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Quickie Reviews (J-R)

Kingdom Come: Deliverance (Warhorse Studios, 2018)


A historical RPG set in early 15th century Bohemia (today's Czech Republic), Kingdom Come strives to be a classless open-world RPG like Elder Scrolls, letting the player solve any obstacle they encounter in a number of ways and make their name in the world in any way they see fit.  At least on paper, that's what they say.  The whole time I played was a strictly railroaded experience, forcing me to go from one premeditated event to the next and fail every skill check I encountered because they all start at extremely low values and there is simply no way to raise them between then and there.  It also had the Mass Effect problem in that, while you're given said choices, few of them seem to actually make any difference in the long run; you might get a different dialog line or two from the majority, but that's really about it.  Then team that with clumsy, unintuitive stealth segments, horse riding that's more cumbersome than useful (I got hung up on scenery and killed too many times to count in an overlong, unskippable chase sequence) and combat that strives to be realistically based around blocking and parrying in heavy armor (but mostly just comes off as clunky and annoying), and you've got a game that quickly became a chore to play.  Kingdom Come: Deliverance is clearly very well-researched and has a lot of attention to detail in almost every element of its setting, but maybe its developers should have just written a book instead, because it's not very fun as a game.

Publisher: Warhorse Studios, Deep Silver
Platform: XBox One, Playstation 4, PC

Kingdom Hearts Re:Coded (h.a.n.d./Square Enix, 2010)

Originally released as an episodic mobile phone game and later expanded into a full 3D remake on the DS, Kingdom Hearts Re:Coded is yet another entry in the popular and long-running franchise, following the exploits of "Data Sora" as he tries to recover lost information in Jiminy Cricket's journal.  To that end, he revisits many worlds from the previous Kingdom Hearts games, defeating monsters and finding clues to repair data.  The leveling system in the game is relatively clever one, having the player install chips onto a CPU motherboard to expand Sora's abilities and stats, while the gameplay builds to a degree on what was done in Birth By Sleep, with the player gradually building momentum by quickly defeating enemies to grant Sora temporary powerups and ending with a finishing move, and utilizing abilities via a quick, preconfigured "Command Deck" rather than having to navigate menus.  It plays alright on the DS, but the sheer amount of retreaded ground and overall monotonous design made it one I got tired of quickly.  I opted to watch the plot digest on the HD compilations instead of playing through the entire game, and honestly, I don't think I missed too much.

Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: Nintendo DS

Kingdom Hearts 0.2 Birth By Sleep: A Fragmentary Passage (Square Enix, 2017)

Essentially to the Kingdom Hearts series what Ground Zeroes was to Metal Gear, BBS:AFP is a glorified demo, showing off some of the technology for Kingdom Hearts III by telling a short prequel story.  Taking place just after Birth by Sleep and following Aqua as she ventures through the realm of darkness, the game showcases the smoother movement and combat system changes of Kingdom Hearts III (most prominently Situation Commands, which add a  much more dynamic feel and a thrilling momenum to battles).  The campaign itself is quite short, being completable in about two hours, but Square also attempts to give you quite a bit of content in the form of unlockable costume pieces and 51 optional objectives to complete.  As per series norms, more content is also unlocked once the campaign is completed, including a Boss Rush, so you're getting quite a bit of gameplay here.  Maybe not enough to justify shelling out two figures in itself, but the fact that it comes on the same disk as Kingdom Hearts 3D and a plot summary of Kingdom Hearts χ (chi) ensures you won't feel short-changed.

Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: Playstation 4

Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Reckoning (38 Studios/Big Huge Games/Kaiko, 2020, 2021)

Kingdoms of Amalur was the first (and only) released game of 38 Studios, and it was clearly intended to be a breadwinner for them whilst they worked on their MMO project, meshing together numerous popular design tropes under one umbrella.  With an open-world RPG where you can freely choose between combat, stealth and magic skills (a la Oblivion), hack-and-slash gameplay where you collect semi-randomized and customizable loot like Diablo, a story by famed fantasy writer RA Salvatore and character designs by Todd McFarlane (yes, seriously), they clearly wanted to appeal to as many people as they could.  However, it fell quite short of their lofty goals - it needed to sell some 3 million copies to turn a profit and barely managed a third of that - and between this and 38's continued mismanagement, the company spiraled downwards into bankruptcy within a couple of years.  Still, Amalur managed to gather a significant fanbase for its well-crafted combination of gameplay elements and a good story; so much so that THQ Nordic bought the IP and released a remaster in 2020.  Not much seems to have changed from the original release other than some slight visual upgrades, but nonetheless, it's a decent action-RPG that's worth a look.

