Categories
JRPG Collection Screenshots

Xenosaga Episode 1 Screenshots

This is a collection of 50 high-quality screenshots from the Playstation 2 JRPG Xenosaga Episode I.

They were taken in PCSX2, some at the native resolution and resized, and some at 2x the internal resolution.

It’s not a comprehensive tour of the game, but simply a variety of shots I found nice to look at, including many showing off the game’s attack effects and character design.

Feel free to use these screenshots on your own website or in your own project. If you do, we would greatly appreciate a link back to Great Adventures Review.

Categories
JRPG Collection

Why Xenosaga Episode 1 is still great

Contents

A crowd at the Kukai Foundation in Xenosaga

Part 1: Story and Characters

In the first few hours, Xenosaga Episode I drops an action cutscene that shows it isn’t playing around. The protagonist’s dreadnought is attacked by the Gnosis, enemies impervious to their weapons because the Gnosis exist out of phase with the material world. This fact doesn’t, unfortunately, limit the alien’s offensive capabilities, and as they tear through the human fleet unopposed, leaving starship debris and cold bodies in their wake. 

That is, until KOS-MOS is activated. The female cyborg who can fight the gnosis has been at the centre of our attention since the start of the game, but this is the first time we see her awake, and the outcome is devastating. Spinning, flipping and shooting lasers in all directions, staring with red eyes of death, we are left in awe of KOS-MOS — and of Monolith Soft’s ability to construct an action scene.

KOS-MOS is an action figure, in more ways than one. She has movable parts. Take her arms off, replace them with weapons: a gun, a spear, a scythe. Went she enters battle mode, her visors clicks down over her face. 

She is the coolest toy, which is just one of the ways KOS-MOS is similar to Weltall, the coolest toy in Xenogears. As Weltall was to Fei, KOS-MOS is to Shion: an overpowered machine, allied to the main character, but with a mysterious and grand role to play in the cosmic story.

Whether we can also draw lines from KOS-MOS to Aegis in Persona 3 or 2B in Neir Automata, I can’t say: a full genealogy of hot female androids was beyond the scope of my research. But the developer’s sanitised explanation for KOS-MOS’s creation satisfies me. This is a mech-ridden universe, but even the most powerful giant robot cannot fight the Gnosis. The secret weapon had to exist on a different technological path, and the design — small, human, dexterous, feminine — reflects this. 

It has been awhile since I’ve fallen in love with a group of characters like these. Every time Ziggy asks a question with cyborg stoicism but human concern. Every time Jr., the physically smallest character, is the first to step forwards in the face of danger. Every time Shion is filled with sympathy for another character. I love them all. I had no complaints with the voice acting.

Xenosaga is part prequel to, part remake of Xenogears (which was rushed to completion, and the planned sequel never greenlit). Canonically, however, they are separate entities, Gears owned by Square and Saga by Namco. In other words, this universe has been made twice, and that is a testament to the faith of Tetsuya Takahashi and Soroya Saga (husband and wife co-writers) in their ideas. 

Sadly, Xenosaga, planned as a six game series, ended after three. The fate of a Takahashi-Saga universe is to fizzle out prematurely. This is a canon event.

I want to say “The candle that burns fast burns bright”, but it would been ironic considering the slow burn of the game itself. That’s where most critics leave their analysis of Xenosaga: the length of the cutscenes. They should be talking about the depth of the mystery, the richness of the universe, and the quirks of the characters. These are what makes Xenogears and the Xenosaga series, however truncated, exceptional.

From the sci-fi megabuildings like the Durandal (a spaceship which becomes the government building for a planet when it lands vertically) to the design details of the UMN (just a menu screen, but with the in-universe role of being a popular app), this world is big, original and immersive. It has the production values to back up that ambition: despite leaving Square, Xenosaga can almost compete with Final Fantasy in the department. 

Lots of JRPGs, especially in the Final Fantasy series, reference Star Wars, but Xenosaga draws on a deeper creativity, feeling like Star Wars while looking nothing like it; capturing the imagination and excitement of a sci-fi classic without referencing any. Xenosaga is, simply, great science fiction.

Part 2: Mechanics

Earlier I compared a character to an action figure. Well, that metaphor also extends to the levelling, where there is not just one system to play with, but several. EXP, TP, SP, and EP are gained after battle, and they can all be spent on different aspects of your character. EP is spent in a tech tree to acquire new magic. TP is spent making your technical attacks faster or more powerful. 

UX designers aim to delight their users; I find the various systems in Xenosaga delightful. They are like a sushi selection: simple, varied, and finely crafted. Levels are dotted with enticing red doors, the keys to which are found in other levels. Behind the doors you find unique accessories that impart skills. Spend enough SP teaching your characters skills, and you level up to a new skill tier. Every stage of this process is enjoyable in itself. Combined? This is the stuff addictive side activities are made of. 

It’s a shame the decoders, which open the doors, are so well hidden you might need a guide to find them. Occasional obtuseness in Xenosaga can be a small impediment to fun. It also made the end of the game challenging for me, as I didn’t understand what the appropriate way to spent TP was. Somewhat counterintuitively, you should spend a lot of them on stats, not techniques. I understand that obtuseness also affects Xenosaga Episode II, but I’ll be prepared for it when I get there.

In Xenogears, I was unimpressed by how characters had a random selection of ether skills, rather than ones that best fit their character. Xenosaga does better. First, because characters can transfer ether skills, there’s no requirement to make their natural spells balanced. Therefore, the spells a designed to fit the character. Second, each character has a unique spell intro animation that fits the nature of their power. 

Attack effects are a work of art. They hit hard, supported by a sharp and varied library of sound effects and screen shake or a camera swing when appropriate. They are visually complex, with unique particles, glows and overlapping layers. They suit the character that uses them. KOS-MOS attacks with quick slashes and lasers, while Shion, the scientist, uses a type of magic that requires the use of a multicoloured “ether circuit”.

Rule-bending is a thrill in any game, and the most thrilling mechanic in Xenosaga battles is the boost system, where at the press of a button you can force one of your characters to the front of the turn order. It works in tandem with the second most thrilling system in Xenosaga battles. Three battle bonuses rotate from one turn to the next: act on a particular turn and you can guarantee yourself a critical hit. Kill a foe on a particular turn and you multiply your end of battle rewards. Getting a 10x bonus is a euphoric experience.

Xenosaga is not a game more concerned with philosophy and world building than fun and mechanics. It is filled with systems that are delightful, good-natured, smart, and original. In my head, the Xenosaga lead designer has a curly white beard and laughs a lot.

Conclusion

This review is in two parts because that’s how Xenosaga Episode I is. One half epic sci-fi anime, one half addictive character levelling adventure. There were times I wanted a cutscene to end and give me control again, and I’m a pretty patient guy.

Some will argue that this is an inelegant way to tell an epic story in a videogame, but I disagree. It does what all JRPGs were doing at this time. It just goes hard as fuck on both parts of the experience: the anime, and the RPG.

Takahashi and Saga made a JRPG like no other, and I’m only one-third of the way through it.

Categories
Arcade Collection

What is bullet hell?

A bullet hell is a 2D action game about dodging intricate patterns of bullets and shooting enemies. They have a higher bullet count and slower bullet speed than traditional shmups. Examples are the Dodonpachi and Touhou series.

Dodonpachi Daifukkatsu (or Resurrection), the fourth game in the series

At first, you might think increasing the number of bullets is just a way to increase the difficulty, but that’s not quite right. Yes, bullet hell games tend to be very difficult, but not more than any shmup subgenre that started in the arcade. Whether it’s Raiden, Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts, or Mushihimesama, arcade game intensity is high across the board.

So, if it’s not difficulty, what is bullet hell all about?

Bullet hell is a different flavour of shmup

Yes, there are lots of bullets in these games (sometimes hundreds on-screen at once), but they are slower. Also, the player’s ship will have a very small hitbox — sometimes a single pixel and this gives players more opportunity to avoid danger even when the gaps between bullets is very narrow. 

