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The Whole Game in My Hand #12 - Part 2: Sony PSP / Apple iPhone

by Michael "txa1265" J. Anderson, 2009-02-09

Updates, New Features & Announcements

Games reviewed in this article:

Updates, New Features & Announcements

Welcome to 'part 2' of the coverage of handheld RPG's released in the 4th quarter of 2008. This article covers games released for the PSP and iPhone - for coverage of DS games and some more general comments and announcements, take a look at Part 1.

Specific to games ... as I said before you know it must be the holiday rush of game releases when the PSP section has several games ... and most of them are RPG's! As I also mentioned, the iPhone RPG and strategy game library is growing at a rate where I can only attempt to cover those that seem to stick closest to my core cRPG love. So let's get on with it then!

Sony PSP – October / November / December Releases

Valhalla Knights 2 (PSP) (My Score 2/5, Rated T)
Did you realize that an anagram for 'Valhalla Knight Two' is "we failed to listen to constructive criticism"? OK, so that isn't accurate, even if the sentiment is true. An actual anagram is the somewhat more sinister "Halving Hawk At Toll", which describes one possible thought you will have after suffering through this miserable sequel to one of last years most disappointing PSP games. In the months approaching the release of this game I was watching videos, looking at screens and reading previews and honestly found enough promising looking stuff that I believed that this sequel might actually be able to redeem the original. Nothing prepared me for this one actually being WORSE than the original!

Here is a quote from my review of the original: "I will occasionally drift off in thought while playing games and picture life in the world described by the game. This can be a good thing, such as imagining life in the island city of Khorinis in Gothic II, or a bad thing, as I wonder who is sitting in all of the empty chairs around Arindale in Dungeon Lords. In this case I was thinking about Sartre. To be specific, I was thinking of his play No Exit. The basis of the play is that several people are trapped in a room with no exit, left to deal with nothing but each other. The group eventually realize that they are in hell - and that hell is the other people.

So, what causes me to have these thoughts about Valhalla Knights? In short, it's the battle system. When you meet up with an enemy on the field, you are tossed into a circular battle ring. You cannot escape the ring unless you defeat the enemies. There are typical tactics you would use in a case like this - if you are a melee fighter then you'd get into the thick of things with the enemy and count on your mages and clerics to aid you with support and ranged firepower. Your 'back line' helpers should also strive to stay out of harm's way as much as possible - but this is difficult when there is no 'line' because the battlefield is a circle. The tie-in to the original thought? At some point in the game you will ask yourself, "what the heck am I doing here and how do I get out?!" That is the easy part - press the 'Home' button, select 'Yes', remove the disk and insert something else... then forget you every played this one. "

Let me run the litany of offenses: the introduction is junk, the character creation obfuscated, the lack of teleports unforgivable, the combat system still sucks, and the quests are still mindless. Here is an example - in the courtyard outside the castle you find a little kid search for a sibling who has run off avoiding chores. You are told 'tell me if you see him'. So you wander around and find the sibling, who claims to be playing hide-and-seek. You talk to him, then return to the first child assuming you can report your find. No, you get the same apparently meaningless dialogue again. That is Valhalla Knights in a nutshell.

I'll make another example: you start battling your way through the dungeon, meeting and killing monsters all along the way. Controlling combat is confusing and frustrating for anyone but a warrior. Warriors just hack-and-slash and choose special attacks and so long as you manage to lock a target it all precedes fairly easily. But for a mage, maintaining a lock is a pain, as is selecting and firing a spell. Eventually you die, and find yourself back at the Inn. The resurrection fee is 50% of your cash. No loss to skills or attributes or experience or equipment, so it is a pretty mild penalty. But that is deceptive because you have to walk all the way back through respawning monsters to where you fell, which gets worse and worse as you make more and more progress. To say that I would have trader a harsher death penalty for a decent teleport system is an understatement.

It is not so much that I despise the game as I am just really disappointed that the developers squandered what seemed to have been such a great opportunity to make a very good game. OK, I *do* despise the game.

