#10: Tokyo Dungeon (PS)
This is going to be a difficult one to describe as it is a head trip. The main area or "home base" in Tokyo Dungeon is a cybernetic room leading to virtual reality. In the virtual space there are small windows that lead into different time and space realities. The game is comprised of two parts: one is the 3D dungeon where you go to explore and gather clues to the real-world mystery that comprises the second part of the game. The mystery part is told almost entirely in anime cut scenes and simple dialogue between characters.
In the dungeon sections, the game is entirely first-person and reminds me of something like Ken's Labyrinth for the PC, but with different combat. The graphics are ultra-simple, without any real textures or detail, but it works. Battles play out on a gauge and as it fills the attack power goes up while accuracy goes down. Of course the more accurate you are the weaker the attack. It isn't overly complex. The difficulty comes in the timing as it is easy to try and max the gauge before it can empty and in having enough health to survive missing. You can only level up to level 5 and each level requires 100 experience points, but the real meat of this game is in the story and the charm is in the very old-school style.
Hudson Soft made this completely 3D, non-linear medieval fantasy game back in 1999 see if anything seems familiar. At the beginning you create a character male or female and then shape their physical appearance: height, hair, weight and even dominate hand. Then you pick clothing from a huge, assorted list. You also determine physical strength, personality, and intellect. After that you are free to explore and interact with the world's inhabitants as you like, you may become the most villainous or valiant of legends, get married, or wander aimlessly helping and hindering at your whim. Quests are dynamic; as you speak to someone you learn a key phrase or word and you gather similar information to find the appropriate location for the quest. Once you arrive, the quest begins. Some quests are obvious with others being more difficult to discover. Completing a quest nets you some loot. The one thing about this game is that technical limitations hinder what is a very ambitious game of grand scope.
Your character can travel with a few companions and the world is mostly large, fixed-camera interconnected areas and pre-rendered interiors. Battles show damage numbers and take place in a turn-based system allowing for special attacks and spell casting. You can only move after a meter fills and then you try to gain an advantageous position from which to attack the enemy. It is easy to die quickly should you be unprepared for an area or enemy. You can also rearrange where you will start in relation to the battle grid in the menu. Lastly, you can interact with people not only by talking but by choosing a smiley face to speak to them happily or angrily for example.
Kasei Monogatari (aka: Mars Story) is almost completely linear, features extremely simplified 3D characters with 2D movement, a bit of ecchi, and a time-twisting storyline that is mildly reminiscent of Chrono Trigger (if not as deep). A lot of the enjoyment involved revolves around whether or not you are amused by a crudely talking dog with gastritis or "peeping tom" situations (inadvertent or intentional). And if you are an anime fan, the game is divided into thirty chapters, each ending with a stick puppet show and beginning with a brief recap of the previous "episode.
The story follows Phobos, a young tinkerer, who loses his recently invented buggy to a haywire robot, apparently hailing from a larger town called: Kangarian. Phobos and company set off to determine the mystery behind the rampant robot and doing so leads them on a much deeper quest to save the world involving different time periods. The map is set up similar to the board in a board game and a needle is spun to progress along the grid. Each spot holds enemy confrontations, or treasure and health restoration. Dungeons are entirely preset and cannot be avoided. This eliminates the concept of random encounters, but comes with its own pitfalls. Battles play out in 3D and some objects in the environment can be thrown at the enemy. Otherwise, characters are commanded where to move and who to attack.
An abridged take on the Chinese novel (aka: Legend of Condor Heroes) by Jin Yong, The Eagle Shooting Heroes is a more modern RPG in the vein of the PSX Final Fantasy series or Legend of Dragoon. It features 3D characters and areas though it progresses stage by stage. It is mostly unique due to the fact that it is entirely Chinese, but there are a few differences in game play that also set it apart. The story centers around the sons of two men who were great friends and now their sons are rivals raised in different provinces.
Guo Jing and Huong Rong (and the other characters) use different types of chi in their kung-fu during battle based on a rock-paper-scissors formula. Outer chi is physical, inner chi is spiritual energy, and light foot chi is the basis for status ailments, jumping, and even flight. Inner and light foot chi use energy points. Inner chi can defeat outer, light foot has greater priority than inner, and physical overpowers light. Two attacks of the same type of chi come down to which attack is more powerful. For those who have played Valkyria Chronicles, the characters have "habits" in this game, where special abilities randomly activate with a variety of effects (mostly negative) in battle. All characters except the two main characters are set in their habits, but the two can be taught up to ten with four active at a time. The game has a few word-based puzzles that require a guide if you don't understand Chinese or Japanese, but is otherwise highly playable.
