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Quickie Reviews (#-I)

Shorter reviews for games that I don't have enough words to fill out a full page for.


7th Dragon (Imageepoch, 2009)

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

Publisher: Sega
Platform: Nintendo DS

Arx Fatalis (Arkane Studios, 2002)

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

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

The Bard's Tale (InXile Entertainment, 2004)

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

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

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

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

Borderlands (Gearbox Software, 2009)

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

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

Borderlands 2 (Gearbox Software, 2012)

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

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


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

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

Publisher: St. GIGA
Platforms: Satellaview

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

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

Publisher: St. GIGA
Platforms: Satellaview

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

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

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

Publisher: Konami
Platforms: FDS, NES

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow (Konami, 2003)

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

Publisher: Konami
Platforms: GBA, Wii U Virtual Console

Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow (Konami, 2005)

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

Publisher: Konami
Platforms: Nintendo DS

Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia (Konami, 2008)

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

Publisher: Konami
Platforms: Nintendo DS

Child of Light (Ubisoft Montreal, 2013)

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

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

Contact (Grasshopper Manufacture, 2006)

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

Publisher: Atlus
Platform: Nintendo DS

Crypt of the NecroDancer (Brace Yourself Games, 2015)

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

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

Dark Deity (Sword and Axe LLC, 2021)

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

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

Darklands (MPS Labs, 1992)

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

Publisher: Microprose
Platform: PC

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

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

Publisher: Ubisoft
Platform: PC, XBox 360

The Dark Spire (Success, 2009)

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

Publisher: Atlus, Success
Platform: Nintendo DS

Destiny of an Emperor (Capcom, 1990)

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

Publisher: Capcom
Platform: NES

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


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

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

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

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

Publisher: Nippon Ichi Software, Koei
Platform: Playstation 2, Playstation Portable, Windows, Mac OS, Linux

Disgaea 3: Absence of Justice (Nippon Ichi Software, 2008, 2011)

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

Dragon's Dogma (Capcom, 2013) 

An action-RPG by much of the team that worked on Capcom's popular Devil May Cry franchise, and as one would expect from that, the action is over-the-top and surprisingly intense.  You pick a class for your main character (which you can change later), amass a party of four and battle all manner of mythological creatures from Chimera to golems to ogres, and they get appropriately themed attacks with a modern flourish (like ogres doing wrestling moves).  Good fun, but what severely hampers its long-term enjoyment and replay value, at least for me, is a complete lack of multi-player co-op.  Yes, all of your party members are controlled by the AI, and as is usual for games of this type, they tend to charge blindly into combat and become totally useless when a boss throws any kind of puzzle element your way (like a magic golem that can only be destroyed by hitting targets around the area with weapons or arrows - a problem for me, as I was playing a mage).  You can pass around your created characters to let other players use them in their game, but there is no framework in place to directly join forces and fight monsters together, which is a very bizarre decision for a game of this type.  If you want a decent open-world fantasy RPG with some beat-em-up action sprinkled on top, Dragon's Dogma is worth a try, but if you want an engrossing co-op experience, well, pick up one of the many other co-op action titles out there instead (like the similarly named Dragon's Crown!).

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

Drakengard (Cavia, 2003)

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

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

Drakengard 2 (Guinea Pig, 2006)

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

Publisher: Square Enix, Ubisoft
Platform: Playstation 2

Drakengard 3 (Access Games, 2014)

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

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

Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: Playstation 3

The Elder Scrolls: Arena (Bethesda Softworks, 1994)

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

Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platform: MS-DOS

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

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

Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platform: MS-DOS

Fallout 76 (Bethesda Game Studios, 2018)

Fallout 76 is a game that has been quagmired in negativity from the word "Go", lacking the immersion of previous Fallouts by replacing all human NPCs with robots who dispense quests in the most sterile fashion imaginable, generally buggy design prone to frequent crashing, and preorder bonuses being fulfilled with much cheaper merchandise than was promised.  That, plus rampant and nearly-unchecked player cheatingsecurity breaches in Bethesda's support system, an immensely overpriced in-game microtransaction system and a much-derided premium service that costs another $100 a year atop the already enormous price gouging present, have only worsened its image further, leading to it being known as one of the most cursed games of the modern era.

