A Role-Playing Game Revival?

Friday, October 3, 2008

The role-playing game was invented by Americans (thanks, Gary Gygax, for Dungeons & Dragons), but it's always been somewhat of a niche product among U.S. video-game enthusiasts. Sure, such series as Final Fantasy and Diablo have their stateside devotees, but they are far outnumbered by fans of shooters such as Halo or sports games such as Madden NFL.

Not so in Japan, where the release of a new Dragon Quest game is treated like a national holiday. That's why Microsoft, which has had trouble getting Japanese consumers to buy the Xbox 360, has turned to developers of role-playing games to help broaden its market.

The results, so far, have been mixed. Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi's Blue Dragon left me cold, but his Lost Odyssey was one of the most compelling role-playing games in years. Meanwhile, Japanese experts at Square Enix and Namco Bandai have gotten on board with Microsoft, heralding a possible revival of a somewhat moribund genre. As someone who has loved Japanese role-playing games ever since 1988's Phantasy Star, I'm hoping for the best.

Infinite Undiscovery (Teen; Xbox 360, $59.99; Square Enix) Worst role-playing game ever? I used to think it was Divine Divinity, but we have a new contender here. Isn't "undiscovery" the last thing you want to do in a game?

As this adventure begins, a teenage flute player named Capell has been thrown into prison. He is rescued and soon discovers that he's a dead ringer for a knight named Sigmund and that he's surprisingly handy with a sword. After meeting the real Sigmund, Capell ends up supporting the hero's cause to fight the evil Order of Chains, which has dragged the moon out of the sky.

After a sluggish start, the story becomes fairly intriguing. But combat, in which you control Capell's swordplay while barking orders at your comrades, is awkward and often frustrating. And the world feels uninspired and underpopulated, taking the fun out of exploration. Undiscovery has its moments, but it feels sloppy compared with other Square Enix titles.

Tales of Vesperia (Teen; Xbox 360, $59.99; Namco Bandai) The games in Namco's Tales series (now up to the double digits) are largely free-standing, although they share some elements. One common factor is a real-time battle scheme in which you control the hero while the other members in your party do whatever they please (although you can alter the strategies each character uses to fight). Vesperia is action-packed, but I was disheartened to find that most battles can be won by rapidly pushing one or two buttons.

In Vesperia, a purple-haired dude named Yuri is searching for a substance called "blastia" that protects towns against monsters. He is also searching for his childhood friend Flynn, an imperial knight with a few secrets. Both missions lead Yuri into escalating danger as he unveils a conspiracy that (naturally) could destroy his world. You'll meet plenty of interesting characters (including a talking, pipe-smoking dog) amid a pretty, anime-style environment. The game also allows a lot of side missions, hidden dungeons and the now standard cooking games, giving you plenty of places to explore. Vesperia isn't a terribly ambitious game, but it does look terrific on the Xbox 360.

Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen (Everyone 10+; Nintendo DS, $39.99; Square Enix) With the rise of action-oriented role-playing games like the two above, "turn-based" titles, in which time stops while you decide the next move for each character on your squad, have gone out of fashion. I miss the more cerebral style, though, and I welcome remakes of classics such as this adventure from 1992.

Dragon Quest IV has one of the genre's more distinctive stories. Each main character stars in a special mini-adventure before they all gather to conquer a common foe. The stories aren't just about battles, either; the most endearing character is a chubby merchant who would rather do anything but fight. The mini-adventures are fun, providing vivid snapshots of small parts of the world before thrusting the combined team into a planet-spanning drama. Dragon Quest IV is one of the most innovative old-school role-playing games, and its charms hold up 16 years later.

-- Lou Kesten, Associated Press

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