Velldeselba Senki is based primarily on 3D aerial combat and traditional 2D RPG exploration. As part of larger force, you and your ship engage targets in real-time using a variety of weaponry with limited ammunition. The game features a lock-on that can be shifted between targets and strategically picking enough of the right type of armament can mean victory or defeat. Ships with larger hulls can be boarded (think of it as sky pirates). Your ship can also be upgraded with parts for the engine, propeller, or armor earned or purchased during the game to improve flight control and aiming. And you can add to your crew over time. Your base holds opportunity to visit the local tavern and gather information as well as receive orders from your commander.
The unnamed hero crash landed on the planet Velldeselba (Berudeseruba) due to engine failure only to be embroiled in a global war between three nations. As the hero crashed in Noipasuku he becomes a mercenary for their army led by Colonel Zexel. Rival nations Gidan and the Munogii Federation keep their own watch over the skies while all are seeking power over Velldeselba (the Holy Land). The hero with the help of those he trusts (Ahade-Kafi for one) must survive not only the dogfights with the other nations and various sky pirates but the political scheming threatening to tear the world apart. With Skies of Arcadia having done so well, it is odd we never got this one.
#5: Volfoss (PS)
Volfoss is a tactical RPG with fully polygonal stages and characters that Namco released in 2002. The best way to describe its aesthetic is 'surreal. You command the Silver Fang mercenary unit attempting to rise through the ranks and conquer the world's three major nations. There is the junkyard realm of Ikuaipe comprised of rust and metal and its haphazardly constructed army led by the great sword master General Veyser. Then there are the swampy forests of Ardenia; a nation of nature, shamanism, and theocracy based on water worship whose army is mostly filled with priests and lightning spells. Finally, there is Caldea filled with chidlren's toys and ruled by a royal family: King Gell, Queen Aur, and Princess Muef who command an army of mythological creatures.
Battles are equal parts strategy and preparation as you must hire troops and place them in suitable units, keep their equipment up-to-date, and level them to become stronger. Most of the troops are not human and each presents a unique approach to battle as well as an interesting design. You can play across a hundred different battles and still not see the entire game in one play through as the story branches allowing you to become noble or evil to your taste. Battles are conducted on a traditional grid layout with player and enemy phases taking turns employing attacks and special abilities or magic.
#4: Eldergate (PS)
Koji igarashi (of Castlevania fame) was the director and system programmer for this Konami RPG and the influence shows, mostly in the character designs (by Studio Gonzo). The game is entirely in 3D and has a fully rotating camera rather you are on the world map, in town, or in battle. The world of Eldora was created by the eight spirits to be a grand realm, but the powers of its creation were too great to be contained and so Rosel was created as a place where the energy could be managed. To maintain balance between the two worlds a gate was built on Rosel and a guardian with the power to harness powers of the eight elemental spirits was chosen. But the balance was disrupted and Rosel was thrown into chaos leaving only the gate and the guardian intact.
Feet (as near as I could translate it), the Guardian of the Gate, must survive the hostile world of Eldora (which is in itself a "dungeon") by going through the gate to find the cause of the imbalance. Every time you pass through the gate, the configuration of Eldora randomly generates. The battles are randomized as well and while you start in a line facing the enemy like in so many traditional turn-based games, moving around on the field adds a layer of strategy. There is also a special group attack. Item appearance is also necessarily randomized and you can do small favors for the world's inhabitants. Most importantly the powers of characters rely on elements. Each of the eight elements can be forged into stones and equipped by the main character or the party to grant powers with magic-users gaining spells and warriors gaining skills based on that element. There are bosses holding other power artifacts that fit into each of the eight spots on the gate, and as they are defeated that spot fixed.
#3: Khamrai (PS)
Khamrai is an interesting RPG using 2D sprites on 3D polygonal backdrops. The character design was done by Haruhio Mikamoto (known for work in the Macross/Robotech series). The title translates roughly as "coming of god." And in this world, mortals and gods live with one another, though they do not really get along well. Only four of the six deities still rule their domains with one having died and another walking as a mortal in disguise. The other four all have their own issues and failings in the face of war and the two main protagonists are two complete opposites of one another. There are six floating island kingdoms: Earth, Fire, Sky, Growth, Light, and Doom. Each of the kingdoms has their own distinct interests such as farming for the Earth or philosophy for the Light.
