Last week Square Enix teased us with the first gameplay trailer for Kingdom Hearts III as well as some new footage from the third and supposedly final entry in the Final Fantasy XIII saga, Lightning Returns. I’m not exactly counting the days till both releases, but at least neither is a HD remake or cell phone port. Bravo, Square.
Square’s sudden relevance left me pondering whether or not I could do a Top 5 Tuesday based solely on RPGs released AFTER Squaresoft and Enix’s merger in 2003. Let me put it this way: We barely dodged our first ever Top 4 Tuesday. I’m not crazy about today’s #5. I probably should play The World Ends With You so I can revise this list. Until then…
5. Kingdom Hearts II (PS2)
KHII gave us what we wanted in the original: a Final Fantasy ally.
I shouldn’t have to go into detail on this one. It’s essentially a copy-paste job of the original with new levels and a couple new moves (most notably the Parry move that Square borrowed from Zelda: The Wind Waker). Though admittedly fun, nothing about KHII struck me as fresh or groundbreaking.
As for highlights: teaming up with Auron and Jack Sparrow. Lowlights: that dreadful Little Mermaid musical level.
4. Final Fantasy XIII (PS3)
It’s hard to focus on the storyline once the gang starts focusing on Cocoon.
I actually thought FF13 was a step in the right direction, and, no, this isn’t a lead-in to a “Hallway Fantasy” joke. Sure, the game is linear, but at least it steered the series away from the direction FF12 sent it in.
FF13 returned the series to traditional Active-Time Battles while throwing in the twists of paradigm shifts. Much like how FFX enabled swapping out party members mid-battle to exploit enemy weaknesses, FF13 let players switch the party’s character classes on the fly. Dealing with a tough boss? Start with a Sabatuer/Synergist/Medic group to weaken the enemy and bolster your guys. Then swap for Ravager/Commando/Ravager to rip into the beast. All at once, it played nothing like FF12 and tweaked the classic formula of hitting Attack Attack Attack and mixing in the occasional spell.
The battle system was good enough to keep me going, even when the storyline collapsed toward the end. I actually liked Lightning, Sazh, and Snow until maybe the midway point. The first half of the game was much more personal on a character-to-character level. Then everything veered off into protecting Cocoon, saving the world, and other trite developments.
3. Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria (PS2)
Underrated masterpiece alert! For whatever reason, nobody cares about Valkyrie Profile 2. Even fans of the original don’t give a shit. VP2 faded into obscurity almost from the moment it released. Total shame.
For those of you completely unfamiliar with the series, the Valkyrie Profile games put you in the role of a Valkyrie who traverses a conflict-ravaged earth in search of wayward souls to send to Valhalla. What’s cool is you can hang onto some of these souls and keep them as party members, or you can ship them off to the god Odin for bonuses.
What distinguishes VP from other J-RPGs is sidescrolling dungeons and towns (why the hell don’t other RPGs do this?) and a unique battle system that assigns each character to one of the four face buttons. In other words, tap X and your X-character will attack; immediately after, you can follow up with your Circle, Square, and Triangle-characters. It makes for some wild timing combos, and if you nail the right chemistry you can set up for some massive special attacks. As an upgrade from the original (at least in my opinion), VP2 put the battles on a full 3D plain where your 4-man party could dash around ganging up enemies one-by-one. Throw in a phenomenal fight theme, some challenging bosses, and a wild villain, and you’ve got yourself the most underrated Square game of the past decade.
2. Star Ocean: Till the End of Time (PS2)
Battles may look chaotic and mindless, but SO3’s combat requires timing and patience.
I have a bad habit of thinking of Star Ocean 3 as the poor man’s Tales of Symphonia. They’re both stellar RPGs that I happened to buy on the same day; they both have enthralling battle systems; and both have decent storylines and a couple awesome characters. The difference is that Tales has more charm and polish than SO3. Other than that, they’re neck-and-neck.
Star Ocean 3 is a mammoth. Reaching the credits screen ran me around 70 hours, and while the storyline wasn’t Xenogears, it had a few compelling sci-fi spurts. I even liked this one particular late-game plot twist that appalled most fans. Hey, one man’s plot-breaker is another man’s compulsion to keep playing.
The draw with SO3 is its battle system, which is action-oriented without being button-mashy. Thanks to a stamina bar known as the Fury gauge, you can only use your light and heavy attacks so many times before the gauge has to replenish. Run out of Fury and you’re left punchless and vulnerable. Manage it properly and you can destroy enemy shields with heavy smashes or link up combos based on distance from the enemy and strength of the attack. Like Tales of Symphonia, SO3 thrives off fun battles. If only the game had been edited a little better for length…
1. Nier (PS3)
Masterpiece or mess? It boils down to personal taste.
Nier is the best mediocre game I’ve ever played. If that sounds like an odd compliment, understand that Nier is an odd game. It starts with bizarre winter scene between a father and daughter who are hunted down by otherworldly geometric creatures called Shades. Without spoiling, I’ll say that Nier has a touching and thought-provoking story that explores themes of humanity, mortality, sacrifice, family love, and the afterlife. If you appreciate a good mindblow, hang around for the game’s closing sequences. I can promise you your brain will pop like a pricked balloon by the time it’s over.
While Nier’s story is surreal, original, and enthralling, the rest of the game’s components are a mixed bag. The soundtrack and atmosphere are among best of any RPG, while gameplay and combat go lukewarm at times. The combat is fun but not challenging enough: Think Kingdom Hearts with the gimmick of a magical tome that can unleash a variety of spells and abilities. Unfortunately, though, the game’s straightforward enemies and bosses rarely warrant breaking out those spells.
But trust me on this one: don’t take Nier as a sum of its parts. Enjoy it for the experience, which happens to be the best one Square Enix has offered since its inception.