Pocket Odysseys: Four JRPG Journeys for the DS

So, hands up who bought a 3DS. Go on, all the way up. Okay, you can carry on with what you’re doing. This here article is for those of you still living the 2D dream, those of you looking for some RPG action with an Eastern flavour for that trusty little DS of yours. You interested? Yeah? Okay, gather ‘round…

Now some people will say that the JRPG is dead. And some people will say there have been no decent JRPGs this generation. Both of these statements are, I’m happy to point out, utter bilge. Admittedly, it’s a genre with what we can politely call idiosyncrasies and quirks that may put some off. Foibles that can send even those blessed with Zen like calm into fits of rage. I mean, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve screamed into the nearest pillow after being kicked – KICKED HARD – by the hoary old JRPG.

Anyway, as I was saying…

That whole “JRPG is dead” thing is a fallacy. They’re not dead, they just chose new pastures from which to entertain us.  Yeah, that’s right. It’s the handheld where this much maligned genre has found succour. The reasons for this? Well, I can think of two main reasons. Firstly, from a financial point of view it’s relatively cheap. As technology evolves and becomes ever more sophisticated, the cost of development spirals accordingly. Producing big budget JRPGs full of the cinematic bombast we’ve become accustomed to is simply not commercially viable. Unless you’re a big hitter such as Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest or Shin Megami Tensei you’re going to find it hard to shift the units to recoup those millions upon millions of Yen you’ve burned in development.

Other than commercial viability another factor that springs to mind is simply the lay of the land. Gamers’ tastes have changed regarding what they play on the consoles sat under their tellies. The high-end consoles, namely the Xbox 360 and PS3 are capable of handling the gargantuan Western role-players formerly exclusive to PC gamers. The likes of BioWare and Bethesda have been able to steal the hearts of console RPG fans with their sophisticated wares. This is compounded by the fact that on the whole the genre has failed to evolve. Whilst the WRPG still feels fresh to your average console gamer, the evolutionary paralysis that grips most Japanese RPG developers dictates that creaking mechanics of a bygone era still reign supreme – something gamers, in the West at least, have had a bellyful of.

Woh, there. This is treading into epitaphic waters. I know, I know, this is supposed to be a positive piece. Before I started chewing the fat over the state of the genre I was telling you that the JRPG is alive and mostly well on the handheld console. Below are the four DS titles I think most worthy of checking out if you haven’t already.

Chrono Trigger DS
Okay, this is technically an old game. I was finishing my GCSEs when it appeared on the SNES back in March 1995. I didn’t see a copy until later that Autumn as the North American release didn’t appear until that summer and back then it was trickier to get hold of games from overseas. That’s right, this never got a Euro release – either on SNES or on the PlayStation port that appeared four years later.

Now anyone who was fortunate enough to have played this back when it first appeared will tell you that this was a high watermark for the genre. Developed by Square, whose staff were at the peak of their creative powers, Chrono Trigger has everything; an epic narrative that spans thousands of years and several dimensions, a varied cast of characters you actually care about, a fun combat system and multiple endings. The game follows the exploits of Crono and his band of companions as they endeavour to save the world from the evil Lavos. As mentioned, the story takes the adventurers across many centuries and alternate dimensions, each with their own separate story arc that cleverly ties into the bigger picture. The DS version is arguably the definitive version in that it adds a New Game + mode and several new quests. If you haven’t played Chrono Trigger I implore you to do so. The game has stood the test of time well and will provide a rewarding experience that many, more modern titles struggle to match.

Dragon Quest IX
No one needs an introduction to Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Sky. Nintendo did a pretty good job, via slightly creepy X-Factor berks “Jedward”, of ramming the game down our throats. At the time I derided Nintendo’s cynical marketing campaign. The idea of “The Jedward” grinding an old-school JRPG for 70 plus hours seemed frankly ridiculous. In hindsight, however, I applaud them. You see, they managed to get one of the DS’s most hardcore titles into millions of homes.

Level-5’s second Dragon Quest title (following the stunning VIII on the PS2) is essentially a series of vignettes sewn together by a tale of a (literally) fallen angel charged with collecting a number of celestial fruit. The fruit has fallen into mortal hands, wreaking havoc in the many locales your hero travels to. Although not the greatest narrative in relation to other Dragon Quests, the varied cast of NPCs and locations in which they are found keep things engaging. Anyway, you’ll get most of your enjoyment from building up your team, each member having a vocation which grants them unique skills.

