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Best of the best so far

EVEN CASUAL observers know better than to undervalue the degree of affection those with a predisposed bent towards tactical role-playing games have for the Disgaea series. Certainly, it benefited from, and contributed to, the rapid rise in popularity of the Sony PlayStation 2 en route to being the best selling videogame console of all time. It took Japan by storm with the debuting Disgaea: House of Darkness in January 2003, and the title’s localization, commissioned to Atlus for the United States and Koei for Europe and hitting store shelves seven months later, proved such a critical and commercial success that Nippon Ichi Software saw fit to establish a permanent presence in California by the end of the year.

Engrossing experience

TIME TRAVEL is a tricky concept to incorporate, whether in the gameplay or in the story of any given videogame. It requires from the developer a not insignificant attention to detail, lest the vagaries encountered in its implementation be lost in translation and its net result wind up being much less than the value of its parts. Thankfully, Nippon Ichi Software has it down pat in Destiny Connect: Tick-Tock Travelers. In fact, it’s the engine that drives the Japanese role-playing game as nine-year-old Sherry, her friend Pegreo, and a robot named Isaac designed by her father to protect her strive to uncover the mysteries behind the literal loss of time in the town of Clocknee.

A veritable masterpiece

IT’S A testament to the intrinsic pull of The Legend of Heroes series that noted videogame developer Nihon Falcom proudly disclosed production on the third installment in the Trails of Cold Steel subset during its 2015 stockholders meeting. The optimism accompanying the announcement was likewise due in large measure to the potential of the title to push the franchise’s foray into current-generation consoles. Needless to say, the Tachikawa-based company deemed its bullishness merited; after all, the first two releases in the Erebonia arc proved to be critical and commercial hits, and there was little reason to believe that the next one would not be as successful.

Humor and charm

CONSIDERING how hardly any news about Little Town Hero hit gaming circles from inception to release, pundits wouldn’t have been wrong to buttress its status as a “Little Known Title” when it finally made its way to the Nintendo eShop last week. It was announced with no fanfare and scant information in August last year. Even then, the public knew, well, little apart from its genre (role-playing game), working title (Town), and synopsis (a young lead defending a — what else? — town from monsters). And, after that, virtually nothing was heard of it until the week before its Oct. 16 launch.

Lives up to its name

POSITIVE RESPONSE met The Legend of Legacy’s release on the Nintendo 3DS in 2015. As a collaboration of industry veterans who had previously worked on such revered notables as the Final Fantasy and SaGa series, it featured distinctive elements of Japanese role-playing games in the ’90s. The finished product was as director Masataka Matsuura envisioned: a throwback to the golden age of the genre that eschewed the casual nature of mobile gaming. He moved to highlight the advantages — and limit the disadvantages — of portability, but from the perspective of those with console sensibilities.


DEVELOPER Numantian Games’ They Are Billions is one of Steam’s Early Access success stories. Despite its humble beginnings, it has managed to make a name for itself in a genre that many consider long dormant. Presenting a mix of city-building, tower-defense and real-time-strategy elements in a post-apocalyptic setting, it pits a budding human colony against innumerable hordes of the undead in the late 22nd century. Its gameplay forces the last bastions of the human race to build and develop a base of operations on which they survive, and then thrive, against a seemingly never-ending tide of flesh-tearing, brain-eating zombies.

Remarkable detail

FOR VISUAL CONCEPTS, success seems to be a sure thing year in and year out. As the sole developer of titles off the NBA 2K franchise since 1999, it has benefited from the immense popularity of the National Basketball Association to move a whopping 90 million copies across 18 different videogaming platforms. At the same time, there can be no discounting its continuing efforts to churn out the very best in pro hoops — or, to be more precise, any type of hoops — simulations. It has come a long, long way from its Sega Dreamcast roots, and to contend that it‘s in a particularly sweet spot given the Sony PlayStation 4’s singular reach, the Microsoft Xbox One’s cutting-edge hardware, and the Nintendo Switch’s unmatched portability would be an understatement.