Because bullets linger on the screen, they can be used to build up more complex patterns or even mazes. Massive variety is possible just by utilising different shapes, sizes, speeds and colours of bullets. 

Subterranean Animism, the 12th game in the Touhou series

There is usually a feeling of pressure from all sides in a bullet hell game, resulting in relief and elation for surviving such situations. The player is forced to pay constant attention and move in interesting ways to overcome the challenges presented. 

This flavour isn’t for everyone. Arguably the biggest divide in shmups is between bullet hell fans and the fans of “traditional shmups”.

Bullet hell vs traditional shmup examples

Most shmups that you’ve heard of aren’t bullet hell. R-Type, Raiden, Space Invaders, Gradius, Galaga, Thunder Force, Zeroranger — these are all “traditional shmups”. 

That means, firstly, that bullets come at you fast, and once you get out of the way they’re usually not an issue any more. Traditional shmups also tend to have more variety in the types of obstacles, so there might be physical walls and traps, or enemies with more varied behaviours.

Gunbird by Psikyo is a traditional shmup

As arcade technology progressed, developers had more power to add more detailed graphics, more exciting visual effects, and yes, more bullets. Various games and studios pushed the genre along this trajectory in this period (Toaplans Batsugun, Raizing’s Battle Garrega, and Cave’s Donpachi), the game that solidified bullet hell as a new style was Cave’s second game, Dodonpachi, released in 1997.

Why bullet hell?

These games showed how bullets could be interesting because they can become anything. They are like atoms of danger: a fundamental building block of challenge. Instead of walls, you can make walls of bullets, or some other form of compressed play area.

You can create beautiful geometric patterns, or you can create obtuse chaos. You can have direct bullets, homing bullets, bullets from any side of the screen or in the middle of it.

Whatever flavour of 2D dodging you want to throw at the player, you can build it with bullets. To me, this is what bullet hell means: games that understand the versatility of bullets.

Bullet hell communities

Forums

Discord/Chats

Podcasts

YouTube channels

Wikis

Non-bullet hell

Bullet Hell vs Bullet Heaven

In 2021 a new genre was created with a familiar name. “Bullet heaven” refers to Vampire Survivors and the imitators spawned by its viral success. Though everyone recognised this label as a reference to “bullet hell”, it led to the questions “What is bullet hell anyway?”

My playtime in Vampire Survivors rocketed out of control in just a week, but as I’ve also devoted more hours than he wants to admit to the shmups of Cave and Zun, I think I’m in a good position to explain the connection. 

The boss of a bullet hell game expels a terrifying barrage of bullets at the player, and it is only through sheer skill, concentration, and pattern memorisation that you, the player, can find a narrow route to victory. 

But what if, instead of your underpowered player ship, you played as that boss? That the overwhelming firepower belongs to you? That’s what a bullet heaven game can make you feel. 

These two genres are fundamentally different. Bullet heaven is a character building genre. There are decisions to make in how you upgrade your character, but there’s very little dodging or aiming, which are the elements that make up the core of any shmup. 

Anyway, if I wanted to leave things on a confusing note, I might refer you to the series of bullet hell shmups called Bullet Heaven:

Buy Bullet Heaven 2 on Steam

Categories
SRPG Collection

Is Fire Emblem: Three Houses a JRPG?

No, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is not a traditional JRPG (like Dragon Quest is). The campaign is a series of grid-based battles, making it an SRPG — a Strategy RPG. The story and levelling of Fire Emblem are similar to a JRPG, however.

There isn’t one firm definition of JRPG. To some, SRPG is a subgenre, and to others, it is an adjacent genre.

However, it is evident that the SRPG is structurally dissimilar to traditional JRPGs. In the latter, the story progresses by exploring environments (such as towns, dungeons, or a world map), leading to new areas. There are exploration sections in Fire Emblem: Three Houses, but they aren’t the main driver of progress through the game.

Battles are also different and deeper in Fire Emblem. The emphasis is on unit positioning, terrain advantage, and the permanent death of character units during gameplay (something that would be very unusual in a JRPG).

Traditional JRPGStrategy RPG
Final Fantasy VIIFinal Fantasy Tactics
Persona 5Persona 5 Tactica
Golden SunShining Force
Breath of FireFire Emblem

The Fire Emblem series has become more “JRPG-like” over time. For instance, it has introduced explorable headquarters environments. In Three Houses, that area is Garreg Mach Monastery. The social simulation aspects in this series also blur the lines between pure strategy game and JRPG.

Even if Fire Emblem: Three Houses doesn’t fall neatly into the genre, it will likely appeal to JRPG fans. It features a rich tapestry of character-driven storytelling: dialogues and character interactions unfold with the same depth and emotional resonance that one would expect from a JRPG. The tale of Fódlan — a land fraught with political intrigue, complex relationships, and a mysterious power known as Crests — is one worth seeing no matter what your regular genre preference is.

Categories
Metroidvania Collection

Is Blasphemous a metroidvania?

Yes, Blasphemous is a metroidvania, and also a soulslike. The 2D world of Cvstodia is made up of interconnected areas, accessed by the Penitant One gaining new abilities from relics. However, its ability gates are inferior to other metroidvanias.  

There isn’t one agreed-upon definition for metroidvania. Though many people will claim their definition is the correct one, there are multiple competing definitions out there. Most of the discussion revolves around the following features: 

FeatureBlasphemous
BacktrackingYes
Multiple pathsYes
Ability gatesSome
Movement abilitiesSome
Sequence breakingYes
SidescrollerYes
PlatformingYes
Character upgradesYes

We can see that Blasphemous may have one inadequacy in its status as a metroidvania: abilities. Let’s look at the relic “Blood Perpetuated in Sand” which creates blood platforms in specific locations, unlocking new pathways. This is a passive ability, and so are all abilities that aid exploration in Blasphemous – they take effect automatically when you are in the right location or situation. 

Most metroidvania players expect changes to the actions a character can take. An example in other games is the double jump that unlocks access to high platforms. Blasphemous doesn’t have that, so to some extent it feels like it has “keys and locks” rather than true metroidvania ability gating. 

Nonetheless, though ability gates are fundamental to a metroidvania, we believe this is only a grey area for Blasphemous, and in all other respects this 2D soulslike fits any definition of metroidvania. Most fans of Castlevania or Metroid will enjoy Blasphemous greatly, from the top-tier pixel art to the intense boss fights. This is a world — filled with grotesque creatures, ominous architecture, intricate pathways and secrets — that demands you explore it.

The “Is it a Metroidvania?” series so far:

Yes

  • Blasphemous

No

  • F-Zero
Categories
Metroidvania Collection

Best multiplayer metroidvanias (available on PC)

Fuse the exploration of a Metroidvania with a multiplayer dynamic and you get the small be special gaming niche that we are talking about today. Multiplayer metroidvanias feature both cooperative challenges and character progression, set within interconnected worlds ripe for exploration.

These titles often present a refreshing alternative to other multiplayer genres, offering both challenge and companionship. The satisfaction derived from synchronised teamwork to conquer intricate levels, or races thought those levels to claim elusive treasures, has a distinct flavour that can’t be found elsewhere.

The PC platform, known for its versatility and expansive player base, hosts an array of these gems. In this feature, we’ll recommend our favourites, explaining the multiplayer dynamics and rating their overall appeal so you can pick the games that align with the gaming preferences of you and your friends. 

One note: We’ve avoided examples where a second player can only take on a small role, like Timespinner, Outbuddies or A Robot Named Fight — though all of those games may be worth trying, depending on what you’re looking for. For this list, anything where both players can have a roughly equal experience is in the running. 

Without further ado, here are eight amazing multiplayer metroidvania available on PC. 

1. Guacamelee! 2

Four players in a spiky room in Guacamelee 2 co-op
Guacamelee! 2 screenshots from Drinkbox Studios

Guacamelee! 2 (2018) takes its predecessor’s vibrant world bursting with Mexican folklore, punchy combat, and a seamless blend of platforming challenges, and amplifies it, which includes introducing a refined multiplayer experience.