Publisher: THQ Nordic
Platform: Windows, XBox One, Playstation 4, Switch

The Last Story (Mistwalker, 2012)

Final Fantasy and Square Enix were definitely on a downward slope throughout most of the 2000s as the company faced bankruptcy, was bought out by Enix and restructured, but surely the guy who originally wrote and produced the Final Fantasy series could make a worthy successor to its format, right? ...Well, no.  If Lost Odyssey was a poor man's Final Fantasy X (which was already an awful game, by the way), this one is a poor man's Final Fantasy XIII, highlighting just how much of a one-trick pony Sakaguchi really is.  With clunky, poorly explained and confusing mechanics, bad party AI, a messy narrative, a thoroughly obnoxious and unlikable cast compounded with terrible acting every step of the way, and tons of lag and framerate issues due to being shoehorned onto Wii hardware, it's just a bad experience all around. There is little surprise that Mistwalker has mostly moved into making low-stakes mobile games after this one.

Publisher: Philips Interactive Media
Platform: Philips CDi

Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventure (Nintendo, 2004)

Released a year after Capcom's Game Boy Advance port of Link to the Past, which included a multiplayer minigame called "Four Swords", this was Nintendo's attempt to create a more full-fledged version of the concept.  Unfortunately, it ends up being much more of a hassle than it's worth. You can't use standard controllers in anything but single player mode; instead, each player is required to have a system link cable and a Game Boy Advance.  This does allow for the larger game to be interrupted when players enter caves and houses and such, but still; why not just have split screen as an option?  Even beyond that, though, the game is pretty shallow, split up into strictly linear stages and mostly just consisting of farming items or simplistic monster-slaying, or having to split up and stand on various buttons to open a door.  It's a great looking game, utilizing a more detailed version of Link to the Past's aesthetic, but it's a mediocre co-op experience and definitely one of the weakest Zeldas.  Unless you have a lot of money to burn or are just intent on owning every Zelda game regardless of its quality, skip this one and read the manga adaptation instead.  And if you want a good couch co-op experience for the Gamecube, play Phantasy Star Online Episodes 1 and 2 instead. 

Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Gamecube

Legend of Zelda: Minish Cap (Capcom/Flagship, 2004)

Capcom's second attempt at an original Zelda was Minish Cap, and it has a pretty creative concept - Link shrinks down to sneak into areas he couldn't before and encounters a miniature race called the Minish along his journey.   Like their first attempt, though, the execution leaves some things to be desired.  The game feels rather short and unsatisfying overall, with only six short dungeons and some rather tedious sidequests in the form of Kinstones and Figurines, both of which just feel like cheap filler rather than a well-implemented mechanic.  Most of the end-game bosses are annoying as well, requiring the player to strike numerous targets at the same time and punishing them with damage or prolonging the fight until they get it right.  Finally, Ezlo is easily the franchise's worst sidekick, constantly interrupting the game to blather unfunny dialog or explain extremely basic mechanics to you; if you thought Navi was annoying, you haven't seen anything yet.  I did ultimately finish the game, but I have no desire to play it again.  If you want a good portable Zelda, stick to Link's Awakening.

Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Game Boy Advance, Wii U (Virtual Console)

Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages/Seasons (Capcom/Flagship, 2001)

The Oracle Games were rather odd beasts, being developed by an outside studio and released on the Game Boy Color in the months leading up to the Game Boy Advance's release.  The concepts were relatively novel, too - Ages has you hopping between past and present similar to Ocarina of Time, while Seasons has you cycling between the four seasons to reach new areas and solve various puzzles.  That's all good, and they're built on the same engine as Link's Awakening DX, so fans of that game will be right at home here.  Unfortunately, a lot of the change-ups here aren't really for the better - many familiar items are recycled but used in strange new ways with little explanation (being able to pick up and throw enemies with the power bracelet, for example), which can lead to a lot of unclear puzzles and frustration.  Animal friends are used to reach new areas and clear paths, though their controls and collision detection are frequently awkward.  Bosses also don't feel well-designed a lot of the time, either having weird hit detection or requiring spot-on timing to overcome, and I generally just found them annoying to fight.  The ideas here are interesting, but the execution is a bit lacking; I can't help but wonder if they just needed a bit more playtesting before their debut, but regardless, I don't rank them among the Zelda franchise's best.  Give them a look, but try before you buy.

Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Game Boy Color, Nintendo 3DS (Virtual Console)

Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (Nintendo, 2007)

Right from the get-go, it seemed like Nintendo was kicking themselves for not including an analog stick on the Nintendo DS; Super Mario 64 DS was the first to suffer for it, and every game since then had to find some weird way to work around it.  Enter Phantom Hourglass, which awkwardly uses the touch screen for virtually everything - moving, attacking, switching items, plotting sailing routes and interacting with almost everything requires you to make gestures on the screen with the stylus.  Other DS features are used too, like using the microphone to stun Pols Voices (a nice callback to the first game) or having to close the screen to transfer a stamp from the top screen to a map on the bottom one.  Some of the puzzles are rather clever too - I always mention one where you stretch a rope between two pegs, then bounce an arrow off it to hit an eye switch behind you that closes when you face it.  They did an admirable job with what they had to work with, but all in all, Phantom Hourglass just ends up being an average, once-and-done game, which is pretty weak by the standards of the Zelda series.  I'd love to see another game set in the Wind Waker universe, but I hope it ends up being on hardware more suited to the task than this one was.

Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo DS, Virtual Console (Wii U)

Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (Nintendo, 2009)

A sequel to Phantom Hourglass and utilizing the same engine and touch screen control setup.  The concept this time is an interesting one - Zelda accompanies you throughout the journey as a disembodied spirit, and can possess certain enemies to fight strong foes for you or solve certain puzzles, which I thought was a pretty cool gimmick and a nice flip on the played out damsel-in-distress scenario (as well as an odd parallel to the cartoon series from the 80s).  Sadly, the rest of the game fares much less well, with dragging pacing overall, some very irritating dungeons and an element I absolutely despised - the titular Spirit Tracks.  As in the previous game, you plot a route on the touch screen and then move down it, but along the way you have to switch tracks to avoid demonic train enemies that will kill you on contact (and hope you don't just go down another track that leads you right into the jaws of another one).  These appear between every dungeon and only get longer and more convoluted as you go, and making contact with one of the enemy trains results in an immediate death and forces you to start over.  I absolutely hated doing these segments, and got only about two dungeons in before I ended up facing another one and quickly decided I never wanted to play the game again.  Never, ever again.

Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo DS, Wii U (Virtual Console)

Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes (Nintendo/Grezzo, 2015)

Yep, it's another attempt at a multiplayer Zelda, this time for the 3DS.  That effectively mitigates the boneheaded design flaw of the original (being a console game yet requiring a handheld system and a link cable to play), but it has some screwups of its own; like only being able to play single player or three players, but having no option for two.  Aside from that, it's basically the same experience as Four Swords, being stage-based, linear and full of simplistic combat and puzzles - mostly based around stacking atop one another and tossing each other over gaps or up onto ledges.  There is an attempt in adding some replay value with a plethora of unlockable costumes for your Links, but it adds little to the longevity of the game unless you're a die-hard completionist.  It might be a bit of fun with two friends, but overall it's a short, mediocre and generally forgettable game that ranks among the series' worst.  There were plenty of better co-op games out there before the 2010's rolled around, so this one just felt dire by 2015.

Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo 3DS

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII (2013/2015/2016)

The final part of the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy, and at first I had some hope for it, as it seemed to at last break away from the infamous railroaded gameplay of its predecessors and try something new.  Alas, I found myself severely disappointed yet again.  Lightning Returns at least has a clever concept, having the player operate on a thirteen-day time limit and complete missions to extend it, power up their character, and try to make their way to the final boss and defeat him before the sand in the hourglass finally runs out.  However, they've chosen to implement this idea in probably the most boring way possible by making all of the quests feel like tedious busywork. Moreso as the bad writing of its predecessors is now a central focus of the gameplay too, having the player bond with NPCs and endure some of the most grating, over-worded, badly-acted dialog I've seen in a multi-million dollar RPG project.  Combat is slightly changed up but no better than it was in the previous two games, mostly just coming down to swapping between three equipped costumes (functionally almost identical to the previous games' Paradigms) and spamming a small handful of attacks until everything is dead.  Yes, one does get the chance to block enemy attacks in order to reduce damage and get a better rank, but it's just not enough to make the action any more compelling; particularly when the game still can't craft a decent reason for you to care about slogging through any of the boring quests, bad characterizations or droning action associated with either.  I may never have been a huge Final Fantasy follower, but the XIII trilogy will unquestionably stand in my mind as its biggest, most expensive failure. And by that already low standard, Lightning Returns stands out as the worst of the pack.

Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: XBox 360, Playstation 3, PC, iOS, Android
😞

Link: the Faces of Evil / Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon (Animation Magic, 1994)

Famously created as part of a business deal that originally would have had Philips developing a CD-based addon for the Super Nintendo (which ultimately never came to pass), the CDi Zelda games have since become noted as perhaps the only Zelda titles that can objectively be considered "bad".  They certainly do their best to look and sound the part with some quality music and colorful hand-painted backgrounds, but both of them play like bad Game Maker games - everything technically functions, but nothing is polished.  Movement is sluggish and awkward, hit detection is dodgy, and the lack of invincibility frames after contact with an enemy or projectile means that any hazard you encounter can easily drain all of your health and cause the loss of a life in an instant.  Pair that with the fact that one must grind for  long periods of time just to afford basic amenities like bombs, ropes, lantern oil and snow/fireballs to defeat specific enemies, and you have two games which prove to be masochistic exercises in frustration much more than the epic adventures that the series built its name on.

But of course, no review of the CDi Zeldas can go without mention of their cutscenes, which have become a phenomenon in their own right.  Made on a very small budget and noted for their poor animation quality, bizarre direction and cheesy acting, these factors have made them the central focus of countless mockery pieces and "Youtube Poop" remixes over the years, and they're honestly much more entertaining than anything else associated with the games.  So, if you want something to laugh at, look them up on Youtube and have a ball.  If you want a good game to play, though, save your money for something else.

A fan has also remade both of these games for PC and Linux; while still not great, they are much more playable, and the tongue-in-cheek nature of the whole project is pretty amusing in itself.  Check em out!

Publisher: Philips Interactive Media
Platform: Philips CDi
💰

Lunar: Dragon Song (Japan Art Media, 2005)

This one held some promise for fans of Game Arts and especially the cult classic Lunar series, especially at a time when the newly-released Nintendo DS was still looking for a good RPG to its name.  Japan Art Media had previously contributed to the Lunar remakes on the Playstation, as well as the surprisingly decent (if not amazing) GBA remake of the first game, so surely they'd have what it takes to make a worthwhile sequel to the series, right?  Well, sadly, that ended up not being the case.  This is in no small part due to the game trying to reinvent the wheel when it came to mechanics.  Running to avoid monsters lowers the party's HP, which rather defeats the purpose of doing so in the first place.  One can choose to earn items or experience from battles (though, for no adequately explained reason, you only get one or the other at a time - never both).  But perhaps most frustratingly, the movement-based strategic combat of Lunar is replaced with a simple, turn-based system, and one cannot even target enemies of their own volition - they simply pick an attack and the game selects for them, which takes a huge strategic element out of combat and simply turns it into a long sequence of spamming attacks.  The party has also been downsized to three characters - half that of the two mainline entries - which is just a bit baffling.  Even the plot holds little of interest, with some downright dopey writing, bland characters that don't have anything particularly memorable about them (especially compared to the first two Lunars), and a plot which is just a poor retelling of the first game's with no fresh twist put upon it.  Among RPG fans, Lunar: Dragon Song is synonymous with squandered potential, and given that its predecessors are regarded as genre classics, it's all the more disappointing for it.

Publisher: Marvelous Interactive, Ubisoft, Rising Star Games
Platform: Nintendo DS
😞

Lunar Legend (Japan Art Media, 2002)


From the beginning, Lunar was a franchise that utilized the benefits of disc-based technology to provide an visual and audio experience on par with a good anime, and that element has become a key part of its identity.  So to learn that there was a port of the first Lunar to the Game Boy Advance - a portable system with relatively minimal specs for streaming video and audio - was a little shocking, to say the least.  However, they did a good job considering the hardware they had to work with - they obviously couldn't do animated cutscenes, but they do utilize some stills from the CD versions to convey the story and dialog in those instances.  All of the player sprites and animations are redrawn and look quite good, and the core gameplay is essentially the same, with more story beats added throughout and a bit of longevity added with a few sidequests and some collectibles.  It may not have the big-budget presentation and epic feel of its console counterpart, but Lunar Legend is a serviceable down-port of a classic.

