Tag Archives: RPG

#98: Lost Kingdoms

Format: GameCube Genre: RPG Released: 2002 Developer: From Software

It’s been incredibly difficult to decide which games to cover for the final few places on our list, and dozens of equally worthy titles were considered for this particular spot. In the end though, I felt that this almost unknown GameCube title thoroughly deserved a place on the list: not least because I think more people should find out about it.

The utterly dreadful cover art for Lost Kingdoms. There's definitely something not quite right about the proportions of that woman's face...

Lost Kingdoms made my life slightly better because it’s one of the few games I can think of that I enjoyed from start to finish – there were no frustrating difficulty spikes and no tacked-on ‘stealth’ sections, just pure, unadulterated fun from the moment I picked up the controller to the moment I watched the credits roll. Admittedly, the time in between the two wasn’t particularly long, and this is probably the game’s biggest flaw – it’s far too short. However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – particularly if you’re an older, time-poor gamer – and considering the game can now be picked up on eBay for an absolute pittance, you’d be mad to miss out on it.

The cards in your hand are on the right, and the rest of the deck is shown on the left.

The key to the game’s success is its innovative combat system, which is based on ‘Magic: The Gathering’-style trading cards. Each card summons a specific creature, which either performs a one-off attack or hangs around for a while and attacks any wrongdoer that ambles by. All of the cards have specific affinities (Fire, Earth, Wood, Water), and part of  the game’s enjoyment comes from carefully preparing your deck before a level to ensure that you have the right balance of cards to fight the upcoming monsters (e.g. if you’re going to be facing a lot of fire-breathing monkeys, it’s probably a good idea to bring along a few water-based cards).

The best thing about the game might just be conjuring up a host of Harryhausen-esque walking skeletons. They're fairly rubbish in battle, but they evoke fond memories of Sunday afternoons spent watching Jason and the Argonauts.

The best thing is that all of the fighting is done in real-time, so the fights can get enjoyably frantic as you sift through your deck, trying desperately to find the right card to deal with the monster that’s just jumped up through the floor in front of you. The creature cards themselves are also impressively designed, and there are some particularly good showstopping animations for the more powerful beasts (á la the Guardian Forces in Final Fantasy). Best of all, there are around a hundred different cards to collect, and you can also upgrade your cards by ‘transforming’ them, so there’s plenty of fun to be had for the compulsive collector.

You can see the main protagonist in the centre - she's certainly up for the worst-dressed-hero award. Are those booty slippers?

Speaking of which, isn’t it weird how obsessive collecting has been such a part of video games since the very beginning? From collecting coins in Super Mario Bros. to finding Riddler Trophies in Batman: Arkham Asylum, it seems gamers like nothing more than to gather pointless tat for hours on end – although to be fair, the cards in Lost Kingdoms are a little bit more interesting than many game collectibles.

I think the worst example of pointless collecting I’ve witnessed in recent history was Assassin’s Creed, which tasked you with collecting several hundred flags of various types. And what did you get for painstakingly collecting these flags? A poxy little Xbox ‘Achievement’ and the knowledge that those five hours spent trawling through every street and alley in Jerusalem are five hours you’ll never get back.

Beware the glowing red dome of scariness! OoooOOOOOooooh!

The thing is though, I get totally suckered in by these collecting quests: once you’ve started collecting these little in-game trinkets, it’s very difficult to stop. Assassin’s Creed was definitely a watershed moment though – receiving the ‘Achievement’ for collecting god knows how many flags was the point at which I seriously asked myself “What the hell am I doing?”

Still, certain games handle item collecting well, and because it kept the number of collectibles down to a reasonable level and made each item unique and interesting, Lost Kingdoms was certainly one of the better ‘collect ‘em ups’ (another good example is Ghostbusters: The Video Game – the ‘haunted artefacts’ scattered throughout the levels were genuinely worth finding).

To sum up then, Lost Kingdoms is a cracking little game that’s well worth picking up if you’re in the mood for a spot of RPG-lite collecting and card battling, and its relative shortness means it’s guaranteed not to outstay its welcome – definitely one of the GameCube’s high points.

