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Quickie Reviews (#-M)

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.

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 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: 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

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

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 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

Fallout 76 (Bethesda Game Studios, 2018)

Fallout 76 is a game that has been quagmired in negativity from the word "Go", with the game 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

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 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

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 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 and equally uninteresting to interact with, while its combat lacks any feeling of depth, giving you a set of equipment and abilities less SotN-inspired and more on par with the earliest Ninja Turtles game on the NES.  For a huge chunk of the game, all you get is a short-ranged nail to attack with and one very slow fireball or heal move that both take far too long to charge and fire, making them all but useless in a pitched battle.  I thought perhaps the in-game shop could remedy this, 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.  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 vague plot fragments in out-of-the-way, "cleverly" hidden locations as a means to sell the player tedium and annoyance mislabeled as "rewarding ingenuity and cleverness".  Basically, if you have something to prove about how much of  a deep 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 17,385th person to unlock every one of its cheevos and endlessly analyzing it on social media and gaming forums, putting hundreds of times more thought into every element of its design and threadbare plot than anyone who worked on it ever did and calling anyone who doesn't appreciate it the exact same way you do a "mindless cretin"; otherwise, Hollow Knight is an experience as hackneyed, empty and joyless as its namesake.  Personally, I think they missed an opportunity by 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 setting itself apart too.

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

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

The Last Story (Mistwalker, 2012)

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

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 games.  So, if you want something to laugh at, look them up on Youtube and have a ball.  If you want a good game to play, though, save your money for something else.

Publisher: Philips Interactive Media
Platform: Philips CDi

Lunar: Dragon Song (Japan Art Media, 2005)

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

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

Lunar Legend (Japan Art Media, 2002)

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

Publisher: Ubisoft
Platform: Game Boy Advance

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

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