Publisher: Ubisoft
Platform: Game Boy Advance

The Magic of Scheherazade (Culture Brain, 1990)

An NES RPG that isn't talked about much these days by a company that also isn't mentioned much these days, Magic of Scheherezade is a mishmash of elements that averages out to a surprisingly fun game.  Utilizing a class system for your protagonists (which affects what weapons, spells and items they can utilize), the game mostly plays like a top-down action adventure title in the vein of Zelda, but with occasional party-driven, turn-based battles as well.  Time travel plays a prominent role in the events, with the player hopping into the past and future to solve certain puzzles or find items.  There's a lot of ideas here for a game that originally debuted in 1987 on the Famicom, though the uneven difficulty of some parts (particularly turn-based battles) and rather arbitrary level caps, as well as some truly broken spells, make it feel a bit unpolished and not quite as satisfying to play as the numerous games it draws inspiration from.  But it is a relatively unique title, and considering it's one of the few NES RPGs you can still get at an affordable price these days, definitely worth a try regardless.

Publisher: Culture Brain
Platform: NES

Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga (AlphaDream, 2003)

Demand has long been high for a sequel to Super Mario RPG, but neither Nintendo nor Square seems interested in making a direct followup.  Nintendo has recruited their second parties to produce two prominent successors, though - Paper Mario and Mario and Luigi.  The latter is arguably a bit closer in tone, having a much more exaggerated and cartoony style, as well as a greater focus on timed button presses - one can jump to evade enemy attacks and traverse various puzzles by using the brothers' abilities to hammer one another flat to squeeze into gaps, jump to greater heights or hover for short distances.  The funniest of these, though, are the "Brothers Attacks" - a special move where one must input a series of buttons in time for maximum damage, but if a button press is missed, they'll botch it and inflict a lesser amount (but still get a humorous animation out of it).  That, plus the absurd characters and dialog, make it quite a funny game overall.  It may not be as highly regarded as Mario RPG or the second Paper Mario, but Superstar Saga is nonetheless a title worth playing.

Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Game Boy Advance, Wii U (Virtual Console)

Mega Man: Battle Network (Capcom, 2001)

Collectible card games were all the rage in the early 2000s, and it seemed like every big Japanese company was trying to cash in (even Sega got in on it with Phantasy Star Online's third episode, CARD Revolution, which was... pretty strange).  Capcom took their own crack at it with the Battle Network franchise, and it proved to be quite a successful one, spawning six games, a number of spinoffs and even an offshoot series (Star Force) before being retired in 2009.  The core gameplay remains essentially the same, meshing real-time action with tactics.  Taking place on a 6x3 grid divided between your side and the enemy's, you get a random hand of five chips (serving as your weapons) and can pick ones that have a matching letter or type.  With them, you try to clear all enemies off the board as quickly as possible, earning more chips and/or money for doing so.  However, you also have to evade enemy attacks by moving around your grid, and use your chips well to ensure the enemies don't avoid your attacks and you waste your chips.  Some other things can crack panels (leaving a blank space on the field that can't be crossed over temporarily) or even turn panels from one color to the other, giving you or your foe more control over the field.  Pretty interesting stuff, but it ends up being a rather grindy experience; as per any collectible card game, you gradually refine and rework your deck throughout, working further toward a balance of chips that will serve you well in any scenario you face.  I can see why it became such a big series in the 200s, but like the collectible card game fad of the time, its relevance is mostly gone these days.  However, its gameplay style was reworked to great effect in One Step From Eden, blending roguelike elements and numerous different characters, game modes and mods into the mix, so in an odd way, its legacy lives on.

Publisher: Capcom, Ubisoft
Platform: Game Boy Advance, Wii U (Virtual Console)

Mercenaries Saga: Chronicles (Rideon, 2018)

A trilogy of formerly Japan-exclusive mobile games localized and released as a package deal on the Switch.  The game plays like a simplified Final Fantasy Tactics, giving you command of a small squad of characters and taking you through battles and cutscenes whilst giving you an opportunity to purchase new equipment, as well as upgrade skills  or change classes between battles.  It lacks the in-depth class system of its inspiration - each character starts with a base class and can branch off into six possibilities (some of which require specific items as well as a level quota), but it still gets the gameplay hook down.  Mechanics are well-balanced and solid, the animation is crisp and makes landing hits and felling enemies fun, and it hits a good balance for difficulty - challenging but never unfair.  The characters and stories are fairly archetypal, but still engaging, telling the tale of three different bands of mercenaries and the trials they face as war brews.  All in all, a decent little trilogy of strategy RPGs.