But beyond the storm of corporate meddling, is there a worthwhile game to be found?  Well, I suppose that all hinges on how much you enjoyed Fallout 4.  76 is essentially that with a mediocre multiplayer element tacked on, letting you explore a vast world, complete story quests at your leisure and build your own settlements, to either ally with other players against the odds or get into turf wars with them (if you can find a group that's willing to play fair and not just resort to readily-available cheating tools).  Subsequent patches have also reintroduced some humanoid NPCs, improving the game's immersion factor, and the underlying storyline is decent if unremarkable, giving you something to stay motivated in the course of all your extra-curricular settlement building and player interaction.  However, it retains many of the same problems Fallout 4 had, too.  Nothing you do ever feels like it makes much of a significant change in the world, and it really doesn't, as it's only ever acknowledged by other players - usually at the barrel of a gun while they try to tear down your buildings in search of profit.  The crafting system itself is arbitrary and makes little sense, particularly as half the things you build provide no tangible benefit and the system itself lacks some very common-sense things you'd expect to be included.  There's a certain overhanging frustration in the fact that you can build laser turrets, water purifiers and nuclear reactors out of trash you find laying around a ruined office building, but still can't build a functional vehicle because the game's still running on a code base that's over two decades old at this point (and with their shareholders pulling the chain and demanding profits RIGHT NOW, it's unlikely they'll have the time or resources to adopt a new engine anytime soon).

76's premise is a good one - an open-world free-for-all where you can shape the wasteland to your will - but like Fallout 4 before it, the execution falls several steps short.  Fallout is a free-roaming RPG franchise beloved by fans for its immersive storytelling and design, and online open-world sandbox shooters are known for their fast-paced, yet strategic gameplay; when 76 takes a mediocre storyline and pastes a half-baked version of Fortnite on top of it, it just becomes a lesser version of two well-established genre staples that doesn't end up pleasing fans of either  That, plus all of the aforementioned unsavory elements of its launch and the subsequent money-making scammery associated with it, make it a game I simply can't recommend to anyone.

Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platform: Playstation 4, XBox One, PC
😞

Fell Seal: Arbiter's Mark (6 Eyes Studio, 2018)

One of many games to come out that draws obvious inspiration from Final Fantasy Tactics, Fell Seal is one that I didn't find much of worth in.  Somehow it looks both really good and really cheap, with intricate detail in its backdrops and portraits and stiff, lifeless animation for its in-game characters, which sucks the energy right out of what should be tense, exciting battles.  The mix-and-match class and ability system is here too, though it doesn't improve things any - it's just a small handful of FFT's classes, items and abilities, either made stupidly overpowered (one of the very first helmets you get cuts ice damage by 50% while the gold-steal ability does 85% of the damage of a normal attack AND steals a big wad of cash,  meaning there's really no reason to use your standard attack ever again) or debuffed to the point of being worthless.  Combat is ungodly slow and drawn-out, with every character you fight being an overleveled meatshield that takes tons of hits to bring down, and the fact that they will do things like steal items from you with unavoidable counter moves and then promptly use them themselves to deliberately waste your resources and drag the fight out further is downright frustrating.  Cutscenes drag on and on, with no interesting characters, lazy, predictable plot points and wooden dialog that's about as fun to sit through as a live reading of a phone book; but of course the game's marketing lists 'mature storytelling' as one of its selling points, ensuring that a legion of 13-year-old morons and 41-year-old unemployable manchildren will launch a hatred campaign against you if you criticize it for any reason.  Not out of any actual fondness for Fell Seal, mind you, but just to make sure everyone who crosses their path  knows that their phrenology tests and game time audits and booksheves full of PhD-level works (but nary a cracked spine on them, natch) prove they're supreme  Übermenschen with 193 IQs who are too smart and genetically superior for all the faggy baby 'casual' entertainment media simpletons like you enjoy and that you should totally take them seriously before you're penciled in for the next cross burning duder.  Basically, for a game that costs $30, it offers too little of value for to be worth a purchase, especially when games like Horizon's Gate, Tactics Ogre, Mercenaries Saga, Dark Deity, Divinity Original Sin II, Wildermyth, the XCOM series and even the games it clearly yearns to be compared to - Final Fantasy Tactics - can all be gotten at a comparable price and have leagues more to offer in terms of production design and content.

