Retrograding 02.28.04

Before we start:
Preamble
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

#21. Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance 2
Released: 1/26/04
Developer: Black Isle
Publisher: Interplay
Systems Released On: Microsoft X-Box, Sony Playstation 2

Yes. A game released only a month ago has made the list. And to be honest I’m not comfortable about it, even if it is some of the most entertaining electronic heroin I’ve played in a long time. And I’m not alone. Chuck and Matt are both addicts of the game and Alex Williams is just getting to that stage too. Game’s already on tap to repeat it’s Parent, Dark Alliance 1 as an RPG of the Year nominee, especially as it doesn’t everything the first was does but better. Still, once the insane love for this has worn off, I don’t know where on the countdown it will be, but for right now it is by far one of my most favorite games and really hasn’t allowed my XboX to play anything else.

And if you’re interested my review of Dark Alliance 2 is right here. The problem of course now is filling three pages of why I like this game so much when less than a month ago I reviewed the thing and rambled for twice that length on what was great about it. But I can’t say no to a challenge! So let’s see what else I can say about this incredible game that I haven’t already…

Dark Alliance 2 stands out in my mind because it’s been a long time since we had a great action RPG. Dark Alliance 1 was very good, but it still had flaws. After Xantam the beholder died, the rest of the game fell flat plot wise. Instead Dark Alliance built the plot around not only the main good guy(s) that you play as, but also around the Vampire King Mordoc. As your character advances in the story, so too does Mordoc and his schemes. He has some great cut scenes that help to define his character and make him a villain truly worthy of the annals of video gamedom. Plus the fact he commits genocide shows that he can at least accomplish his goals unlike villains in other games that get stopped at the last minute. Nope. Mordoc acts first, THEN brags.

The game also builds up a rivalry between you and Mordoc as you face him more than once. Mordoc also manages to use your friends against you taking down three different allies of yours, including someone who was not only evil in the last game, but one you assumed was dead as well. It’s a great touch because a lot of other RPG’s you never fight the end boss until well…the end. And there’s no real rivalry. You happen to learn who Big Evil is and go after him. DA takes that and turns it on its head. Every time you think you know who is the main bad guy, you learn someone else has been manipulating everything from behind the scenes. And it all makes sense and ties in perfectly with the first game. We’re talking seamless. And without ruining the end of the game, you learn there’s going to be a third game with an enemy straight from the Demiplane of Dread itself. Or fans of Curse which I reviewed a while back. And that’s as much of a hint as I’m giving.

What else is incredible about the game is multiplayer mode. Not only do you have seven characters to choose from, including 2 straight out of Forgotten Realms Canon, but the ability to mix and match your team is tremendous. A Necromantic Elf and a Dwarven Rogue. A Drow Monk and Human Cleric. Drizzt and Artemis ON THE SAME TEAM. The possibilities may be limited but it sure doesn’t feel like it. The only thing that could possibly make multiplayer better is if it had online play available. But then it would be me and Chuck playing without sleep and Alex Williams demanding to play with one of us eventually. I don’t remember the last time there was such an incredible real time action RPG. Screw Diablo or Record of Lodoss War. Those had no plot or character development. They were just about butchering a shitload of things that out ever killed you by a massive set of numbers pitted against you. They were Gauntlet with prettier graphics. Nothing more. Now don’t get me wrong, Gauntlet is a classic game, and Diablo and Lodoss are both good, but compared to Dark Alliance 2, they are not even worth mentioning in the same breath. The game is that fan-f*cking-tastic.

And yes, believe or not there IS character development in Dark Alliance 2. But it’s subtle. Each character has different responses to the same NPC generated questions. Each one speaks with their own personality and language. The Drow and Dwarf are power hungry and demand gold quite often. The Necromancer and the Cleric are demure and act for the sake of good. Yes. A good benevolent Necromancer. You read that right. ONLY in Dark Alliance 2. You will watch the characters grow from anti-heros and characters that aren’t good in the normal sense of the word into true legends and standardbearers of justice. It’s been a long time since we had a game to this. And certainly this is the only one on the current generations of consoles that gets it right. No angst or whiny badly written goth poetry. Just evolution as the characters learn that with great power…comes great responsibility. And with that I owe Stan Lee ten bucks.

