Development for the .Hack franchise began in early 2000 with the aim being to shock and surprise players and create a distinctive product inside a market dominated by the presence of the leviathan ‘Final Fantasy’ and ‘Dragon Quest’ franchises (now owned by the newly merged Square Enix). Developed by CyberConnect2 under the direction of President Hiroshi Matsuyama, who played a key role in developing the concept for the series, a number of ideas that ranged from dragon slaying to playing as a thief in Victorian London were explored but rejected before the concept of an offline MMORPG was hit upon. Essentially producing a single player offline game that populated the world with avatars for fictional players and faithfully reproduced the gameplay styles and systems seen in online games without ever actually connecting to the internet. Matsuyama said that this would give young gamers the chance to experience MMORPGs without having to pay monthly fees or subscription charges.
With this in mind the developers looked at ‘Phantasy Star Online’ and ‘Ultima Online’, coupled with the then newly released ‘Final Fantasy XI’ for inspiration, whilst drawing visual influence from popular anime of the time such as ‘Neon Genesis Evangelion’. Snagging artist Yoshiyuki Sadamoto to work on the first inter-continuity anime show ‘.Hack//Sign’ and gaining ‘Ghost in the Shell’ script writer Kazunori Itō to serve as scenario writer for the series, who enjoyed the notion of casting the player as his or herself as a subscriber to fictional MMORPG ‘The World’ and thought it created a “unique story telling environment.”
From the outset of development a four-part game series was planned for the PlayStation 2 that would open with .Hack/Infection and be accompanied simultaneously by an anime series ‘.Hack//Sign’ as well as bundled with singular episodes of OVA series ‘.Hack//Liminality’, both intended to run concurrently with events in the game and to show events elsewhere in both reality and ‘The World’. Spinoff merchandise such as a Collectable Card Game, Novels and manga adaptions were loosely deemed canon by served no story related purpose. Players in Japan who purchased all four games were given access to a parody OVA series and a beta to ‘.hack//Fragment’ an actual online rendition of The World which reused game assets in a multi-user environment and was devised in order to test player interest in a full MMORPG release, this ended service after just two years. The four games in order are .hack//Infection, ‘.hack//Mutation’, ‘.hack//Outbreak’, and ‘.hack//Quarantine’.
The story of the series itself revolved around the concept that the player logs into The World to attend a meeting with long-time player and real-world friend, Orca then encounters a mysterious girl in white named Aura who entrusts Orca with an item called the ‘Book of Twilight’, however Orca is then attacked by a strange monster and the servers for The World crash. At this point Orca’s player falls into a coma in the real world and you as your avatar ‘Kite’ decide to investigate The World to discover the cause as more and more players begin to suffer the same fate. Aided by several online friends and a glitch item called the ‘Twilight Bracelet’ that allows you to take on these strangely overpowered and viral monsters.
Though the game works hard to simulate the concept of an online title this does lead to the rampant reuse of in-game art assets and copy/paste character designs, with the game taking some considerable criticism for this at launch in the wake of ‘Final Fantasy X’s’ graphical prowess and the soon to be released ‘Kingdom Hearts’. With all four games set on the same server and within the same time period this also meant that graphical evolution for the series was incremental at best and later games suffered from being typically outdated by those released around them. It did however allow all four titles to see release in a shorter production period than expected. Typically the series averaged 70% overall from critics and publications at the time, with the earlier installments making up for reduced scored for latter ones.
A sequel manga and anime series ‘.hack//Legend of the Twilight’ saw release in 2002, and new game series ‘.Hack.G.U.’ started in 2006 and saw three installments. Largely seen as a better product having trimmed the series length by a title and refined many elements of the graphics and gameplay, the G.U. series did come under fire for many filler elements and a wandering storyline. Both of these serve as elements of the project ‘.Hack Conglomerate’ which is set seven years after the conclusion of the original multi-media event.
‘Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter’ 2002
First announced by Capcom at E3 in 2002, Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter is the series only instalment on the PlayStation 2 console, first non-numbered entry into the series and last game until the recent announcement of an online web-based RPG for touchscreen devices. Unlike previous titles in the series, which have featured predominantly fantasy-based worlds with some small elements of science fiction, Dragon Quarter is a largely science fiction orientated game and puts a heavy focus onto creating an oppressive atmosphere. Humanity has been forced to live underground an unspecified amount of time before the game begins and the world lies in a stagnant state. The upper classes live closer to the daylight whilst those less fortunate are hundreds of levels below, treating the sun as a fairytale. When Ryu, a low-level citizen rebels against his government in order to save the life of a winged woman named Nina who cannot survive underground he begins an ascent through the many levels between himself and clear skies.
Whilst like in previous titles this version of Ryu is capable of changing into a dragon to increase combat efficiency this entry provides a distinctly more powerful bonus for doing so, but at the cost of filling up Ryu’s D-Counter every time he does so. Should the counter hit 100% the game will end, lending it a particularly dangerous component. The player also has a D-ratio that starts at 1/8192 and is filled through player actions, but cannot be completed in a single play through, encouraging the player instead to replay the roughly 10 hour campaign or optionally quit out of a campaign early to experience the earlier stages with new content unlocked by a higher counter score and consequentially earning more points because of it. Accumulated items, equipment and skills can be carried over from the point at which the player chooses to restart, with the game taking careful stock of your saving and dishing out temporary saves (which are deleted when a game reloads) or rarer hard saves that come from Save Tokens found in-game. Restarting resets the D-Counter and makes earlier segments considerably easier to overcome without its use, though the game is considerably difficult at first in anticipation of this. A new battle system where player moved characters and could set traps in a semi-tactical manner was also included rather than a traditional turn-based version as the series had implemented in the past.
