Criminal Girls: A Game About Trust

Criminal Girls, one of the more controversial Japanese titles to make it over to the West in recent years thanks to its semi-explicit depiction of BDSM-style “punishment” scenes, actually proved to be one of the more interesting games I’ve played for a while owing to its exploration of a concept we tend to take for granted: trust.

In most games, there’s an unspoken trust between the players and the on-screen characters. You trust them to do what you tell them and they, in turn, trust you to make the right decisions that won’t get them killed. The latter part in particular isn’t always made explicit because the player’s presence isn’t usually acknowledged, but in games where you’re not playing a self-insert protagonist, there’s a strong argument that it’s implied.

Criminal Girls is a little different, however. Not only do you, the player, have a participant role in the game — albeit not as a combatant in the game’s battle sequences — but you also have to spend a hefty amount of time convincing your party members to trust both you and each other. And it’s here that things get pretty interesting.

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Adventures in Akihabara

One of video gaming’s great strengths is the opportunity it affords us to truly, interactively immerse ourselves in other cultures.

We talked about this a little while back when we examined how Steins;Gate is positively dripping with the otaku culture of Tokyo’s Akihabara district, even going so far as to include an in-game glossary explaining and defining all the memes, urban legends and specialist jargon that crop up throughout the narration and dialogue.

Steins;Gate is far from an isolated example, however; Acquire’s Akiba’s Trip 2, localised for Western PS3, PS4 and Vita audiences as Akiba’s Trip: Undead and Undressed, also provides you with the opportunity to live the life of an otaku in their spiritual home — and in a somewhat more interactive manner than Steins;Gate’s visual novel stylings.

Oh, and also there are vampires. Kind of.

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Ten Great RPGs That Came Out After Final Fantasy VII

As we saw recently, there are those among us who believe that the Japanese role-playing game has been in consistent decline since Final Fantasy VII, and that only now are we starting to see a “comeback”.

We’ve already talked about how this is a load of old nonsense, and that in fact the role-playing game genre has been healthy for a good few years — just a little different to its mainstream status back in its PlayStation heyday, instead preferring to cater to a niche audience of passionate fans rather than attempting to be everything to everyone; the latter option is now the domain of the triple-A sector.

So with that in mind, what better time to contemplate a selection of great role-playing games from the last few generations of console hardware, all of which have been released since the Squaresoft classic first wowed everyone back in 1997?

Note: As with any list, this isn’t intended to be an exhaustive or authoritative selection. These are my personal picks for games that I’ve found noteworthy and particularly enjoyable from the PS1 era and beyond; I’d love to hear some of your favourites in the comments, too.

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Are JRPGs Primed for a Comeback? No; They Never Went Away

If IGN’s Colin Moriarty is to be believed, then Japanese role-playing games have been in a “steep decline” since Final Fantasy VII.

You and I, as fellow enthusiasts of Japanese gaming, both know that this is perhaps a somewhat questionable claim to make, but it’s also worth examining, particularly in light of the fact that Moriarty doesn’t stray very far from the Square Enix comfort zone during his ponderings of this supposedly fallen genre.

In fact, the genre has been extremely healthy for many years now; it’s simply undergone some fairly significant changes from how we knew it in the mid-’90s. And why shouldn’t it? Stagnation isn’t fun for anyone, particularly in the fast-moving realms of technology and entertainment — two fields that are notorious for fashions and trends changing, at times, overnight.

So, with all that in mind, let’s ponder the changing face of the JRPG over the last 15 years or so.

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I Shall Give You Endless Earth

Every avid gamer out there has at least one series — or perhaps even just one game — that they latch onto and will defend to the death.

For my friend Alex, it was the Ar Tonelico series, a generation-spanning series of role-playing games from Gust, the team best-known for the Atelier series. And, once I’d played through all three games in the series, I became a true believer, too.

I came to Ar Tonelico and its two sequels quite a while after their initial release, but they’re not as old as you might think — or as their dated graphics might suggest. In fact, the initial games’ release on the PlayStation 2 just as the PlayStation 3 was starting to wind up and capture the attention of everyone probably contributed to the fact that, although rather wonderful, these three games are somewhat underappreciated by many, and even unknown to some.

So let’s rectify that, shall we?

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Eorzea Diaries: Fixing the Hunt

It’s been a little while since our last report from Eorzea, the setting of Square Enix’s spectacular rebooted MMO Final Fantasy XIV, and so it’s about time we checked in.

Last time we spoke, you may recall that there was some controversy over a new game system added in the 2.3 Defenders of Eorzea patch, known as The Hunt.

