Review: Ultima IX – Ascension

At last, we have arrived. I’m proud to present my review for the final game in the main Ultima series, Ultima IX: Ascension. This is probably the most divisive game in the entire Ultima saga. It has a reputation for being almost universally hated. Knowing this, I was very curious to see just what I was getting myself into. Yes. This playthrough is my very first experience with Ultima IX.

If you’ve been following my journey through the Ultima franchise so far, one thing should be clear. With each new chapter in the Ultima saga, the developers always attempted to showcase the latest in PC technology. This rule remains true with this entry. Originally released in 1999, Ultima IX is the first and only game in the series to feature 3D accelerated graphics. It is also the first entry in the series to run natively under Microsoft Windows.

Even though Ultima IX showcased the latest technology of its day. It suffered from a number of bugs at release. Including a few that were downright game-breaking. Of course, a number of patches were eventually released by the developers to correct the majority of these issues. But, an equally number of serious problems remained unaddressed. This left players feeling abandoned by the game’s developers. Sadly, this had become a bit of a trend with the later games in the Ultima series. To make matters worse, the game was largely unoptimized and had some very stringent system requirements. As result, even players with some of the best computers of the day struggled with performance issues. These woes were bad enough to make the game nearly unplayable. (When playing the game on modern hardware, this is largely a non-issue, of course).

Gamers who are interested in experiencing this title today still have a little work cut out for them. First of all, even though Ultima IX is a Windows title, it was designed twenty years ago for technologies that are no longer readily available. In order to play the game on modern systems, I highly recommend obtaining a copy from GOG. To start, the GOG-version of the game comes complete with the final official patch and a special Glide wrapper that allows moderns computers to handle the game’s legacy 3DFX instructions. But, the prep doesn’t end there. If you really want the best experience from this title, I recommend that you download and install most of the updates included in the “Ultima Patcher“ utility. This includes an unofficial patch that allows the game to run in Direct 3D mode (enabling players to enjoy the game at higher resolutions). This patch also contains the “Forgotten Worlds” fan-made update. This corrects a number of the game’s notorious remaining bugs and fixes several quests and loose ends. These fixes may not be 100% official, but they are widely considered by many to be largely essential.

The story of Ultima IX was supposed to begin immediately after the end of the previous game. In the finale for Ultima VIII, The Avatar passed through a portal that was to deliver him directly to Britannia. However, somewhere during the development process this ending was inexplicably retconned. Instead, Ultima IX now begins with The Avatar back in the safety of his home on Earth, where he is mysteriously beckoned back to Britannia. It also seems that The Avatar has somehow suffered from a bout of amnesia, as he has to be reacquainted with the some of the series’ most basic lore and concepts as part of the game’s tutorial.

Of course, when you consider that EA wanted this title to appeal to both new and old players alike, this “starter level” is certainly understandable. But I can’t help but feel that the company could have simply asked the player if they were new to the series or a veteran Ultima player at the start of the game. Then, given a starting experience in accordance to their answer. Now, as a result of this oversight, there is a major lore disconnect between this game and the previous entry in the series. Regardless, once you’ve made your way through the game’s introduction and actually enter the world of Britannia, the storylines once again fit back together perfectly.

Once back in Britannia, The Avatar learns that in his absence, The Guardian has began his plot to take over the world by stealing the legendary Runes of Virtue and erecting a series of tainted pillars across the land. These pillars radiate foul energies that have caused life in Britannia to deteriorate at a rapid pace. To restore balance, The Avatar must seek out the Runes of Virtue from The Guardian’s hiding places in hopes that he can discover a way destroy the pillars and defeat The Guardian once and for all.

One of the first things that fans of the Ultima series are likely to notice about this title is the radical new way the game is presented. Until now, every entry in the Ultima franchise has been played from a top-down view. For this outing, the perspective is now in 3D chase-cam style. Today, this type of presentation is not very unusual. But at the time, it was still a bit of a novelty (especially on the PC). As such, there was no universally accepted control scheme for a game laid out in this way. The result is that Ultima IX features an awkward combination of both keyboard and mouse controls. It feels like a funky amalgamation of Tomb Raider and every RPG you can imagine. Naturally, this is a completely different playcontrol experience in comparison to any other Ultima game. On top of such a big change, the default controls are not intuitive at all. Yes, like anything else, it is possible to become acclimated to them over time. But in my personal opinion, they leave a lot to be desired.

Another big gripe I have with this game has to do with the combat system. Mixed in with an overly funky control scheme are equally convoluted combat mechanics. Like in Ultima VIII, combat is again action based. It’s not quite the mess that was seen in the previous game, but it still feels out of place with the rest of the series and take a bit of getting used to.

Looking past the radical new presentation, there’s actually a few aspects of the gameplay that will feel familiar to fans of the series. Ultima IX retains a bit of sandbox style gameplay that made the later games in the series so popular. Players can interact with the world around them (move and manipulate objects, converse with NPCs, etc). But, gone is the open-world feel that made the series so famous. Yes, Britannia is still full of great places to explore. But this time, there’s a very obvious “on rails” feel the gameworld that was never present before.

So, I’ve been a bit hard on Ultima IX so far. But, one of the most important things about any RPG is the storyline. Thankfully, this is where the game shines. The story contained in this game is very worth experiencing. Not only that, but the way it is presented is very well done. Ultima IX features some of the most memorable NPCs in the series thus far, and it is through them that several of the game’s best plot points unfold.

I can’t help but feel that Ultima IX is a game that suffered considerably due to a lack of attention from the development team. During most of Ultima IX’s development time, Electronic Arts undoubtedly gave more attention and resources to Ultima Online. The end result is a game that feels more like a red-headed stepchild than the conclusion to an epic series. That being said, there’s still a lot to love about Ultima IX if you’re really willing to work for it. The sad truth is, most people weren’t.

Ultima IX received scathing reviews at the time of its release and therefore earned a stigma that sticks with it to this day. Admittedly, much of the negative press was deserved. But, there’s still an enchanting story hidden amidst all the rubble that litters this game’s legacy. They say that patience is a virtue. And while it may not be one of the eight outlined in the Ultima series, it is certainly one that will pay off for players who are willing to exercise it on this game. So if you’re a fan of the series, don’t be so quick to dismiss this final chapter in the saga just because of bad things that you’ve read online. Instead, take a moment to accept that even though the experience may be far from perfect, Ultima IX still offers an adventure worth remembering.

Difficulty: Medium –  Most of the challenge in this game has less to do with the actual content and more to do with technical hurdles. The combat in the game is laughably simplistic. But some of the dungeons and puzzles are tricky at times. Overall, the difficult level of the game feels pretty well balanced.

Story: Undoubtedly, this is the best reason to play Ultima IX. Legend has it that the original plot to Ultima IX was nothing short of a masterpiece that ended up being gutted and taped back together as a shallow mockery of itself. Perhaps that is true. But even so, what’s presented here is nothing to sneeze at. I found myself very happy with the level of storytelling found in this game. If anything, it is one of the game’s few redeeming qualities.

Originality: If fans wanted something different after Ultima VIII, they got it. Ultima IX is a whole different beast compared to any entries in the series that came before it. With that in mind, I feel like the UI was largely inspired by games like Tomb Raider and Soul Reaver. But, it somehow manages to keep its RPG roots buried deep in its core. Ultima IX is nothing if it isn’t unique.

Soundtrack: A second high point for the game. This title features a wonderfully composed score. Gone are the days of crude midi files. This game boasts a fully orchestrated soundtrack, and it is nothing sort of amazing. Ultima IX also features a considerable amount of voice acting. By today’s harsh standards, the voice acting is pretty bad and doesn’t keep well with Ultima’s “old english” lore, but it was still pretty impressive for its time.

Fun: The game’s technical issues and all-around sluggishness really do have a pretty considerable impact on enjoyment. This is true even with today’s faster computers and a number of fan-made patches that address just this issue. I can only imagine how infuriating it would have been to play this game at the time of release. Even so, if you’re willing to take a deep breath and overlook many of the frustrating aspects of Ultima IX, there’s a lot of enjoyable moments to be found.

Graphics: Today, the game looks a bit dated and blocky. But this is par for course with PC games from this age. In truth, Ultima IX boasted some pretty impressive graphics for its time. Even today, the game retains its beauty.

Playcontrol: This is my chief complaint. I really feel like the developers did not know how to design controls for a PC game with a third-person 3D layout. To be fair, many similar PC games from this age suffered from stubborn and awkward controls (Heretic II and Tomb Raider, to name a couple). But when mixed with a sandbox-type RPG, the whole thing ends up feeling like one big mess. Yes, it’s possible to customize the control by editing a few text files (and doing so can really improve the situation). But this was not a solution that was intended by the developers.  As a result, it’s not one that is taken into consideration when scoring this part of the game.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: Mature themes, fantasy violence.

Value:  At the time it was released, there’s no way the price justified the sub-par experience that this game provided. These days, this game can be purchased for $6.00 on GOG and is frequently on sale for as low as $1.50. At these prices, it’s easy to recommend the game even with its less-than-perfect reputation.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 2 – As I said in my review above, much of shade that’s thrown at this game is deserved. But, as with most things, there’s always a little light at the end of the tunnel. Players who are willing to grit their teeth and suffer through some of the bad aspects of this game are sure to find a pretty memorable experience. In truth, it really is a travesty that a series as influential as Ultima had to receive such a tarnished ending. I know it would never happen, but if any game deserves the second chance of a remake, it is this one.

