Fatalis (Arkane Studios, 2002)

The debut title of French developer Arkane Studios (best known today for the 2017 Prey and the Dishonored series), Arx Fatalis is another game inspired by Ultima Underworld.  Moreso than most, as the game is set in a world where the sun no longer shines and everyone, human, goblin and subterranean horror alike, is forced to live underground in an enormous cave system.  Gameplay is similar in many ways too - weapons frequently break after only a few hits on enemies, forcing you to constantly hunt down more, and magic is handled by finding runes and drawing out symbols in the air to get the desired effect (with the ability to "precast" up to three spells for later use).  Skills like stealth, lock-picking and being able to spot hidden secrets are available by bolstering your stats, and much effort was made to have the world feel dynamic and realistic, with very detailed environments and fully-voiced dialog (of dubious quality, but that was standard for the era).  This would all be fine if the game played well, but in trying to add so much to it, they seemed to have forgotten to polish up the basic elements.  The UI in the game is awkward, to say the least, with irritatingly small icons and some strange decisions for buttons and items (double click to give an item to someone, highlight and press F to use or equip, click and drag to move or throw).  Physics are equally weird, with a jump causing your character to lurch forward at roughly triple their walk speed, while combat feels unpleasantly choppy and awkward.  Audio also seems unnecessarily quiet in almost every situation; I had to crank my volume just to hear a lot of the dialog and cutscenes.  It just doesn't feel very good to actually play, so I ended up giving up on it before long despite the obvious care put into its design.

Publisher: JoWooD Productions, DreamCatcher Interactive
Platform: PC, XBox

The Bard's Tale (InXile Entertainment, 2004)

A spiritual successor to the original Bard's Tale trilogy released for various computer formats in the '80s, the gameplay is changed up to be a top-down hack-and-slash adventure game rather than a turn-based dungeon crawler.  Sadly, it's not a particularly great one; in fact, in terms of action it's mediocre at best, with very little to differentiate it from any other game of its like other than some clunky attack animations.  The true selling point here is the game's sense of humor, having a rather uncouth protagonist, a lot of genre-savvy jokes, ridiculous characters and moments (including a few Willy Wonka-esque song numbers), and most memorably of all, a narrator who outright despises and frequently mocks the protagonist (voiced by the late, great Tony Jay).  Even the developers were seemingly aware of the game's shortcomings, as on the recent releases for the Playstation 4 and Vita, using the built-in cheats does not disable any of the trophies one can earn, allowing one to skip most of the game's least interesting element.  So while not a particularly amazing experience, if you have ten dollars to spare, want to have a few laughs and earn an easy Platinum trophy, this is one you might consider.

Publisher: InXile Entertainment
Platform: Playstation 2, Xbox, Windows, iOS, Android, Blackberry Playbook, Ouya, Linux, PS4, Playstation Vita

Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden (Tales of Game's Studios, 2008)

There is a good reason I generally avoid playing, let alone reviewing, games made in readily-available game creation kits; by and large they tend to be boring, low-effort works with no concept of balance, design theory or even a hint of originality, swiping assets left and right and usually just aping other games' ideas with nary a fraction of their quality.  Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden is at least a competently-made game beneath its recycled assets, feeling like a 16-bit RPG with some creative combat mini-games reminiscent of titles like Paper Mario, but it quickly slips into another all-too-common pitfall indie developers fall prey to: sheer arrogance.  What could have been a fun game is dragged down by being packed to the brim with inane purple prose, excruciatingly unfunny jokes that go on five minutes too long, and each save point the player encounters triggering lengthy, self-serving rants about western and Japanese RPGs - acceptable content for a blog, perhaps, but it has no business being anywhere near an actual video game.  Basically, it's Family Guy's definitions of 'wit' and 'comedy' put into a game engine - grating dialog, unlikable characters, self-righteous preaching and endless "hey, remember this" references masquerading as 'humor'.  The author certainly seems to think all of this is very clever and makes him look like the coolest guy in the world, but I personally just got sick of it and threw the whole thing in the Recycle Bin after the first couple of hours.  It says quite a lot when a game is free, yet you still feel cheated after playing it.  Not to mention the fact that the real Charles Barkley is very vocal about not wanting to be viewed as a role model, so he probably finds the people who build a literal religion around quoting some unfunny moron's fangame that bears no similarity to his actual life and post memes hailing him as some messianic figure a la Chuck Norris incredibly disrespectful. Way to show how much you care about a person you allegedly admire, morons! 
Publisher: Tales of Game's Studios
Platform: PC, OS X
😞