I have an inherent problem with the combat system: I believe that real-time combat belongs on the normal field or at least a large enough area that you don't feel constantly constrained by the space. That said, there have been numerous games such as Crisis Core that have pulled it off very well. Typically this involves the use of turns or phases or some other constraint system that allows more tactics than random button-mashing and hoping you are locked on an enemy.

The menu system is cramped, but honestly it didn't bug me too much ... but then I did time in 'Generation of Chaos'.

I don't think there is much more I can say ... I already regret the internet bandwidth wasted by those reading this review! The saving grace is that perhaps it will prevent others from making the same mistake.

Star Ocean: First Departure (PSP) (My Score 3.5/5, Rated T)
One great recent trend is bringing games never released in the US to the market in the form of updated ports on the DS or PSP. Star Ocean is another such game - the second entry in the four-game series was released in the US with an abysmal translation, and the series remained little known until the PS2 game 'Till the End of Time' became a top-seller in 2004. The first game was never available in the US until now.

Star Ocean: First Departure is more than just a direct port - it is a complete remake of the original game using the Star Ocean 2 engine. The original game was released for the SNES in 1996 and features many things typical of the time with a few distinguishing features. The story feels pretty cliche-ridden even for that era, with the story centering on a young man (boy) and his young friends who suddenly find that one girl's father is turning to stone and then note that it is happening to everyone. Of course, it is up to them to save everyone, and their plight becomes more desperate when another of their friends also begins turning to stone.

At this point the game takes a unique turn - rather than just plowing on with fantasy game cliches, it injects a futuristic science fiction plot element that remains core to the rest of the game series. You discover that the cause of the problem is actually an advanced bioweapon and team up with aliens from a spaceship who have landed on your planet and traveling through space together.

Another key element of the franchise is real-time combat - not 'active time' battles like in Chrono Trigger, but actual real-time battles. You are transported to a separate screen, but once there all characters are free to act without regard to turns or rounds. The system works pretty well, though it can be hard for spellcasters to attack without interruption on the relatively small battlefield. You can program the L and R buttons with different magic attacks to mix up your battle strategy. As you advance in levels you gain access to more powerful spells and attack moves. The game features an overland map that calls out 'private actions' associated with different characters and locations - you can learn more about difference characters by re-entering a town when notified that a private action is available.

So what is wrong with this game? Aside from the cliched and predictable plot, the writing and dialogue is just not very good. Worse yet, it is paired with pretty mediocre voice acting - my wife's review was 'that is AWFUL'. And frankly despite being a complete remake, the core game hasn't aged well. The real-time combat works better than Valhalla Knights, but is still mostly about button mashing and feels pretty trite and repetitive. Although it is very different than the Final Fantasy games of the era, it still suffers from the same over-long intro and exit sequences for each battle. And the private actions, while they usually provide interesting information and sometimes added items, get to feel like endless backtracking after a while.

So Star Ocean: First Departure is a good game full of interesting features and glaring flaws, but is overall a pretty fun little game. It isn't near the top of my 'recommend to new PSP owners' list, but neither is it on my 'avoid this game' list. It was a good enough experience that I have pre-ordered and am anticipating Star Ocean: Second Departure in late January ... but you'll have to wait until next time to see how that went.

Neverland Card Battles (PSP) (My Score 2/5, Rated T)
I have to confess to not being a huge fan of trading card games. My kids were too young for the Pokemon card craze, but do have a solid Yu-Gi-Oh card collection that they enjoy. And while those games are wildly popular and provide loads of fun to players, attempts to bring that fun to a video game have largely failed. The Metal Gear Ac!d games were perhaps the best, and met with only a mixed reaction. Strategy and RPG card-based games such as Warhammer: Battle for Atluma have been roundly thrashed in reviews. Add Neverland Card Battles to the list of lousy card-based games to avoid at any cost.

The tutorial system is interesting: you are tossed into the game with scant instruction, and need to figure out how to play while dying repeatedly. Once you manage to figure out how to play things flow fairly well. The story is a typical evil-doer captured in the past and looking to escape in the present so you need to deal with the situation before he regains powers and takes over the world sort of thing. The highlights are what keep this game from sinking to a 1/5 rating: the card battles require strategy, gaining good card takes work and that work is rewarded, and the game is very long and the battles are varied.

