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Quickie Reviews (S-Z)

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

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

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

Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness (Origin Systems, 1981/1987/1986/1987/1989/1990/1994)

The first game to bear the Ultima name, and while it is a more technologically impressive game than Akalabeth, the gameplay remains essentially the same at its core - talk to a king, get a quest (usually to kill a monster or find a specific place in the world), then return for a reward.  Some new elements make their way into the mix, though - the dungeons remain in a first-person perspective, but the game features an overworld map with four distinct worlds to navigate (some of which would be revisited in later Ultimas).   Shops are now a prevalent part of the game too, with the player able to buy and sell equipment, food, HP and even vehicles to aid in their quest (and even resell older gear for a bit of extra cash). Things later take a turn for the downright surreal when one goes from a fairly average Tolkien-inspired fantasy world to something distinctly more science fiction - aircars, spaceships, laser guns and powered armor begin to appear in the later stages, as does a segment where one must shoot down twenty spaceships (resembling Star Wars' famous TIE Fighters) in order to complete a particular quest.  The game is relatively simple at its core, but the lack of grinding compared to its followup games, as well as its uniquely strange atmosphere, make it hold up the best of the original Ultima trilogy.

Publisher:California Pacific Computer Company, Origin, Sierra On-line, Electronic Arts, Pony Canyon, Fujitsu, Vietesse Inc.
Platform: Apple II, Atari 8-Bit, Commodore 64, DOS, MSX2, FM Towns, Apple IIGS

Ultima II: The Revenge of the Enchantress (Richard Garriott, 1982)

Ultima's second entry takes the weirdness of the first even further, largely taking place on an Earth overrun by evil monsters and letting the player travel between several time periods, each with their own world map layout and secrets to find.  Once one finds a spaceship, they can even explore nine other planets within the solar system (the tenth being "Planet X"), each of which has some unique and strange sights of their own.  However, nearly all of this side content - and indeed, every dungeon in the game - is completely optional, with only a small handful of areas actually being required to visit for game completion.  Much of the game's focus is on bare grinding - defeating particular types of enemies to earn experience, which in turn causes stronger enemies to spawn.  Defeating certain types will drop items, allowing the player to breach new boundaries (for example, one requires a Blue Tassel to sail a pirate ship, which requires defeating pirates in battle.  Pirates and ships only begin to spawn at level 5 or higher).  One must also grind a lot of cash to purchase equipment, items and food, as well as visit the Hotel California and pay money to raise their stats.  This, paired with the minimal plot, makes this feel much closer to a utilitarian monster bash-fest than any other Ultima game in the series.  It's still worth a look for the oddness of its setting and design, but not an Ultima game I revisit very often.

Publisher: Sierra On-Line, Origin Systems
Platform: Apple II, Atari 800, Atari ST, Commodore 64, DOS, FM Towns, Macintosh, MSX2, NEC PC-9801, FM-7

Ultima III: Exodus (Origin Systems, 1983)

A year after Ultima II, the third game was released, upping the ante even further for both the series and the genre.  Featuring animated player sprites (a rarity at the time) and a party system that allowed up to four characters to venture across the land together at once, Exodus upped the stakes in other ways too.  One can now interact with the world and characters in surprisingly clever ways - bribing guards to leave their posts, pickpocketing people to earn extra money, and buying horses to traverse the landscape quicker, avoiding enemies and consuming less food as one travels just to name a few.  As per the previous game, there are plenty of secrets to find, but grinding experience and cash is still a big part of the experience - leveling up boosts one's maximum HP, while finding money is required to purchase equipment and food.  Dungeons are required once again, containing important clues as well as four "Marks" which grant the player new abilities necessary to finish the game.  There is a lot to do in Ultima III, and it all feels well-integrated and significantly less grindy than the second, making this a simple but enjoyable early CRPG adventure.