Publisher: 1C Publishing EU
Platform: Playstation 4, Switch, PC, Linux, Mac OS, Xbox One

Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift (Square Enix, 2008)

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance was a somewhat divisive game among the fanbase, but it garnered a lot of positive reviews regardless and was a strong seller besides (over 2 million copies worldwide), so of course a sequel was greenlit right away.  However, it ultimately didn't see a release until five years passed and a new handheld system became the market leader, leading to the awkwardly-abbreviated title.  While mostly the same game at its core, some criticisms of the original are addressed - missions have more variety now, and the much-maligned Judge system is also overhauled so that you don't have characters jailed when you break a law, instead just losing rewards and privileges (pre-selected bonuses) and being unable to revive fallen party members for that fight.  The game also utilizes the DS touch screen for more convenient menuing, and has higher-resolution visuals that allow for some flashier effects (like summons).  The story is a fairly generic one; decent enough for what it is, though the meta element of the first FFTA is largely absent.  If you enjoyed the original FFTA you'll probably like this one too, but if you're still pining for another grimdark fantasy tale more akin to the original Final Fantasy Tactics, well, you're probably better off picking up the Tactics Ogre remake on PSP instead.

Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: Nintendo DS

Final Fantasy Type-0 (Square Enix, 2011/2015)

Many Final Fantasy fans, casual and die-hard alike, make no secret of their disdain for all things related to its thirteenth entry.  But there is something of a ray of hope in Type-0; a spinoff game set in the same universe, though in a different time period and with a much more grounded storyline.  To that end you control "Class Zero", a team of fourteen characters with their own sets of abilities (reminiscent of the archetypal Final Fantasy job classes) and take them, in squads of three, through various missions.  Gameplay is much more involved than the others in the XIII series, playing more like a proper action game with unique abilities and mechanics to each character (though rather clumsy controls and collision detection), and the occasional light real time strategy battle adds some diversity. The player is free to explore the world between missions (including a world map!) and interact with characters within Akademia to fill out various subplots, get more lore on the setting and utilize a plethora of optional challenges and online features to keep the game relatively fresh.  Type-0 is by no means amazing, but when you go from three godawful games to a mediocre game, you've still seen quite a bit of improvement.

Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: Playstation Portable, XBox One, Playstation 4, PC

Final Fantasy XIII (Square Enix, 2010/2014/2015)

Final Fantasy XIII is a heavily maligned game among the series' fanbase, who criticize it for its restrictively linear layout, poorly-structured story and greatly simplified gameplay.  But in an age where hyperbole and groupthink reign, is it really all that bad?  After having played it myself, my answer has to be yes.  Not only is it as unpleasant a game experience as it's cracked up to be, it might just take the cake for the most dumbed-down entry to a beloved RPG franchise of all time; even moreso than Dragon Age 2 or the oft-maligned-but-honestly-not-that-bad Final Fantasy Mystic Quest.  I never once believed I'd pine for Final Fantasy X's design over anything, but XIII takes its linearity to a new extreme, simply having the player walk down a narrow corridor, encountering enemies every few steps, for nearly 75% of the adventure; it's only some thirty hours in before the world finally opens up and allows for some free exploration.  Combat in the game is downright braindead as one now only controls a single character (the other two being AI-controlled), picks a pre-made "paradigm" and then chooses "Auto Battle" to carry out a series of pre-selected attacks or spells, only having to use a potion here and there to stop their party from dying.  It actually resembles Panzer Dragoon Saga's combat in some respects, trying to be both cinematic and strategic, but it's so dumbed down and repetitious that it succeeds at being neither. The game's main selling point was in its animated cutscenes, but even those aren't satisfying to watch, mostly relying on non-interactive action full of ugly, close-in shakycam fights that are repetitious at best and almost incomprehensible at worst.  Even boss battles are bland, with slow camera pans, clumsy physics (models gently pushing one another out of the way happening too many times to count) and attack animations that just get tiresome after you've seen them a thousand times, no matter how many particle and aurora effects they sprinkle on them.  But moreover, you just don't care who's winning or losing because the narrative gives you no reason to get invested in its characters or events; every scene casually drops terminology with no explanation (relegated to the much-hated Plot Codex, which you have to stop and read frequently throughout the adventure to catch up on), and painfully trite slapstick humor and angst throughout only proves that it's no substitute for giving your characters personalities.  Final Fantasy XIII tries to be more movie than game, but without a well-planned story, a memorable cast or action that's any fun to watch, it fundamentally fails on every level.

