Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Opinion Fest 2008: RPG of the Year

Well, here it is, the RPG of the Year Award.

This award goes to the best overall RPG released in North America during 2008. The recipients of this award provided some of the most compelling, memorable experiences in the genre this year.

Since so many games came out during 2008, it was impossible to sum up the year in just 3 recipients. Instead, I have expanded the category to 10 RPGs.

Before I get into the list, I’d like to mention that I never was able to get around to Sega’s Valkyria Chronicles or Namco Bandai’s Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World, though both look to be noteworthy titles this year.

10th: AWAY: Shuffle Dungeon – Mistwalker, Artoon, Majesco – Nintendo DS
A fresh take on dungeon crawling and the Soul Blazer style adventure of “free the trapped villagers to rebuild the city,” AWAY’s puzzle and action-RPG mix make for a fun, if frustrating, adventure that sets out to try something new. It’s not for everyone, and certainly isn’t a Lost Odyssey-caliber epic, but it is a title worth noting this year.

9th: Fallout 3 – Bethesda Softworks – Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
A massive post-apocalyptic world to explore and shape, Fallout 3 has earned a lot of critical acclaim for its sandbox-style gameplay (which all the hip kids are into these days). Whether you choose to follow the story, go dungeon crawling, or just explore the wastes, Fallout 3 is full to overflowing with content. And if you have the 360 or PC versions, there are more helpings of post-apocalyptic questing heading your way soon. Not my favorite game this year, but notable for the sheer volume of stuff to do.

8th: Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia – Konami – Nintendo DS
The third DS entry into the age-old Castlevania series, Ecclesia presents another excuse to go vampire hunting in the role of sexy (but emotionless) protagonist, Shanoa. Gathering glyphs and combining powers can be fun, but I mostly liked it for its platforming take on action-RPGaming. The story isn’t overly compelling, but it does enough to keep you interested in between your 2D adventuring.

7th: The Last Remnant – Square Enix – Xbox 360
Despite being labeled an “RPG for the World,” The Last Remnant is not an RPG for everyone. It is steeped in “hardcore” RPG mechanics and is plagued by noticeable texture pop-ins (and apparently other bugs if you don’t install it). However, it manages to apply some new and interesting mechanics into the tried-and-true turn-based JRPG affair, and has high production values, even for Square Enix. If you can handle wild swings in difficulty and some occasionally odd design choices, you will be rewarded with a delightfully different, and in many ways, refreshing experience.

6th: Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis – Gust, NIS America – PlayStation 2
Only the fourth of Gust’s Atelier titles to see North American release, Mana Khemia takes some of the best ideas from Atelier Iris 3 and implements them into a school-based alchemic RPG. The result is a charming title that affords the player with plenty of amusing side quests, an enjoyable (if unoriginal) battle system, and tons of item creation. The inclusion of the original Japanese audio track is definitely a plus. If you love Atelier titles, 2D RPGs, or even just item creation, you could do a lot worse than Mana Khemia.

5th: Infinite Undiscovery – tri-Ace, Microsoft, Square Enix – Xbox 360
Though perhaps a few feet short of its promises, tri-Ace’s Infinite Undiscovery isn’t afraid to try new things, and benefits from an original take on the JRPG genre. The story is interesting and the gameplay superb, it is only a shame that the English voice work is so subpar and that Square Enix opted to leave out the Japanese language track. That said, the game is a must play for tri-Ace fans or action-RPG enthusiasts, and at least worth a rent for those interested in the genre.

4th: Fable II – Lionhead, Microsoft – Xbox 360
A compelling argument for the increase in quality in WRPGs, Fable II provides a lush, living world for its players, and implements an incredibly satisfying battle system. The narrative is interesting, though perhaps not award winning, while the level of interaction with everything and everyone is enormous. Throw in lots of side quests, optional exploration, and a pile of diversions, and Fable II is an easy recommendation to RPGamers who like to play at their own pace.

3rd: Persona 4 – Atlus – PlayStation 2
Though Persona 4 doesn’t do much new with Persona 3’s basic formula, it brings to the table a much more compelling story, new locations, and increased interactions. There is more to do than most will be able to fit into one playthrough, and the narrative this time around is much more mature and involving than its predecessor. Persona 4 is one of the last great RPGs on the PlayStation 2, and still manages to impress gamers despite its last-gen appearance. In short, if you still have a PS2, don’t pass this one up.

2nd: Lost Oyssey – Mistwalker, FeelPlus, Microsoft – Xbox 360
What can I say about Lost Odyssey that you don’t already know? Lost Odyssey is a masterpiece of RPGaming. Memorable characters, involving storyline, beautiful soundtrack, jaw-dropping graphics and art direction, and an incredibly satisfying quest, Lost Odyssey has set the bar for 7th generation RPGs. If you have any favorable feelings towards Final Fantasy, turn-based RPGs, or compelling narratives, you have no good excuse to pass up Lost Odyssey.

1st: Tales of Vesperia – Namco Bandai – Xbox 360

And here it is, Sword Machine’s best RPG of 2008. Namco Bandai’s Tales of Vesperia only barely squeaks past Lost Odyssey to take the prize.

Like Lost Odyssey, Tales of Vesperia is a hallmark of RPGaming. It successfully combines music, art, and storytelling into one interactive package of awesome, and is an enthusiastic recommendation to absolutely anyone willing to play a video game.

Production values are higher than nearly any other title on the market, and even the exclusion of the Japanese voice track fails to damage the game’s value (as the English cast does a remarkably good job).

Exciting. Beautiful. Memorable. Polished. Engaging. Intelligent. Tales of Vesperia achieves what many other RPGs only wish they could be, and does so in such a confident way, you’ll think it never even tried.

Though it came neck-and-neck with Lost Odyssey, overall I felt like Tales of Vesperia offered a slightly more accessible experience. But overall, if I can convince you to play both, I will.

2008 was truly a great year for RPGs. There were many smaller, more obscure titles that didn’t make the top 10 list, many of which are also worth your attention. We don’t know much about what 2009 will bring, but if it can manage to measure up to 2008, I think we’ll be in good hands.

