Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Games You Should Know About (But Probably Don't)

In this edition, we look at three games that are more suited to a niche audience and, therefore, have not received much attention by the populace at large. Today, RPG video games are a different animal than they were when I was young. For the most part, things seem to follow either the SquEnix model of flashy, graphically impressive JRPGs (because RPGs in Japan are in a league of their own) or the hybrid RPGs that incorporate aspects from other genres, such as Oblivion or Mass Effect (both of which are great games). However, these games tend to be much easier than their predecessors. Five years ago, I collected all four Dragon Warrior games for the NES and played through them again. Those games were tough. I still have my copy of 7th Saga, for SNES (also made by Enix), but I won't start up a new game because I know it's just going to beat the shit out of me. That's the thing that's missing from RPGs as of late: a sadistic amount of challenge and difficulty. Enter Atlus. They released three RPGs on the Nintendo DS guaranteed to break a foot off in your ass and screw your girlfriend while you're at home, crying in your pillows. And these are no modern RPGs, they're 100% old school dungeon crawls. The first one is called Etrian Odyssey, which allows you to create your own guild of adventurers and take them, five at a time, into a deep, mysterious forest labyrinth filled with ravenous monsters. As you go through deeper levels, you discover the mysteries that lay hidden in the canopied dungeons. While you're plumbing the depths on the top screen, you can (and must, if you want to survive) draw out a map of the level on the bottom screen, noting all the doors, treasures, and dangerous enemies you encounter. While this is created by a japanese company and has an anime style to the characters, it is by no means your little brother's JRPG. There is no big, sweeping story, no CG cutscenes, not even mind-blowing graphics (that's not to say the graphics suck, by any means). This game hearkens back to the days of playing the old RPGs, and it's just as tough. Levels are big, monsters are plenty, and save points are few and far between. For the first few hours, if you want to save your game, you have to travel all the way back, without teleporting, to the town outside of the labyrinth. Eventually, you do find a spot to save and quickly return to town, but getting there is an uphill battle. Let's say your party made it to level 2 and are low on health and magic. You need to backtrack all the way to the entrance of the labyrinth, fending off the monster encounters that plague you every couple of steps to reach the town and rest up at the inn, heal the mortally wounded, and buy/sell items. The thing is the more you use the inn or the healer, the more expensive they get the next time you go there, making you use those resources sparingly. Not all the monsters in the game are random encounters, either. There are these, let's say, mini-bosses called FOEs. When you are close to a FOE on a level, you can actually see their location, both in the labyrinth and on the map. The reason why you can see them is that they are hard as hell. Eventually, you can beat some of them after enormous amounts of leveling, but some of them are too hard for you to take on until way later in the game. The only real option when faced with one of these high level FOEs is to run past them while they chase you down (and they do follow you). Since everyone thought that Etrian Odyssey was such a good time, they decided to make another one. Etrian Odyssey II is very much like it's predecessor, though they did add a couple of extra touches: new features, new classes, an updated map creation system, oh, and new dungeon and story to make things more interesting. If you do like Etrian Odyssey, the sequel will give you more of the same, which is not a bad thing. The third game is more like a spiritual successor than a sequel to Etrian Odyssey. The Dark Spire just came out recently and, frankly, it's the hardest one yet. Where Etrian Odyssey gave you a place to fight tough monsters, The Dark Spire ups the ante and also adds lethal traps, more enemies at once during a battle, and a system that throws you into the thick of things without holding your hand or even telling you what to do. This game feels more akin to the Wizardry games as well as old school Dungeons & Dragons, having a darker, more western RPG feel. Unlike most RPGs, magic users don't have magic points. They actually go the D&D route and let you cast a certain amount of different level spells, depending on the level of the character. Leveling up also has to be done manually. You buy skills and levels with the experience points you gain from battles, but you have to go back to the guild hall to purchase a new level, giving you another reason to backtrack through the multiple levels back to town. The map in this game is different, too. You can pull up the map screen at any time and see what you have explored so far without having to draw anything, but, without using a certain spell or item, the map screen doesn't show you where you are in the dungeon. You have to figure that out for yourself (just like everything else). This game also has two modes of play, though the difference is purely graphical. You can play the modern mode, shown below in the video, or you can switch to classic mode, which looks more like the old Wizardry games with the wire frame dungeon walls and simple sprites for NPCs and monsters. Here's the thing. These games are not for everyone. Only the most hardcore may apply. All of these games will beat you up, kill your family, and sell them to a body farm if you're not careful. They are hard. If you have not the balls to take these games on, you will only find frustration. However, if you like a little pain with your RPG, these games are great fun and provide months of old school satisfaction. Until next time, keep it old school. Kaiser out

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