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

Final Fantasy XIII-2 (Square-Enix, 2012/2014/2015)

Final Fantasy XIII-2 was released two years after the much-hated original game, and sadly, it's still a pretty abysmal experience.  Though at the very least I can say that it addresses a few fan complaints and overall does a better job of what the original set out to accomplish (whether that was worth doing in the first place, however, is a topic for another day). The game's action is considerably improved, with cleaner shots and dynamic setpieces during battles that lend it more of an action movie-like feel.  Cutscenes are also spiced-up slightly by incorporating QTE events, allowing you to score damage on your opponents before the fight properly begins or deal extra damage during big attacks by mashing buttons or tilting control sticks instead of just sitting idle. There was also an attempt made to have the game feel less like a strictly linear and brain dead experience, giving the player many more wide-open areas to explore, hidden objects to find, enemies randomly spawning on the map (though one can still avoid combat if they move far enough away before the onscreen gauge falls into the red) and the ability to actually traverse obstacles with a jump button instead of an automated event; small touches in the grand scheme, but they do make gameplay considerably less boring.  However, the rest of XIII-2's design still leaves much to be desired. The constant movement and banter from onscreen NPCs clutters up the screen and becomes an earsore to listen to after a while, and the "multiple choice" dialog prompts are just baffling in their existence.  Basically you get to pick one of four options at set points in the story, getting different dialog from each one, but that's it; you can't also pick the other answers for more information a la a CRPG.  Sorry, but I'm not playing through your game four different times just to see all the possible dialog, especially when it's as banal as ever and none of your choices have any actual impact on the narrative anyhow.  XIII-2 is a better game than the first, but not by nearly enough; with only small tweaks made to a fundamentally flawed experience, it is the perfect example of polishing a turd.

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

Final Fantasy XV: Pocket Edition  (Square Enix/XPEC Entertainment/SummerTimeStudio, 2018)

As the name implies, Final Fantasy XV: Pocket Edition is a scaled-down version of the original game.  This is most evident in that it is designed to be a much more linear experience - no longer an open-world game, but a series of short dungeons with the occasional reprieve at a town or rest stop to purchase items and talk with NPCs.  Fittingly, elements like the Ascension (skill tree) are scaled down to match this, and side-quests are considerably smaller in scope, typically just having you complete small optional goals along the way rather than travel a great distance across the game world to do so (with an objective pointer always present under your character).  Combat operates much like the original game, though the action gets paused to use items and you get a substantial amount of time to input QTEs for parries and counters, making things considerably less hectic.  Some new quests and dialog are added, however, and impressively, they even got all of the original voice cast to return for them.  Fortunately, while it was a game built for phones with touch screens, the controls work fine on a console with a controller (though one small annoyance with the Switch version is that you cannot use the D-pad to navigate menus - only the sticks).  Basically, the game delivers what its title promises - nothing more, nothing less.  So if you don't have one of the big consoles (or a beefy PC), or just want to experience the story of Final Fantasy XV again without nearly as much of a time investment, this one might be worth your while.  However, may want to wait for a sale or a price drop, as $30 is a rather steep investment for what you get.

Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: Android iOS, PC, Playstation 4, XBox One, Switch

Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light (Intelligent Systems/Nintendo R&D1, 1990/2020)

The humble origins of the Fire Emblem franchise, which proved unpopular with critics for its difficulty curve and relatively undetailed graphics but was a big hit with Japanese gamers, who enjoyed its challenge and surprising depth; enough to make it a cult classic that would see fan translations, tons of sequels and spinoffs and, for a limited time, an official release on the Nintendo Switch marking its worldwide debut.  This game introduced the world to many of Fire Emblem's design tropes that would be used for three decades and counting - utilizing terrain and character skills to your advantage, having your equipment degrade with use (necessitating that you find/buy replacements on a fairly frequent basis), and of course the series' mainstay of dead units being lost forever, necessitating careful planning and risk mitigation.  That said, it is a bit slow and stiff to play, particularly compared to many of the newer games' highly polished UIs and memorable character interactions.  Still, it's worth a look for series fans and RPG buffs; if you want to experience the story in full, though, I'd say play the remake (Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon for Nintendo DS) instead.

Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Famicom, Switch

GayBlade (RJ Best Inc., 1992)

An obscure and long-lost title which, as its name and tagline imply, is intended as a criticism of homophobia and a celebration of queer lifestyles, handled with all the subtlety you'd expect of a 90's game tackling such subjects.  Essentially, it's a Might and Magic or Wizardry styled dungeon crawl with a lot of class names and equipment replaced with 'gayer' equivalents - Queers, Drag Queens, Lesbians and Guppies are your classes and equipment includes condoms, press-on nails, blowdryers and purses.  Enemies include homophobic cops, TV preachers, rednecks and neo-nazis, all with their own (perhaps intentionally) low-quality renders and distorted voice clips containing all manner of slurs.  It also unfortunately carries on the design tropes of many early dungeon crawlers in this vein - there is little attempt to balance encounters to the player's level at all, so one fight can be dead easy while the next completely destroys your party.  The interface is also clunky (no keyboard control option - every single action is mouse driven) and there's no minimap or online help file.  Only a partial manual has been found and scanned online as well, so you have little choice but to puzzle things out on your own.  Being one of the first LGBTQ-centered games ever made makes GayBlade worth a look as a historical curiosity, but it's only amusing to a point.

Publisher: RJ Best Inc.
Platform: Mac, Windows 3.1

Golf Story (Sidebar Games, 2017)

Golf Story is an odd concept - mixing golf with RPG-styled equipment upgrades and levels - but it works quite well for what it sets out to do.  The main story of the game is a humble one, starring a golfer trying to regain his passion for the sport, so it probably won't win any awards with people looking for high stakes or character-driven narratives.  Its gameplay is relatively fresh, though, having the player not just play courses against other golfers, but complete a variety of challenges - from only hitting the ball into bunkers on their way to the green to bouncing balls off turtles to "feeding the fish" with well-placed shots, there are dozens of them, and all reward extra experience (which goes into your golfer's stats) and money (which goes toward buying new equipment).  Curiously, though, upgrading one's Power stat will actually downgrade their other stats, requiring a careful balance of spent points to ensure one can still land shots where they need to.  Other hazards crop up too, as many courses are in considerable disrepair and overrun with malevolent wildlife (particularly gophers that like to pick your ball up and drop it into bunkers, making your next shot much more difficult).  It may not be the deepest example of either genre, but Golf Story is a relaxing and surprisingly entertaining title for RPG fans and sports fans alike.

Publisher: Sidebar Games
Platform: Switch

The Granstream Saga (Shade, 1998)

Quintet never really got their footing back after Terranigma was passed up for a North American release; they hung on for a few more years, taking another crack or two at the RPG limelight, but eventually gave way to making mediocre budget titles before fading into obscurity.  Granstream Saga was an admirable attempt to bring their usual style of grim-themed RPGs to a new generation, but it struggled to make headway among other juggernauts of the time (most particularly Final Fantasy VII, released the year prior).  This probably wasn't helped by its overall restricted design -  the game is almost entirely linear with no chance to deviate from the set story path (even level gains are all pre-scripted events) and the combat is focused entirely on one-on-one duels, so it lacks the epic scale of other contemporary RPGs. Somehow it feels both high-budget and low-budget at the same time, with a lot of high-quality animated cutscenes, well-rendered environments and decent VO for the time, though the 3D animation is rather stiff in comparison and a lot of elements are depicted only through text rather than as onscreen events.  However, the story is still a captivating one despite its oft-repeated premise and its writing still strikes a lot of chords on an emotional level, so the Quintet hallmarks are intact.  It also definitely recognizes its own shortcomings, providing a relatively short experience (15-20 hours) that doesn't overstay its welcome.  Granstream also remains one of the few PS1 RPGs that's still relatively affordable, so go ahead and give it a shot - you might just be pleasantly surprised by it.

Publisher: THQ
Platform: Playstation 1

Hollow Knight (Team Cherry, 2017)