Cliff Notes version

VISUAL NOVELS (VNs) are niche games not often seen in western markets, and for good reason. Most VNs are characterized by their manga/anime art style, a design choice that may well appear childish and cartoony to those otherwise predisposed to realism. Add to this a predilection for often-cheesy accounts heavy on fan service, and it’s easy to see why the genre is seen as an acquired taste. Which is not to say all VNs are overlooked and fated to land in the dustbins of mediocrity. In fact, quite a few VNs have cultivated loyal followings, both in Japan and abroad; they distinguish themselves by injecting interesting gameplay elements alongside rich plots. Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception is one such example; localized for Western audiences two and a half years ago, it even goes a step further, moving to combine a compelling-enough turn-based combat system alongside a deliberately textured narrative.

The apex of Xbox One X gaming

WHEN MICROSOFT acquired the rights to the Gears of War franchise in early 2014, it was evidently out to push back against the underwhelming results of Gears of War: Judgment. Granted, the fourth installment of the immensely popular series still moved seven figures in aggregate physical and digital copies. However, it produced numbers that paled in comparison to previous releases and thereby failed to match expectations. More importantly, the technology company saw fit to protect its intellectual property far beyond the near term.

Good narrative depth

Takayuki Nakamura is in his early thirties. He’s between jobs in Tokyo, and a scheduled house renovation compels him to do some cleaning. As he rummages through things in storage, he comes across a set of letters dating back 15 years. He recalls putting out an ad in a magazine for a pen pal, and then getting a response all the way from Shimane Prefecture. His subsequent back and forth with Aya Fumino was what enabled him to survive senior year in high school, he notes. And, across the miles, he believed he found love. Unfortunately, his 10th letter wound up unanswered, and it was all that became of their long-distance friendship. Or so he thought.

John Wick on steroids

JUST TO be clear from the outset: RICO stands on solid ground. As the acronym for “Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations,” it speaks to the procedurally generated action it offers, requiring the disposal of armed enemies with literal do-or-die persuasions. Gamers take on the role of a member of a special operations force charged with dismantling extremely entrenched criminal groups. Random missions need to be completed in the process, but the overriding objective in invariably involves getting any and all lowlife scums to meet their maker one room at a time.


Mighty Switch Force! Collection Xbox One EVEN THOUGH WayForward Technologies already boasted of an impressive resume when it came out with Mighty Switch Force! in late...


IT’S A testament to the confidence Morphies Law intrinsically engenders that Cosmoscope didn’t just let it rest on its laurels when it launched on the Nintendo Switch last year. Even with mediocre to poor reviews greeting its release, the Switzerland-based studio could have allowed it to thrive by way of built-up anticipation off its unique properties. After all, it isn’t akin to the typical third-person multiplayer shooter on a 4v4 arena store shelves already have myriad versions of. The notion of gamers accumulating mass for their characters by hitting the competition on the grid is arguably novel in and of itself. What makes it truly stand out is the twist in the implementation: when a specific body part is shot, the shooter’s grows even as the opponent’s shrinks.

Well worth the wait

DATE A LIVE has been around since the turn of the decade, and it’s a testament to the franchise’s appeal that it picked up a loyal following off the bat and, more importantly, developed the legs to cross media platforms over time. Written by Kōshi Tachibana, the light-novel series parodies the invasion proposition common to Japanese mecha offerings and runs with it via Idea Factory mainstay Tsunako’s distinct art style; it deftly mixes science fiction and romantic comedy, with organized undertakings to prevent alien annexation deemed successful only when the occupying beings wind up falling for the principal protagonist.

