With Bravely Default being the talk of the town, I figured it was best to share my favourite handheld RPGs. Although, doing so is a fool’s game; I can’t imagine you’ll be able to put Bravely Default down long enough to read this, let alone commit to another 20+ hours long RPG.
Since these are personal favourites, save any potential scorn for a more definitive list (TOP 10 RPGs EVER!). Your favourite not here? Perhaps I never played it. Maybe I think it’s a dud. Hell, I could even own it but am drowning in enough of an RPG backlog as it is. Fill me in on some of your favourites on Twitter (I’m @tylerohlew) or in the comment section below. Maybe you can turn me onto a game I’ve never even heard of!
Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII – Square Enix – PSP
It’s great that something good came out of the Final Fantasy VII Compilation. These kinds of projects tend to cash in us weak willed fans, and with games like Dirge of Cerberus kicking the festivities off, it appeared Square-Enix’s efforts were no different.
Crisis Core is more a more action oriented affair, which puts it in line with works like the Kingdom Hearts series. Even still, the RPG tropes we love make the transition. Battles aren’t about mashing an attack button, but about working your way through the enemies with the most suiting decisions. Who you attack and with what is as important as ever, with enemy weaknesses, Action Points, and status affects playing as much a role as the more traditional Final Fantasy games. Spicing things up is a slot-machine that doles out power ups and Limit Breaks as the battle wages on.
Importantly, Crisis Core doesn’t forget the hardware it’s running on. It’s story unfolds in missions, which are broken up and peppered with save points. This works wonderfully on the PSP, and allows players to accomplish a lot with little investment.
It also features some of the hottest male eyebrows you’ll ever see. Does Zack get them waxed, or threaded? A friend wants to know.
Radiant Historia – Atlus – DS
While the feeling may not be mutual, I’d argue that any RPG worth a damn has a pretty great combat system. It’s what you’ll be partaking in the most, so it certainly helps to have one that can keep the player entertained throughout what is likely an awfully long adventure.
Much like Bravely Default, Radiant Historia‘s combat is far from the norm. It gives players control over what could be the most important part of any battle; turn order. By swapping your party’s turns around, players are able to design deadly equations of punishment, where the solution is always victory. By delaying your turn you become more susceptible to damage, but if your plan works as intended it was all for the best.
Increasing the importance of turn order is the placement of enemies of the battlefield. Dotted along a 3×3 grid, the enemies can be pushed and pulled in any direction. This means you can group a three man squad onto one space, damaging them all with just a single attack.
Coupled with a splendid tale of time traveling and a wonderful cast, and Radiant Historia is an RPG no one should miss. Change the turn order of your life if that’s what it takes to play this modern classic (bump eating and sleeping down a few pegs if need be).
Valkyria Chronicles 2 – SEGA – PSP
“You got your shooty shoot in my RPG!”
“No, you got your RPG in my shooty shoot!”
“You’re both wrong! You mixed your garbage in my waifu oogling, high school simulator!”
Whoa, whoa, slow down, guys! You’re just playing Valkyria Chronicles 2, the best of all your weird little worlds.
It’s a difficult thing to pull off, this whole genre mixing thing. Sega managed to pull it off, creating a game that impresses on this fact alone.
VC2 does a great job of distinguishing its character classes. While you’re more than often wielding a gun of some sort, the differences from character to character are staggering. While other games claim the need to restructure one’s party as the stage demands, more often than not I’m able to muscle my way through with the team of juggernauts I’ve assembled. VC2 could very well be the same way, but the look and feel of each class makes me want to mix and match. It’s rare that I ever feel the need to study a map in an SRPG, but here I’m constantly on the lookout for vantage points and alternative routes. Perhaps it’s the (somewhat) grounded world of warfare the game takes place in that forces me to consider my options. The fact that I’m playing as teenagers certainly has an effect as well, I hardly want to be responsible for any horrific outcome.
While the game made some cuts and additions that fans of the PS3 original disagree with, I find Valkyria Chronicles 2 a worthy successor. I enjoyed the high school setting, and felt it jived well with the handheld friendly mission structure.
It’s a shame about VC3 though…
Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga – Nintendo/AlphaDream – Game Boy Advance
While the Mario & Luigi series matured and refined itself with each successive entry, Superstar Saga remains my favourite.
While that “freshness” of a newly started series plays a role, it isn’t the only reason for my affections. As you’ve seen, combat ranks very highly on my list of wants from an RPG. Superstar Saga boasted an incredible system, one that allowed me to be as safe or brazen as I wanted. The attacks that the Mario Bros. dealt could be altered at any point; on the easiest setting the game would slow down at key points and prominent ly display the proper button press. Bump it up annotch and the speed increases and prompts disappear. You can even get to this absurd point where there are secret prompts, say hitting B at a certain point in Luigi’s jump to alter the attack entirely. These changes give the attacks note oomph, rewarding the player but also keeping them on their toes.
While the humour and aesthetics are as darling as ever, this approach to combat gives the first installment of this series an edge. Its removal from subsequent entries is a huge disappointment, and I’m doubtful it will ever return.