The project was headed by series veteran Makoto Ikehara who acted as the games director and was inspired to give the game a dysotopian setting after reading the novel ‘The World 5 Minutes From Now’ by Ruu Murakami. The additional systems and high challenge element were introduced to give the game a unique edge to make it stand out in a rapidly filling RPG environment where brand recognition wasn’t as powerful as it had been before, and in response to feedback that ‘Breath of Fire IV’ had been too easy. Character designs were produced by Tatsuya Yoshikawa, who had provided official artwork for all previous entries into the series and specifically designed the character of Elyon after the antagonist of previous title, Fou-Lu because he “Wanted to use that character again” in a similar manner to how the series reinvented Ryu and Nina every entry. Dragons in the game were designed to converse in Russian, lending to the games heavy industrial and cold-war feel. A number of additional features were cut from the game over the course of development and intended to make use of the PlayStation’s internet capabilities. These were cut because of the small user base of the modem add-on for the PlayStation at the time.
Whilst launching with the Roman numeral ‘V’ to signify its entry into the fifth slot in an on-going series in Japan, Dragon Quarter launched without it in America in 2003, though both versions contained a dedication to the memory of Capcom employee Yasuhito Okada who had worked on Dragon Quarter and ‘Breath of Fire IV’ in addition to ‘Pocket Fighter’, and the ‘Street Fighter Alpha’ series. The games launch in Europe contained changes to the game’s mechanics, removing the soft-save function and increasing the difficulty of the game exponentially. The top selling game in Japan in the week of its release in November, Dragon Quarter would sell 80,059 copies and hit 104,073 by the end of the year a month later. This qualified it for a re-release in 2003 under Sony’s ‘best’ label at a reduced price. It received an 8.5 out of 10 average and earned Weekly Famitsu magazine’s ‘Silver Award’. Western gamers, especially those in Europe would be harsher, with the game dipping lower in reviews due to the increased difficulty. Edge Magazine however found the challenge to be refreshing and praised the innovative thinking behind these systems. In all the game sold under 135,000 copies in America, this amounted to less than 1% of the host console’s user base and prompted future plans for more instalments in the series to be put on hold.
‘The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind’ 2002
Conceived during the development of ‘The Elder Scrolls 2: Daggerfall’, and originally intended to run on a modified SVGA version of the XnGine, Bethesda originally intended the third entry into their successful Elder Scrolls series to follow a similar path as its predecessor and generate a large open area within the Summer Isles, with the team enjoying the concept of a blight that spread across this land, killing off towns and villages in your wake. Development on spinoff titles ‘An Elder Scrolls Legend: Battlespire’ and ‘The Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard’ caused plans for a third instalment to be placed on hold however, and only after their completion in 1998 did the team re-open the Morrowind project.
The XnGine now looking dated in a rapidly evolving 3D landscape, Bethesda sought to revitalise itself and return to the forefront of the industry, an effort that was made into a mission statement by project leader Todd Howard, who scrapped the original engine and replaced it with one powered by Direct3D, possessing 32-bit textures and the capacity for both skeletal animation and lighting techniques. Accessing the scale of the original game concept, the decision was made to focus on a smaller area of land rather than a vast region. This could allow the team to craft each area themselves and plan every aspect rather than have the game generate content across massive distances that many players wouldn’t explore to see. Unlike other games at the time, Morrowind was planned as a single player experience, with Pete Hines, their director of marketing at the time, stating in multiple interviews that online multiplayer options were not being considered. Splitting the games staff into two teams, the first year of development set about making a construction set, allowing the team to implement and modify the game with greater speed and play back what they had done to see if it worked.
Announced in 2000, Bethesda set a PC release date for 2001 with development time allotted for a port to the Xbox console, something that the team had been considering since Microsoft announced the launch of their system. Preview builds were shown at E3 2001 and for the magazine PC Gamer, whilst the launch date was pushed back to 2002 without a publicly confirmed reason. Hines later stated that this was for balancing purposes and additional testing. With a distribution deal from Ubisoft that allowed the European release of a total of 9 Bethesda games, the launch occurred in two stages. A semi-localised version of the game was released in May containing a manual but leaving the games text in English, whilst a fully localised version with multi-language documents and in-game text was released later. This was reportedly due to having to translate “a universe featuring more than a million words” into multiple languages and was “quite a task.”
Morrowind’s free-form design (a staple of the Elder Scrolls series) presented little to constrict the player in where he or she wanted to go and what that player could do in those locations, dropping a series of main quests that can be followed or allowing the player to sub-quest and play within the sandbox that had been created for them. Lead Designer Ken Rolston, was questioned prior to Morrowind ’s release as to what he thought the “core, untouchable design elements” of the Elder Scrolls series were and what “set them apart from other games.” He responded immediately with the term “Free-form experience.” In Rolston’s view, the game’s central plot is a chance to introduce the player to a cross-current of conflicting factions, background themes, and to the characters of the game, rather than the primary focus of the player’s experience. “Every TES game has to let you create the kind of character you want, and then do the things you want. We would never have a TES RPG force you to be a certain character or go down a certain path.”
Well received by critics and praised for its scope, visuals and freedom of design, the game averaged between 80 and 90 percent review scores at the time of launch. Criticism was leveled at a variety of glitches in various spots throughout the game world where it was evident that the team had outstretched their capacity to make some areas work smoothly, and that the game required top of the line machines in order to be played. A retrospective by 1UP.com posed the suggestion that the open-nature of Morrowind may have been a contributing factor to the decline of single-player RPGs on home computers at the time as many customers turned to MMORPGs for this very experience. Losing in reader polls to ‘Neverwinter Nights’, Morrowind did manage to win IGN and Gamespy’s ‘Game of the Year’ awards. In 2003 is was ranked 21st in a list of the 25 most overrated games by GameSpy for its “buggy, dull and repetitive gameplay”. Regardless, a game of the year edition was released in October 2003.
‘Riviera: The Promised Land’ 2002
Developed by Sting and published by Atlus and 505 Games, Riviera acts as the first instalment into the ‘Dept. heaven’ series of games. Taking place on the floating continent of Riviera and following the character of Ein, a resident of Asgard who has been sent to clear Riviera of demons. However after a brief introduction segment he becomes tangled in a bid for God’s dormant power using the World Tree and narrowly survives an assassination attempt, waking up on Riviera as an amnesiac.
