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The Whole Game in My Hand #1 - November 2006

by Michael J. Anderson, 2006-11-06

This article will launch what I hope to be an exciting monthly feature - an update on what is happening in the world of RPG games for handheld game systems. The landscape for these games is quite different than for PC RPG's. Because the GBA was about equivalent to a SNES, it seemed natural that many NES and SNES games would be ported to the system. The capabilities dictated the content to an extent, but more it was the case of being a Japanese handheld by a console maker who had partnered with developers that produced a certain style of RPG. That isn't really a bad thing as some of the games that were released - such as Golden Sun - rival the classic RPG's on any platform in terms of breadth and scope of storytelling. But while there was a fair amount of variety in the choices of RPG's for the GBA, it was pretty much limited to the variety of console RPG's for the NES and SNES.

The introduction of the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP promised much greater things for the handheld RPG gamer. The DS provides N64 graphical capability, dual screens that could show a map at the same time as the game screen, and alternate input methods that could be exploited for new gameplay mechanics. The PSP doesn't suggest new gameplay mechanics or possibilities, just big screen and capability to pack truly modern RPG experiences onto a handheld.

As I noted in my articles last year at RPGDot covering the GBA, DS and PSP, very little of that promise had been met. The GBA continued to deliver the best handheld RPG's, but that was excusable since each of the 'next-gen' handhelds was new and RPG development cycles are long. But this year that excuse expired - the DS is nearly two years old, and the PSP is more than a year and a half old. So how are they doing? And is the GBA finally dead? Let's take them one by one and see.

Note: I've left out games that aren't straight RPG - for example, Mage Knight Destiny's Soldier for the DS is basically a strategy game with a few RPG elements, so it is not included. I'm only looking at games primarily in the RPG genre.



Nintendo GameBoy Advance

Call it the little game system that could - while the DS is approaching its second anniversary, the GBA has been selling at a rate equal or better than the PSP most months, and kept pace with the DS for the first year. Not only that, there continue to be solid games released for the system on a regular basis. This year has already seen three very good RPGs for the GBA, with another one right around the corner and one more coming by the end of the year.


GameBoy Advance - 2006 Releases So Far

Final Fantasy IV (Avg Score >4/5)
I love what they have done with these games - they are the originals, but have added areas and done very minor tweaks to update things. But the emphasis is on recreating the original experience in a handheld-friendly way. And in this way they succeed in a big way.

Tales of Phantasia (My Score 4/5)
This game never got released in the US until now, and it has withstood the test of time pretty well. Enough new things have been added and tweaked that it meshes well wth newer Tales games. I have a review at AceGamez.

Summon Night: Swordcraft Story (Avg Score 3.5/5)
This game tried to do many things and does a pretty god job of it - it is a traditional exploration-based role-playing game, it has a decent story with interesting characters, it has a crafting system integrated into the combat and exploration, and has a massive dungeon crawl component with bonus areas and replayability. Read my full review at GamerDad.

Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Red Rescue Team (Avg Score 3.5/5)
What if you woke up one day and found out you were a Pokémon? That's just what happens in Pokémon Mystery Dungeon. Similar to the DS version, but stripped down enough that you should definitely opt for the DS version if possible.


GameBoy Advance - Coming Soon

Final Fantasy V
A huge, fantastic, creative, and wickedly fun RPG that doesn’t seem to care that it’s “just” on a GBA. It’s easily the best RPG available for the GBA—and one of the best RPG's for any console system in the past few years.

Summon Night: Swordcraft Story 2
The original Summon Night had a few issues that held it back, and while this adds more, it doesn't appear to really do enough to take the game from 'very good' to 'great'.

Yggdra Union
A pseudo-sequel to last year's fine Riviera, the early looks at the Japanese version indicate that this is better than that game, and is up to the par of the classics of the genre on the GBA.


GameBoy Advance - News and Outlook

On top of what has already been released, there is Final Fantasy VI coming next year (Japanese release by the end of this year), and an original game called Mazes of Fate that looks to be a highly customizable dungeon crawler. It looks like the GBA will be around and delivering quality role-playing games for quite a while longer.



Nintendo DS

The big RPG game of the year for the Nintendo DS is right around the corner. That is a good thing, since there hasn't been much to cheer about so far this year. That said, I really love a few of the games for what they tried to do. A few of the games - ironically two of the three have the lowest review scores on the list - have very innovative gameplay mechanics, and are each excellent in some way while disappointing in others.


