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Quickie Reviews P-T

 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

Shantae (WayForward, 2002)

A very late-comer to the Game Boy Color scene (over a year after the Advance had already debuted, no less) made Shantae a game that wasn't exactly flying off store shelves; however, it gained enough of a cult following in subsequent years to get a sequel on DSiWare, and it has since gone on to become a beloved indie franchise with sequels across numerous platforms.  Upon playing the original Shantae, however, I found that it's an ambitious but seriously flawed experience.  A beautifully animated game with some expressive characters and great music to match, the gameplay doesn't quite stack up.  Shantae's walk speed is glacially slow, and running usually means you just run smack into enemies and pits with no chance to evade them owing to the limited view you're provided.  Hit detection with Shantae's ponytail attack is awkward, and enemies almost always take too many hits to bring down, making combat arduous and something I often tried to avoid entirely.  The day/night cycle definitely doesn't help with this, doubling all enemies' health when night falls (but you can only get fireflies - the game's collectibles - during night hours, so that's a pain too).  Overworld platforming screens seem to go on forever at times, enemies are frequently positioned in places where they're difficult to avoid and/or can get cheap shots at you from offscreen, and dying at any point puts you all the way back at the entrance you came in from (unless you lose your last life, at which point you're dumped back at the last save point you visited).  Even purchasable weapons in shops don't help much, as they're all disposable and quite pricey to boot.  Shantae's later outings are regarded as modern classics, and rightfully so, but, the original is a victim of its own hype; while it was a gorgeous-looking game for the platform and its rarity gave it a certain mystique among fans of mascot platformers, it's rather clunky to play and easily the least fun of the series.  But with the advent of digital versions, at least you don't have to shell out over $1000 for it on eBay anymore.

Publisher: Capcom, Limited Run Games
Platform: Game Boy Color, 3DS, Switch
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Shantae: Risky's Revenge (WayForward, 2010)

After the original picked up a cult following, demand was high for Shantae to make a return.  After a failed attempt on the Game Boy Advance (the cancelled "Shantae 2: Risky Revolution") WayForward finally acquiesced to demand in 2010, releasing Risky's Revenge as a downloadable title for DSiWare.  It carried on the strengths of its predecessor quite well, with its gorgeous animation, memorable cast of characters and platforming gameplay, though it also addresses some of the original's prominent shortcomings. Permanent powerups were now a thing (with attack spells operating off a replenishable magic bar instead of being disposable items), Shantae moves considerably quicker and traversing stages is less arduous in general, there are far fewer cheap shots from offscreen enemies, monsters take fewer hits to take down, there are fewer blind jumps (usually you're given some sort of visual cue, like trees growing from platforms) and the superfluous lives system and day/night cycle are both gone.  It still suffers from some hiccups, though - the awkward multi-tiered stages are rather annoying to navigate, requiring frequent zig-zagging back and forth to find platforms that let you hop between them, and the map system is difficult to follow for the same reason.  It's a very short game too, with only three dungeons and a relatively small overworld compared to just about every other metroidvania game I've ever played. The devs took advantage of this to add some replay value, with an unlockable 'magic mode' (halves cost of all magic abilities, but you take double damage in return) and multiple endings dependent on finishing the game quickly enough and collecting all the items in it.  But even with some hiccups in its design, Risky's Revenge is a much more polished and entertaining title than the first Shantae, and its success set the series up for bigger, better games to come.

Publisher: WayForward
Platform: Nintendo DSi, iOS, PC, Playstation 4, Wii U, Switch, XBox One, Stadia, Playstation 5

Shantae and the Pirate's Curse (WayForward, 2014)

The third Shantae game and, in many players' opinions, the one that really kicked the series into high gear.  The original was rather elusive (and not that fun once you actually got to play it) and the sequel, while substantially better mechanically, was very short.  Pirate's Curse hit the sweet spot, though, retaining the high quality presentation of the series with newly-polished mechanics, storytelling and gameplay to match.  Robbed of her genie powers after the events of the second game, Shantae now joins forces with her nemesis Risky Boots in an attempt to stop a greater evil, acquiring her lost items along the way to serve as tools - Risky's pistol is able to attack and activate switches from afar, her hat serves as a parachute that allows for longer jumps, and a cannon that allows for a triple-jump, among others.  While it still has some irritating elements to its design (blind jumps and cheap hits resulting from them), this is easily the game that paved the way for Shantae's future success, and set a high standard for games to follow.

