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The Whole Game in My Hand #3 - Feb. '07

by Michael J. Anderson, 2007-02-24

Last month I kicked off something new – a full game review included with the fairly small list of monthly releases. This month there are even fewer new handheld RPG’s, but I make it all good with a review of the excellent DS RPG Final Fantasy III. While I’m at it, I’ll hand out a few ‘Game of the Year’ type awards, since that seems to be the thing to do at this time of the year. I’ll focus on the ‘special awards’, since they are much less boring than the typical ‘name a game’ lists. But then again ... who am I to resist the urge to pontificate - of course while eschewing actual 'GOTY' I'll throw in a list of 'non-crap' RPG's released for handhelds last year.

GameBoy Advance – January 2007 Releases

A couple more gems … like the Energizer bunny the GBA just keeps going and going and going ...

Eragon (My Review Score 4/5, Rated E-10)

Forget the movie, forget the crappy console game, forget even the decent action game for the DS and lavish instead in this – excellent turn-based combat in a party-based RPG. Yeah, for the GBA – again! The GBA version is a more open role-playing game featuring turn-based combat and a full party of characters. The story follows the book more closely than any of the other versions, but at the same time the game provides a huge and open world full of quests and combat and opportunities to learn crafting skills. The combat system is robust and innovative for a licensed game – the turn-based system is augmented with a multiple-hit combo system that can deal massive damage if certain attacks are chained together in a particular order. The game eschews the typical ‘sleep at the inn & stock up on potions’ traditions – almost everything related to healing you need to make yourself, and you are given only occasional opportunity to rest and craft new weapons and potions. You get the raw materials from battling enemies, which also provides you with the experience points needed to level-up your characters. You can gain tons of levels throughout the game, allowing you to broadly develop your characters. But the GBA version is also something of a ‘hardcore’ game – there is no quest log, and you don’t find out until too late that you can’t go back to areas you previously explored to complete quests later in the game. But if you are dedicated to some fun combat and developing a powerhouse character, you have many hours of Eragonahead of you … regardless of your opinion of the movie or books.

Mazes of Fate (Average Review Score 4/5, Rated T)

This looks and plays like a classic cRPG, which makes sense based on what the developers cite as inspiration, saying "the most important influences are Lands of Lore, Chrono Trigger, Fallout and Eye of the Beholder, and Wizardry, Phantasy Star, and Knights of the Old Republic on a second range." I'm not far enough to recommend it without any recommendation, but it already ranks among the games I *know* I'll keep in my permanent collection. I'll do a review of this for next month.

GameBoy Advance – Coming Soon and Outlook

The buzz is starting to gather around the release of Final Fantasy VI coming in early February. Check your scorecard on this one – I have no idea what number it was originally called in Japan, the US or anywhere else in the world. All I know is that it is supposed to be ‘the definitive version’ of whatever game it originally was – and that it is supposed to be excellent based on early reviews of the Japanese release.

Nintendo DS – January 2007 Releases

Quite a dry month … no RPG's released on the DS. Personally I spent most of my DS time working through Final Fantasy III and Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin. I also played a bit of Children of Mana, but with all of the other stuff I was playing between the DS, GBA and PSP i was in 'jRPG overload' and just needed to put it away for a bit. It is interesting that some sites will call the Castlevania games RPG ... in my mind they are classic action-platform games that amazingly just keep getting better and better.

Nintendo DS – Coming Soon and Outlook

Coming in February – Lunar Knights. If you read my review of Lunar Dragon Song you might think this is a sequel – but it isn’t. This is an entirely different property with a space-Vampire-undead setting. In March we are getting a second Lost In Blue survival RPG,a nice looking game called Spectrobes, and a strange puzzle / strategy / RPG combo that takes place in the Warlords world called 'Puzzle Quest' ... definitely some things to anticipate.


Sony PSP – January 2007 Releases

The Legend of Heroes III: Song of the Ocean (Average Score 3/5, Rated E-10)

The latest in the series of classic Final Fantasy-style RPG's - this is the third game in the series as released in the US, and also the end of the so-called Gagharv Trilogy in Japan (the second US release was the prequel-sequel to the first game). I had a pretty high opinion of the first game (A Tear of Vermillion ), but acknowledged that I probably liked it more than it deserved. By the time I reviewed the second game (Prophecy of the Moonlight Witch) the charm spell had worn off and the game quickly became tiresome. However, I keep going back to them - so I knew it was inevitable that I would end up getting the third and final game of the series. And I did ... I'm not far enough into it yet to render a verdict, but the cute and charming music and characters are all there, as is the nice turn-based combat. I'll either do a mini-review next month or a full review the following month.