Available on: GOG

Other Games In This Series:

Akalabeth    –    Ultima    –    Ultima II    –    Ultima III    –    Ultima IV    –    Ultima V    –    Ultima VI    –    Ultima VII    –    Ultima VIII    –    Ultima IX

Ultima Underworld I    –    Ultima Underworld II    –    Underworld Ascendant

Savage Empire    –   Martian Dreams

Ultima Online

Shroud of the Avatar

Review: Ultima VI – The False Prophet

My review of the final chapter in the second Ultima trilogy is finally here! Yes, it took a bit longer than initially expected. But I’m proud to finally share my thoughts on Ultima VI: The False Prophet. As mentioned above, this game serves as the final entry in what is often known as the “Age of Enlightenment Trilogy” (the sub-series that began with the classic Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar.)

So far, every entry in the Ultima series has always managed to showcase some of the most cutting-edge technology of its day. The same is true for Ultima VI. But this time, we actually see the biggest advancement in the series so far. This is largely due to the fact that Ultima VI was developed specifically for the PC. All other games in the franchise were first developed for Apple and then ported to other platforms. The end result of this decision is a title that features full VGA graphics, a native MIDI soundtrack (for PCs equipped with soundcards), and even a revamped UI -Complete with mouse support! Like Ultima V, this entry also allows players to import their character from the previous scenario.

Back in the day, only the very best PC would be able to experience Ultima VI in all of its glory. At the time of Ultima VI‘s release, sound cards were not standard issue in PCs. So a vast number of players never got experience the game’s soundtrack . Thankfully, players today are able to experience the game as originally intended if acquiring a copy from GOG. As always, GOG does a great job of configuring DOS Box emulation so that the game is delivered almost flawlessly.

This game takes place several years after the events of Ultima V. Once again, players assume the role of The Avatar – a man from Earth who found his destiny in another world known as Britannia. Typically, The Avatar travels to Britannia using a magical blue-colored portal that appears not far from his home. However, one night during a mysterious storm, lighting strikes the site where the portal appears. The Avatar ventures to the scene to investigate and finds an unusual red-colored portal waiting for him. Upon emerging on the other side, The Avatar is accosted by a band of monstrous gargoyle-like creatures. Just as he about to meet his doom, he is rescued by companions from the previous Ultima games and take refuge in Castle Britannia.

The Avatar learns that the Gargoyles have only recently appeared in Britannia. In the short time since their arrival, they have captured several of the world’s Shrines of Virtue. The Avatar is tasked by Lord British to determine the reason behind the invasion and to help restore order to Britannia. Over the course of the game, they player will learn the truth behind the gargoyle’s presence and discover that not everything is as it seems.

As you can see, Ultima VI continued the series’ trend of excellent storytelling. As usual, this game takes what seems to be a black and white scenario and surprises the player with a level of insight and morality that simply just wasn’t seen in games at the time.

As I mentioned earlier, this game showcases a huge advancement in technology when compared with its predecessor. We now have a game world that is virtually seamless and maintains a constant scale. That’s right, no more zoomed-out overworld map. No more first-person dungeons. Everything is now presented in a colorfully rendered birds-eye view. But the enhancements are not just visual. There’s a number of revamps that make this Ultima much easier to play and control. For example, managing equipment has never been easier. Items possessed by characters now appear visually and can be clicked on and manipulated. This is important because for the first time in the series, we also have a new crafting option. Items can be combined and merged to create new, different items. Being able to do this via a point-and-click UI is a must. But that’s not all. Even talking to NPCs has been enhanced – there’s now an animated headshot of the character you are interacting with and keywords in the conversation are now highlighted and clickable. All of this may sound basic these days. But at the time, these were some really revolutionary advancements.

Since the game can now be controlled via mouse, the UI has evolved to accommodate this change. A panel of action buttons appears across the bottom of the screen. These allow players to execute any number of commands; such as drawing their weapon, picking up objects, inspecting objects, etc. Of course, players can still use the keyboard if they choose – and in fact will need to do so occasionally when talking to NPCs. But no longer will players have to memorize a slew of hotkeys and commands. This, in my opinion, is the best thing that could have happened to the Ultima series.

Like some of the previous games in the series, Ultima VI is largely an open world game. But this time, the level of “openness” is taken to a whole new level. Now, players can pretty much venture anywhere they see fit and experience the game at their own leisure. This is a good thing because Ultima VI is beast of a game. Being open-world makes it much easier to tackle a game of this size without it feeling like an endless grind.

All of these changes really make Ultima VI shine. Plus, it paves the way for what’s about to come down the pike with later installments.

Difficulty: Medium –  I’ve heard it said that Ultima VI is one of the harder titles in the series. Personally, I don’t find this to be the case. To me, it seemed much easier than most. For example, one of the features in the game is being able to travel around via a magical item called the Orb of the Moons. With this item, its very easy to simply travel to Lord British’s castle for healing pretty much whenever needed. Plus, the game itself just seems to be much more forgiving overall.

Story: The storyline is again one of the best parts of the game. The introduction scenes are masterpieces and it only gets better from there.

Originality: Just when the series was starting to feel a little stale, the developers stepped up and provide an entirely new experience. Everything from the UI to the overall feel of the game is new and improved.

Soundtrack: Ultima VI has a basic midi soundtrack. As such, the quality can vary depending on how your sound card handles MIDI playback. Regardless, the music is catchy and timeless.

Fun: For CRPG lovers, it doesn’t get any better than this. This game has it all: classic RPG elements, engaging gameplay, an open world – you name it. If that’s your cup of tea, Ultima VI is one heck of a ride.

Graphics: Ultima VI marks a drastic upgrade in terms of graphics. Of course, the game looks pretty rough by today’s standards. But when compared to what came before, its easy to see just how far the developers came in such a short time.

Playcontrol: For the first time in the series we now have a point-and-click UI. This makes controlling the game much more intuitive. Unfortunately, the default emulation of DOS Box does seem to introduce a little bit of lag to the mouse on modern systems. This isn’t terrible, but it does take a little getting used to.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: Fantasy violence.

Value:  Ultima VI is available on GOG as part of the “Ultima IV, V and VI” trilogy. The entire bundle is available for the low price of $5.99. For this price, three games of this caliber is an absolute steal.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 4 – Ultima VI is again, one of my favorite entries in the series. It was released in a time when CRPGs were reaching their golden age and it shows. Ultima VI takes everything that made the series great and blended it with a number of new ideas and design changes that really put it in a class of its own.

Available on: GOG

Other Games In This Series:

Akalabeth    –    Ultima    –    Ultima II    –    Ultima III    –    Ultima IV    –    Ultima V    –    Ultima VI    –    Ultima VII    –    Ultima VIII    –    Ultima IX

Ultima Underworld I    –    Ultima Underworld II    –    Underworld Ascendant

Savage Empire    –   Martian Dreams

Ultima Online

Shroud of the Avatar

 

Review: Ultima II – The Revenge of the Enchantress

After the success of Ultima, the development of a sequel was a no-brainer. This time, Richard Garriott took the concepts that made the original Ultima great and tried to expand them even further. The end result is a very ambitious game, but one that ended up feeling like a bit of a mess in the end. (I’ll explain what I mean in a bit).

Ultima II is a direct sequel to the original. After the death of the wizard Mondain, it is discovered that he had a secret apprentice – a young enchantress named Minax. To seek revenge for her master’s death, Minax travel back to the origin of time and sends armies of her minions to various points in history. The twist here is that she does not seek her revenge in the land of Sosaria. Instead, she decides to turn her attention towards Earth (now revealed to be origin world of both Lord British and the game’s hero). As expected, the player assumes the role of a mysterious hero who agrees to enter one of the time doors in hopes of putting an end to Minax’s reign of terror.

When playing this title today, the GOG version seems to work best with modern hardware. But even then, it is highly recommended that you apply the patches contained in the “Ultima Patcher“. These offer a variety of improvements to the game, while still maintaining the original vision of the developers.

For the most part, Ultima II plays very similar to the original. The majority of the game takes place in the overworld map or in various towns/villages. All of the mechanics from the original game are present. But this time, the player can also travel to various points in history. This is done using special “time doors”. When a player enters a time door, he will emerge in another place and time.  The eras available to visit are as follows: The Time of Legends (the origin of all time), Pangea (approx 300 million years ago), B.C. (approx 1400), A.D. (1990), and The Aftermath (a post apocalyptic era).

The majority of game is simply jumping between eras to find various items. The overworld map is littered with various towers and dungeons, but for the most part they play a very little role in this adventure. Once you’ve reached a certain point, you will also be able to travel to various planets in the solar system. In fact, visiting “Planet X” is crucial to completing the game.  (Important note: a bug in the DOS version of game prevents players from visiting most planets in the solar system. However, this can be corrected via a fan-made patch.)

The one really unique thing about Ultima II is just how open it is. Right from the get-go players are able to explore a vast majority of the game and interact with NPCs. These days, this concept is not particularly unusual. But in 1982, it was almost unheard of.

All of this sounds like the making for a really great and innovative game. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. Despite being based on some pretty groundbreaking concepts, Ultima II is largely a big fat dud. There’s just very little in the game that actually engages players. If anything, I think the game is actually TOO open and offers little to no guidance. Even reading the game’s manual doesn’t really point the player in the right direction to get started.

