Friday, 2 October 2015

Top 20 RPG Games PART 1

So I figured it was time to give one of these lists a go and with the rpg genre being the one I have spent the most time playing over the years it seemed a good place to start. I had a lot of trouble organizing these simply because all of them are good games and all have things about them which makes them stand out. the main purpose of this list is to highlight a few games which I feel didn’t get enough attention and point out a few which I thought maybe got too much… Here we go!

Any list like this is going to be inherently personal by nature. Nevertheless, I feel the need to get my most clearly subjective choice out of the way from the off. ‘Legion: The Legend of Excalibur’ lets you play as King Arthur as he fights to reclaim the throne from evil forces which have claimed it.

The gameplay is somewhat similar to ‘Diablo’ with you controlling Arthur and his Knights from an overhead viewpoint as they fight their way across locations to clear objectives. These ‘dungeons’ are broken up by occasional real time strategy-like sequences, where you have to defend locations by splitting up your team tactically.

So I played this game a lot when it came out and loved it. I went back to it recently expecting my nostalgia to be unfounded but found the game holds up surprisingly well. Now the reason I say this is a very subjective choice is that it’s very hard to exactly define what makes this game good unless you’ve played it yourself.

The game has lots of little elements which just feel really good. The combat is very visceral with each attack having a solid weigh to it. Every character has a different style of attack and each person feels unique, despite several of them looking very similar in terms of weapons and stats. The level designs are also very carefully laid out and feel strangely authentic for this imaginary universe.

My only real criticism with this game is that it can occasionally be very hard and you find yourself running away from enemies repeatedly to heal yourself and your party, which can get pretty annoying.

The King Arthur mythos is a surprisingly untapped resource for video games. ‘Legion: The Legend of Excalibur’ brilliantly shows the potential this universe has.

Matt Stone and Trey Parker have gone on record as having been disappointed by previous games made using the ‘South Park’ license. Therefore for ‘The Stick of Truth’ the creators of ‘South Park’ oversaw much of the production to keep the game to their exacting standards.

For that reason ‘South Park: The Stick of Truth’ may be one of, if not, the most faithful games made for a franchise. The storyline of this game completely feels like an episode of ‘South Park’ made flesh. Unfortunately this faithfulness is also the biggest issue with the game.

Taking a genre which typically spans hours of gameplay and merging it with a comedy show which uses brevity for its wit was bound to cause some issues. The funny moments in this game come far more from the cutscenes than they do the gameplay, with user interaction often killing much of the comedic timing. The actual gameplay also causes some issues, with the frequent turn based battles quickly losing what little comedic effect they had via repetition.

It’s not that the gameplay or the storyline are bad, both are strong but the combination of the two highlights the worse elements of each. How much enjoyment you will get from this game will depend on entirely how much you like ‘South Park’. If you enjoy the show there is a huge amount to enjoy in this game despite its problems. If not, it’s still a fairly strong rpg but as this is #19 on the list, there are certainly better ones!

So studio collaborations are not an unusual thing in gaming. Despite this, 'Ni No Kuni' turned a lot of heads when it was announced. Level-5 have made some of the most beautiful games ever released, so them working with the legendary Studio Ghibli animation company was bound to lead to something pretty impressive.

Well, as could be expected this game looks and sounds amazing. Studio Ghibli designed the world and Level-5 managed to convert those 2D drawings into 3D environments and characters without losing the charm of the original illustrations. Ghibli also handled the animated cutscenes and put in as much meticulous effort as they would on a feature film. Joe Hisaishi of Ghibli handles the score and injects into it the same level of passion which he had previously put into projects such as ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ and ‘Castle in the Sky’.

Unfortunately the gameplay was never going to be able to live up to the stylistic polish given to the sound and visuals. Under the hood ‘Ni No Kuni’ is a pretty standard affair really, neither particularly impressive or disappointing. The game features a monster fighting system which can become a bit dense as the game goes along but it didn’t put me off from playing till the end, or recommending the game to others.

This game was always going to have trouble living up to the hype but with Ghibli and Level-5 working on it ‘Ni No Kuni’ was never going to be a bad game. High standards are a rarity in the games industry and with both companies having a commitment to high quality output it’s a shame that ‘Ni No Kuni’ wasn’t able to combine and exceed both companies’ singular outputs.