The fact each character does have their own subplot and a playable level ONLY for that character which fleshes out their background and history is amazing. Especially considering how long the game is to begin with.

Oh. And let me touch on that for a bit. Like I raised holy hell on about other websites obviously not playing the entire game before reviewing it and making so many errors in regards to the game, Tycho from Penny Arcade did the same f*cking thing. Same on Gamespot to IGN who either didn’t read the manual or just didn’t play the game for saying things like “This game is only ten hours long” to “switching between feats and spells is too hard’ without even noticing the bloody quick spell feature. Sigh.

This isn’t to bash other sites. Not at all. Other sites tend to do a bang up kick ass job. It’s why they’re popular. It’s just when they make mistakes or fake playing a game all the way through or enough to review the game, it becomes f*cking apparent to everyone. Especially when the same person keeps doing it. I’m looking at you Lil’ Miss “I Played Pokemon Channel and FF:CC. I swear!” And when it’s a game this incredible, a horrible injustice has been done. Thankfully it’s usually only one or two jackoffs when the rest of the staff is pretty good at what they do. But that one jackoff…grrr. GRRR I SAY!

Back to the comments on the game. Sorry, it had been a while since I ranted.

The customization in Dark Alliance is amazing. Take a look at my Necromancer. I Maxed up my vampiric touch, empower (makes your spells more powerful) and made it so he could wear Plate Armour and was able to go toe to toe with a dragon, killing it with PUNCHES. Yes, an elf that could punch things dead. Only in Dark Alliance. Or Chuck’s Dwarven Rouge with maxed out accuracy and hail of bolts. A long distance sniper superb. A Dwarven sniper. Again, a concept very far outside the stereotypical High Fantasy Characters. Again, kudos to Dark Alliance 2 for making this happen. Any weird combo you wanted to make possible that could be done using actual D&D rules turned into an entertaining video game can be done here.

I know one complaint I have heard is people wanted 4 player action. And I have to say for those people they can play Dungeon and Dragons heroes. It has a DA ripoff for an engine and after playing that you’ll see how bloody annoying a 4 player D&D game can get if not made by Capcom for the Arcades. In truth the D&D Heroes engine also features less you can do, and is a lot slower in terms of gamespeed. You also level up much faster in D&DH but get less stat gain per level. Oh…and the words take forever to get through and are basically boring. Trust me people, ignore those that bitch about not having a 4 player mode for Dark Alliance 2. They’re insane and/or haven’t played the game.

But here’s a neat trick. You can have 4 players in the game at once. 5-6 even if you do it right. But only 2 are Human controlled at most. Here’s a hint on how to do it. Play as the Necromancer. Summon a Shadow. Then go team up with Kharne and Jerek and watch the undead minions of Mordoc die faster than um…things that die really quickly. Although you can’t encounter this 4 player onslaught until the end, it shows perfectly why Dark Alliance is best suited to two players and nothing more. And in this age where everyone seems to have to have four player possibility and online play and big boobies or gamers across the net start to scream’ “this game SUXX cuz…” I’m glad to have a simple two player game. Sometimes those are the best games out there. Ones that could never work with more than two players. Contra? Remember Contra? A four player Contra would lick donkey balls. Double Dragon? It would tarnish the great name. River City Ransom? Ditto. See? Real time hack N slash beat em up games are best suited to two players and Dark Alliance

Ask Chuck Platt. Ask Matt Yeager. Ask Alex Williams. There is a reason we are calling this game a higher yield of rock that Evercrack. Why it is electronic Heroin with a chaser of methadone. Like it or not, this is the RPG to beat in 2004 and it deserves to be on this list for the same reason Disagea is on here: After a massive glut or RPG goodness on consoles since the beginning of this century, these games deserve the amount of praise and accolade I give them because they must not be overlooked and become the exception to the ever growing rule that RPG’s are becoming crappier. These have to become the Standard Bearer of RPG’s. And without your money and praise, it’s not going to happen.