Thanks for reading Sword Machine, and we hope to hear your comments in 2009! Happy New Year!

P.S. I had hoped to present a Reader’s Choice Award, but unfortunately only received 5 responses (I was gunning for at least 10 in order to give a fair award). Huge thanks to zerolocked, giggity gavin, Patrick Bateman, Billy, and syaugust8 for your input! ^_^ b

Opinion Fest 2008: Most Anticipated of 2009

In a few hours, 2008 will officially be behind us and we will barrel headfirst into 2009. With all of the RPG releases of 2008 over and done with, gamers – insatiable creatures that we are – will begin looking forward to what’s next.

To be honest, we really only know the tip of the iceberg at the moment, with only a handful of RPGs confirmed or even rumored for 2009, the recipients of the Most Anticipated award are drawn only from the pool of existing confirmations. They are nonetheless very promising looking titles that already have me hot and bothered.

3rd: Fragile: Farewell Lunar Ruins – tri-Crescendo, Namco Bandai – Nintendo Wii

An RPG focusing on exploration and tapping into the Japanese aesthetic of sadness, Fragile: Sayonara Tsuki no Haikyo has had my constant interest since its announcement. Set in a world with very few humans left, the protagonist Seth sets out to simply find companionship. With Tri-Crescendo handling the game’s development, and ToV’s producer onboard, Fragile is definitely a game to keep an eye on.

2nd: Muramasa: The Demon Blade – Vanillaware, Marvelous – Nintendo Wii

I don’t know much about the story behind Oboro Muramasa, but I do know that the game is being developed by Vanillaware (Odin Sphere), and that George Kamitani is handling the art. I also know that the game is set in medieval Japan and lets you slash up beautifully hand-drawn enemies in an artistically gorgeous world. But seriously, you had me at Vanillaware. <3

1st: Star Ocean 4: The Last Hope – tri-Ace, Square Enix – Xbox 360

As a long-time Star Ocean fan, SO4’s rank as my Most Anicipated RPG of 2008 should come as no surprise. Set as the prequel to the series, following Edge and Reimi’s trip to pioneer the stars after the nuclear aftermath of WWIII already has my pants wet.

With gorgeous HD graphics, enhanced, high-paced battles, and new ideas like the Roommate System, I really don’t know if I’m going to be able to hold out for another 2 months before I can get my hands on this.

As a word of caution to Square Enix: if you give this localization the same treatment you gave Infinite Undiscovery, I’m seriously going to beat you up.

Some of you might be wondering why Final Fantasy XIII is absent from the list. Simply put, I haven’t seen or heard enough about what to expect from it for me to truly be excited for the title. The return to ATB has my interest, but until I see a lot more proof that this isn’t going to be another FFXII gong-show, interest is where it stays.

Opinion Fest 2008: Best Story

RPG fans are usually divided on whether an RPG’s story or gameplay is more important. I’m going to weigh in on the matter and say that both are integral to a good RPG. A fantastic story is undermined by poor gameplay, and incredible gameplay is meaningless without a good story. However, it seems that stories are harder to make than gameplay, so when a game with a good story comes along, I listen up.

The winners of the Best Story award managed to create a narrative that I found not only worth my time and interest, but also provided memorable experiences and lovable (or hate-worthy) characters.

Honorable Mention: The Last Remnant – Square Enix – Xbox 360

The Last Remnant tries a few new things with JRPG storytelling. Many of them work, a few do not. However, the game presents an interesting story that often gives the player a sense of urgency. Certainly deserving of an honorable mention.

3rd: Persona 4 – Atlus – PlayStation 2

I haven’t been able to spend as much time with this game as I would have liked, but what I have played has convinced me that P4’s story is much more intriguing, much more mature, and much more immersive than its predecessor.

Focusing on a strange string of murders in a little rural town, Persona 4 manages to tell a tale steeped in mystery and occult all the while not taking itself too seriously. The story is much more central to the game’s theme than P3’s was, though still forces you to continue living a normal life for most of the day.

2nd: Tales of Vesperia – Namco Bandai – Xbox 360

I am a sucker for anime-style storylines, and Tales of Vesperia manages to pull out all the stops. Though ToV retains the light-hearted interactions and situational comedy that the series is known for, it also explores one of the most controversial and mature themes ever seen in a JRPG: are truth and justice the same for everyone?

An ever-deepening thrill ride of laughter and tears, ToV manages to bring the series to a new level of maturity and emotional involvement, and will keep any player interested in its characters, world, and narrative all the way through.

1st: Lost Odyssey – Mistwalker, Microsoft – Xbox 360

Though Mistwalker’s masterpiece is a little slow starting off, Lost Odyssey is a game that becomes more intriguing, more epic, and more involving the further you go. The story of the immortal Kaim Argonar, Lost Odyssey is, on one hand, the story of a struggle to protect a world that an outsider grew to love, and on the other, a fascinating look into the human heart over 1000 years of experience.

Lost Odyssey is a story for every RPGamer who has ever felt connected to a game’s world or characters, and provides the best JRPG narrative not only of 2008, but perhaps as the modern epitome of game storytelling. This emotional and epic journey easily claims the Best Story award of 2008.

Opinion Fest 2008: Best Soundtrack

Though the majority of the focus on games is on graphics (especially now in the HD era), any hardcore RPGamer knows that a good RPG is nothing without a good soundtrack to back it up. Legendary soundtracks like Uematsu’s Final Fantasy VI or Mitsuda’s Chrono Cross remain brilliant masterpieces even after a decade.

The winners of this award have crafted not only soundtracks that added to the game’s experience in positive ways, but also have delivered musical works that speak volumes on their own.

Honorable Mention: Persona 4 – Shouji Meguro – PlayStation 2

Persona 4 is not Meguro’s best work, but it does represent a memorable set of tracks that not only managed to recapture the nostalgia of his earlier works, but also managed to retain the modern feeling the P3’s soundtrack had, without the heavy emphasis on Japanese R&B.

3rd: Infinite Undiscovery – Motoi Sakuraba – Xbox 360

Sakuraba’s work in IU is some of his highest quality to date, and nearly every piece that makes up the soundtrack is grand and atmospheric. Occassionally epic and consistently catchy, the only faults of this soundtrack for me were the desert themes, which became irritating incredibly quickly. Otherwise, IU is a stunning achievement of musical excellence.