Borderlands (Gearbox Software, 2009)

Gearbox is a company steeped in controversy for a number of shady business practices and subpar products, but before all of that started up they made a few well-respected Half-life expansions and ports and, eventually, an original IP of their own in Borderlands.  A first person shooter co-op experience with some Diablo-like elements, placing heavy emphasis on building up one of four characters with unique skill trees and randomized loot in the form of guns with various properties - some beneficial (like added elemental damage) and others comically useless (guns that explode when you reload them).  While ultimately nothing spectacular, Borderlands' irreverent "space redneck" atmosphere, demented character designs and co-op for up to four players made it a pretty fun game overall.

Publisher: 2K Games
Platform: Playstation 3, XBox 360, PC, OS X, Playstation 4, XBox One, Switch

Borderlands 2 (Gearbox Software, 2012)

While I wouldn't class the original Borderlands as a masterpiece, it was a relatively fun game overall, with a lot of focus on over-the-top battles, a silly atmosphere and a bunch of characters and weapons to customize your play experience to your liking.  For better and worse, Borderlands 2 delivers more of everything - more playable characters, more randomized weapons and properties, vaster and more convoluted stages, more loot, character upgrades that stack over playthroughs, much tougher and cheaper enemies that seem to kill you constantly in the later stages, and *sigh* microtransactions.  Characters, missions, skins and more are now paid DLC, and the sheer amount of it is pretty groan worthy as it far exceeds the sticker price of the game. More groanworthy is the new focus on Family Guy caliber humor, with characters endlessly rambling out toilet jokes and "edgy" humor and seemingly never giving you a moment's rest from it, making it very grating in short order.  Some might say the first game was too quiet and had limited replay value in comparison, but if this is the alternative, I'm good.  Sometimes, less is more.  Much more.

Publisher: 2K Games
Platform: Playstation 3, XBox 360, PC, OS X, Linux, Playstation Vita, Playstation 4, XBox One, Switch


BS Zelda no Densetsu (Nintendo R&D2, 1995)

Arguably the most obscure Zelda games ever made, the BS Zelda games weren't ever released on a physical format; rather, they were produced for a Super Famicom addon by Bandai called the Satellaview and broadcast to the system at very specific times in the mid-90s. During those times, a unique soundtrack and voice narration would convey a story while the player tried to complete an "episode" consisting of two dungeons within a time limit of about an hour.  Whether they successfully did so or not, once the broadcast ended, the game was over.  The first two of these were essentially remixed versions of the original Legend of Zelda, just with visual and audio updates befitting the hardware, and unique dungeon formats that are considerably easier than the main game's (no surprise owing to the time limit).  The only way to play them nowadays is via emulation (which surprisingly even manages to preserve the voice tracks on some emulators), but for die-hard Zelda fans, it's most definitely worth a look.

Publisher: St. GIGA
Platforms: Satellaview
🎵🗾

BS Zelda no Densetsu: Inishi no Sekiban (Nintendo R & D2, 1997)

In the same vein as the original BS Zelda, Inishi no Sekiban (translated as "Ancient Stone Tablets") is a reworking of Link to the Past, this time with an added narrative (voiced in Japanese and in text at the bottom), reworked episodic gameplay, a time limit and a score table, challenging the player to complete two dungeons and collect as many rupees as possible before time expires and possibly (in the 90s when it aired) earn prizes.  Also somewhat unusual is the fact that the player doesn't control Link in the original release, instead utilizing their avatar from the Satellaview's BIOS menu in game and some of the text changing accordingly.  Other than that, this is much in the same vein as the original, with reworked dungeons, timed events that can grant the player bonuses like temporary invincibility or unlimited bombs for a short while, and a clever new twist on LTTP for those who know the original game like the back of their hands.  Like the first BS Zelda, it's only available nowadays through emulation, but it's a great piece of history that's well worth a look for any serious franchise fan.