Riviera plays as a fusion of Visual Novel and RPG, with ‘triggers’ on each screen that can be selected and trigger conversations of action set-pieces rather than traditional exploration. At any time the player has only a finite pool of points with which to explore, forcing him/her to make decisions on what to investigate or leave, with choices affecting the games narrative in small ways. A strong focus on combat uses more traditional turn-based gameplay and focuses heavily on item management.
Originally developed for the WonderSwan Color in 2000, the game was released in Japan after a 2 year cycle in 2002. In 2004 however the game saw a remake for the Game Boy Advance that featured a completely new art style by Sunaho Tobe and several new CGs, events and samples of voice acting. The edition of the game saw a release in America in 2005, whilst in 2006 Sting announced that a remake for the PSP would be released that had wide-screen functionality and full voice acting as standard. It launched that same year and was released in America in 2007 with an additional story chapter exclusive to the translation. This was then released in Japan as a special edition. Between all versions of the game the same Japanese voice cast remains, and largely the same cast is used for the English editions between the Game Boy Advance and PSP ports. Featuring a soundtrack by Minako Adachi with select tracks by Shigeki Hahashi in totals at 40 individual tracks, it saw official release on CD in 2007.
Garnering mild to positive reviews, the game was generally praised for its storytelling and battle system but was considered to be an example of an RPG that had been stripped down to its bare essentials. 1UP.com described the game as “the most streamlined RPG imaginable” and noted that the item system was “a bit damaged” and “slowed the pace of the quest to a grinding halt.” The PSP remake received a lower score on average than its GBA equivalent, with criticism levelled at the games reuse of sprites from the other version. Ultimately however the ‘Dept. heaven’ series of games has gone on to release a further three episodes and the title has formed a cult following.
‘Suikoden III’ 2002
Having braved being a sprite based series on the original PlayStation console in a period when Square’s ‘Final Fantasy’ series was setting the standard of 3D characters overlaid onto pre-rendered backgrounds, the Suikoden series closed its first trilogy of games with this debut instalment onto the PlayStation 2 and its first tentative steps into 3D.
Unlike previous entries into the series, which had used a player-named silent protagonist, director and series creator Yoshitaka Murayama elected to split the story into multiple campaigns that each featured a different lead cast. This allowed the game to have a total of four playable lead characters (Thomas, Geddoe, Chris and Hugo respectively) who were from markedly different cultural backgrounds and possessed very different viewpoints on events that would take place in the games’ opening chapters. Not unlike ‘Shining Force III’, though delivered as part of a single game that unified the cast at a later stage rather than three separate releases. Because of this shift in storytelling mechanic the decision was made to give characters their own dialogue. Suikoden still prompts you for a name at the games outset however, which is bestowed upon the ‘Flame Champion’ whose legacy has a large impact on events.
Developed by the same team as ‘Suikoden II’, Suikoden III suffered from a troubled development period that saw key members of the team leave Konami just a month before the game saw its Japanese release. These included Yoshitaka Murayama, and this forced programmer Keiichi Isobe to take over as senior director for the resulting final stages of the game. Konami then removed the names of those who had left the production from the games credits and manual, which remains common practice at Konami to this day. Despite speculation that corporate meddling had caused him to leave, Murayama insists that these allegations are misplaced and that relations with Konami remain amicable. After the games release the animation team responsible for the Visual Novel ‘Suikogaiden’ games (‘Volume 1: Swordsman of Harmonia’ and ‘Volume 2: Duel at Crystal Valley’) who had worked on the games’ opening sequence and the remaining Suikoden staff were merged into one team to develop future instalments of the main-line series.
The third title in the series retains duels and other aspects associated with the series in a largely unchanged manner, but makes slight alterations to the battle system (featuring up to six characters now grouped in pairs rather than controlled individually across two rows with a non-active support player as passive helper) and scraps the Tactical RPG inspired battle system from ‘Suikoden’ II in favour of one more akin to a table top board game. A regular overworld as seen in most games of the period has been removed entirely to make way for a map that contains various routes that the player must travel through in order to reach his or her destination. These routes are populated by areas that can be explored and in which encounters can take place. Suikoden III’s most interesting upgrade is a skill system that sees characters able to learn and level passive abilities that develop their overall effectiveness in battle. This system is split across a more traditional Rune-based magical skillset and one for physical combat and includes damage reduction, armour piercing and counter attacks, putting a great deal of character customisation into the player’s hands for all 108 characters in the game.
In 2002 it was announced that 2002,377,729 copies of Suikoden III had been sold in Japan alone and American sales totalled 190,000. Whilst a European edition was planned and even announced for PAL territories it was cancelled before the Japanese release date due to errors found in the conversion tools. Konami’s policy at the time was that all PAL games had to be fully translated into their respective languages and that only releasing the game in English was not an option – even though the PAL territory included England and an English language version already existed for the American market. Petitions to change Konami’s decision on this matter were unsuccessful. Critical response to Suikoden III was extremely positive, though the game came under fire for looking less striking than ‘Final Fantasy X’ which had released beforehand. Averaging 85 out of 100 in most major publications of the time and awarded 24 in IGNs top 25 PlayStation 2 games of all-time list in 2007, this in addition to RPG of the year from Gamespot and IGN in 2002. An 11 volume Manga adaption drawn by Aki Shimizu was published by Tokyopop in 2004 in America and in 2015 the title was made available digitally via Playstation Network for PlayStation 3 and Vita, making it finally available to PAL players. The Suikoden series would continue with ‘Suikoden IV’ and ‘Suikoden V’ in addition to ‘Suikoden Tactics’ on the PlayStation 2 before coming to an abrupt stop. A DS game ‘Suikoden Tierhreis’ was released out of canon in 2008, and 2012 saw ‘Genso Suikoden: Tsumugareshi Hyakunen no Toki’ released for the PSP. Neither game is considered a true continuation of the series canon or true instalment into the series.