It surpasses its muse

IT’S A testament to the depth and breadth of the Advance Wars series that it continues to be viewed as the gold standard insofar as turn-based defeat-all-enemies-type games that require no small measure of strategy are concerned. The first title (released way back in 2001 for the 32-bit Game Boy Advance), direct sequels Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising and Advance Wars: Dual Strike, and the stand-alone Advance Wars: Days of Ruin all compel gamers to either vanquish rival forces or capture opposition headquarters. Several interface options are on offer, but the Campaign Mode, where an intricate storyline unfolds in the midst of deliberate, if engrossing, action, takes the cake.

Deep, divergent, delightful

DRAGON STAR VARNIR is far from a typical Japanese role-playing game. In fact, it’s anything but run of the mill, eschewing the notion that demand for releases in the genre is fueled by entertaining gameplay and not depth of narrative. For Compile Heart, in particular, it represents a striking departure from the norm; instead of going for yet another Hyperdimension Neptunia offering that would have been gobbled up by a solid base of loyal fans, anyway, the Tokyo-based developer saw fit to churn out an entirely original intellectual property that calls to mind the dark and gruesome undertones of the early works of the Brothers Grimm.

Best in the series

THE Atelier series has churned out a game just about every single year since 1997, and with reason. Atelier Marie: The Alchemist of Salburg, its first offering, wound up being a critical and commercial hit, in the process serving as a solid foundation. And, creditably, developer Gust has taken nothing for granted since then; improvements that serve to strengthen the brand have come with every succeeding release. And, in this regard, Atelier Lulua: The Scion of Arland lives up to billing; it’s an excellent Japanese role-playing game that meets fans’ expectations in delivering a healthy blend of combat, exploration, and creativity, with a light-hearted story weaving all the elements together.

Pinball wizard

UNLESS GAMERS have been living under a rock all this time, they would most definitely be familiar with the Senran Kagura series. The arrival of the Nintendo 3DS handheld console at the turn of the decade gave Marvelous the impetus it needed to bring Senran Kagura: Skirting Shadows and Senran Kagura Burst to the attention of those on the lookout for actioners featuring no small measure of fanservice. The newly formed Japan-based publisher, out to make an impact as an offshoot of the merger of industry players Marvelous Entertainment, Livewire, and AQ Interactive, felt it had in its hands a solid franchise featuring appealing characters, deep and unpredictable gameplay, and nuanced storylines designed to transcend platforms.

A can’t-miss af fair

THERE WAS a time when the Sony PlayStation Vita wasn’t prematurely headed to the dustbins of video game history. Featuring a quad-core 32-bit processor, PowerVR graphics, a five-inch organic light-emitting diode — or, in the case of the slim version, liquid-crystal display — screen, and relatively strong built-in stereo speakers, it offered 8th-generation console technology in a portable format. More importantly, it boasted of an impressive library of titles that could be played on the go without significant sacrifices made on audio-visual fidelity.

Great inaugural effort

DESPITE having taken off only at the turn of the decade and coming up with zero output in 2016, the Hyperdimension Neptunia series has managed to churn out a whopping 17 titles to date. The bounty is both a testament to the popularity of the franchise and the sheer inventiveness of developer Compile Heart and publisher Idea Factory. And it isn’t as if they’re simply out to satisfy the cravings of a captive market across platforms and media. To the contrary, their prolificacy is a reflection of their creativity and ensuing willingness to test the boundaries of their constituencies.

Holds up well at age 7

CONSIDERING the significant interest generated by Sniper Elite V2 on the Nintendo Wii U and the lack of tactical shooters on the console’s successor, it was no surprise to find Rebellion Developments bringing the game’s remastered iteration to the Switch. Perhaps it would have done so regardless of circumstance; after all, the reboot-cum-sequel of 2005’s Sniper Elite remains the most popular title in the series. Announced in 2011, it was slated for release only on the Microsoft Xbox 360 and the Sony PlayStation 3. However, clamor from quarters seemingly left out by the limited offering led the developer to look beyond its partnership with 505 Games and publish by itself a version for the personal computer soon after.