Publisher: Origin Systems
Platform: Amiga, Apple II, Atari 800, Atari ST, Commodore 64, MS-DOS, FM-7, Macintosh, MSX2, NES, NEC PC-8801, NEC PC-9801, Sharp X1

Ultima: The Black Gate (SNES) (Origin Systems, 1994)

How do you take a sprawling, expansive and massively interactive open world game like Ultima VII and port it to a console?  Well, you can't, really; you'd either need to invest in a massive amount of ROM space for your cartridges (which would probably be passed on to customers, resulting in low sales) or you need to basically make an entirely new game that only faintly resembles the original.  The Black Gate is a case of the latter, reimagining the experience as a top-down dungeon crawler slightly reminiscent of the Zelda titles.  The problem, though, is that it lacks any of the polish that Zelda had; dungeons are extremely samey and tedious, and combat is nothing short of a chore.  As there is no post-hit invincibility period, even a lowly rat can drain your health in the blink of an eye and kill you, to say nothing of giants and orcs.  Hit detection with your own weapons is awkward and seemingly sporadic, the plot has been trimmed down to bare basics, there are no other party members to recruit or play as, and, owing to Nintendo's content policies of the time, violent and sexual content is scrubbed; enemies simply vanish when killed, and the murders that drove the plot are changed to "kidnappings".  Basically, it's a linear action game with only light RPG elements now, and not even a particularly good one, especially when compared to games like Zelda or the Quintet franchise.  A slap in the face to an immortal classic that's only worth a look as a morbid curiosity.

Publisher: FCI/Pony Canyon
Platform: SNES, PSP (As part of the EA Replay compilation)

Ultima: Escape From Mt. Drash (Sierra On-Line, 1983)

An extremely rare title released exclusively on the VIC-20 computer system in its twilight days.  Despite the name, though, it doesn't resemble Ultima whatsoever in terms of design, instead being more of a simple dungeon crawler - each floor gives you 99 seconds to navigate a maze and reach the end.  Combat is a strange affair, putting the player in a side-view and having them position their character and try to hit a specific point on the enemy's body with a timed button press before they approach too closely and take one of their few "lives".  The problem, though, is that the game isn't particularly fun; the mazes get very samey after a while, and though the combat seems simple, landing hits is irritatingly precise, making getting through the game a source of extremely tedious trial-and-error and luck rather than a test of skill.  Because of this, as well as being released in the late days of the VIC-20, the game is extremely rare, with copies now selling for thousands of dollars. A complete copy of the tape has never been made online to deter counterfeiting either, making it hard to even emulate.  It may be worth trying out the fan remake for PC platforms briefly as an odd curiosity, but if you've got a few thousand dollars to burn, I can safely say that this one simply is not worth the asking price.

Publisher: Sierra On-Line
Platform: VIC-20, PC (Fan remake)

Ultima: Runes of Virtue (Origin Systems, 1991)

A spinoff of the legendary CRPG Ultima series developed in-house by Origin themselves.  Of course, being released on the lowly Game Boy meant that this wouldn't be the usual brand of adventure in a dense, well-realized fantasy world.  In fact, there's only the barest minimum in terms of plot or characters and the gameplay is changed up to be more of a Zelda-like experience, putting heavy emphasis on traversing traps, solving switch puzzles and fighting monsters.  In that regard, the game is decent, but definitely not on level with the Zelda games - combat in the game is clunky at best, with the player only able to fire one projectile at a time and enemies attacking relentlessly, draining the player's health in moments (and crowding into doorways and teleport landing points, ensuring that you have to take a hit to get through).  Puzzles  also frequently just boil down to tedious trial-and-error, and one mistake usually forces you to exit the dungeon completely in order to reset it and try again - not a good thing when each one has multiple floors and dozens of puzzles to complete.  It is at least notable for being the first Ultima game to feature multiplayer gameplay (via the system's Link Cable), but I doubt too many people have ever done that.  Runes of Virtue is a decent little crawler for the year and platform it came out on, but it's only worth a look for die-hard Ultima fans today.