#20. Grandia
Released: 12/18/1997
Publisher: Game Arts
Developer: ESP Software
Systems Released on: Sega Saturn, Sony Playstation

It’s interesting that most US games think of Grandia as a PSX game. But two years before it came to US shores on the PSX (and 3.5 years before it hit Europe), Grandia started out as a game on the Venerable and beloved Sega Saturn.

Grandia, was created by the same team that gave us the Lunar series. And it shows not only in the quality of the game, but also in regards to character development.

Like Alex, Justin wants to be a great hero. An explorer of lands long forgotten and lost to the annals of time. But that is where the comparisons between the two end. Alex from Lunar is confident and mature and a little headstrong. Justin is cocky, full of himself and insecure. His confidence is an act, made all too apparent everytime he gets in over his head.

To me, Justin is a more interesting character if only because he has some major tragic flaws that come into play during the game. Flaws that cause as much harm as his heroic nature causes good.

Although I do find Lunar to be a superior game in terms of how likable the characters are and the plot of the game, there is one aspect where Grandia totally owns The Silver Star. And oddly enough, it’s in the one aspect that Lunar is considered to be the standard bearer of all games across the board in: Romantic development.

See, Lunar is too perfect. Every character falls in love. Perfectly. And more important, 2 of the three couples are in love before the game even starts. Luna and Alex have always been in love. You come to empathize with Alex as he grows up, but Luna? She’s in at most, a third of the game. You can’t really get to know here. Jessica and Kyle are in love before the game starts too. The only thing different with that relationship is they bicker. Ever Nash and Mia fall in love seamlessly, even though NO ONE should ever love Nash.

Grandia however shows love from beginning to end. How it starts as a mere friendship and blossoms into something that Grecian poets wrote tales about. Feena and Justin’s romance is wonderful. They start off with Justin being in awe of Feena and her adventurer past, they grow to become allies, respected friends, and eventually lovers. Even then, Justin and Feena fight on occasion. Not because it’s funny or to lengthen out the story, but because they are young and passionate and foolish and most of all, they’re two different people caught up in events far beyond them both. With people such as Mullen and Leen and Sue and Baal, true love can’t possibly run smoothly. After all, these people are equally important to Feena and Justin, albeit in different ways, and the full interaction of all these characters comes a lot closer to being a believable realistic relationship and by far the best done I have yet seen in a video game. We all know I love RPGs that are grounded in reality in some way, shape, or form, whether it be personality or location or whatever, and for developing this relationship between Justin and Feena, Grandia will ALWAYS be a game close to my heart. Is it too much to ask for characters to act like real people in other games? Fooey.

Grandia’s other big selling point to me comes in the form of its battle engine/experience point system. First, to get into combat you have to touch a monster on the map screen. If you touch it from behind, you get first attack. If it touches you from behind, they get first attack. If both come head on, it’s anything goes. And enemies can detect you when you try and sneak up on them! If a blob is flashing red, it mean they are aware of you. If not, go in for the cheap KO. There are no random battles in this game. Not one. Thank god. Why doesn’t every RPG do this? Well, because a lot of them want padding and filler to make the game seem longer than it is. I could name a certain series that does this, but I bash it enough already, and in truth it’s become more fun to taunt fans of Beyond Good and Evil with my hate for that game over Square games. Hee.

Once combat begins, things are in near real time. There is an action meter and once your fills you can go. However, it’s not, walk up, hit and repeat. No. Once your action meter fills up and you choose your action, the speed of the maneuver you chose then comes into play. A combo, for example, is quick and does a series of attacks that hurts the enemy. If you kill the enemy before the combo ends, your character will go after the next closest monster. Your other choice is a critical attack, which is slower to hit, but if it does connect, your enemies action bar is reset! And with just these two options, a good deal of strategy comes into play. Of course, this doesn’t include magic spells or techniques either, all with their own rate of attack and speed. Truly, the Grandia battle engine is one of the most original ever, and an incredible amount of fun. Plus whoever gets the killing blow gets a cool one-liner.