The co-op feature was no afterthought: the game’s main campaign was developed with it in mind, and it shows. Joining forces with a buddy to navigate the vibrant, interconnected world of the Mexiverse adds a new layer of enjoyment. Don’t get us wrong, the campaign is compelling for solo players too, but the multiplayer dynamic amps up the fun factor, allowing for strategic cooperation or chaotic hilarity as you and your partner unleash moves and combos in tandem.

Four players in combat in Guacamelee 2 co-op

The PC version is feature rich, catering to keyboard and controller preferences alike, with no performance issues. The game is also available on PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch and Xbox One. 

By the way, if you purchase “Guacamelee! 2 Complete”, you will be treated to all the DLCs. It’s nothing too exciting — just an extra level and some extra characters — but it ensures you and your friends dive without missing any content.

It’s worth noting that while the local co-op is a highlight, the absence of an online multiplayer option might deter some players seeking remote collaboration. However, for those eager to share the thrill of this visually striking world side by side on the same screen, Guacamelee! 2 offers an inviting invitation to leap into its colourful Metroidvania universe.

Co-Op Footage

See the Guacamelee! 2 multiplayer in action in this four-player gameplay video from Dan’s Travel Tips.

Buy

2. Unepic (Co-Op Dungeons)

Two players fighting boss Ulakk in Unepic co-op screenshot
Unepic screenshots from Steam user VebonT

Unepic (2011), an indie gem developed by Francisco Téllez de Meneses, blends the charm of classic RPGs with the exploration elements of metroidvania, offering a compelling experience for PC gamers, including those seeking a multiplayer adventure.

The game has a main single-player metroidvania campaign, but it also has a suite of multiplayer modes that permits gamers to team up with friends online to delve into the labyrinthine dungeons and overcome challenging foes together. The main attraction are the co-op dungeons. 

Those playing on PC can amplify their gaming experience by adapting their control schemes—whether using a keyboard and mouse or a controller—or by installing user-made mods. The selection of unofficial maps is quite impressive, and even today there are new ones made every year!

Two players fighting boss Sux Mortis in Unepic co-op screenshot

While Unepic excels in blending genres and offers a multiplayer aspect, the game’s difficulty spikes and complexity might deter those seeking a more casual gaming experience, as progression often demands strategic planning and skillful execution. The lack of local co-op might also deter some interested parties.

Nevertheless, for enthusiasts of metroidvania games looking for a unique blend of RPG elements and multiplayer capability on PC, Unepic presents an intriguing proposition. Its intricate level design, character progression system, and mod support add layers of depth. If you’re up for a challenge and enjoy exploring dungeons with friends online, Unepic might just be the right addition to your PC gaming library.

Multiplayer Footage

See the Unepic multiplayer in action in Wagner Afonso’s four-player gameplay highlights.

Buy

3. Rainworld Downpour (Jolly Co-Op)

Four slugcats exploring Rainworld Downpour co-op screenshot
Rainworld: Downpour screenshots from Akupara Games

In the realm of metroidvania games, Rain World (2017) is a unique experience. The DLC expansion, Downpour, takes things even further by introducing a collaborative twist to Rainworld’s previously solitary, survival-based metroidvania experience, allowing players to team up locally and explore its unforgiving world together.

Rain World: Downpour comes with the “Jolly Co-Op” mode for up to four local players. Here, friends join forces to tackle the Monk, Survivor, and Hunter campaigns, in which they navigate the treacherous landscapes as Slugcats, creatures navigating a harsh and dynamically evolving ecosystem. Each Slugcat variant boasts distinct abilities. The DLC amplifies the challenge of the base game by introducing evolved predators and environmental conditions, making teamwork a necessity for survival.

Rain World: Downpour doesn’t merely toss players into a multiplayer frenzy; it demands collaborative strategies, communication, and mutual understanding. The game’s mechanics, such as piggybacking on fellow Slugcats or utilising gestures for coordination, add a playful yet strategic layer to the cooperative gameplay.

Four slugcats exploring Rainworld Downpour co-op screenshot

While primarily designed for local co-op, the game extends its multiplayer allure through Steam Remote Play for online gaming sessions. However, a crucial note for online play is the necessity to adjust keybinds to avoid control conflicts among players, emphasising the importance of smooth coordination for a seamless gaming experience.

For PC gamers seeking a metroidvania experience that challenges both individual skills and collaborative tactics, Rain World: Downpour stands tall as an offbeat yet captivating choice, beckoning players into a world where survival demands unity amidst a beautifully harsh setting.

Co-Op Footage

See Rainworld Downpour’s Jolly Co-Op mode in action in the official reveal trailer.

Buy

4. Sundered: Eldritch Edition

Sundered four-player co-op mode screenshot

Sundered (2017), a game exclusively available for PC, effectively intertwines eldritch horrors with cooperative gameplay. Imagine a subterranean world, teeming with ancient  terrors and ever-shifting landscapes. This is the realm of Sundered, where players navigate a procedurally generated labyrinth of challenges, armed only with their wits and their blade. 

The Eldritch Edition stands out from the original game, which only included a single player campaign, by welcoming up to four players into its haunting depths, embracing the spirit of camaraderie in a genre often associated with solitary exploration.

One of the game’s central mechanics revolves around shards – valuable resources scattered throughout the cavernous expanse. These shards are pivotal for character growth, enhancing abilities and survivability. However, the twist lies in the shared ability tree, controlled by Player 1. All players contribute to the collective upgrades, while Player 1 decides how to allocate these enhancements, fostering both collaboration and coordination.

Sundered’s combat is  cooperative gameplay, starting with rudimentary swordplay and evolving into a spectrum of potent abilities. Encounters with nightmarish foes and monumental boss battles amplify the thrill, urging players to synergize their attacks and embrace strategic cooperation.

Navigating Sundered’s treacherous world is a blend of discovery and danger. Players grapple with environmental hazards, puzzle-like terrain, and elusive pathways while scavenging for shards and confronting menacing foes. Yet, the challenge lies not just in surviving the nightmarish landscapes but also in manoeuvring as a cohesive team, facing unforeseen dangers together.

Multiplayer Footage

See Sundered: Eldritch Edition’s co-op mode in action in this footage from the YouTube channel Local Multiplayer

Buy

5. Salt and Sanctuary

Salt and Sanctuary co-op mode screenshot
Screenshot from Steam user Sr.Maou

Salt and Sanctuary (2016), developed by Ska Studios, transports players into a dark and foreboding world, reminiscent of the classic titles that defined the genre while incorporating its unique style. It offers a deep metroidvania experience with RPG elements, allowing character customization and diverse playstyles. Its unique visuals, while evocative, might not cater to everyone’s taste, but the game’s dark and atmospheric landscapes, coupled with its challenging combat, create an immersive journey for dedicated adventurers.

Like Dark Souls, which inspired it, Salt and Sanctuary allows for co-op play, so you and a friend can tackle the intricately designed levels and formidable bosses together. The multiplayer component has been balanced appropriately. Enemies and bosses are buffed, but not unreasonably. Having a friend alongside you feels like assistance and not hindrance, but both players can still get their teeth into the challenge the game is known for. 

Starting the cooperative mode isn’t as simple as selecting it from a menu, though. It requires a specific item—the Stone Sellsword. Before a friend can join your world, you must acquire this item and reach the first sanctuary. The complexity doesn’t end there; once a Sellsword is placed in a sanctuary, players must return to that location to summon their friend. 

Salt and Sanctuary co-op mode screenshot
Screenshot from Steam user Edy

[image: https://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=2207089814]

It’s interesting to have an in-game mechanic to initiate multiplayer, and reminiscent of the multiplayer setup for Bloodborne and Souls, but some players find this intricate process a source of shared frustration. The impracticality means Salt and Sanctuary might not be the best multiplayer metroidvania for those seeking more accessible or casual cooperative play.