To whet your appetite, here’s a video of the first level:

And below is a video of the final boss battle – it gives you a good idea of what some of the higher level cards do. (But don’t watch if you don’t want to see the ending. Obviously.)

Lewis

(Cover image fro gamefaqs.com, screenshots from Softpedia)

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Filed under 2002, From Software, GameCube, RPG

#88: Fire Emblem

Format: Game Boy Advance Genre: Tactical RPG Released: 2004 Developer: Intelligent Systems

Fire Emblem makes it onto the list not just because it’s an excellent game – it’s easily one of the best ever GBA games – but also because it’s one of the few games I’ve played that really makes you care about what happens to the characters. And considering that for most of the game the protagonists appear as barely animated cardboard cut-outs with reams of text scrolling beneath their alternately grinning/puzzled/frowning faces, this just goes to show you don’t need fancy graphics to make you invest your emotions in game characters.

Having said all that, I found it a little difficult to warm to the characters at first – the dialogue has a habit of being either very twee or wilfully contrived (see the screen below to get an idea of what I mean). Still, I eventually got used to it, and after a while I just came to accept the fact that everyone in the Fire Emblem universe just happens to say everything very earnestly. (I’d like to see a sequel set in England where everyone automatically assumes you’re being sarcastic no matter what you’re saying – it would be a bit like The Inbetweeners but with more knights on horseback, and every conversation would be interspersed with comments about the sexual prowess of someone’s mother.)

In terms of the story, there’s nothing particularly original. It starts off as the usual Japanese RPG fare – young girl leaves home village to defeat great evil, meets various companions along the way (who all happen to have differing but complementary special skills), discovers that – SHOCK HORROR – she’s actually a long lost princess, a larger plot is revealed involving an evil wizard and dragons, you’re tasked with finding an ancient…zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

"Verily, yay and forsooth!"

So far, so dull, but despite what I said about the twee dialogue, it actually does a pretty good job of conveying the various personality traits and flaws of the many (many) characters (around 40 characters become available in total). And this is where it gets interesting. Every single character has his or her own plot arc, and their story changes according to what happens over the course of the game, resulting in multiple endings. Each character has around three other characters that have a strong relationship with them (for example, perhaps they have a love interest, a father and an old friend within the group), and each level is bookended with little cut scenes showing how the various relationships that character has are developing.

BUT – and this is the clever part – when a character dies, they stay dead for the rest of the game. So if your favourite character’s love interest perishes on the battlefield, you’ll never get to find out what would have happened between them, and instead the survivor will go on to pine for their lost love.

Kent was furious at his name, but nowhere near as livid as his brother Herefordshire.

Of course, there’s nothing to stop you turning off the game and loading up a previous save point in a bid to prevent the death of this particular character, but sometimes it’s incredibly difficult to save them. If you’ve made a bad tactical decision in terms of the characters you’ve brought along on a particular mission, or if you’ve left yourself in position where you can be easily surrounded, the only option might be to restart the level. But restarting is incredibly time-consuming – some levels can take about an hour to get through – so you’re left with a dilemma: do I try to save this character, or should I push on without them?

The first time a character died, I instantly restarted the mission – there was no way I was going to lose someone, obviously. I mean, what kind of person leaves a man behind on the battlefield? And anyway, I was determined to get through the whole game with all of my characters intact. The second and third times too, I restarted the level to avoid leaving someone behind – but after that things changed.

Oooh, look at the horsey's pretty wings! Shame it can take about as much damage as a tin-foil helmet.

The game’s difficulty level quickly begins to rise, and often you’ll be ambushed by hidden enemies, giving you little chance to protect your weaker characters. On one such occasion, my thief, Matthew, got caught in the crossfire when several enemies popped up in a room I thought was clear. I tried reverting to an earlier save point, but it was impossible to save him, and I was left with the unappetising prospect of restarting the entire level, which had taken me nearly an hour. Shamefully, I started to think I could probably do without a thief – I mean, he was pretty useless in battle, and I had plenty of keys for opening locked doors. But what about Leila? Surely I couldn’t sacrifice Matthew, her soul mate?