Riding the heels of games like Dark Souls and the endless wave of "Metroid-likes" that the indie game avalanche has brought in, Hollow Knight is one that's gotten a lot of acclaim.  I honestly can't tell you why, though, as I didn't find much of interest or value here at all.  Rather than delivering a dense, diverse and captivating environment to explore, Hollow Knight's world is painted entirely in bleary washed-out monochrome, backgrounds are mostly blurred out to the point of being indistinguishable from one another, and its character designs are barely a step above Funko pops.  Exploration and combat lack any feeling of depth or reward, giving you a set of equipment and abilities less inspired by SotN and more on level with the earliest Ninja Turtles game on the NES, yet somehow even less sophisticated.  For a huge chunk of the game all you get is a short-ranged nail to attack with and a fireball or very slow heal move that takes far too long to charge and activate, making it all but useless in battle, and that's also the sum of ways you're afforded to interact with your environment and solve puzzles.  I thought perhaps the in-game shop could add some variety, but lo and behold, about the only thing you can spend your currency on is mapping features that come standard in nearly every other game of this type (and yes, having to grind money just to mark key rooms and point out your own location on a minimap is asinine and not 'retro' in the slightest.  I will not be swayed on this, particularly as I've played games from as far back as 1986 that know better than to force this brand of crap on you).  Its story, such as it is, follows the same formula as Dark Souls too, hiding meaningless text fragments in out-of-the-way, "cleverly" hidden locations as a means to sell the tedium of finding and trying to fit them together as "rewarding ingenuity and cleverness".  Or to put it more bluntly, they're selling you a box of newspaper shreds labeled as 'the most important literary masterpiece since Shakespeare'. Basically, if you have something to prove about how much of  a profound thinker and an elite gamer you are, you'll probably get a hoot out of playing it through three or more times a day and bragging about how you're the 67,385th person to unlock every one of its cheevos and endlessly overanalyzing it on social media and gaming forums, putting hundreds of times more thought into every element of its design and writing than anyone who worked on it ever did while decrying anyone who doesn't share your high opinion of yourself for it as a "fake gamer".  Otherwise, Hollow Knight is just more quasi-intellectual bluster used as a substitute for personality and talent by the easiest of marks, sold to them by cynical self-proclaimed 'genii' more interested in being put on a pedestal and worshipped than using their public platform or any of their 'irreplaceable intellectual gifts' to benefit anyone but themselves.  Personally I think there was a missed opportunity in not naming it "Shallow Knight" instead, but then again, that's probably too close-sounding to the name of an actually good game that effectively pays homage to a classic format while showcasing some genuine talent, passion and creativity from people who actually love retro video games, not just saying they do.

Publisher: Team Cherry
Platform: PC, MacOS, Linux, Switch, PS4, XBox One

Hydlide (T&E Soft, 1989)

Hydlide is a legendarily bad game among western gamers, though its reputation is somewhat undeserved - the game was originally created for Japanese computers in 1984 but was ported over to the NES five years after the fact (and two years after Zelda), so of course it was very lackluster in comparison.  Its incredibly limited animations and music, bloopy sound effects, password based saves and much choppier movement were not exactly seen favorably, but its most derided element is its contact-based combat.  Simply put, the player runs straight into the enemy, trading a dozen blows or so per second, until either they or the enemy falls (though you can somewhat tilt this in your favor by attacking the enemy from the back or side).  Your reward for a victory is one tick on your experience bar and the opportunity to retreat onto grass and wait for your HP to refill to try again.  Then you add in cryptic puzzles, cheap deaths from innocuous things like touching the wrong tree or being eaten by a rock (yes, really) or entering a dark room without a light and dropping dead, and you have a very frustrating experience.  It may have been a well-received game in Japan in 1984 and an inspiration for the Ys franchise, but it's one that's best left as a historical footnote, because it's really not fun to play today.

Publisher: T&E Soft
Platform: PC-6001, PC-8801, MSX, MSX2, PC-9801, Sharp X1, PC-66, FM-7, Sharp MZ-2000, Famicom, NES

Ittle Dew (Ludosity AB, 2013)

One of many games inspired by classic Zelda, starting you off with only a stick and having you navigate puzzle-based dungeons by doing things like lighting torches, pushing blocks and hitting buttons to open doors.  You'll also collect new powerups as the adventure progresses including a fire sword, ice wand and a "portal wand"; one shot creates a block while a second fires a beam that teleports whatever it hits to the block's current location. All of these can be used in quite a few creative ways, so they're all quite fun to experiment with and utilize to overcome the various enemies and puzzles you encounter.  Ittle Dew's twist, however, is that it's specifically geared toward speedrunning, encouraging you to complete the game as quickly as possible while finding optimal usage for your items and creative ways to bypass puzzles entirely.  It's certainly not as in-depth as your average Zelda owing to your comparatively limited inventory and the overall short length, but nonetheless, I had quite a bit of fun with Ittle Dew.

Publisher: Ludosity AB
Platform: Android, iOS, Linux, Mac OS, Switch, Ouya, Wii U, PC