Then we have how experience is earned in Grandia. It is by far the coolest form of experience growth in a video game up until it’s time, and then only Koudelka’s XP format is on par with Grandia’s.

See, in Grandia, you not only have level experience, but EVERYTHING has experience. If you use an Axe, you get Axe XP. If you use fire magic, you get fire XP. If you take a big dump after eating a lot of curried foods…well, you get the idea. It is one of those so obvious I can’t believe it took until nineteen-f*cking-ninety-seven to come up with the format and the implementation. But I’m glad it did.

If your character focuses only on say…bow attacks, then he or she will learn all the bow attacks quickly and be super powerful with those attack. However, they will not be able to learn anything else and be weak with other weapons. The same holds true with magic. If you only use Earth magic, then that’s all you get. And it’s fine to focus on one attack, especially early in the game. But later in the game you will regret it, as you will not have access to the cross class attacks. Ones that combine fire magic with earth magic, or a sword/Axe combo. There are even attacks that involve knowing multiple weapons and spells to create one super powerful ability. It becomes a matter of when/if you balance your character out equally amongst all possible stats, or make him or her a total bad ass in one or two fields. In the end, it’s whatever works best for you.

The last note I’ll mention on experience is simply that when a character leaves your team for good, they also leave their experience points. Whatever that character had in each weapon or magic spell for XP, they leave you an item that when used, gives you have of that power. Which means unlike in other games where you normally a character is not sticking around forever, this way you still have a reason to level them up instead of using them for cannon fodder.

One point of contention is that a lot of “purists” seem to have a problem with the voice acting of the first Grandia. I disagree. The characters sound just right for their age. Justin is 15. At 15 who here was a confident warrior with a booming voice that would make James Earl Jones pause? That’s right. NONE OF YOU. Justin is a kid who grows into a role he foolishly chose for himself and now can’t back out of. He shouldn’t sound like some stereotypical hero. And none of the characters should. I think the voice acting chosen for the US edition of Grandia is perfect for the characters because one again, they seem more real than a lot of characters in other games. Plus Puffy should be a Pokemon. Hear me Game Freak. GET ME PUFFY!

As well, a lot of people are more familiar with Grandia 2. That also is an excellent game, but I feel G2 looses a lot of the character development and goes into stereotypical archetypes with Ryudo as the typical anti-hero, Millenia as the naughty but nice girl, and Elena as an annoying bitch that no one can stand except Tenchi. Oh wait… Plus Grandia 2 weakened the XP/Mana Egg/Battle engine. Although the game was great, it lacked a lot of the originality and depth of Grandia 1. And that’s why it’s not going to be appearing on this countdown. Sorry mates.

Grandia at its core is a game of self-exploration. Not just for each of the characters, but for the player as well. While the characters each struggle to find out who they are, the unique engine for Grandia allows you to develop what kind of gamer you are. An action nigh real time RPG that also focuses on strategy? Yes, Grandia is that game. Are you a gamer that prefers magic to swords? Then you can do it. Do you prefer cleaving skulls with metal blades rather than ravaging them with searing hot flame? Go that route. Do you like to play it safe and be good at a little bit of everything? Grandia can even accommodate even that.

Grandia’s a very easy game to pick up even now. The Saturn version is preferable to the PSX version in terms of everything. But as always, ANYTIME there is a choice between a PSX or Saturn version of a game, the Saturn version is always far preferable. Not because it’s the underdog, but because the games perform better on the system. Marvel vs. Capcom people. That’s all I need to say. If you can’t find G1, G2 is still available on the PS2 and DC for rather cheap, so at least try that game. Ignore Grandia Xtreme please. Run the hell away from that. And finally, if you come to grow to love Justin, Sue and Feena as much as I did, import Grandia Parallel Trippers for the Game Boy. You’re in for a lovely little game there.

Grandia: Superb Character Development + Incredible Engine = Why the bloody hell do you not own this game???

19. Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis
Release Date: 06/21/01
Developer: Quest
Publisher: Atlus
Systems Released On: Game Boy Advance

God bless the Ogre series. It’s the only series in the history of video games where the next game in the series is ALWAYS guaranteed to be better than the predecessor. From the original Ogre Battle to Knight of Lodis, Quest created a series that is still being emulated today by almost every company ever to spin out a role playing game.