Furthermore, the steep difficulty curve might not suit the tastes of everyone in your co-op party. The unforgiving nature of the game demands perseverance and a penchant for challenging gameplay.

If you can look past these, you will find that the depth of character development in Salt and Sanctuary, coupled with the game’s challenging combat mechanics creates an addictive loop that keeps both solo and co-op players engrossed for hours — provided you’re up for the relentless challenge it presents.

Salt and Sanctuary offers customizable controls and optimizations that cater to a wide range of gaming setups. Whether you’re wielding a keyboard and mouse or a controller, the PC version ensures a responsive and engaging gameplay experience 

Co-Op Footage

See Salt and Sanctuary’s co-op mode in action in the official reveal trailer.

Buy

6. Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet (Lantern Run)

Lantern Run in progress
Screenshot from Anowi on Steam

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet (2011) is a visually captivating and thrilling 2D adventure, and is a surprise standout in the realm of multiplayer metroidvania games for PC. In this game, players are invited into a gorgeously animated alien world, the titular “Shadow Planet”, which is rendered in deep silhouettes and teeming with hostile lifeforms and puzzles. 

While originally acclaimed for its solo exploration, its multiplayer mode, “Lantern Run,” elevates the game into a frenetic yet exhilarating cooperative experience. Up to four players embark on a frantic dash to outrun the menacing lantern monster, embracing the chaos while holding onto their precious lanterns for dear life – and dear points.

Each player pilots their ship, armed with a unique lantern, a versatile claw, blaster tools, and an open slot for various tools found during the challenging rounds. This mode is an endless pursuit that progressively intensifies in difficulty, evolving from simple enemy dodging to intricate cooperative puzzles demanding synchronised efforts and strategic battles against formidable foes.

Lobby of Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet co-op mode
Screenshot from Steam user Mr Afternoon

What sets this multiplayer experience apart is its individualistic scoring system meshed with collective survival. While teamwork is crucial to prolonging the game, players are pitted against each other to amass points, fostering a ‘cooper-tition’ where the distance travelled and lanterns retained contribute to the team score. Losing a lantern amplifies the stakes, ratcheting up the tension and introducing more daunting puzzles and obstacles, enhancing the thrill of the frantic escape.

The beauty of “Lantern Run” lies in its combination of collaboration and cutthroat competition. For PC players seeking an adrenaline-pumping multiplayer metroidvania experience, “Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet” stands as a compelling choice. Its captivating visuals, challenging gameplay, and the adrenaline rush of cooperative yet competitive escapades make it a worthwhile addition to any multiplayer gaming library.

Multiplayer Footage

Watch the multiplayer mode of Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet in this live Lantern Run video from GameReviewsandMore.

Buy

7. Rabi-Ribi

Four-player co-op fight in Rabi-Ribi
Screenshot from the developer Yue on Steam

Rabi-Ribi (2016) stands as a curious outlier in the realm of multiplayer metroidvanias for the PC. Developed by GemaYue, this pixel-art wonderland blends the exploratory fervour of a metroidvania with the bullet-hell intensity of a shmup, creating a concoction that’s both charming and challenging. 

The co-op mode spices things up, allowing a second player to join the chaos as Ribbon’s trusty partner. Coordinating with a buddy during boss battles or traversing through the labyrinthine world does add a layer of camaraderie to the exploration. Coordination is key as you and your partner unleash a barrage of attacks, combining your magical bunny prowers to conquer formidable bosses and unlock new areas.

It is an enticing addition, though it’s worth noting that it’s more of an auxiliary feature rather than the game’s focal point. Dubbed as a beta experiment within the game, the co-op mode carries a cautionary note regarding its untested nature. The multiplayer functionalities were only trialled during development, not fully tested, and while it introduces exciting dynamics, it may lack the polished finesse found in dedicated multiplayer titles. While the co-op adds a cooperative flavour to the adventure, its untested nature might result in occasional hiccups or imbalance, making it more of an intriguing diversion rather than a polished multiplayer feature.

Four-player co-op fight in Rabi-Ribi

The co-op takes place in the same mode as the single-player adventure but adding a second player does alter some gameplay nuances, intensifying enemy challenge levels, modifying health mechanics, and restricting certain actions like initiating events or changing rooms to Player 1. Also note that the leaderboards are permanently disabled for a save file if an additional player is introduced, because of the change to the balance of the game’s difficulty. 

The game’s design and mechanics accommodate the PC gaming experience, from precise platforming to responsive controls, ensuring a seamless transition for players on this platform.

Its multiplayer element, though not groundbreaking, adds a sprinkle of collaborative fun to the metroidvania formula. For those seeking a metroidvania with a side of cooperative play and a PC-friendly disposition, “Rabi-Ribi” stands as a solid contender.

Co-Op Footage

Watch the experimental multiplayer mode of Rabi-Ribi in this video from SilentChaos512.

Buy

Conclusions

Let’s distil our findings. Salt and Sanctuary beckons with its challenging 2D combat, perfect for those craving a skillful duo experience. For the brave souls seeking survival in a post-apocalyptic world, Rain World: Downpour delivers a gripping cooperative adventure.

Sundered: Eldritch Edition invites exploration and strategy in its Lovecraftian landscapes, offering an unpredictable, collaborative journey. Unepic adds a touch of humour to dungeon crawling, making it an ideal choice for those who enjoy a good laugh while conquering challenges.

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet offers a visually stunning, alien-infested multiplayer experience, blending exploration and puzzles. Rabi-Ribi injects frenetic energy into the mix with its bullet-hell mechanics, promising a fast-paced cooperative escapade.

But our favourite has to be Guacamelee! 2, with its luchador charm, that has the most developed and essential cooperative gameplay, while providing vibrant visuals, clever puzzles, and more than a splash of Mexican folklore — and that’s a combination that you don’t find everywhere!

Whether you’re drawn to challenge, atmosphere, humour, or nostalgia, these titles ensure that your multiplayer Metroidvania escapades on PC are far from ordinary. Choose your co-op companion wisely, and have a great adventure!

Read next: Is Blasphemous a metroidvania?

Categories
Darksiders Collection

Darksiders Genesis vs Warcraft III story comparison (Video)

Note: the following text is the script of the video.

The lore and characters of the Darksiders franchise are pretty epic, but I don’t feel the same way about the plots of the individual games. A lot of story time in Darksiders is spent doing errands for other characters before they will help you, which seems beneath the, uh, horsemen of the apocalypse

It’s worst in the most recent game, Darksiders Genesis, which keeps the characters on a hamster wheel almost from beginning to end, without the those characters or the situation they are in developing in any impactful way.

The structure of this game may be a limited factor. Darksiders Genesis is a linear sequence of missions, where most of the story has to occur before or after the gameplay sections. But there’s another game with almost exactly this structure, also set in an epic fantasy world, and it has one of my favourite stories in gaming, and that is Warcraft 3.

What makes Warcraft III work is that things change: characters have goals and make progress towards those goals, they make decisions that cause the story to proceed in one direction or another, and the circumstances and the world change as a result of what happens in the playable sections.

Some examples. At the start of Warcraft 3:

  • Thrall needs to lead his people to Kalimdor. He is given the instruction by the profit, but the path to accomplishing this goal is determined by his own decision. He chooses to team up with the trolls, then he chooses steal the humans ships so the orcs can sail away to the new continent. Thrall is setting in motion the changes to the state of the narrative.
  • The next playable hero is Arthus, who decides to purge Stratholme instead of listening to his friends, leading him down the path of vengeance along which he is ultimately cursed.
  • As a result, the human kingdom of Lordaron falls to the undead… permanently. I think in World of Warcraft, the undead still have control of Lordaron, and that’s 20 real-world years of storytelling later! Those are some pretty big consequences for Arthus’s decisions, and those occurred early in the game. 

To compare, the first missions of Darksiders Genesis:

  • The horsemen, War and Strife are send to the void by Samael.
  • Then are told by Samuel’s associate Vulgrim to find a magical crystal.
  • Then Vulgrim tells them to find the eye of scrying,
  • Then Vulgrim tells them to collect a map,
  • Then Vulgrim tells to kill the demon Mammon.