Publisher: Fujisankei Communications International
Platform: Game Boy

Ultima: Runes of Virtue II (Origin Systems, 1993/1994)

Runes of Virtue wasn't a particularly popular game even in its time, but being portable lent it a certain appeal; even if Game Boy/Game Gear games weren't so good, you could at least play them without being tethered to a TV.  So of course it sold well enough to warrant a sequel, released two years later on the Game Boy and with a SNES version following a year after that.  It is a marginally more polished experience than the first with larger, fully-detailed towns, more items and NPCs to interact with, something resembling an overarching plot (albeit a simple and silly one) and substantially  refined gameplay.  That said, it's still a rather lacking game on the whole, with a lackluster presentation (no music in dungeons!), and generic, one-note level design and puzzles.  Had RoV2 come out in the same timeframe as the original Runes it may have fared a bit better, but with Link to the Past and Link's Awakening already on the market and several of the Ultima franchise's best games available across numerous platforms, you're just faced with a game that feels very bare-bones in comparison.  Once again, only the most die-hard Ultima fans need apply.

Publisher: Fujisankei Communications International
Platform: Game Boy, Super Nintendo

Uncharted Waters  (Koei, 1991)

Uncharted Waters is a bit of a cult classic among Koei titles, though like many of their games, it 's an in-depth simulation game which caters to a very niche audience - in this case, a sailing and trading simulation with a dash of story and turn based combat on top.  It's a pretty slow experience, particularly in the early stages where you're building up money through trading at various ports, gradually earning enough money to get a bigger ship, a sextant and a telescope so you can easily find new ports and sail longer distances without a break (like to the new world).  As you go you'll also slowly uncover plot threads to build up your fame, regain your family's nobility and eventually marry into the royal family, which is the game's win condition.  You'll also need to manage your crew, food and water resources, build up your character's skills, upgrade your fleet, avoid various sea hazards and keep everyone's morale up while you're juggling all this, so this is one only for the most die-hard stat-heads.

Publisher: Koei
Platform: NES, Sega Genesis, SNES, MS-DOS, FM Towns, MSX, PC-88

Uncharted Waters: New Horizons (Koei, 1994)

Uncharted Waters' second (and to date, last) outing in the west, and it's what you'd expect of a sequel to the first - still a very in-depth, numbers-heavy simulation with a lot of focus on trading and a touch of turn-based combat here and there.  It does have a bit more from a storytelling perspective, with six different characters to pick from who each have their own skill sets and goals - from finding the lost continent of Atlantis to finding a missing family member to clearing family debts.  Aside from that, the gameplay and UI are also quite a bit smoother, using Shining Force styled menu icons and having smoother movement and animation somewhat reminiscent of Dragon Quest.  The SNES version is also notable for having higher-quality music than most versions, and it fits the adventurous seafaring mood of the game well.  It's another slow-paced, micromanagement-heavy game that's only built for people with a strong interest in its particular niche, but it does what it does well.

Publisher: Koei
Platform: SNES, Sega Genesis, PC-98, Playstation, Sega Saturn

Underworld Ascendant (OtherSide Entertainment, 2018)

Underworld Ascendant got people buzzing at the time of its announcement, and it isn't hard to see why.  A spiritual sequel to a cult classic DOS franchise (the Ultima Underworld spinoff series) from a company founded by Looking Glass alumni and later joined by legendary developer Warren Spector; how could it go wrong?  Well, the answer turned out to be "releasing a very buggy, unfinished disaster with clumsy collision and physics, graphical bugs aplenty (with models often stretching into indecipherable masses of polygons) and a save system that puts the player back at the start of a level, regardless of their progress".  This, plus just generally feeling amateurish and poorly-optimized, with memory leakage, uneven framerates and frequent crashes emblematic of amateur-led Unity games, makes Underworld Ascendant a cautionary tale about the risks of crowdfunding and coasting on residual prestige.  There has since been a patch released to attempt to fix some of these problems, but as far as I'm concerned, it's too little, too late; if you want a good action-oriented dungeon crawl, you have plenty of better options than to wait for this one to maybe possibly reach the realm of "passable" one day.

