I know what you’re thinking and you’re right, we don’t know anything about Dreamcast RPGs! But new AA member and Dreamcast expert Retro Faith does! So here she is…
When I was asked to contribute to AA I saw it is an opportunity to write different types of articles from my usual retrospectives. After some pointers from the team I decided to tackle a top ten list. The Dreamcast is my specialist subject so am I playing it safe with a top ten DC RPG list.
Sega’s hardware swansong does not have many RPGs which means this list is difficult to put together. In many cases developers skipped porting games to Dreamcast in favour of the PlayStation 2, Xbox and GameCube. Critically acclaimed RPGs Baldur’s Gate and Fable being just two examples of cancelled DC games.
Although the console boasts over 700 titles many are Japanese exclusives. This means many excellent RPGs are inaccessible to Western audiences. For this list I have concentrated on RPGs that have English translations. However, it is worth mentioning that if games such as Sakura Wars had English translations they would have made the list.
- Time Stalkers
A dungeon crawler with a twist, Time Stalkers takes traditional Rougelike elements and mixes them with J-RPG features. You take control of Sword, a hero who has awoken in a strange world. You are tasked with saving its inhabitants while finding out how to escape. The story is interesting if a little shallow but is different enough to help it stand out.
Each time you enter a new dungeon you start back at level one and have limited space to carry objects. This adds a lot of strategy to the battles and because the dungeons are generated randomly no two playthroughs are the same. You pick up various party members as you go and it is possible to capture creatures Pokemon style. They can be collected in your monster house and you can even take one or two along to help in battles.
Having your level reset for each dungeon will put some off but Time Stalkers is going out of its way to try something different. It is a short game though and only becomes a real challenge near the end. It may be a case of a missed opportunity but there is certainly enough here to make it worth your time if you are a serious RPG gamer.
- Dragonriders: Chronicles of Pern
This action RPG title is based on the successful Chronicles of Pern novels written by Anne McCaffrey. The game is ambitious with over 120 locations and over 170 characters to interact with. Anyone familiar with the books will feel right at home with the complex relationships and politics that bring the game world to life. The in depth story will put off casual players but developers Ubi Soft UK have created a genuine cinematic feel.
Gameplay is a mix of third-person adventure and text based interaction. The game is slow paced but this is intentional as you uncover each layer of story. You take control of D’kor, a dragonrider, in his search to find a new mate for a gold dragon. It is heavy going in places with subplots and intrigue in a deep world that pulls all its content from the novels.
The tank controls are implemented well if a little loose in places. Combat is frustrating but is secondary and only exists to move the plot along. The poor camera is the biggest issue with Dragonrider. The static view flicks around in places and is disorienting as well as frustrating. This game will appeal to players looking for a well told story with depth over a great gameplay experience.
- Evolution 2: Far Off Promise
At the turn of the century J-RPGs were all the rage after the huge success of Final Fantasy VII. Every developer was cashing in on the party turn based formula with mixed results. Evolution: The World of Sacred Device released in 1999 to average reviews. It had some charm to it though and developers Sting attempted to improve the formula with a sequel in 2002.
This traditional dungeon crawler continues the story from the first game. Mag Launcher, our teen hero, has been invited to search for some mystery artefacts. Finding them will make him the world’s best adventurer but a hidden evil is hampering him. The story rarely evolves beyond amusing and only diehard J-RPG fans will find any joy here.
The gameplay is solid if uninspired with simple controls and a level up system that is easy to digest. Combat is dull but there is a certain charm to the characters that makes up for this. The enemies are also unimaginative with giant simple spiders, rats and other mutant creatures making up the main roster. Evolution 2 has everything a J-RPG needs but it fails to shine in any category.
I wanted to put this higher up the list as it is such a charming game from UK developer Spiral House. This light hearted action RPG tells the story of David who is on a quest to rescue his kidnapped wife. The real time fighting is refreshing and the story skips along at a great rate. The stand out feature is the pre-rendered backgrounds filled with detail. It is hard not to love the visuals in this game.
The level up system is basic at best and there is little for you to decide as David and other companions develop. This is a shame as having an in depth upgrade system would have added a lot to the simplistic gameplay. As you dash through the linear rooms and areas enemies leap out and must be cleared before moving on. There are several moves for each character and finding the best attack for each foe is crucial.
Silver is a classic title that is both fun and beautiful. The voice acting is not all bad and you do feel for the protagonist at times. If you’re looking for a joyous fantasy romp with RPG elements that doesn’t hold the action back then Silver is a must. If you prefer more control or choice over character development then you may not find this one deep enough.
- Record of Lodoss War
This robust action RPG is based on the anime of the same name. It is the only game in the series released outside its native Japan. You play as a resurrected hero called up to defeat the evil Cardice. There is nothing particularly interesting about the story here and it sadly never evolves beyond the main goal. There is the odd twist with a layer of intrigue but the story is a little disappointing.
The story may be a little lacklustre but the gameplay is excellent. The level up system is based around equipment that you upgrade by visiting the blacksmith. You pick up pieces of mithril and then decided how to improve your helmets, armour, weapons and boots. This gives you complete control of your development and you can emphasis power over protection or magic over speed as examples.
