With the PlayStation Portable (PSP) getting the barest minimum of support in the West and Vita in the midst of a post-launch drought, it's safe to say Sony portable gaming has landed squarely in the doldrums. Thankfully, both systems lean on an extensive back-catalog of PSP titles, and few publishers have played as prolific and supportive a role in that catalog as Asian-niche mainstay Atlus. Indeed, Atlus continues to bolster the PSP's role-playing game (RPG) lineup with new releases, such as the forthcoming Growlanser and Gungnir, and they recently highlighted the important role they've played with a PlayStation Store sale on some of their better-known entries.
Given the present dearth of strategy and role-playing games on the young Vita, exposure to some classic Atlus games couldn't come at a better time. I recently had a chance to play nine of these games for the first time on Vita and I came away from the experience realizing that, even if most of these games are ports of earlier releases, no one picks up on and supports unique properties the way Atlus does. This is the company that published oddball titles like Hammerin' Hero and Eggs of Steel, after all.
These games aren't all winners-in fact, one of them is an outright dud-but each one has a unique quality that makes it worth checking out for fans of niche fantasy genres. From the "noi-RPG" styling of Persona 3 to the card-based tactical play of Yggdra Union, to whatever the hell bizarre fusion Knights in the Nightmare represents, this is one eclectic group of games, and it speaks highly for the diversity Atlus has bestowed upon the aforementioned back-catalog.
I should note that some of these games have been reviewed previously, and any reader would be well served to go back and read the original reviews, as they are far more comprehensive than anything I'm able to offer here. Again, I had never played any of these games on any platform prior to this round-up, and playing nine extremely dense games to completion at one time would be a daunting task for any reviewer. That said, these aren't full reviews here, but rather snapshot impressions of a handful of hours spent with each game, each write-up accompanied by a recommendation to try the game or to steer clear.
Class of Heroes (Developer: Zerodiv, Released: 2008)
I'm glad I'm doing this round-up in alphabetical order so I can get this stinker out of the way first.
I know that somewhere there is a small group of rabid, die-hard Wizardry fans opposed to any kind of innovation (or fun, really) who would swear by Class of Heroes, but I am not one of them. This oldest-of-old-school, first-person dungeon crawler is a bland mess, with ugly graphics, poor controls, a confusing interface, and an archaic premise: take a bunch of blank-slate fantasy stereotypes into a labyrinth, move one block at a time, find some treasure, fight some ungainly 2D sprites, wash, rinse, and repeat. I think there may be some semblance of a story in there, but I couldn't ignore the rest of the game long enough to find out.
What's worse, the battles are obscenely simplistic and dull, the environments lack imagination by Wolfenstein 3D standards, and it took me thirty minutes just to figure out what I was supposed to be doing in order to move on past the two "tutorial" dungeons. Perhaps the biggest sin of all is that there is no standard auto-map feature! You have to cast a temporary spell in order to even bring up a map. Might and Magic II was easier and more fun to play and that game came out twenty-four years ago.
Perhaps the only novel idea here is a "college" home base that substitutes medics for a "nurse's office," changing specializations for "changing majors," etc. Really, it's just a ruse made to disguise how outdated the whole setup is. I forced myself to spend two hours with this game and have no desire to ever gaze upon it again. (As an aside, there is currently a Kickstarter campaign going for a Class of Heroes II localization. Personally, I would donate money for the purpose of preventing one.)
Verdict: Un-enroll immediately.
Crimson Gem Saga (Developer: IronNos, Released: 2009)
Perhaps the best thing I can say about Crimson Gem Saga is that despite how extremely rote it is, I keep playing it. Based on my few hours with the game, I'm not sure how to interpret my mixed feelings, and I have yet to finish, so the luster may wear off well before the credits roll. Still, there's something undeniably charming about Korean developer IronNos' foray into well-worn Japanese RPG territory.