Publisher: St. GIGA
Platforms: Satellaview
🎵🗾

Castlevania II: Simon's Quest (Konami, 1988)

One of the more divisive Castlevania titles, Simon's Quest was the first in the series to take on an RPG format, adapting the action-platformer gameplay of its predecessor into a more open and non-linear experience where solving puzzles and purchasing items was just as important as vanquishing foes.  To this end, the game works in towns, purchasing upgrades to one's equipment, gaining levels for more power, and conversing with NPCs and finding hidden messages to learn hints and uncover useful items.  However, some troubles quickly began to show themselves, with a world that was confusing to navigate (with stairwells up and down leading to new areas on the overworld), unclear puzzles made more obscure by a clumsy translation, and some rather lackluster design at times.  The most prominent example of this being the few bosses in the game, which were laughably easy overall.  Using a clunky password system instead of a battery backup for the NES port probably didn't help its case either (though it is at least only 16 characters long).  Still, the franchise's impeccable standards for atmosphere, music and tight core gameplay remained in place, making this a flawed but enjoyable title.  Just bring a walkthrough along, because you're going to need it, especially if you want to get the best of three possible endings.

(Fans of ROM hacks may also want to check out "Castlevania II Redaction", which addresses several criticized elements of the game - notably speeding up the text and day/night transitions and rewriting much of the dialog to provide useful clues.)

Publisher: Konami
Platforms: FDS, NES
🎵

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow (Konami, 2003)

The third Castlevania game to get a Game Boy Advance release, and like most post-SotN releases, it follows in that game's mold, giving the player a vast castle to freely explore and new abilities to explore it as they defeat bigger and tougher bosses.  Aria of Sorrow's new twist is the Tactical Soul system - by defeating enemies you have a chance to absorb their abilities and use them for yourself.  These abilities can be offensive (throwing bones, daggers, fireballs etc), defensive (restoring health or deflecting projectiles), or give passive benefits like higher stats, spotting secrets or immunity to certain status effects.  These abilities can also be mixed and matched to suit your playstyle, which is quite a lot of fun to experiment with.  I can also say its easily the most entertaining game in the series after SotN, so if you can track down a copy (or grab it on Wii U Virtual Console), it's well worth a look.

Publisher: Konami
Platforms: GBA, Wii U Virtual Console

Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow (Konami, 2005)

A direct followup to the Game Boy Advance's Aria of Sorrow, even retaining most of the same characters and the same gameplay mechanic of absorbing souls to learn new abilities and power up your character.  It certainly takes advantage of the DS's capabilities too, for both good and ill - the game looks and sounds fantastic with high-quality music and high resolution graphics for the period, but bosses now cannot be killed unless you use the touch screen to quickly draw a "seal" on the screen after sufficiently weakening them - fail to do so within a few seconds and they get some health back and resume the fight, which can get very irritating.  The game also loses its gothic feel in part, as cutscenes now have all the characters drawn in more of a generic anime style.  It's still competently made and fun overall, but definitely not as good as the original, and to me at least, it marked the beginning of a turn into stagnance for the series.

Publisher: Konami
Platforms: Nintendo DS
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Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia (Konami, 2008)

The third and last Castlevania game developed for the Nintendo DS, and the last of the "Metroidvania" styled ones, though it definitely takes on a more action-oriented bent than its predecessors.  Combat is now much more fast-paced and intense and bears more of a resemblance to the Contra series, all but requiring the player to collect specific glyphs (equivalent to Aria/Dawn of Sorrow's Souls) to strike at bosses, and even with armor upgrades they die in only a few hits even to mundane enemies, requiring near-perfect mastery of pattern memorization to succeed.  Which might have been tolerable if this were on a console, but is not exactly a good thing when one considers the poor-quality D-pads on most Nintendo DS models.  It's a game I wanted to like, but I ultimately just found it too frustrating to play, and I still point to it as an example of why this type of game isn't cut out for handheld systems - twitch-input action games that require precisely-timed actions and movement should best be left to platforms with bigger screens, sharper framerates and higher-quality controllers cut out for this type of thing.

Publisher: Konami
Platforms: Nintendo DS

Child of Light (Ubisoft Montreal, 2013)

An RPG that showed a lot of promise on its face, combining a tragic fairytale with a storybook-like presentation, a beautiful and sad soundtrack, and gameplay that combined elements of Grandia and Paper Mario together.  It works to a degree, with the player able to delay enemy turns and cancel them with well-placed attacks and enemies able to do the same, and a pretty varied party with a number of unique skills.  Sadly, it all just gets a bit tiresome before long, as enemy battles tend to get exceptionally drawn-out and repetitious since it's all basically built around that one gimmick with no real variation (well, aside from enemies that punish you with heavy-damage attacks for cancelling their turns, defeating the entire point of having such a system).  This, plus the large amount of grinding required to defeat some bosses and craft spellstones, as well as the fact that the game relies so heavily on random dice rolls (with the odds tilted out of your favor at every turn), made this a game I got bored of well before the end.