The low-lights are hard to avoid: the voice acting is just plain awful, the graphics are ugly, the story is mediocre, and perhaps worst of all the interface of the combat system seems like it gets a thrill out of being needlessly complex. You could deal with the rest by turning off the audio (I did), pretending you were playing a DS, and ignoring the story since you're there for the combat and card collection anyway. But feeling like you're getting smacked upside the head just for the privilege of entering combat is enough to make this my *other* 'must not buy' pick of the quarter!

Tom Clancy's End War (PSP) (My Score 3/5, Rated T)
Remember the line 'anything you can do I can do better' from the musical 'Annie Get Your Gun'? Well, let me sum up the PSP review by saying that with the exception of the graphics, the DS version of this game could sing that line over and over again. They are identical in content, but the dual screens and touch-screen interface of the DS, as well as the lack of load-times, makes the DS version better in every way. That is all. ( Read the DS review here)

Suikoden PSN (PSP) (My Score 3.5/5, Not Rated)
One of the great promises of the Playstation Store (PSN) was the ability to buy and play games made for the original Playstation; when the PSN store was made available directly from the PSP this became even more appealing. And while PSP owners are still awaiting the downloadable version of Final Fantasy VII, there have been a few solid releases so far - sadly most of these (Wipeout, Hot Shots Golf, Syphon Filter, Wild Arms) are earlier versions of PSP games and offer little reason to waste the bandwidth, let alone spend the money. Finally, this fall some good games have arrived - a couple of classic Castlevania games and a classic jRPG from the early Playstation era - Suikoden.

Suikoden is a classic turn-based jRPG that tells a story of political struggle in the Scarlet Moon Empire. You play as the son of an acclaimed general, and soon uncover a destiny of your own involving the '108 Stars of Destiny' and the '27 True Runes'. Apparently this is based on a Chinese novel, but honestly that doesn't matter because the story wasn't hailed upon release and feels every bit as simple and hackneyed as one would expect for a second-tier game release from that era. However, don't judge the game by the story alone - it isn't all that bad and there are many other things that make this worth playing.

One thing that earned Suikoden great acclaim was the soundtrack - the music was released as a two-sick CD collection a year after the initial game release, and remains very enjoyable and moving. Another interesting thing is that there are 108 possible recuitable NPC's you can control in battle, although you can only take six into combat with you at any time. You cannot change weapons, as they are unique to each character, however, you must get weapons sharpened in towns to keep them effective. The combat system is pretty standard, but feels fresh due to the way the magic and combined attack systems work. These are all things that have been done better on the PSP by games such as Brave Story: New Traveler since, but still work well since they are different from how most standard jRPG's approach them. The more interesting combat elements involve the occasional 'large-scale' wars and one-on-one battles as well as the traditional turn-based party combat.

The biggest problems with Suikoden have to do with the value of the game - while it is relatively inexpensive at $6, it will still take ~20 hours to plow through it. The story isn't very original, the combat systems work well enough, the music is very good, but the game is also rather easy. It isn't a huge download, so it is the sort of game you can drop on to a memory stick and play at your leisure, making it a reasonable recommendation for fans of the genre looking for more to play from the classic era.

Dungeon Maker 2 (PSP) (My Score 4/5, Rated E-10+)
"Do it the same, but better" is the line I remember best from failing at the portable 'repeat the moves' game 'Bop It Extreme'. It seems that this is the mantra with Dungeon Maker II, as they have taken all of the solid ideas from the original and crafted a deeper and more enjoyable experience. Counter to my assertion earlier that this game is deserving of being a featured review, I'll say right now that if you played the original game there is no reason to get this sequel. However, if you didn't play the original because of the various issues mentioned in my review or other reviews but were intrigued ... this is the one you've been waiting for.

The backstory for Dungeon Maker II is at least somewhat different than the original game: an ancient war between Gods and Demons ended with the Gods trapping the Demons in their own domain, blocking them from wandering the mortal planes again. However, 700 centuries later, a Demon called the 'Revenger' is loose and looking to battle the gods after first unleashing his minions upon the mortal lands. The story starts in the small village at the center of this conflict.