2nd: Tales of Vesperia – Motoi Sakuraba – Xbox 360

I don’t know why, but Tales of soundtracks are usually Sakuraba’s weakest offerings. And while ToV’s soundtrack never consistently hits the grandiosity that IU’s achieves, Sakuraba manages what I felt was an incredibly complete, very complimentary soundtrack. Indeed, nearly every track is well composed and adds to the atmosphere of the game, while some pieces are hands-down gorgeous (my favorite being On the Far Side of Mirage). Altogether, Sakuraba’s work on ToV is easily his best in the series, and an overall wonderful collection of music.

1st: Lost Odyssey – Nobuo Uematsu – Xbox 360

I admit that Uematsu has been hit and miss with me for the last few years. Blue Dragon’s soundtrack, for example, was occasionally incredible and occasionally awful. I honestly thought that we would never again hear a complete OST as complete as Final Fantasy VI’s.
Then I played Lost Odyssey and was absolutely floored. Not only does Uematsu’s work with Lost Odyssey exude quality at every turn, he manages to recapture an overall sound that I thought had been lost forever.

Always complimentary to the game’s settings and events, Lost Odyssey is not only a joy to listen to, but often emotionally stirring.

There is no doubt in my mind that Lost Odyssey’s soundtrack blows everything else this year out of the water. I only hope we don’t have to wait another decade to hear another masterpiece like this.

As a side, let me say that it is a crying shame that Nintendo and Monolith’s Soma Bringer didn’t ever see North American shores, as Mitsuda’s soundtrack alone is worth the price of admission. Despite being a DS title (with all the sub-par sound capabilities that go with it), the soundtrack is absolutely wonderful, and easily would have made the top three.

Opinion Fest 2008: Best Graphics

With the advent of high-definition gaming, most hardcore gamers have come to expect a certain level of visual presentation with their video games, and RPGs are no exception. Though a good game is far more than a pretty set of polygons, no one can deny the impact that good graphics can have on the storytelling process.

The winners of this award managed to create visuals that not only capture the game’s artistic vision, but also leave a lasting impression all on their own.

Honorable Mention: The Last Remnant – Square Enix – Xbox 360

The Last Remnant deserves a mention here solely for Square Enix’s character model works. Though many of the game’s locales feel wide and empty, the character models – in gameplay and cutscene alike – are detailed and full of life. Last Remnant’s characters are easily the best in-game models from the developer to date.

3rd: Tales of Vesperia – Namco Bandai – Xbox 360

Capturing not only Fujishima’s character designs incredibly faithfully in 3D, ToV’s graphics are gorgeous, bright, and full of life. Though perhaps not as lush as last year’s Eternal Sonata, ToV manages to capture a traditional 2D presentation with beautiful 3D work, and represents on of the most compelling arguments for cell-shaded graphics.

2nd: Lost Odyssey – Mistwalker, Microsoft – Xbox 360

Developer feelplus managed to blend photorealism with both high fantasy and steampunk on the Unreal Engine in one of the most believable 3D JRPGs ever created. From the huge metronomes of the magic industrial revolution, down to the little details on the character’s costumes or the barely visible blue veins in Ming and Sarah’s breasts, Lost Odyssey is a testament that Japanese developers still have eyes for quality. Real-time and FMV alike are breathtaking, and Lost Odyssey is one game that will make you thankful for that HDTV.

1st: Valkyria Chronicles – Sega – PlayStation 3

If you want to talk about artistic vision, however, Sega’s Valkyria Chronicles stands as one of the most compelling arguments for originality and art direction. A vision of artistic excellence, Valkyria Chronicles looks like film quality anime painted on canvas throughout. Whether you like SRPGs or not, care for WWII retellings or not, Valkyria Chronicles stands as proof of what innovative cell-shading can accomplish, and makes for an awe-inspiring visual presentation. Though ToV and LO are incredible to look at, neither approaches the sheer vision that Valkyria Chronicles not only tackles, but outdoes itself in. Hopefully we will see more games take a page out of VC’s artbook.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Opinion Fest 2008: Most Innovative

Though many reviewers demand the next great thing out of everything they play (hey, I’m sure it’s a tough job to play video games all day), reinventing the wheel is not always the best way to go about game design. Sometimes tried and true methods with a new coat of paint are all a game needs to sell itself (see Fallout 3). The games that win the Most Innovative Award, however, are games that do dare to be different; to rise to the challenge of pushing the genre in new directions.

These games may not be the most popular, but they have done a lot for the RPG genre in 200

3rd: AWAY: Shuffle Dungeon – Mistwalker, Artoon, Majesco – Nintendo DS

Though maybe not as robust as some other RPGs this year, Mistwalker and Artoon’s AWAY forces you to look at the dungeons you explore in a different light. “If I step over there, then I have to make sure I grab that before the shuffle…” is not an uncommon thought. Mixing basic top-down action-role-playing with the thought required of a puzzler, AWAY is a refreshingly new approach to a classic formula, even if it borders on “smash your DS with a hammer” frustrating.

2nd: The Last Remnant – Square Enix – Xbox 360

Some of you may remember that one of my fist reactions to The Last Remnant’s gameplay was “…wtf did I just watch?” And its true. Just watching someone play the game will do little besides raise an eyebrow. Playing the game, however, becomes very intuitive very quickly, and within an hour or so, you’ll wonder what you were confused about at all.

Combining strategy and turn-based fights into a single, massive entity, The Last Remnant was one of the first games that actually made me feel like I was commanding an army, and several times I actually found myself yelling at the soldiers on my TV screen. “Dodge that! What’s wrong with you?!”

1st: Infinite Undiscovery – tri-Ace, Square Enix – Xbox 360

Infinite Undiscovery, despite its shortcomings, propels the Japanese take on action-RPGs ahead by light years. From the battle system that can have up to 18 of your allies slugging it out at once, to environmental hazards like rockslides and wind storms, Undiscovery delivers some of the most chaotic and intense battles ever seen in an RPG to date (even on easy mode!). But that’s just where the game starts. Throw in emotional connections and changing personalities that affect your party’s skills, and an interesting Connect Action system that affects which characters you want on your party, and you have a game with some really forward thinking going on. Oh, did I also mention you can control catapults? Because you can.