Publisher: Ubisoft
Platform: Playstation 3, Wii U, Playstation Vita, PS4, XBox One, PC, Switch

Contact (Grasshopper Manufacture, 2006)

Grasshopper is a bit of a low-key cult company, known for making bizarre and often extremely violent games like Killer7, No More Heroes and Killer Is Dead.  Contact was their attempt at an RPG, though with a more kid-friendly presentation despite retaining its stranger themes.  This is evident right away with the dichotomy of art styles on the two screens - the two main characters (Terry and the Professor) live in two very different art styles, with Terry occupying a more photorealistic world while the Professor and his ship look more akin to a 16-bit game (and quite a bit like Earthbound).  The gameplay is an odd duck too, giving the player a degree of control over Terry for most things; however, in combat he largely acts on his own.  One can also attack almost any NPC in the game, potentially accruing negative Karma and causing townspeople to attack you a la some old CRPGs (though there is no real benefit to this as far as I can tell).  There are no preset levels, instead falling back on a system similar to Final Fantasy II or the Elder Scrolls games - your stats gradually improving as you do things that tie to them.  Taking damage boosts your HP, attacking boosts strength, and so forth.  One can also equip outfits and stickers to bolster certain stats, which adds a bit of depth, but combat remains out of the player's hands for the most part.  For this reason you often get stuck for a good while having to grind to power up in order to overcome a particularly powerful foe.  Still, the game's quirky sense of humor and the general weirdness of its presentation and story have earned it a dedicated fanbase, so if you can find a copy, give Contact a try.

Publisher: Atlus
Platform: Nintendo DS

Crypt of the NecroDancer (Brace Yourself Games, 2015)

There are quite a few roguelikes out there, especially now that the indie scene has become such a prominent sight in gaming.  Crypt of the NecroDancer attempts to put its own twist on things, though, by having everything synced to music - "turns" are all carried out to the beat of the backing track, with the player also required to time their actions to the beat, getting a bonus multiplier the longer they go without missing a beat and without getting hit.  Enemies all move and act in predictable patterns, so learning and memorizing them is key to success, as it using the numerous weapons, items and spells you pick up along the way.  Between deaths you can also purchase upgrades for your next run - health, weapons, armor and even bonuses like more chests or starting with a higher coin multiplier.  It takes a bit of work to adapt to, but for fans of roguelikes, Crypt of the NecroDancer has a very fun and inventive bent.

Publisher: Brace Yourself Games, Blitworks
Platforms: Windows, OS X, Linux, iOS, Playstation 4, Playstation Vita, Xbox One, Switch, Android
🎵

Dark Deity (Sword and Axe LLC, 2021)

Dark Deity makes no secret of its inspirations, with even its Kickstarter campaign page admitting that it's directly inspired by Fire Emblem and strives to copy its gameplay and aesthetics.  But as I've said on many occasions, a blatant copycat is no bad thing so long as it's well-made. Dark Deity mimics its inspirations surprisingly well, with fluidly animated combat sprites, a complex and well-written narrative (even retaining Fire Emblem's signature one-on-one character interactions) and grid-based combat that emphasizes individual skills and carefully moving your units ahead as a group so that enemies don't single out characters and pick them off.  It does diverge in a few ways, though - weapons don't wear down with use and characters wield four apiece throughout the whole game, each emphasizing different stats and enemy weaknesses, and all can be upgraded with tokens earned in battle.  The "weapon triangle" is a bit more complex, factoring in not just what weapon types both characters are using, but the armor they wear as well.  Permadeath isn't in the game, but a character who falls in battle will suffer a permanent penalty to one of their stats, letting the player decide whether it's worth it to keep going with the penalty or restart the battle to try again.  It does suffer from a few annoying technical issues, with prominent lag in some menus and scene changes and switching over to mouse/keyboard control if you so much as move your cursor slightly on the PC version, not always swapping back when you press a button on a gamepad.  But even with a few hiccups, Dark Deity is a very solid effort that fans of tactical RPGs with a focus on characters and storytelling should enjoy.