‘Unlimited Saga’ 2002
Produced and directed by Akitoshi Kawazu, the creator of the Saga series and man responsible for many of the more outlandish gameplay elements in ‘Final Fantasy II’, Unlimited Saga was developed and published internally at Square Enix. The first game in the popular series to see release on the PlayStation 2, it is considered one of the most controversial games released by Square due to the highly experimental nature of the title and its systems.
Much like the ‘Saga Frontier’ titles, Unlimited Saga has a narrative that is split across seven different characters who each follow their unique storylines. These range from Ventus, a delivery boy who begins life as a courier in order to find his brother’s murderer, to laura, a former pirate who recently lost her husband and becomes involved in protecting their heir apparent to a ruined kingdom. The game structures itself on the idea of being closer to a traditional pen and paper system than previous video game RPGs have attempted. To this end the world always resembles that of a board game, with areas broken down into individual spaces and everything being menu-driven. The party is represented in these screens by a small figurine that can be moved a space each turn whilst monsters in the region will do the same. Entering a new square can trigger a variety of events that include traps, treasures and encounters. This system in-of itself isn’t a nightmare to use, but the game places strict turn limits on players that if depleted will fail the mission. A ‘reel’ is used in place of dice to check random success rates that also deplete turns.
The battle system too takes on an element of randomness akin to dice-rolling. Learning new attacks seemingly at random using glimmers is still present as it was in previous titles in the Saga series, but for each round of combat the player is given 5 actions to split amongst the party as they see fit. This means that a character could attack five times or that they are more tactically arranged between a wider range of options. Again, the reel is used here to decide hits and misses, often making combat harder than expected. HP acts as a buffer to a character’s Life Points that when depleted ends the game in a manner similar to saving throws in ‘Dungeons and Dragons’, though it can be targeted directly by some opponents, making for dangerous encounters. Kawazu stated “As far as Unlimited Saga is concerned, we said let’s tackle the basics of game design once again. We didn’t try to emphasize the realistic details, but rather symbolize, and cut out the parts we didn’t need. We thought, let’s dare to do a ‘not express’ thing and we calmly stuck to that route.”
Unlimited Saga was released in Japan in two versions, regular and ‘Limited Edition’ which included a promotional music CD containing three tracks. This was replaced when the game came to Europe under the title ‘Collector’s Edition’ and instead a DVD titled ‘Eternal Calm Final Fantasy X-2: Prologue’ was included. This DVD prompted heavy initial sales and pre-orders of the game in the west due to the buzz surrounding a direct sequel to ‘Final Fantasy X’ with many buying the title for that reason alone. The game released into the third position in the sales charts behind ‘Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire’ in Japan, selling just 196,471 copies but ending the year with over 270,000 in Japan. By the end of the fiscal years 560,000 copies had sold worldwide. This caused Sony to award the game its Gold Award at the 9th annual PlayStation awards in June 2003. Despite this the game was poorly reviewed by critics and largely disliked by the western world. Averaging just 28% in most magazine reviews at the time and being a common sight in second hand sales. GameSpot called it “simply unpleasant to play.” Whilst RPGGamer called it “The biggest letdown of 2003” in their annual gamer awards. Plans for new games in the series were subsequently scrapped by Square Enix, though a remake of the original ‘Romancing Saga’ was produced for the PlayStation 2 in 2005.
‘Kingdom Hearts’ 2003
The initial idea for Kingdom Hearts began with a simple discussion between Shinji Hashimoto and Hironobu Sakaguchi about the success of ‘Super Mario 64’. Square had been planning to make a game featuring freedom of movement in a 3D space but the pair lamented that they didn’t have a character as popular as Mario to figurehead the project. One of the pair idly commented that only Disney had characters that could and Tetsuya Nomura, overhearing the conversation, volunteered to lead the project if they could make it happen, acting as director to their producers credits. A chance meeting between Hashimoto and a Disney executive in a lift (Disney and Square Enix having worked in the same building briefly in Japan) allowed Hashimoto the chance to pitch the idea and soon development began in 2000.
Whilst Nomura had worked extensively on the ‘Final Fantasy’ series as a monster designer and graphical director, he had not gained wide-spread recognition until the release of ‘Final Fantasy VII’. Kingdom Hearts marked his transition into a directorial position where he also served as the games lead character designer. A scenario was provided by Jun Akiyama and development was focused on gameplay as a primary drive, with a simple story targeted toward Disney’s traditional fan base. After reading this original outline for the games narrative, Sakaguchi told Nomura that he needed to pitch the game as if he were writing for the next big Final Fantasy title, and that the game would risk failure if the studio pandered to the extremely young and ignored they key gaming demographic. Kazushige Nojima and Daisuke Wantanabe, both of whom having just finished ‘Final Fantasy X’, were drafted immediately to the project to take the existing script and add layers of depth for adults to enjoy. The games title fused the concept of the various Disney ‘kingdoms’ with the idea that ‘heart’ was a core ingredient in telling the story of the game, leading to the final title for the project being ‘Kingdom Hearts’.
Though Disney gave Nomura freedom as to which characters and world he wanted to use in the game the staff at Square tried to stay within established lore and roles for characters within their original stories. Tonally this enabled moments of levity and sadness through associations already existing in player’s heads, with a particularly strong example of this being the emotional impact of seeing Winnie the Poo pondering his own demise in an empty world prior to your saving it. An attempt was also made to incorporate worlds with different looks and feels, resulting in a world based on ‘The Jungle Book’ to be cut due to a pre-existing ‘Tarzan’ stage that had a jungle theme. Elements of popular Final Fantasy titles (especially VII and VIII, which Nomura designed) were also incorporated into the game, with Kingdom Hearts versions of Cloud, Squall and Aerith (renamed from Aeris) among others redesigned to fit the game.
