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3D Dot Game Heroes [PlayStation 3] – Review

3D Dot Game Heroes

Outside of obtaining the branding, there’s little else Silicon Studio could’ve done to make 3D Dot Game Heroes more of a Zelda game. This is a classic 2D Zelda game through and through, although I’m hesitant to call it a clone as that implies a derisive reaction and I truly dig this game. The developer’s love for Japanese RPGs from the 1980s/1990s exudes in the innumerable references and qualities this game shares with the genre. The polish applied is evident on all fronts, from the gameplay and side quests to the visuals and audio. It’s easy to tell this was a passion project for the studio and they delivered a quality video game in turn.
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Star Ocean: First Departure [PlayStation Portable] – Review

Star Ocean First Departure

When it comes to an established franchise, I find it hard to experience it in any other way than completely engrossing myself. Whether it’s soaking up each entry in a role-playing series, or binge-watching a movie franchise, I like to get the whole story from start to finish. So with the recent announcement of the fifth Star Ocean game, subtitled Integrity and Faithlessness, I’ve found myself visiting the series for the first time, and from the beginning. There’ve been plenty of opportunities for me to check the series out over the years, and I’ve owned entries for years without touching them. But, much like the dual announcements of new Guitar Hero and Rock Band releases reinvigorating my desire to play earlier entries in those series’, this one did it to the nth degree.

Battles took place in fully roamable arenas - an evolution of Tales of Phantasia.
Battles took place in fully roamable arenas – an evolution of Tales of Phantasia.

My first consciousness of the Star Ocean series occurred around the release of Tales of Symphonia. That seminal JRPG was one of the few on the GameCube and one of my favorites bar none. I turned to GameFAQs throughout that playthrough and the author of one FAQ in particular suggested Star Ocean: Till the End of Time so heartily, that I still remember that fact to this day. Needless to say I never checked it out (excluding a multiplayer match or two for the inaugural Game-a-Thon). Flash forward and I now own all but the most recent entry: The Last Hope. So, what better place to start than the first game?

Or truly, a remake of the first game as the western release lagged behind its Japanese debut. Star Ocean was originally released on July 19, 1996 for the Super Famicom. It didn’t make it to Western shores until the PlayStation Portable remake; First Departure was released in North America on October 21, 2008. Developed by tri-Ace, the game was the product of the studio’s collective experience making Tales of Phantasia and their love of Star Trek. It’s an action-RPG whose core elements stay true to likes of Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, but the battle system is quasi-real-time and the setting has more in common with Phantasy Star. The PSP remake appears to remain very true to the original, and with the exception of a few items, I could imagine this game being a direct port.

There was an omnipresent feeling of the future, even while on Roak.
There was an omnipresent feeling of the future, even while on Roak.

One of the elements that excited me the most in thinking about this series was the sci-fi setting. The ability for a lengthy RPG to fill out a world with backstory, characters, and places is a hallmark of the genre, and when that ability is buoyed by a sci-fi motif, well, let’s just say I’ve always been more interested in the future than the past. So I was disappointed when the majority of this game revolved around a fantasy setting. This was explained narratively in a way keeping true to its sci-fi background, and perhaps even by the constraints of the hardware or by the studio’s rookie nature.

Granted, this was all wrapped around the context of a sci-fi storyline and it did have its moments. The main protagonists hail from an undeveloped planet – one that the Federation (exactly what you’d think) has intentionally avoided until the inhabitants have reached their space age. So when the group is exposed to the Federation initially, there’s a lot of interesting story building that takes place. And again at the end, when the answers to the questions that have been posed throughout the game are being revealed; the sci-fi elements really sealed the deal. Plus, there’s time travel and that’s super sci-fi.

Most everything else is standard fare for the genre. I took the group from town to dungeon to town in search of this or that or whatever would progress the story. The combat system is an evolution of the real-time one pioneered in Tales of Phantasia. Instead of taking place on a 2D plane however, I controlled one of the party member’s in a 3D arena. There wasn’t a lot to fights other than mashing the attack button and maybe triggering a special attack every now and then. I was content to button mash and the lack of difficulty allowed me to breeze through the game.

An air of replayability was present as not all party members could be accessed in one playthrough.
An air of replayability was present as not all party members could be accessed in one playthrough.