Publisher: Freedom Games
Platforms: PC.  Ports are also planned for Switch, Xbox and Playstation, though they have not been released yet as of this writing.

Darklands (MPS Labs, 1992)

Microprose isn't a company known for RPGs per se, but they did take a crack at a large-scale and ambitious one in the early '90s with Darklands. Set in medieval Germany when it was a part of the Holy Roman Empire, it portrays the period with a surprising touch of realism - every city in the game has a real life equivalent, reading and writing are relatively rare skills, and age is very much a factor, causing your characters' stats to deteriorate as they get older (though beginning the game at a later age also gives you more skill points and better starting gear, so it does have an upside too).  There are no preset classes, though each character does have a starting background - peasant, commoner, noble, et cetera - that influences their starting skills, and there are no proper experience points or levels, instead opting for a freeform skill system that must be improved through active use.  Picking locks will make you a more proficient thief, while wielding weapons or using alchemic effects (spells, essentially) will make you better with those. Weapons are similarly realistic, with short swords for example being effective against bandits in leather or chain armor but virtually useless against a knight in plate mail.  Combat and dungeon crawling plays somewhat like an RTS, having your units act with a degree of autonomy but with the player able to able to issue orders to them to do things like cast spells, swap weapons or target a specific foe, and they can even pause the action at any time to change tactics or just take stock of things, not dissimilar to Baldur's Gate; really cool stuff for the time, though the questionable pathfinding can be frustrating when dealing with traps.  Defeat in battle also isn't an immediate death, with realistic consequences depending on who you were fighting - beating beaten by robbers will cause them to steal most of your money and equipment and dump you in an inconspicuous place, while losing to a guard who catches you stealing will cause you to be jailed for a period of time.  All pretty fresh and innovative design for 1992; however, it featured rather drab visuals, an unfriendly UI that all but requires having the manual handy, and it was plagued with a substantial number of bugs and glitches, which did its overall reception no favors.  Several patches were developed, but as the game was released before the internet was a common household fixture, relatively few customers were able to take advantage of them.  All of these things contributed to the game getting a mixed reception overall and caused a planned follow-up to be scrapped due to underperforming sales.  Still, being a game ahead of its time in many ways earned it a cult following in subsequent years (helped by it being cited as a direct inspiration for Elder Scrolls), so it's definitely one that's worth a second glance nowadays. 

Publisher: Microprose
Platform: PC

Dark Messiah of Might and Magic (Arkane Studios, 2006)

Arkane Studios is a name I associate with ambitious but not entirely successful concepts, and Dark Messiah of Might and Magic is another perfect example of that.  Contrary to every prior Might and Magic game, it puts much less emphasis on character building and role playing and focuses much more on action, utilizing the Source engine's physics capabilities as a central element.  This makes combat a lot more interesting than most action-RPGs, as it's much more than simply hitting them with sword, arrow or magic until they fall down - you can knock down shelves to crush enemies, pick up and throw barrels, shove them off ledges, kick them into spikes or fires (which are conspicuously placed in almost every combat zone), get them in the path of a swinging chandelier to kill them, and even smash up floors and walls as you fight, sending enemies plummeting.  In fact, your character isn't particularly durable, so facing enemies head-on is usually a bad plan - you're much often better served knocking them down and then finishing them while they're helpless, or setting traps for them instead (a favorite being spreading oil on the ground, then lighting it ablaze with a fire spell - or just at the edge of a ledge or staircase and watching them tumble off).  This all sounds awesome on paper, but in practice it feels like you're flailing about and getting lucky rather than being a badass action hero more often than not - movement is awkwardly bouncy, characters and thrown objects all get snagged on scenery a lot, and the floaty, imprecise controls, aiming and physics means attacking with any kind of precision is all but impossible.  Things that look like they would be immediately fatal (knocking an enemy off a ledge and watching them drop over twenty feet) often aren't, while hitting them with a barrel or small crate often are.  Even the cutscenes (both prerendered and in-engine) seem to poke fun at this with characters having wildly exaggerated motions and knocking things over constantly.  Still, the overall short runtime and new twist on the generally-dull fantasy RPG combat makes it worth a look.  So if you want some ridiculously janky yet surprisingly entertaining action gameplay, give DMMM a try.