Publisher: WayForward, Rising Star Games, Oizumi Amuzio
Platform: Nintendo 3DS, Wii U, PC, Amazon Fire TV, XBox One, Playstation 4, Switch

Shantae: Half-Genie Hero (WayForward, 2016)

The fourth Shantae game and yet another step forward for the series, with some amazingly gorgeous animation throughout; easily some of the best 2D visuals I've ever seen, in fact.  It even has a pretty fantastic theme song called "Dance Through the Danger" with vocals by Shantae's voice actress (the always awesome Cristina "Vee" Valenzuela).  However, it also made the controversial decision to rework the gameplay, going from a largely open metroidvania style of exploration to a more stage-based layout, requiring you to revisit some areas later with new powerups to collect everything (not unlike the Mega Man X games).  It also made the controversial addition of adding DLC missions, adding more content (including the ability to play as Sky, Bolo, Rottytops and even Risky Boots for the first time in the series) and costumes for Shantae herself to change up the gameplay.  It's all quite good quality, though paying $7-8 a pop for it atop a $30 game makes it seem a bit pricey compared to most.  (One also has the option to buy one of the later "Ultimate Edition" releases, which include all of the DLC).

Publisher: WayForward, Xseed Games, Pqube Games, Oizumi Amuzio
Platform: PC, Playstation 4, Playstation Vita, Wii U, Xbox One, Switch, Stadia, Playstation 5
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Shining Force II (Sonic!  Software Planning, 1994)

The original Shining Force was a fan favorite on the Genesis for its relatively fast-paced tactical gameplay and charming, detailed visuals, so it proved to be a hot Sega property for a while.  Shining Force II is a followup to the original and the Game Gear title, carrying on much in the same vein - recruiting new characters, buying equipment, fighting hordes of enemies and powering up your army to take on progressively tougher threats while the story unfolds.  Shining Force II did implement a significant change to the gameplay, making the world much more open - rather than simply going from one linear area to the next, you're afforded the ability to free-roam, revisit old areas, search out secrets and unlock events in towns you couldn't on your first visit.  Aside from that the game isn't terribly different from its predecessor, but when the original formula worked so well, there's no real need to change it, right?  Well, the fact that Shining Force had another entry on the Sega CD and three more on the Saturn (though sadly, only one was localized) would suggest the answer is "no".

Publisher: Sega
Platform: Sega Genesis, various compilations on Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Steam, PS4 and Switch

Shining Soul (Nextech/Grasshopper Manufacture, 2003)

The Sega-owned Shining series is one of their oldest and longest-running RPG franchises, seeing release across a wide variety of platforms and genres over the years and having widely varying quality to match.  Shining Soul for the Game Boy Advance attempts to turn the series into a top-down hack-and-slash somewhat in the vein of games like Diablo, though with very underwhelming results.  The experience just feels shallow overall - you pick one of four character classes, walk through repetitious corridors, battling the a handful of enemies on each screen, slowly powering up and hoping to eventually fell the boss at the end after several hours of throwing yourself at his minions and then him and hoping that's finally enough.  There's relatively little strategy regardless of your class choice, and while the semi-3D visual style looked pretty neat at the time, it's not nearly enough to save it from being a bland experience.  Even in 2003 there were much better co-op action RPG experiences available.

Publisher: Sega, Atlus
Platform: Game Boy Advance

Shining Soul II (Nextech/Grasshopper Manufacture, 2004)

Released a year after the first and seemingly as an apology of sorts for the first game, Shining Soul II certainly does its best to provide a more feature-laden and fun experience.  A crafting system adds some depth to the mundane item-farming of the original, and most attacks now operate on a charging system that allows for more damage without feeling like braindead button-mashing.  Screen-clearing super attacks are added as well in the form of a chargeable "Soul" bar, which can get you out of a jam at times.  The total number of playable classes is increased to 8, and each of them are given a more distinct role and abilities - fighters can only use a spear as a melee weapon, for example, while an Archer can throw it to get more range.  There is more of a plot this time as well as numerous optional quests to add some variety, and though the core concept still remains the same, the gameplay is significantly more engrossing and less grindy than before.  So, if you're looking for a competently made, entertaining portable action-RPG and a good co-op experience, Shining Soul II is a solid choice.

