5: Fire Emblem Awakening (Times Finished: 2)
I can’t really say a lot about this one without parroting what I said in my first outdated review, but I’ll give it a shot. In spite of my love for Awakening, I did have to take a moment to weigh it up against Fire Emblem 7 (Confusingly just called Fire Emblem in the west, since it was the first to be localised). Both games have made me scream with rage, and both have made me roar with glee. Awakening, however, also managed to stir up some more tender emotions in its best moments. The story in both of them is decidedly not the main draw, but on top of those stand-out moments, Awakening throws in some neat twists that make the story interesting, if not groundbreaking. FE7 has it’s share of great characters (Lyn! HECTOR! Uh, not Eliwood.), but Awakening has far more fun with its cast though the vastly superior support system. On a basic level, they both play equally well, but that support system gives Awakening a gameplay edge on top of its character building.
The major thing that makes FE7 a contender is the visual style. I long for the day that the Fire Emblem series goes back to those brilliantly animated little 2D sprites. That’s not to say Awakening looks bad, but the series lost a lot of magic in the transition to 3D. The fact that Awakening beats FE7 handily in every other area? Yeah, that’s enough to give it the overall victory. Man, what a fantastic series. One more reason to be thankful for Super Smash Bros; without Marth and Roy appearing in Melee, Fire Emblem may have never left Japan.
Speaking of Smash, I about jumped put of my seat when I watched that live character announcement. Lucina was my #1 wanted newcomer, but I didn’t expect her to actually make it in!
4: Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door (Times finished: 2)
Wow, Nintendo really has a gem under their wings with Intelligent Systems. They’re responsible for numbers 4 and 5 in my list! They also made Warioware, the Wars series (best known as Advance Wars) and… They made Pokemon Puzzle League??? HECK YEAH INTELLIGENT SYSTEMS.
It’s quite incredible to me that a Mario game can be such an incredibly strong contender on this list. Are Mario games known for witty character dialogue and clever, funny and occasionally dark storylines? No, they’re known for being accessible, fun, innovative and polished to a mirror sheen. Well, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door is all of the above. It’s so delightfully inventive; as silly as a game called Paper Mario may look on… paper (dang it), they make clever use of the fact that, well, everything is made out of paper for some reason. One of the first abilities you gain is turning yourself into a paper plane to fly to otherwise in reachable areas. You know what? I’m just going to list a bunch of cool things this game does.
Each battle takes place on a stage in front of a live (paper) audience. If you time your moves right, you can make them both more effective and more stylish, and the crowd will reward you accordingly by boosting your special meter. Occasionally they’ll throw you a coin, or even chuck a rock at your head (hey SCREW YOU TOO TOAD). Certain attacks can make the background scenery topple on you and your enemies. The first proper boss in the game, after faking defeat, takes a sudden mouthful of the audience to regain his health, and you finish the battle in the audience seating area. That’s just SOME of the cool things about the battle scenarios.
How about I talk about one of my favourite story scenarios to finish this off? A later boss pulls a little trick halfway through the fight: he traces Mario and turns into a shadow Mario doppelgänger. After finishing him off in an all-too-easy manner, Mario and his team grabs the Story McGuffin and leaves the floored Shadow Mario to himself. Except the camera lingers. You might think something’s gone wrong with the game, but as soon as you press a button, Shadow Mario gets up. Turns out he’s the real Mario, and the boss has gone and pulled a body swap. The rest of the chapter revolves around trying to regain your identity while your old teammates mistake you for the bad guy… At the same time, wondering why Mario got so talkative and weird all of a sudden. A key part of this chapter is finding out your impostor’s true name, which is hindered by, no joke, him STEALING A LETTER OF THE ALPHABET FROM YOUR KEYBOARD.
There’s… nothing I can say to follow that up, except, man, what a game!