And this is where the game really starts to get you – when you’re holding the lives of these characters in your hands, suddenly they seem more than mere cardboard cut-outs.

This wizard's speciality is concocting hair-dye potions.

Eventually, with a twinge of guilt, I decided to continue on without Matthew.

And then, a couple of levels later, Rebecca died. Again, I had to decide whether to save her, and again I decided that it just wasn’t worth playing through the whole level again – but the decision was easier this time. And so it continued: more and more characters started dying as the levels got harder and harder, and sometimes I’d attempt to save them, but other times I’d leave them behind. I realised that the stronger characters could actually do most of the fighting and, if anything, these weaker characters were more of a hindrance. As time wore on, I reached the stage where I barely felt anything when a character died, and instead I’d just focus on securing victory at whatever cost.

And it’s at that point that it hits you: when did I turn into this heartless bastard?

Don’t be fooled by its cute good looks, Fire Emblem is a masterclass in emotional trauma. The game does its utmost to make you really care about the fates of each and every character, then makes it almost impossible to win without sacrificing some of them, leaving you with no option but to blunt your feelings towards these doe-eyed innocents and adopt a sort of ruthless Machiavellian-general persona. I swear by the end I was developing a thousand-yard stare as I sent yet another pink-haired teenager to the slaughter… Sort of puts me in mind of that poem by Siegfried Sassoon:

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour. ‘Poor young chap,’
I’d say—‘I used to know his father well;
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.’
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die—in bed.

Yes, GBA Fire Emblem certainly made for some sober but compelling bus journeys.

Lewis

(Screenshots from http://uk.gamespot.com)

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Filed under 2004, Game Boy Advance, Intelligent Systems, Tactical RPG

#79: Little King’s Story

Format: Wii Genre: RPG Released: 2009 Developer: Cing/Town Factory

Little King’s Story was a very pleasant surprise. Having read some positive reviews before buying it, I knew it was going to be good, but I was amazed at just how good it would turn out to be.

The first thing you need to know about Little King’s Story is that it’s definitely not ‘little’ – by the time I’d finished it I’d racked up over 40 hours of gameplay, and there were still side quests I hadn’t done. To be fair, you could probably finish the main game a lot more quickly than that, but there are so many interesting distractions along the way, you’d be doing the game a disservice to ignore them. I mean, how can you pass up the opportunity to beat a cow at table tennis?

Anyway, I was initially drawn to Little King’s Story by the similarities it shares with Pikmin, one of my favourite GameCube games and one that has – perhaps surprisingly – rarely been imitated. Superficially, the games are very similar in that you command a group of followers who you can fling in front of you to fight enemies, break rocks, carry items and generally do useful stuff. However, whereas Pikmin only gave you three types of follower to choose from, Little King’s Story has around 20, all with different abilities. As such the game is a lot more complicated, and coming up with the right balance for your team – particularly during boss battles – can be quite tricky.

Speaking of boss battles, the bosses in this game have to be some of the most inspired I’ve ever seen, ranging from a drunken layabout king who you have to knock from atop his pile of beer crates (see screenshot below) to ‘King TV Dinah’, a part man, part TV broadcaster who fights across various telly programmes, from westerns to sci-fi. My favourite though was a boss who hides inside a giant egg and challenges you to answer questions about the things you’ve seen so far in the game – get a question wrong and he releases hordes of cockerels to attack you. Natch.

The game is far from perfect of course, and in fact some parts are downright frustrating. In particular, there’s a section in the middle where the game gives you little direction on where to go or what to do, and you end up grinding through dozens of repetitive side quests in the hope of upgrading your weedy followers. Plus there are some utterly ridiculous difficulty spikes – the mountain level is a particular offender in this category, where suddenly you’re introduced to enemies and hazards that can kill half your followers in an instant. Who on earth thought that would be ‘fun’?