Make no bones about it, Dragon Quest IX is a beast, a veritable leviathan of a game. It’s absolutely massive. There are hundreds upon hundreds of hours of gameplay on offer here. Firstly, the main game itself can take upward of seventy hours to finish. Not only that, the game includes a plethora of treasure maps which require some serious levelling to best their dungeons’ bosses. Then there are the various vocations on offer to the player and his squad, each requiring a good degree of grinding to take full advantage of. To top it off, once you’ve finished with the single player experience you can even take the game online to play with others. Seriously, this game is massive – and tough too. The game will happily punish poor player preparation, removing half your stash of total gold and sending you back to the beginning of a dungeon. Definitely do not be fooled by the cutesy art-direction and playfully colloquial localisation!

Radiant Historia
Developed by Atlus, of Shin Megami Tensei fame, Radiant Historia arrived on DS in the US earlier this year. The game follows the exploits of special agent, Stocke and his friends who become embroiled in the battle between their native country and their bitter enemy, neighbours Granorg. Radiant Historia riffs on Chrono Trigger’s time travel mechanic superbly. The plot crsiss-crosses between two main timelines, with the player having to dart backwards and forwards with the aid of a mysterious tome, resolving plot points that enable progress at later points in both timelines. In addition to the wonderfully dizzying plot, the game’s combat is also superb. The enemies appear on a 3×3 grid with the player having to cue attacks. The longer the chain of attacks the quicker enemies are dispensed with and the more XP is awarded at the end of battle. This adds an almost puzzle element to the game and stringing a big combo together is extremely satisfying.

Unfortunately, the game hasn’t had a European release.  This is probably because Atlus don’t have a European presence, with a lot of their games being published in this region by the likes of British publisher Ghostlight. Fortunately, importing games is a lot easier these days and with the DS being region-free, playing this game should be relatively hassle free. There are a number of reputable North American sites who will happily ship to our shores so you’ve got no excuse not to play this excellent title.

Pokémon HeartGold / SoulSilver
Okay, for a lot of gamers in their twenties, a new Pokémon game is a no questions asked day one purchase. They were at the right age in the mid-nineties to form an emotional attachment with the franchise. Pokémon’s surge in popularity at the time was part of their childhood; the cartoon, the lunchbox and of course, the original Game Boy title. In contrast there are a lot of older gamers who view Pokémon games as childish fare, simply that videogame of that annoying cartoon that used to be on years ago. Now, I don’t mind admitting that until about a year ago I was one of the latter – and how wrong I was. Pokémon may be chock full of cute, nonsensical beasts with equally nonsensical names but don’t let that fool you, as like Dragon Quest IX this is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Yes, under the fluffy surface Pokémon HeartGold / SoulSilver is a brutally addictive collect ‘em up fused with a deceptively deep RPG.

The aim of the game is to become the best Pokémon trainer in the land. To do this the player must battle other Pokémon trainers as they traverse the large game world. Along the way your trainer collects wild Pokémon which can be trained to fight in your team of four. Unlike other JRPGs the player does not level up, each individual Pokémon does, and at certain levels, your Pokémon will evolve, granting them a wider selection of special moves. The battles are essentially rock-paper-scissor affairs and the skill is to create a balanced team to go into battle with. The sheer number of Pokémon you are able to collect means that hundreds of hours can be spent collecting, training and organising your team. And of course, once the collecting bug bites it’s really easy to find yourself saying; “I gotta catch ‘em all”.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the Pokéwalker, a pedometer like device that comes with the game. You can transfer a single Pokémon to the Pokéwalker and fight and capture random Pokémon on your travels and discover random items too. The more steps you take the better the Pokémon you can attempt to snare and the better the items there are to discover. That’s not all. Each time you transfer a Pokémon to the device and then back to the DS it will level up by one level. That means you can continue to cultivate your collection of Pokémon even when you don’t have your DS with you. Neat.

Honourable mentions:

The World Ends With You – Set in contemporary Japan, this Square Enix title is a feast of Japanese pop culture and makes full use of the DS’s touch controls.

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey – A sci-fi dungeon crawler in which the player has the somewhat novel option of negotiating with the demons they encounter.

Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time & Bowser’s Inside Story – The Mario and Luigi RPGs are all of a high standard, with Superstar Saga being one of the GBA’s best titles. The DS games or of a similar standard; full of playful humour and typical Mario charm. The battle system in both games is particularly satisfying, utilising a clever rhythm action based mechanic.

This piece originally appeared over at http://game-bit.net/

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