‘Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords’ 2004
Instead of following on from BioWare’s successful production of the original ‘Knights of the Old Republic’ game, LucasArts shifted to developer Obsidian Entertainment for its sequel which re-uses the same Odyssey Engine that was developed exclusively for the series. As before, a PC and Xbox versions of the game were developed in tandem with the Xbox edition being given two months release time prior to the PC debut of the title.
Development of the game started in October of 2003 with much of the games content scripted before the original title’s release, which later forced a number of revisions and redrafts for the games story when Knights of the Old Republic made it out to the public. Chris Avellone, the games lead designer immersed himself in Star Wars lore including technical manuals and the expanded universe novels in addition to multiple play-throughs of the first title in the series in order to better develop this second draft and came to the conclusion that it was the depth that BioWare had given the games story and companions that had been the cornerstone of its success. When preparing to present the game at the E3 show in 2004 the team tried to cram as much information into their 30 minute showcase as they could, however on the day found that their slot had been reduced to only 10 minutes, forcing them to rely on visuals for the game to sell the public on it. At this time none of the levels the group had in production were ready to be shown so production was halted on all but three in order to hopefully finish one in time for a playable demo to be created, with a final demo only being completed three days prior to the event. A trailer for the game was later unveiled in July of the same year.
Alterations to the mechanics of the game included the removing of the original level cap and a significant face-lift on all in-game graphics. Whilst areas were up to three times bigger than those seen in the previous title some suffered from being emptier and less populated. Lead designer Aaron Meyers decided which people would join the art team after processing “tons of applications and demo reels” and though many joined Obsidian simply to work on a Star Wars title many ended up staying with the company. This dedication to the franchise helped combat an extremely tight production schedule, with many members of the team daunted to be working on the sequel to a game recently dubbed “Game of the Year”. Mark Griskey recorded music with a symphony orchestra in order to better develop the distinctive cinematic sound of the Star Wars universe. When looking back on the games development in a 2013 interview, Avellone said that LucasArts forced Obsidian to finish the game in a time frame of 14-16 months which led up to its release in an “unfinished” state. Avellone admitted however that the decision to not remove the minigames and a considerable amount of fat on the games plot that could have been cut to streamline production and upgrade the product was a mistake on Obsidian’s part. He also felt that the title was cutscene heavy and could have used an additional year in development.
Knights of the Old Republic 2 went gold on November 23rd 2004, and was later released on the Xbox that December. The PC version released in February 2005 and was later re-released for digital distribution on Steam and through GOG.com. iOS and Linus versions were also released at this time and controller input was added alongside widescreen resolution. The game received an 80% average critics review on launch and the modding community fixed an estimated 500 bugs in the PC version of the game alone, even going so far as to restore content that was cut from the game but still existed in in-game files. Regardless of this state, the title won several “Game of the Year” awards and was well received by the public. LucasArts never returned to Obsidian for future Star Wars production however, later returning to BioWare instead to produce MMORPG ‘Star Wars: The Old Republic’ before they themselves were shut down in 2012 when Lucas sold all his holdings to Disney.
‘Summon Night: Swordcraft Story 2’ 2004
The ‘Summon Night’ series of RPGs is traditionally a single sub-genre (such as Tactical or Action RPGs) mixed heavily with elements of Visual Novels and Dating Sims. Developed by Flight-Plan and published by Banpresto with character designs by Izuka Takeshi, the series has six main entries that span from the original ‘Summon Night’ for PlayStation in 2000 through to ‘Summon Night 6: Lost Borders’ for the PlayStation 4 and Vita in 2016. Whilst all of these games feature a heavy emphasis on Tactical gaming, an additional 6 spin-off titles exist for handheld devices that place the focus onto Action and are traditionally localized by Atlus for the west.
Games in the Summon Night series all take place in the fictional fantasy setting of Lyndbaum, which bears similarities to medieval Europe with the inclusion of steam-punk elements such as factories, railroads and occasional magical items. Lyndbaum is surrounded by four other worlds (Loreilal where mechanical creatures reside, Silturn, the land of spirits called Yokai, Sapureth a place for angelic or demonic beings and Maetropa where half-humans, magical beasts and mythical creatures live) but it is heavily implied that more worlds border onto these, including our own. Boundries separate these worlds from each other and traditionally summoning is the only way to transport things between them. In the ‘Swordcraft Story’ brand of the series the player character starts the game with a choice between male and female protagonist and it then generated one from a number of possible partners from one of these worlds to serve as their companion for the rest of the game. A tight focus on the gathering of materials and forging of weapons in different categories that aid in exploration and differentiate combat styles is also used throughout.
Featuring a battle system akin to the real-time 2D combat style seen in the original ‘Tales’ games, the focus of the title is in selecting a character with whom the player avatar bonds, using a system that sees you choosing who to spend free time with at the end of each in-game ‘day’ (usually after a boss has been defeated or dungeon level cleared) and building a deeper understanding of their personal motivations. Directors Takayuki Kinoshita and Hirokazu Kawase place a significant amount of confidence in Akira Yamamoto’s writing to carry the game in this respect.