Loosely inspired by the similar mechanic in Final Fantasy XII, The Hunt challenges denizens of Eorzea to track down and defeat numerous powerful monsters in exchange for a new type of currency: Allied Seals. This currency is in high demand because not only does it allow access to some attractive vanity gear and exclusive minions, it also indirectly allows players to acquire Sands and Oils of Time, which in turn allow them to upgrade item level 100 “Weathered” weapons, armour and accessories into their item level 110 counterparts.

There was a problem, though: the attractiveness of these rewards meant that there were suddenly swathes of people zerg-rushing the monsters for The Hunt, which caused all manner of other problems.

Now that patch 2.35 has been released, incorporating a few fixes to The Hunt, is the experience at least playable now?

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Tales of Xillia 2: The Difficult Second Game

There’s a reason we don’t see all that many direct sequels in gaming these days: they’re extremely difficult to do effectively.

This is particularly true in genres where individual installments are sprawling, lengthy affairs with narratives of a length equivalent to your average TV series — such as, say, role-playing games. This isn’t to say that developers don’t have a good go at it — Square Enix has done it three times to date with the Final Fantasy series’ X-2, XIII-2 and Lightning Returns installments, for example, and one of the best things about the wonderful Shadow Hearts series is the coherence of its narrative, particularly between the first two games — but often it’s just easier to have games in a series like this be thematically similar rather than directly related to one another.

Such has been the case for most of the Tales series’ lifespan, bar a few outliers like Tales of Destiny 2 and Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World. Xillia 2 has a difficult role to fulfil, then: it’s the sequel to a great game, and it needs to follow up all the things that title did well, improve the things it could have done better and provide a very good reason for people to go back into the same world with the same characters.

Does it manage this without “reducing, reusing and recycling?”

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Tales of Xillia 2: Those Who Fight Together…

While it may be hyperbolic to say that an RPG can live or die by its combat system — I’ve played plenty of games over the years that remained compelling despite shambolic or overly simplistic battle systems — it’s certainly an important part of the experience as a whole.

The Tales series has always somewhat done its own thing with regard to battles over the years, eschewing both the turn-based nature of many traditional RPGs and the quasi-real-time Active Time Battle style of most Final Fantasy games. For those unfamiliar, a Tales game typically involves real-time combat with a party of four characters, with various button combinations unleashing both a selection of regular attacks and special “artes” that differ according to the character. In many cases, the games have even offered multiplayer functionality, with additional players able to take on manual control of other party members alongside the main player.

Tales of Xillia featured a particularly strong take on this battle system, with a cast of characters who all handled markedly differently from one another thanks to different weapon types and unique special abilities. When combined with the Link system that allowed characters to attach themselves to one another and trigger further unique skills, it became a flexible but easy-to-understand system into which you could delve as much as you desired. Those who simply wanted to button-mash hack-and-slash could stick with a single character; those who wanted a little more variety could switch around who they played as at a moment’s notice.

Tales of Xillia 2, unsurprisingly, follows suit, with a few little twists here and there.

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Tales of Xillia 2: Becoming a Better Person

Long gone are the days when an RPG could get away with a linear progression system, with characters simply learning skills at predefined levels.

Instead, these days we see all manner of different takes on the traditional “level up” system — and a few games that abandon it altogether in favour of alternative means of progression.

Tales of Xillia 2 doesn’t totally abandon a conventional progression model, but it does do some interesting things with how you develop your characters’ abilities and progress through the story. A number of different systems all interact with one another, ultimately allowing you to tailor the game somewhat to how you want to play.

But does it work? Well, read on and find out.

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Tales of Xillia 2: A Test of Character

One of the most important things for any party-based RPG to get right is that feeling of everyone having a place.

This can be handled in two different ways according to what kind of RPG we’re contemplating. Dungeon crawlers like Demon Gaze take a mechanics-focused approach in which every member of your party has an important role to play in combat, but outside dungeons they tend to fade into the background somewhat, with the player-controlled protagonist tending to take centre stage for important events.

Meanwhile, more story-centric RPGs emphasise the narrative trope of nakama, a Japanese term typically used to refer to the idea of true companionship — the idea of a group of characters who band together and become a substitute family for one another. They may not necessarily agree on everything, but they share common bonds that are usually strengthened by their shared hardships.

One of the things I liked most about the original Tales of Xillia was that it blended elements of both of these approaches. And its sequel, unsurprisingly, follows suit.

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The best of overlooked and underappreciated computer and video games, from yesterday and today