Enter a young dungeon maker - played by you. Your goal is to take down the Revenger, and you have the support of the town and the lord of the local castle to do so. The remainder of the game is played out pretty much the same as the original - you get someone who will constantly help you, but this time it is a young girl looking to apprentice with you. The town is constantly looking to get your help, and give you back rewards. And as you progress the local government becomes more involved and encourages you to dig deeper and deeper. Each trip into the dungeon presents you with opportunities - to build out new areas, decorate the areas you have already built, and destroy the monsters that have come to occupy the areas you have built.

Your 'experience' comes in the form of using the loot you gather in the dungeon. You can improve your weapons and armor, infuse living creatures into your weapons for special attacks, learn recipes, and eat meals to gain stat boosts.

Much of what happens is very similar to what happened in the first Dungeon Maker game. So what makes this game better than the original? It is mainly the tedium factor: the original game was fairly lifeless and limited in terms of combat and the way that the reward and customization system worked. Combat is still done in a simple action-RPG style, but it has been tweaked and is more enjoyable now. Magic is still handled the same basic way, but again minor tweaks to the spell system make it more fun and less tedious. The grind is still the same - build, improve, battle, collect, eat, rest, repeat. But it has all been improved just enough to make it worth a try this time around.

Sony PSP – The RPG Outlook for the Next Quarter

New year, new hope? Well, so far it looks like 2009 is shaping up to be a repeat of 2008 in terms of a thin RPG release schedule. Considering that the early looks on the first Star Ocean game were better than either the second Star Ocean or Mana Khemia games, that leaves only Phantasy Star Portable as a hope for a really good RPG in the first quarter. Fortunately the early looks at the import version are quite good. As for Loco Roco 2 ... well, the first one was a blast and the second is being sold for $20, so why not ...

  • Mana Khemia: Student Alliance(recent rumors call for another delay)
  • Star Ocean: Second Departure
  • Loco Roco 2 (not a RPG but who cares!)
  • Phantasy Star Portable

Oh - before we leave the PSP I have a final rant based on something I saw as I was writing this. The classic Ultimate Ghosts & Goblins was just released to the 'UMD Legacy' section - that is a good thing, as I'd given away my copy a while ago. I didn't replay because once I managed to beat it (after much frustration and death I'm not embarrassed to admit) I had no desire for more. But it is the sort of game that I know would be nice to pull out on occasion and also to share with my kids, so I nearly bought it - then I realized they wanted $20 for it on the PSN store. That is just wrong - I could have bought a brand-new UMD copy at the store for ~$10 this weekend, so why spend twice that for the download? I wonder - who is buying this stuff? It is yet another example of how Sony is completely out of touch with gamers and keeps messing up the potential of the PSP. They should come out like Good Old Games and announce a tiered pricing structure with a maximum price - sure, make some newer games $20, but why should someone pay $25 for Syphon Filter when it is available everywhere as a 'best seller' for $20 regular price?

Apple iPhone / iPod Touch – October / November / December Releases

Dragon Bane II (iPhone) (My Score 4/5, Not Rated)
I have to confess that I'm cheating a bit with two-thirds of the iPhone games this month: Dragon Bane II and Arvale: Journey of Illusion were previously released on the Pocket PC and Palm PDA's quite some time ago, so I had already played them. This made my iPhone evaluation more about evaluating the interface than anything else - and let me sum that up pretty quickly: stylus on touch screen is more precise than my large fingers on a multi-touch surface, and using a real four-way directional pad is more efficient than tapping a virtual directional arrow.

Dragon Bane II was originally release in 2002 to pretty much universal acclaim. It was 'old school' back then, evoking the classic first person adventuring RPG's in several ways - look, feel, play-style, and difficulty. Want to know where to go? Well, try reading the screen and paying attention when speaking to NPC's. There is little hand-holding here - you just have to wander around and keep track of what is going on. And it is worth doing, as there is a solid story about how Kra'an (whom you defeated in the first game) has escaped and is wreaking havoc once again. You need to reforge the Dragon Bane sword and forever vanquish Kra'an.