Love it or hate it, Infinite Undiscovery rethinks the traditional JRPG formula on nearly every side, and is more deserving than any title of the most innovative RPG of 2008.

Opinion Fest 2008: Best RPG Console

Like it or not, we are now fully entrenched in the 7th generation. Most developers have moved away from the relics of the previous generation and are knee-deep in developing for something bigger, better, or something else with motion controls. (;P) This award goes to the console (or handheld) that has proven its worth in RPG content during 2008.

3rd: PlayStation 2

Sony’s most successful second child refuses to bow out of the fray just yet, and though most developers have left the PS2 in favor of the future, solid releases like Persona 4, Mana Khemia, and the upcoming Ar Tonelico II prove that slower but slimmer older sister of the PS3 still has some fight left.

2nd: Nintendo DS

If the PS2 was the industry standard of the 6th generation, then the Nintendo DS is the closest we’ll get to one this gen. Despite my own distaste for the machine, the sheer amount of content for the platform is staggering, and it’s rare for a week to go by without someone announcing a new DS RPG. Though the quality of many of the titles is questionable, there can be no denying that the DS is seated comfortably in the land of a million exclusives.

1st: Xbox 360

…But if you’re looking for high quality RPGs, your best stop in 2008 is undeniably the Xbox 360. With hard-hitting Japanese exclusive RPGs like Tales of Vesperia, Lost Odyssey, and Infinite Undiscovery, timed-exclusives like The Last Remnant, or exclusive DLC for big named western RPGs like Fallout 3, and even niche titles like Operation Darkness, Culdcept Saga, and Spectral Force 3, the Xbox 360 is undoubtedly the console of choice for the RPG enthusiast of the 7th generation. It also doesn’t hurt that nearly every 3rd party title on the PS3 also tends to find its way to the 360, or that the new installation feature of the NXE allows your games to be played with virtually no load times, or that every big name RPG on the console finds its way to North America in less time than ever before. Truly, RPGamers can find a lot of things to like about the 360.

Opinion Fest 2008: Best Battle System

Phew. Okay, now that we're done with the "worst of" 2008, let's check out everything that made this last year great in RPGs. We'll start with Best Battle System.

This award is not necessarily for the most innovative or most original battle system, but rather the battle systems that remained fun and engaging. No game that wins this award ever made me think, “dammit, not another battle!”

3rd: Infinite Undiscovery – tri-Ace, Square Enix – Xbox 360

Forget random battles, magically being spirited away to a parallel dimension’s battle field, or waiting for your turn to come, Infinite Undiscovery throws you into the fray right from the get go. Draw your sword, play on your enemies’ weaknesses, and fight as a team and you’ll come out on top. IU’s battles are fast-paced, fun, and often chaotic. If not
hing else, IU delivers a healthy shot of adrenaline into the action-RPG genre, and does a good job of it.

2nd: Fable II – Lionhead, Microsoft – Xbox 360

Sure, there’s no real team effort involved in Fable II, but maybe that’s what makes it so enjoyable: feeling badass enough to take on the whole world all by your
self. Having unlimited control over melee, ranged, and magic attacks at any time makes for a simple battle system that never seems to grow repetitive. I absolutely adored kicking one guy off a cliff, slashing another guy’s feet out from under him, then picking off a third guy in the face with my pistol. I don’t know, but some things just never get old.

Also, fighting balverines is wicked.

1st: Tales of Vesperia – Namco Bandai – Xbox 360

The Tales of series has been around for a long time, but ToV’s battle system is easily the best to date. Whether you’re stringing together punches and slashes with Yuri, launching enemies into the air with Judith, or laying down a magical barrage with Rita, ToV’s battles can only be described as ‘satisfying.’ Throw in a healthy dose of overlimits, burst artes, and secret missions, and you have yourself a battle system that grows with you, complimenting your abilities the further you progress in the game. Tales of Vesperia easily made for the most intense, most enjoyable battles of the year, yet manages to keep it simple enough for even novice players to feel in control.

Opinion Fest 2008: Vaporware Award

This award goes to the RPG that is slapped in gamers’ faces, yet dangled just out of reach. The developers or publishers of these games feel absolutely no remorse towards showing off CG trailers, producing bullshots, and otherwise flaunting an unfinished game, content to let gamers and press alike derive wild speculations on everything from characters’ relationships to release dates.

Dishonorable Mention: Final Fantasy XIII – Square Enix – PlayStation 3, Xbox 360

3rd: Cry On – Mistwalker, AQ Interactive – Xbox 360

Since its announcement in 2005, Cry On has been at the top of my Do Want List consistently. The concept, the character designs, the pedigree, the promise was just too much for me to ignore. It sounded like one of the most innovative and meaningful action-RPGs we would have ever seen.

And then… nothing. Oh sure, occasionally scraps of info would show up somewhere, but nothing substantial was ever shown and fans were left to cry and pray that the game would be everything Sakaguchi had promised.

After nearly a year of no news at all, word finally came down from above that the game had been canceled. Cry On, we hardly knew ye…

2nd: Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled – Studio Archcraft, Graffiti – Nintendo DS

Black Sigil: Blade of the Exile (formerly Project Exile) has been on my radar for at least the last 3 years. Studio Archcraft, the developer, promised time and again that the game would be released soon. But as expected release dates came and went, the game’s followers would exhale a sigh of disappointment.

Finally, though, this year the game’s publisher was officially decided, and the game was slated to indeed be coming out before the end of the year. We were even promised the game as a Christmas present.

Then… nothing. No word on a delay, no new date, no reasons, just silence. When is the new “release” date this time? I have no clue, and frankly, I’m not even sure the publisher or developer do either.

