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Quickie Reviews

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

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, but combat feeling unpleasantly choppy and awkward.  Audio also seems unncessarily 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 ripped off and insulted after playing it.

Publisher: Tales of Game's Studios
Platform: PC, OS X

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 with the right items equipped.  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 problems in 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

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

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 levels that reached into four 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 postgame content is still the main draw of the game.  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 Migogna probably does it no favors either.
Publisher: Nippon Ichi Software
Platform: Playstation 3, Vita

Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age (Square Enix, 2018)

The eleventh entry in the ever-popular franchise, though notably only the second mainline game to be developed in-house (the first being X, an MMO which remains Japan exclusive as of this writing).  Surprisingly little has changed since the franchise's earliest entries over thirty years ago, with the same composer and artist returning and familiar story beats, character archetypes and gameplay tropes abound. Combat retains its simple turn based style (the free movement one is afforded is simply a visual effect) and most encounters can be breezed through with a simple application of the Auto Battle button.  Encounters themselves are at least visible on the map, but they appear in significant enough numbers that avoiding them consistently is unfeasible. Some new twists appear in the dorm of a weapon crafting system and the ability to ride certain defeated foes both to evade fights and reach areas one couldn't on foot, but for the most part, this is another by-the-book Dragon Quest game. If that's your thing you'll probably find a lot to like here, but I tired of it and went back to playing Ni no Kuni II after the first few dungeons.

Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: 3DS, Playstation 4, PC, Switch

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

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 does exist a silver lining 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 infamous 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-maligned 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 deeply 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

Kingdom Come: Deliverance (Warhorse Studios, 2018)


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

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

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

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

Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: Nintendo DS

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

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

Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: Playstation 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publisher: Philips Interactive Media
Platform: Philips CDi

Nostalgia (Matrix Software/RED Entertainment, 2009)

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

Publisher: Ignition Entertainment
Platform: Nintendo DS

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


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

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

Quest: Brian's Journey (Atelier Double, 2000)

I couldn't even begin to hazard a guess for who asked for a remake, let alone a portable version, of the much-maligned Quest 64, but it happened only two years after the original debuted.  Brian's Journey follows many of the same beats as its N64 counterpart - powering up four elements, which in turn grant the player new spells that do things like throw fireballs, summon wind blades, put up magic-absorbing barriers or restore HP, and armed with only these and a handful of items, they embark on an adventure to save the world.  But while the game is marginally less annoying to navigate than its N64 counterpart due to the 2D layout, all of its other flaws still remain - bland characters, a generic story, no real puzzle-solving element, and unbalanced, slow-paced, grind-heavy gameplay.  A marginally better experience than the 3D version of Quest, but when the original set the bar so low, that's really not saying much.  Particularly when there were much more engrossing RPG options available in 2000, even on a low-powered system like the Game Boy Color.

Publisher: Sunsoft, Imagineer
Platform: Game Boy Color

Romancing SaGa 2 (Square, 1993/2011/2016/2017)

A SaGa series entries that was unknown in the west until very recently, and its concept was enough to pique my interest.  Romancing SaGa 2 is something of a precursor to the Suikoden franchise, taking the JRPG format and working in some elements of war sims.  You find rather staggering amounts of money in chests right out of the gate (hundreds of thousands), but can only directly access it via your castle's treasury.  It's not just for your own equipment, though - the player spends money to upgrade their castle and capital city, expanding its shops and adding new quests.  Similarly, questlines follow a nonlinear progression, with multiple paths through the story and different characters joining depending on one's choices.  Every so often a generation passes, with the current protagonist passing the mantle to a new one and inheriting all of the old character's abilities and continuing on with their own storyline.  All good and novel, but the overall execution of these concepts is just dull.  The gameplay is still generic RPG fare, consisting largely of dull, linear dungeons filled with truckloads of monsters and a handful of chests (usually in almost every dead-end path that doesn't lead directly to the boss).  Combat is monotonous, stat gains are gained entirely by chance as is series norm, and attempting to run through areas to get through faster breaks your party's formation, leaving weaker characters vulnerable to harm.  There are no random encounters, but the fact that there are so many enemies on each screen, and all of them respawn each time you refresh the map (even ducking into a side-room to grab a chest) arguably makes it more player-hostile than the alternative.  In short, a great concept, but a very lackluster and tedious execution.

Publisher: Square/Square Enix
Platform: Super Famicom, Switch, Playstation 4, Playstation Vita, Android, iOS, PC, XBox One, Wii Virtual Console, Wii U Virtual Console, Nintendo 3DS Virtual Console

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: Runes of Virtue (Origin Systems, 1991)


A spinoff of the legendary CRPG Ultima series developed in-house by Origin themselves.  Don't get too excited, though, as 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.  It's not an especially good Zelda clone, though - action in the game is slow and cumbersome (with the player only able to fire one projectile at a time and enemies attacking relentlessly, draining the player's health in moments), puzzles often 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 that's not much of an incentive to check it out when the core game simply isn't a very fun experience.

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 fails to stack up to those in even the most basic ways.  For Ultima fans and fans of puzzle-driven action-RPG experiences alike, this is one that felt dated even in its day and is downright dire by modern standards.

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

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
Pltform: 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 a 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

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 vulgarity, T&A and foul language for "adult content" and as a result becomes far more banal and juvenile than most 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 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 Conan the Barbarian 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 nobodies on the internet.  Like being entertained.

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

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 playing as a player-generated party, the player was 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, the player starts out extremely weak, but as they reach magic circles on each floor, their level increases and they can summon groups of monsters to their aid to help them battle foes.  The extreme 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 gaining levels at preset checkpoints, and decipher a number of obscure, cryptic clues in order to get the best possible endings.  One famous 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.  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 extreme skill, knowledge and a ton of luck to win through, it's little surprise that it's considered one of the very hardest RPGs ever made, if not #1 on that list.  If you're searching for a true challenge that will push your skill and patience to its limits, well, this game was made just for you.

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

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