Nintendo DS - 2006 Releases So Far

Contact (Avg Score 3.5/5)
Interesting ideas here - breaking the 'fourth wall' to make you a direct part of the game, and having you influence rather than directly control the protagonist. It only ends up as an average experience, unfortunately.

Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Blue Rescue Team (Avg Score 3.5/5)
What if you woke up one day and found out you were a Pokémon? That's just what happens in Pokémon Mystery Dungeon. You spend the game exploring a big dungeon that isn't particularly interesting, but it is a reasonably fun dungeon crawl, especially if you are a fan of the series.

Magical Starsign (My Score 3/5)
Tries to seem fresh and innovative, but is basically the same old-style JRPG that you'd have expected 15 years ago.

LostMagic (My Score 4/5)
The third dungeon crawl-type game released on the DS lately, including Tao's Adventure and Deep Labyrinth. Lost Magic is the best them, but it is also the most difficult. It combines real-time action combat with strategy elements and use of the touch-screen to draw magical symbols. You control an increasing number of summoned monsters, while simultaneously casting attacking and supporting magic spells, all while a constant stream of enemies attacks your forces. Read my full review at GamerDad.

Deep Labyrinth (My Score 3/5)
Deep Labyrinth is a 3D dungeon crawl played from a first-person perspective. That makes it reminiscent of a couple of truly great games: the classic Wizardry and more recent The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. You control a single character in real-time combat against 3D enemies. Unfortunately, for every positive in this game there's also a negative. This striking duality provides both a fascinating experience that I gladly spent tens of hours playing and a mediocre end result in the final score. Read my full review at GamerDad.

Tao's Adventure: Curse of the Demon Seal (My Score 2.5/5)
Tao's Adventure: Curse of the Demon Seal is a curious mix that contains exploration of a massive dungeon as seen in last year's excellent Fate, a collection of monsters to battle alongside you similar to the Pokémon games, and a rune-drawing magic system reminiscent of PC role-playing game Arx Fatalis. Those are all good games, but unfortunately Tao's Adventure doesn't add up. Read my full review at GamerDad.

  Taos Adventure

Nintendo DS - Coming Soon

Final Fantasy III
This bears little resemblance to the original, but in a good way - it has been completely redone for 3D and dual screens, and the results are fantastic, if the Japanese reaction is any indication. This looks poised to join the rapidly expanding pantheon of great DS games - and dare I say it might be the first truly great DS RPG?

Children of Mana
The beloved Mana series comes to the DS - and sees you helping find out how the Mana Tree has been poisoned. Gorgeous graphics and music are hallmarks of these games - and they are certainly present here. It is more of a dungeon crawl than others in the series, but still full of challenge.

Pokemon Ranger
You play not as a trainer, but a Ranger, battling those who seek to defile nature with your collection of Pokemon. This has gotten a solid early buzz.



Nintendo DS - News and Outlook

It is harder for me to tell what is coming down the pike for DS games, since they are predominantly Japanese translations. Coming in the next year there is a Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles game, two Xenosaga games, Dragon Quest Monsters - Joker, and more.

The Nintendo DS is out of control this year - while Sony keeps dropping their forecast, Nintendo keeps raising theirs. And it is easy to see why - great games that beg to be played. Three of the most addictive games I played this year are on the bottom of the list, with Tao's Adventure being completely charming and compelling. But while I really enjoy those quirky RPG's, there has yet to be a truly great one - or even one that is very good. That should change very soon - I'll let you know next month!



Sony PSP

If you listen to the game media, the PSP is more dead than PC gaming! The UMD movie is all but dead, Sony's attempt at outdoing the iTunes music store is a non-starter, nobody cares about the photo viewer; that leaves games. And while there have been a few decent games, the basic impression is that the library of PSP games consists largely of substandard ports with lousy controls and long load times. Last year I declared that neither the DS nor the PSP had amassed any very good RPG's, but the PSP was a better source for reasonable western-style action-RPG games - and therefore the better choice for PC-based gamers. We've already seen that the DS has offered only a few games this year, and those were quirky and uneven. How has the PSP done?


Sony PSP - 2006 Releases So Far

Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth (My Score 4/5)
This remake of the rare PSOne gem is still a unique experience featuring an engaging story and clever combat system. Combining real-time and turn-based combat in a streamlined system allows for massive bone-crunching combination attacks that can destroy a powerful enemy in a single round, the battles of Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth are at once fast paced and exciting, yet provide time for strategic planning during each turn. Read my full review at GamerDad.