Kingdom Hearts featured a well-known cast of voices for both its English and Japanese versions, though special editions of the game (for example ‘Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix’) retain the English vocal performances. The Japanese version featured Miyu Irino as Sora, Risa Uchida as Kairi, and Mamoru Miyano as Riku. In the English version a special effort was made to preserve the official voice actors of characters from the Disney movies used in Kingdom Hearts. Some of the voice actors from the related television series or direct-to-video sequels were chosen over the original voice actors from films, where applicable (for example Dan Castellaneta as Genie, rather than Robin Williams). The English version featured Haley Joel Osment as Sora, David Gallagher as Riku, and Hayden Panettiere as Kairi with other notable voice actors included Billy Zane, Christy Carlson Romano, David Boreanaz, James Woods, and Mandy Moore. Kingdom Hearts had an unprecedented cast for a video game at the time of its release.
At launch the game received massive critical acclaim, winning awards for best story, excellence in visual arts, best art style/direction and best crossover. Critics praised the visuals, orchestral score and voice acting, though some felt that the games camera was less than adequate to keep up with the frantic action on screen, as was scrolling through the active menu system whilst fighting. Fan response was immensely positive, with the game voted 19th best game of all time by readers of the Japanese magazine Famitsu, 16th by the users of GameFAQs and ranking 9th on IGNs top 25 PS2 games of all time list. It was nominated for, but failed to win a best game award from the CESA Game Awards in 2002. A direct sequel ‘Kingdom Hearts II’ was produced, and ‘Kingdom Hearts III’ was announced for the PlayStation 4 in 2014, however development has been peppered with a variety of spin-off titles that continue to take the series into different areas. ‘Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep’ being the most prominent of these on the PSP, acting as a prequel to the story of the original, whilst ‘Chain of Memories’, ‘Dream Drop Distance’, ‘Coded’ and ‘385/2 Days’ all appear on Nintendo handhelds and link titles together. The original Kingdom Hearts game was remastered into ‘Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix’ for the PlayStation 3 in 2013 and included the Final Mix edition of the game in full HD with a remade ‘Chain of Memories’ and cinema containing the story sequences from ‘385/2 Days’ included as extras.
‘Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits’ 2003
Developed by Cattle Call and published by Sony Computer Entertainment, Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits was the first of the Arc games to be officially released in English, with the game rebranded to ‘Arc: Twilight of the Spirits’ in Europe to account for this fact. Featuring a score by Koji Sakurai, Takayuki Hattori, Yuko Fukushima, Masahiro Andoh, and Takashi Harada, the game tells the story of two warring races through the eyes of two brothers on either side of the conflict.
Playing out in chapters that split the game evenly between ‘Darc’, a bare chested Deimos that struggles to find a balance between his bloodthirsty monstrous side and more emotional Human baggage, which is perceived as weakness in Deimos lands, and his fully human brother ‘Kharg’ is something of a straight-lace heroic teen, trying to live up to his father’s legacy. Neither knows about the other and both soon form a party of characters who seem destined to clash, especially when wolf-man ‘Volk’ slays Kharg’s childhood friend’s father and mentor and who in turn slew Volk’s wife and child. The narrative is tightly written to ensure the maximum of tension in this regard. Nods are also given to past games in the series, with Arc himself making a short cameo from beyond the grave in the game’s final hour. The game also includes a coveted ‘New Game +’ feature , but rather than keep equipment and levels between games this simply allows players to start the game with a selection of stat-boosting items.
The game makes a break from the traditional Tactical combat of the series to date but in doing to takes the opportunity to attempt to innovate the sub-genre somewhat. Characters are now free of grid based movement and instead possess circles inside which they can move freely to line up attacks or grab items, with every character having their own attack range and potential to hit one or more enemies if lined up just right. Weapon customization also makes an appearance as does spell casting a number of skills through the use of special stones that must be purchased or collected, a trait largely exclusive to the Deimos.
Receiving average reviews, Twilight of the Spirits saw release onto PlayStation Network in 2014 as part of the classics range and was followed closely by Action RPG ‘Arc the Lad: End of Darkness’ which featured cameos from many major characters throughout the series canon and takes place just 5 years later. Despite the success of the series on PlayStation Network, there has been no word on future installments into the series, with ‘End of Darkness’ having released in 2004.
‘Disgaea: Hour of Darkness’ 2003
A Tactical RPG developed and published by Nippon Ichi Software for the PlayStation 2, having previously worked on the ‘Marl Kingdom’ series of titles that included ‘La Pucelle: Tactics’. Directed by Yoshitsuna Kobayashi, who also served as the games designer, and produced by Sōhei Niikawa, with music composed by Tenpei Sato, the game features an off-beat sense of humour that deliberately toys with the dour expectations of overtly serious Tactics games of the period.
Both Kobayashi and Niikawa has stated their intention when developing Disgaea was to satire American comic book characters, and use the structure of an episodic anime series to allow for character commentary and wild deviations from what was actually happening in-game in ‘preview’ segments for the next chapter. Most of these segments are voiced by the character of ‘Etna’, a subversive minion to the main character who secretly plots to overthrow him as the games lead and alter the dynamic of the games narrative to better suit her. To better incorporate this the game includes full voice acting, with the Japanese and American versions of the game offering the player a choice between an English and Japanese language dub. European editions were released on CD rather than DVD as a cost cutting measure and subsequently only featured a dub appropriate to the country of purchase. Disgaea uses 2D sprites overlaid onto a 3D area that has been formatted into a grid and can be rotated in 90 degree increments. When criticised for avoiding rendering characters in 3D, the makers of Disgaea responded with a statement that outlined their belief that 3D models are often limited by a ‘set pattern of motions’ and that in using sprites the team had been able to make the characters more expressive.
Whilst a strong Tactical RPG in genre, the game blends elements of RogueLike into its systems with the introduction of the ‘Item World’, a randomly generated series of stages that can be found inside of any item in the game. Completing these levels allows for items to increase in efficiency, whilst the random stages sit alongside a more traditional scripted campaign. A level cap of 9999 was also introduced, exceeding the traditional RPG level cap of 99. Character creation, board effects in combat and manipulation of the games rules through the ‘Dark Assembly’ were all also included.
At launch the game sold moderately successfully, and reviewed at an average of 85% in major magazines at the time. IGN labelled it the ‘best game no one played’ in their 2003 awards and it won the reader’s choice for ‘best strategy game’. GameSpy ranked the game as a nine out of ten and awarded it ‘strategy game of the year’ in that year’s annual awards. Importantly, as the first game to be set outside of Nippon Ichi’s ‘Marl Kingdom’ environment (although cameos between the two were made), Disgaea served to launch a successful franshise, earning a number of sequels and spinoffs set within its universe. Disgaea: Hour of Darkness was later remade as ‘Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness’ for the PSP in 2006 and included widescreen display in addition to an extra mode that retells the story in an alternate setting where Etna is the star. Cameos from characters in ‘Makai Kingdom’ are also included, as are those seen in ‘Disgaea 2’. A dual-language mode was maintained in all editions of this version of the game, allowing Europe to enjoy the different dubs for the first time. The PSP port was later itself the foundation of ‘Disgaea DS’ which launched onto the Nintendo DS that same year. Aside from a few unlockable characters and some randomly generated items it was functionally the same title as ‘Afternoon of Darkness’, though the display was considerably squashed to accommodate the small screen size of the DS. A PC port labelled ‘Disgaea PC’ was announced for Steam in 2015 with an expected 2016 release date. ‘Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories’ and spin-off games ‘Makai Kingdom: Chronicles of the Sacred Tome’ as well as ‘Prinny: Can I Really Be the Hero?’, ‘Disgaea Infinate’ and ‘Prinny 2: Dawn of Operation Panties, Dood!’ also saw release over this period and an anime titled ‘makai Senki Disgaea’ was aired. When the series shifted focus to the PlayStation 3 a third and fourth instalment into the series was launched before returning to the original cast for ‘D2: A Brighter Darkness’, with the series currently sitting on ‘Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengence’ for the PlayStation 4 in 2015. All of these titles made heavy use of DLC for optional characters from previous titles, though they had no story significance.
‘Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles’ 2003
The first Final Fantasy title to be released onto a Nintendo console since the rupture between Square and Nintendo over cart based technology that led to the series shifting to development exclusively for the Sony Playstation in 1997, Crystal Chronicles marked the start of a softer sub-brand of the Final Fantasy license that better sat with the family friendly reputation Nintendo had made for itself since that time. The soundtrack to Crystal Chronicles was primarily composed by Kumi Tanioka, with music programmer and arranger Hidenori Iwasaki providing only one additional track. A promotional album was made available to those who had pre-ordered the game’s English version.
Developed by The Game Designers Studio, a shell corperation for Square Enix’s Product Development Division-2, established for the purpose of creating games for consoles owned by other companies than Sony (who had an exclusivity deal at the time), Crystal Chronicles is an Action RPG series based around a user-friendly interface and a multiplayer experience. The game drew heavy negative sentiment at launch due to the requirement that players use a Game Boy Advance and Link Cable instead of a GameCube controller for multiplayer play, making playing with up to four people an expensive proposition. This was in part done to allow for the GBA screen to manage information exclusive to that player, keeping the main screen uncluttered and allowing inventory management without pausing the game for everyone. Many elements of the game were aimed at multiple characters, with spell casting was given a twist where casting multiple low-level spells on the same spot at the same time greatly increased their power and scope, and with players having to carry around an item that projected a ‘safe zone’ inside which players could fight, keeping the party in close quarters. A single player campaign was available, although it required that an NPC moogle carry the item for you and limited movement in the same manner. Mini games were also made available through the GBA during play.
Crystal Chronicles received positive reviews overall, averaging in the region of 75% in most magazines, but was criticised openly for its dependency on the GBA for multiplayer and a lack of story focus. The game sold 350,000 copies in Japan by the end of 2003 and at this time has shifted over 1.38 million copies worldwide. A manga adaption of the games story was published in ‘Monthly Shonen Gangan’ shortly after the games release, and the sub-brand went on to produce multiple games carrying the Crystal Chronicles banner. These include the DS Action RPGs ‘Ring of Fates’ and ‘Echoes of Time’ as well as Strategy games ‘My Life as King’ and ‘My Life as Darklord’. A Wii exclusive title ‘Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers’ was released in 2009 and shifted the focus onto a single player experience.
‘Final Fantasy Tactics Advance’ 2003
Having been bumped from developing for the Game Boy Colour, instead taking highly prized ports of Final Fantasy IV, Front Mission and other classic SNES titles to the WonderSwan instead, Square Enix made their return to the Nintendo handheld market at the same time as they launched ‘Crystal Chronicles’.
Rumours of the games development began when Square founded Development Division 4 from employees of Quest Corperation and the game was confirmed by producer Yasumi Matsuno when work began on the project in 2002. This came after Quest announced the handover of its software development team to Square Enix, which was known for its work on the ‘Tactics Ogre’ series. For a short while it was believed that the game would simply be a port of the original ‘Final Fantasy Tactics’, however Advance developed an entirely new storyline, setting and made significant changes to the way the game worked in order to better fit with the Game Boy Advance.
Revisiting many of the gameplay elements that ‘Final Fantasy Tactics’ had helped to popularise in the Tactical RPG sub-genre, Advanced added additional content and used a considerably different tone to help it stand apart from its namesake. A customisable world map and quick-save feature were popular inclusions at the time, and graphics were made vividly colourful to better stand out against the smaller screen of the GBA. Advanced also offers more frames of animation for each character, smoothing out reactions and poses to give a better ‘performance’ from each sprite in a battle. The game was optimised to run slightly differently on the GBA and the SP model respectively, making better use of each versions strengths, whilst also running a third mode displaying better colours when the game was played on a television using a Game Cube link cable and Game Boy Player.
Final Fantasy Tactics Advanced sold over 440,000 units the year of its release in Japan with nearly 225,000 units being sold in the first week alone. By August 2004 more than 1 million copies of the game were sold across America and Europe in addition to these figures. The game was praised by critics and won ‘best handheld game’ at the 7th Annual Interactive Achievement Awards in 2004, earning a 5 out of 5 from GameSpy and being voted 67th best game on a Nintendo system by the magazine Nintendo Power. In Japan the story was expanded upon and turned into an Audio Drama that aired across four radio stations between January and March 2003. In 2007 a sequel was released for the Nintendo DS named ‘Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift’ and a central character from the game was featured in a cameo role in ‘Final Fantasy XII’ on the PlayStation 2. A Final Fantasy branded SP was released to coincide with the release of the game and has since become highly collectable.