Swordcraft Story 2 was released to extremely positive reviews, with critics citing it as a more refined variation on the model premiered by its predecessor. Graphical advances and humour in the games dialogue were also heavily referenced and the game garnered an average score of 80% from magazines at the time of launch. A lack of depth in the games main plot was criticised however, which suffered in comparison to the heavy emphasis placed on interacting with your partner and NPC cast, which was unusually developed for a portable RPG of the time. Although both titles were released for the Game Boy Advance, a direct third instalment wasn’t made, switching instead to ‘Summon Night Craft Sword Monogatari: Hajimari no Ishi’ on the same system, ‘Summon Night EX-Thesis: Yoake no Tsubasa’ on the PlayStation 2 and ‘Summon Night X: Tears Crown’ and ‘Summon Night: Twin Age’ on the Nintendo DS instead.
‘X-Men Legends’ 2004
The first console title to be developed by Raven Software after a number of small released for personal computers, X-Men Legends was published by Activision and saw ports for the GameCube, PlayStation 2, Xbox and N-Gage, with the three console editions being created simultaneously using the Alchemy Engine from Vicarious Visions.
After deciding to focus on the concept of an RPG centred on Marvel’s popular X-Men franchise, which had recently been popularised through a series of films, the staff as Raven began to brainstorm on the concept and compared existing games that used the IP to see what had and hadn’t been done in the past. A team-based dynamic was deemed an essential part of the title from an early stage, with the original concept resembling a JRPG before the team concluded that players would prefer more action and that direct control of character’s powers would be more fun. 4-player multi-play was also something the studio wanted to aim for and this wasn’t compatible with a JRPG turn-based combat system. Eventually the group experimented with various modes and gameplay models before settling on one that allowed players to freely switch between a team of four characters selected from a bigger pool. This also allowed them to incorporate different environmental barriers based on which characters were in the team, with those that flew or smashed things more able to enter areas specific to their type.
The project’s Co-lead designer, Partick Lipo stated “It was basically Final Fantasy with X-Men. Over time, however, it really started to evolve. As development moved along, we added more and more elements of action and combat to it. One thing that remained a consistent mantra through development of the game over the last few years has been the team. To be able to bring something like this to the X-Men universe was very important to us. Even when moved to action, we went into it with the idea that you are controlling a team.”
The games story was penned by a group of former marvel writers collectively known as ‘Man of Action’ who also worked on film and television projects spun from Marvel IPs. Consisting individually of Duncan Rouleau, Joe Casey, Joe Kelly, and Steven T. Seagle with Stan Lee as a consultant, they chose to put the lesser known character of ‘Magma’ in the games central role because they felt that she acted as an “appropriately blank slate as a character” and that her fire based powers were obvious enough for new players to quickly get to grips with. Designed narratively to enable the player to switch teams without damaging the story, their script came to over 500 pages. A voice cast of primarily television based actors, many of whom had already voiced X-Men in the past, was headlined by Sir Patrick Stewart in a reprise of his role as Professor Xavier in the movies whilst music for the title was composed by Rik Schaffer.
Interestingly, instead of focusing on one of the team lineups from the comics canon or using one seen in popular media (the recent films or 90s animated series for example) Brian Pelletier, the game’s leading Artist, drew characters from throughout the history of the franchise. The X-Men having traditionally changed their lineup every year or so since their original publication in 1963. This allowed the game to draw on popular characters from throughout the series’ run and enabled Raven to re-design some characters not currently in publication at the time. Only one character (Angel) was cut from the original selection, only dropping out at the game’s final build.
Averaging a 90% in magazines and from professional critics at the time, X-Men Legends sold enough copies to be inducted into the budget lines for all three consoles it was released onto. A sequel, ‘X-Men Legends: Rise of Apocalypse’ was released across all major platforms in 2005 (including the N-Gage) in addition to the PSP and a PC port developed by Beenox. This title saw the rosta of characters expanded to include villains from the original title and would inspire the eventual ‘Marvel: Ultimate Alliance’ titles that would eventually expand their scope from the X-Men to the entire Marvel universe.
‘Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King’ 2004
Series veteran Yuji Horii once again returns as the scenario director for the 8th main-line entry into the Dragon Quest series, this time spinning a tale about a king that has been trapped in the form of a short troll-like creature, his daughter turned into a horse and his castle’s inhabitants turned to plants with the exception of the single player-character. Reduced to travelling with his last guard and former bandit turned servant ‘Yangus’, the party sets off on a quest to break the spell and defeat the one who cast it, a powerful mage by the name of ‘Dhoulmagus’.
Featuring only four main player characters (Yourself, Yangus a Templar named Angelo and a spell casting noble named Jessica), with other important people serving as NPCs that surround the plot, Dragon Quest VIII: The Journey of the Cursed King features a more condensed plot that allows for each of the party members to take centre-stage within the narrative in a manner that a wider cast would have been unable to accomplish. The first game in the series to be titles ‘Dragon Quest’ rather than the previously used ‘Dragon Warrior’ outside of Japan, it sparked a re-release of the series to date that updated and re-branded previous entries as well as setting the standard for future instalments. A firmly traditional JRPG in all ways, the game features what is termed as ‘classic’ gameplay for the medium, using turn based combat and a strict levelling system than allows for the player to allot a small amount of points into specialisms for each character as they become stronger. A simple item fusion system is also included that blends any two items in the player’s possession into a more powerful or new variant, and the game makes use of cell-shaded 3D environments and characters to present a faithful animated style similar to that of artist Akira Toriyama.