Publisher: Circle Entertainment, PM Studios
Platform: Switch

Might and Magic: Swords of Xeen (Catware, 1995)

One of the earliest fan-made mods I'm aware of that really got attention; so much so, in fact, that New World Computing included it on later compilations of Might and Magic games and more or less canonized it.  Set in a completely new environment but based on the fifth game in the series, it contains the same gameplay and few original assets.  Though the world design isn't as tight and the experience more constricted (and considerably less exploitable) than earlier titles in the series, and there are some notable bugs throughout, it does have some surprisingly creative ideas.  Most notably, it would pioneer the concept of clearing a town of monsters and gradually rebuilding it by completing quests - something reused later in Might and Magic VII, and a major feature of many later games like Dark Cloud, Elder Scrolls and Suikoden.  If you bought any of the later releases of 4 and 5 (even on GOG), you probably have this game too, so it's definitely worth a look.

Publisher: 3DO
Platform: PC

Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom (Game Atelier, 2018)

A spiritual sequel to the Monster World subseries of the Wonder Boy series, and who better to handle it than a talented team working in collaboration with the guy who developed the originals.  As you'd expect it plays almost indentically to the old games, melding side-scrolling platforming, light RPG elements (mostly in the form of collecting money to upgrade your equipment), and mazelike dungeons and boss battles.  There is more of a metroidvania twist to this one, though - various items you collect have properties that allow you to break into new areas (like weighted boots that let you sink underwater), you get morphed into different monsters with differing abilities over the course of the adventure, and there's a full and sprawling map to explore rather than mostly being relegated to simple side-scrolling.  The visuals are colorful, well animated and generally charming, and the music matches the upbeat mood perfectly.  A fine followup to a cult classic series even without using the name proper.

Publisher: FDG Entertainment
Platform: Switch, Playstation 4, Xbox One, Windows, Stadia

Moon: Remix RPG Adventure (Love-De-Lic, 1997)

A game that was pretty unknown in the west and not even particularly big in Japan, but recently got attention as one of the main inspirations of indie darling Undertale; so much so that its developers decided to localize it for the Nintendo Switch.  The influence is certainly evident, too, as the game takes the concept of an RPG and basically flips it upside down.  You're not a hero - not even close.  You're literally a nobody with only the barest minimum of physical presence, and instead of fighting enemies, you're reviving slain enemies that the hero has killed on his journey.  Doing this, as well as solving puzzles and aiding the various quirky characters you encounter on the way, will earn you Love points, which will determine your maximum stamina and in turn allow you to reach new areas.  Stamina essentially serves as your time limit for how much you can accomplish each day - if it hits zero, you die and have to reload.  You can eat food items to give yourself a quick boost, but for the most part, you'll want to take things in small steps and slowly branch out.  It's honestly more reminiscent of point-and-click style adventure games than a proper RPG in most respects, but its charming world and clever inversions make it worth a look, especially if you're a big fan of the genre.

Publisher: ASCII Entertainment, Onion Games
Platform: Playstation 1, Switch

The Mummy Demastered (WayForward, 2017)

Anyone who has a serious interest in video games can tell you that tie-in games are rarely any good; usually they're just quick and dirty cash-ins made to profit on a property before its fifteen minutes are up, and as a result, once the license fades out its game tie-in is generally forgotten just as quickly.  WayForward is well known these days for the Shantae franchise, but they've also made quite a few licensed games over the years, and their high standards for design and animation quality remain evident there even when the property they're adapting isn't the greatest.  The Mummy Demastered is no exception, taking the poorly-reviewed 2017 Mummy film and turning it into a surprisingly good Metroidvania.  Playing as a faceless soldier (not Tom Cruise as he doesn't lend his likeness to video games), you infiltrate the underground lair of Princess Ahmanet, collecting new artillery to not just defeat enemies quicker, but to reach new areas - grenades to blow open barriers, climbing gear, and magic trinkets to gain more life, faster running or a higher jump.  The visuals are excellent, with a dark but colorful anesthetic strongly reminiscent of classic Castlevania, and the moody music compliments it perfectly, creating a tense mood for the labyrinth you're lost in.  A rare example of not just a great tie-in game, but one that manages to be far more fun and memorable than the work it's based on. 