To make matters worse, despite having a plethora of content to explore, hardly any of it is required to actually complete the game. Nor does the character benefit in any real way from participating in any of it. For example, aside from collecting a single item, there’s absolutely no reason whatsoever for a player to enter any of the game’s dungeons. The same is true when it comes to exploring the various planets in the solar system. Only one planet has anything of interest, and the player needs only spend about a minute of time there. It’s really a shame. There’s so much potential wasted.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the game just… sucks. When compared with the original Ultima, Ultima II just isn’t even on the same playing field. All of this really makes Ultima II a tough game to recommend to anyone but the most hardcore fans of the series.

Difficulty: Hard –  Ultima II is considerably difficult to complete without the use of a walkthrough or without abusing the save/reload feature. However, as is the case with other games in the series thus far, it’s quite simple to abuse the game’s mechanics – making the game much easier than it should be.

Story: As far as storylines go, Ultima II has a pretty interesting set-up. The idea of merging the gameworld with the real world is interesting. As is the concept of traveling through various eras of time. In my opinion, the story for Ultima II is better than the game itself.

Originality: Despite taking issue with the game itself, I have to admit that when it comes to originality, Ultima II is worthy of praise. So many unique concepts are introduced here, it’s really a travesty that the game ended up being of such poor quality.

Soundtrack: Like the previous entry in the series, Ultima II is limited to basic taps, beeps and bloops. Nothing much to get excited about, but this was par for the course in the early days.

Fun: Even the grittiest, most hardcore CRPG grognards are going to have a tough time claiming that they actually enjoy this game. The game itself is just not very entertaining. For me, I found the various mechanics and concepts introduced to very interesting. But the execution leaves a lot to be desired.

Graphics: If you’re comparing the graphics in this game to the original Apple II version of Ultima, then Ultima II is a notch better. But when compared to the 1986 re-release of Ultima, it’s actually a step backwards.

Playcontrol: The controls for this game are very antiquated by today’s standards, but they are easy enough to master. You control your character with the arrow keys and execute all other commands with various letters on the keyboard. Reading the manual is a must.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: None.

Value:  Ultima II is included in the “Ultima I, II and III” bundle on GOG for a mere $5.99. Despite being an iffy game, the price for this bundle is still well worth it.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 2 – Ultima II is a game with some serious flaws. But, I have to give Garriott credit; He had a vision for the game and for the most part, he was able to achieve it. Even if the game itself is lackluster, Richard Garriott still managed to create something unique and interesting. All that aside, I must admit that Ultima II is a pretty bad game. I can only really recommend it to most dedicated of Ultima fans. Even then, it is a bitter pill to swallow.

Available on: GOG

Other Games In This Series:

Akalabeth    –    Ultima    –    Ultima II    –    Ultima III    –    Ultima IV    –    Ultima V    –    Ultima VI    –    Ultima VII    –    Ultima VIII    –    Ultima IX

Ultima Underworld I    –    Ultima Underworld II    –    Underworld Ascendant

Savage Empire    –   Martian Dreams

Ultima Online

Shroud of the Avatar

Review: Ultima – The First Age of Darkness

Fresh off the heels of my Akalabeth review, I’m back with a look at the first true game in the Ultima saga, Ultima – The First Age of Darkness.  This game takes many of the concepts and design elements from Akalabeth and expands on them. The result is the fruition of Richard Garriott’s original vision; a computer-based Dungeons & Dragons style role playing game.

Originally released for the Apple II in 1981, Ultima was the game that launched an entire series of RPGs that would dominate the market for nearly two decades. It was released to rave reviews and due to its popularity, was ported to a number of systems. In 1986, a remake of the game (retitled “Ultima I“) was released for the Commodore 64 and the PC. Being the only official PC version, this 1986 release is the version I played for this review. When playing this title today, the GOG version seems to work best with modern hardware. But even then, it is highly recommended that you apply the patches contained in the “Ultima Patcher“. These offer a variety of improvements to the game, while still maintaining the original vision of the developers. .

The storyline behind Ultima is both a continuation of Akalabeth and also somewhat of a re-imagining. This time, the game takes place in a world called Sosaria – a land under siege by the evil wizard Mondain. Despite many attempts to overthrow him, Mondain has plunged the world into an age of darkness. Protected by a powerful gem of immortality, he is completely invulnerable to any attacks against him. As a result of his rule, beasts and foul creatures roam the countryside causing common folk to go into hiding. The lords of the land stay cloistered behind the secure walls of their fortresses. Only one leader, a king by the name of Lord British, dares to defy Mondain’s rule. In Ultima, you play as a young hero willing to answer the call and discover a way to defeat the infamous Mondain.

As I mentioned above, Ultima takes the core concepts introduced in Akalabeth and turns them into a much better game. For example, there’s still an overworld map and dungeons. There’s still bounty-style quests. There’s still a supply of food to worry about. But this time, there’s also a bigger story and much more to explore and do. The game begins just outside of the town of Britain (the domain of Lord British). Here, Lord British tasks the player with seeking out a specific location in the game world. As the player explores the land, they will discover other kingdoms. The rulers of these other lands will also provide various quests for players to undertake. For example, to descend into various dungeons and slay specific monsters (something straight out of Akalabeth).

Completing these quests will either net the player increases in their ability scores or they will be rewarded with magical gems. The collection of these gems is crucial to the completion of the game. (But I’ll avoid any potential spoilers and say no more on that subject…)

The overworld map, castles, and cities featured state-of-the-art graphics for the time. The first person dungeons are reminiscent in style to those found in Akalabeth. The main difference here is that the layout of the dungeons do not randomly generate each time the game is loaded (as they do in some versions of Akalabeth). Instead, they are static throughout the entire play session. This is true even if the game is saved and reloaded later.

Like Akalabeth, it’s very easy to exploit the game by saving before attempting risky maneuvers (like stealing from shops), then simply reloading it if things don’t go your way. It’s relatively easy to cheese your way to riches in Ultima using this method. However, to really experience all the game has to offer, I highly recommend against doing this. Starting out weak and working your way up is big part of what makes this game enjoyable. Don’t be shy! Get out that graph paper and map those dungeons! It’s fun. Trust me.

For its day and age, Ultima was a groundbreaking game. Modern players experiencing it for the very first time today will likely find it to be rather antiquated and confusing. There’s certainly no hand-holding and reading the game’s manual before play is essential. Like Wizardry, Ultima is one of the grandfathers of all modern RPGs. With that in mind, it certainly deserves a look from any real fan of the genre.

Difficulty: Hard –  Ultima features many of the same challenges found in its predecessor. However, this time there’s hints and breadcrumbs provided by NPCs. That does make finding your way in the game a bit easier. Again, this game is really only difficult if you don’t exploit the save/re-load feature. Taking advantage of this technical loophole makes the game a cinch.

Story: The game features a fairly unique story. By having the game take place in a semi-apocalyptic world ruled by an evil wizard, Ultima manages to stand out among a genre typically filled with either “save the princess” scenarios or glorified treasure hunts. It is often difficult to create a unique narrative in the fantasy game, but Garriott was able to do so by combining his love for both sci-fi and fantasy and translating them into a digital version of a pen-and-paper style RPG.

Originality: At the time Ultima was released it was simply revolutionary. Fantasy games were not unheard of, but Ultima provided gamers with a number of new and unique experiences. It’s hard to imagine this by looking at the game today, but it was truly a cutting edge release at the time. Taking a fantasy world where everyone speaks Old English and mixing it with a space shooter? That’s pretty unique.

Soundtrack: Ultima is limited to basic taps, beeps and bloops. Nothing much to get excited about, but this was par for the course in the early days.

Fun: Fans of retro-style RPGs are likely to be the only modern audience for a game like this. But for those of us that enjoy such things, Ultima can provide a surprising amount of entertainment.

Graphics: These days Ultima looks almost laughably basic. But for its day and time, Ultima was state-of-the-art. It’s certainly a massive leap above what was seen in Akalabeth.

Playcontrol: The controls for this game are very antiquated by today’s standards, but they are easy enough to master. You control your character with the arrow keys and execute all other commands with various letters on the keyboard. Reading the manual is a must.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: None.

Value:  Ultima is included in the “Ultima I, II and III” bundle on GOG for a mere $5.99. At this price, it’s worth a look even if you only have a mild curiosity about the game.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 3 – Ultima was without a doubt a groundbreaking game. But it isn’t perfect. Despite being designed with the intention of being a rather challenging title, it’s all too easy to exploit the game mechanics and turn the entire experience into a piece of cake. Despite this flaw, Ultima is a classic that paved the way for the RPGs of today. Older fans or even younger gamers with an open mind can still find quite a bit of adventure of they are willing to take a look.

Available on: GOG

Other Games In This Series:

Akalabeth    –    Ultima    –    Ultima II    –    Ultima III    –    Ultima IV    –    Ultima V    –    Ultima VI    –    Ultima VII    –    Ultima VIII    –    Ultima IX

Ultima Underworld I    –    Ultima Underworld II    –    Underworld Ascendant

Savage Empire    –   Martian Dreams

Ultima Online

Shroud of the Avatar

 

Review: Akalabeth – World of Doom

Starting off my Ultima reviews with a game that’s not technically part of the series may seem a bit weird. But in the eyes of many, Akalabeth is indeed the prequel to very first Ultima game. In fact, it is often referred to as “Ultima 0” and was even labeled as such when it was included in the Ultima Collection from 1998.

