Tag Archives: JRPG

Best of 2017

It’s been a while since I played enough games to populate a top ten, so let’s follow last year and stick with the top three.

2017 was arguably the best year for games in a while, with a number of early contenders that would likely have made the list, had I played them. Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Mario Odyssey have ensured me a good time whenever I buy a Switch, getting me more excited about Nintendo games than I’ve been since the N64. Surprise critical successes like Nioh and Nier Automata intrigued. Resident Evil VII proved the series’ versatility with another complete overhaul that went over well. Games like Horizon: Zero Dawn and Assassin’s Creed Origins confounded my expectations by doing the over-designed open-world thing well. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is also likely to grab me just as firmly as its predecessor.

The above would almost be enough to populate an impressive top ten on their own, but alas, I didn’t play them. Oh well.

There are, though, a couple of honourable mentions for games that I did play but didn’t make the top three. First is the 3DS Dragon Quest VIII remake, which did a good job of transferring a rather immense PS2 game to the handheld with surprisingly few compromises, and saw me through a couple of long flights. Then there’s Monument Valley 2, an excellent sequel to one of my favourite phone-based Escher-like mind-benders. Both are firm recommendations for anyone with time to kill and a handheld gaming system on their person.

3) Sonic Mania

A remarkable revival for a series that I don’t think has been worth writing about since the Dreamcast, and arguably not truly great since Sonic 3. Sonic Mania reminds me of something like Shovel Knight, in that it echoes a familiar classic gaming staple without being completely beholden to it – it’s how you remember the Mega Drive games looking, even if it’s technically far beyond what that hardware was capable of. I had a wonderful time playing it, feeling transported back to those early 90s stolen moments on my brother’s Mega Drive.

It’s easy to make fun of Sonic’s true believers, but maybe, after seeing how completely Christian Whitehead blew away expectations, the fans were right all along.

And maybe, if Sega had done something like this on the Saturn, things would be different now…

2) Metroid: Samus Returns

I’m slightly baffled by the fact that, after such a long, notable absence for Metroid in the N64 era – there were eight years between Super Metroid and Metroid Prime – it’s now been even longer since the last proper one. How many best game ever contenders does Samus have to star in to guarantee herself a regular appearance outside Smash Bros?

An enhanced remake of the second game, coming a mere 13 years after the enhanced remake of the first game (the pattern continues!) will have to do. MercurySteam – a strange choice of developer for this one, it must be said – put out a beautiful game, with understated stereoscopic effects adding much-needed visual flair to the most neglected game in the series, left to languish for too long in monochrome. While I’ll admit that the melee counterattack system hurts the pacing, discouraging fast traversal and otherwise turning many enemies into annoying bullet sponges, that Metroid magic was there, reminding me why Super Metroid remains my favourite game ever made.

I’d dearly love an entirely new instalment in this style, but if that’s not on the cards, the obvious next step is a similar remake of Super Metroid, which would make me fucking ecstatic. See you in 2030, then!

1) Persona 5

It was a safe bet to make the list after the last two games clicked so solidly with me, and here it is. I loved this game. The slick presentation and the music deserve mention, of course. The juxtaposition of carefree leisure time with really quite dark undercurrents was brave and amused me, too. But my most heartfelt praise goes to Atlus for demoting the random dungeon-crawling to a side quest in favour of properly designed, non-random dungeons, fixing my single biggest criticism of Personas 3 and 4.

Part of me misses the small town Japan feeling of Persona 4, which itself evoked the small town Japan feeling of Shenmue, but at the same time, this game’s setting in the middle of Tokyo has earned it a special place in my heart. My time with it bookended last year’s trip to Japan, meaning I visited many of the places I’d been spending time at in the game, lending a special weight of nostalgia to the memories of Persona 5. As the J-pop beats of Ouendan defined my holiday in 2005, then, so this will do for one of the best times of my life.

Best of 2013 #8: Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White WitchDid I say that big budget RPGs were dead? OK, I lied. They’re only mostly dead. Think of this as the last hurrah before Final Fantasy XV comes along and introduces a cover system, surely representing the death knell for the genre.

I’ll admit that my love for Ni No Kuni is mostly skin-deep. It marries Level-5’s cel-shaded style, seen previously in games like Rogue Galaxy and Dragon Quest VIII, with Studio Ghibli to stunning effect. It tickles the nostalgia gland through its animated aesthetic and young-boy-on-an-adventure story that’s straight out of an 80s family film. And playing a voiced game with a character called Oliver is like something from the future, where speech synthesis is of a standard where naming the protagonist after yourself does more than personalise the name of your save file.

It was enough, however, for extremely traditional JRPG tropes, supported by a bit of Pokémon catch-’em-all-ing, to keep me at it for over 50 hours, which doesn’t happen often. I adored the wonderful world in particular; I frequently cite the standard of its towns as being the ultimate barometer of an RPG’s quality, and Ding Dong Dell and the Fairyground are right up there.

What Ni No Kuni lacks was never enough to dilute its charms for me, and so it remains one of the few shining lights among last generation’s crop of JRPGs.

Best of 2013 #10: Bravely Default

Bravely DefaultA lot’s been written about how JRPGs in general and Final Fantasy in particular have gone off the rails in recent years, but it frequently seems to escape the notice of such editorials that portable RPGs have thrived. While Final Fantasy stuttered on consoles, minor classics like Radiant Historia, The World Ends With You, Jeanne D’Arc and innumerable Shin Megami Tensei games have shone on the last two handheld generations. Dragon Quest saw where the action was, and now Final Fantasy does. Kind of.

Square Enix got cold feet, instead making this the spiritual successor to a minor Final Fantasy spin-off, but it doesn’t take long to see where its roots lie. Familiar enemies, items and tropes show up in a world that blends Final Fantasy IX – an easy way into my heart – with the style of the DS Final Fantasy remakes.

Some late subversion of various RPG stereotypes aside, it’s disappointingly conservative – more old-fashioned than nostalgic. But as a fan of classic JRPGs, I had a great time with it. It makes some clever use of StreetPass; it’s beautiful, making subtle use of 3D to add depth to its watercolour environments; and the return of the job system is welcome, since it’s one of my favourite character development systems that got left by the wayside for some reason.

JRPGs as big budget entertainment burned brightly but lasted only two generations. The likes of this show where the real talent has gone.

Fire Emblem Awakening

In a year that’s already showing signs of being a vintage one for gaming, at least compared to the disappointments of 2012, the rush for GOTY titles is going to be fierce. We’ve already had two prime candidates in BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us, which are probably going to clean up in December unless GTA V ends up being something special, but now that we’re past 2013’s halfway point, neither is looking like being my number one.

Fire Emblem Awakening

For the first time in years, it’s a Nintendo game that’s foremost in my thoughts. And for the first time ever, it’s a strategy RPG.

Deciding what it is that Fire Emblem Awakening does so much better than other examples of its genre, which have historically failed to excite me, is difficult. It makes great use of the 3DS hardware, for one, making subtle but pretty use of 3D and taking advantage of system features like StreetPass, while ditching the more annoying gimmicks. It seems Intelligent Systems has worked out that gyro controls break the 3DS’s banner feature before Nintendo. It’s also controlled almost entirely with the buttons, using the touchscreen mainly for information. Thank God.

It’s clearly been put together with great thought. The translation work from 8-4 is witty and full of character, from the support conversations to the quips that accompany critical hits – Frederick’s badass “Pick a god and pray!” is my favourite. The Japanese voices are there for those who prefer their European fantasy setting to have an Asian language and not match up with the translated text. There’s depth to be found in every aspect, from which characters you pair up to how you move them up and down through the classes in an attempt to create an army of supermen.

I came late to this one thanks to my 3DS packing in when I was barely 40 minutes into the campaign, but since my system returns – eight weeks later, but that’s another story – I’ve been hammering this like nothing else. It’s kept me off the new Mario & Luigi and Animal Crossing, and it’s meant my ongoing playthrough of the 50-hour Grandia has taken not the expected couple of weeks but rather two months and counting. It makes a mockery of the RPG collection that I deliberately expanded to cover the lean summer until the next generation begins that my gaming time has been monopolised so willingly by a strategy game in a series that I haven’t afforded much attention until now.

Of course, the people don’t have feet, but we can forgive it that.

Radiant Historia

Back in the glory days when Atlus games could be imported and didn’t acquire major bugs in crossing the Atlantic, a little RPG called Radiant Historia came out, and sold out almost as quickly. Being from Atlus, it was woefully underproduced, quickly reached absurd prices on eBay, and never officially came out in Europe. I, naturally, paid over the odds for it only weeks before a third reprint pushed the price for a new copy down to around the £20 mark, but oh well. It’s a very good game, so I don’t mind.