Publisher: WayForward 
Platform: PC, Xbox One, Playstation 4, Switch

Nostalgia (Matrix Software/RED Entertainment, 2009)


An original RPG offering from Matrix on the DS sounded like a promising idea.  After all, they were behind the Alundra series and several remakes for the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest franchises, so they clearly have an eye for what makes RPGs work.  But what makes an RPG function and what makes one distinct and memorable are two very different realms of expertise.  Like many, Nostalgia's developers don't seem to recognize that classic RPGs' appeal was not looking a certain way or adhering to rigid design customs even to the detriment of the gaming experience, but because they made efforts to stand out from the pack. Whether a strong presentation or an engrossing storyline or gameplay that felt more streamlined while losing none of the depth, old and new RPGs alike are scarcely remembered for going through the motions. Nostalgia never got that memo, proving its dated design philosophy right away with all-too-frequent frequent random encounters, unengaging mash-A-to-win battles and the all time low bar for introductory quests, killing rats in a switch-flipping sewer maze level.  But even if you somehow still keep playing after that, the lack of any decent story hooks, interesting characters or anything else to do other than more tiresome monster-bopping quests in the same vein quickly made me put this one down and never look back.  Nostalgia certainly isn't the word I would choose for this title; maybe they should have gone with "Ennui" instead.  Or perhaps "Blasé".

Publisher: Ignition Entertainment
Platform: Nintendo DS

Octopath Traveler (Square Enix/Acquire, 2018)

It's amazing to me how Square continues to make high quality games with modern sensibilities that get snubbed simply for being such, yet when they commission low-effort, barely-playable-and-never-enjoyable "retro" games that bring nothing new or interesting to the table year after year, they consistently get rewarded with praise and high sales.  Octopath Traveler is another example of that, mashing pseudo-2D sprites in with harsh directional lighting, heaps of bloom, stretched textures and a gross blurring filter on everything to create a horrifically overprocessed and ugly bastard child that is neither appealing for fans of retro RPGs nor pleasing to look at in the slightest.  Gameplay is no better, just being a drawn-out and tiresome experience where every fight takes far too long to finish and constant random encounters only further add to the tedium.  Fill the rest with shallow characters, cliched storylines, atrocious voice acting, dragging grind-heavy gameplay and dialog quality well below the level of the games its allegedly paying homage to, and you have a truly wretched experience.  Save your money for a few of the real standout JRPGs of the 16-bit era (Lunar, Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy 5/6, Super Mario RPG, Phantasy Star, Shining Force, Breath of Fire, Master of Monsters, Tactics Ogre, Soulblazer, Terranigma, Illusion of Gaia, Earthbound) instead.  Or if you want games that celebrate everything great about their predecessors while doing much to set themselves apart too, play Voidspire Tactics, Alvora Tactics, Horizon's Gate, Indivisible, Undertale, Cadence of Hyrule, Yakuza: Like a Dragon, Hades, One Step From Eden, Ikenfell, Divinity: Original Sin II or Fire Emblem: Three Houses.  Either way, though, leave this one to be forgotten right alongside the other yearly dozens of lazy imitation retro games made by cynical content mill studios like Acquire who say they love retro gamers, but mostly just enjoy the easy sales they get by saying they do.

Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: Switch, PC, Stadia

Path of Exile (Grinding Gear Games, 2013)

A game developed by several members of Blizzard North (the studio behind Diablo), Path of Exile is a free-to-play take on that style of gameplay.  A good one, at that - the game effectively forges a cashless economy, with equipment-forging items and skills being tied to gems that are slotted into weapons and armor.  Potion bottles refill on their own as you defeat enemies, and the game even goes out of its way to do another oft-maligned RPG element better - the character upgrade system here greatly resembles Final Fantasy X's sphere grid, having you travel around a board to gain stats and abilities, though you're not tied to any paths or locked out for large portions of the game and free to forge your character however you wish.  There's a lot to like in Path of Exile; perhaps most of all is the fact that, as mentioned, this game is free to play.  It's not pay-to-win either, with monetization mostly being relegated to customization options for your character, which definitely earns it a lot of points in my book.

Publisher: Grinding Gear Games, Tencent, Garena, Kakao Games
Platform: PC, XBox One, Playstation 4, macOS


Popful Mail (Nihon Falcom, 1991)

A sidescrolling platformer-RPG by Falcom, released not long after the controversial third Ys game that used the same format (Wanderers from Ys).  Popful Mail at least feels a bit more polished than that game, with some after-hit invincibility and sharper animations, and, in the Sega CD version, full voiceover and animated cutscenes.  It does still have some frustrating elements, though - your attack range is short, enemies often attack from angles you can't easily avoid, and bosses are often difficult to hit and inflict heavy damage, making them very frustrating to fight.  Being localized by Working Designs also ensures that there's a lot of rather childish humor and silly accents throughout, which may grate on some.  They also made the game even more difficult than its Japanese counterpart for no particular reason, so its frustration factor is compounded even further.  If you can play it for cheap, give it a go, but I don't really think it's worth the bloated asking price most Sega CD games go for these days.