Patience is a virtue

EVEN FOR hardcore gamers, visual novels are an acquired taste. By their very definition, they focus more on story as opposed to gameplay, and rely on visceral reaction rather than physical feedback to produce a unique brand of entertainment those digesting them would have to willingly partake of. In this regard, they’re on one end of the gaming spectrum that has pure action on the other. In an overwhelming number of cases, their interactivity is limited to inputs at certain points, representing choices in crossroads to pursue storylines as seen fit.

It aims to please

EVERY ONCE in a while, gamers are struck by the stunning simplicity of a new release. With myriad titles vying for their attention and seeking to rise above the din by striving to outshout the competition, they find themselves appreciating the modulated approach of an astutely positioned title. Such has been the reception generated by Lapis x Labyrinth, which hit store shelves in Japan (as Lapis Re Abyss) late last year and which just made its way to the West. Even official Nintendo sites for United States and United Kingdom constituencies yield little by way of information. “Help a struggling town recover from bankruptcy in an age of dwindling adventuring,” they intone. “Plunge into the mysterious Labyrinth while collecting more loot than you can ever imagine.”

Three games that are worth it

DEATH END RE;QUEST offers a tantalizing hook that even jaded gamers will find hard to resist. Its narrative finds the consciousness of developer Shina Ninomiya somehow stuck inside World’s Odyssey, an unfinished role-playing videogame she helped start but was then shuttered for some reason. Enter lead programmer Arata Mizunashi, who, after learning of her plight from the outside, strives to help her escape from the milieu in which she is required to literally fix bugs. Making things more complex for them in their objective of both crafting and completing the game in its best form is its artificial intelligence, inexplicably at an advanced state and determined to keep the status quo.

A technical marvel that’s easily a 40-hour timesink

FROM the outset, Gust projected Nelke & the Legendary Alchemists: Ateliers of the New World to tread off the beaten path. It was first announced to be in the works during a social-media broadcast on Atelier Lydie & Suelle: The Alchemists and the Mysterious Paintings early last year; in particular, producer Keisuke Kikuchi noted that it would boast of a “festive feeling,” industry parlance for the involvement of an all-star cast. Subsequently, the developer undertook an online character popularity poll to close its yearlong celebration of the series’ twentieth anniversary, with participation rewarded by a teaser on the upcoming game in a “new land.”

Outstanding combination of style and substance

FLIGHT SIMULATORS don’t normally appeal to the masses, so it’s a testament to the quality of the Ace Combat series that it has managed to earn a multitude of fans all the same. It certainly had modest beginnings; Air Combat, its very first release, found shelf space in 1995 shortly after the Sony PlayStation was introduced and left much to be desired. Publisher Namco strove for realism, but wound up making compromises, particularly in graphics, to speed up play, resulting in what not a few quarters noted as an unpolished presentation. Still, there were more than enough positive elements for the pioneer to plant the seeds for long-lasting success.

Rythmic standout

IT HAS been 16 years since Atlus thought to release Revelations: Persona on the Sony PlayStation. Expectations were modest then, with the title taking on many of the features of the Megami Tensei franchise from which it drew inspiration. Regardless of outlook, however, it wound up being a sleeper hit, in the process building an extremely loyal fan base and jump-starting a series with immense crossover appeal. For all its humble beginnings, it spawned an intellectual property giant. Boasting of memorable characters, killer soundtracks, and storylines that transcend genres, it now carries a name synonymous to great gaming — a veritable seal of quality that ensures unparalleled entertainment value.

A treasure trove

NOT COINCIDENTALLY, Shin Nihon Kikaku (SNK) picked up steam around the time the video game industry rose in popularity. As the tumultuous ’70s gave way to the optimistic ’80s, gaming arcades and home-console versions of popular titles reached critical mass. And, in the face of rapid growth, the developing, publishing, and manufacturing company was determined not just to take advantage of the boom, but to ensure its sustainability through constant innovation. Soon enough, it became a major player in the coin-operated business, and it astutely leveraged its experience to penetrate the expanding home market.