‘Ni No Kuni’ is a brilliant gateway rpg for those who would usually avoid the genre. Despite having some issues as it moves forwards ‘Ni No Kuni’ is a very hard game to dislike. Hopefully Studio Ghibli and Level-5 will work together again; this last effort drips with sweetness and charm and is well worth consuming.

The Star Ocean series are notable for using a science fiction setting over that of a traditional fantasy world. Well that’s partially true at least as the Star Ocean games usually take place in a variety of different locations and planets, some of which are traditional fantasy settings.

When on a less developed planet, ‘Star Ocean: Till the End of Time’ feels very much like a ‘Star Trek’ rpg would.You have to dress up like the local inhabitants and go undercover to find whatever item/information the planet is hiding. The game even goes to lengths to explain that you have a universal translator to avoid any awkward questions about everyone speaking the same language.

In constantly meeting new races of people on different planets the game carries a real sense of exploration and wonder. The player character is experiencing these places for the first time, along with the player, which helps to avoid clunky exposition feeling unnatural.

The constant switching of location is a slight issue as the story can occasionally focus more on the storyline of the planet you’re visiting and less on the constant party members and overall narrative. In addition, to successfully tell these smaller stories you can spend a lot of time on a planet while side story unfolds. In occasionally spending a long time in one location the game loses some of its exploratory feel. Occasional spikes in difficulty also can slow down the pace as you find yourself having to grind to clear a planet.

Despite these issues, ‘Star Ocean: Till the End of Time’ is a remarkably good game. It would have benefited from being tightened up somewhat but the tremendous pull of exploration manages to shine through the clutter.

‘Fable 2’ was the first game I spent any time with on my Xbox 360, at the time I was really impressed with it and I assumed this was just because it was my first taste with the seventh generation. As I played other games on the system however I became increasingly aware that ‘Fable 2’ had actually impressed me on its own merits and was something pretty special.

‘Fable 2’ takes the style of a typical fantasy game but handles it in a very interesting way. In taking all the staples of a typical fantasy setting ‘Fable 2’ subverts your expectations in interesting ways. The general tone of the game is very silly but this silly tone is occasionally peeled back to reveal the darker underbelly of the game universe.

One, very memorable, quest has you travelling down into a Hobbe (Goblin) cave to rescue a child who has been snatched. Children taken by Hobbes are turned into Hobbes and as you journey deeper into the cave you realize just how horrible this procedure truly is. These moments make it feel like a Disney fairy tale is being occasionally interrupted with the darker Grimm original that it is based on.

Peter Molyneux has gained a lot of flak in recent years for some pretty terrible decisions he has been making on game projects. However Molyneux has been responsible for some amazing games in his career and is himself a truly distinctive designer. ‘Fable 2’ truly has that feeling of a project driven by a single personality, that of an auteur.

Some of these Molyneux-isms work better than others. The dog companion is quickly becoming a staple of video gaming but ‘Fable 2’ was the first major example of it. Having a doggy friend on your adventure with you is a really nice touch, even if it is somewhat over eager to hunt for treasure.

Other Molyneux driven plans don’t work out as well, such as the relationships with npc human characters. Farting numerous times to impress someone quickly loses any charm it started with and the binary nature of impressing or upsetting the townsfolk makes everyone feel like they’ve been copy/pasted.

Unfortunately the auteur approach to design is always going to have a mixture of brilliant and terrible ideas, that is the cost of creating a ‘unique’ piece of art. Now obviously there are thousands of indie driven games but 99% will never come close to having the polish of ‘Fable 2’. This game sounds beautiful, looks beautiful and has the solid feeling of a well-tested, professional project. For me ‘Fable 2’ was an experience which stayed with me, this is a pretty rare thing for a AAA studio project.

So ‘Persona 4’ is a fusion of both the detective and rpg genres. Your character, Yu Narukami, finds himself having to stay with his uncle in the country for a year while his parents are out of town. Shortly after his arrival a string of murders begin in the town. These murders are not the only bizarre part of Yu’s trip as he and his friends soon discover the ability to enter a bizarre TV world. Just what this new dimension has to do with the murders is up to the player to discover.

So ‘Persona 4’ is real mixture of different mechanics and play styles. The wider framing of the game is that of a social simulation game. The game passes in days and the player must decide how he wishes to spend them. You can choose to enter the TV world to fight through dungeons, to solve the murder cases or you can choose to hang out with your friends and build your Social Ranks with them.
Now building these friendships/S-ranks is important as they allow you to power up you Personas. You use Personas to fight for you in battle. This is another huge part of the game as you can combine Personas to create new and possibly much stronger Personas.