1st: Final Fantasy Versus XIII – Square Enix – PlayStation 3

Though Black Sigil’s forever delay and Cry On’s mysterious silence (followed by a defeating cancellation) have been trying on our souls, no developer even comes close to the gall that Square Enix has shown regarding Final Fantasy Versus XIII. ‘Add 3 seconds of CG footage to the game’s trailer and wave it in front of the press’ is a tactic that has gotten so old and so transparent, that all it does for me now is piss me off. Maybe this works on poor, brainwashed fanboys, but it doesn’t work on me.

Listen up, Square Enix: if you have a game to show me, show me a game. I don’t want to see more CG footage until you show me the game behind it. Also, release dates, even target quarters, would be greatly helpful in determining how to gauge a game’s progress. I, for one, don’t like being told I’ll get something, but never be given a date or details. So seriously, show me the game or GTFO.

Opinion Fest 2008: Most Overrated

Let me preface this award by stating clearly that none of the games that are on this list are bad games. Not one. Each is a great game in its own right, and many may be deserving of your attention. However, the titles that receive this award do so because they have received so much press, so much critical claim, and so much gushing from every press outlet imaginable, yet in the end, remain just a regular game, far from deserving of stealing so much spotlight.

3rd: Fable II – Lionhead, Microsoft – Xbox 360

The original Fable, though a solid game in its own right, was a far cry from what designer Peter Molyneux made it out to be. Fable II definitely comes much closer to its promises, and truly provides a robust, enjoyable game. However, it probably doesn’t deserve a lot of its critical acclaim, as it is still, at its heart, a linear story-driven title with a metric tonne of side quests. Nothing more.

2nd: Chrono Trigger – Square Enix – Nintendo DS

Chrono Trigger is a timeless tale, and a game that rightfully deserves its position as one of the best RPGs of all time. It also happens to be one of my favorite RPGs of any generation.
However, it’s recent DS port, though very complete in all facets, is far too overrated for its own good. This is the third release of the game in North America, and though not the worst (hi, PSX version!), it certainly isn’t its best either. The game’s added content fails to add anything noteworthy, and the new translation – though perhaps more true to the original Japanese – feels odd to a long-time fan of the game.

Yes, I know that you can play through it in its original SNES release form, but why would I want to when I already have the SNES version?

If you have never played Chrono Trigger before, I highly recommend this port. Otherwise, this port should be completely forgotten, not paraded around the gaming community like some resurrection of perfection.

1st: Fallout 3 – Bethesda – Xbox 360, PC, PlayStation 3

I don’t think anyone should be surprised to see Fallout 3 take this cake. As I noted earlier, Fallout 3 is not a bad game by any stretch. However, it has been so universally heralded as such high-caliber masterpiece, that, inevitably, it falls short of the rantings of the press.

I’m sorry, but Fallout 3 is too buggy, too clunky, too monochrome, and too Oblivion with a new coat of paint to ever be my game of the year. Enjoyable? Definitely. The second coming of Western RPGs? Not by a long shot.

Opinion Fest 2008: Biggest Disappointment

Time to get Opinion Fest 2008 underway. I'm going to start with the "bad" awards so we can get those out of the way first.

2008 had a lot of ups and downs. This award goes to the games that brought some of the biggest downs to the RPGing world. Many of these big downs came from hopes of wondrous ups, only to be smashed right in front of us. Check out the three biggest disappointments of 2008.

3rd: Black Sigil pushed back AGAIN

How many times does this make it? I don’t know exactly who to point fingers at here, but seriously, how long must I wait for this game? It’s been years, you guys. YEARS.
Just pick a date and ship it to stores already. Mmmkay?

2nd: Infinite Undiscovery’s voice work

I was very very excited for Infinite Undiscovery. I love tri-Ace, and so to see a new IP from them pushing the action-RPG genre in new ways was more than a little exciting, especially considering the game had the backing of both Microsoft and Square Enix. Everything I saw of the game up until release was nothing but confirmation that the game was indeed going to kick some serious ass.

Then the English dub came along and ruined everything.
Though a few voice actors managed to deliver decent performances, the vast majority felt half-assed at best, absolutely butchering any real feeling that the game tries to deliver. I still like this game, but I find myself shaking my head almost constantly at how terribly the English cast screwed this up.

Honestly Square Enix North America, what the hell were you thinking? You could have at least left the Japanese track on it if you didn’t want to make an effort.

1st: Continued developer support of the DS with no end in sight

I’m going to level with you. I have a DS, and I can’t stand the damn thing. The graphics are terrible, the audio quality is grating, the console is poorly made and uncomfortable to hold, and squinting at the screen for more than 10 minutes is mind-numbing. And yet developers – North American and Japanese alike – love to develop games for the thing like it’s going out of style. If someone teases a game, my first guess is always “another sh*tty DS game,” and sadly, I’m usually right.

All of this would be forgivable if the DS garnered the same interest as every other handheld in the history of the world. Y’know, a respectable install base and the occasional good release. But no. Everyone in the damn world owns one of these little buggers, letting every single developer know that its okay to make sub-par games all of the time. Dammit, DS. Go the hell away.

Monday, December 29, 2008

RPGs of the Week: Absolutely Nothing Edition

I hope you all had/are having a wonderful holiday season! I was able to spend a couple of days with family and all that good stuff, so I can't really complain.

Those of you still looking to pick up a new RPG this week will likely be disappointed to know that there is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING COMING OUT THIS WEEK. Like, anywhere.

So, uh, either play the games you have, or go grab one you missed.

RPGs of the Week will return next week for some releases. ...I think.

An Ocean of New Info for Star Ocean 4

Though maybe not enough to make you forget about the terrible Cry On cancellation news, Square Enix has recently released some new info on their upcoming tri-Ace Xbox 360 RPG, Star Ocean 4: The Last Hope via Weekly Famitsu. I have the info from the article, plus the info on previously revealed character, Crowe F. Almedio.

First up, the characters.

Crowe F. Almedio
Like Edge and Reimi, Crowe is a member of the SRF mission, and serves as the captain of the SRF ship mark 001, Acura. He is also a childhood friend of Edge and Reimi, and is seen by the two as an older brother figure. Edge especially feels close to him, and regards him as both a best friend and his rival.
Though Crowe appears to be naturally gifted at everything, he is actually a very hard worker, and his achievements are a testament to the many hurdles that he has overcome. He always maintains a cool head, and is able to make decisions and act with precision.