An exceptional sequel

BELIEVE it or not, the Fate series originates from a visual novel that has never been officially released in the West. Despite the absence of a licensed English translation, however, Fate/stay night became immensely popular, and fast; in fact, so captivated were eroge audiences by its spectacular storyline that it spawned a franchise boasting of intellectual properties in various media. In the last decade and a half, publisher Type-Moon has gone on to produce titles collectively generating 10 figures — yes, 10 figures — in revenues.

It lives up to its billing

WHEN Just Cause 4 was announced at E3 2018, Square Enix foresaw a quick turnaround time. In fact, Avalanche Studios was tasked to oversee a June-December affair, no mean feat given the weight of expectations accompanying the projected release of the latest title in the action-adventure franchise. Still, confidence accompanied the development, spurred in no small measure by upgrades to the Apex game engine; most significantly, the souped-up version of the software environment figured to enable the in-game portrayal of extreme weather effects. Needless to say, the feature was right in line with the over-the-top predilections of the decade-old series.

Whimsy and depth

WHEN Penny-Punching Princess was released early last year, not a few quarters deemed it a Japanese role-playing game that tread way, way off the beaten path. It wasn’t just quirky in the manner that Nippon Ichi Software (NIS) properties tended to be. It was inventively so, introducing the concept of bribery and corruption as a means by which the principal protagonist would turn erstwhile enemies into allies. And under the watchful eye of industry veteran Hironori Takano, it proved to be a standout among a bevy of rote action-adventure titles on the Nintendo Switch.

After unfortunate detour, Devil May Cry gets back on track

Projections were extremely high when Capcom first put DMC: Devil May Cry on store shelves in early 2013. It had been five years since the release of Devil May Cry 4, and not a few quarters saw the ensuing absence as a rejuvenating factor for the franchise that was, by then, so ubiquitous as to be in other media. For all its popularity, its last video game property failed to meet sales expectations, giving rise to the sentiment that it was getting stale. In response, the Japanese publisher went for a reboot and, in order to ensure freshness, tapped British developer Ninja Theory to steer the enterprise to a new direction.

In a class all its own

CONSIDERING that BlazBlue CentralFiction marks the culmination of an overarching narrative spanning three other releases over a full decade, it’s fair to wonder if Arc System Works and Aksys Games jumped the gun by making it the first title in the series to see appearance on the Nintendo Switch. True, the middle of last year saw BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle hit store shelves and earn a fair share of followers on the hybrid console. Then again, the latter is more an all-star spectacle that features intellectual properties from prominent franchises and makes use of otherwise-foreign premises.

The developer listened

THE Caligula Effect received mixed reviews as it made its way to the Sony PlayStation Vita in June 2016 (and localized on the same platform about a year later), with not a few quarters expressing disappointment on its inability to live up to promise. In part, it suffered from an unfair comparison to iterations from the Persona series; the involvement of publisher Atlus and writer Tadashi Satomi in the intellectual properties gave rise to heightened expectations the new release wasn’t likely to meet. In larger measure, it was bogged down by the depth of its ambition; it put forth novel ideas that could not be executed fully in light of the inadequacies of its host hardware.

Fun dialed up to 11

CRACKDOWN was released with much fanfare in 2007. It wasn’t merely that Microsoft Game Studios bundled launch copies with multiplayer beta access to hotly anticipated Halo 3. More importantly, it was because the involvement of developer David Jones (the force behind sandbox giant Grand Theft Auto) heightened interest in the open-world action title. And he wasn’t attached just because he so happened to be head of Realtime Worlds; he conceived it and helped shepherd it through a five-year turnaround process that included shifting programming focus from the Xbox to the next-generation Xbox 360.