This huge assortment of different gameplay styles gives ‘Persona 4’ a lot of variety. However ‘Persona 4’ is a jack of all trades and doesn’t really master any of them. There are better social simulation games, better detective games, better monster breeding games and there are certainly better dungeon crawlers.

‘Persona 4’ is easily one of the most overrated games I have played. It taps into that extreme cosplaying audience of gamers who generally become fierce defenders of any game which gives them a costume to cosplay in and a set of obnoxious catchphrases to use, the ‘cake is a lie’ effect.

‘Persona 4’ has therefore been blown up by these people to being this god like work of genius, which it isn’t. It is a really good game however and a brilliant cast of characters/story do a lot to iron out the issues with some of the gameplay mechanics.

So ‘Arc: Twilight of the Spirit’ is pretty hardcore. The storyline focuses on two brothers, both half Deimos. One was raised by humans and wishes to destroy all Deimos; the other was raised by Deimos and wishes to destroy all humans. Now this would be a pretty typical set up for a storyline if not for two reasons.

The first reason being that the story doesn’t flinch from showing the inter species racism in full which exists between the two groups, nor does it avoid the horrors each side have inflicted on the other due to this hatred. The second reason this game stands out so distinctly is that you play as both brothers.
The story jumps back and forth between the two brothers as they hurtle towards each other with their respective teams, both are the hero and the villain of each other’s stories simultaneously.

The storyline of this game is brilliant and is easily one of the most engaging I have played in a game. The battle system is also really strong, as is the overall presentation. In fact this game should be in the top five of this list and would be… if not for one minor issue, the game cannot be finished.

Obviously this isn’t entirely true but it might as well be incompletable. This game has a really nicely designed difficulty curve, each boss and new enemy feels like a natural step up from the last. I reached the final boss of this game at around level 80, at least 10 levels higher than I had needed to be due to side quests and such. The final boss wiped the floor with me.

At this point I would have gone back to level up but the save point was directly after a suddenly locked door. That’s right you are locked in with the final boss, a boss that is apparently still difficult even with all your characters maxed out to level 100. Now If I had been correctly rotating my saves I could have grinded myself up to this maximum level but you would then be talking about hours of training purely to counter a horrible and completely unnecessary, spike in difficulty.

To see a brilliant game pretty much destroyed by one bad stat choice on a single enemy is horrifying. Nevertheless, the good parts of this game still manage to miraculously lift the game to being this high on the list. Play it, just remember to rotate those saves!

So ‘Final Fantasy VIII’ gets a pretty tough time of it really. It had to follow on from the smash hit ‘Final Fantasy VII’, which brought 3D roleplaying into the mainstream and was many gamers first taste of the series. ‘Final Fantasy VIII’ decided to change up the formula massively from ‘VII’ and many of these changes really didn’t work out.

The Draw system, which forced you to repeatedly draw magical power from monsters to power, or re-power, yourself up is pretty obnoxious. You are also required to buy ammo for gun based weapon attacks. However, despite the execution of these features being less than ideal the concept of them is brilliant. The entire theme of the storyline is focused on what you lose from war and fighting. To intrinsically link this concept of loss to the core gameplay is a fantastic way of immersing players in the world.

The plot follows a group of teenage soldiers from a military academy. These young recruits have to work through their fears and insecurities to fight an enemy who wishes to destroy the universe and time itself.

The storyline gets a lot of criticism for being very reliant on clich├ęs and plot conveniences. Although these criticisms are valid it’s worth considering that this plot direction were also deliberate and not a result of incompetence. Being based from a school, the storyline takes inspiration from Japanese high school dramas; complete with the twists and turns you would expect from the soap opera genre. I really like the storyline and characters. I particularly enjoy the focus on how the characters react to the world around them, instead of the characters taking a back seat to the wider storyline.

This focus on characters makes the cast of ‘Final Fantasy VIII’ one of, if not, the best known in the series. They are really well defined individuals who are built up slowly over the course of the game. I stand by the idea that the central love story of ‘VIII’ is one of the best in gaming; this would not have been possible without such good characters.

Regardless on if you’re willing to look past the, somewhat frequent, poorly executed game design or the more relaxed narrative style, ‘Final Fantasy VIII’ remains a truly unique experience. To be a truly unique game when it is the 8th in a series deserves a lot of credit.