Muria Tionises
A woman working as an investigator of the Planet En II , Muria is skilled in both physical combat as well as Symbology. She is strong-willed and has a fierce temper. Though she possesses a beautiful smile, she has come to display a stern look more often than not since a certain incident. Currently, she is searching for a certain man while conducting her research.

The rest of the article focuses mainly on SO4's use of the series' staple Private Actions (PAs). This may be review for many long-time series fans, but there are a few interesting changes to the system to keep veterans on their toes.

For the uninitiated, PAs are mini-events that occur occassionally between the main character (Edge) and certain party members. During these events, how the player handles the conversations will affect character's relationships with each other, changing how characters behave in battle, and ultimately will decide how the game ends.

SO4 will feature "hidden" PAs that will require the player to fulfill certain requirements before they become available. For instance, in order to unlock some of these hidden PAs, it may be requisite to have seen a previous PA, or to have said some specific to a certain character. Many PAs are also time-specific, and can only be accessed at certain points in the story.

The article reports that there are roughly 100 PAs in total.

As with previous Star Ocean titles, party members' relationships are governed by Emotion Points. Through Private Actions and other events, these Emotion Points will change and eventually determine the game's ending. Deciding how to treat each character becomes very important if you are aiming for a specific outcome. It should also be noted that some hidden PAs are only available once a character's Emotion Points are at a certain level.

Finally, the article touches on the previously hinted Roommate System. There are 4 living quarters on board the Calnus, with each room capable of housing 2 characters. Depending on which characters you assign to each room will affect how the characters feel about each other, what goes on in the Calnus while on board, and can make certain PAs available. Roommate assignments can be changed at any time via a panel accessible on the Calnus.

It may interest you to note that there are only 8 character slots shown in the Roommate System screen, though we anticipate that there will be more than 8 recruitable characters, meaning the player will likely have to choose to recruit certain characters over others. But, hey, it just wouldn't be Star Ocean without it, right?

Star Ocean 4: The Last Hope will be available for Xbox 360 on February 19, 2009 in Japan, and on March 3, 2009 in North America.

Cry On Canceled, Mistwalker Working on the Next Big Thing

In some very sad news, AQ Interactive officially announced on Christmas that their previously announced Xbox 360 action-RPG project, Cry On, has been canceled due to financial restraints.

Announced in December of 2005 (3 years ago), Cry On was a joint project between Mistwalker (Blue Dragon, Lost Odyssey) and Cavia (Drakengard, Bullet Witch). The game's focus was to be on a young girl named Sally who carried a small golem doll named Bogle, which would grow to enormous size when Sally was in danger. The name 'Cry On' was chosen as the game was said to focus on tears - both of joy and sadness - and, like Lost Odyssey, was to deal with human emotion.

AQ Interactive has been posting in the red for most of 2008, a phenomenon that they attribute mostly to lackluster sales of Blue Dragon Plus and the PS3 port of Vampire Rain. After a business evaluation by a contracted company, it was determined that several of their financially risky titles would be canceled in favor of more marketable games such as KORG DS-10.

(I know this may sound ridiculous, but I swear I'm not making this up. I've been reading their financial press releases for the last 6 months in hopes of hearing news of Cry On.)

In the official Mistwalker blog, Sakaguchi expresses his regret that Cry On was canceled, but has said there was nothing he could do. He has, however, mentioned that he is working on his next "big" project, though said that he isn't allowed to go into any details, and can't even reveal what console the new project is in development for. According to Sakaguchi, this new project is now over half completed, so we hope to hear more about it sometime this year.

Sorry this isn't a very nice announcement at Christmas, but I don't work at AQ.

I was personally devestated when I first heard this news. Cry On was a title I had been looking forward to since its announcement, and easily looked like the most promising title from Mistwalker. Please take a moment to mourn the death of what looked to be a very promising RPG.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Pre-Opinion Fest 2008

With the year closing down shop and making way for 2009, it's time that we take a look back on the journey that was 2008. A lot of RPGs came out in 2008, and whether you liked them or hated them, you can't deny that there was a lot to choose from.

Opinion Fest, my own personal awards ceremony, has gone on for the past few years, and will now be featured here on Sword Machine for your reading (dis)pleasure. Opinion Fest is basically exactly what it sounds like: my own opinions on what was great and what was not-so-great over the past year.

This year, however, I'd like to give you, my readers, a chance to express your own opinions on 2008's RPG scene. Below I've compiled a (hopefully) comprehensive list of all the commercial RPGs that came out on consoles in North America this year. Your job (should you choose to accept it), is to leave a comment with your favorite RPGs of this year.

You can pick up to 3 titles across any platforms you like. You can give me reasons why you liked them, or just list them. My only request is that you number them, with 1 being your personal best.

Hopefully I will see enough of a response to feature a "Reader's Choice Award" determined by you guys during next week's Opinion Fest.

Oh, also, if you see that I have missed a game in the list, please tell me in the comments so I can get it fixed. Thanks. ;)

Here's the list (in alphabetical order, by platform):

Castle Crashers (XBLA)
Penny Arcade: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode 1 (PC, XBLA, PSN)
Penny Arcade: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode 2 (PC, XBLA, PSN)

Baroque (PS2, Wii)
Dokapon Kingdom (PS2, Wii)
Fallout 3 (360, PC, PS3)
Golden Axe: Beast Rider (360, PS3)
Rise of the Argonauts (360, PC, PS3)

Nintendo DS
AWAY: Shuffle Dungeon
Casltevania: Order of Ecclesia
Chrono Trigger
Digimon World Championship
Disgaea DS
Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen
Drone Tactics
Etrian Odyssey II: Heroes of Lagaard
Final Fantasy IV
Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates
Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift
From the Abyss
Harvest Moon: Island of Happiness
Izuna 2: The Unemployed Ninja Returns
Luminous Arc 2
Master of the Monster Lair
Mazes of Fate
Mega Man Star Force 2: Zerker x Ninja
Mega Man Star Force 2: Zerker x Saurian
Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer
Naruto: Path of the Ninja 2
Pokemon Ranger: Shadows of Almia
Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure
Rondo of Swords
Rune Factory 2: A Fantasy Harvest Moon
Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood
Spectrobes II: Beyond the Portals
Summon Night: Twin Age
The World Ends With You