This is the epitome of a classic JRPG, assembled from formulae established well before games like Chrono Trigger and Grandia started to fine-tune the genre in the '90s. There's a headstrong protagonist who comes to reject his role in a shady military organization, a witty female elf, a stubborn mage, and a gruff former cleric who's good with a hammer, and they're on a quest to collect cursed gem fragments and so on and so forth. Any gamer familiar with JRPGs will instantly recognize these tropes and will tire of them just as quickly. They'll be similarly bored by the cheesy writing, clichéd town vs. dungeon map setup, and unimpressively straightforward turn-based combat.
Yet the game still manages to ooze style, with an attractive hand-drawn look that recalls VGA-era Sierra adventure titles. The voice acting, too, is fittingly humorous without becoming cloying. It's an undeniably polished game, and underneath the overwhelming sense of familiarity is the comforting sensation of cozying up to a dog-eared fantasy novel that has been read far too many times yet still manages to entertain. Any RPG fan willing to withstand an assault of sameness, particularly with regard to ultra-generic combat, will be treated to one of the more appealingly presented RPGs to come out in a long time.
Verdict: Not quite a hidden gem, but production values sparkle.
Kenka Bancho: Badass Rumble (Developer: Bullets, Released: 2009)
To call Kenka Bancho the odd-man-out in this group of RPGs and strategy titles would be a gross understatement of the word "odd." Here is a game in which you run around city streets shooting laser-beams into gang members' eyes in hopes of catching them off-guard with a QTE-controlled verbal assault before bludgeoning them with a lead pipe. It reeks of forced, kitschy Japanese "quirk" in the same way No More Heroes does and comes off as something of a neutered, portable version of Yakuza.
Though it may be hard to believe, this is actually a port of the third entry in a long-running series of Japanese brawlers. Knowledge of other games in the series is not required, however, as all the player really needs to know is that he or she controls an aspiring teenaged brute who is on a mission to dethrone as many well-known tough guys as possible in a given set of time. It's really that simple. Said tough guys are found by locating itineraries and paying attention to cell phone messages that direct the player to a boss' location at a given time (AM or PM) on a particular day. Every so often, the player engages in a story mission that has something to do with the protagonist's school field trip, and the player can kill time playing dress-up or buying consumables, but the main attraction here is simply beating up thugs and collecting locations.
It's both a curse and a blessing, then, that thugs are everywhere. The player is hard-pressed to run down a city street without being blasted in the eyes (the game's not-so-subtle metaphor for staring someone down) by would-be opponents. Thus, battles pop up with the same bizarre frequency as in a Yakuza title, but Kenka Bancho lacks that series' trademark strong plot, fun diversions, and detailed vision of Japan. Though decently customizable with frequently upgraded move sets, combat is too straightforward and repetitive to be much fun. The presentation is lacking as well, as character models suffer from severe blockiness and environments are too grainy and dull to be easily distinguished from one another.
There is something to be said for breezy simplicity in a portable game, but not when the entire game boils down to a rather banal set of mechanics. Kenka Bancho's various idiosyncrasies and unique take on time management may make it worth a look, but don't expect to come away dazzled.
Verdict: A little bit bad, not completely ass, but certainly not badass.
Knights in the Nightmare (Developer: Sting, Released: 2010)
Knights in the Nightmare is probably the exact-wrong game to talk about in terms of first impressions, because few games give a worse first impression than this port of the 2009 Nintendo DS title. It's the kind of strategy game with systems and stats so inordinately complex that it has not just one tutorial but dozens of longwinded tutorials and tips, and I recommend that anyone brave enough to give the game a shot not only pay close attention to these vague lessons but also seek out a few instructional FAQs. That said, the game is also a one-of-a-kind experience, a fusion of genres as disparate as turn-based strategy, tower defense, and bullet-hell shooter.
Myriad rules, stats, and systems aside, the core of the game involves stationing heroes at set locations on a single map and using a drag-and-drop system to feed them items and weapons in real-time so that they can attack enemies and obstacles. There are no hit-points here; the only thing the player has to worry about is the time allotted to a single turn. Unfortunately, enemies shoot out a steady stream of projectiles that, upon touching the player's cursor, reduce time. It's obviously a bit more complicated than that, and all of these things are thrown at the player from the start, but once the basics are understood the game gets progressively easier to digest.