Akalabeth was the first game published by Richard Garriott (aka: Lord British). Originally only available on the Apple II, a fan-made DOS version of the game appeared on the internet sometime in the mid 90’s. A few years later, an official DOS port of the game was included with the Ultima Collection. These days, the game is available for free on the GOG platform. However, players should be aware that both DOS ports of the game come with their own issues.

The default version offered by GOG is the fan-made port. In many ways, this is the version that is most like the original Apple II release of Akalabeth. However, this release of the game also includes a nasty bug that can make the game un-winnable. (Basically, players are never given a bounty to kill. Thus, have no way to complete any objectives. This breaks the game completely). Once upon a time, there was a patch available to fix this bug. But these days it seems to have been lost to the antiquity of yesterday’s internet. Thankfully, the official port of the game does not have this problem. But it does not maintain the randomly generated levels found in the original release. Also, the 1998 version of the game includes the ability to save and reload your progress. This makes the game very exploitable and takes nearly all of the challenge out of the title. Also, the official version of the game includes color and a midi soundtrack that was lifted from Ultima III. These changes make many purists, like myself, cringe. Thankfully, both versions are actually available on GOG. (The 1998 port is included as a bonus download.) For the sake of this review, I did play the default GOG version. But I generally recommend the 1998 version to most people curious about the game.

The story for the game is simple. Not long ago, the world of Akalabeth was razed by an evil wizard named Mondain. A hero by the name of British rose up and drove the evil Mondain from the land. Now, having been crowned king, Lord British seeks adventurers brave enough to help him cleanse the land of any foul beasts that might still remain.

Akalabeth is one of the earliest CRPGs games ever to be made available. And despite appearing to be very basic in its design, it is surprisingly quite complex. When first starting the game, you will be asked to provide a “lucky number”. The number entered here actually serves as a seed of sorts. It helps generate the game’s maps and the character’s stats. Next, you will be prompted to enter a “level of play”. This is essentially the difficulty level for the game. Next up, you will be given a set of stats for your character and you will be asked to either accept them or re-roll. You can continue to re-roll stats for as long as you like until you find a set that seems acceptable, there’s no limit to the number of times you can try.

The game consists of four main screens; shops, the overworld, dungeons, and the castle. After creating your character, the first thing you will see is the shop screen. Here, you can spend your starting gold on a weapon and food. Buying lots of food is crucial in Akalabeth because every step your character takes consumes a bit of food. If you run out of food, you die. Essentially, most players will continue to re-roll their stats until they are given over 20 pieces of starting gold. Then they’ll buy a cheap weapon and spend the rest of the gold on food. If you neglect to buy any food, then you will die the instant you leave town. Brutal.

After leaving the shop, you will find yourself on a very archaic-looking overworld map. The next step in the game is locate a nearby dungeon, enter it, and kill monsters for gold. Each monster you slay will provide you with a few gold pieces. Once you have earned a significant amount of gold or once your food supply starts to run low, you will want to hightail it to the nearest shop so you can replenish your provisions. Once you are able to amass a small hoard of food, it is time to explore the overworld map in search of Lord British’s Castle. It’s also important to note, that each time you leave a dungeon, your character’s Hit Points will increase in accordance with the number of monsters slain.

Finding the castle is where the game really starts. From here, you begin a chain of quests. Each essentially requiring you to venture deeper into a dungeon in search of a specific monster. Once that monster is slain, you return to the castle to receive a new quest. Once you’ve slain all the monsters on Lord British’s list, you win the game.

When first exploring the overworld map, new players are often taken aback by the large number of shops and dungeons. The dirty little secret here is, they are all essentially the same. It doesn’t matter what shop or dungeon you enter, the contents never really change. So the real trick here is to simply find a shop and dungeon that are in close vicinity to Lord British’s castle and use only those locations to complete the game.

The dungeons themselves are where the real action takes place. Dungeons are presented in a crude 3D view, very similar to what you see in the early Wizardry games. Depending on which version of Akalabeth you are playing, the layout of the dungeon may change every time you exit and enter, or it may stay the same. Either way, it’s really not TOO difficult to navigate. The grid itself and the ladders leading up and down are always static. Only the location of the doors and the walls vary from level to level. I always recommend that players map out their journey on a piece of graph paper when playing to avoid getting hopelessly lost.

Being an older game, Akalabeth will certainly seem crude and undesirable to many modern gamers. It is definitely not a game most people these days will want to seek out. Personally, I enjoy older dungeon crawls like this. But then again, I grew up with them. I suspect that for many, this game would only serve as a curiosity. But, if you are adventurous and willing to take the time and patience needed to explore everything this game has to offer, you might be pleasantly surprised by what you find.

Difficulty: Hard –  If playing the game as intended, Akalabeth offers quite a challenge. Food management can be downright brutal as can many of the monster encounters. That being said, anyone willing to invest a little time in grinding should be able to boost their character to a point that makes the game manageable. If playing the 1998 version, it’s easy to cheese your way through entire game by exploiting a specific save/reload loophole thus reducing the game’s difficulty to nil.

Story: The game features a very barebones backstory. But considering the entire game really nothing more than a programming project by an ambitious high school student, this is forgivable.

Originality: When Garriott began designing this game, it was 1977. Despite being largely inspired D&D and Lord of the Rings, the concept of an RPG-style dungeon crawler was almost unheard of at the time. Some people like to argue that Akalabeth might actually be the first graphical RPG game ever made.

Soundtrack: The original game is silent and has no sound whatsoever. The 1998 release does include some basic noises and midi music (ripped from Ultima III), none of which are particularly impressive.

Fun: For most, this is a hard game to recommend. It’s random and tedious by today’s standards. Old grognards like me might appreciate it. But for the vast gaming population, Akalabeth is a pretty hard pill to swallow. Regardless, if you have a love for old school RPGs like Wizardry and Zork. This game might be worth a look.

Graphics: The graphics in this game are about as basic as you can get. But, for a game programmed entirely in BASIC, it’s actually quite impressive. The dungeons are white on black wireframe. As are the monsters and overworld map. Players on the Apple II get treated to the classic Apple II color palate. The 1998 remake also adds some basic colors to the text and wireframe models.

Playcontrol: The controls for this game are very antiquated by today’s standards, but they are easy enough to master. You control your character with the arrow keys and execute all other commands with various letters on the keyboard. Reading the manual is a must.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: None.

Value:  Both versions of this game are available today completely free of charge.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 2 – This is a tough one to score. Personally, I really like this game a lot. It reminds me of the games I used to play when I young. But understandably, it would be very difficult for someone accustomed to modern games to wrap their head around something like this. I first encountered Akalabeth in 1998 when it was released as part of the Ultima Collection and I found it enjoyable then. Revisiting it now, I can still appreciate it. But, even I can admit it has not aged very well. This fact, combined with the technical problems of the fan-created port that is distributed by default make it a pretty tough recommendation.

Available on: GOG

Other Games In This Series:

Akalabeth    –    Ultima    –    Ultima II    –    Ultima III    –    Ultima IV    –    Ultima V    –    Ultima VI    –    Ultima VII    –    Ultima VIII    –    Ultima IX

Ultima Underworld I    –    Ultima Underworld II    –    Underworld Ascendant

Savage Empire    –   Martian Dreams

Ultima Online

Shroud of the Avatar

Review: Xenogears

This review has been a long time coming. Xenogears is considered by many to be one of the greatest RPGs of all time. Despite this, it is a game that I never had the chance to sit down with until now. I was a big fan of the Xenoblade Chronicles on the Wii when it came out a few years back. So I was really excited to see what the earliest game in the “Xeno” franchise was all about. I started this title at the the first of the year and I expected to be done with it sometime around late March. But, boy was I wrong about that. I was anticipating this game to contain somewhere between forty to sixty hours of playtime (like most other RPGs of the era). Instead, I ended up spending a little over one hundred hours on this monster! Which is really mind-blowing considering the last half of the game was rushed for release and large portions of content were cut from the title. (More on this later).

So what is Xenogears exactly? Xenogears is the brainchild of Japanese game developer Tetsuya Takahashi, an employee of Squaresoft. It was originally pitched as a contender for the Final Fantasy series. When rejected, it ended up becoming something else entirely. Much time was spent on the lore and storyline for this game. The story of Xenogears was originally intended to be the fifth out of six chapters in what would be part of a vast story-arc. The idea was to tell the complete tale through various media; manga, anime, and of course, games. This grand vision never materialized, however. As such, Xenogears has remained the only chapter of this story to be told. Japanese fans were eventually treated to a special artbook called Xenogears Perfect Works. This book contained several pages outlining all six chapters of the intended original saga. While it is certainly a shame that fans may never see an official Xenogears anime, or read the untold tales in the pages of a comic book, the game itself does contain several anime-style cutscenes that provide a taste of what might have been.