Untold Legends: The Warrior's Code (My Score 3/5)
This is the sequel to the PSP launch action-RPG in which you create a character and travel through various environments and through quest after quest, destroying enemies and finding valuable objects, gaining experience and gold to buy and upgrade your weapons and armor so you can continue to battle more and stronger enemies as you progress towards to final battle with the ultimate villain at the end of the game. It is the sort of game that is fun for short bursts of battling enemies, yet despite the addition of wireless internet multiplayer and improvements to almost every problem area Untold Legends: The Warrior's Code feels like it is trying so hard to apologize for what was lacking in its' predecessor that it fails to breath anything new into the experience – it is so intent on not disappointing that it fails to excite. Read my full review at GamerDad.

Ys: The Ark of Napishtim (My Score 2.5/5)
This is a scaled-down port of an average-quality PS2 game from 2005. There are some mini-games and other fun things you unlock as you play that help break up the gameplay. The load times are not too long in Ys: The Ark of Napishtim , but they occur almost incessantly. There are so many load screens the developers came up with creative ways of displaying the words ‘Now Loading'. Also, the enemies you face are either too hard or too easy, so you will be running back and forth killing easy monsters to gain levels to get powerful enough to pass the hard monsters and make progress in the game. If you can tolerate the load times and like the combat system, Ys: The Ark of Napishtim will be an enjoyable experience. The game is not terrible – it is an average game made worse by system limitations and design decisions. Read my full review at GamerDad.

The Legend of Heroes II: Prophecy of the Moonlight Witch (My Score 3.5/5)
Last year's Legend of Heroes: A Tear of Vermillion was a bit of a surprise. Although it was derivative and somewhat uninspired, it was charming and entertaining beyond what objective analysis suggested. Namco returns to the Legend of Heroes world with a sequel that is actually a prequel—that's right, everything in this game happens before the original. It features the same whimsical design and richly detailed graphics and soundtrack as the original, but loses much of the charm due to lackluster characters and changes to the battle system removing any strategy or challenge. Read my full review at GamerDad.

Blade Dancer: Lineage of Light (My Score 3/5)
This has a deep and robust crafting system that goes so far as to have the phases of the moon influence each character's crafting skill. They should have called it Blade Breaker since you'll be constantly crafting weapons to replace the ones you are breaking. Unfortunately the rest of Blade Dancer is not so great. The characters are generic to every game of this type and the story is similarly simple and cliché. The interactions between characters don't lead you to care about them very much, and if anything along the way comes as a surprise, you haven't been paying attention. Read my full review at GamerDad.

Astonishia Story (Avg Score 2.5/5)
The joke is that this should be called 'astonishingly bad story', but it isn't astonishingly bad - just completely devoid of anything to make it engaging, interesting or remotely worth playing.

Spectral Souls (Avg Score 2.5/5)
Strategy-based gameplay that appears to have some potential but is bogged down by horrific loadtimes and terrible glitches from start to finish.


Sony PSP - Coming Soon

Dungeon Siege: Throne of Agony
Let's just hope that the game is better than the title! This looks to deliver a solid western style action-RPG that has been missing so far this year.


Sony PSP - News and Outlook

Well, the PSP has continued to be cursed by mediocre ports and games that seem like ports. That is true across genres - shooter fans get some PC shooter ports like Medal of Honor Heroes. This trend isn't helping the platform, since the ports seldom stand up well when compared to their PC or console brethren.

Remember last year how I talked about Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII coming to the PSP? Well, it should be here in 2007. But there is bigger news - Dungeons & Dragons Tactics, a strategy-RPG is also coming early in 2007, followed by The Elder Scrolls Travels: Oblivion, which is set in the Oblivion universe. There is also a Joan of Arc game that looks to have some interesting role-playing and gameplay options set for next year.


Overall Handheld RPG Landscape

So the 'best reviews' awards have to go to the PSP due to Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth, but the most interesting games were on the DS. But neither platform has scored a 'great' RPG so far - yet both have had truly great shooters and great games in other genres. Will we see the first great 'next gen' RPG for a handheld this month? We can only hope so! Until then enjoy the cornucopia of great PC RPG's we've been blessed with this fall!



Box Art