Nintendo Wii
Dragon Quest Swords: The Masked Queen and the Tower of Mirrors
Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo’s Dungeon
Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King
Harvest Moon: Tree of Tranquility
Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World

PlayStation 2
Eternal Poison
Falling Stars
Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories
Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis
Persona 3: FES
Persona 4

PlayStation 3
Disgaea 3: Absence of Justice
Eternal Sonata
Overlord: Raising Hell
Valkyria Chronicles

Dungeon Maker II: The Hidden War
Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core
Neverland Card Battles
Star Ocean: First Departure
Valhalla Knights 2
Yggdra Union

Xbox 360
Battle Fantasia
Culdcept Saga
Fable II

Infinite Undiscovery
Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom
Lost Odyssey
Operation Darkness
Spectral Force 3
Tales of Vesperia
The Last Remnant
Too Human
Zoids Assault

Capcom is Done with Breath of Fire

If there is one thing that new Capcom is all about, its breaking in to the Western market. And largely, with titles like Devil May Cry, Resident Evil, and other non-RPG titles, they are doing an admirable job.

But where does that leave their very traditional Japanese series, like fan-loved JRPG series Breath of Fire? Unfortunately, according to Keiji Inafune, the outlook is not bright:

"There are currently no plans on making a new Breath of Fire game. Apart from that, regarding RPG titles, they are very popular in Japan, but only certain RPG titles sell so Capcom doesn't really need to even consider making these titles as an option."

It's no secret that the series has underperformed since BoFIII, and Dragon Quarter, having released over 5 years ago, received mixed reactions from critics and fans alike.

However, not all hope is lost. Said the Inafune:

"There's a low possibility that we'll be making one in the near future. But, I realize that there are fans of the series, and we have staff who are interested so it's not out of the question. We actually have a lot of titles in a similar situation, where there's an interest by users and our staff, but where we just don't have the resources."

So, basically, it's not completely impossible. Just mostly impossible. Not very reassuring, but I guess we'll take all the hope we can get.

Rest in Peace, Breath of Fire, you will be missed.

Riz-Zoawd Launch Trailer for Your Oz Needs

Those of you waiting on your hands for D3 and Media.Vision's Wizard of Oz RPG, Riz-Zoawd, will likely be happy to know that the wait is nearly over. To celebrate, D3 has released a launch trailer for the game, giving you a glimpse of the world, its characters, and the title's gameplay. It also features the rather pleasant JPop theme song.

Take a watch.

Riz-Zoawd will be available for Nintendo DS on December 25, 2008 in Japan.

New Echoes of Time Trailer Makes Crystal Chronicles Actually Look Fun

I don't know exactly what is going on here, but watching the new trailer for Square Enix's upcoming Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Echoes of Time made me think that the game might actually be.... kinda fun.

I know, I know. This is Crystal Chronicles we're talking about here. I haven't played a fun Crystal Chronicles game yet, and didn't believe one could actually exist. But here we are, staring down what could maybe possibly be the first actually enjoyable title in the series...

Or not, I don't know. Watch the trailer and tell me what you think.

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Echoes of Time will be available for Nintendo DS and Nintendo Wii on January 29, 2009 in Japan.

Dragons + DS Trifecta Rounds Out with Dragon Quest IX Trailer

Today's dragon + DS theme is brought to a conclusion with the latest trailer for Square Enix's upcoming Dragon Quest IX: Hoshizora no Mamoribito. The trailer features a lot of Dragon Questing just how it was meant to be: looking outdated.

Take a look.

Despite the awful graphics, the game looks like it might have an interesting story behind it. I suppose we'll have to wait and see.

Dragon Quest IX: Hoshizora no Mamoribito will be available on Nintedo DS on March 23, 2009 in Japan.

More Dragons and DS Follow with Blood of Bahamut Trailer

Today seems to be the dragon + DS trailer day, and the action doesn't stop with a new Blood of Bahamut trailer from Square Enix. The trailer in question gives you a very thorough look at what the game will look like in motion. If you are in love with DS graphics, this should be your early Christmas present.

Take a look.

Blood of Bahamut has yet to receive an official release date.

A Blue Little Window for the New Blue Dragon DS Trailer

Namco Bandai has released a new trailer for their upcoming Blue Dragon DS project with Mistwalker, Blue Dragon: Ikai no Kyojuu. The trailer shows off some of the basic character creation as well as an introduction to the game's story.

Take a look.

Ugh, those DS graphics never fail to underwhelm me.

Blue Dragon: Ikai no Kyojuu will be available on Nintendo DS sometime next year in Japan.

Monday, December 22, 2008

RPGs of the Week: White Christmas Edition

Merry Christmas Week!

I hope you're all finished whatever Christmas shopping you're doing this year, as I'd hate to be you if you have to hit the malls at all this week. I am thankfully finally finished! ^_^

Though I doubt many of you are really looking for a new RPG this week, those that are should take a look at the list of what's hitting shelves between December 22 - 27, 2008 below.

North America
Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode 2 - Hothead - PSN
Phantasy Star IV - Sega - WVC

Phantasy Star Zero - Sega - Nintendo DS
Riz-Zoawd - Media.Vision, D3 - Nintendo DS
Shirokishi Monogatari: Inishie no Kodou - Level 5, SCEJ - PlayStation 3


If you are a Triple owner, its highly likely that you are importing White Knight very soon, especially considering Sony still has yet to reveal if the game will be making its way outside of Japan or not.

Other than that, North Americans can get their grubs on some downloadable RPGs this week in the form of Penny Arcade Episode 2 now on PSN, or revisit some glory days with Phantasy Star IV on Virtual Console.

Japanese gamers snag Phantasy Star Zero for their casual MMOing needs, and Riz-Zoawd for their... uh... yellow brick road needs?

Europe, sadly, gets nothing for Christmas.

What's looking sweet to you this week?