Publisher: Ubisoft
Platform: PC, XBox 360

The Dark Spire (Success, 2009)

A game that draws heavy inspiration from old-school Dungeons and Dragons and the Wizardry series, which was a common thing in the early days of computer gaming but a relatively rare sight for the Nintendo DS (about the closest thing to mainstream success the first person dungeon crawler genre saw there was the Etrian Odyssey series, and even that remains pretty niche).  Dark Spire certainly sets itself apart in some ways, though, with an eye-catching visual style blending shadows, expressive character art and vivid flat colors, creating an aesthetic somewhat reminiscent of an old comic book (though you do also have the option to utilize a more minimal style directly inspired by Wizardry).  You're also at least afforded a tutorial to explain the basic mechanics to you, and the game has a pretty sharp sense of humor throughout, but other than that, this is very much an old-school RPG - pick your class and race, slowly make your way through a huge labyrinth, and be prepared to be beaten up by monsters and killed by traps every step of the way.  Even the game's developers were very aware of this, recommending that you make your own maps on graph paper to keep track of where everything is (particularly as the in-game mapping system is very minimal and somewhat inconvenient to use).  It's become relatively rare and expensive nowadays, but if you have the itch for an old-school punishing dungeon dive and you can spare the expense, it's one you may wish to check out.

Publisher: Atlus, Success
Platform: Nintendo DS

Destiny of an Emperor (Capcom, 1990)

The Three Kingdoms period of Chinese History is one that's ripe for adaptations, and there have been tons of them in the realm of gaming (probably the best-known of which are Koei's Warriors and Romance of the Three Kingdoms franchises).  Capcom took their own crack at it (and their first foray into RPGs) with an adaptation of the manga "Tenchi wo Kurau".  Not a turn-based strategy game as you'd expect, though - a traditional Japanese RPG with a few terms switched around.  Hit Points are your soldiers, Tactics are your spells, and there are 150 recruitable characters to serve as your generals in battle, act as a reserve force should one of your generals fall, or become your tactician and provide your whole team with various Tactics to utilize; unlike most RPGs though, most characters' stats are fixed and don't improve with levels.  Battles tend to go on for quite a while, but fortunately there is a handy function in the "All-Out" command that causes both sides to continually attack one another and skip all prompts and dialog boxes until one side falls (Handy for quickly mopping up weaker forces - not so much when you're facing any considerable threat).  Destiny of an Emperor is not the most talked-about NES RPG, but it does have a dedicated following, with fans creating their own editing tools and scenarios to keep players coming back for more.  Worth a look!

Publisher: Capcom
Platform: NES

Disgaea: Hour of Darkness (Nippon Ichi Software, 2003, 2006, 2008, 2016, 2018)


Released in 2003 to little attention at first (probably in no small part due to graphics just barely better than the PS1's Final Fantasy Tactics and being a limited release by the then-niche publisher Atlus), Disgaea slowly built its way up to being a cult classic thanks to its sense of humor and deceptively deep gameplay despite its cute aesthetics, working in elements of both puzzle-solving and strategy gaming.  But more than that, the game was built as a huge timesink, with randomized dungeons, customized equipment and stats that reached into seven digits, allowing for die-hard gamers to grind out some truly game-breaking possibilities and provide a true challenge in a plethora of super-bosses that would require absolute mastery of the game's mechanics (and tons of grinding) to overcome.  Things which I too enjoyed about the game, but in remembering the 100+ hour slog I endured, I have little will to revisit again.  Still, for the most die-hard of stat grinders, Nippon Ichi has your bases covered.

Publisher: Atlus, Nippon Ichi Software, Koei, Square Enix
Platform: Playstation 2, PSP, DS, Windows, Mac OS, Linux, PS4, Switch

Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories (Nippon Ichi Software, 2006, 2009, 2010, 2017)

The first Disgaea was a slow-starter in the west, but it did well enough over time to get a reprint and eventually a sequel in the Playstation 2's later days.  Naturally, the game underwent a significant visual overhaul, as well as adding in new classes, features like the Dark World and the Land of Carnage (adding even more content for die-hard grinders and fans of puzzle maps), unique abilities for each character and class, and a strange new "Felony" system that would grant characters more experience for committing various "crimes" like attaining a certain level or killing a set number of enemies.  At its core, though, not a great deal is different from the original game - grinding and overcoming the monstrously difficult postgame content is still the main draw of the experience.  It provides a lot of that for stat-grinders, but those looking for a more gripping storyline experience or gameplay less based on sheer numbers may want to check elsewhere.