Publisher: Sega, THQ, Atlus
Platform: Game Boy Advance

Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers (Atlus, 2013)

The Megami Tensei series has always had some science fiction elements to it, but Soul Hackers is one of the more prominent examples, taking it deep into cyberpunk territory.  The player is part of a hacker ring called the "Spookies" who stand against a corporation called Algon Soft who have vastly upgraded the tech in the small town of Amami and who have dark ulterior motives in doing so.  As per series standards, demons soon inter the mix and the player pursues numerous virtual worlds in their quest to unravel the dark secrets within them.  The game utilizes the same mechanics as the earliest Shin Megami Tensei games - having to negotiate with demons to recruit them and keep a supply of a resource called "Magnetite" to keep them summoned.  However, demons' personalities also enter the equation; the player will slowly have to earn their trust with gifts or letting them choose their own actions, lest they disobey orders in combat or clash with other demons in their group.  Its also not the series' best in terms of presentation or design - while the VO is quite good for the most part, the music is rather drab and the dungeons are mostly dull (with one standout in the form of an art museum where the player ventures through various paintings to proceed).  Still, its relatively fresh concept makes it another worthwhile SMT title and worth a try.

Publisher: Atlus, NIS America
Platform: Sega Saturn and Playstation (Original), 3DS (Remake)

Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2 (Career Soft, 2012)

A followup to the first Devil Survivor and carrying on many of its themes, as well as making substantial improvements to its gameplay and overall balance to make it less grindy and give the player slightly more of an advantage.  Fittingly, bosses this time are also considerably less cheap and overwhelmingly powerful, making fighting them more fun than massive roadblocks that feel like a chore to get past.  The game also features multiple story paths depending on a number of factors, but most prominently which choices you make in dialog, which characters you save during battles and which optional objectives you complete by the end.  The characters were a bit more stock this time and the narrative not quite as captivating or plausible as the original's, but nonetheless, it's a worthy followup to the first Devil Survivor.  If you want to play it today, I'd recommend grabbing the 3DS remake, as it adds some quality of life improvements (like a difficulty select), some new story branches and a new scenario that takes place after the story.

Publisher: Atlus, Ghostlight
Platform: Nintendo DS, 3DS (Remake)

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey (Atlus/Lancarse, 2010)

After a number of spinoff series and offshoots into other genres (like the Raidou Kuzunoha series), it was decided that the next Shin Megami Tensei entry would be more of a throwback, returning the series to its first person dungeon crawler roots but retaining a few of its modern sensibilities.  Fortunately, also having another first person dungeon crawler franchise in their publishing stable made the process easy - Atlus teamed up with Lancarse (the name behind the first two Etrian Odyssey games), and fittingly, the game utilizes a very similar two-screen setup with the minimap on the bottom, though you don't have to draw in your own maps this time.  While others of the same model would follow (notably the Persona Q spinoff series), this one was very much based on classic SMT - negotiating with demons is a big part of the experience, with moon phases factoring into their mood.  Dungeons are also rife with traps and puzzles that are required to progress, with frequent random encounters and long stretches between save points.  Customizing one's party is also a key strategic element, as the Press Turn system from Nocturne remains in place (basically, you and your enemies both get free turns from exploiting elemental weaknesses), and bosses are mecilessly tough as per series standards, requiring a perfectly honed party and, of course, plenty of level grinding to overcome (particularly the last boss; if you haven't spent hours or even days honing your party, you have no chance).  Basically, this one is built for a very specific audience of die-hard dungeon crawlers; if you enjoy that kind of game, you'll probably have some fun here, but if not, skip it.

Publisher: Atlus
Platform: Nintendo DS

Super Hydlide (T&E Soft, 1990)

The third game in the Hydlide series and the second to be localized for a western audience, this time as an early release for the Sega Genesis.  A few improvements are evident right away - you have a choice of multiple classes, as well as an attack button, so combat isn't just a game of madly dashing into enemies and hoping for the best.  However, the game also unwisely attempts to add in a lot of CRPG elements - you have to manage your carry weight, hunger, tiredness (stay awake too long and you die) and even Morality - attacking "good" monsters will cause more traps to appear, while avoiding doing so will earn you extra rewards.  It also goes into a rather surreal place, having you travel the stars and even wander through space at one point, so it's got quite a bit of that early CRPG imagination to it too.  It's still very easy to die, too - both you and your enemies register numerous hits per second and venturing even a screen too far can result in you getting reamed by much stronger foes - so you have to be absolutely on-point with your movement and attacks and diligently manage your character if you want to get far.  Still, it's a substantial improvement over the original and surprisingly creative at times, so it's worth a try if you can track down a copy.