This is not a narrative, this is a checklist. 

War and Strife do what they are told because they don’t seem to have any better plan, even though some of these missions benefit Vulgrim or Samuel more than they benefit the horsemen. 

In Warcraft 3, at the halfway point of the story, characters, the world, everything, is in a very different state to how it started. 

In Darskiders Genesis, at the halfway point of the story, we’re still in the void getting ordered around by Vulgrim and Samael. Nothing of substance has changed, and we don’t seem to be appreciably closer to the overarching goal of finding Lucifer.

This story around this sequence of missions has something in common with a sit-com: everything have to return to the status quo at the end of each episode.

The decision to find the magical artifacts could have been made by one of the horsemen, instead of Vulgrim. You might expect War, going his name, to be good at strategy, so have him make a plans about their next course of action, instead of him just being told what to do.

After we find the character Dis, she could have an ongoing role in the story, instead of just becoming a store keeper. Dis is Vulgrim’s slave, but the horsemen never free her. So maybe she escapes, sides with Lucifer, becomes a new thorn in our side, have her change and develop.

When the horsemen defeat Mammon, they find a vault of gold, and the game takes pains to explain that they cannot use use any of it. Well, why not? Have the horsemen take control of the wealth and use it to their advantage, or just use his lair as a new base to launch their next mission from.

Besides, what are the consequence of killing Mammon? Is there a next in line to his throne? Do his leaderless forces join Lucifer?

Now the horsemen are taking some active steps towards their goals… but shouldn’t Lucifer be taking some active steps against the horsemen? Like, actually sending some of his agents to kill them instead of being an absent antagonist, in the background for the entire game?

And probably most importantly, this game sets up a reluctant alliance between the horsemen and Samael, a partnership of convenience. It’s probably the topic that gets the most lines of dialogue devoted to it in the whole game. Shouldn’t there be some conclusion to that, some payoff? The horsemen should probably at some point say, actually, this deal doesn’t work for us any more, and leave, making an enemy out of Samael. Or Samael should do the same. It should come to a boiling point. They refer to this tense alliance constantly, and do nothing with it.

It’s a shame when a game has cool lore and cool world building, but doesn’t put the thought or effort into the narrative of the events of the game.

It’s especially a shame when it’s a game that is as otherwise good as Darksiders Genesis. It has gorgeous animation, addictive exploration, a clever system for strengthening the characters, and fun combat. The one thing that lets it down is the plot.

Categories
Nosgoth Collection

Games like Legacy of Kain

Legacy of Kain is an (almost) unique dark fantasy drama that plays out across a series of exceptionally creative action-adventure games. Sadly, there hasn’t been a new game in the series since Legacy of Kain: Defiance, released in November 2023, almost exactly 20 years ago.

For many fans, it would be impossible to match Legacy of Kain’s lofty combination of gothic dystopia, tragic anti-heroes and a theatre-worthy script. However, there are some games that I think could sate our appetites, at least for a spell. 

To have a chance of filling this hole, a game would have to have a few things. We counted four:

First, Brooding anti-heroes who are not quite human

The protagonists of Legacy of Kain, Kain and Raziel, are not optimistic do-gooders. Kain is driven by a desire for power and revenge, and he often makes morally questionable decisions to achieve his goals. Raziel is not above snacking on the soul stuff of innocent human villagers. 

Given their past, it’s not too surprising. Both characters were wrenched from their mortal lives and returned to the material plane in different ways. Kain is a vampire and Raziel is a wraith, and they have abilities befitting their undead status. For example, Raziel can climb up sheer cliffs with his oversized claws and he can traverse a spectral realm where dead souls cry out unceasingly for peace. 

On their journey, they each add new inhuman abilities to their repertoires. For Kain, it is by finding artifacts and spells stashed in crypts and castles; for Raziel, consuming the souls of vanquished vampire lieutenants steals their dark gifts for him.

Raziel points in a Legacy of Kain Defiance screenshot
Legacy of Kain: Defiance

A traditional human do-gooder would be a poor substitute as a protagonist, so on this list we are looking for more unusual heroes with more unsavoury abilities. 

Second, a dark fantasy world with gothic inspiration (or similar)

Legacy of Kain takes place in Nosgoth, a world filled with vast, ominous landscapes, towering religious architecture, and an atmosphere of decay. 

Nosgoth is held in balance by the power of the nine pillars, which each represent a metaphysical concept, but in Soul Reaver the land has been thrown out of balance and carved up by six vampire clans. Each of their regions has a distinct flavour, from the drowned quarters of Rahab to the underground warrens of Melchiah. 

Therefore, the environment is both a reflection of the game’s deep lore, and a medium to convey an immersive, often eerie atmosphere. This is the quality of the world we want to see in the games on our list.

Raziel explores Vorador's mansion in a Legacy of Kain Defiance screenshot
Legacy of Kain: Defiance

Third, both bloody action and puzzly adventure

Much of this series could be described as a dark version of Zelda. When the protagonists aren’t impaling lesser vampires on spears, they are probably delving into ancient temples and solving complex puzzles to reveal long-forgotten secrets. 

The balance depends on which game we are looking at. The original Legacy of Kain: Blood Omen had more RPG elements, which were absent for the rest of the series, and more freedom. The last game, Legacy of Kain: Defiance, was much more linear than anything that came before it. 

In general, though, Legacy of Kain is known as a series where the player has a world to explore, puzzles to solve, enemies to slay, and powers to obtain, and we want to see all of these elements in any game chosen for this list.

Raziel fights in a Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver 2 screenshot
Soul Reaver 2

Finally, skilful, imaginative writing filled with twists and turns

Plot and dialogue can sometimes be under-prioritised in videogames, as there are so many other aspects to making a good game. So when a writer like Dennis Dyak or Amy Henig has a lot of control in the development process, the results can be rare and amazing, 

That’s exactly what the story of Legacy of Kain is. The world and characters, introduced by Dennis Dyak in Legacy of Kain: Blood Omen, have been constructed with care and dark imagination, and that lore is developed spectacularly by Amy Hennig throughout the sequel, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver.

The opening cinematic of that second game, that so brutally and convincingly sets up Raziel’s initial motivation against Kain, is seared into our memories. From there, we are treated to dramatic developments like the shattering of the Soul Reaver, and the revelation of the true origins of the vampire lieutenants.

No less attention has been paid to the dialogue, which is theatrical and complex. A game that competes for Legacy of Kain in our hearts should have similar devotion to storytelling.

Raziel prepares to stab Kain in a Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver 2 screenshot
Soul Reaver 2

The best games like Legacy of Kain

In particular, there are four games or series that I believe match most or all the above requirements, and would likely do a fantastic job at igniting the same feelings of a Soul Reaver or a Blood Omen, or at least tide you over until a true successor is announced.

There are a few other games that might not tick every box, but are worth mentioning anyway, which I will include afterwards.

1. God of War series, particularly God of War 2018

On the surface, God of Wars may seem like a poor substitute for Legacy of Kain, for one good reason: the protagonist. While Kain is noble, calculating and eloquent, God of War’s Kratos is mostly just angry. Testosterone overload permeates many aspects of the series and seems at odds with the tone of Legacy of Kain.

However, you don’t have to dig far to find the depth in Kratos’s character, even in the first game, where the tragic events that turned him into a cursed demi-god are front and centre.

The original series of games (God of War to God of War Ascension) are mostly linear and are hurt by their hamfisted scripts and throwaway characters. But the 2018 revival, again called simply God of War, embraced much more of what made Legacy of Kain successful. It has a small but open world to explore freely, high-quality vocal performances for all of the main characters, and a more sombre Kratos who fights his way through a story that focuses more on characters and a range of emotions than ever before.

Furthermore, the 2018 game builds on the lore of the earlier games, building it into a multi-generational epic. In a narrative sense, it is to the earlier games what Soul Reaver is to Blood Omen. 