Publisher: Nippon Ichi Software, Koei
Platform: Playstation 2, Playstation Portable, Windows, Mac OS, Linux
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Disgaea 3: Absence of Justice (Nippon Ichi Software, 2008, 2011)

Disgaea 3 made the leap to the Playstation 3, and things were now moved to an even-sillier setting - a twisted "academy" for demons where ditchers are honor students and those who attend classes are delinquents.  Befitting this, characters are now assigned to Class Clubs and get bonuses based on who they're seated next to in the classroom, and elements like the Class World exist to bolster character stats.  Characters can now mix-and-match unique abilities thanks to the Evility system, and monsters can temporarily morph into weapons with the new Magichange mechanic.  However, a less-auspicious element soon showed itself in the game's DLC, which infamously racked up in price to well over the sticker price of the actual game ($86 in total bought separately or $50 in an all-encompassing mega-pack).  There's still much to offer here for powergamers and those who love to grind out stats, but it's not hard to see why this is one of the less highly-regarded games in the franchise.  The main character being voiced by disgraced actor Vic Mignogna probably does it no favors either.
Publisher: Nippon Ichi Software
Platform: Playstation 3, Vita
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Dragon's Dogma (Capcom, 2013) 

An action-RPG by much of the team that worked on Capcom's popular Devil May Cry franchise, and as one would expect from that, the action is over-the-top and surprisingly intense.  You pick a class for your main character (which you can change later), amass a party of four and battle all manner of mythological creatures from Chimera to golems to ogres, and they get appropriately themed attacks with a modern flourish (like ogres doing wrestling moves).  Good fun, but what severely hampers its long-term enjoyment, at least for me, is a complete lack of multi-player co-op.  All of your party members are controlled by the AI, and as is usual for games of this type, they tend to charge blindly into combat and become totally useless when a boss throws any kind of puzzle element your way (like a magic golem that can only be destroyed by hitting targets around the area with weapons or arrows - a problem for me, as I was playing a mage and simply couldn't command them to target the things instead of trying to attack the golem itself).  You can pass around your created characters online to let other players use them in their game, but there is no framework in place to directly join forces and fight monsters together, which is a very bizarre decision for a game of this type.  If you want a fun open-world fantasy RPG with some over-the-top beat-em-up action sprinkled on top Dragon's Dogma is a good choice, but if you want an engrossing co-op experience, well, pick up one of the many other co-op action titles out there instead (like the similarly named Dragon's Crown!).

Publisher: Capcom 
Platform: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC, Playstation 4, Xbox One, Switch

Drakengard (Cavia, 2003)

Drakengard was a game met with both praise and criticism upon its release in 2003, and upon playing it, I can certainly see why.  It's a generic hack-and-slash reminiscent of the Dynasty Warriors series, though it lacks the smooth design and strategic bent of those games - the controls are stiff and movement somewhat clunky, and gameplay mostly consists of monotonous enemy bashing with the same two-second music loop repeating constantly for the entire level (which can sometimes go on upwards of thirty minutes).  There is also the occasional Panzer Dragoon inspired aerial combat stage, where one can lock on to enemies and unleash a barrage of homing fireballs to take them down, but these also get very repetitious because there simply isn't a lot to them beyond point-and-fire.  Drakengard is one of many games that tried to carry itself solely on its writing, presentation and production design rather than putting any real focus on its gameplay, but it does at least do an admirable job there - the story is a rather complex one despite its simple premise, cutscenes are well-animated and the voiceover is surprisingly good for 2003, and the characters are all complex and morally ambiguous, fitting perfectly into the grim setting.  It may not be worth the inflated prices it commands ever since Yoko Taro's newfound popularity with NieR: Automata, but if you can find a copy, you're in for a good story wrapped in a rather tedious gameplay experience.