Persona 4 Golden – Atlus – Vita
I’m positive you’re well aware of just how amazing Persona 4 Golden is. It’s ability to create such a dreary yet exciting world is why I keep coming back to it. Even though the game surrounds you with death and misery, you’re still required to hit the books and on the babes as much as possible. It seems jarring, but Persona 4 Golden does it all with a flair of its own.
The game’s labyrinths are haunting, but traveling alongside your best friends and a talking bear make the trip worthwhile. It doesn’t hurt that the combat is pleasant either. It all amounts to a game that is as slick as oil, everything about P4G is minimal yet flashy. It’s an odd juxtaposition, but that’s the only way I can put it in words.
Shin Megami Tensei IV – Atlus – 3DS
I’m worried I may even be out of things to say…but here goes.
What makes SMTIV so incredible is how accommodating it is. It sounds ridiculous coming from a series known for its steep difficulty, but those behind this latest entry went against what had been done before. Better put, they let the player decide how hard the game would be.
Regardless of skill level, SMTIV houses improvements anyone can appreciate. As I scroll through my attacks, the game displays which the enemy is weak to. Quests come from one source, meaning I’m not left scouring for an NPC I met hours earlier.
It’s all just so forward thinking that I see SMTIV as a great starting point for many RPGs going forward. Whether they like it or not, many efforts will be compared to SMTIV. I almost feel spoiled to have found it.
Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride – Square-Enix – DS
While Dragon Quest V may not be my first foray into the franchise, it certainly came along very early (I had only played IV before it). Even still, it set a high mark for the series, one no other installment has reached in fact.
For me, it’s the perfect blend of story and gameplay. Dragon Quest IV left me wanting for a stronger narrative. The gameplay hooks were there, but I never felt driven to march onwards. Hand of the Heavenly Bride provides that meat I enjoy alongside my darling potatoes. The story is very touching, and only made a larger impact as I became a father.
Fire Emblem Awakening – Nintendo/Intelligent Systems – 3DS
At one time I had come to the conclusion that Fire Emblem was a series that wasn’t for me. It seemed impenetrable, a series far too hard for me to enjoy.
Thankfully my inability to control myself had prevailed when a national retailer mistakingly sold Fire Emblem Awakening a week before release. I caved, but I couldn’t be happier. With its Casual Mode carrying me along the way, I never had to worry about the series’ more extreme aspects of life and death. Sure, some claim that to be its most important feature, but I saw it as a roadblock. How could I, a father of two children, find the time to redo multiple failures? Would trudging forward past the deaths only lead to further difficulties when I commanded an army of only three?
Removing that barrier allowed me to enjoy Fire Emblem‘s other beauties. It was such a joy commanding dragon riders and dark mages across a map, trying to trap my enemies between the two. Fostering relationships between unlikely partners is something that should be in every game with Awakening serving as the example of perfection. I thought a high fantasy tale was something I could never be taken with, but I was wrong on that count too, thanks to a humourous and thoughtful script from 8-4 Ltd..
I was surprised by Awakening in a lot of ways, but I think they’ve got a hold of me now.
The World Ends With You – Square-Enix / Jupiter – DS
It wouldn’t be fair to write a list about handheld RPGs without mention of this Square-Enix brain exploder. There’s reason to believe no list ever should be without TWEWY, but I digress.
It’s hard to believe this game even exists. It’s the Frankenstein’s monster of games, a mish mash of so many ideas and concepts it’s hard to keep track of it all. TWEWY making it all work would have been a wonder, but the fact that it makes it sing is a miracle.
The combat is incredibly manic, with the action occuring on both the top and bottom screens. Even in allowing the top screen to be completely controlled by the computer, it’s no less chaotic. You’re likely to tear up the touch screen from getting so caught up in the action.
I wish I could include a voice clip of me screaming with how intense this game can be.
The World Ends With You is such a creative game that you can’t help but fall in love. It never falls back on any tropes or well worn features. Innovation is constant, and the game allows an insane amount of customization of your experience. Of all the games I’ve written and may write about in the future, it’s the most DS a DS game could be. I doubt I’ve ever played a game as inventive and fun as TWEWY.
Contact – Atlus / Grasshopper Manufacture – DS
I’ve saved my hardest recommendation for last. Well, let’s not even consider it a recommendation, but instead a cute rant about a less than perfect game (one that I happen to love).
Contact‘s premise takes the DS into account, something I haven’t seen until recently with Tearaway. You control Terry, not just through the D-Pad, but as a character “outside” the game as well. Terry is displayed on the bottom screen in a detailed world, while on the top screen resides the Professor. You interface with the Professor as a middleman between him and Terry It’s all very absurd, but nonetheless entertaining.
The gameplay is what makes this game hard to suggest. It’s certainly interesting in its approach, but the game’s brevity means there’s little chance to master it. Terry auto attacks enemies, and specific stats improve based on what weapon you decide to attack with. Outfits are provided, each allowing Terry to perform new actions and skills. But as I said the game is quite short, so it’s difficult to focus on more than a couple before Contact comes to a close.
The game comes to a rather bizarre ending caps off an adventure I have fond memories of. The game was succeeded (spiritually by what I’m told) by Sakura Note, a game that’ll never come to North America. That doesn’t mean I have to believe that though! It’s coming…just been a bit of a delay is all…