Publisher: 505 Games
Platform: PC, macOS, Linux, Playstation 4

Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines (Troika Games, 2004)

The final game released by Troika, a short-lived studio headed by a trio of developers who made their name with the original Fallout, Bloodlines is perhaps most emblematic of the studio's biggest problem - the talent they had was tremendous, but hampered by their severely restricted budget and development resources.  Case in point, Bloodlines is stunningly well-produced in some respects (with very expressive character models, fluid animations and surprisingly good voiceover), but oddly low-level in others.  The game engine (Source, surprisingly) feels very limited, with a small yet largely barren game world, numerous graphical bugs and only a small number of NPCs with any meaningful interactions.  The dialog system works well for what it tries to implement, with skill checks for Intimidation, Seduction and the like becoming available as the player's skills increase, but other RPG elements are much more restricted; lockpicking and hacking are simple skill checks which you pass or fail depending on a flat stat number, which often leads to frustrating roadblocks in the course of completing quests.  The setting feels rather disjointed and hampered by the engine, with bizarrely-proportioned elements (a parking garage that's too small to allow cars to actually maneuver) and mention of it being set in modern day, yet having computers with capabilities and displays akin to an early-80s Apple II.  Combat in the game is functional but not particularly interesting, mostly just coming down to button-mashing and using the occasional buffer skill, with speedy attacks being far more effective than powerful ones.  If you're looking for a dark, twisted storyline with some great atmosphere Bloodlines will certainly have you covered, but its gameplay leaves quite a bit to be desired, especially for fans of the Troika trio's earlier works.

Publisher: Activision
Platform: PC

Vestaria Saga I: War of the Scions (Vestaria Project, 2016)

Shouzou Kaga, understandably frustrated with Nintendo bringing legal action against him for creating a title nearly identical to the franchise he forged (Fire Emblem), took a ten-year hiatus before he dared to develop and release another game.  Vestaria Saga was another attempt to recapture his former glory, seeing a release as a free game in Japan (though the English version would ultimately carry a price tag of $20, allegedly to pay down the cost of development on the localization).  As you'd expect, Vestaria Saga very much resembles an older Fire Emblem game - visiting houses to get clues, money and items, fighting enemies, using the familiar Weapon Triangle and terrain bonuses to gain advantages in fights, limited-use weapons, and of course characters being able to permanently die in battle.  Being built in a retail game creation engine (SRPG Studio) does have some disadvantages, though - while the art is of good quality, it also looks distinctly stock, strongly resembling other prefab assets like RPG Maker's.  It's also irritatingly locked into a single resolution 4:3 resolution that cannot be changed, making it rather hard to play on a 4K monitor, and while XInput controllers are supported, it irritatingly does not recognize the D-pad on them without external tools like XInputPlus.  Fans of old-school Fire Emblem or Tear Ring will probably enjoy seeing Kaga back in the saddle again, but those attuned to the style of newer FE games will probably be better off going for one of those instead.  Or Dark Deity.

Publisher: DANGEN Entertainment, Gamera Game
Platform: PC

Virtual Hydlide (T&E Soft, 1995)

Yep, Hydlide continued into the 32-bit era, seeing release as one of the first Sega Saturn games.  Its also a product of the era, with graphics that are a mixture of dodgy CGI sprites, 3D polygons and performance-captured live actors.  The game is mostly a remake of the original right down to the silly plot, though they do attempt to remix things by having a randomly generated world - well, "random" in the sense that it takes a number of premade world pieces and shuffles them around each time you play.  I imagine this was a fairly impressive design element for the time, but I struggle to see anyone having fun with the game even then - the incredibly sluggish framerate and samey graphics that lend to disorientation, weird hit detection and random nature of everything lend themselves to constant frustration, and there's ultimately little point to exploring, making it feel less like a grand adventure and more like a sterile chore list.  In fact, the game actually preempts an oft-criticized element of many modern RPGs and always has an arrow pointing directly at your next objective, so it really is just a matter of running straight from one key location to the next and fighting bosses until you win.  So, if you want to try a somehow even clunkier version of Arena or Daggerfall on your Sega Saturn, give Virtual Hydlide a try; otherwise, skip it and play Shining Force III or Panzer Dragoon Saga instead.