Publisher: Square Enix, Gathering of Developers
Platform: Playstation 2, Mobile

Drakengard 2 (Guinea Pig, 2006)

A direct sequel taking place eighteen years after the original Drakengard, it also took some criticisms of the original to heart.  The gameplay is much more refined this time around, with tighter controls and more variety, allowing you a larger skillset and even some Devil May Cry-esque launchers and air combos, allowing for some more visually distinct combos and gameplay variety (but with little difference in terms of overall damage) as well as being able to block and side-dodge to evade attacks.  Yoko Taro was not involved in the game's creation this time, though, and the experience is definitely weaker for it - characters are rather generic and the story, while still possessing some dark and grim themes, feels much more generic overall.  It also lacks the cinematic flair of the original, with most key events now simply being portrayed in-engine and with still character portraits doing the talking.  A step forward in some ways but a step back in others, Drakengard 2 is a passable hack-and-slash game, but definitely not as memorable as the original despite its improved gameplay.

Publisher: Square Enix, Ubisoft
Platform: Playstation 2

Drakengard 3 (Access Games, 2014)

A prequel (more or less) to the first two Drakengard games, it also sees Yoko Taro return to both write and direct, bringing the series back to its darker roots, though with more of a black comedy feel this time around.  The protagonist is also a notable one; one of six heroic figures called "intoners" who, for reasons initially unclear, seeks to kill her sisters and become the world's sole intoner and is often at odds with her dragon companion as she does so.  Gameplay is similar to the first two, though it retains the improvements of 2 and even adds some of its own, allowing for smooth transitions between aerial and ground-based combat and even letting one swap weapons instantly to keep the gameplay smooth.  Its gameplay and level design are still pretty forgettable even three games in, but Drakengard's focus on its complex characters and grim storytelling shine through, making it an oddly compelling experience even in spite of its repetitive gameplay.

Note: The game does have audio bugs that can make voices extremely quiet or result in distorted audio.  Make sure to set your PS3 system's audio to accurately reflect your setup!

Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: Playstation 3

The Elder Scrolls: Arena (Bethesda Softworks, 1994)

Originally built as a medieval gladiator combat game (hence the name), The Elder Scrolls soon developed into something much more sprawling and ambitious, promising a massive open-world RPG with gameplay and design inspired by Ultima Underworld and literally tens of thousands of square miles of terrain, replete with equally massive numbers of towns, NPCs and monsters.  As worlds of this scale weren't exactly feasible in the era, though (even with the advent of CD technology), something had to give - in this case, nearly all of the game is randomly generated, with terrain, towns, NPCs and dialog, and just about every quest the player encounters falling into cookie-cutter territory.  The world map is also not as big as marketing would suggest; if you simply go out expecting to walk to another town, you'll never get anywhere as you'll be stuck on an endless procedurally-generated map, so fast travel is the only real way to traverse the world.  Much like Ultima Underworld and many other CRPGs before it, the game is quite unforgiving in many respects - even escaping the first dungeon is a trial that took me several attempts owing to its aggressive enemies who never grant you a moment's respite.  That, plus the fact that every action one takes in the game is based upon a dice roll (even combat, resulting in battles just looking like you awkwardly flailing at a target and missing most of your strikes), makes the game more of a chore to complete than a grandiose adventure.  A cult classic and origin of a legendary franchise it may be, but Arena is not a very auspicious game by any measuring stick today.

Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platform: MS-DOS

The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall (Bethesda Softworks, 1996)

Regarded by some die-hard fans as the best game in the series, Daggerfall is certainly a substantial leap in quality over its predecessor.  The game now runs on a true 3D engine (Bethesda's own XnGine), the world is now a truly connected and cohesive one with over 15,000 towns and 750,000 NPCs, and the game even takes pains to simulate a virtual environment with various guilds the player can join to bolster their reputation, an economy where one can buy and sell various goods and even borrow money from banks, and fast travel has a more realistic element, with the player having different options like travelling by caravan, ship or just walking to save money (while taking much longer).  One can buy ships and horses to make navigation faster, and encountering certain enemies can have the player transform into a vampire, werewolf or wereboar (the former two of which would appear in later games as well).  There are even seven different possible endings to see, which gives the game some substantial replay value.  Make no mistake, though, that this is still a game which is largely procedurally generated - nearly every quest, dungeon, town and character one encounters is created by a random seed rather than a developer, and as a result of that and the dice-roll dependent gameplay, the game's difficulty tends to be very uneven.  You'll never be wanting for things to do in Daggerfall, but the fact that most of it is still generic, and its world not particularly interesting to see and interact with after a time, will likely leave you pining for later entries in the series.

Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platform: MS-DOS