3: Mass Effect 2 (Times Finished: 3)
Mass Effect 2 is, undoubtedly, much less of an RPG than its predecessor. The mechanics were streamlined to a point where the combat itself could be easily mistaken for a cover shooter, albeit with a few twists. BUT. Mass Effect 2 is ten times the game the original was, and I say that as someone who enjoyed Mass Effect enough to play through it four times. The third one isn’t a factor here, not because it’s a worse game but because I haven’t played it yet. Got to find my old saves before I even think of cracking open that egg.
Yes, in case you hadn’t heard, one of the ambitious moves Bioware made with this series is to make the saved data importable. You could keep your old Captain Shepard, or change up his/her appearance as you saw fit (with story justification, believe it or not). Decisions both important and inconsequential were carried over. Even if they didn’t change the overall story as drastically as hoped, there was enough in there to make each trek through the story feel different. The main difference between Mass Effect and its sequel is this: Mass Effect 2 never feels like a chore. The first had aspects and moments that were so good, they made the surrounding mediocrity and outright tedium well worth it. The second managed to make the highs even higher while eliminating the slog. No more vehicle segments in the mountainous rushjob nightmares that Mass Effect Original called ‘planets’. No more pop-in textures. No more “I will DESTROY you” and “ENEMIES EVERYWHERE”… Every. Single. Combat. Encounter. None of that. Just fun.
And geez, the characters. First off, let me just get this out of the and say I despise the character design for most of the women in the team. They somehow made Yvonne Strahovski unappealing. How did they even do that. Just… Wear some practical clothes, women of the Normandy. Geez. THAT SAID. The character work is downright astounding, and if you haven’t gone through each crew member’s loyalty mission then you haven’t really played Mass Effect 2. The characters ARE the story, and those loyalty missions are the perfect example of Bioware playing to their biggest strengths. The moral choices are certainly no Walking Dead, but they’re not really trying to be. On most occasions, decisions are totally black and white. They work best as means to provide some entertaining variety to different playthroughs, and adding a system where you can kick a dude out of a window in the middle of a conversation? Genius move from that perspective. Miraculously, the “good guy” options in that interrupt system were every bit as satisfying.
Almost every addition upon the original works in Mass Effect 2’s favour. And don’t even get me started on that end sequence. That is the single best climax in video games, and that’s in spite of the debatable quality of the final boss.
… Dagnabbit, writing this is making me want to play the sequel right now. I do own it. But I’m super busy!
2: Tales of Vesperia (Times Finished: 4)
I love this game SO MUCH. I played the heck out of Tales of Symphonia when it first came out, and thanks to being in my lower teens I was blown away by even the BAD twists in that game’s story. It’s not aged well; I’ve tried to play it since and not gotten very far. Ah well, four times is more than enough.
With Vesperia, though? I’m not even sure four times IS enough. It’s not just that the game is designed to build up to a New Game+ (All of the Tales games I’ve played do that). No, it’s more to do with the fact that the game is just THAT good. I’m beginning to notice a pattern in this list, and that’s that I haven’t played a lot of RPGs with an outstanding overarching plot. Even with Mass Effect 2, the character-focused missions completely eclipse the main storyline. Vesperia is no exception to this pattern. The story serves its purpose and is engaging enough to last through a fairly lengthy game, which is an achievement in and of itself. However, once again, the characters are the real treat. Hang on, though. Am I just going to say the same things I said about Mass Effect 2? Not at all: While Mass Effect 2’s supporting characters absolutely steal the spotlight, Vesperia’s supporting characters are in more of an actual supporting role. Their dialogue, especially in the same’s skits, can be downright hilarious. They all have solid development, and they all grow on you. Most of them are very fun to play as, too. They handily take the title of best Tales cast (out of the ones I’ve played) and sad as it is that this is worthy of note, there’s not a gratingly awful character among them.