Kratos speaks to Atreus in a God of War 2018 screenshot
Kratos explores Midgard in a God of War 2018 screenshot

The world of God of War 2018 is the world of North myth, and while it might not be gothic it is certainly a dark fantasy. The Norse myths, in their strange and brutal tradition, inform the history of the world Kratos finds himself in. And like everything in God of War, it is a world with the potential to be violent and twisted at a moment’s notice. 

Speaking of violence, in Legacy of Kain, the cursed blade that both of the protagonists wield is an essential and beloved part of the lore. If that’s what you want, Kratos’s Leviathan Axe and iconic Blades of Chaos aren’t just fun for mowing down draugr, as they also have emotional histories to them.

God of War 2018 made me feel I might not need a new Legacy of Kain, as long as games like this keep being made. It isn’t the only game that has made me feel this way, as you will see from the rest of this list, but it was the best, in my opinion. I recommend it to any and every Legacy of Kain fan. 

Kratos finds draugr in a God of War 2018 screenshot
Kratos fights a dragon in a God of War 2018 screenshot

2. Darksiders series, particularly Darksiders 2

The vampires of Legacy of Kain sit on the edge of life and death, between good and evil. The same can be said of the Nephilim of Darksiders, who are one part angel, one part demon. Under the yoke of the charred council, and stuck in the middle of a war they didn’t ask for, but capable of devastation and violence when it is needed, these four horsemen are tragic anti-heroes.

They might have wider shoulders, bigger swords and more cell shading than the residents of Nosgoth, but the aesthetic isn’t too different. A kind of comic-book metal vibe permeates both franchises, from the clunking metal greaves and giant claws on Raziel’s feet, to the skull mask and unkempt hair on Death’s head. Roaming a ruined earth in Wrath of War (the first game) matches the ruined world of future Nosgoth in Soul Reaver, and you’ll find towering cathedrals and castles in both.

But it is in Darksiders 2, which takes you away from earth to the fantastical but moody Forge Lands, with more freedom to roam, that made me most nostalgic for Legacy of Kain. Perhaps it is because Death reminds me a lot of Raziel, even down to a scarf and a penchant for wall climbing. 

Death explores a castle in a Darksiders 2 screenshot
The crowfather talks in a Darksiders 2 screenshot

The Darksiders series are fantastic action adventure games with highly engaging combat and quality puzzles, the latter much better than God of War. The reason it doesn’t take the number one spot is related to the writing. The lore of Darksiders is amazing, and the plot isn’t bad either — if they weren’t, Darksiders wouldn’t make the list at all. However, the dialogue is forgettable at best, and for a Legacy of Kain fan that’s not an insignificant flaw. 

Regularly, I wish for a Darksiders with a better written plot and characters, because that game could match Legacy of Kain if not exceed it. Until then, Darksiders might only sate the hunger temporarily, but that’s still pretty impressive. Very highly recommended.

War and an angel in a Darksdiers screenshot
Death and a volcano in a Darksiders 2 screenshot

3. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow series

The goal of this article was to find games comparable to a vampire epic fantasy, but neither of my first suggestions starred any vampires! This entry changes that. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2, puts you in the boots of a vampire lord who is fighting against an even greater, almost godlike evil. It’s a very similar role that Kain takes in his game.

Gabriel on his throne in a Lords of Shadow 2 screenshot
Gabriel fights in a Lords of Shadow 2 screenshot

Likewise, the skills at your disposal will be familiar to Kain players: healing by drinking blood, transforming into animals, mist-form, all that good stuff.

The small problem here is that you don’t take control of a vampire protagonist in the first Lords of Shadow, which is well-recognised as the superior game. There are vampires to play as in Mirror of Fate, an optional part of the story in the form of a sidescroller, but most of the vampire action takes place in Lords of Shadow 2. Unfortunately, the forced stealth sections along with some other niggles, made this sequel unpalatable for some fans. 

Despite these differences to the Legacy of Kain formula, the Lords of Shadow series is still worth your time to explore. It tells a story that stretches across centuries. Characters are tortured and tragic. Dialogue has a lyrical quality. The protagonist has undergone a dark transformation, which is the fate of almost every major Legacy of Kain character.

It’s worth noting that Lords of Shadow takes place mainly on Earth, though it is a dark fantasy in all other ways. 

Gabriel and a castle in a Lords of Shadow 2 screenshot
Lore about Belmonts in a Lords of Shadow 2 screenshot

Also, it’s not the only Castlevania game that might fit your tastes. In particular, Symphony of the Night, starring Dracula’s son, and Aria of Sorrow, starring a reincarnation of Dracula, are excellent choices.

4. Souls series, particularly Dark Souls

I am certain fans will feel equally at home in the majestic ruination of Lordran, the setting of Dark Souls, as they were in Nosgoth. Both have a dark, gothic aesthetic with a strong focus on death/afterlife/undeath.

The similarity extends to the level design: The interconnected world design of Dark Souls is very similar to that of Soul Reaver. Both have loosely been described as 3D metroidvanias. 

Admittedly, there is one thing that makes the Souls games seem very different to Legacy of Kain. Once again it relates to the story. Legacy of Kain tells a story with cutscenes and dialogue, and these are the things fans most love about the series. However, the Dark Souls story mostly sits in the background. 

I don’t think this should be a deal breaker, though. Both have rich world building and lore, so both are “well written” in their own way. 

Nito cinematic Dark Souls screenshot
The chosen undead climbs a ladder in a Dark Souls screenshot

They both have memorable characters, too. In particular, the ancient Lords of Dark Souls (Gravelord Nito, Seath the Scales etc) take me back to fighting the varied forms of the aged, corrupted vampire lieutenants in Soul Reaver (Melchiah, Rahab etc). The deified Gwyn has a dash of Kain to him also.

Speaking of fighting, while the three other main games on this list are fluid “character action” games, Dark Souls has a different feel that might appeal to Legacy of Kain players even more. The characters of both franchises tend to feel weighty. Think of Raziel’s finishing blows and compare to The Chosen Undead’s parry counter.

One more similarity I noticed: in Dark Souls, you can be human, or when you die revert to being an undead “hollowed”. It’s not a two-worlds mechanics like the spectral/material realm in Soul Reaver, but it did remind me of the wraith-like Raziel who exists in two forms.

If the next Legacy of Kain game was like Dark Souls but with cutscenes, it would be pretty faithful to the other LoK games. Though known for being hard, Dark Souls will be an easy game for Legacy of Kain fans to fall in love with. 

More games like Legacy of Kain

The following games might not look like Legacy of Kain at first glance, or they might have some other fundamental difference that excludes them from the main list above, but they all have some important similarity that means they deserve to be in the conversation.

In other words, they might not be the full package, but they might have the specific Legacy of Kain elements you are interested in.

Zelda, particularly Majora’s Mask

What excludes Zelda from the main portion of this list is the light-hearted tone. Mechanically, however, Zelda fits perfectly: it is a series about exploring a fantasy land, fighting monsters, solving puzzling temples, and getting more powerful and finding new abilities/tools along the way. 

Majora’s Mask gets a special mention, because it’s apocalyptic sorry is a bit darker than average for the series, and you also get the chance to play as non-human characters by wearing masks. Twilight Princess is also worth a look for similar reasons.

Nier Automata

The main character that looks like a fanservice robot might immediately make you question this choice for the list, but I’m confident you will agree if we look at it a bit more. 

For one, Neir is all about writing. Tragic characters, coherent world building, exploring themes of life, death and violence — other than Legacy of Kain itself, Nier is the game in this article that most feels that a writer was in charge and given free reign.

Moreover, the world of Nier is post-apocalyptic, like Soul Reaver, and the androids vs machines conflict might resonate on some level with those who enjoyed the human vs vampire conflicts of Nosgoth.

Prince of Persia trilogy

As Raziel was a vampire prince, taking on the role in Prince of Persia should feel natural to Legacy of Kain fans! Both protagonists have a knack for climbing walls, too. 