But despite its shortcomings, Little King’s Story was an absolute delight to play, chiefly because of the sheer imagination and charm oozing out of its every pore. In years to come, people will hail this game as a cult classic, and the fact that it failed to trouble the charts will only add to its rarity – buy it now before it starts changing hands on eBay for 50 quid a pop.

Lewis

(Screenshots from destructoid.com)

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Filed under 2009, Cing, RPG, Town Factory, Wii

#2: Phantasy Star Online

Format:Dreamcast Genre:RPG Released: 2001 Developer: Sonic Team (Sega)

I obviously play a lot of video games (I can’t think of too many other people I know who have a blog dedicated to reminiscing about old games), but there aren’t that many games I would say I’ve been truly addicted to. Phantasy Star Online, however, is one of them.

I must have been addicted to it – how else can you explain the fact that I spent nigh on 80 hours hacking and slashing through repetitive enemies, all for the dubious glory of occasionally finding a ‘rare’ weapon – which was usually the same as the normal weapons, albeit with slightly higher numbers attached to it. Let’s face it, PSO has got to be one of the thinnest RPGs out there – no extravagant plot lines, no branching skill trees, no complicated levelling system, no option to do anything but hack, slash, hack, slash, ad inifinitum.

Ah, those Sega-blue skies...

But it was brilliant, and perhaps its simplicity was the reason why. It was the first MMORPG for consoles, and as such it was designed for the masses. Compare it to something like EverQuest or Ultima, the PC equivalents at the time, and you can see what a breath of fresh air it is: with no fiddly navigation through reams of meaningless menus it was an RPG that anyone could pick up and play. What’s more, it looked fantastic (and, in my opinion, still does today). For a start it was set in space, which makes a change to the usual parade of orc-filled dungeons and castles, and the whole thing was awash in classic Sega-blue skies and crisp green meadows. Lovely.

I have three stand-out memories of PSO. The first is the (almost) brilliant translation system, the idea being that anything you typed in was instantly translated into the other users’ language. I remember the first time I went online and ended up hanging around with some Spanish guys – I thought it was absolutely amazing that I could be having a conversation with someone who spoke a different language and who lived hundreds of miles away… It was at that point that I first glimpsed what Sega was attempting to create – an online community of Dreamcast gamers, unseparated by language or country. Of course, it wasn’t perfect – I remember having some amusingly unintelligible conversations with a few Japanese gamers (although whether or not that was because I’d just got back from a night out in the pub is open to debate), but overall it worked pretty well, and the implications were huge. I suppose the technology has now been surpassed to some extent by headsets, but it’s a shame that the translation ability has been lost.

There were millions of these gits all over the place - and they just kept coming. Well, respawning.

The second memory is the worm-type boss thing on the second level – which took FORTY-FIVE MINUTES TO KILL. No joke. I suspect that it took so long because my character wasn’t sufficiently levelled-up to fight the boss at the time, but even so it ranks as one of the most simultaneously intense and frustrating gaming moments of my life (punctuated by shouts of disapproval from my house mates, who had wandered into the lounge to watch The Simpsons and were instead treated to watching me club a giant slug to death).

The worm boss thingy

My third memory isn’t so rosy. PSO was notoriously easy to hack, and this caused several problems when playing online. I remember one bizarre episode where another player ‘lost’ a weapon and accused me of stealing it. Of course, I’d done nothing of the sort, and I’ve no idea what happened to said weapon, but he didn’t believe me and soon the situation escalated to the point where I was surrounded by several players who were threatening to ‘wipe the save game from my memory card’ (I’m not even sure if that’s possible, but after all the other dodgy hacks I saw in PSO it wouldn’t surprise me if it was). It was a pretty nasty episode – it felt a bit like I was being mugged. However, unlike a real mugging, the problem was easily solved by simply switching off the console. If only real life was that simple.

It was partly because of several incidents like that and partly because of the repetition that I eventually stopped playing the game, but Phantasy Star certainly ranks up there as not only one of my favourite gaming experiences but also a game that was way ahead of its time.

Lewis

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Filed under 2001, Dreamcast, MMORPG, RPG, Sega