Category Archives: RPG

#43: Skies of Arcadia

Format: Dreamcast Genre: RPG Released: 2001 Developer: Sega (Overworks)

Yes, that’s right another Dreamcast game for the list – no complaining back there. Hey, look, it’s not my fault that a signficant proportion of THE BEST GAMES EVER MADE were released on one particular console. (Funnily enough, I was never a big fan of Sega consoles before the Dreamcast came along, but I became a bit of a DC fanboy after I got one. Ah, Dreamcast, you were taken far too young! May you rest in peace in forgotten console heaven…)

In terms of set-up, Skies of Arcadia is pretty much your standard Japanese RPG fare:  a young boy from a small village is summoned by destiny to save the world by fighting random, turn-based battles across strange new lands filled with a multitude of manga-style characters, and so on, and so forth. We’ve been here before (Grandia, Final Fantasy, etc. etc.), but the difference with Skies is the sheer imagination that has been poured into the game world, along with the strong sense of ownership you feel over the characters.

The game world is composed of a series of floating islands that you navigate between using your trusty flying pirate ship. I couldn’t really find the screenshots to do it justice, but this floating world looks fantastic, and there’s a real sense of wonder as you explore new continents and find hidden treasures. In fact, finding the hidden ‘discoveries’ became such a distraction for me that I regularly abandoned the main plot in favour of locating these hidden gems, which were revealed by vibrations of the joypad.

Then there’s your ship’s crew – as you progress through the game you can recruit more and more members to your crew, each of whom provides some sort of boost when battling an enemy ship. (Incidentally, the ship battles are fantastic, and make for a diverting change from the usual monster battles – see the video below for an example.) The personalities of each of the characters really shine through, and by the end of the game you find yourself becoming quite attached to your motley crew of air pirates.

The big downside to the game for me was the random battles – I’m not totally against random battles per se, but there should be an option to avoid them if possible. Later on in the game you can purchase items that let you avoid all confrontation, but earlier on you have no option but to plough through whatever the game throws at you, which got frustrating at times. The hardest part of the game occurred about a third of the way through, when you were tasked with finding an item among a series of floating rocks. The trouble was, you were constantly attacked as you flew your ship between the rocks, and this one section became so frustrating that I almost jacked the game in right there. Thankfully I perservered, which was a good thing since the game got a whole lot better from then on in.

It’s difficult to say exactly what sets Skies of Arcadia apart from its JRPG ilk – it could be the imaginative setting, or the neat mixture of ship and monster battles, or perhaps the excellently crafted characters. Whatever it is, it had me totally hooked, and if you’re an RPG fan it’s an absolute must buy. (NB. If you’re planning to get it, you might want to look out for Skies of Arcadia Legends, an improved version that was released for the GameCube/Wii.)

Lewis

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Filed under 2001, Dreamcast, RPG, Sega

#21: Okami

Format: Playstation 2 Genre: RPG Released: 2007 Developer: Clover Studio (Capcom)

I’ve just finished Okami, after playing it for an astonishing 40 hours. The developers have obviously done something right, because games that can hold my attention for that length of time are very few and far between (thankfully, otherwise I doubt I’d get much done). Wow, 40 hours. When you write it down like that it seems like an enormous amount of time – nearly two whole days of gaming… And considering I only bought the game for a tenner, that’s some seriously good value for money.

Okami PS2 box

Without a doubt, Okami is one of the best games I have ever played. The production standards are amazing throughout, and the artwork is just stunning. The game is presented in the Japanese ‘sumi-e‘ style of ink painting, so each character has a bold, black outline that is juxtaposed to great effect against the dreamy watercolours of the scenery. However, the screenshots on this post really don’t do this game justice – in motion, the stylised art and fluid animation looks truly astonishing. Having said that, some of the static storyboard screens you are presented with, such as the dramatic image below, also manage to be breathtaking.

okami artwork

In fact, the game’s artwork is so good, its been immortalised in a coffee table book, and there can’t be many games that can claim that accolade.

The game itself plays a lot like The Legend of Zelda: the real-time action and simple combat makes the game instantly accessible but belies iceberg-esque hidden depths. Just when you think you’ve got the game licked, it throws out another twist, and the plethora of quests, sub-quests and collectibles provided me with hours of entertainment – and even after 40 hours playtime, there were still plenty of quests I had yet to complete and combat moves I had yet to unlock.

Okami Amaterasu

Speaking of combat moves, I have to mention my delight at unlocking the legendary ‘Golden Fury’ technique, which involves humiliating your opponent by – wait for it – cocking your leg and urinating on them (accompanied by a ‘tinkling’ sound effect). As of the time of writing, I have yet to amass the 2,000,000 yen needed to unlock the ‘Brown Rage’ technique, although I’ve got a fairly good idea as to what it involves.

Okami black tree

Whilst on the subject of the game’s humour, I have to mention the excellent localisation. All too often, the European localisation of Japanese RPGs falls a bit flat, with any nuances or humour in the dialogue either being totally bulldozed or sounding utterly ridiculous. Happily, the script for Okami is a delight, and Issun, your ‘wandering artist’ companion, gets some genuinely funny lines that still work despite the Japanese-mythology-oriented setting and characters (incidentally, the enemy characters in Okami have to be some of the most brilliantly realised and unforgettable baddies yet seen in a video game – my favourite being the Igloo Turtle).