However, as with Nier, it’s the storytelling quality that really puts these game series in the same category. Prince of Persia might not have any bloodsucking to speak of, but it doesn’t shy away from weaving a compelling tale in a thoughtful and original way. Plus, like Legacy of Kain, subsequent games in the series build on the story, 

Its time-travel elements are central to the story, with Kain and Raziel shifting through different eras, altering history, and facing the consequences of their choices. Prince of Persia also shares a fascination with time.

Tomb Raider series

Soul Reaver was developed by Crystal Dynamics, and it is not their only hit action-adventure series, as they are also the current developer of Tomb Raider.

Though this suggestion isn’t a fantasy game and has no brooding protagonist – and certainly no vampires – it does have a reasonably well-written story and a perfect balance of action and puzzles. A similar game design philosophy that went into the Soul Reaver series has persisted in this studio’s future work, and Tomb Raider is the evidence.

It’s also worth noting, Crystal Dynamics are still part of the company that owns the Legacy of Kain franchise. This company, the Embracer Group, has expressed interest in using the intellectual properties in their catalogue to make new games or reboots of old ones. We can only hope this means there is more Legacy of Kain in the future.  

Can you think of any others?

Disclaimer: I’ve not played every game. If you played a game that gave you the same buzz as Legacy of Kain and I haven’t included it here, I would love to know about it. No, seriously. I am a life-long Raziel fanboy who has waited a long time for a new game in this series. If you have something similar to recommend, I’ll probably play it. 

Comment below or send me a message at greatadventuresreview@gmail.com.

Categories
JRPG Collection

The Cowboy JRPG: What Makes Wild Arms Great (Video)

Note: the video and the text are the same review.

Wild Arms seems like a standard SNES-style JRPG. Yes, it’s on the PS1, but it feels like a SNES JRPG with higher resolution 2D sprites and 3D battles — with questionable models, though I admit they did grow on me.

The point is it seemed pretty standard… until I realised Wild Arms is doing some unique things.

1. Character Skills and Upgrades

Probably my favourite thing is how the three characters boast distinct abilities and distinct ways of upgrading those abilities.

Cecilia has magic, Jack had sword skills, Rudy Roughknight (cool name by the way) has big guns — doesn’t sound like anything that interesting yet. But the way you upgrade each of these ability sets is also distinct. And each of the upgrade systems has a component of choice: like which spell do you pick from this wide selection, which attribute of you gun do you upgrade, which sword skill do you make cheaper to use. They’re not drastically different character builds, but you will end up with a Cecilia, Jack and Rudy that is good at different attacks than a friend playing Wild Arm’s might 

And each of the upgrade systems also has an element of exploration. For Jack’s skills you need to find statues that initiate combat challenges, fo Rudy you need to find special chests, for Cecilia you need Crest Graphs scattered across the world. 

It’s not complex, after all it’s only three characters and one unique menu of abilities for each, but it’s a very smooth and polished system that ties together the level design, battles and characters in an elegant way that a lot of JRPGs frankly struggle with.

And it takes the exploration or level design aspect even further, with the second thing I really like about Wild Arm’s, which is the tools. 

2. Tools and Puzzles

The convenient way to describe these is like the items in Zelda, acquired throughout the game and used to overcome obstacles in dungeons. There are even bombs and a hook shot. The bombs let you blow up walls with cracks, and sometimes you find hidden stashes of chests, that sort of thing. It adds so much to the variety of dungeons, add the fun of exploring them, break up the monotony of trudging through them. This sort of level design is something JRPGs have only got worse at over the years.

And this is the bit that really reminds me of Golden Sun. In that game, it was psynergy that was used outside of battle to solve puzzles. The balance between puzzles and battles feels very similar. And Golden Sun even has that combination of 2D levels and 3D battles.

Now I know there are a lot of Golden Sun fans really disappointed that Camelot haven’t continued the series, and I agree, but now I’ve got a series of four other Wild Arm’s games to explore instead, and Armed Fantasia after that maybe. It really feels like they fill the same niche of polished, puzzly, bright JRPGs with close knit parties.

What else makes this cowboy JRPG great?

I haven’t mentioned this, but all the Wild Arms characters and some of the side characters are extremely likeable. They’ve got motivations, they’ve got arcs; my favourite is Calamity Jane. And the backstory and the lore of the world of Filgaia is pretty fleshed out too. 

And that’s another way Wild Arms is like Golden Sun. Overall, they’re both series that look very traditional, but in their own way, are subtly quite ambitious. 

If you want more SNES-style RPG goodness, if you want more of puzzly JRPG like Golden Sun, if you want to see what Zelda might look like as a JRPG, Wild Arms ticks all of those boxes.

How does Wild Arm’s stack up against other PS1 JRPGs?  It’s an extremely competitive field, and Wild Arms was an early release. I can point to JRPGs with more brilliant stories or battle systems, but Wild Arms, with it’s original ideas and excellent pacing, delivered a very consistent level of fun that even some of the genre classics don’t always manage to achieve. For that reason, I think it’s top tier, or at least almost top tier, and I’m looking forward to playing the next one.

Read next: My review of Persona 3

Categories
JRPG Collection

Was Dragon Quest the first JRPG?

How RPGs reached Japan

Dragon Quest (1986) could rightly be described as the first JRPG due to a genre convention, but it wasn’t the first RPG made in Japan. Dragon and Princess (1982) was probably the oldest, though there were various other interesting attempts, including The Black Onyx (1984).

A battle in Dragon & Princess
A battle in Dragon & Princess (1982, PC88, Koei)
A battle in The Black Onyx
A battle in The Black Onyx (1984, PC88, Bullet-Proof Software)
A battle in Dragon Quest
A battle in Dragon Quest (1986, Famicom, Chunsoft)

Thank you to Moby Games and Hardcore Gaming 101 for the images.

Why we think of Dragon Quest as the first JRPG

An older term almost synonymous with JRPG (meaning Japanese Role-Playing Game) is “console RPG”. These were more streamlined, accessible and usually came from Japan, whereas “computer RPGs” were played on PCs and recreated more of the complexities of tabletop RPGs.

This helps us understand the place that Dragon Quest had in history. It wasn’t the first RPG from Japan, but it was the first Japanese RPG to work with the strengths and limitations of the NES, Nintendo’s first console, and therefore introduced a new design paradigm that we now think of as the JRPG genre. 

The great game itself, released for the console that created the “console RPG”. Image from Tokyo Game Story.

Before Dragon Quest

Much as western CRPGs had a history before Wizardry (almost a pre-history, as it is not always well-documented) in the Dungeons & Dragons-inspired games made for college mainframes, so did Japan have RPGs before Dragon Quest. 

Though this period was a short one, the variety found in these experimental early years might surprise you. You’ll also certainly recognise some of the companies involved, because they remain known for JRPGs even today!

How Japan played their early RPGs

The pre-history of JRPGs played out on Japanese personal computers. While the names of personal computers in the US were Apple, Commodore and Atari, things were different overseas.

The first personal computers to take over Japan were the PC-8000 series introduced by the NEC Corporation. They followed it with the upgraded NEC PC-8800 series, or simply “PC-88”, and the lower cost PC-6000 series. Competitors included the Fujitsu FM-7 and the Sharp X1

The PC-88, one of the most important personal computers ever manufactured. Image from Wikimedia.

Many games discussed below were ported across this range of computers, but the PC-88 deserves special recognition: it was as important to PC videogaming in Japan as the Apple II was in the US.

How and when RPGs reached Japan

The progenitor of all RPGs is Dungeons & Dragons, published in English in 1974. It was soon known in Japan, but it would be ten years before it was released officially there. 

American videogames had a head start, and D&D’s influence there led to Ultima and Wizardry in 1981, but again not in Japan, where it wouldn’t officially be released until 1985. 

A battle in Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord
A battle in Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord (1981, Apple II, Sir-Tech)

That gap is the period we are interested in. In this time, the idea of RPGs was making its way across the ocean unofficially: with exchange students, though import businesses, and after holidays abroad. 