Sony PSP – Coming Soon and Outlook

There are a few interesting looking PSP RPG's coming out in the next couple of months. In the next month we get Monster Kingdom: Jewel Summoner, which is shaping up to be a pretty good game based on early reports. After that comes Valhalla Knights, which promises to be more than just a generic Final Fantasy clone with a Norse setting. Other interesting PSP games await us later in the year - recently announced Final Fantasy Tactics as well as the Joan of Arc game, which is apparently such a pig that Sony had to release a new firmware patch using the full CPU speed to get the Japanese demo to run acceptably. There is also much anticipation over the upcoming Dungeons & Dragons Tactics and Elder Scrolls Oblivion: Travels games - you can fully expect me to be all over those when they arrive! And finally, there is the Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core game, but I admit my interest has waned as delays continue and I have heard that the combat system will be real-time like the Dirge of Cerebrus PS2 game.

Summing Up and Final Thoughts

Well, that was quick ... there just wasn't an awful lot released this month. Of course that gave me more time to play, which is always welcome.

Well, that is it for this month – as mentioned before I will look at Final Fantasy III in detail, followed by a sort of '2006 in review' list. Next month prepare to step into the way-back machine as we look at Mazes of Fate!

HandHeld RPG Review - Final Fantasy III

An amazing thing happened in late 2004 - Square Enix re-released Final Fantasy I & II as a single cartridge package for the GBA featuring redone translations and massive additional dungeons. For the first six months I had my Nintendo DS, that was almost exclusively what I played (of course, there were no decent DS games yet). Since then, they released GBA versions of Final Fantasy IV and V (late 2005 and 2006 respectively) and have Final Fantasy VI coming in February.

Rather than just simply port another Final Fantasy game to the new Nintendo hardware and randomly attach a couple of touch-screen gimmicks as so many other early DS games seemed to do, Square Enix decided to take their time and produce a true DS version of the game updated to use the hardware capabilities and also update the localization and smooth out other aspects. The result is not perfection, but it is clear that this was a great game - and it remains a great game today despite showing its age.


What's my number?

As I mentioned before, Final Fantasy III is a port of a classic game - one that was never released in the US. The first two games were released, and then nothing for a while until the game called Final Fantasy VI in Japan got a release as Final Fantasy III in North America. Confusion continued as later releases and compilations for the Playstation fixed some of the numerology but not others. Being late to the party myself, I find myself confused whenever the subject comes up, and asking fans of the series only makes it worse since it inevitably leads to endless discussion about which one is best and the reasons why that is true. One thing I've learned - compared to other entries in the series Final Fantasy III is big on characters, not so big on a deep and engrossing story, but critical for the introduction of the job system.

The basic plot of the game revolves around Luneth, an orphan who discovered a powerful and sentient crystal that sets him upon a great quest to thwart the powers of darkness. He is joined by his good friend Arc, and a bit later by a soldier named Ingus and a runaway girl named Refia. The four discover they have some important things in common as they embark on their lengthy quest to recover the lost crystals as 'The Warriors of the Light' and restore hope to the world. It is a solid story that provides you with the motivation to keep going through the game, but it is the plight of your characters that is your real motivation. The characters are excellent, and are one of the two reasons you will be glued to your DS playing this game. The other is the job system, which we will discuss in a moment.


You Look Mah-velous!

When you watch the opening movie of Final Fantasy III you know it is just a pre-rendered cutscene, but that doesn't matter - it is gorgeous and better than any visual you have ever seen on the DS. Of course, when that ends you return to the reality of N64 quality graphics the system can deliver, but the fact remains - the game looks great. Nicely detailed characters and towns dot the environs, and as you move from place to place you get very nicely done shadows and weather effects. This isn't 'next-gen', not will you be thinking you're holding a PSP, but it is one of the best looking games on the DS to date and the updated graphics lend a definitely modern feel to the game.

The control system is pretty much identical to the GBA Final Fantasy games in terms of running around on the overworld map from town to town and traversing dungeons. Towns are generally 'safe havens' filled with shops and inns where you can pick up information and quests and but new equipment and spells. Leave town and you are open to attack at any point. The combat system has picked up options but will be instantly familiar to those who have played previous entries in the series. The turn-based system allows for a number of possible actions - turns are decided based on the character's statistics, and you can attack, guard, use magic or items, make use of other skills or attempt to flee battle. Knowing the strengths of your characters and the weaknesses of your enemies is critical to survival, as is making sure you keep up a good supply of potions and the best weapons and armor available.


Nice JOB!

One new thing you will notice looking at the status screen is that your characters are 'Lvl 1 Freelancer' to begin, and there is a 'Job' menu item (that you can't access ... yet). What does that mean? Jobs are basically character classes - ways to specialize your party as you progress through the game to maximize your success and experience. But managing jobs can be tricky - maintaining a balanced party is critical, and there are things you can't do without certain classes present. With judicious selection and management you will always have someone available to fill a needed role, and also be able to attain high mastery of the path you select.