What is most different in this game is how the battles play out. You pick a target, and the characters base action (attack, item, spell), but they act according to their own will very much like Star Ocean. The battles tend to take a long time and the encounter rate is extremely high which tends to pull you away from the story for too long. Luckily, the pay-off is gratuitous as leveling comes quickly. Also in battle there is a relationship system in play. It is very basic resulting in love or hate and trust or distrust, and it doesn't always work out as you would expect since characters may disagree with a tactic you chose even though a different choice may hurt them, and you are sometimes penalized for things beyond your control (such as enemy actions). A particularly nice touch is the art style seen in the environments and in the magic effects (summons that are partially 3D and animated).
One of the most playable without knowing Kanji games on this list, Ningyo no Rakuin (Mark of the Mermaid) is a tactical survival RPG. It begins with a plane crash onto an uncharted island dominated by a mysterious pagan cult that follows a ritualistic way of disfigurement and human sacrifice. They seem to worship the "Deep Ones" and try to change human beings into aquatic-themed monsters. Keisuke and Mizuki are a high school couple who went on their graduation trip and survived the crash with minor injuries. They and a few other survivors find a young woman tied to a wooden cross and free her before she can be sacrificed only to have Mizuki abducted by the cultists. The game then becomes a focus on finding and rescuing Mizuki from being altered into a fish-like person by the Elder God. There are different endings depending on the choices you make over the course of the game.
In battle each unit has a limited range of movement for each turn, physical or magical attacks, and victory for killing a certain target, when all enemies are defeated, or by surviving long enough to reach a certain mark on the map. The unique aspect is that only characters with weapons can kill an enemy. There are no shops on the island and weapons (and their upgrades) and items are found in hidden chests. So, if you miss a weapon for a character (as only certain characters can use certain weapons) that character won't be effective at dispatching enemies. The battles do not split into enemy and player phases, but instead turn order is determined by each character's speed. All attacks and abilities cost MP to use, and leveling up opens new unique skills for each character. A nice addition is that you can stand in one place for a turn to recover health. It is a challenging game at times, but since it is so linear it is fairly easy to pick up and play.
This is an amazing isometric perspective detective RPG set in a re-imagining of 19th century London and made by Bandai. The main character is an orphan apprentice to the famous detective John Everett Millais. The story is that the invention of the steam engine is bringing all kinds of changes to London and some of those changes are monsters. The hero must discover where the monsters are coming from (probably connected to the disruption of the Spirit World) with the help of his friends Aries Ivory (the cute childhood friend), Buddy (the six-year old orphan who idolizes the hero as a big brother) and Virgil (an older "spirit" detective).
Combat plays out in a fairly simple turn-based format that reminded of Pokemon in perspective, and the hero uses his slingshot to attack enemies. Items are mainly based on real-world objects with foods being curative. Umbrellas and shovels serve as weapons for your small band. Lace ribbons and bowler hats make for swell armor. You can even throw crap (literally) as an attack item. The game is somewhat cutesy at times and the palette is very pleasing and mimics film filters depicting the era. While I have read a few sites labeling it as "steampunk" I would say it is not. I would say it is a great shame that we missed out on this game.
This was a very difficult list as nearly none of the RPGs released only in Japan are really playable without knowing Kanji, but I tried to make a list with variety in setting, style, and graphics without simply naming my personal favorites like Blue Forest Story, Ecsaform, and Battle Konchuuden. I really wish we had gotten more of these games, but I believe any one of the games listed in the 10 or mentions are worth trying. And though this is my personal preferred genre, I simply had to draw the line somewhere in what all to list, so I apologize if I missed anyone's favorite.
End Sector (a card battle game from ASCII that Yu-Gi-Oh fans might enjoy)
Dragon Knights Glorious
Lunatic Dawn (series, very technical and non-linear)
Daikoku Jidai Gaiden, II, & IV
Boundary Gate: Daughter of Kingdom
Blue Forest Story: Kaze no Fuuin (also on 3DO)
Suzu Monogatari (a card battle RPG)
Blue Breaker: Egao no Yakusoku
Mystic Ark: Maboroshi Gekijo (an improved pseudo-sequel)
Alnam no Tsubasa: Shoujin no Sora no Kanata e
Riot Stars (similar to Tactics Ogre)
Nobunaga no Yabou (Nobunaga's Ambition series)
Monster Complete World
Battle Konchuuden (sort of similar to Monster Rancher but with insects)
King of Fighters: Kyo
Bounty Sword (series)
Little Princess: Maru Oukoku no Ningyou Hime 2 (Sequel to Rhapsody)
* PoPoLoCrois Monogatari (series, both were released as PSP's PoPoLoCrois in English but with some notable alterations from the originals).
** Of special interest, a few games that we have since gotten really should have been localized at the time: Dragon Quest IV (NDS), Persona 2 (PSP), and the Legend of Heroes series (PSP).
List by Sohogojo (09/05/2014)
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