The story of Xenogears focuses on the character of Fei Fong Wong. A young amnesiac who was brought to a remote village as a child by a mysterious man. Fei has grown up living a simple life, completely unaware of his origins. One day, Fei’s village becomes caught in the crossfire between two warring nations. During the attack, Fei climbs into a Gear, (one of the giant robots used in the war) in attempt to defend his village. Mysteriously, he finds that he has the innate ability to pilot the machine. But in the end, his actions in the Gear result in further damage to village. Disgraced and banished from his home, Fei and his mentor Citan leave the village together. From there, they encounter one of the soldiers involved in the attack, a woman named Elly. Before long, Fei learns that the attack on his village was no coincidence… He was the real target. This revelation prompts him to seek out the answers to his mysterious origins. Over the span of the game’s storyline, not only will Fei learn about his true nature, but will find himself as a major player in a war for the very fate of mankind. The secrets of human origin, as well as the true nature of divinity all play a part in this fantastic tale.

To say the storyline for Xenogears is epic would be an understatement. While many JRPGs often blur the lines between fantasy and sci-fi, this game took things to the next level. The lore of this game perfectly integrates high technology and religious mythology in a way that had not yet been explored in gaming. To make things even more interesting, it borrows a number of themes and terms found in Judaeo-Christian theology, giving the lore behind the game a familiar tone. In fact, this served as a strong point of controversy at the time the game was released. Personally, I found the plot to be very deep and philosophical. I was delighted by thought put into it.

When it comes to gameplay, Xenogears will be familiar territory for longtime RPG fans. It plays like most classic SNES-era RPGs, with an overhead view and menu-driven system. Unlike many of those classic games, it is also rendered in 2.5-D, meaning that even though it’s presented from the bird’s-eye-view, the camera can be rotated 360-degrees to allow viewing at all angles. This took me a little getting used to at first, and it’s important to remember, as sometimes chests and important environmental objects may not be visible until the camera is rotated. Occasionally, I found this to be quite an annoyance. My only other major gripe with the game comes in the form of UI delay when bringing up the menu and especially with save file management. This title seems to suffer from some annoying lag.

When it comes to combat, Xenogears builds from the classic Active Time Battle structure that most RPG players are already familiar with. But it actually manages to evolve that model in a meaningful way. Like with most games of this type, players can elect to execute a melee attack, select skills/magic, or  use an item. There’s also options to defend or attempt to flee battle. If a player uses a physical attack, they can then chose between a light, medium or strong attack. The more powerful the attack, the less accurate the attack will be. If successfully landed, the player earns an Action Point. Action Points can then be spent on special moves called “Death Blows”, players can also bank up their Action Points to chain various Death Blows together for even more damage.

Aside from hand-to-hand combat, players will often do battle while piloting Gears (mechs). Gear combat is very similar to standard combat, but instead of attack points a Gear’s “Attack Level” increases as they continue to damage an enemy. Higher Attack Levels mean stronger Death Blows, etc.

All in all, I found the battle system to be very well done. It was just different enough from what had been seen thus far to require a little getting used to. Other RPGs of the era tried tinkering with the standard ATB combat formula and failed. Xenogears is one of the few that was able to succeed.

Combat aside, the game plays very much like any other JRPG. There’s open world exploration, dungeons, boss fights, etc. The game is separated into two discs, with the majority of the gameplay being found on Disc 1. By the time I reached the second disc, I was already about seventy hours into the game. The contents of the second disc are vastly different from that of the first. At this point, the game shifts from standard RPG-play, to being more narrative driven. Instead of actually playing through storyline at this point, the game provides you with a summary of events accompanied by still pictures and cutscenes. This ongoing narrative is broken up occasionally with prompts to save and short dungeons. There’s a number of successive boss fights tossed in the mix as well. It certainly has an unusual feel when compared with the first half of the game.

It has since become known that the pacing of the second disc occurred due to time constraints put on the development team.  In order to meet the release date deadline, they were forced to cut hours of playable content from the game itself. This led to them having to stitch what had been developed together with bits of exposition and pre-rendered cutscenes. This is certainly a shame, as I can only imagine just how epic in scale this game might have been if it were released according to plan. But honestly, having all of this extra content would have probably doubled the length of what was already a long game. So, I’m in no way saying players should feel ripped off. There’s still tons of content in this title. But the patchwork that is the second disc does end up making the game feel rushed and disjointed to an extent.

Flaws and all, Xenogears is an amazing game. It certainly earned its status as one of the greatest RPGs of all time. That being said, the game is not perfect. Camera issues and UI lag are present, and don’t get me started on the awkwardness of the second half. All that aside, it still shines. This is without a doubt a must play for fans of the JRPG genre. If any game deserves a modern remake, Xenogears should certainly be a contender.

Difficulty: Medium –  As far as RPGs go, Xenogears is standard fare when it comes to difficulty. Most random encounters and boss fights are balanced pretty well. Any player who hasn’t simply rushed their way through the game should encounter only a moderate challenge. Players who are willing to take their time to grind and/or do sidequests should have no issue.  Many of the bosses often have mechanics that can be exploited either through action or by equipping characters/Gears with certain items.

Story: This is where the game shines. The depth and richness of the storyline is unrivaled even to this day. In fact, when considering how unfinished the game feels at times, it is almost a shame that a tale of this scope was told via game that feels so incomplete at times. It is a story that certainly deserved better. Deep, dark, and powerful.

Originality: By 1998 the formula for JRPGs had been well established. Xenogears manages to keep things fresh by providing a unique setting, re-envisioned combat, and a bold storyline. Every time the game started to feel like something I had seen before I was quickly proven wrong. Amazing work by Squaresoft.

Soundtrack: This is probably the second best part of the game. The soundtrack and score are nothing short of breathtaking. My only complaint is that there wasn’t more. For a game as long as Xenogears, the soundtrack seems to be somewhat lacking in content. Lots of music in the game is reused in places where a new theme seems appropriate. Again, perhaps it was due to budgeting or time constraints, but I feel like the soundtrack should be more diverse. That is a bit of a shame. But when judging the soundtrack we were given, it is hard to find a single thing to dislike.

Fun: This is a game that took me by surprise. At this point in my gaming career, I really thought I had seen everything there was to see when it comes to RPGs. Xenogears proved to me that a good developer can always manage to surprise you. I had a blast with this game. I went in knowing nothing at all about the game itself, and what a ride it was.

Graphics: At time of its release, Xenogears looked as good as a game could. It featured 16-bit style sprites, but in a semi-3D environment.  Today, the game does show its age. But it is still a pleasure to view.

Playcontrol: To claim Xenogears is flawless would be difficult. If any part of the game needs improvement it would be the play control. Laggy UI and quirky camera controls are a major issue at times. On top of that, several parts of the game actually include platforming puzzles – for example, climbing a building or a mountain. This requires players to run and jump from spot to spot. One wrong move and you have to start over. It can be extremely frustrating at times. Especially since the game doesn’t feel like it was designed with this type of play in mind. This, combined with a dicey camera makes for some rage-worthy moments.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: YES. Minor language, blasphemous themes.

Value:  Xenogears is available digitally on the Playstation Network for $9.99. At this price the game is a no-brainer. Used physical copes can range anywhere from $20-$100 on ebay depending on the quality. If you’re a collector, I’d be comfortable paying up to $50.00 for a game like this. It is worth every penny.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 4 – Even with some obvious flaws, Xenogears manages to take a top rating. It has been a while since I had such a good experience with an older game. Just when I thought I had seen everything, Xenogears popped up to remind me that there’s always something new to discover. Despite being twenty years old, the bold direction of this game still manages to hold up and feel new. If you’re a fan of JRPGs, this is a must-play.

Available on: PSN

 

Review: Parasite Eve

One of the more popular arguments at my house around Christmas time: is Die Hard a Christmas movie? I’m a firm believer that it is. It takes place at Christmastime, various scenes in the film are decorated for the season, and there’s even a few utterances of “Merry Christmas”. Following that same logic, one could make an argument that Parasite Eve is a Christmas game. So, it’s very fitting that I post this review today, Christmas 2017.

This review has a been a long time coming. Parasite Eve is a classic Playstation title, but one that I’ve never had the chance to enjoy until now. Originally released in 1998, this game is actually the follow-up to a Japanese horror novel. (One I reviewed on this site, just a few months ago). The game was huge success for Squaresoft at the time of it’s release, and maintains a strong cult following. This is one that I’ve always wanted to play, but never got around to. I’m happy to declare that this has finally changed.

The premise of the game is this: Mitochondria, the powerhouse of the human cell are not all that they seem. In fact, they are actually parasites that have laid dormant in the body of each human since the early days of civilization. The consciousness that lives in every mitochondria calls itself “Eve”. Eve has been patiently waiting for human civilization to reach a point of advancement so that it can take over and become the ruling sentient species. That time is now. Eve is able to make humans spontaneously combust and can evolve people and other animals into horrifying mutant creatures. Thankfully, the hero of this game, an NYPD officer named Aya Brea – is actually immune to the effects of her rebellious mitochondria. Aya catches wind of this mysterious plot and sets out to put an end to Eve’s plans before it is too late. Pretty weird, huh?

Having never played this game before, I was a little unsure what to expect. Visually, the game looks a lot Final Fantasy VIII. Which makes sense as it was developed by the same company and around the same time. Both the in-game graphics and cinematic cutscenes are similar. For it’s day and age, the game looked pretty impressive. Parasite Eve also has some of the RPG aspects that one would expect to find in a Squaresoft title. The main character can equip various weapons and armor, she earns EXP through battle and can level up, she also has the ability to use magic (called Parasitic Energy in this game). Your progress can be saved at various locations in the game (at telephones), so players used to “save points” will feel right at home. However, unlike most RPGs, battles are a mixture of both turn-based combat and live action.