‘Star Ocean: Till the End of Time’ 2003
Developed by Tri-Ace and published by Square Enix (distributed by Ubisoft in PAL regions), the ‘Star Ocean’ series had achieved moderate success with its second instalment on the PlayStation and a Japanese-only Game Boy Colour sequel that had been well received by fans at the time. The third entry into the main-line series, Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, debuted on the PlayStation 2 in 2003 and was directed by Yoshiharu Gotanda, produced by Yoshinori Yamagishi and Hajime Kojima.
The last game to be released before Enix merged with Square, the Japanese edition of the game was the final title to use to original Enix logo on the box-art, whilst the later PAL and American release of a two-disc director’s cut edition was branded with the new Square Enix logo. Set 400 years after the events of ‘Star Ocean: The Second Story’ and 398 years after ‘Star Ocean: Blue Sphere’, the games narrative follows a young man named Fayt Leingod who is on a vacation with his childhood friend Sophia Esteed when the planet comes under attack and he finds himself separated from his family, stranded on an underdeveloped planet. Till the End of Time is particularly notorious for featuring a twist in the games story that divided players at the time and alienated members of the series fanbase, insinuating that the whole franchise has only existed as an MMORPG the cast were playing. Interestingly this concept was completely ignored by ‘Star Ocean: The Last Hope’ which served as a prequel to the original game in the series.
Designer, Masakai Norimoto and artists Jun Sato and Keiichi Asai take full advantage of a universe-spanning story to provide a wealth of different environments and character designs from totally different cultures, whilst writers Yoshiharu Gotanda and Hiroshi Ogawa push the story forward at a pace that sees regular revelations and maintains a sense of urgency. Originally the game included 8 playable characters, but the director’s cut added to more, one of whom had been a supporting member of the cast in the original edition. Gameplay sees a real-time action system used that encourages the player to swing and dodge attacks whilst filling a bonus gauge that grants additional experience, items and currency after a battle, with the director’s cut adding a VS. mode for player against player matches using this system. Many elements of the games bonus content are unlocked by winning trophies that the game tracks and unlocks for feats such as defeating a boss unharmed or fully exploring a number of areas.
Initially the game received a negative backlash in Japan, where the game units were alleged to be buggy and refusing to work at all in older models of the PlayStation 2. Enix was quick to blame Sony, as the game had been coded with features from updated libraries that company provided that had not been backward compatible, whilst Sony denied all responsibility. The impact on the games sales was immediate and spurred the release of a Directors Cut in 2004 that fixed these issues and was generally well received by critics and gamers alike, averaging at an 80% review score from magazines at the time. Star ocean 3 was considered the 96th best selling game on the PlayStation 2 console as of 2006 and had sold an estimated 630,000 copies with revenues of 23 million dollars. The original version of the game sold an additional 533,373 copies in 2003 before being pulled from shelves. The game was followed by ‘Star Ocean: The Last Hope’ in 2009 for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 and a new game ‘Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness’ has been announced for PlayStations 3 (Japan only) and 4 (worldwide release) for some time in late 2016. A spin off title, ‘Star Ocean: Material Trader’ was also produced as a free to play card game set in the same universe.
‘Tales of Symphonia’ 2003
First announced in 2002 by Namco as one of several titles it would be releasing on the Nintendo GameCube, Tales of Symphonia is the first Tales title to link directly to the original ‘Tales of Phantasia’ on the SNES. Initially developed as part of a multi-media event that would include comics, an animated OVA, a novel and a series of Audio Dramas, the games title was publically confirmed in 2003 in an issue of Famitsu magazine that detailed that the game had been in development for 2 years and that it shared much of the same team as ‘Tales of Eternia’ for the PlayStation, which released in the west as ‘Tales of Destiny II’.
A conference held by Namco in 2003 revealed that the game would be split across 2 discs (a rarity on the GameCube) and that it would use the theme song ‘Starry Heavens’ by Day After Tomorrow. In celebration of its release in Japan the game would also be bundled with a symphonic green Nintendo GameCube console. The American version would later replace the theme song with an orchestral version and focused on hiring professional voice actors to dub the game in order to appeal to a western audience. A PlayStation 2 version of the game was released exclusively in Japan in 2005 that included several small gameplay additions and a new song by Day After Tomorrow titled ‘And Thus, I Can Do It!
The games principle writer, Takumi Miyajima, explained that the aim of Tales of Symphonia was to create a “unique symphonia” based on the player’s in-game choices and using an affection system similar to those seen in Dating Sims and Visual Novels at the time. Miyajima admits that he wrote many scenarios with the most significant events centred around the character of Zelos Wilder, who was expected to die. His survival was later switched to be dependent on the games affection system, with his death occurring earlier or later in the plot depending on how he was used. A later decision to bring the character of Kratos Aurian (and who Zelos replaced) back into the player party after an early betrayal sparked discussion around how to best implement these changes and eventually resulted in a final product that saw one or the other in your party depending on the player’s actions, with their fates a result of being with or without the other characters. Elements of ‘Tales of Phantasia’ were implemented in the script but kept to a deliberate minimum, with direct references to events of that game changed to subtle nods. Whilst playable as a self-contained story, Symphonia adds a significantly less negative tone to ‘Phantasia’s’ finale, which saw the revelation that the games villain had been trying to save his own world and left its fate undecided.
Receiving an average of 90% in major publications and from critics at the time, over 100,000 copies sold in the USA in the game’s first two weeks of release. By December in 2007 Namco announced that the GameCube version had sold 953,000 copies worldwide and that the PlayStation 2 edition had sold 486,000 copies in Japan. The game won the ‘award for excellence’ at the Japan Game Awards and was placed at number 75 in the top 100 games list as published by IGN. A direct sequel to Symphonia, ‘Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World’ was announced in 2007 for the Wii and released worldwide in 2008. Reusing many of the original games assets it reviewed less favourably but was remastered alongside the original for the PlayStation 3 as part of the Tales series anniversary celebrations in 2014.