As with previous entries into the series, composer Koichi Sugiyama directed the music, which was performed by the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra under Sugiyama’s conduction and saw its own publishing by Aniplex across two discs under the title ‘Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King Suite’. Releasing onto the PlayStation 2 in November of 2004 in Japan it shipped over 3 million copies within its first week alone, making it the fastest selling game in Japan at the time. By September 2008, total worldwide shipments of Dragon Quest VIII surpassed 4.9 million copies, over 430,000 of which were in America. In Japan the game remains the highest selling PlayStation 2 title and won ‘best RPG of E3 2005’ for both 1UP.com and GameSpy’s awards, beating out ‘Kingdom Hearts II’ which was America’s most popular PlayStation 2 game. A re-release for iOS and Android in 2013 became the 2nd best-selling app in Japan on its release, and a later conversion to 3D for use on the 3DS handheld system was also well received. Critics praised its simplicity and the games ability to pull off sometimes archaic gameplay choices as ‘charming’, and noted that only a series such as Dragon Quest could manage to do so in the current gaming environment. The majority of reviews cited the English translation of the game to be one of its best qualities, written in a playful manner reminiscent of ‘The Princess Bride’ and using real English and Welsh speaking actors to provide genuine accents for its characters.
Characters from the game have gone on to feature in additional Dragon Quest titles by Square Enix, with Yangus staring in his own RogueLike ‘Dragon Quest: Yangus’ developed by Cavia for the PlayStation 2 and both Jessica and Yangus featuring as guest characters in board-game ‘Fortune Street’. More recently ‘Dragon Quest Heroes: The World tree’s Woe and the Blight Below’ made use of Jessica and Yangus again for Omega Force’s blending of ‘Dynasty Warriors’ with the Dragon Quest franchise. The main series has gone on to enter its eleventh instalment on the PlayStation 4 and is being developed by Armor Project.
The first game developed by Big Blue Box, a satellite studio of Peter Molyneux’s Lionhead, Fable was perhaps the largest and most publicised RPG on the Xbox. Dene and Simon Carter, Big Blue Box’s founders, stated that their first project would have to meet several key criteria to be accepted by the game publishers and that they were not interested in producing a generic game experience. After some difficulty finding a publisher who would work with them, Big Blue Box was eventually offered a contract by Microsoft, and it was to them that they pitched the concept for their RPG.
In the words of the Carters, “The world would be a breathtakingly beautiful place filled with waterfalls, mountains, dense forests, populated with compelling and convincing characters with real personality, people who actually reacted to what you did. We wanted to give the player control of a hero who would adapt to the way they played, who would age, become scarred in battle, who could get tattoos, wear dreadlocks and a dress if the player was so inclined. We wanted each and every person who played our game to have a unique experience, to have their own stories to tell. And we called it Thingy.” ‘Thingy’ would eventually be labeled ‘Project Ego’ and later earn the title ‘Fable’. Taking roughly 4 years to create and a team of roughly 70 developers working on the project at any one time. The main concepts behind development on Fable was that the hero should visually reflect what was going on around him at all times and react in a manner appropriate to the player’s input. This would allow for the player to be drawn into the experience and feel like the game had a living, breathing world.
Peter Molyneus aggressively promoted Fable, at one point going so far as to state that “it’s going to be the best game ever.” A tough claim to back up but one that was quickly latched on to by the advertisers and made a part of the game’s brand. The game was given a humorous atmosphere which reflected the satirical works of the late Sir Terry Pratchett, taking influence from his ‘Discworld’ series but not going as far as to incorporate the more extreme elements of his works, turning a promising fantasy experience into something more akin to ‘Simon the Sorcerer’ than ‘The Colour of Magic’, still it stood out among a sea of overly serious RPGs. Music (with the exception of the title theme) was composed by Russell Shaw who had a history of working on Molyneus games such as ‘Magic Carpet’ and ‘Black and White’ with Danny Elfman contracted to produce the games main theme. At Elfman’s insistance a small orchestra was used to record this theme, making it stand out from the synthetic instruments that made up the bulk of the title’s music.
Since its original launch, two re-releases of the game have been made. The first, ‘Fable: the Lost Chapters’ added new monsters, weapons, alignment based spells and the ability to give children objects in addition to tweaks that expanded upon the story of fixed pre-existing bugs. The second, ‘Fable Anniversary’ saw the Lost Chapters remastered into HD for the Xbox 360 and was released onto Steam, incorporating Achievements and a new save system. At launch the game fared well with audiences, though critics gave it an 80% average. Action orientated combat was praised, as was the open-ended nature of the title and its dry sense of “British” humor. The short campaign length and bland fantasy world were issues for many however, and prevented this game from living up to its hype as the best game ever. At present the game has sold 3 million copies worldwide and has produced two sequels. ‘Fable II’ which is set 500 years later and replaces the fantasy elements with a more original colonial era environment, and ‘Fable III’ which was released for the Xbox 360 in 2010. A series of spin-off games has also seen release to varying reception, with a selection of fable inspired ‘Pub Games’, a beat-em-up named ‘Fable Heroes’, a Kinect movement-based game called ‘Fable: The Journey’ and cooperative action RPG ‘Fable Legends’.