The real standout has to be the protagonist himself, though: Yuri Lowell, as voiced by Troy Baker (who seems to have voiced just about every other video game character since). Yuri seems like he was designed from the ground up to be the antithesis of the standard Japanese RPG protagonist. Where Cliche JRPG Protagonist Man is whiny, empty-headed and indecisive, Yuri Lowell is mature, witty and assertive. He gets stuff DONE, and he’s not afraid to dirty his own hands for the greater good. The best way I can put it is this: If Tales of Vesperia was Star Wars, Yuri would be Han Solo. He’s the guy on the side that you wish was the actual main star of the story, except he IS the main star. It seems like that’s exactly what they were going for, and the character of Flynn Scifo serves to highlight such a comparison. If Yuri is Han Solo, Flynn is Luke Skywalker. He looks and sounds like he should be the protagonist. Surely, you may think, the camera should be following this guy around. Only it doesn’t. Except for one brief battle, he doesn’t join Yuri’s crew at all. His ideals constantly clash with Yuri’s, despite them being old friends fighting for the same cause. Some of Yuri’s more… Morally ambiguous actions are such that you may not entirely agree with his methods yourself. It’s such a clever play on expectations, and I can’t help but adore this side of the story. It doesn’t hurt that Yuri is, from beginning to end, a thoroughly entertaining character. No wonder Troy Baker’s in such high demand now. That dude knows how to voice act.
Oh. Right. The game. It plays well! The real time battle system is a treat and it only gets better as all the systems are introduced. The visual style is colourful and easy on the eyes. The music is average overall, but there are some amazing standout tracks here and there. Oh, and if you can, get one or two other people to play alongside you. Yeah, other actual human beings can take control of your other party members and it can be a pretty great time! Trying to play another Tales game after this one has proven to be tough. I just haven’t been pulled in to nearly the same extent. Right now Abyss is just boring me. I think… Vesperia has spoiled me.
1: The World Ends With You (Times Finished: 1)
OKAY. I have literally written an essay on this game before, but I’m going to try to exercise brevity to the fullest extent. I’m still going to have plenty to say, but I COULD say a lot more. Straight up, I think this game is a masterpiece from top to bottom. And yet I disliked it at first! How does that even work? I’ll tell you.
The Protagonist of The World Ends With You is Neku, and the first thing you learn about Neku- before you even know his name- is that you hate him. The opening cutscene, through a short internal monologue, launches him to hate figure status in record time. This kid is a vicious, introverted, selfish brat. And look at him. Look at his dumb hair, his dumb clothes and his dumb headphones. He hates you, you hate him, and oh by the way his name’s Neku. The game starts, and it’s like you’ve started up summer camp by being saddled with the worst human being alive. He’s already stolen your expensive new torch and claimed to have owned it for years. You’re with this guy the whole time. Have fun!
Even the music at the start of The World Ends With you seems to be intentionally bad. The battle system seems both too confusing and too simple. You’ve only got the one attack, but you’re controlling your partner up top too and hey it turns out humans are bad at multitasking. And then, bit by bit, mechanics are introduced. More music is added. Neku develops. The story unfolds, twist after twist after twist. And here’s the thing: out of all of the RPGs I’ve listed, The World Ends With You is the only one I’d recommend based on the sheer strength of its plot. That’s before taking into account all of the crazily innovative game mechanics and the immaculate aesthetic. I LOVE every unique gamble that TWEWY takes, because in spite of the sheer quantity of gameplay experimentation, it doesn’t fall short once.
I realise I’m just talking around everything here, but… Talking in any more detail than this would ruin the experience that is watching The World Ends With You blossom both as a game and as a story. I cannot mention a single fundamental aspect of the game’s plot without spoiling something. I can’t even go into too much detail about the game mechanics, because unless you actually play the game everything I say will sound insanely obtuse and technical. Part of the genius in the buildup is in how easily and smoothly the game walks you through mechanics that grow into a paradise of customisability. It keeps building right up past the official end of the game, and let me tell you: this game has the most replay value of any game that I’ve never actually played through again. Is that statement cryptic? Yeah? That’s because it’d spoil it to explain. Just PLAY THE WORLD ENDS WITH YOU.