It’s not the first time it’s happened, so I’ve since sworn to purchase every Atlus game on release, which is probably the idea. Well done, Atlus. Your evil plan has succeeded.

Radiant Historia

It’s hard to mind such a scheme when games are as good as this, though. Radiant Historia harks back to 16-bit RPGs, notably Chrono Trigger – time-travelling storyline, enemies on the world map – with only perfunctory 3D backgrounds to let you know that this game was made this side of 2000.

That’s precisely why I like it. The travails of the JRPG genre in the last generation have been documented, and recently I’ve been playing classics I missed from the PS1 and PS2 genre in a generally successful attempt to recapture the magic of that period when a type of game was at its absolute zenith. While the B-tier has been ripped out of console development, leaving us with nothing between indie darlings and expensive AAA adventures that need 5 million sales to break even, it’s alive and well on handhelds, creating games like this while console RPGs straddle some line between anime and game that pleases nobody.

I’m not meaning to imply that this is anything less than a sterling effort by referring to it as B-tier, however. It’s lengthy (38 hours for me), it breaks tradition by having a main character who’s intelligent and has useful things to say, and the grid-based battle system is empowering as you master it. Apparently developers do get it, but the ones that do are no longer working on console games.

The 3DS is looking like an RPG powerhouse as well – in 2013 alone, we’ve got or are getting Fire Emblem Awakening, Mario & Luigi: Dream Team, Shin Megami Tensei IV, Etrian Odyssey IV, Soul Hackers and Bravely Default, among others – and so it’s taking up an increasing amount of my gaming time. But that said, as I’ve also spent dozens of hours sat in front of my PS3 in recent weeks, playing games like Chrono Cross, Grandia, Xenogears and Dragon Quest VIII, I’m still hoping that affords to rein in development costs next generation with more friendly hardware will see the triumphant return of games like this to their rightful home.

Ni No Kuni shows what we’ve been missing

I’m looking at the JRPGs from last generation on my shelf: Final Fantasy X and XII, Persona 3 and 4, Digital Devil Saga, Skies of Arcadia, Grandia II, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, Dragon Quest VIII, Kingdom Hearts I and II. The generation before that was arguably even better – Final Fantasy VII-IX, Chrono Cross, Xenogears and Panzer Dragoon Saga, to name but a handful – and the quality of the JRPGs on the SNES before that goes without saying. The Mega Drive was no slouch either – Phantasy Star, anyone?

I think I’ve made my point. So what went wrong?

Ni No Kuni

It’s fairly obvious when you look at what a bloodbath this generation has been for developers; the costs of development make the vast worlds and sweeping quests of yore impractical. Prior to this, I’ve enjoyed Lost Odyssey, and already I’m having to stretch the definition of a JRPG to include titles like Valkyria Chronicles, Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls. The Wii had a triptych of notables under the Operation Rainfall banner for those who still have theirs hooked up, but those have the advantage of playing with the previous generation’s production values. Probably my most played JRPG of the last few years is my trusty DS copy of Chrono Trigger, which remains a staple of my portable gaming rotation.

Ni No Kuni is proof that Japan’s RPG developers do still get it; that it can still be done. This is every inch a traditional JRPG, so traditional that it almost feels innovative these days, with towns, a vast map, caves and dungeons, a lengthy story, tons of characters, FMV cut-scenes, a colour manual and even a lavish special edition. Admittedly, acting impressed that Level-5 with the backing of Studio Ghibli can get it done is a bit like praising Manchester United for winning a Sunday league game, and the days of small developers independently putting out epic productions are likely gone – someone please, please prove me wrong – but that doesn’t diminish the achievement of releasing such a shining example under these circumstances.

Prior to release, the superb reviews pushed Ni No Kuni to the top of the Amazon charts in several countries and ensured that the limited edition, which again breaks from this generation’s traditions by actually being limited, has sold out more than one batch before it even made it to store shelves. As I write this, it’s also managed to top the UK charts. It’s heartening evidence that there still is a market for RPGs.

Since the game’s only been out a few days, I’ve merely scratched the surface by putting in half a dozen hours, but what I’ve played has been both impressive and wonderfully nostalgic. I honestly haven’t found a JRPG that’s been so nice to simply exist in since Skies of Arcadia provided the cherry on top of the Dreamcast’s spectacular 2000.

Too bad the generational goalposts are about to be moved again, likely putting us back to square one…