‘Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones’ 2004
After languishing in Japan for five instalments, multiple remakes and a variety of side-stories, the hugely influential Fire Emblem series finally made its way to the Western world on the Game Boy Advance, capitalising on the popularity of the ‘Advance Wars’ series to bring its unique style of Tactical RPG to the masses. Characters such as ‘Roy’ had begun to make appearances in other games leading up to this event, such as playable characters in the ‘Smash Bros’ series of fighting games, testing the water for a North American version and stirring up player interest.
‘Fire Emblem: Binding Blade’ was released to critical acclaim on the GBA in Japan and a remake of the original title in the series (given the sub-title ‘The Sword of Flame’) performed so well to a global audience that Intelligent Systems released three games overall onto the handheld, with the sixth and eighth games releasing exclusively for the Game Boy Advance. This took what had formerly been a console experience and opened it up to a bigger audience. Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones was the final of the three to be released and featured a story centred on Prince Ephraim of Renais and his twin sister Princess Eirika as their county is invaded by an aggressive foreign nation. Adding new features to the existing Fire Emblem formula, including use of the GBA’s link cable for multiplayer matches and a ‘Creature Campaign’ where new characters can be unlocked. Additional content includes multiple classes for characters to level into in place of a single promotion class, and support conversations that trigger when certain characters are positioned next to one-another in battle. These effect hidden counters that can potentially shape the outcome of the end-game story.
Nominated for ‘Best GBA Game’ and ‘Best RPG’ at GameSpot’s Best and Worst of 2005, the title launched to positive critical reviews that praised the individual storylines given to each member of the games cast. Averaging 85%, the game was included in the list of GBA games available for free through the ‘Nintendo 3DS Ambassadors’ program and was later added to the Wii U Virtual Console. Intelligent Systems would go on to produce ‘Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance’ for the Nintendo GameCube, ‘Radiant Dawn’ for the Wii and both ‘Awakening’ and ‘Fates’ for the 3DS.
‘Monster Hunter’ 2004
Released for the PlayStation 2 as part of an initiative from Capcom’s Production Studio 1 to develop three network focused games for the system (the other two being ‘Resident Evil Outbreak’ and ‘Auto Modellista’), Monster hunter kick-started a whole new sub-genre of RPG.
An Action RPG by design, Monster Hunter places the player in the role of a would-be Hunter who must accomplish a gauntlet of quests in order to rise through the ranks. All armour, weapons and items are created by using pieces of monsters slain by the player in real-time and the games online features allow for groups of hunters to unite for bigger kills than they’d be able to accomplish singly. Quests include hunting, gathering, catching and special events and range in difficulty on a scale of 1 to 8. Hunters classify as ranged (Gunners) or close combat orientated (Blademasters) with further options opened up by the type of weapon the player chooses to forge and equip. Although Event quests are only available online, and the game features a great deal of online content, it is possible to play through the game solo and offline. This does however limit a player’s capacity to hunt larger beasts until later in the game but did open the title up to players unable to connect their PlayStation 2 to the internet.
As a part of the initial initiative from Capcom, the game was supposed to sell 1 million copies, which it easily managed alongside ‘Resident Evil Outbreak’. Though the game received average reviews overall, a loyal and firm fan base was quickly attracted to the title. Later ‘Monster Hunter G’ would be released as an expansion to the original game and was released onto the PSP outside Japan under the new name ‘Monster Hunter Freedom’. This edition included the ability to wield dual swords and increased variation in both monster colour and difficulty. It was later ported to the Wii alongside the release of ‘Monster Hunter Tri’ and came packaged with a limited edition classic controller. ‘Monster Hunter 2’ was released in 2006, alongside ‘Freedom 2’ and ‘Freedom Unite’ for the PSP. ‘Monster Hunter Tri’ was originally planned for release onto the PlayStation 3 but made a late switch to the Nintendo led Wii instead. The 3DS houses two entries into the series, both ‘Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate’ and ‘Monster Hunter X’ have met with positive reception. An Anime, Manga adaption, comics and card games have all been released as part of the IP, and in 2012 Paul W. S. Anderson was rumoured to be directing a film adaption of the original game, though no new announcements have since been made.
‘Pocket Kingdom: Own the World’ 2004
A rare example of an N-Gage exclusive, Sega partnered with Nokia to produce this Massively Multiplayer Online Game that took inspiration from ‘Dragon Force’ on the Sega Saturn. An example of online gaming on a handheld (mobile) device several years ahead of it becoming commonplace for games to include online elements as standard, Pocket Kingdom cast the player in the role of a ‘player’ whose task is to conquer a region known as Ulgress.
Pocket Kingdom has an extremely self-aware tone to it, with characters and narrative history being fully aware that it is a video game at all times. The land is named Ulgress after a player named Griefer Ulgress who was a brutal and merciless player and was eventually banned, plunging the map into chaos as other player vie for the number one ranking position. The game effectively casts you in the role of yourself as a player of the game, treating you both as a character affecting that world and as the one pushing the buttons. Your ultimate goal is to get your name onto the ‘All-time Owner’s Board.’ Fictional player characters are also referenced regularly, blurring the line between what is real and what is fictitious, and these regularly drop text-speak comments amongst more carefully written language to add to the believability of it all.