The overall presentation is fine if a little bland in places but the variety of enemies and locations is impressive. The giant bosses and secret battles keep the action fresh while the large levels give you a lot to explore. It is a rewarding game that becomes tough early on. To uncover all the equipment and magic will take patience and trial and error. A must for RPG fans who enjoy a challenge with depth.
Hailed as a pioneer of true open-world games and quick time events, Shenmue was something completely different when it was released. You are Ryo, a teenage martial artist, on a quest to solve your father’s murder. The world of Shenmue is breath-taking and is based on real life locations. The 80’s setting has been recreated beautifully and you can get lost in all the mini-games and side missions.
The graphics are so detailed that you will find yourself simply walking around, looking at all the shop fronts and buildings. Although the voice acting is poor each character feels like a real person. The quests you can complete feel like they have real meaning and actually change the world you are in. There is so much for you to do and the story is as intriguing as it is deep.
Controlling Ryo can be frustrating at times but once you get used to the system you can overlook its shortcomings. The only other downside is the mundane nature of some of the tasks. AM2, the developers led by Yu Suzuki, take the real world so literally that you can even get a job to pay for your lodgings. But if you throw yourself into this world even having a job suddenly seems fun.
- Grandia II
The nature of dungeon crawler games usually means they completely absorb you into the mechanics or you fall into a repetitive game that is easy to lose interest in. Luckily, Grandia II is one of the best modern dungeon crawlers you can lay your hands on. A vibrant, colourful world with distinct areas. Interesting characters, each with their own story to tell. A simple but effective battle system and a complex level up tree with genuine choices.
Charming music and excellent special moves add to the already superb graphics. This is one mighty contender for best dungeon crawler of the sixth generation. The story skips along and evolves constantly as each new set of levels is reached. A surprise ending keeps you gripped until the very end and you will want to dive right back into it after you finish. It is a little linear but there is enough variety to warrant repeat playthroughs.
Any RPG fan will fall in love with the characters and how their stories intertwine. Everything comes together to work well without feeling forced. The computer characters can be repetitive as are the village hubs but it does not affect the gameplay and constant player development. A must for all DC owners, a delight from start to finish.
- Skies of Arcadia
Flying around in a pirate airship, swashbuckling fantastic beasts and taking down an evil empire. Welcome to the world of Skies of Arcadia. You can even use the DC racing wheel to fly your ship in the open-world sections! This just nips Grandia II to the post for best turn based RPG on the DC. Gorgeous visuals and music, exciting combat and characters. All backed up with a diverse story of adventure and coming of age.
The sky pirate, steampunk theme is different and helps Skies stand out but keeps the traditions of the genre alive. This game is notable for being accessible if you are unfamiliar with turn based RPGs. You can start playing without feeling overwhelmed with systems or stats. It is also just fun and has great variety in the locations. You can choose to ignore the side missions and blast through the game or try to uncover every item and character.
Skies is a classy title that shows off the DC at its best. The attention to detail is impressive and the characters all have different movesets. Some of the big special moves are jaw dropping with huge visuals and sounds. The random battle mechanic can get a little frustrating if you’re trying to progress quickly but it suits the gameplay. This is one of the greatest RPGs of all time and is a must play at least once.
- Phantasy Star Online ver.2
The first true MMORPG on consoles and the reason the DC was way ahead of its time. Phantasy Star is the reason we have Fortnite and COD today. Its importance in the history of video games should never be understated. The actual game may not be as good as other RPGs on this list but its a technical marvel that deserves praise. You can even play this online today thanks to a dedicated community who keep it running.
Set in the world of Phantasy Star that had already seen four titles in a series running since the 80’s. This action RPG allows you to build up a character by joining up with friends to complete challenges. The mission range from finding someone to taking down a huge boss. The equipment to find or buy is vast and you can augment some pieces by adding extra parts. You can switch between ranged or melee combat or specialise in healing or magic.
It has been said that the controls are awkward in Phantasy Star Online. I have never really found this to be true and as long as you spend time learning how to play you discover it is actually intuitive. You can play through an offline story mode and this acts as a massive tutorial with over 20 hours of gameplay. The story is limp in places but ticks along and you always have a new mission to go on.
- Shenmue II
I wanted to put Phantasy Star in the number one spot but my head ruled my heart. Shenmue II is quite simply the best game on the DC. It takes everything that made the original so amazing and ramps it up to create one of the greatest gaming moments. This was the DC’s final great game and sadly was not played by as many people as it should have been. The story of Ryo continues as he visits Hong Kong to continue chasing his father’s killer.
Graphically, this title pushes every ounce of power form the DC. The detailed streets and amazing artwork still looks impressive today. You cannot help but take a deep breath each time you turn into a new area. The world is so alive you wonder how this kind of game was possible in 2001. The voice acting has improved along with some of the control niggles that plagued the original.
Every gamer should experience this masterpiece. The story is inviting, the world is mesmerizing and the gameplay draws you in. Even when you have to work to pay for your hotel room you feel the adventure building. Street maps of real life places keep the action moving and the mini-games and interactions keep you wanting more. With the release of Shenmue III finally here, this is the perfect time to play through the whole trilogy.
All screenshots from Moby Games