Editor's note: The return of Monster Rancher eclipses my disappointment over Valkyria Chronicles going to the PSP. Monster Rancher was one of my favorite PlayStation series — I loved popping in CDs and DVDs and seeing what critters popped up onscreen. -Jason
Fans of role-playing games have plenty of options these days. RPGs come from most corners of the world and with different styles. This can make it hard for gamers to makes sense of the multitude of games. But take heart! This monthly column breaks down each month's new RPGs, including gameplay descriptions and word on the street about a game's quality.
The theme for this month is clearly console RPG series making the jump to the PSP, with both Valkyria Chronicles and Ys seeing proper sequels on the platform. Honestly, this is a perfectly welcome development, as RPGs fit portable systems well. Vacations just aren’t the same without them. Now, let’s see what August has in store.
Valkyria Chronicles 2 (PSP)
Release Date: August 31
Valkyria Chronicles was a breath of fresh air. It single-handedly reinvigorated the strategy-RPG formula and proved that Sega could still create a dynamite RPG.
But this shouldn't be that surprising; former members of Overworks, a Sega studio responsible for the Skies of Arcadia and Phantasy Star series — some of the best RPGs ever made — worked on Valkyria Chronicles.
Valkyria Chronicles became one of the freshest games released in 2008 by utilizing a free-roaming movement system similar to Phantom Brave and Jagged Alliance, taking cues from tabletop wargaming, and implementing a gorgeous graphics engine that gave its visuals a colorful, sketchbook feel. In short, it was a masterpiece.
Popular opinion began to turn bad after the sequel's announcement. The move to the PSP raised more than a few eyebrows, especially when it came to Sega downgrading the visuals to adapt it to the PSP. Critics panned the new character designs for leaning a little too heavily on anime clichés, especially given that the first game reined in its anime influences to some degree. VC2 seemed to ride on the popularity of the official anime, the same one that inflated Alicia’s bust size to ridiculous proportions. And the game’s premise, a military school, seems to directly riff off of other JRPGs that have used schools as their setting, such as Persona 3 and 4.
But the quality gameplay of the first game is still completely intact, and the game with the requisite sequel upgrades. The original game’s classes remain, but it has new ones as well as a branching upgrade tree. And since the mechanics are still as solid as they were in the first game, fans shouldn't be disappointed with the gameplay.
The more impressive feat is the visuals, as the graphics-engine's downgrade to accommodate the PSP isn't as severe as you'd think, unappealing aesthetic decisions or not. But the one thing this game unequivocally has over the original is it is Valkyria you can take everywhere, and that’s just magical.
Monster Rancher DS
Release Date: August 3
At an initial glance, you could mistake Monster Rancher for a Pokémon ripoff. Look deeper, however, and you’ll see that it actually approaches monster battling from a different angle. Instead of traipsing around a specific region of the world, all the action takes place in the same few areas. This is because the game is part monster-raising simulation, meaning training is about more than experience points.
In Monster Rancher, players recruit monsters in creative ways that break expectations: from reading information off CDs (and for the PlayStation 2 game, DVDs, and typing characters for the GameBoy Advance titles). The DS version allows creation of monsters through drawing pictures on the screen or reciting incantations through the microphone. And as an added bonus, people buying this would help a struggling yet deserving developer, Cing.
Yet the series has been known to cause frustration, such as loss of progress if things don’t go well. Losing a monster you’ve invested a lot of time in can cause headaches. You should wait for the reviews to see if Monster Rancher DS sounds like fun to you.
Also this month:
Ys Seven (PSP)
Release Date: August 17
[Disclaimer: It is pronounced “Ees,” not “Whys”. Thank you for your cooperation.]
The Ys series had traveled a long and disjointed road. The first two games are legendary for their amazing soundtracks, but many find their gameplay dated, especially given that attacking enemies amounts to pressing up against them. The third game switched things up and adopted a structure not unlike Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link. A hefty amount of bad design derailed its ambitions. The series eventually evolved into a solid action-RPG in the style of Secret of Mana or Crystalis. This includes the most recent Ys game, The Ark of Napishtim for the PS2.
As it turns out, this latest release polishes the gameplay that came before, making it faster and smoother. And unlike the PSP port of Napishtim — andits abysmal load times — Ys Seven is designed for the PSP (and at a time when players can install their games, too). This is an extremely solid series that's worth checking out if you have any interest in action-RPGs. And in keeping with the Ys tradition, it should have an amazing soundtrack.
It’s an expansion explosion as this month sees additional content for City of Heroes and Divinity 2: Ego Draconis. While the Divinity 2's Flames of Vengeance is your standard expanded content for the original game, City of Heroes: Going Rogue allows characters to switch sides through a new morality system. This effectively removes a rather large barrier from the game for existing characters, a definite win by any definition.
Finally, the venerable MMORPG series EverQuest 2 receives a free-to-play release called EverQuest 2 Extended. This effectively creates a separate server separate from the paid game and allows players to play for free with some options for microtransactions. We’ve seen this strategy bring new life to games like Dungeons & Dragons Online, so this could very well help one of the longest-running MMOs keep going and going and going….