Publisher: Asmik, Seismic Software
Platform: MSX, MSX2, PC-88, Famicom, Genesis, X68000

Tear Ring Saga: Utna Heroes Saga (Tirnanog, 2001)

After a decade at Intelligent Systems making the Fire Emblem series on the Famicom and Super Famicom, Shouzou Kaga founded an independent studio and continued to make pretty much the same style of game, just under a different title.  Nintendo wasn't too happy about this, suing his company and publisher for copyright infringement and ultimately winning a 76 million yen judgment on appeal.  It's easy to see why after playing it, too, as Tear Ring is pretty much old-school Fire Emblem down to the last detail, with the same style of animations, a nearly identical UI, the same degrading equipment and permadeath, and a heavy focus on character interaction and dialog (and visiting houses and shops mid-battle to resupply); the only major difference is some solid 32-bit 2D graphics and quality CD music by an ensemble cast.  This one is worth a look for die-hard Shouzou Kaga fans as an unofficial sequel of sorts to the 16-bit era FE games. 

Publisher: Enterbrain
Platform: Playstation
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Tear Ring Saga Series: Berwick Saga: Lazberia Chronicle Chapter 174 (Tirnanog, 2005)

The original Tear Ring game copycatted Fire Emblem to a T, which caused a legal tiff with Nintendo; likely in response to that, its sequel retains the basic gameplay, but goes out of its way to distinguish itself in every way it can otherwise.  The UI is now substantially different, bearing slightly more of a resemblance to Final Fantasy Tactics with its static portraits and dialog windows.  The game now utilizes an isometric perspective, with action taking place on a hex grid rather than square tiles, and the side-view attack animations are typically reserved for moments of emphasis.  Weapons no longer have a fixed number of uses, but  a small chance to break each time you use them instead, and each weapon type now has a separate skill level per character associated with it.  In addition, most units aren't loyal to you by default; you have to pay them at the start of each battle to have them fight alongside you, but taking certain actions (to raise a hidden Happiness stat) may cause them to join you proper.  It even goes so far as to exclude Kaga's name from the credits as a means to appease Nintendo, though it's clear from his blog posts that he was still very much involved in developing the game.  The end result feels substantially different from its parent franchise, but still similar enough to satisfy die-hard Fire Emblem fans and strategy buffs alike.

Publisher: Enterbrain
Platform: Playstation 2
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Tokyo Xanadu eX+ (Falcom, 2017)

Xanadu isn't a particularly well-known name among RPG fans; at least, not in the west. It was the second game in the Dragon Slayer series and one of the founders of the action-RPG subgenre, inspiring games like Zelda and Ys. Only a few of its games have been localized (the best known being two cult NES games - Legacy of the Wizard and Faxanadu) but Tokyo Xanadu is the latest turn for the series, and an odd one at that.  Indeed, Falcom seems to have seen the success of the Persona franchise and taken a crack at making their own version, which is particularly evident in its focus on life-sim elements; between dungeons, you have the ability to complete sidequests, interact with characters to build relationships, and bolster your own personality traits to do more of the same.  These scenes do tend to be very long and dialog-heavy, however, which hampers the pacing if you're comparing to Persona.  By contrast, the dungeon element seems to be over with much too quickly.  Much simpler, too, as the game opts for a basic hack-and-slash format not unlike the Ys games - dodge, attack, jump-attack and ranged attack enemies, getting bonuses for winning battles quickly, keeping combo chains going and striking elemental weaknesses.  Defeating foes earns components that can be crafted into weapon and armor upgrades, and between missions one can also cook to create new items.  It all sounds good on paper, but the dragging pace, overly simple action and inane dialog overall ensures that it fails to strike that all-important balance and actually become fun.

Publisher: Nihon Falcom, Aksys Games
Platform: Playstation Vita, Playstation 4, PC