Gameplay sees you purchasing (hiring) different troop and monster types to fill out a personal army and form teams of 4 that you equip with various weapons and armour that you’ve forged. Sending these teams out to attack other kingdoms online (or offline in the single player campaign) or leaving them to defend your own kingdom is a big part of the overall experience, with defeated characters both disappearing and taking their equipment with them. Luckily victorious characters will gain experience and begin to level, slowly making your teams more powerful. Battles themselves take place automatically based on the squads a player has constructed, and notifications are sent to both human players involved in case they want to watch events unfold in real-time. An auction house for item and character swapping was also implemented alongside a class-building structure not unlike that seen in the ’Shining Force’ series.
Significantly ahead of its time in terms of concept, the game received positive reviews on launch but failed to garner a large online market due to low sales of the N-Gage itself, which was a commercial flop for Nokia. Today elements of its systems can be seen frequently in mobile titles on the Play and iStores, though Sega has never developed a sequel to this franchise, nor re-released the original.
‘Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne’ 2004
The third title in the ‘Shin Megami tensei’ series was originally proposed by Kazuma Kaneko after the completion of the first two installments. Original plans on the part of Atlus were to end the series after the successful sales of ‘Shin Megami tensei if . . .’ a spin off from the main series that went on to inspire the popular ‘Persona’ sub-brand. With the Sega Saturn and PlayStation consoles coming to the end of their lives, announcement of the specs for the new PlayStation 2 sparked interest in developing a title that played to its strengths and the team decided to make full use of 3D graphics and to feature a third-person viewpoint to best capitalize on this. A significant change from the almost exclusive use of first-person viewpoints in past games linked to the series. Various technical demos were produced alongside Alpha builds to determine how the main character should move and interact with his environments because of this and a distinct aesthetic look based on modern Tokyo was settled upon. This led to full development on the title starting in 2002, a year later than was originally planned.
Directed by Katsura Hashino and produced by series co-creator Kouji Odaka, a plan to directly follow on from the plot seen in ‘Shin Megami Tensei II’ was scrapped in favour of a contemporary setting. A subtitle was added to the game in order to help show a break in the series canon, which at first was labelled ‘Vortes’ before eventually settling on ‘Nocturne’ (‘Lucifer’s Call’ in Europe). The lead character was made visually distinctive by being ‘reborn’ shortly after the game began as a half-demon and being able to consume the essence of defeated bosses to learn different families of moves. These were split into elemental and physical attack packages with experience unlocking different types of attacks, buffs and status ailments. A system titled ‘Press Turn’ was also implemented to keep the player invested in battles even when finding random encounters mid-dungeon, this saw the player party given a maximum number of turns that could be extended or depleted should he/she fail to take advantage of an enemy’s elemental weakness.
In order to better captivate the player, the personalities of many of the games NPCs were kept deliberately ambiguous. Multiple story routes were incorporated into the game and deliberate attention was given to subverting player expectation. The heroine Yuko Takao was a clear focus for this, as was Lucifer himself who side-steps the villain role and takes on that of an observer who will occasionally test the player’s resolve. In reference to his immortality he takes on various forms throughout the game, that of a child, and an old man among others. To counter balance these new ideas the monsters from previous games were recycled to give long time players a familiar cornerstone, and were re-worked into 3D models based on their old sprites from the NES era.
An expanded ‘Director’s Cut’ of the game was released a year after its internal launch in Japan, where the game enjoyed sales of 185,000 of 500,000 units in its first week, split between standard and special edition versions of the title. This would be the version that would eventually see localisation for the rest of the world and contained a number of additional features, among which an optional dungeon and additional ending were included. Dante, the main character of Capcom’s action series ‘Devil May Cry’ appears as a guest character in this edition. This was approved due to Dante’s role in his own series as a demon hunter and a short movie was animated by Atlus that showed Dante battling with the games protagonist which sold the concept to Capcom. This guest appearance from a well-known character outside of Japan helped to boost the sales of the game for its western release. The localisation team worked closely with Atlus to produce a direct translation of the original’s script, cutting virtually nothing and leaving many of the cultural references intact due to the games Tokyo setting. This earned it an M for Mature rating in America, where a large part of the games hype was fuelled by their claim that it was an adult title that refused to pander to critics.
Averaging at an 85% review, reception worldwide was good and Atlus would go on to produce ‘Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey’ as well as releasing ‘Persona’ and ‘Devil Summoner’ titles. Of all of these it would be the Persona series that made the biggest impression on the western world, with 5 main-series titles released between the PSP, PlayStation 2, Vita and PlayStation 3, including a number of special edition re-releases of older games onto new hardware. Spinoffs of this sub-franchise include fighting and rhythm games such as the popular ‘Persona 4: Dancing All Night’ and have enjoyed a number of animated adaptions.
‘Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana’ 2004
Developed by Gust Corperation, the ‘Atelier’ series originated with ‘Atelier Marie: The Alchemist of Salburg’ and its sequel ‘Atelier Elie: The Alchemist of Salburg 2’ on the PlayStation before gaining up considerable attention with the release of three ‘Atelier Iris’ games on the PlayStation 2 and has gone on to produce over 20 games in the series, with 18 of them exclusive to Sony systems.
