Friday, November 9, 2012

Top Ten SRPGs: The first three, TRPGs

at 1:49 PM
Allow me to copy the top ten rules here, they apply the same as ever. Same as it ever was....
DESERT ISLAND DISC! These are the ten games I would take if all other qualifiers were forever destroyed. That means there is a strong preference to take only one game per series/creative unit; however, this is not a strict rule. I may find myself unable to dispose of either Highway 61 (Revisited) or John Wesley Harding.
NO RANKING! The ten are presented arbitrarily ordered unless otherwise noted.
NO COLLECTIONS! Re-releases and remakes are okay, but no anthologies. Games must be originally intended as a standalone work.
WHAT I SAY GOES! These are my choices. They aren't the games considered the best, or that were the most influential or successful. They are my subjective preferences. I will provide as much objective reasoning as I can, but at the end of the day, I like what I like and am always right, and you like whatever stupid things you like, because you're an idiot.

If you weren't with us last time, you'd be wise to read the intro, where you'll learn the difference between Strategy RPGs and their subset, Tactical RPGs. The first three games I'll cover will fall into the Tactical category.

Give me let you a little history of tactics games. 1995's Japan-only Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together seems to have instantiated the genre standard, and was closely followed by Final Fantasy Tactics, which brought the idea to Western shores. Though LUCT was published by Enix and FFT by their arch-rivals Square, both games were directed by the legendable Yasumi Matsuno. LUCT itself was the bastard child of two games: Ogre Battle (also Matsuno-directed) and Fire Emblem (a then-Japan-only Nintendo franchise). Ogre Battle laid out the class and terrain systems that the genre would adhere to, as well as the notion of unit facing (side- and back-attacks), while Fire Emblem was responsible for appropriating the grid-based antics of strategy and tabletop games, themselves likely inspired by simple old chess.

Until recently, the original LUCT and FFT were very expensive to get one's hands on, and Fire Emblem required a Famicom to play. Proving that there is a Baby Jesus in heaven, in the last five years all three games have been remade and released in the West on DS or PSP. You won't see them on this list, because I haven't gotten around to buying a PSP to play LUCT and FFT, and Fire Emblem... well, let's just say another Fire Emblem might make an appearance later on. But it isn't a TRPG, so erase it from your brain for the time being! With a pencil eraser! Because your brain is a pencil!

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1.) Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (GBA, 2003)
Hey, I said FFT wouldn't be on the list, didn't mention anything about the pseudo-sequel. This game saw the reunion of Quest with their former compatriot Matsuno under the Square Enix banner, where they produced their second, and probably last, tactics game together.

The game's greatest strength is a superb job system, which requires frequently rotating your characters' classes in order to give them ridiculously broad skill sets. It can get a bit unbalanced, but never requires grinding, and keeps your army in a constant state of flux. No character ever becomes useless. A range of character races provides further variety to the system. There are hundreds of possible class permutations, and (as always when such numbers are tossed about) while some are superficial and will only be explored by the most hardcore players, the result is that every player will feel like he has a unique set of characters of his very own engineering.

A weird feature that I feel obligated to mention is that the world map starts off blank, with a bunch of empty spaces where towns and battlegrounds will be. As the story necessitates the introduction of new areas, it gives you an icon to place on whichever space you choose. This customizable world map seems to serve little purpose, but hey, it's unique.

2.) Tactics Ogre: Knight of Lodis (GBA, 2001)
We jump from the most popular Western Tactics series, to the most acclaimed in the East. I haven't played LUCT, but if every other Quest game is any indication, I'm sure it's fantastic. Until then, we have Knight of Lodis. This side-story (gaiden!) to the original Tactics Ogre tells the backstory of a character who I won't reveal, because it's a pretty big shocker (or so I'm told by fans of the original).

Knight of Lodis implemented the concept of Achievements long before they were foolishly made an OS-level idea on Xbox (quick question: do you pay more attention to your Achievements or your Mii?). Characters are defined not by their numerical statistics, but by what they've done (represented by medals they're awarded). Kill too many beasts? You'll never become a Beast Tamer. One-hit kill a weak enemy? You're now eligible to be a Berzerker. Killing lawful opponents will sway a character towards chaos and vice-versa.

This is role-playing at its finest. Characters defined not by what they say or choose, but what they do. Show me, don't tell me. There are consequences to every action, rewards and punishments, and they'll influence the story in ways you weren't expecting. Which of the plethora of endings you reach will depend on ambiguous dialogue branches (not of the save/kill variety, but rather philosophical musings on the purpose of war and the reality of love), your choice of soldiers (did all of your men fall to chaos?), and who died or lived through the final battles.

Ogre Battle is a series for which I have endless praise (don't think you've seen the end of it on this list, let alone this blog), and Knight of Lodis upholds its shining standard.

3.) Disgaea: Hour of Darkness (PS2, 2003)
Prinnies, dood! Disgaea is real fucking weird. You probably aren't expecting how weird. It's irreverent and bizarre humor may be in line with anime tradition (it calls to mind FLCL in particular), but you still probably won't expect it when a spaceship shows up in Hell to try to blow you up. Also, prinnies are half-penguin, half-bombs, which I believe are said to be created from human souls.

What the game is primarily known for, and of course the key element to winning a cult following, is that the content is essentially bottomless. Every single item in the game contains a dungeon. Every character can be leveled up to... Lvl 9999 I think? And it's not like they move way faster than in a normal game - that's going at a pretty standard pace. I think my characters were like level 30 when I beat the game for the first time. And you're meant to reset them to level 1 all the time! You can also go to Demon court and try to pass Demon laws, and then fight the Demon jury if they don't Demon pass.
I must admit I never quite "got" all these weird systems in Disgaea. It seemed neat, but I'm not the kind to dump six hundred hours into a single game. The reason I've included the game here is that the battles themselves are quite clever. While most TRPG battles are interchangeable (note that I barely mentioned those in FFTA and Knight of Lodis), Disgaea throws in puzzle elements. Sometimes you can't kill your opponents, or every square on the battle field is instant death. Certain mechanics (namely including these uh gem thingies) need to be manipulated to solve each battlefield. Sometimes the battles play out straightforward, and other times you have to fight nearly fifty enemies all crammed side-by-side onto the same tiny grid.

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Next time we'll be departing from the Tactics subgenre to discuss some more traditional (and sometimes much older!) Strategy RPGs.

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