‘Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic’ 2003
In July 2000, BioWare announced that they were working with LucasArts on the creation of an RPG set in the Star Wars universe. Joint BioWare CEO Greg Zeschuk stated that “The opportunity to create a richly detailed new chapter in the Star Wars universe is incredibly exciting for us. We are honoured to be working with the extremely talented folks as Lucas Arts, developing a role-playing game based upon one of the most high-profile licenses in the world.” The game was officially unveiled as ‘Knights of the Old Republic’ at E3 in 2001 and at this point had been in development for six months with preproduction having started in 2000 and discussions ranging back as far as 1999 to make the game happen. According to Mike Hallo of LucasArts, “the first actual emails were in October or November of ’99. That’s when we first started talking to BioWare. But some really serious work finally started at the beginning of 2000.”
Set four thousand years prior to the events depicted in the prequel trilogy, LucasArts reportedly gave BioWare a choice of settings in which the game could take place, which was narrowed down to between the current film period for ‘Episode II: Attack of the Clones’ or an extreme prequel setting. Choosing to not be tethered to any film in the current continuity allowed BioWare to focus on original content. They aimed to create a world similar to the Star Wars universe fans had already experienced but different enough to be an obvious precursor to that time. All concept work was sent to Skywalker Ranch to be approved before use, with BioWare noting that very little of their content was rejected. BioWare CEO Raymond Muzyka stated “It was more like, ‘Can you just make his head like this rather than like that.’ So it was all very feasible. There were good suggestions made and they made the game better, so we were happy to do them. It was a good process really and I think we were pleasantly surprised how easy LucasArts was to work with.” Zeschuk also said that “Overall, we were really happy with the results. We felt like we had enough freedom to truly create something wonderful.” A target gameplay time was aimed at 60 hours, significantly less than ‘Baldur’s Gate’ at 100 hours or ‘Baldur’s Gate 2’ at 200 hours, but rendered in 3D. Project director Casey Hudson said that one of the greatest achievements and risks was in the combat system, which was simulated real-time combat but used hidden dice rolls. “That required us to make something that hadn’t really been done before.”
Development on the game for PC and Xbox was quickly decided, with ports to the PlayStation 2 or GameCube rejected as they would require more work than the easily transferable PC to Xbox shunt Microsoft had enabled for their console. This also allowed the game to stand out on a console that had little to no RPGs released for it at the time. Hudson did note that there were some considerable changes over the course of development however, especially when deciding how much graphical detail to use when considering rendering on both the PC and Xbox. Knights of the Old Republic ran on the Odyssey Engine, a variation of the Aurora Engine used by BioWare to make ‘Neverwinter Nights’ and rewritten to include weather effects such as wind, dust and water. Dialogue for characters was recorded in English and award-winning composer Jeremy Soule was signed to compose the games score based in part on the John Williams soundtrack from the original movies. Soule worked hard to create the illusion that a full orchestra was playing whilst working within the confines of a MIDI system.
After a series of delays that saw the game pushed from 2002 to 2003 the game finally saw release with the Xbox version hitting the shelves a month ahead of the PC edition. This went Gold in july of 2003 and sold 250,000 copies in the first four days of release, making it the fastest selling Xbox game at the time. DLC was announced for the Xbox Live service and the PC edition was re-released as part of the ‘Star Wars: The Best of PC’ collection in 2006. The game was later released over Steam in 2012 and for Mac OS X that same year. 2013 saw the game released on iPad and Android devices including the Yavin Station DLC that was previously offered separately and reworked for touch-devices. Praised by critics, the game scooped numerous awards including ‘2004 Game of the Year’ at the Game Developers Choice Awards, ‘best Xbox game’ at the BAFTA Games Awards and both ‘best console RPG’ and ‘best computer RPG’ at the Interactive Achievement Awards. A sequel, ‘Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic: The Sith Lords’ was developed by Obsidian and released in 2004 that was similarly award winning, though not as well received as the original, and a MMORPG ‘Star Wars: The Old Republic’ was created by BioWare in 2011 that remains popular to this day.
This period sees the most risks taken in RPGs in an effort to shake up a formula that has been fairly set in its ways since the original PlayStation console made a name for the JRPG. This has however been largely more miss than hit, with games such as ‘Unlimited Saga’ attempting to call back to the genre’s roots in pen and paper RPGs and resulting in an unplayable mess. ‘.Hack’ attempted to appeal to the broadening online demographic by producing a title that copied many of that sub-genre’s gameplay mechanics but lacked the sense of fun that came with playing a game with friends and locked players into a four-game series in the hopes of seeing a conclusion to the story they were playing. ‘Breath of Fire V: Dragon Quarter’ took the heaviest pounding of all however, producing a game that whilst ingenious in its design was just too hard for anyone to want to replay to gather the full story and ending.
Not every risk was without reward however. ‘Kingdom Hearts’ made the call to bring in third-party Intellectual Property from Disney to garner its attention, pulling gamers into the Action RPG genre who previously hadn’t considered playing and causing a media boom that the series is still riding to this day. A trick mirrored by WRPG ‘Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic’ to good effect, selling well on PC and Xbox consoles alike. ‘Disgaea’ meanwhile managed to break Tactical RPGs out of the stale, overly serious conventions they had become known for after ‘Final Fantasy Tactics’ and introduced elements of RogueLikes to them in an unprecedented display of imagination.
Meanwhile MMORPGs start to take a bite out of the sales of traditional RPGs, with particular focus on the WRPG market. Releases such as ‘Neverwinter Nights’ and ‘Icewind Dale’ manage to make suitably impressive names for themselves, but ‘Dungeon Siege’ and other more established titles are beginning to lose traction against a steadily growing pool of MMORPGs that share similar settings and themes.