All of this complexity is wrapped around a passable mystery involving a dead hero who can summon other lost warriors to battle, and the story is told linearly, with each isometric battle representing a location ala Disgaea and Final Fantasy Tactics. Though by no means a technological powerhouse, Knights is like those games in that it is also cartoonishly attractive, with large, detailed sprite-based characters. Menus and prompts are prone to clutter and confusing jargon, but they're also bright and give the game a colorful flourish. For a game that once depended upon stylus control, it also controls quite smoothly.
I'd be remiss if I didn't recommend giving Knights a thorough shot, if only because it's unlikely video gamedom will ever see anything else like it. It's so incredibly unique that, despite the initial frustration, learning the game's systems leads to an experience that is at times quite enjoyable.
Verdict: A nightmarish learning curve that overshadows an incredibly unique experience.
Riviera: The Promised Land (Developer: Sting, Released: 2007)
Going by its history as a WonderSwan and Game Boy Advance title, Riviera is the senior citizen of this group, but it's crafted from a formula that holds up surprisingly well. The idea is to take a JRPG and streamline the entire experience: level exploration consists of a series of interconnected screens that can be examined for secrets with the push of a button, and combat is the normal turn-based affair that emphasizes weapon and item selection over leveling up.
Players control a fallen angel of sorts on his mission to discover the secret behind a devastating war between his kin and seemingly peaceful pixie-folk. The characters are all thinly layered, too-cute clichés, but the world they inhabit is the real star of the show. While level exploration consists of traversing mostly static screens, many of these screens hide secrets and QTE minigames that can be accessed only by spending points earned in battle. Each set of screens may not look particularly unique, but the actions and dialogue that are available there feel fresh and unpredictable, and uncovering each one becomes an addictive twist on classic RPG treasure hunting.
Combat, though frustrating at times due to underpowered weaponry and slow leveling, is made more fun by a skill system that has players experiment with different weapon/character combinations. Each character has specific strengths that are tied to a weapon set, but every character can use every weapon (albeit in very different ways) and after using the weapon enough, the character gains a special skill attack. Many games feature weapon leveling, but this is a unique enough spin that it makes learning skills and acquiring exploration points less tedious.
Like many of the games in this group, Riviera is an acquired taste. Its streamlined level navigation and combat may turn off gamers looking for a bit more control over their heroes, but the linearity of the experience is mitigated by levels that are lovingly crafted and a joy to explore. It is by no means a perfect game, but it's a thoroughly accessible RPG full of charm, polish, and most importantly, great ideas.
Verdict: This deceptively simple RPG may be an old-timer, but it holds up perfectly well in 2012.
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona, Persona 2: Innocent Sin, and Persona 3 Portable (Developer: Atlus, Released: 2009, 2011, 2010)
Though better known for its critically revered third and fourth installments, the Persona series has been around since the heyday of the PSOne and has earned cult status around the world as one of the more innovative RPG properties. Each game has a distinctly film noir tone and deals with a set of Japanese high school students who navigate puberty in the most unlikely of ways, using inborn psychic demons to take down supernatural foes. The results are simultaneously heartwarming and creepy, like a mix of Ranma 1/2 and David Lynch.
The first two titles are PSOne games updated recently for re-release on the PSP, and while they are by no means bad, they show their age a little more than the third game. The original Persona has players navigating polygonal areas from a first-person perspective (not unlike Class of Heroes), though battles are thankfully relegated to isometric fields with cleanly drawn sprite graphics. The first-person locales aren't the ideal form of exploration but they are supplemented by an auto-mapping feature and unobtrusively timed random battles (though, from what I understand, the rate of encounters was actually increased from the original North American release). Persona 2, on the other hand, eschews first-person dungeon crawling for an entirely isometric experience, although the rate of random encounters is slightly more annoying. Thankfully, auto-mapping is still included.