As always, I’m going to bring up the fact that Final Fantasy Tactics game you love so much. See, Square didn’t make it. QUEST did. Because Square only knew how to make pretty fluff with a crappy engine. So to make their Tactics game (which is generally considered the best FF game BTW…) they got the team that did it right with Tactics Ogre. And lo and behold, they worked their magic again, giving Square a game unlike any other put out by that company. And even gave it a typical Ogre story to boot! Even now with FFTA, you have nothing more than a second rate Tactics game compared to the one Quest released a few years earlier on the GBA. If you even remotely enjoyed that game, Knight of Lodis will blow you away.

By far the best Tactics game out of any next gen system, Knight of Lodis even kills Disgaea in terms of greatness. The fact KoL is portable and you can pit your team against the teams of other players gives it a huge advantage over our beloved 2003 GOTY. Name another tactics game where you can take your team of Angels and Liches and pit it against your best friends team of dragons and ninjas? And the fact this battle of the century can take place in the back of a cab or during your lunch break is an incredible delight to any strategy gaming junkie. After all, play enough of these games, the computer gets easy as pie. But playing against another person? THAT is a challenge. When I lived in the same state as LiquidCross I always told him my Ogre team would devour his for breakfast. But we never got the chance for the slaughter to occur.

I want to touch some more on the multiplayer aspect because it’s no incredible. Some of the emblems and powers and even legendary items you could get in the game would only be available by battling your opponent. You can even trade items and characters between your teams. Think of it like Pokemon but with Archer and mages instead of adorable Pikachus and fluffy Jiggypuffs. This is by far the best multiplayer game on the GBA, and one of the best multiplayer RPG’s ever. The only downside is how long the battles take. If you’re both really good as this genre of games, we’re talking over an hour easily.

And now that I’ve rambled for an entire page about how great the multiplayer mode is, let’s take a look at all the aspects of this Tactics game that makes me love it so much. Then we’ll talk about the story. Hey, you people think I’m passionate now? We’re only at #19. By the end of this, I’ll have you BEGGING for me to review shitty games like CIMA or Beyond Good & Evil again just so you can see me bitch bitch bitch.

First: 36 playable classes/characters. How can you beat that? My personal favorites are the Lich, the Swordsmaster, the Priest and the Witch, but the latter only if you figured out how to get Deneb. Yes, there are hidden characters in the game!

Second, there are 32 emblems to earn in this game. You gain emblems by performing specific triggers in the game. There is anything from the War God emblem, which you gain by doing 200 points of damage to an enemy in one hit, to the Don Quixote emblem, which you get if an enemy can knock off 2/3rd or more of your HP from a counterattack. When an emblem is earned they permanently change the stats of your character. In the previous example earning a War God emblem raises your Strength by 30 points, but lowers your intelligence by 30 points as well. With Don Quixote you lose 10 points of intelligence and nothing else. Hey, you were stupid enough to get your ass kicked from a counter attack. If the shoe fits baby!

Third, six different endings. And even on once played through save game, the most you can earn are 5 of the 6. You have to play the game twice through BOTH story routes to get all six endings. And yes, there are two very distinct stories that you can play through in the game. It all comes down to one simple question, and it passes by before you even know it. At first you might say to me, “OMGWTF?” but this is par for the course with Ogre games. Sure a lot of games give you multiple endings nowadays, but diverging stories that you can play through? Ogre all the way!

And yes, there’s still more to worship about this game. How about training mode. In between each scheduled tactical battle that moves the plot along, you can do a training battle. As many as you want in fact. These battles give you XP and help you earn emblems just like any other battle. Got a new character who is much lower than yourself? Train him! Only a level or a few points away from hitting a new class? Train him! However, Quest was smart and knew some of you munckining powergamers would abuse the system so that you’d be level gazillion after the first battle in the game. There are negative emblems you earn for training too much! Gain more than twenty levels in training? Your character loses the ability to do critical damage or one hit kills thanks to the Bogus Hero Emblem. So use Training, but don’t go stir-crazy with it.