Starting small, but with grand designs

FAIRY FENCER F was released in 2013 to mixed reviews. As a product of Compile Heart, it bore the weight of unrealistic expectations stemming from its association with the developer’s immensely popular Hyperdimension Neptunia franchise. And while it banked on a promising premise to propel its gameplay, its presentation on the Sony PlayStation 3 left much to be desired. It certainly wasn’t helped by its appearance on a platform about to reach the end of a long life cycle. More importantly, it suffered from uneven pace and character development, leading even the most avid Japanese role-playing game followers to rue its inability to meet its potential.

A gift that keeps on giving

RESIDENT EVIL was an instant hit when it came out in 1996. Its first on-screen text was cryptic, if awkwardly put together. “Enter the survival horror.” The words likewise spoke the truth, and to the point where they introduced a whole new genre in the industry. They set the tone on what the game wanted to do in a way no other release was hitherto able. It was less about breezing through enemies and more about rationing supplies and equipment. It was about grittily plodding on in a hostile, alien environment. It was about atmosphere and tension, about unsettling gamers with both anticipation and actual experience.

Wistful game

FROM THE outset, The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince has moved to tread off the beaten path. In a live broadcast early last year announcing, among others, its development, Nippon Ichi Software made sure to highlight its unique plot: It tells the story of a wolf needing to take on human form and pretend to be a princess in order to help a prince it accidentally blinded regain his sight. And, as subsequent public updates have likewise shown, it does so by employing a singularly flat aesthetic; it relies on a hand-drawn art style that emphasizes its Grimm Brothers-storybook tone.

Uncommon depth and capacity to personalize the ravages of war

CONSIDERING the critical and commercial success of the source material, the release of Valkyria Chronicles 4, a sequel that in large measure represents a technical update, shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Developers Sega and Media.Vision certainly set it up well; in preparation for its rollout on retail and as part of its production process, they saw fit to work on and come up with a remastered version of the original for current-generation consoles. Eight years had passed since the latter went on to gain accolades from various quarters, and they couldn’t help but take advantage of the opportunity to both revive and use the title as a stepping stone for the series’ latest iteration.

An excellent offering

ALREADY IN the process of winding up the development of Tales of the Abyss, Namco Tales Studio first planted the seeds for Tales of Vesperia in the middle of 2005. As the Xbox 360 was then about to be launched, it felt it had its medium of choice. Time and timing certainly helped it make a decision, what with specifications for the PlayStation 3 and the Wii not yet available. And it saw a natural, if productive, marriage with Microsoft, one of convenience but likewise of opportunity: It frequently enlisted the hardware manufacturer’s support in aiming to maximize the processing power of the seventh-generation console en route to the release of the latest entry in the Tales franchise.

Warriors Orochi 4 is a fun ride

THOSE FAMILIAR with Koei Tecmo Games will undoubtedly not be shocked at the release of Warriors Orochi 4, a hack-and-slash video game that combines the Samurai Warriors and Dynasty Warriors franchises and lets them loose in a world of myths and monsters.

Perfect for the nuts ‘n’ bolts types

GIVEN THE myriad similarities, Project Highrise’s pre-availability hype as a spiritual successor to Sim Tower: The Vertical Empire is well deserved. As with Maxis’ 1994 release, it delves deep into building construction and management, granting you absolute freedom to craft the skyscraper under your tutelage as you see fit and subsequently steering it to progression and sustainable development. And because of the two-decade gap between releases, developer SomaSim is able to take advantage of technological and technical advancements in the industry to present a stunningly immersive experience.

An acquired taste

SYBERIA 3’s release on the Nintendo Switch caps a long journey that began long before the turn of the decade. Development on the last title in the graphic adventure trilogy coincided with issues beyond the control of Microids designers Benoît Sokal and Lucas Lagravette; from the arrival of new management to contractual negotiations to financial concerns, it found its progress stunted for years. And even after support for its production became official, it saw its expected launch date moved time and again, ostensibly to “bring even more depth to Kate Walker’s new adventure,” Elliot Graciano, the French software brand’s founder and vice-president, noted in late 2016.