Publisher: Sega, Atlus
Platform: Sega Saturn

Wild Arms Alter Code: F (Media.Vision, 2005)

A remake of Wild Arms 1 for the Playstation 2, Alter Code: F is based in the Wild Arms 3 engine and shows it right from the get-go.  Many of that game's mechanics make themselves known right away - from the encounter cancel system (tied to a gauge refilled after battles), the Vitality bar that automatically restores HP after a battle, the lack of armor and accessories, and Arms being integrated into combat (firing with your normal attack, reloading with Defend) rather than a limited-use "special attack".  Most all of the dungeons are also redesigned to be more puzzle-oriented, and there are three new playable characters - all seen in the original game as NPCs.  It feels a bit low budget, lacking the polished animation and cel-shading of 3, but it's an interesting new take on a PS1 cult classic that's worth a look in its own right.

Publisher: Agetec
Platform: Playstation 2

The Witcher (CD Projekt Red, 2007)

The Witcher is purportedly an "adult RPG", but like so many that apply that label to themselves, it mistakes constant crassness, T&A and foul language for "adult content" and as a result becomes far more juvenile than E or T-rated games of similar design.  There are too many examples of this to recount in a short review, but the most prominent one is that a major sidequest involves bedding every major female character in the game so you can get nudie pictures of them as trophies in the main menu.  Yeah.  It isn't a very fun game to play either, being a mostly-railroaded experience with endless sessions of mediocre combat that, while ostensibly based around timed button presses and dodges, is rendered trivial by the fact that you can simply mash the left mouse button and win every battle with ease whilst your character wiggles his sword over his head menacingly and still damages his enemies despite never actually swinging.  Sure, it also sells itself on having choices that actually matter (and which you don't actually see the consequences of until several hours after making them to prevent save-scumming), but when my intelligence is being constantly insulted by being served a version of Elric of Melniboné that's ten times crasser and less than one-eleventh as interesting, I don't particularly care about that either.  Frankly, I think I (and most anyone else above the mental faculty of a ten-year-old, for that matter) have better reasons to play video games than to prove how much of a non-gay non-soyboy-cuck manly man I am to xXRapeCampSuperChamp69Xx on the GOG forums.  Like being entertained.

Publisher: Atari, CD Projekt
Platform: PC, OS X

The Witcher III: Wild Hunt (CD Projekt Red, 2015)

As you can tell from my review above, I really wasn't taken in with the first Witcher game; a general air of immaturity and its lackluster design overall took me out of it pretty quickly.  The third game in the series at least makes some significant improvements in this regard, adding considerable polish to the combat and attempting to give the player more to do with numerous side-quests, an in-depth crafting system and banter that actually fells natural, as well as a less grating (though still very sex-heavy and profanity-laced) tone to the dialog on the whole.  It still feels like it's trying too hard to be "dark and adult" and hits all the same notes that turned me off to other modern RPGs like Mass Effect, though - overly simplistic, hand-holdy and railroaded design despite describing itself as "open-world", all-too-frequent scenes of flat exposition between boring characters we're given zero in-narrative context for and no reason to care about, endless tedious craft material farming and quests that mostly consist of mindlessly wandering from one marker to the next and clicking a button to pop up the next one, monotonous combat and buggy collision detection in general (getting my horse snagged on things was an all-too-common occurrence.  And since the game auto-saves with no opportunity to make manual ones, I was out of luck if that cost me a mission).  Not to mention it flatly spells out for you what choices will change the narrative later, which ruins any feeling of suspense or immersion in favor of the same cynical quantity-over-quality-to-meet-a-publisher-mandated-content-quota design that plagues virtually every AAA game these days.  It's a gorgeous title with a lot of thought put into its environment and effectively paints a backdrop of a bleak, war-torn country (even if it's much more content to describe the meat of every issue to you rather than let you experience it and judge for yourself) but with such empty, monotonous gameplay, rote length-for-the-sake-of-length design and much of the characterization and story relegated to flat exposition in boring articles in an in-game wiki you have to bring the whole game to a dead stop to read, it's not a particularly compelling journey to undertake.  If I want a story whose emotional element comes from a place of genuine passion and doesn't just feel like cheap manipulation by some overpaid committee whose only goal is to win meaningless award shows and boost sales to appease their company's stakeholders, there's dozens of better examples. But to name just one: NieR.

Publisher: CD Projekt
Platform: Windows, Playstation 4, XBox One, Switch

Wizardry 1, 2, and 3 (Sir-Tech, 1981, 1982, 1983)

The Wizardry franchise is one that needs no introduction to any serious RPG fan; one of the first major D&D-inspired franchises on computer platforms, it was among the earliest to have a party-based format and color graphics and even implemented some relatively new features like Prestige classes (only accessible once certain levels are reached in basic ones).   In fact, it was so influential that it inspired the likes of Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy and even continues to get spinoff titles to this day in Japan (very few of which have been localized).  However, the first three games do suffer from a bit of poor planning- the original releases of 2 and 3 can only be played with a party created and imported from the previous game, resulting in each game selling less copies than the previous.  It may be rather primitive by modern standards, unreasonably difficult in many ways and have an unwieldy interface even on its newer ports (for the NES and numerous other platforms), but the original Wizardry trilogy is a piece of history that's at least worth a look for anyone developing interest in the genre.

Publisher: Sir-Tech
Platform: Apple II, PC, Mac, FM-7, PC-98, PC-88, Sharp X1, Commodore 64, MSX2, NES, Turbografx-CD, Super Famicom, Game Boy Color, Wonderswan Color

Wizardry IV: The Return of Werdna (Sir-Tech, 1987)

Wizardry IV represented a departure for the series norm in many ways - rather than taking command of a player-generated party, you were now put in the shoes of the first game's villain, Werdna, as he made his way out of the tomb he was imprisoned in and attempted to regain his power.  Befitting this, Werdna starts out extremely weak, but as the player reaches magic circles on each floor, his level increases and he can summon groups of monsters to his aid.  The ludicrous difficulty of the previous games is taken even further here, with the player being required to have an intimate knowledge of the game's mechanics to succeed, only gain levels at preset checkpoints, and decipher a number of obscure, cryptic clues in order to get the best possible endings.  One example of this is the very first puzzle the player encounters - they cannot escape the first room unless they know to summon a monster that can cast the Light spell, wait for them to cast it, and then use that to see a hidden door in order to escape (this solution was also famously written down and sealed in an envelope in the game's box, with a note encouraging the player to only open it if absolutely stumped).  Moreover, the game is on a strict time limit, with the player constantly stalked by Werdna's nemesis as an immortal specter, and if caught at any point it's an immediate game over and restart.  An RPG that requires precise execution, encyclopedic knowledge and a ton of luck to win through, it's little surprise that it's considered to be the hardest RPG ever made, bar none.  If you're searching for a true challenge that will push your skill and patience to its limits, Wizardry IV was made just for you.

Publisher: Sir-Tech
Platform: Apple II, DOS, NEC PC-88, PC-98

Wizardry V: Heart of the Maelstrom (Sir-Tech, 1988)

Wizardry IV was the last game in the series helmed by both of the franchise's original creators and for a time, it appeared that it would be the last in the series due to steadily declining sales (4 in particular doing very poorly owing to its sadistic design).   The fifth entry in the series was headed by David W. Bradley and originally pitched as an unrelated title, but reworked to fit into the Wizardry franchise (and held back from release for over two years while work on Wizardry IV was completed).  Fittingly, the game was marketed as "breaking away from the Wizardry of the past" and featured, for the first time in the series, a substantially overhauled visual style and user interface, as well as a much more intricate dungeon that put equal emphasis on puzzles, storytelling and combat.  At its core, though, it remains very much in the vein of its namesake - punishingly difficult dungeon crawling that requires a lot of persistence, luck and skill to win out and complete.  It is at least more than a glorified paint-job, but if you found the original games too frustrating, well, this one won't do a lot to change your mind.

Publisher: Sir-Tech, Naxat Soft (PC Engine CD), Capcom (SNES version)
Platform: Apple II, Commodore 64, Commodore 128, FM Towns, PC-88, PC-98, PC Booter, SNES, PC Engine CD

YIIK: A Post-Modern RPG (Ackk Studios, 2019)

A game that clearly wanted to be seen as something profound, but mostly just feels like as a series of comically misguided mistakes.  Combat utilizes timed button presses and minigames akin to games like Paper Mario and Shadow Hearts, but ends up being so drawn-out and arduous that you'll get tired of it very quickly.  Its protagonist, allegedly a "flawed person you'll come to like on his journey" does no such thing, mostly coming off as a manipulative sociopath who never even thinks twice about all the damage he does, let alone becomes a better person for it in the end.  The story is Persona 4 crossed with the worst kind of I-read-the-CliffsNotes-version-of-Schrödinger-and-Nietzsche-and-now-I'm-above-it-all shlock, with droning walls of badly acted, redundantly worded purple prose that try so desperately to sound smart and poignant and are mostly just grating and self-indulgent.   But what really sours the milk for me is the creator's attitude.  His reaction to criticism of the game was to simply attack its detractors, claiming that "video games are for babies" and that they just aren't smart/mature enough to understand his big important vision.  No guy, we get it; unlike you, though, we recognize it as yet another work that calls itself  'revolutionary' and 'poignant' when it's shamelessly derivative, self-aggrandizing and lacking any genuine appreciation of the works it's clearly cribbing from.  You've fallen prey to the same trap so many other dollar store visionaries do, completely discarding the ingenuity and passion behind games you allegedly admire and instead saying "Wow, this sure is popular; if I make a knockoff of it to serve as a vehicle for my own half-baked philosophical views and disingenuous political messages, then I'LL be regarded as a genius too!  Hey, it worked for Bioshock!".  Too bad you also forgot that for every knockoff game that breaks even, there's at least a dozen that are quickly discarded and forgotten.  Persona itself even has some perfect examples; you sure as hell don't hear anyone talking about Mind Zero or Tokyo Xanadu or Conception these days, do you?  (And to further cement my point: all of those games are less than ten years old.)

Oh, and as the TV Tropes page for YIIK points out, this isn't the only time the author has embarrassed himself like this.  He even had the gall to make a protagonist of his previous title (Two Brothers) soapbox for him in this one, dismissing poor reviews leveled toward that game, without even acknowledging the fact that the brunt of their complaints stemmed from it clearly being unfinished and containing numerous game-killing bugs that he simply never bothered to address.  It's one thing to make lousy, pretentious games, but it's another altogether to write off even the most earnest of criticism and be a giant baby about the fact it exists.   I hope that in time the author will learn a lesson in humility and how to take critique in stride, and that one day he'll be able to parlay that into creating something good from a place of genuine passion, but it's abundantly clear that day won't be coming anytime soon. 

Publisher: Ysbryd Games 
Platform: PC, MacOS, Playstation 4, Switch

Ys: Memories of Celceta (Nihon Falcom, 2013)

The fourth overall telling of Ys IV's story (having also seen outings on the Turbografx-CD, Super Famicom and Playstation 2 in prior years), but the first to actually be made by Falcom themselves.  It's also the second to utilize the party-based system of Ys Seven, with the player able to have up to three characters active and swap between them freely with the shoulder buttons.  One also earns skills and assigns them to the four face buttons in order to use them in combos and power them up, can dodge attacks with good timing to gain a temporary bit of slow motion a la Bayonetta, and even build up and use super moves to deal heavy damage to enemies.  Basically, if you enjoyed Ys Seven, you'll probably get a kick out of this one too.  If you're a fan of classic Ys, though, this one is still worth a look to see how it puts yet another twist on the story of Ys IV.  It's not my favorite of the series, but Memories of Celceta is another game worthy of the Ys name.

Publisher: XSeed Games
Platform: Playstation Vita, Windows, Playstation 4