A common element throughout all Atelier titles is the use of Alchemy. Players control the games central character, who is usually a member of this professions and collect items and resources that can be boiled down into elemental ingredients to create items, weapons, armour and accessories in-game. This process, called item synthesis, usually produces the games more powerful and interesting items, with the main character gaining experience and a collection of recipes that is akin to collecting creatures in monster catching titles. Some later entries into the series take the focus off of combat or exploration, using them almost exclusively to generate ingredients and instead set alchemy goals that must be met within strict time periods or risk a ‘bad ending’. Whilst recipes are required for the creation of some items, player experimentation can easily produce powerful variants or hidden items based on swapping out ingredients at the creation stage, and large check-lists of items serve to keep players searching for new results.
Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana side-steps this more extreme focus on crafting and instead finds a balance with traditional JRPG goals. Areas are explored, monsters are defeated and a bigger (world spanning) story sees stakes raised against a recurring enemy. In-game actions are selected from a reel in the top-right hand corner of the screen that allows for various spirits to be summoned to help the player traverse and explore the world, and optional sub-quests (such as popping every example of an otherwise harmless monster found in the world) abound. Because of this the game received a 75% average score from critics at the time and sold in relatively high numbers.
A sequel, ‘Atelier Iris 2: The Azoth of Destiny’ was released a year later and set out to improve the combat experience whilst streamlining some of the original’s more fiddly systems. Though not following on directly from the original’s plot, it received a 70% average and justified a third sequel in 2006, ‘Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm’ that was better received. Two additional titles under the banner ‘Mana Khemia’ were released for the PlayStation 2 and PSP before the series switched focus to the PlayStation 3 and started the long-running ‘Arland’ series of Atelier games. This would be followed by ‘Dusk and then ‘Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book’ for the PlayStation 4. In that time the series has enjoyed 16 spin-off titles and 30 remakes or ports, ensuring its popularity and enjoying a number of Anime and Manga adaptions.
‘Kingdom Hearts II’ 2005
Immediately after releasing the original ‘Kingdom Hearts’ title on the PlayStation 2, Square Enix and Disney realised that they were on to a good thing. Whilst attempts to develop an animated series fell flat, a revamped reissue of the original game labelled ‘Final Mix’ had strong sales and immediately after its completion it was clear than a sequel was needed to capitalise on the strong fan base they had created. Though no official announcement of the game appeared until 2003, development on Kingdom Hearts II started in 2002 with largely the same team as the original title.
The game’s director, Tetsuya Nomura stated that there were several obstacles to overcome in regards to planning the sequel, not the least of which was gaining Disney’s approval to give Mickey Mouse a more active role after his cameo appearance in the first title. Developed at Product Development Division 1, the game was planned to pick up the narrative of the original a year after the events of the original (allowing the game to take into account small changes in the voices of the child-actors) but it quickly became apparent that an explanation as to why Sora didn’t start the game with all his (considerable) abilities from the previous game was needed, resulting in the development of ‘Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories’ for the Game Boy Advance. This served both the purpose of bridging the two narratives and to keep players interested in the franchise, releasing in the period between the two to cover a longer development period.
With the sequel the team was able to fix or add content that they had previously been forced to cut from the first game due to time or technical constraints. User feedback was also incorporated and the camera was switched from the shoulder buttons of the PlayStation controller to the right analogue stick in light of this. Gummi Ship travel was also reworked to become more fast-paced and reminiscent of a shooter. Additional combat styles for Sora were integrated through the addition of collectable ‘Drive Forms’ that came from his new outfit, and ‘Reaction Commands’ mirrored the Quick Time Event (QTE) mechanics popularised by action games such as ‘God of War’ at the time. This amounted to pressing one of the four controller buttons when prompted on-screen to trigger special events in combat, with the window to do so often being quite short.
A major change for the game was the addition of worlds based on live-action Disney properties such as ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ and ‘Tron’, aided by technology that enabled the staff to generate character models from live-action pictures rather than having to work based on solely animated properties. Many famous actors were also added to the existing cast (which centred on Haley Joel Osment as Sora, David Gallagher as Riku and Hayden Panettiere as Kairi) including Christopher Lee, Jesse McCartney, Brittany Snow, James Woods, Bruce Boxleitner and Pat Morita in his final role before his death. New films added to the games environment were voiced by their original cast wherever possible (or television adaptions is it wasn’t) and several actors unable to return were replaced with experienced Anime vocal talent who replicated their voices. Music for the bulk of the game was once again composed by Yoko Shimomura, with Hikaru Utada’s help and Kaoru Wada orchestrated the opening and closing credits. An effort was made to ensure that the games theme song ‘Passion’ better fit with the narrative of the story after ‘Simple and Clean’ was felt to match only tonally with the project.
Edited only marginally for violent content in its English language release (blood from a Hydra was changed to black smoke and an example of Daisy Duck slapping Donald’s backside was removed) though the Pirates of the Caribbean world was altered to remove guns from the hands of pirates, replacing them with crossbows that still fire with an audible flint-lock sound effect. In 2004, Square Enix held a press conference in which the games producer, Shinji Hashimoto confirmed the title and an official website was launched in 2005. Within a week of its launch the game shipped one million copies, selling 730,000 of them almost immediately. The NPD Group reported that Kingdom Hearts II was “The highest-selling console game in North America” in march 2006, with 614,000 copies sold in that region alone. By December 2006 over 3.5 million copies of the game had been sold which worked its way up to 4 million units worldwide by march 2007.