Of course, there are a host of minions and menial tasks between you and your mortal enemy. You will recruit a full party to help you through turn-based battles - and they are difficult! Everything here is pretty standard - spells for attack, healing and summoning; standard array of weapons; armor, potions and other items. Graphically the game looks like the original Bard's Tale or early Might & Magic games, with a simple touch interface that works quite well. There are few sounds and certainly no voice acting, but one excellent feature is that the iPhone version supports the Construction Kit that allows players to create their own dungeons and adventures. And for the modest price of $5 there is just a ton of gaming before even getting into those extra add-ons.

Perilar (iPhone) (My Score 3.5/5, Not Rated)
When the developer comes out and says 'this is my Ultima-like' game, I tend to click 'buy' before I even think about it. That was the case with Perilar ... and I have not been disappointed. Another $5 game, Perilar looks much like the early Ultima games, and as you die repeatedly trying to make your way through the world you will recall the merciless games of yore.

After creating your character you get a very basic introduction that pretty much tells you WHY you need to save the world (other than the fact that everyone else seems to just be standing around), and are sent on your way. You start by wandering around talking to everyone, gaining little nuggets of information to help you on your way. Then you enter more dangerous areas and begin to die repeatedly. You attack by tapping in the direction of an enemy and hoping they die before you do. Of course, over time your skills and equipment improve, allowing you to die at the hands of tougher opponents! All kidding aside, Perilar is a tough game that is not forgiving of sloppy play - you need to manage your character's health and equipment closely.

As you would expect, the graphics and sound are rudimentary. The lower part of the screen displays all of the 'to hit' stats and results of attacks and dialog. It is a simplistically styled game that is as fun and rewarding as it is punishing. While it is pretty limited in scope and appeal, for a $5 game that lasts many hours, it is an easy recommendation to fans of old-school RPG's who have an iPhone.

Arvale: Journey of Illusion (iPhone) (My Score 4/5, Not Rated)
Another game I have played off and on using my Pocket PC PDA's for years, the Arvale series are some of the most beloved RPG's ever released for PDA gamers. This is a direct translation of the original game, and it has lost none of it's charm over the past several years.

Arvale: Journey of Illusion tells of a long-ago time where dragons and humans lived together, and the dragons taught the humans magic which helped improve their lives. The powerful Dark Dragon disapproved and after failing to convince the other dragons to stop, he killed all humans who knew magic and all dragons who trained them. Eventually the dragon was contained, but every twenty years he awakens and a new hero is needed to defeat him. You play as Duncan Forsythe, a young gardener who is training to follow in his father's footsteps as the next royal gardener when he is suddenly pulled into an audience with the king who announces that he believes Duncan to be the new 'hero of legend'. With that simple meeting Duncan's life is forever changed, and he is set on his way to defeat the dragon.

Some of the best things about this game are the quests, the writing, the humor, and the overall variety of things to do and see and battle. Combat is turn-based, and there are tons of weapons, magic, killing blows, and other options to choose from. You get to choose quests and options, and all of it adds up as you progress - there are different endings depending on your choices, and subtle changes based on taking or refusing certain quests based on how you play your character. It is a wonderful game that I would give 4.5/5 on the Pocket PC ... but pull back a half-star because the 'touch-screen with finger' option is less precise and often requires more attempts to get to small things or talk to people. In a huge game like this, an extra tap or two every minute adds up into a general sense of a lack of precision ... and annoyance. But don't let that deter you from trying this one out!

Apple iPhone / iPod Touch – The RPG Outlook for the Next Quarter

As I mentioned before, gaining insight into future releases for the iPhone App Store isn't easy beyond a one week window or a quick glimmer on a message board. I have heard very little, and the signal-to-noise of any sites tracking releases in terms of finding out about RPG games coming out is very low. I'll just continue to try to keep track of what comes out and play what looks attractive to a PC game fan.

And that brings us to the end of another quarterly review! Be sure to let me know your thoughts on the size, format and very existence of this column in the comments!

Box Art