We don’t care what ‘they’ say, impatience is a virtue. Sure, some of the most memorable worlds, stories and characters in videogame history have come from the RPG genre. And, often, they’re from the cream of the turn-based crop, from Final Fantasy to Knights of the Old Republic. But sometimes, you just need to run up to an enemy and give them a bit of blunt trauma.
Also, thanks to their immediate, gratifying gameplay, action RPGs are particularly fun when you’re out and about, so it’s surprising that there are so few of them on handheld consoles. Heroes of Ruin, the new adventure roleplayer from n-Space, is the latest addition to the list, but here are ten gems of the genre.
Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII (PSP)
Square Enix have been torturing Final Fantasy fans for years with rumours of an enhanced, HD remake of the world-conquering seventh entry in the seminal turn-based J-RPG series. In the meantime, however, they seem quite content to hoover up the community’s cash with the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII collection of spin-off games and movies. As well as ratcheting up the emo hairstyles and melodramatic characters, Crisis Core completely changed the gameplay, allowing players to hack-and-slash with improbably large swords in real-time. For twenty hours or so, as the game trawled through the backstory of FFVII bit-player Zack Fair, we almost forgot about those HD remake rumours. Almost.
We’re sticking to gaming-dedicated handhelds for this list, but Zenonia, developed by South Korean studio Gamevil, is one of many Action RPGs that have made the jump to smartphones, appearing both in the Android and iOS app stores – but the more hardcore at heart can find it on DSiWare and PSN. Sure, the translation of the dialogue is a little off, and the colourful designs may look a little like Final Fantasy’s characters let loose in the art style of The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap, but Zenonia and its three sequels offer action-heavy, heroic adventures for a much more affordable price than its competitors. Is this the start of a K-RPG revolution, destined for phones over gaming handhelds, sold for peanuts yet sustained by in-game microtransactions? We’ll have to see.
Ys SEVEN (PSP)
The Ys series never really caught the Western gaming audience’s imagination in a similar way to other J-RPGs, but this most recent entry in Falcom’s flagship franchise is worth checking out. It’s three-character combat system is hella frantic, its boss battles are spectacular, and its story stands out among the genre’s portentous, heavy plotting by being quite light, whisking the player along on a grand adventure while shepherding them from skirmish to skirmish. Not only is Ys Seven an accessible, fun little gem of a game, it also gives itself over to horrible puns. Is this game worth importing? Ys indeed.
Star Ocean: First Departure (PSP)
The first game in the Star Ocean series, developed for the SNES in 1996, was not originally released outside of Japan, but the franchise has found a new lease of life in the last decade, culminating in an enhanced remake in 2008, which brought the game up to date using a 3D engine. Relatively unique at the time for its futuristic space opera setting, Star Ocean: First Departure also features animated sequences created by Production I.G., the anime studio whose works include Ghost In The Shell, FLCL and the cutscenes for the Professor Layton games.
Phantasy Star 0 (DS)
Just as Phantasy Star Online brought web-enabled role-playing to the Dreamcast, Phantasy Star 0 does the same for the handheld DS audience. Probably the closest we’ve got to an MMORPG on handheld platforms, PS0, like PSO before it, allows up to four players to team up, battle a bunch of intergalactic beasties, and delight in the oodles of loot that come from an epic kill. Although, solitary hack-and-slashers were still catered for with a single-player campaign. But where’s the fun in that?
Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story (DS)
We’ll admit, the combat in the Mario & Luigi series is turn-based, but its way of melding the Nintendo mascot’s trademark platforming with a traditional RPG set-up (see also: Paper Mario, Super Mario RPG) is utterly genius. Bowser’s Inside Story, the series’ second installment on the DS, featured all of the good humour and canon-bending of its equally-good predecessors, but with one unique twist. This time out, the brothers are on a fantastic voyage inside King Koopa himself, and you get to control the action both inside (as a 2D platformer) and out (with a more conventional RPG overworld view).
Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow (DS)
Yes, Castlevania counts. In Symphony of the Night, the vampire-killing franchise adopted the experience and levelling systems of RPGs, mixed them with the series’ famously fiendish combat, and dropped the player in a large location ripe for exploration. While the home console entries have floundered since by aping third-person actioners like God of War and Devil May Cry, the handheld games have maintained Symphony of the Night’s high standard. Dawn of Sorrow, the first DS Castlevania, is the real deal, with a massive castle to explore, multiple endings, and some incredibly challenging boss battles. Just excuse the game’s baffling shift from its predecessors’ high gothic aesthetic to a cutesy anime art style, and you’re on to a winner.
Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep (PSP)
Now, there’s some debate here, mainly along platform lines, as to which is the better Kingdom Hearts handheld spin-off: 358/2 Days or Birth By Sleep. After the iffy, card-based GBA installment, Chain of Memories, both games successfully translated the series’ keyblade-swinging action gameplay to portable consoles, and delved into the melodramatic back-stories of some of the Final Fantasy / Disney mash-up’s characters. Birth By Sleep, however, edges it, due to the PSP’s superior graphics, a selection of new worlds to visit (including the aptly-named Disney Town, and locations from Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty), and a fantastic voice cast featuring both Mark Hamill and Leonard Nimoy.
Half Minute Hero (PSP)
Brilliant, bonkers and bite-sized, Half Minute Hero is a great example of a high-concept gimmick played out to great effect. It features four characters, each of which represent a different game mode. There’s a crossbow-wielding Princess, a Sage-protecting Knight, and a minion-commanding Evil Lord, but it is in the Hero’s quest that it playfully turns the conventions of the Action RPG upside down. As always, there’s an overworld map, random encounters, and a big boss to defeat. The twist is, you have to tackle it all in 30 seconds. All in a day’s work, really.
The World Ends With You (DS)
And they say J-RPG developers have run out of ideas. While that may be true with many of the massive franchises – some of which have appeared on this list – that wasn’t the case back in 2008, when gamers were handed The World Ends With You, a slice of pure, colourful madness. From the anime-inspired visuals to the ultra-slick soundtrack, The World Ends With You screamed personality, and used the DS to full effect with its mind-bending combat, which happened across both screens. In stark contrast to many of its handheld brethren, it wasn’t merely a shrunk-down console game, it played to the strengths of its platform, making it unique in both gameplay and, thanks to the hip Shibuya setting, aesthetic.
Have we missed any superb specimens of the action RPG genre? If so, don’t let loose a flaming fireball in our direction, but please do let us know your picks in the comments. Although, here’s a conversation starter for you. Aside from Heroes of Ruin, all of the above games were developed by Eastern companies. So, where are the portable Western RPGs? Dear Bioware, Blizzard and Bethesda… what gives?