When fighting enemies in Parasite Eve, you need to wait for your “Attack Meter” to fill up before you can execute an attack, cast a spell, or use an item. During the downtime between actions, you can run around the battlefield openly. This allows you to chase enemies, dodge attacks, etc. When attacking, you can direct your attack at multiple enemies. So, if you are firing a pistol, for example, you can aim a few shots at Monster A and a few at Monster B – all in one turn.  I found this blend of turned-based/action combat to be both refreshing and engaging. Being a longtime fan of RPGs, it was a new twist that I wasn’t expecting. I really enjoyed this model of combat. High marks to battle designer on this title.

Parasite Eve is a very story-driven game. The game is broken up into several chapters (or Days). Most of these days are focused on a single task and introduce the player to new locations or characters. After a certain point, the gameworld opens up and the player is able to visit various locations in New York City at will. Later in the game, players can use this freedom to their advantage. It allows them to grind monsters for experience, collect loot to customize weapons and armor, etc. The main scenario itself is rather short for an RPG. I believe I cleared it in about 8 hours.

Upon completing the game the players will receive a rather ambiguous ending. But, this unlocks “Ex Mode” – essentially a New Game Plus option that allows players to play through the entire game again, with their current level and items. This can be done as many times as the player likes. During these subsequent playthroughs, a new area is available. This new level features 77 randomly generated floors. On the last floor is an ultimate boss. Completing this hidden dungeon in Ex Mode will allow you to view the real ending for the game.

All of this makes Parasite Eve a very interesting game. Despite being a classic title, in many ways it was very ahead of it’s time. The “New Game Plus” is an option found in most modern RPG titles. So are multiple endings. But it’s not something you saw very often in 1998. – I enjoyed this game tremendously. It felt both familiar and new at the same time. I was pleased to see many new and risky concepts unseen in previous popular RPGs. I’m curious to see what the next entries in series bring to the table.

If you like Square’s RPGs and you’re looking for something different, this is certainly a game worthy of your attention.

Difficulty: Medium –  Parasite Eve does not feature multiple levels of difficulty. The game is very different from other RPGs and as a result can seem a little complex at first. New players are advised to review the Tutorial option from the main menu before playing to make things a bit easier. The game starts off fairly easy, but the difficulty does ramp up in later chapters. It is possible to grind your way to higher levels, thus making the game a piece of cake. However, regardless of your level, completing the optional dungeon and defeating the hidden boss will require a bit of effort.

Story: This title is very story driven – and is actually probably the best part of the game. The plot unfolds through both in-game narratives and video cutscenes. The storyline is riveting and very well told. Players wanting even more can seek out a copy of the Parasite Eve novel, which actually serves as a prequel to the game itself.

Originality: Despite being labelled as an RPG, Parasite Eve is a refreshing take on the genre. First, it takes place in the real world – in New York City to be exact. Instead of knights and dragons, we have cops and monsters. The combat is a mixture of turn-based and live-action – very unique for a game of it’s time. In many ways, it also incorporates some survival horror elements.

Soundtrack: The game soundtrack is catchy and groovy. There’s not really a wide variety of music in the game, but despite being a bit repetitive at times, it’s well done and pleasant.

Fun: If you enjoy games with a heavy plot and unique RPG elements, Parasite Eve is worth a look. I enjoyed this title very much – and for different reasons than I expected to.

Graphics: The pixelated graphics and FMV movies are very dated by today’s standards. But at the time of the release, they were considered very well done. To be fair, many of the creature transformation scenes are so shocking and grotesque that even with their aged looked, they still retain a blood-curdling effect on the watcher. (At least they did with me.)

Playcontrol:  The game controls are a bit antiquated by today’s standards, but overall are well implemented and intuitive. The combat takes a bit to get used to at first and sometimes feels a bit boxed in – but after a few hours it becomes second nature.

Downloadable Content: N/A

Mature Content: YES – Graphic violence and gore, adult themes (medical reproduction). 

Value:  This game is available as a PS One Classic on the Playstation Network for $5.99. At this price, the game is a steal. Parasite Eve also features a decent level of replayability due to it’s “EX Mode” and randomly generated optional dungeon.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 4 – I found this title to be a delightful change of pace from other 64-bit era role playing games. The real-world setting and strange pseudo-scientific flare made for a really unique experience. I’m ashamed to admit that it took me almost twenty years to experience this title. I recommend it to anyone who enjoy both role playing games and survival horror titles from the late 90s.

Available on: PSN

Other Reviews In This Series:

Parasite Eve (Novel) –  Parasite Eve  –  Parasite Eve II   –  The 3rd Birthday

Review: Baldur’s Gate II (Enhanced Edition)

Finally, I bring you my review of the final chapter in the Baldur’s Gate series. For those that are interested, and might have missed it, I reviewed the enhanced edition of the Original Baldur’s Gate back in September. This was followed with a review of Beamdog’s official DLC: Siege of Dragonspear in January of this year. Now, after what seems like eons of time spent in the Forgotten Realms, I’m proud to share my thoughts on this remastered, classic CRPG.

First, a bit of a history lesson. Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, is the sequel to the extremely popular PC game, Baldur’s Gate. It was released two years after the original and closely follows the formula that made Baldur’s Gate such a smashing success. The sequel used the same game engine, with some additional polish and refinements. Baldur’s Gate II continues the story of the original title. In fact, players of the first game are even able to carry over saved data to the sequel. A year after the original Baldur’s Gate II was released, an expansion pack; Throne of Bhaal was also made available. This expansion extended the storyline of the original game, and added a new optional area.   In 2013, Beamdog Studios gave Baldur’s Gate II the “Enhanced Edition” treatment as well.  This update combined both Shadows of Amn and Throne of Bhaal into one package. It also includes a new third scenario The Black Pits II (which itself is a sequel to the additional scenario found in the first Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition).  The Enhanced Edition also modernizes the game for today’s computer systems. It adds widescreen support, updated multiplayer functionality, and cross-platform compatibility. Also worthy of note, just like with the initial release, players can import saved data from both Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition and Siege of Dragonspear into Baldur’s Gate II Enhanced Edition.  –  Being the most accessible version of the game, it is the enhanced edition that I’ve spent the last several months playing for this review.

While there many enhancements and differences between the original Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate II,  the differences between the two Enhanced Editions are much less obvious. Both games actually run on a modified version of the BG2 engine. So the actual changes from one EE game to the other are mostly cosmetic.

The story of Baldur’s Gate II, starts shortly after the events of the first game. If you’ve played Siege of Dragonspear, the events of that game actually fill in the gap between BG1 and BG2. When the game starts, the main hero and his companions find themselves being held prisoner by a mysterious magician. The first goal in the game is to get your bearings and escape from captivity. Shortly after doing so, one of the lead characters is “arrested” by an order of powerful wizards. The focus of the game then turns to finding a way to rescue this individual. This thrusts the players into the middle of some major political intrigue. Naturally, things are not as simple as they seem at first. As you continue to play and explore the world of Baldur’s Gate II, you will find yourself immersed in the rich and vibrant world that is Forgotten Realms.

Fans of Dungeons & Dragons will feel right at home. This game, just like the original Baldur’s Gate is based on the core Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition rules. Also, the Forgotten Realms setting is a D&D mainstay. Just like with the first game, players can create and will encounter characters based on classic D&D races and classes. Also, much like a real game of D&D, players are able to explore and do as they please. The main scenario of the game is ever present in the background, but there are endless quests and side-stories for players to pursue and enjoy.

The game is filled with classic D&D tropes and cameos. From things as mundane as talking swords to legendary magical items, fans of D&D will be sure to finds references to some of their favorite places and characters

Like the first Enhanced Edition game, this one features a number of difficulty levels. All of the original options are included, as well as the new Story Mode (super easy) and Legacy of Bhaal (insanely difficult). Being nearly identical to BG:EE,  this modern version of Baldur’s Gate II also suffers from some of the same strange issues. In the 70+ hours I sunk into this game, I observed a number of odd glitches and behavior. For example, the party AI is often troublesome. Characters do not stay in the selected formation, they wander off in odd directions, and sometimes during battle, even when selected, they just stand there doing nothing instead of executing the actions requested of them. I even encountered one serious game-breaking issue towards the end of the title that caused me to have to reload a saved game and redo over an hour of play. To be specific, upon a defeat, an NPC did not yield an item needed to progress in the game… serious glitch. Also, the Steam version of the game seems to have some issues activating achievements correctly all of the time. But, when considering the absolute vast scope of the title, it would be nearly impossible to squash every potential bug. Despite encountering a few glitches, the game is overall very stable and enjoyable.

For my playthrough, I enjoyed the game in a single-player setting. But, it is important to note there is a multiplayer option. This is certainly welcome and in fact, can be a very rewarding way to play. The only downside is that a game of this size would require some serious organization and commitment between friends in order to really make the most out of this option.

In a nutshell, fans of the original game will certainly find themselves right at home with Baldur’s Gate II. As will fans of D&D and other CRPGs of the era. For younger and modern gamers, a title such as this can seem rather daunting and perhaps even a bit overwhelming.  As with many older games, there’s little to no handholding. And, with a game of this size and complexity, that can only make things seem even more challenging.