As much as I’m opening myself up for abuse with the following statement, ‘Final Fantasy VIII’ is a lot better than ‘VII’ at its core. The tone may be a little more relaxed in ‘VIII’ but it is at least consistent. The battle system in ‘VII’ is better executed but only because it refuses to take any risks, instead using a stripped back version of ‘V’s’ job system.

‘VIII’ also beats its predecessor in mini games. The huge variety of terribly designed mini games in ‘VII’ are scrapped for several significantly more developed offerings. The card game ‘Triple Triad’ in ‘VIII’ could have easily been a game by itself and was so popular that it was brought back for ‘FFIX’

Hopefully ‘Final Fantasy VIII’ will follow in the footsteps of ‘VII’ and get a HD Remake, one which will show just how much potential this game truly had.

‘Dark Chronicle’ the sequel to the original ‘Dark Cloud’ follows an inventor Max and a princess, Monica, as they try to save the world. Max has a pendant which can transport him to the future and Monica has one which can transport her to the past. Monica arrives from the ‘future’ to enlist Max’s help in rebuilding the world in her time. A tyrant is destroying the future and rebuilding it in his own image by changing the past in Max’s time.

To rebuild the future you have to go to locations that will be significant later on and establish them. For example a giant talking tree was originally a source of great knowledge in the future. Therefore you have to plant a selection of tree saplings in the correct location and fill the location with magic. You can then travel to the future to visit the tree to gain knowledge from it and unlock the next area.
The building engine, which allows you to create buildings and plant trees, requires raw materials. To gain these materials you need to fight through dungeons. These materials can also be used by Max to invent new weapons. Unfortunately the dungeon crawling and material collection are what let down ‘Dark Chronicle’.

The dungeons are really long, too long. The game does a fantastic job of building expectation for the next area/change in the future. This constant trickle of rewards does a lot to make the dungeons more bearable but you get the feeling the developers were spending a lot of time apologising for the length of the dungeons and no time trying to shorten them. Once you have seen all the future reveals and experienced everything the story has to give this game will have almost zero replayability due to the chore of the dungeons, not that a 60 hour game really needs replayability.

As with being another game from Level-5, the music and visual design are fantastic. Certain tracks have stayed with me years after finishing the game.

‘Dark Chronicle’ truly builds that feeling of adventure in the player as you traverse dungeons finding yourself fascinated by what the future will hold the next time you visit it. ‘Dark Chronicle’ would be vastly improved by a ‘Dark Chronicle Golden’ style port which shortens the dungeons, as they are really the only thing holding this game back from being a true classic.

So horror rpg’s are a relatively small subset of the genre unfortunately. Good horror rpg’s are a considerably smaller section of this already small selection of games. Horror games can have an over reliance on using active threats to build fear in the player. Such games rely on building the idea that each corner could hold a monster which might jump out and kill the player. Far too few seem to use the environment and narrative to build the tension.

‘Shadow Hearts’ has turn based combat so entirely builds up the tension from the story. Everything about ‘Shadow Hearts’ has a distinct feeling of wrongness to it. The undercurrent of the game is that demonic forces are spreading through the normal world and that the majority of people haven’t noticed. This feeling is built up via the world design, each location and dungeon looks perfectly normal at first but further expectation reveals just how strange these places are.

One of the sadder trends in modern gaming is the death of pre-rendered backgrounds and the fixed cameras which came with them. In fixing a camera the game designer decides exactly what the player should be seeing. A slight difference in camera angle can make all the difference in selling a mood or idea successfully. Horror games in particular really benefitted from keeping camera control away from the player. ‘Shadow Hearts’ benefits hugely from being able to frame its weird environments exactly how they should best be framed to build atmosphere.

‘Shadow Hearts’ is genuinely scary in a very Lovecraftian way. The story serves the bizarre visuals by depicting a horribly fractured world, both from the demonic presence and due to the building tensions of the First World War. This fractured world is perfectly captured by the incredibly distinct soundtrack which mixes multiple styles of music and production to create a very unnerving atmosphere.

‘Shadow Hearts’ has a great story featuring great characters set in a rich and twisted world. The attention to detail is truly impressive and builds a world which feels truly lived in. If you like either the horror or rpg genres, check it out!


So there we go, 20 - 11 are done! Comment and let me know what you think and the second part should be going up in a few days, the link will be put here. :)

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