This version of the game gets a special addition - the Onion Knight job. It is the highest possible job class, but is only possible to get through a long series of quests and tasks that include heavy use of the wireless Mognet function (which I'll discuss a bit later).

That's what they are now - nothing but blank, empty space

One of the best uses I have seen for the upper screen while playing a game on the DS that is essentially a single screen game is Castlevania - while you are plowing through Dracula's Castle you get the map on the upper screen. Other stuff happens in shops and save rooms and so on, but for the bulk of the game you are running around killing undead creatures and the always visible map is a great help. I belabor that point for what should be an obvious reason - the dual screen use in Final Fantasy III is lacking.

There are a few different views in the game - the overworld view shows you the world map on the top screen while you travel on the lower screen. That is a very good use of the screen - indeed it is the best dual screen use you'll see in the game. When looking at character information, the view of the party in its current location shifts to the top screen while the familiar party status screen occupies the lower screen. This allows you to manipulate your equipment and spells while also viewing your party, but nothing can happen to your party while in that screen, so all of the screen swapping is pretty much useless. It is easy to envision better uses of the top screen - like a 'paper doll' representation of the selected character. But the most egregious problem is that the top screen remains unused the entire time you are exploring. That means while you're in dungeons the top screen is blank, instead of displaying a real-time mini-map of the area. It isn't a killer flaw, but it only takes about five minutes of playing the game to see it as a glaring omission.


This is randomly annoying

One of the hallmarks of the so-called 'jRPG' class of games is the random encounters. The Final Fantasy games have alway had them, and Final Fantasy III is no exception - whenever you wander between towns or through dungeons, you are certain to be attacked by a small group of monsters. This is a turn-based system that will be instantly familiar to anyone who has played any of the games in the series. The same attack/magic/item menu pops up for each character, with enemies and allies getting turns based on speed and initiative statistics (that the player is never directly privy to, but can deduce through numerous battles). This is all strictly turn-based, unlike the phase-based combat used starting in Final Fantasy VI recently released for the GBA. It is simple yet effective - you really do need to plan your battles and manage your mana and supplies. Ending up unconscious means losing experience points - and the amount you would lose in a boss battle is significant.

Not surprisingly, jobs figure heavily into your combat experience. You can assign characters to front row or back row based on whether they are doing melee or ranged attacks - and of course there are jobs for mages and archers.

There are two issues here - the combat system and the random encounters. The random encounters are disruptive by their very nature, but that can become annoying based on frequency and immersion. Many modern games get around this by letting you see the enemies and possibly avoid them. Two recent examples are the PSP games Kingdom of Heaven and the Legend of Heroes series. Not great games, but the enemies either rush at you or run away based on their relative strength - this way you can avoid wasting time. As I mentioned, I love the combat system itself - it is the amount of time spent for each battle relative to the reward that is a problem for me. Each time you encounter an enemy, there is a 'battle start' animation, then you have the battle, then there are animations for victory and each of the rewards are listed. This is another part of the game that has been kept faithful to the original but feels slow, especially in a handheld version.


Hey, look at us, we DO have wireless!

When the developers indicated they would be making use of the Nintendo Wireless Network for Final Fantasy III, there was excitement and trepidation. What would they do, and how would it impact the main game? Well, what they did was create an in-game communication system. There are a few purposes to this - it provides an extra dimension to the characters as they can communicate with NPC's they met at various parts of the game, and it also allows players to send messages and other things to their friends in the real world over the Nintendo WiFi system. But there is another enticement - meeting a certain set of conditions in the game as well as completing enough messages to and from the outside world and in-game characters allows you to access the most powerful class in the game: the Onion Knight, who has mastery in many areas.

What's the Final word on this Final Fantasy?

I had loads of fun playing Final Fantasy III, but was left feeling somewhat conflicted. It really hits the mark of being 'old school' while thoroughly updated all at once. But some of the improvements in the look and feel made the inclusion of older elements seem more out of place. The worst of these was the pacing of battles - when I am gaming on a handheld, I want the least amount to wasted time possible, not sitting watching the same battle animations play out for battle after battle in rapid succession. But even that didn't detract much from the vastly positive experience - the game is huge, gorgeous and completely engrossing. You care about the characters and the story, and all but the most trivial battles are enjoyable.

Pros and Cons

+ Nice update of a classic game.
+ Solid combat system.
+ Really nicely done sound & graphics.
+ Huge world and story offer dozens of hours of playtime.
- Random battles take too long and occur too often.
- Use of dual screens and other DS features is lacking.

Final Score and Game Info

I score Final Fantasy III as a solid 4/5. It is amongst the best role-playing games yet for the 'next gen' handhelds, and will keep you busy for more than 40 hours - even more if you are like me and doggedly try to find everything and maximize your levels. I estimate I spent about 60 hours playing, but after hitting a dungeon too low in levels, I chased down every random battle I could find. Final Fantasy III is a premium priced game, meaning that it will be at the very top price of all available DS games.

Awards, Lists and Other Junk

2006 was another mediocre year for handheld RPG gamers. The best games had one of two things going for them - either they were remakes of games released many years ago or they were GBA games. Or both. Yet it was a much better year than 2005 - instead of loads of terrible games, this year was full of very average games. Does this mean that 2007 will have us choking on great games every month. I'm not counting on that ... but for now, let's look at some of the interesting ways developers found to 'distinguish' themselves with handheld RPG's this year.

Most creative way around long load times award - Ys: The Arc of Napishtim. It was really great that the general load times in Ys were very short. But quickly you realized that the game fed you a nearly endless stream of loading screens. But at least they made it fun - the colors would change, the dots would scroll and so on.

The 'Just Hang Up' award - Deep Labyrinth. Great idea - first person RPG with stylus controlled combat and magic system. Unfortunately the realization was not very good - the games (yes there were two 'chapters') were basically up-sized cell phone games, the controls were finicky, and the environments were repetitive and not very interesting.

"No, we don't care if you know how to play" Award - Generation of Chaos. The aptly named strategy-RPG came with essentially no tutorial and a bare-bones manual - yet featured menus full of acronyms that remained unexplained. After a couple of months the published a 'getting started guide', but by then it was too late - the reviews were bad, the game didn't sell, and nobody cared. The really sad thing for those of us who beat our heads against the game to crack open the 'hidden gem' inside was that there was no gem ... it was just a complicated mediocre game.

Most Appropriate Name Award (tie) - Generation of Chaos and Astonishia Story. Generation of Chaos for being a confusing mess, and Astonishia Story for the implied irony - the only thing 'astonishing' about the story is how bad it was.

Crappy Gimmick of the Year Award - "touch screen magic" on the DS. I love Arx Fatalis and drawing runes ... and doing it on the DS seems natural. But there is a difference between 'clever gameplay mechanic' and 'fundamental core of the game'. Guess which one showed up more this year?

Title Most Likely Generated Randomly Award - The Legend of Heroes II: Prophecy of the Moonlight Witch. I like this series quite a bit: there are fun elements and nice characters and plenty of badly translated dialogue. But the names look like something that comes straight from the 'list of RPG cliches'. This follows on the first game in the series, subtitled 'Tears from Cutting Onions' and leads into the January release 'Songs from Billy Ocean'.

Greatest Feature to Ruin a Game Award - Blade Dancer: Lineage of Light. Crafting is a great feature in games, and having weapons and armor with limited durability makes tons of sense and adds to the immersion and fun of a game. However, having your sword break after ~20 hits takes the fun out of things very quickly.

The Great Big Book of Nothing Award - there are so many possibilities ... but ultimately I have to settle on the Legend of Heroes series. These games are charming, have fun little characters and decent combat - but I couldn't tell you a thing about any of them. And I'm playing the latest one now! They exemplify "good but generic" - you will like stuff as it is happening, but soon forget the whole thing.

The 'More grown up doesn't mean better' Award - Field Commander. Billed as Advance Wars for adults, it was certainly darker and showed more realistic violence and some blood spatter. But it wasn't better in any way. Indeed, the added content doesn't mean it was actually more 'grown up' - shouldn't that be judged by the challenge level? Advance Wars had better characters, better strategy and tactics, and better scenarios.

The Worst Handheld RPG's of 2006
- Spectral Souls (PSP)
- Tao's Adventure: The Curse of the Demon Seal (DS)
- Astonishia Story (PSP)
- Deep Labyrinth (DS)
- Full Metal Alchemist: Dual Sympath
- Blade Dancer: Lineage of Light (PSP)
- The Legend of Heroes II: Prophecy of the Moonlight Witch (PSP)
- Ys: The Arc of Napishtim (PSP)

OK, it isn't ALL bad news, is it? No - as I said, 2006 was much better than 2005, and here are a few examples of that:

The Top 10 Handheld RPG's of 2006 That Didn't Suck
- Final Fantasy V (GBA)
- Final Fantasy III (DS)
- Summon Night: Swordcraft Story (GBA)
- Summon Night: Swordcraft Story 2 (GBA)
- Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth (PSP)
- Tales of Phantasia (GBA)
- Dungeon Siege: Throne of Agony (PSP)
- Contact (DS)
- Lost Magic (DS)
- ...

OK, so I couldn't make 10 ... better luck next year!

Box Art