That being said, if you like western-style RPGS, and open-world games like Fallout, Skyrim, etc – this might be a series that you should consider. Baldur’s Gate II not only continues the story of the original title, but the Throne of Bhaal chapters even put a final end to story as a whole. Playing these games through to completion is very challenging, but also extremely satisfying.  Having only dabbled with the original game back during it’s release, I am proud to have finally played both entries to their completion. Both games are simply works of art. Now, with the Enhanced Editions available, these gems can once again be enjoyed by retro gamers like myself, as well as new players who may be unearthing them for the first time.

Difficulty: Variable–  Baldur’s Gate 2 features a number of options when it comes to difficulty.  Easy, Normal, Core Rules, Hard, and Insane. The Enhanced Edition also adds options for “Story Mode” and “Legacy of Bhaal”. The latter options making you either invincible or cranking up the difficulty to a point that makes the game nearly impossible.  I’m proud of being able to have completed the original game on this new insane difficulty, but I must admit that I was unable to even get through the first half of BG2 on “Legacy of Bhaal”. With the increased characters levels, seemed to come even more challenging opponents. “Core Rules” was my go to on this title.

Story: As one might expect with a Dungeons & Dragons title, the storyline is everything here. BG2 extends the lore and storyline of the original game and brings it to it’s ultimate conclusion. Main scenario aside, this game is filled with side quests, background lore, and even character romances.

Originality: Being both a remake and a direct sequel to another game, certainly costs any title a little bit in the “originality” department. But BG2 manages to keep a fresh feel by presenting the player with totally new areas and cultures to explore. The storyline is also engaging enough to keep things from getting stale.

Soundtrack: Just like with the original Baldur’s Gate, the music in the game is overall very well done. It has a classic western RPG feel to it. It does lack a bit in diversity. The voice acting is also a mixed bag. Some of the characters are spot on, while others just sound silly and out of place. Again, this game suffers a bit from when I call Repetitive Sound Syndrome. NPCS and party members have a habit to repeating the same phrases over and over to the point of being annoying.

Fun: If you’re a fan of CRPGS and/or Dungeons & Dragons, you’re going to have a blast with this game. However, many players many simply not have the patience for the old-school style found here.

Graphics: At time it was released, Baldur’s Gate was top of the line. Today, even though a lot of work was put into modernizing the Enhanced Edition it looks quite dated. Yes, the new textures are beautiful, but the character sprites suffer a bit.

Playcontrol:  While most point-and-click games are pretty simple to control, Baldur’s Gate suffers from terrible AI. It is not uncommon for NPCs to get stuck on terrain, walk the wrong way, etc. I also frequently struggled with being unable to enter buildings due to all of my characters crowding around the entry way. Also, the new edition  of the game is not without it’s share of bugs that can interfere with your progress. These are largely the same complaints I had with the original Baldur’s Gate EE.

Downloadable Content:  No – At the time of this writing, no DLC has been announced for BG2 EE. The game comes complete with both BG2 and it’s original expansion.  It also contains a new third-scenario The Black Pits II,  Which is really just a continuation of the The Black Pits chapter found in the first BG:EE.  Overall it’s a pointless little add-on, but still worthy of a look.

Mature Content: Fantasy Violence, Mature Themes

Value:  This game currently sells for $20. Considering the amount of content packed into the title, it’s a steal at that price.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 3 – Baldur’s Gate 2 Enhanced Edition is a must-have for both fans of the original game and for fans of CRPGs as a whole. It’s a classic game packed with tons of content. Even with some of the glitches and faults of the remake, the redeeming qualities of the game outshine any faults it might have. For some of the reasons outlined above, I can’t claim to give it a perfect score, but it comes damn close.

Available on: PC (Steam and GOG)

Review: Baldur’s Gate (Enhanced Edition)

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Getting back to my late 90’s game reviews, I step away from the PS and N64 consoles for a moment to talk about a classic PC title. Baldur’s Gate is almost universally regarded as one of the greatest western RPGs of all time. Originally released in 1998, Baldur’s Gate is a birds-eye-view role playing game based on Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition rules. The game takes place in the ever popular Forgotten Realms campaign setting and takes on the mammoth task of incorporating as many aspect of the D&D ruleset as possible and applying them to a real-time video game setting.

The original Baldur’s Gate proved to be extremely popular with fans. A year after it’s release, an expansion, Tales of the Sword Coast was made available. This add-on integrates seamlessly into the main game, adding new areas to explore, quests and storyline. The legacy left behind by Baldur’s Gate was so great that it was inevitable that someone would one day want to resurrect it. This occurred in 2012 when Beamdog Studios announced Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition.

I owned both the original game and the Tales of the Sword Coast expansion, but admittedly never completed them. Recently, I saw the Enhanced Edition on sale and decided there was no better time to revisit this classic.

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For the record, let me state that for the most part – the Enhanced Edition is a faithful remake of the original Baldur’s Gate. It features the original story, original score and voice acting, but many of the textures and graphics are replaced or highly modernized.  One thing I noticed right away, is that the original opening video has been replaced with hand-painted still images. I’m not sure why the new developers chose to do this. Granted, the original video is very dated by today’s standards. But why replace it with still images and not a new video? Regardless, the new into movie is fitting and  admittedly beautiful. Plus, it doesn’t detract from the experience at all in my opinion. Also important to mention; the new version includes both the original game and its expansion, out of the box. It also features a new arena-based add-on called The Black Pits. (More on this later). As far as additional content, the remake adds a handful of new playable NPCs and a few additional quests that provide backstories to these characters.

In Baldur’s Gate, the player creates a hero from scratch. Character creation follows standard AD&D 2nd edition rules.  Players can choose to create a character of any of the following races:  Human, Elf, Half-Elf. Gnome, Halfling, Dwarf, and Half-Orc. (The Half-Orc is a new addition to the original game). The following classes are available to players: Fighter, Paladin, Ranger, Cleric, Druid, Monk, Mage, Illusionist, Sorcerer, Thief, Bard, and Shaman. These classes can be specialized even further using “class kits”. (Barbarian, Wild Mage, etc). Just like in real D&D2E, players also have the option to dual-class and multiclass.

The game story revolves around your custom character. In a nutshell, you are the foster child of a wise sage named Gorion. The two of you live in a quiet sanctuary of Candlekeep, a place best known as a center of learning and home to one of the best libraries in the realm. One day, a frantic Gorion requests you to pack your belongs and purchase supplies for an impromptu journey. The game begins here, amidst the confusion of his sudden request. As you make your way through town, you encounter more than one nefarious character that seem to be hell-bent on seeing you dead. Eventually, as the game presses on, Gorion meets a terrible fate that leaves you alone in the wilderness, confused, and with little go on besides a handful of cryptic clues and request from Gorion to meet some trusted friends at a nearby tavern. You are hunted and alone, with no real explanation.

From this point forward, the entire game is open-ended and you can do as you please. You can elect to follow the path you were set on, or you can explore as you see fit. Throughout your journey, you will encounter characters that wish to join you on your quest. Each have their own motives and values. As you travel together, your actions will either enhance the bond you have with your companions or drive them away.

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Baldur’s Gate is played from a birds-eye-view. You click on objects or points of interest to interact with them. To move, you click on the characters you wish to advance, then click on their destination and they will walk to it. Clicking on individual character portraits provides with some additional options. For example, let’s say you click on a door to open it, only to find the door is locked. Well, if you have a thief in your party, you can click on that character to bring up a list of skills, then click on Pick Locks, finally you can click on the door again to apply that skill. The same is true for combat. During the melee action, you can choose individual actions for each character. This includes simple physical attacks, using items, casting spells, etc.

All of this may seem like a lot to take in, and to be honest, the game is very daunting at first. My first experience with Baldur’s Gate was back in ’98 when it was first released. At the time, I was admittedly overwhelmed. I suppose I played about a quarter of the way through it before shelving it. Now, playing through the Enhanced Edition many  years later, I find that had I stuck with just a bit longer, it would have started to fall into place. A little patience and a quick read through the manual help tremendously. Plus, the new edition of the game also comes with a tutorial mode. (Which I highly recommend for new players).

Interestingly enough, there is a multiplayer option. But in reality, it is rarely used. In multiplayer, one person is the host. This means they control the lead character. Any additional players control party-member characters. The sheer length of the game makes it difficult for this type of multiplayer to be viable option.

Finally, I want to mention the additional scenarios. Included for free with the Enhanced Edition is a short, arena-combat prologue to the game called The Black Pits. This scenario is aimed a veterans to the game and features a party of characters that fight battle after battle in a gladiator-type setting. With each victory they earn riches that can be used in-between fights to purchase new armor and weapons. Each battles get progressively more difficult. The final few battles require some serious preparation and commitment. In truth, this whole add-on seems to serve as nothing more than an introduction for one the new NPCs add to the Enhanced Edition. But it is included free, so no complaints there.

This new version of the game does also offer a brand new paid-DLC scenario called Siege of Dragonspear. This chapter serves as a bridge between the events of Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate II. However, due to the sheer size of this expansion – I have decided to review it separately.

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Difficulty: Variable–  Baldur’s Gate features a number of options when it comes to difficulty.  Easy, Normal, Core Rules, Hard, and Insane. The Enhanced Edition also adds options for “Story Mode” and Legacy of Bhaal”. The latter options making you either invincible or cranking up the difficulty to a point that makes the game nearly impossible.  (I gloat in being able to claim I completed the game on Bhaal difficulty…   not that I’m bragging or anything.)