And there are subquests you can earn. By spending hard earned GOTH, the currency of the Ogre Games (and I know SOMEONE is going to make a joke that about how much I’M worth, so let’s get that right out in the open now…) you can enter quest mode where you will earn rare treasure by defeating enemies. What’s nice is the treasure you earn is based solely on what limits you set for yourself. Before each quest battle starts, you have to decide how many turns it will take for you to accomplish the goal of your mission. If you play it safe and choose a high number of turns, your reward is nowhere near as incredible as it will be when you really challenge yourself. These battles also change a bit after you beat the game…

Of course, there is also my favorite part about the Ogre games. Of course, it’s also my favorite part about the SSI Ravenloft games and Ultima IV: Quest for the Avatar. What is it you ask? The fortuneteller that defines what your character will be! By answering a series of questions that each have four possible answers, your main hero will be designed. His element, his nature, his special starting ability and even your opening troops are chosen by these questions.

Look at all these things: Constantly varying main character, multiple storylines and endings, tons of characters and emblems. You could own JUST this game for the GBA and still be satisfied a year+ from now. That’s how great the game is with all the options it allows you. Say it with me: Quest is a very very nice developer that needs to be loved by US gamers.

I know I’m forgetting something to talk about but what. Hmmm. Hmmm….

Ah yes! THE STORY! One thing I love about the Ogre series is that all the games take place in the same world. And there is a defined chronology amongst the games. Characters reappear, grow old, die, and become legends as the games continue on. And if you are a long time Ogre fan, things will seem familiar to you as the game goes on.

A common theme in the Ogre games is man vs religion. In every game this is a major aspect of play. In the first Tactics Ogre game, it became about a King trying to become a god. In this game, it is about a holy spear, a fallen angel, and the meaning of love. Like Grandia mentioned just before this game, in Ogre Tactics you get to see love transpire over time. Alphonse, the main character can fall in love with Eleanor. Or he can butcher her like a hog to get a certain ending. But you can watch that relationship grow in either way. You can see the relationship between a father and daughter change as Elrik and Euphaire go from enemies to trying to repair their family ties. Rictor and Ivanna can find love together depending on what story arc you pick. Even the fallen angel, Shaher can find true love. The meaning of God’s Love, and even if it is possible for another being to understand it, is the pivotal version of love that runs throughout the game. The Ogre games have always taken a multifaceted look at religion from a grumpy evil perverted priest who carries out his holier than thou whims in the name of God, to demons doing evil not for the sake of evil, but in a vain attempt to get God to notice them even in the slightest. In fact each of the six endings in Knight of Lodis focuses on a different aspect of God’s love for his creations.

Man that sounds super religious. And the games are. I myself am not a religious man in the slightest, but the fact the game can look at religion from all angles such as “God is Evil; Satan is Good” ala the Megaten game to the “God’s love saves everything from damnation as long as you believe in it,” Christian outlook. The fact quest has written into Knight of Lodis various ways to interpret the theological aspects of the game is nothing short of brilliance. And it’s a hell of a lot less pompous and asinine than the Xenogames.

If religious psychobabble isn’t for you, then you’re in luck. There is far more to the plot of the game. Political intrigue, betrayal, secret conspiracies, and watching Alphonse grow from a sycophant who does what is expected of him, into a hero fighting for what he believes is right and just, even when it appears the entire nation he was served is now against him. Great, great stuff.

Knight of Lodis is hands down the best handheld strategy RPG ever, with only the Pokemon series keeping it from claiming the title of “Best f’n portable RPG on the planet.” Sorry Advance Wars fans, but like FFTA, everything good about that game is superior in Tactics Ogre. And if you’re looking for an RPG you can take anywhere, from Summer Camp to the lavatory, this is your game. It can be as short as 25 hours, or as long as 100. One of the best Tactics games ever made and by far the best one made this decade. Hell, let’s say this century. Get it. Get it and see why this game was back ordered across the country for months after it came out. Hopefully you can find a good used copy somewhere.