Both games feature battle systems rife with JRPG staples such as attacks, special weapons, items, spells (in the form of "Persona" skill-attacks), and automated A.I. control. What makes these two entries stand out from the third game-indeed, from all other JRPGs-is the unique conversation system that lets you talk to enemies during battle. Talking with enemies brings up a meter reminiscent of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion that shows whether an enemy is angry, scared, anxious, or happy, and the player chooses a conversation choice that best fits the enemy. While discussion isn't always the optimal solution, positive outcomes result in gifted items and ingredients used to form new Personae. Conversations may protract the length of battles, but they also provide a level of unpredictability sorely needed in the genre.
While it retains the turn-based battles, Persona 3 Portable is an entirely different beast from the former two games. Gone are mid-battle conversations and locale-by-locale story progression; in their place are a day/night gameplay system that has players seeking out "social contacts" in the daytime (performed by completing various tasks and dialogue options in and outside of school) in order to craft stronger Personae for use in nighttime battles. All combat takes place in the same sprawling tower, though each level of the tower is hardly uniform in its design. Dungeon navigation is unique in that players can split up a party in order to automatically hunt down exits and treasure. Unfortunately, battles in dungeons are slightly more generic than in the previous games, though their polygonal graphics are smoother than the outmoded sprite animation and the Persona system still adds a level of customization missing from other mainstream RPGs. Meanwhile, the social contacts system provides a bit of open-endedness in the dialogue and ties in well with the Pokémon-like practice of Persona-collecting.
Based on my time with the games, Persona 1 and 2 do not seem to be nearly as well written as the third entry but their localized updates include solid voice acting, and the stories, while completely silly, maintain a genuine sense of foreboding mystery. Persona 3 is obviously the most polished package of the three, though it still has preternatural silliness in spades.
Given their depth, quality, and recently reduced prices, each of the PSP Persona ports is worth a try. Though one's enjoyment depends on tolerance for an antiquated feature or two, these games are just about the finest, most polished RPGs featuring creepy Velvet Rooms and crazed Japanese school children money can buy... and isn't that really what you want out of an Atlus game?
Verdict: No surprise-the third entry has aged the best, but all three games are worth picking up.
Yggdra Union (Developer: Sting, Released: 2008)
Few things make my eyes glaze over faster than a mention of "card-based gameplay." Hell, the last card-based video game I remember enjoying was SNK vs. Capcom: Card Fighter's Clash on the Neo Geo Pocket Color, and that was ages ago. While Yggdra Union has more in common with Advance Wars than Card Fighters Clash, that doesn't help me much, as I like the Advance Wars games about as much as I like card-based strategy games.
So, full admission here: Yggdra Union is probably a fine game that fans of this genre (niche as it is) will enjoy, but I was destined to feel nothing but apathy towards it. In fact, next to the detestable Class of Heroes, I spent the least amount of time with Yggdra, though by no fault of game or its developers. The graphics-redrawn from the Game Boy Advance incarnation-are colorful, the story seems to have surprising heft, and the tactical gameplay is deep. It just isn't for me.
Though the game takes setting and design cues from Riviera, Yggdra's story and gameplay are entirely separate. The story centers around a princess who escapes the violent overthrow of her kingdom and makes off with the family heirloom, the Holy Sword Gran Centurio (which sounds more like an old car than a powerful relic). As the princess leads an army to retake control of the kingdom and realize the hidden (and possibly destructive) power of the sword, players take control of units on an overhead map and align them so as to create "unions," or series of battles based on predetermined stats and card abilities.
Again, card-based gameplay may appeal to some, but I'm not a fan of drawn-out, uncontrollable battle sequences and deck management. It's a shame I have to end my round-up on a down note, and one that is not entirely fair to Atlus. The best thing I can say for Yggdra is that what's here is attractive and fairly priced; if you like this type of game, you may want to give it a shot.
Verdict: If ever a game wasn't designed with me in mind, this is the one.