Okami brush

The most memorable feature of Okami is your ability to affect the world around you by pausing the action and using your tail to draw sumi-e-style patterns. These patterns, or ‘brush techniques’ (which are unlocked as the game progresses), allow you to slice enemies in twain with a simple flick or conjure up a gust of wind at will, to name just two. As you unlock more and more techniques, the game throws up more and more ingenious uses for them, leading to some brilliant ‘Aha!’ moments as you finally figure out a tricky puzzle or use a new technique to access a hidden area in a previously explored realm.

Okami Battle with Orochi

For all these reasons, I cannot recommend Okami enough – it really is one of the best games I’ve ever played. The only downside is that with the demise of Clover Studio, a sequel seems highly unlikely… 

Lewis

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Filed under 2007, Capcom, Clover Studio, Playstation 2, RPG

#14: Shenmue

Format: Dreamcast Genre: Adventure/RPG/Fighting Released: 2000 Developer: Sega (AM2)

At the time, I considered Shenmue (pronounced ‘shen-moo’)  to be one of the most absorbing  and realistic computer games I’d ever played. If you’d spoken to any of my housemates, however, they’d probably be more likely to express disbelief at the saddening amount of time I spent waiting for buses and going to work – in a video game. After all, that kind of stuff is boring enough in real life – why on earth would you want to emulate it on a computer?

shenmue-cover-art

It’s a fair point and, to be honest, a fairly accurate one: I’m not about to suggest that becoming a forklift truck driver ranks among my top ten most exciting video game experiences. In fact, parts of Shenmue were incredibly dull, and it would be over-generous to describe the pace of the game as ‘slow’. ‘Glacial’ is probably more accurate.

But the reason that Shenmue appears on this list is that it hinted at the possibilities of what videogames could be like, even if its execution was a trifle rough around the edges.

Forklift racing - slightly more interesting than stacking boxes

Forklift racing - slightly more interesting than stacking boxes

In creating Shenmue, Yu Suzuki tried, and succeeded, in designing a noticeably different video game experience from those that had gone before it – the kind of varied, free-form gameplay seen in Shenmue is two-a-penny now, but back in 2000 it was virtually unheard of. Yu Suzuki gave this new genre the rather naff moniker ‘Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment’ or ‘FREE’ for short. Needless to say, the name didn’t catch on, but Shenmue was (arguably) the first real ‘open world’ game experience, appearing a year before the landmark Grand Theft Auto III.

Although there was a central plot, which revolved around finding your father’s killer, the real bulk of the game centred around the various sub-plots, characters and entertainments to be found in your Japanese home town. In fact, the main plot is barely referred to for most of the game – Ryo seems to spend more of his time collecting Sega-themed figurines, feeding kittens and playing Space Harrier in the local arcade than actually searching for the murderer Lan-Di.

"I LOVE these!"

"I LOVE these!"

When Ryo does finally get round to looking for his dad’s killer, his chosen approach is to hang around the docks chatting to sailors.

Ahem.

I’m not saying anything.

Although the developers at Sega either missed the other possible connotation of parleying with barnacle-ridden old sea dogs or they’re all laughing silently into their sleeves right now. Either way, Ryo’s quest for nautical companionship inspired this rather excellent song (wait for the chorus).

No-one seemed to question why Ryo spent so much time hanging around the docks talking to strangers...

No-one seemed to question why Ryo spent so much time hanging around the docks talking to sailors...

Despite his tireless devotion to chatting-up sailors, Ryo barely manages to find out anything about the reason for his father’s death; in fact, the entire plot could be summed up as: ‘A Chinese guy kills your dad, it’s something to do with a magic mirror, now you have to go to Hong Kong.’ Apparently, the game was planned as the first chapter of a 16 chapter series – in reality, this means that barely anything happens.

 This is by no means the only criticism that can be levied against the game: I’ve already mentioned the glacial pace and the dubious ‘thrill’ of fork lift truck driving, but Shenmue also had the ‘honour’ of bringing us what Suzuki called QTEs (Quick Time Events). These basically amount to watching a cut scene and pressing a button at the right time (a game technique that had previously been shown to be awful in such ‘classics’ as Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace). Nevertheless, for some reason QTEs seem to crop up in games all the time now – I think the idea is that they bring more interaction to cut scenes. Why they can’t just put in fewer cut scenes is beyond me (after all, Half Life 2 managed just fine without them).

The birth of the Quick Time Event - for good or ill

The birth of the Quick Time Event - for good or ill

Despite all this, I loved Shenmue. I loved it because it felt like a step into the future – for a start it looked amazing, but it also heralded a new age of free-form gameplay that’s still only in its infancy, and its interactive world offered features, such as dynamic weather and online highscores, that were way ahead of its time. The lines between game genres are becoming increasingly blurred (look at Spore for an example), and back in 2000 Shenmue was on the front line of this trend.

Shenmue was by no means perfect, but there are very few games I’ve played since that have offered such a different and refreshing take on the pre-conceived notions of what a video game should be. As the (rather grandiose) trailer says: ‘It’s not an RPG. It’s not a movie. [It’s] a world that transcends games.’

Lewis

(Screenshots from http://hg101.classicgaming.gamespy.com/shenmue/shenmue.htm)

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Filed under 2000, Adventure, Dreamcast, Fighting, RPG, Sega

#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