Like the title before it, Kingdom Hearts II received a ‘Final Mix’ edition that added additional content and items as well as coming packaged with a 3D remastered edition of ‘Chain of Memories’ for the PlayStation 2. A HD adaption for the PlayStation 3 was also released in 2013 that included the animated sequences from ‘Kingdom Hearts: Coded’ on the DS/Mobile and was the first time this extended edition of the game was translated into English for external release. A printed adaption of the game was published through ‘Monthly Shonen Gangan’ in Japan and collected as trade paperbacks that saw publishing in English. The Kingdom Hearts series continued, with ‘Birth By Sleep’ and ‘Dream, Drop, Distance’ seeing handheld launches on PSP and DS respectively, and ‘Kingdom Hearts III’ seeing official confirmation in 2013.
‘Rogue Galaxy’ 2005
After producing both ‘Dark Cloud’ and its sequel ‘Dark Chronicle’ for the PlayStation 2, Level 5 shifted their focus from the growing franchise. Rumours of a ‘Dark Cloud 3’ first began to circulate in 2003 when a single image for a ‘New RPG’ was posted onto their homepage and nothing more was heard until February 2005 when president Akihiro Hino announced that this new title would be a PlayStation 2 exclusive, quelling rumours that the game would be appearing on the PSP. In July of the same year it was revealed that cell-shaded graphics like those used in ‘Dark Chronicle’ would be replaced with something they called ‘Tonal Rendering’ to give a more realistic 3D, animated look to the game, and at the 2005 PlayStation Meeting in Tokyo Hino stated that the games had been in development longer than any title Level 5 had ever worked on. He said that “As a creator, I always wanted to create a title that was as big as Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy. I believe Rogue Galaxy is on the same scale. This title will be our challenge to all the RPGs in the world”
Shortly after this in an interview with Famitsu magazine, Hino explained that the gameplay for the title would involve the player traversing a whole galaxy rather than just one fantasy world. Experiments with procedurally generating an infinite number of planets (in a manner similar to dungeon generation in their previous series) had to be dropped however and the game instead took on a more focused narrative. Producer, Kentaro Motomura stated when asked that “Level-5 was created for swords and magic fantasies, but we got bored with the consistently similar worlds, so we wanted to try something new.”
A playable demo of the game was presented at the Tokyo Game Show that year and whilst the frame rate was lower that Square Enix’s latest title ‘Dragon Quest VIII’, IGN’s Anoop Gantayat was massively impressed with the seamless load times and graphics that Rogue Galaxy had to offer. He reported that “the game doesn’t hide the vastness of its world, with plenty of distant views as you explore the complicated landscapes. One may actually get the feeling of existing in the expansive world of a massively multiplayer online RPG rather than the limited world of standard RPG.” Eventually releasing in December that year, with no set date for an external release, both IGN and GameSpot imported copies of the game to review and were impressed with the final result. Seamless gameplay and cutscene integration had been added in the months since the show and a strong visual style helped the game stand out. A year later in 2006 an English edition was released containing a number of additions that had the producer of the localization, Nao Higo proclaim that this was the ‘perfect version’ of the title. He let it be known that the team had taken onboard criticisms about the games difficulty level, smoothing out its learning curve and added a new optional world to visit with its own characters, maps, storylines and items. Graphical upgrades were also made to existing planets and mini-games now had multiplayer modes. Additional costumes for characters, new abilities and over 2000 lines of additional voiced dialogue also made it in among a number of small bug fixes.
On release the game met with highly favorable reviews and averaged 85% in most magazines and website reviews at the time. Masatsuka Saeki, a Sony Computer Entertainment corporate executive stated that he hoped the game would sell a million units. In reality 2006 saw 356.192 units sold with the director’s cut making another 29,457 in sales. The game won a ‘Future Award’ at the CESA Game Awards and an ‘Excellence in Digital Content’ award at the Digital Contents Grandprix in 2006. It won both ‘Best RPG’ and ‘Special Rookie Award’ at the Famitsu Awards that year and was named ‘Game of the Month’ by IGN and GameSpot. In November 2015, Sony announced 8 PlayStation 2 titles that would be released with a HD upgrade onto the PlayStation 4 as part of the celebration of the PlayStation 2’s 15th birthday. ‘Dark Cloud’, ‘Arc: Twilight of the Spirits’ and ‘Rogue Galaxy’ were the three RPGs chosen for this special release.
‘Shadow Hearts: From the New World’ 2005
The Shadow Hearts series comes to a close in ‘From the New World’ having originated on the PlayStation with horror inspired JRPG ‘Koudelka’ devised by Sacnoth (renamed Nautilus for later games in the series) and released by Midway. Though Koudelka isn’t explicitly a part of the series by intention, elements of its plot are referenced in the first ‘Shadow Hearts’ game and some characters made a return. Shadow Hearts itself takes place 15 years later and follows Yuri Volte Hyuga, who rescues Alice Elliot from a war torn France (WWI to be precise) after hearing voices in his head. The pair travel through China and later Europe to discover Alice’s importance and although a ‘good’ ending exists, the canon ‘bad’ ending leads into direct sequel ‘Shadow Hearts: Covenant’. In a clever twist the ending of the series third entry sees Yuri sent back in time to the beginning to this game, implying that the good ending is canon once he completes things for a second time.