Publisher: Nihon Falcom, NEC, Working Designs
Platform: PC-8801, PC-9801, Sega CD, Super Famicom, PC Engine CD, Mobile, PC

Puzzle Quest Galactrix (Infinite Interactive/Aspyr Media, 2009)

Puzzle Quest was a low-key hit in 2007, combining a match-three puzzle game with elements of turn-based strategy games and RPGs in surprisingly effective fashion, and it was popular enough to appear on almost every platform of the time.  Two years later a spinoff game set in a 4X-style space setting would appear, and unfortunately, it did not fare nearly as well.  The game now used a hexagonal grid with variable gravity depending on whether fights took place in orbit or in space (with the former causing new pieces to slide in from the top while the latter would cause them to come from whatever direction was closest to the board's edge) and reworked mechanics to have ship shields and weapons.  It is because of the new layout, however, that the game becomes an exercise in sheer frustration.  Clearing one combo in the center of the board can - and frequently will - cause new pieces to slide in and set off huge chain reactions that refill one player's shields (basically free health regeneration - something the original implicitly avoided), inflict massive damage to their opponents and give them more mana to do more of the same, and will frequently grant an extra turn on top, so every fight feels less like a battle of strategy and more like a roll of the dice to see who can set off a battle-deciding mega chain first.  The game adds diplomacy and crafting systems that use similar board mechanics too, which just results in more of the same frustration, and the fact that one's only decent means of making money is winning fights to get resources to sell makes it a grind-heavy game to boot.  Galactrix stands as proof that tampering with a simple, but effective formula can be disastrous.

Publisher: D3 Publisher
Platform: Nintendo DS, Playstation 3, Xbox 360, PC

River City Girls (WayForward, 2019)

Technos properties have bounced between more companies than any other I can think of, with results generally ranging from average to downright terrible. WayForward's Double Dragon Neon, while somewhat clunky to play, was one of the better attempts, capturing the platforming and OTT style of Double Dragon while mixing in a self-aware sense of humor.  River City Girls is the followup to that, carrying over WF's irreverent sense of humor (with some very funny and oft-improvised dialog by Kira Buckland and Kayli Mills) while polishing up the gameplay to match RCR's fast-paced, responsive and upgrade-oriented style.  The end result, while a bit overlong and repetitious, nonetheless ends up being very entertaining, especially if you can find a friend to play through with in co-op. 

Publisher: Arc System Works
Platform: Switch, Playstation 4, XBox One, PC, Amazon Luna

Romancing SaGa 2 (Square, 1993)

Romancing SaGa 2, like its predecessor, is an open-ended experience with a heavy emphasis on random chance - your learned combat skills are randomly "sparked" mid-fight, while stats are somewhat random based on your actions in a fight.  The gimmick this time, however, is that you're not just playing as one hero, but as a whole lineage of them - the first king (and playable character) is fatally cursed by his foe, but his heir inherits all of his learned skills and stats and carries on where he left off, and every few years (or upon that character's death), you begin another round as a new protagonist, and so on and so forth.  Completing quests slowly allows your kingdom to conquer new territory and research new weapons and spells, giving you a leg up for later quests.  A pretty novel concept, and it's not especially deep, but it definitely makes the game stand out despite its frustratingly frequent battles and the series' usual uneven difficulty.

Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: Super Famicom, EZweb, i-Mode, Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4, Android, iOS, PC, XBone

Romancing SaGa 3 (Square, 1995)

SaGa as a series was always inspired more by old western computer RPGs than anything Japanese, and Romancing SaGa 3 is a perfect example of that - it's very open-ended and doesn't hold your hand at all.  Talking to townspeople, following quest leads, finding and recruiting characters, learning which ports will take you where and which areas you're strong enough to tackle and which to avoid are all essential elements of the experience.  This did also introduce the series' LP system (as long as a character has LP, they can be revived mid-fight and continue fighting; if the protagonist's LP ever hits 0, though, it's game over), as well as large-scale war battles, which are a novel if not particularly deep element.  There's a lot to learn and a lot of frustration as you do it, but Romancing Saga 3 proves to be a very deep and rewarding experience if you give it a chance.

Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: Super Famicom, Android iOS, Windows, Switch, Playstation 4, Playstation Vita, XBone