Next Tales of Officially Shown

According to Japanese gaming blog GPara, Namco Bandai's Hideo Baba took some time during Namdai's stage event at this weekend's JumpFesta to officially show off the next title in the long-running Tales of series.

Still without an official name, Baba reportedly referred to the game as Tales of 10, though Namdai has since revealed that to be only a working title, and have reverted to referring to it as simply Next Tales of again.

The game has reportedly been in development for nearly 2 years with Baba as the producer, though they haven't yet revealed who is handling the character designs, which leads me to believe its neither Mutsumi Inomata or Kousuke Fujishima.

The game's setting is described as middle ages European-esque, though further details have not been revealed. Baba said to expect more news sometime this next spring. Additionally, he mentioned that some sort of footage for the game is available on the bonus DVD that comes with the recently released Tales of Hearts Anime Edition.

Frankly, this is getting annoying. It seems like they're taking a page out of Final Fantasy XIII's book on this one - a move that does not impress me.

Not News: Tales of Character Ranking 2008

Those of you who voted (or are interested) in the Tales of Character Ranking that went on recently may be interested to see the results of the poll which were announced at this weekend's JumpFesta in Japan.

As a slight spoiler, the previous year's king has indeed been dethroned. Check below to see where your favorite character falls on the Top 50:

50. Sheena Fujibayashi (ToS)
49. Suzu Fujibayashi (ToP)
48. Mieu (ToA)
47. Natalia Luzu Kimlasca-Lanvaldear (ToA)
46. Chester Burklight (ToP)
45. Karol Capel (ToV)
44. Barbatos Geotia (ToD2)
43. Daos (ToP)
42. Ruca Milda (ToI)
41. Mao (ToR)
40. Senel Coolidge (ToL)
39. Jay (ToL)
38. Keele Zeibel (ToE)
37. Richter Abend (ToS2)
36. Kyle Dunamis (ToD2)
35. Arche Klein (ToP)
34. Genis Sage (ToS)
33. Farah Oersted (ToE)
32. Anise Tatlin (ToA)
31. Kanonno Earhart (ToW:RM2)
30. Flynn Scifo (ToV)
29. Celsius (N/A)
28. Ion (ToA)
27. Judith (ToV)
26. Chloe Valens (ToL)
25. Veigue Lungberg (ToR)
24. Shing Meteoryte (ToH)
23. Cless Alvein (ToP)
22. Presea Combatir (ToS)
21. Marta Lualdi (ToS2)
20. Judas (ToD2)
19. Mighty Kongman (Bruiser Khang) (ToD)
18. Sparda Belforma (ToI)
17. Estellise Sidos Heurassein (ToV)
16. Ridd (Reid) Hershel (ToE)
15. Colette Brunel (ToS)
14. Stan (Stahn) Aileron (ToD)
13. Asch (ToA)
12. Tear Grants (ToA)
11. Rita Mordio (ToV)
10. Emil Castagnier (ToS2)
09. Raven (ToV)
08. Zelos Wilder (ToS)
07. Kratos Aurion (ToS)
06. Guy Cecil (ToA)
05. Jade Curtiss (ToA)
04. Lloyd Irving (ToS)
03. Luke fon Fabre (ToA)
02. Leon Magus (ToD)
01. Yuri Lowell (ToV)

So there you have it: the 50 most popular Tales of characters. Personally, I'm surprised to see ToA's Luke rank so high on the list (Tear was much cooler). I was very pleasantly surprised to see all the ToV cast ranked so high, and Yuri even managed to knock Leon out of the way to take the number 1 spot! Judith (my vote) came in 27th, which I suppose isn't bad.

Where was your favorite character ranked?

Final Fantasy XIII Gameplay Shown, You're Not Allowed to Watch

At JumpFesta this weekend in Japan, Square Enix reportedly showed off that ever-elusive Final Fantasy XIII gameplay in their closed megatheater. Though I suppose it was rather sporting of them to actually show it like they promised, the fact that only a handful of people got to see it is... well, actually, it's about what I've come to expect regarding Final Fantasy XIII. Sadly.

So while you don't get to actually witness this spectacle, Jump released some more scans of the upcoming demo, which I suppose will have to suffice for the time being.

The new scans don't reveal anything particularly new, though the girl revealed in the previous scan has been given an official romanized name, Oerba Dia Vanille. So there that is.

Additionally, it has been officially revealed that the game will indeed be making a return to a form of the classic ATB system, though enemies will initially appear onscreen. Touching them or attacking them with your sword will initiate a battle sequence. The new battle system also reportedly allows for party members to attack successively or combine attacks for a much more "free" experience. I suppose we'll need to see it in action to fully understand what that means.

There is still no firm release date on either side of the Pacific for Final Fantasy XIII at this point.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Atlus Announces The Dark Spire

Or maybe "confirms" The Dark Spire might be a better headline, considering we all caught wind of this a little while back through the ESRB.

The Dark Spire, known as Genmu no Tou to Tsurugi no Okite (lit. The Tower of Ethereal Mist and the Law of the Sword), is a dungeon crawler RPG developed by Success and released in Japan this last May. The gameplay is heavily reminscent of old first-person PC dungeon crawlers of yesteryear, and sports a visual style hailing back to 90s horror comics.

The game retains classic elements of the genre like stat rolling, alignment setting, and so forth, and is sure to hit a nostalgia nerve for fans of the now (mostly) dead genre.

Those interested can check out Atlus' official English site for the game here, or Success' Japanese site here.

The Dark Spire will be released on Nintendo DS on March 10, 2009 in North America.

Do we have any old school dungeon crawlers out there?

Devil Survivor Trailer has Visuals, Text, and Other Stuff

Erm... I can't think of a good headline for this article.

Atlus just released a new trailer for their upcoming DS SRPG, Megami Ibunroku: Devil Survivor. Watch it.

I kinda dig the theme song they have for this one. Kinda edgy for an SRPG, don't you think? Still not 100% sold on a MegaTen SRPG, but I'll give it the benefit of the doubt.

Megami Ibunroku: Devil Survivor will be available on Nintendo DS on January 15, 2009 in Japan. No word on a North American or European release yet.