Elements of the Shadow Hearts series make its games stand out among other JRPGs of the time, most specifically the ‘Judgement Ring’ which is used for every action (from combat to mini-games) represents an element of chance not unlike that seen in ‘Unlimited Saga’ or created by rolling dice. Unlike those options however the ring works by spinning and the player having to time the needle to end in a red-zone that triggers a success. This zone can be added to and expanded upon by equipping items and sometimes through levelling. An additional, deeper red area that is considerably more narrow also occurs at times that represents a boosted result. Speed of the ring, size of the hot spots and other factors all play a crucial role in success. Sanity Points are also a key addition, taking up residence with HP and MP. These reduce after each battle and lead to a ‘berserk’ status where random actions are selected with higher bonuses. A linking factor in the series is the Valentine Family. One member is available as a playable character in each title and they are usually shown to be vampiric by nature. Instead of being portrayed as Dracula-like monsters however they are fair-skinned and do not suffer under direct sunlight.
From the New World starts in a fictional 1929 and features two new main characters, a 16 year old private eye named Johnny Garland and a 21 year old Native American woman named Shania. Shania has powers similar to those of Yuri in the previous titles but makes pacts with spirits instead of demons, placing the focus less on horror in this instalment. The narrative largly revolves around the hunting of a Lovecraftian monster and the character’s attempts to uncover why it has been summoned. Though shifting from a gothic and dramatic tone to a lighter, colourful romp, From the New World is a true sequel to earlier titles in the series and not (as has become a popular theory) a side-story. Returning characters, locations, items and direct references to previous games narratives are made.
Shadow Hearts: From The New World was released in Japan on July 28, 2005. Midway announced that they will not translate the game, due to the poor sales of Covenant which led to XSEED taking over the distribution for the North America released the game in the United States while Ghostlight took over for the PAL release in Europe. The localization from Japanese to English was the work of Jeremy Blaustein, who also directed the voice recording for this installment. Sadly thr game received a weak reception in the west, though reviews were positive, with many long-term fans complaining about the shift in tone. This has led the series creator, Matsuzo Machida to publically distance himself from the game, going so far as to leek alternate artwork for a prequel game that he’d prefer to have made under the title ‘Shadow Hearts III’. At this time however no future installments into the series have been announced or are planned.
‘Sigma Star Saga’
A hybrid between traditional JRPG and Shoot-em-up developed by WayForward technologies for the Game Boy Advance, Sigma Star Saga is notable for its unique genre blending that sees story and exploration segments interrupted by space battles in place of turn based or action orientated combat.
Published by Namco in America and Atari in Europe, and directed by designer Matt Bozon, the story sees a decorated pilot by the name of Ian Recker investigate an enemy species known as the Krill. This species has attacked Earth, gouging out a hole the size of Canada under the Atlantic Ocean and caused the oceans to boil, nearly destroying all life on the planet. Recker is intentionally captured by the Krill who is outfitted with a Krill parasite that serves as a suit to make him stronger, faster and enables him to fly their biological ships. Much of the game is centred on the revolving relationships between Recker and his female companions, a Krill pilot and Human scientist. Neither trusts the other and Recker is often placed into situations where he must support one of them specifically. Depending on these final decisions there are four endings that can be unlocked in addition to a New Game + feature.
Releasing to mixed critical reception, averaging 60% in most reviews, it was generally agreed that the concept of blending these two genres was excellent in practise, but that gameplay could become tedious over extended sessions fighting similar battles and back-tracking over areas already explored. WayForward would return to their exploration/adventure series ‘Shantae’ shortly after, not following Sigma Star Saga with a sequel.
As the quality of handheld devices begins to improve the level of complexity in RPGs found on them starts to increase. Whilst the N-Gage might have been a critical failure, it did provide the first true example of a mobile-based online gaming experience. So too, the Game Boy Advance acts as a portable SNES, greatly increasing the depth of games available on it in comparison to the original Game Boy and Colour editions. Multiple remakes of classic SNES RPGs soon took advantage of this, with ‘Final Fantasy’ and ‘Breath of Fire’ remakes making a strong showing.
Games that traditionally hadn’t made their way out of Japan are also beginning to emerge. The ‘Shin Megami Tensei’ series, ever popular in its homeland but only sparingly spotted in the west, made a triumphant return to the PlayStation 2 with ‘Nocturne’, even tying itself into the popular ‘Devil May Cry’ franchise from Capcom at the time. ‘Atelier Iris’ also makes an appearance and puts a strong emphasis on resource gathering and item creation from within the framework of a traditional JRPG, showing a level of internal complexity that hadn’t been seen before. ‘Fire Emblem’ also finally manages to explode onto the GBA, taking the massively influential Tactical RPG and re-introducing it to a whole new audience.
Massive fan anticipation of ‘Kingdom Hearts II’ on PlayStation 2 kept the focus of players very much on Sony’s console at the time, but titles such as ‘Fable’ managed to exceed expectations, even if their developers had misled the public in concerns to the games importance on the development of the genre. Original title, ‘Jade Empire’ from BioWare might have bombed on the Xbox, but games such as ‘Knights of the Old Republic’ and ‘X-Men Legends’ showed that the WRPG scene blended splendidly with pre-existing IPs other than those associated with pen and paper RPGs and opening up the doors to larger, more original settings in the future in addition to the concept of ‘games as movies’.