Story: As one might expect with a Dungeons & Dragons title, the storyline is everything here. The game features a massive, rich main storyline. Not to mention it is peppered with a number of sideplots and quests. All of these are very well done.

Originality: Baldur’s Gate was a breath of life into what was a fading genre in the late 90’s. It was fresh and new upon it’s original release. Now, with the new edition, it still manages to feel new by taking an old classic, polishing it up and releasing it into a sea of games that began to grow stagnant with unoriginal ideas. It’s the new black, as they say.

Soundtrack: The music in the game is well done. It has a classic western RPG feel to it. Sadly, there’s not much diversity in it. The voice acting is also a mixed bag. Some of the characters are very well done, while others just sound silly and out of place. The voice acting for the new characters added to the game also don’t seem to fit in well with the original cast. Also worthy of mentioning, this game suffers a bit from when I call Repetitive Sound Syndrome. Simply giving orders to your character usually results in some type of feedback statement. Usually it’s one of three, and you get tired of hearing them really quick. Thankfully, there is a setting that allows you to control the frequency at which you hear these. Finally, this game seems to have an issue with volume management. Often times during the game, NPC will be speaking only to be drowned out by a swelling background score. Adjusting individual volume levels did not seem to help alleviate the problem.

Fun: If you’re a fan of CRPGS and/or Dungeons & Dragons, you’re going to have a blast with this game. However, many players many simply not have the patience for the old-school style found here.

Graphics: At time it was released, Baldur’s Gate was top of the line. Today, even though a lot of work was put into modernizing the Enhanced Edition it looks quite dated. Yes, the new textures are beautiful, but the character sprites suffer a bit.

Playcontrol: Here we come to my biggest gripe. While most point-and-click games are pretty simple to control, Baldur’s Gate suffers from terrible AI. It is not uncommon for NPCs to get stuck on terrain, walk the wrong way, etc. I also frequently struggled with being unable to enter buildings due to all of my characters crowding around the entry way. Also, the new edition  of the game is not without it’s share of bugs that can interfere with your progress.

Downloadable Content: YES – A paid DLC Scenario called Siege of Dragonspear is available for purchase. This is a completely new original adventure available for the Enhanced Edition only. This currently sells for $20, so it’s a little on the steep side, but it claims to provide about thirty hours of content. So, that’s not really a bad price. I plan to make a separate review of it in the coming days.

–      ***UPDATE: Review here:  Siege of Dragonspear

Mature Content: Fantasy Violence, Mature Themes

Value:  This game currently sells for $20. Considering the amount of content packed into the title, it’s a steal at that price.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 3 – Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition is a must-have for fans of the fantasy genre. It’s a classic game packed with tons of content. Even with some of the glitches and faults of the remake, the redeeming qualities of the game outshine any faults it might have. For some of the reasons outlined above, I can’t claim to give it a perfect score, but it comes damn close.

Available on: PC (Steam and GOG)

Review: The Legend of Dragoon

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When I announced last month that I was going to resume my PS1 playthrough reviews, I knew I had a number of options to choose from. There are so many classic games for ps1 that I never played when I was younger. I didn’t know where to start. So, I asked a friend for some suggestions. The first thing out of his mouth was Legend of Dragoon. This was a game I’d heard of in passing, but didn’t really know that much about. So I was excited to see what was in store for me.

To start this review, let me say that I really had no idea what I was expecting. I knew this game was going to be an RPG of sorts, but the fine details were completely unknown to me. To start, the first thing I noticed about Legend of Dragoon were the similarities to Final Fantasy VII. The pre-rendered backgrounds looked like something ripped directly from FFVII. The battle screen also, is very reminiscent to PS1 era Final Fantasy titles. But that’s where the similarities stop. Before getting much more into the technical details of the game, let’s talk a bit about the story.

The Legend of Dragoon is a fantasy RPG from Sony. It is set in the world called Endiness. The hero of the game, is a young named named Dart. At the beginning of the game, Dart is finally returning home from a five-year search for a terrible monster that destroyed his childhood home town.  As he approaches the outskirts of his homeland, Dart is attacked by a giant green Dragon. He is nearly killed, but saved by a mysterious armored woman who vanishes just as quickly as she appears. Upon arrival in his hometown, Dart learns that the night before his arrival, the town was ransacked by a neighboring Empire and his childhood friend Shanna was taken captive. Dart decides to sneak into the Empire’s prison to rescue his friend. This is the set up for a long and epic adventure.

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Naturally, as the game progresses the the details around the events at the beginning of the title begin to fall into place. And what we’re left with is a storyline that certainly rivals any other RPG you can throw at it. This is a thankful fact, because aside from the flawless plot, this game has some massive shortcomings. So much so, that I daresay if it wasn’t for the in-game story, I may not have finished this title.

 To start, let’s talk about the combat system. On the surface, the combat in this game appears to be similar to other Final Fantasy style RPGs. However, Sony included a new mechanic that at first, seems very refreshing, but quickly becomes cumbersome and annoying. The feature in question involves a moving on-screen graphic. Specifically, a little rotating hitbox. The point is to smash a button on the controller precisely as the ghost image, lines up with the static hit box. Doing so one, or sometimes multiple times will increase your damage output and cause a combo chain type of effect. Seems good right? Well, for different special moves, the speed and timing of each button push is different. For this reason, combat requires your absolute attention in order to be effective. I suppose, that is, after all, the idea. But the flaw here is that combat in this game simply takes too long. Between the fade in and fade out, and all the various combat animations,  the typical battle will last several minutes. Boss fights, can sometimes last 20-30 minutes. Now, that’s to be expected for major or final bosses, but while playing this game, it seemed like every single boss battle took about half an hour. To me, that’s just too long. Plus, random encounters seemed to occur a little too frequently. This combined with the length of the fights themselves, annoyed me greatly.

Another aspect of the combat system is the ability to transform in Dragoon mode. This, in theory, gives your character stronger attack power and access to magic abilities. The magic system is fairly straightforward, but melee attacks as a Dragoon, once again involve a twitch-timer/hotbox type system. Also, spell animations in Dragoon mode seem to be unnecessarily long. (This can be adjusted in the game’s settings, but even so, they still feel longer than they should).

This animation delay, doesn’t just extend to battles. But loading times overall for this game seemed much longer than they should be, and I was actually playing a downloaded PSN copy. I can only imagine how long they must have been on an actual disc.

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Another complaint, is the terrible translation this game has been given. Sony certainly seemed to opt for cost-cutting here. The quality of the translation is on par with the NES version of Metal Gear. But, admittedly, the poor translation does actually manage to give some of the characters a unique sense of personality.

When it comes to sound, LotD is a bit of a mixed bag. The musical score is very well done, and some of the songs are absolutely amazing. But others (like the main combat theme) seem to feel a bit out of place.  There are minor bits of voice acting in cutscenes and during combat, the quality of the voice acting is less than desireable. But again, somehow seems to add to the charm of the game.

Overall, I have a hard time recommending this title to casual gamers, but hardcore RPG fans will find a lot to enjoy here.

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Difficulty: Hard –  Understanding the core concepts of the game itself is easy. The difficulty here lies mainly due to the cumbersome combat system, the frequency of random encounters and the lack of available save points. Taking time to grind levels certainly makes this game a lot easier.

Story: The story here is really the game’s saving grace in my opinion. The tale starts off basic, but over time becomes more and more complex. Yet, somehow never really runs the risk of being too complicated to follow. Very high marks here.

Originality: A lot of things in this game will seem familiar to fans of the JRPG genre. Credit to Sony for trying to introduce new concepts and elements even if they fall flat more often than not.

Soundtrack: The quality of the in-game soundtrack is superb, even if some of the track seem out of place. There are some real gems here.

Fun: For me, the game starting of very well, but by the midpoint I realized that I was forcing myself to play it only to see the finale of the storyline. Plus, the game is looooooong. My playthrough was in excess of sixty hours. This blunted the fun factor for me greatly.

Graphics: For a late-system PS1 title, the graphics are acceptable, but I really feel they could have been better. Character sprites are jaggy and there not much attention to detail. Yes, this was a complaint of FF7 as well, but SE really seemed to be able to overcome this, improving the graphics presentation with each new entry. LotD seems to go the other way. That being said, the pre-rendered backgrounds and FMV cutscenes are very nice.

Playcontrol: Poor. The hitbox/twitch combat feels flawed to me. Yes, I was able to figure it out and get the hang of it, but- I’m still not sure how I did… The animation on the screen doesn’t seem to match the in-game tutorial. Aside from that, the overall controls seem loose and sloppy. I would often have trouble lining up with ladders or navigating around object in the pre-rendered environments.

Downloadable Content: N/A

Mature Content: None.

Value:  Despite all the bad things I have to say about this game, for the prince it’s going for on PSN, in comparison with the vast amount of content the game has to offer, there’s quite a bit of a deal to be had here.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 2 – This game does have some good qualities. But the overall experience can be summed up as frustrating and unpolished. I can only recommend Legend of the Dragoon for the most hardcore RPG gamers out there. And even then, chances are there’s a better example of the genre available to play. This is a game that I would actually love to see remade and refined. There’s some GREAT ideas here, but to me, they are poorly executed.

Available on: PSN