I feel it was necessary for me to play this game, although I wouldn’t recommend it to others if they didn’t share my tendencies. It wasn’t a bad game, it just wasn’t that interesting. The settings offered an interesting clash, but this was mostly a fantasy game wrapped around the veneer of a sci-fi game. I found little to dislike about the combat system and could enjoy the monotonous task of mashing a button until a foe was dead, but I can’t praise it either. At roughly fifteen hours it’s the shortest JRPG I’ve played, but lengthy enough to tell a cohesive tale. Here’s hoping for a bright future.

Phantasy Star – Review

Looking at the box art, you wouldn't guess that the game is sci-fi.

Originally released for the Sega Master System in 1988, Phantasy Star was Sega’s attempt to duplicate the role-playing game format standardized by Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. Unlike those games, Phantasy Star is set in the future and in space, although the execution of this setting is poor (treasure chests and fantasy outfits). Still, for those interested in a challenging quest that requires heavy player involvement with little narrative reward, Phantasy Star shouldn’t be overlooked in favor of the previously mentioned titans of the genre.

As Alis watches her brother die, she listens to his final request: kill the evil king Lassic and set things right in the Algol Solar System. Alis’ quest for revenge begins on the forest rich Palma, continues on the arid Motavia, and leads her to the icy Dezoris before finally heading back to Palma and defeating Lassic. Along the way she builds a party of like-minded individuals including the feline Myau, Odin, a warrior turned to stone by Medusa, and the wizard Noah. Getting these adventurers to join Alis’ party was no easy task however.

Gathering leads on these individuals required Alis to chat up everyone she met, and required me to keep a record of what they said. Heck, without the NPCs doling out such vital information, I’d have little reference for towns and dungeons, items, and even where I should be heading. Phantasy Star wasn’t a game I could passively enjoy; if I didn’t keep a record of acquired knowledge or chart out maps on paper, I’d never have beaten Phantasy Star without resorting to a FAQ, which I still did.

Trouble resides in that mansion...

Like every other console RPG from the era, I viewed towns and the overworld from a top-down perspective, granting me a large view of the game at a time. But, when Alis entered dungeons the perspective changed and I saw them from her eyes. Without a large view of dungeons, I had a hard time navigating them without getting lost. Some were small enough that I could get through them without much trouble, yet others were so large and filled with traps that it’d take hours if I persisted with trial and error.

An RPG like Phantasy Star wouldn’t be complete without battles and character progression and it has both! Like its contemporaries, Phantasy Star has a simplistic battle system. Battles occurred randomly as I explored the overworld and caves, and these were also viewed from the first-person perspective. I had few options and the two that really mattered were fight and magic. I had multiple types of magic; what I found most effective was the healing kind although there were helpful spells that exited my party from caves or returned them to towns; on top of powerful damage dealing magic. The order of events seemed fairly random, sometimes I’d attack an enemy first, while other times I’d fight the exact same enemy type and they’d attack first; characters had no speed stat.

I didn’t find the early portion of the game very enjoyable. When I started out, my party consisted solely of Alis and in her early state she could only fight a couple of battles before having to be healed. As I accumulated better equipment and experience enemies began fearing me. Especially once I increased my party size. Grinding for experience and mesetas (money) took up most of my time with the game, and that’s just how these older games are. It’s not a bad thing; in fact once my party could withstand a lot of punishment and equally deal it out I enjoyed returning to caves and building up a small fortune. But doing that over the course of twenty or so hours doesn’t appeal to everyone and in fact I ran out of steam at the end of the game.

Dragons were a handful early on, but my party was able to wipe the floor with them eventually.

I liked exploring the caves from the first-person perspective. It seems like a remarkable technical feat considering when Phantasy Star came out. But, keeping track of where I was, was very difficult, especially when caves began growing in size and they had trap floors dropping me a level. I also enjoyed having to personally piece together what my next step was through NPCs, although the lack of character or plot development wasn’t what enticed me to continue playing, it was strengthening my characters. I battled and battled and battled some more and empowered my party to great strengths and this was pleasurable. Battles were very simple, but I was able to speed through the menus and overpower enemies once my party members were of high levels and equipped with good gear. I did run out of steam in the end however. I tend to do that, probably because I’ve proven my strength in the game and the payoff I’ll get for completing an “ancient” RPG like Phantasy Star won’t be revelatory. Still, Phantasy Star was enjoyable, as long as I had the gumption to get involved.