As this period progressed, Japanese magazines feature more information about Wizardry, Ultima and D&Do, though access to the products themselves was limited:

When I created Hydlide, I had never played any Western games at all. Back then, Japanese people didn’t have a defined sense of the RPG genre. I suspect the creators took the appearance of the RPG as a reference, and constructed new types of games according to their own sensibilities.

Tokihiro Naito, (Japansoft: An Oral History)

The games that emerged in this primordial era sometimes seem conceptually incomplete, but they are fascinating relics. 

The company that pioneered JRPGs: Koei?

Best known today for Dynasty Warriors and Nobunaga’s Ambition, fledgling Koei were persistent in their efforts to make RPGs big in Japan.

Koei was formed in 1978 and made programs that automated business functions, but the co-founder, Yoichi Erikawa, was more passionate about games. He programmed a wargame, Battle of Kawanakajima, which became Koei’s first published title.

The board game and war game influence would continue in Koei’s Dragon and Princess, which is best described as a tactical RPG. It was the work of Y. Hayase and Locke, according to the title screen, though to this day we know nothing about these creators. 

Dragon and Princess: The first JRPG?

The stat sheet of your heroes in Dragon and Princess is extremely basic, consisting only of Pr and Sp — and nobody seems to know what Sp does. The weapon selection is sparse. Though matching the theme, Dragon and Princess doesn’t much resemble Dragon Quest. Exploration is in the form of a text adventure, and battles occur on a tactical grid. 

Despite the differences, the spirit of a JRPG seems to be here: it’s an adventure with a party of characters, upgrades for your characters, NPCs and a story about killing a dragon. What more does a JRPG need? 

It even has the random encounters that would become a staple of the JRPG genre. Whoever, Y. Hayase and Locke were, they seemed to understand the assignment immediately.

The cover art of Dragon and Princess
The cover art of Dragon and Princess. Image from Gaming Alexandria.

Read more: Dragon and Princess walkthrough from Hardcore Gaming 101

The rest of JRPG prehistory: 1982 to 1984

With Dragon and Princess, Koei had an early start on RPGs, and they didn’t stop there. Another early Koei release was Danchizuma no Yuuwaku (1983). 

A static screenshot of this game resembles a dungeon crawler, so you might not be able to tell it’s actually an erotic game starring a condom salesman and featuring censored sex scenes. The name translates to something like “Seduction of Apartment Wives”.

Khufu-Oh no Himitsu (lit “Secrets of King Khufu”) saw the player explore a pyramid avoiding traps and killing enemies. 

It amusingly had the tagline “A Roll-Playing Game”, which is indicative of the state of affairs at the time: many of the attempts to make an RPG in this period were merely flirtations, programmers circling around the concept RPG but not quite making a full leap into it.

Koei was by no means the only company in this market. Before Dragon Slayer, Legend of Heroes and Ys, Nihon Falcom published Panorama Toh. It had shops, an inn, an overworld, equipment and even wireframe dungeons, though no level-ups and no companions. It evokes Ultima, but might fall closer to the adventure or survival game category.

It was a similar story with Enix. Before Dragon Quest, they published Parallel World, described as ““A true role-playing game”. 

Back to Koei. Rumours have it Danchizuma (the condom salesman game) was such a success that it helped establish Koei as a videogame company. Perhaps that is the reason they were persistent in their effort to make an RPG.

At least, that is what I imagine led them first to Ken to Mahou, and then to Dungeon.

It has been reported that Yoichi Erikawa, the aforementioned founder of Koei and programmer of many of their hits, recognised that Dragon and Princess, Khufu and Danchizuma may not have been true RPGs, but that Ken to Mahou (“Sword and Sorcery”) would be different. It makes a good first impression on this front, offering nine character classes to choose from, including druid and black knight. The world map has a rather unique look to it.

Dungeon achieves even greater accuracy in what it borrows from its inspirations. The tiled world map and cities of Ultima, the wireframe dungeons of Wizardry, and some very traditional Dungeons and Dragons monsters. It is probably the most refined Koei proto-JRPG.

Koei weren’t the only ones who were figuring things out. In September 1983, I/O magazine printed the code for Seiken Densetsu (lit. Legend of Holy Sword), for readers to type into their own computers. When they did, they were treated to an adventure very similar to Ultima, which was later published by Compaq in boxed form.

Ramping up: major developments in 1984

The theme of this article is ideas being slowly, unofficially imported, so let’s continue with probably the two most important importers of RPG ideas into Japan.

At the time, I was in love with The Black Onyx and The Tower of Druaga. So Hydlide was roughly inspired by those. 

Tokihiro Naito

The Black Onyx was created by Henk Rogers, who spent half his time at The University of Hawaii playing D&D before moving to Japan. He found the RPGs on sale there were lacking compared to what he was used to, so he programmed his own. While Japan had struggled to get to grips with the idea for a few years now, The Black Onyx pretty much hit the nail on the head. It was simpler than Wizardry, but it included all of the essential parts, except classes (all characters in The Black Onyx must be warriors). 

The Tower of Druaga came from somewhere completely different. After creating Xevious (1982), Masanobu Enbo visited America where he played Wizardry. What he enjoyed there he put into his arcade game: the resulting fusion, The Tower of Druaga, was possibly the first action-JRPG. It probably influenced Zelda, and many other RPG creators besides.

While we might associate Druaga more with The Legend of Zelda than the traditional JRPG genre that would soon be spawned by Dragon Quest, we shouldn’t understate its influence.  The third game that Tokihiro Naito mentions in the quote above is Hydlide, released by T&E Soft. Along with Dragon Slayer (Nihon Falcom’s next RPG after Panorama Toh), these two games were the next steps in action-JRPG development.

One more important game released in 1984 was Mugen no Shinzou (“Heart of Fantasy”). It was the closest to a western RPG yet, though unlike The Black Onyx it came from a Japanese company, XtalSoft. At the time, this was a widely respected game. One of the developers, Kazunari Tomo, would go on to work on the Lunar series.

You can really tell how far the production of these RPGs in Japan can come by comparing the title screen and the monster sprites of Mugen to Ken to Mahou/Sword and Sorcery, which was only from one year prior. Doesn’t Dragon and Princess feel like a really long time ago!

There is at least some evidence that Mugen was an inspiration for the creators of Dragon Quest. On that topic, it’s about time to speak about that.

What happened next? The release of Wizardry, Ultima and Dragon Quest

Eventually, Dungeons and Dragons, Ultima and Wizardry all received official Japanese releases which attained mainstream success, immersing the Japanese gaming culture in a new gaming experience. Among those swept along were manga writer Yuji Hori and game developer Koichi Nakamura, who were creating games for the NES at the time for Enix as the company Chunsoft. 

The combination of Nintendo’s new console, and the love for RPGs shared by these creators, led them to create Dragon Quest. It won a raft of awards from Famitsu including game of the year, and it sold exceptionally well, lagging behind only some first-party Nintendo games and a few sports games for that year. 

Dragon Quest was so successful that it became the new blueprint for Japanese RPG developers. All attempts up to that point culminated here, and most later attempts can be traced back here. 

That’s what people mean when they say Dragon Quest was the first JRPG.

Further Reading

Want to know the first PS1 JRPG?

What about the last PS1 JRPG?

What is a JRPG anyway?

Image credits: 

Thanks again to Hardcore Gaming 101 and Moby Games for cataloguing screenshots of these important games. See more here:

Sources:

Derboo’s introduction’s to these games originally posted at the Hardcore Gaming 101 blog were absolutely vital for this article. Find more from Derboo here: hardcoregaming101.net/author/derboo/.

The J-RPG Wiki had surprisingly detailed explanations of how some of these games are played. I think my research for this article pushed little known games into the trending pages for the site:

Several of these early titles were developed and/or published by Koei, and the Koei Tecmo Wiki was very helpful for cross-checking information.

Other articles and forum threads that helped in small and large ways: