Cassandra Ramos’ RPGs of the Decade
In addition to showing the results our staff-wide voting, our massive RPGs of the Decade feature allows individual staff members to highlight their personal favourites from the last ten years. While our main list is limited to entirely new entries from the decade, our writers have been given a bit more leeway for their personal lists, being able to combine titles into a single entry in their list of ten, include various remasters and ports, and use whatever ordering, or not, they wish. Here, Cassandra Ramos gives us her picks.
Bravely Default is a great game, an excellent combination of old-school mechanics and modern aesthetics and conveniences. Its direct sequel, Bravely Second: End Layer, refines and improves upon Bravely Default in nearly every way. The battle system is largely untouched between both games; after all, the now-familiar Brave and Default mechanics are what distinguishes them from most other turn-based RPGs. It’s just as fun and engaging in Second to unlock new skills and combine different jobs and abilities as it is in Default. Bravely Second does introduce a new chain-battle mechanic, which has players continue to battle enemies in succession for greater risks and rewards. The visuals in Bravely Second are ever so slightly better, particularly for the character models.
Where the latter game really improves upon the first one is in its story and characters. While Bravely Default has a good story, it’s bogged down by repetition, particularly to get the best ending. The story’s pacing is much better in Bravely Second. Even the apparently repetitive parts are distinct enough that they don’t feel that way. The villains’ motivations are more apparent and are revealed promptly. The plot twists are arguably more twisty, although their impact is heavily dependent upon Bravely Default. The two new main characters, Yew and Magnolia, are lovable in their own right, but they also have fantastic chemistry with returning party members Edea and Tiz, as well as with NPCs and each other. While I liked the party in Bravely Default for the most part, something was lacking in their camaraderie. The party in Bravely Second really feels like a group of friends, helped by the return of party chat and the new Yew’s magic tent scenes, which are delightfully amusing. Even Tiz has a stronger, goofier personality in Second than in Default. Helping the characters and story is a noticeable improvement in the direction of the voice acting. The only caveat to Bravely Second, though major, is the music. It’s not bad by any means, but Ryo’s compositions pale in comparison to Revo’s music from the first game. Even so, Bravely Second does so many things so well, and I absolutely adore it!
It’s too difficult for me to pick just one of the Fire Emblem games that came out in the last decade (although I can say that Fates is my least favorite of them), so I’ll give nods to three of them as equally as possible. Fire Emblem roared back from the brink of doom (or at least a long hiatus), all thanks to the success of Fire Emblem: Awakening. It’s not the best in the series by any means, but it brings together several features from prior Fire Emblem titles into one great game. The gameplay is fun and flashy, but it’s the characters and pairing them up that really made the game for me. I enjoyed the support conversations so much, I completed the support log and spent more time on Awakening than any other 3DS game. While the later Fire Emblem games are better (except for the Birthright campaign of Fates), I probably enjoyed Awakening the most out of all of them, if the 688 hours I spent playing it are any indication.
Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia may be a remake of the black sheep of the series, but it’s such an overhaul that it’s more of a reimagining than anything. It’s a fantastic game in its own right, and one of my favorite in the series. The story is excellent and engaging. It’s astonishing how the writers manage to flesh out the original and incorporate current lore and even call forwards to Awakening. There are fewer characters compared to other Fire Emblem games, but they’ve all been endowed with personalities and backstories. They’re also notably more multifaceted than many of the characters in Awakening and Fates. Enhancing both the characters and story is full voice acting, a first for the main series. The music is exquisite and would be my most favorite in the series if not for the next game I want to touch upon.
I still don’t know how I rank Fire Emblem: Three Houses compared to the other games in the series. I was already waffling over whether I preferred Shadows of Valentia or Path of Radiance, though Three Houses is probably somewhere up there along with Awakening. The structure is different than in prior games, with time divided between battles and other non-combat activities at Garreg Mach Monastery. It does slow down the gameplay loop, but I do really enjoy running around the monastery, talking to the students and staff, making food, and other things that raise support points between units. The characters are delightful as well, most of them with complex personalities and backgrounds. The support conversations are more involved than any prior game, having both full voice acting and character models moving around on screen. Battles are as fun as ever, even if they’re not as complex as other titles. And, as I mentioned before, the music is wonderful. I feel like I really need to play through a few more of the routes before I can judge Three Houses better, but it’s currently my favorite Nintendo Switch game.
The original Devil Survivor was my first foray into the Megami Tensei meta-series, and I quite enjoyed the original DS version. Then, in 2011, an enhanced 3DS port would be released: Devil Survivor Overclocked. Even though I had the original game, there was little that interested me on the 3DS at the time, so I bought the port. I became enraptured with it all over again. Devil Survivor already has a fantastic story and a strong cast of characters. It’s astonishing how both aspects are enhanced by the Overclocked version’s full voice acting. The feelings of dread and mounting desperation come across especially well. The actors and voice director really outdid themselves. Overclocked even has new content in the form of the Eighth Day, an additional chapter to specific endings. The gameplay in Devil Survivor didn’t need much improvement, so Overclocked only added some new demons and skills. I absolutely love the hybrid strategy and turn-based combat and enjoy figuring out how to fuse the best demons for the job. While I’ve played a few other MegaTen games since then, I still adore Devil Survivor Overclocked the most.
Devil Survivor 2: Record Breaker deserves a nod here as well. While I don’t feel the story is as strong as in the first game, I do think that the addition of voice acting really adds to the characters’ personalities. The new Triangulum story arc is excellent as well.
Much has been said about how utterly fantastic Xenoblade Chronicles is. Xenoblade is widely considered the Wii’s best game, and it’s certainly my favorite. The game has just about everything going for it: a top-notch story, a lovable and memorable cast of characters, great voice acting, an original and creative setting, an excellent soundtrack, and a fun and engaging combat system. Even if the graphics are rough around the edges in its original incarnation, its art direction is wonderful and the environments are breathtaking. There are very few video game soundtracks that I think surpass Xenoblade’s music.
My attempt at summarizing the story about a year ago for a podcast shows how little I remember the plot details, but I do remember how I felt while playing the game. I was thoroughly engaged in the plot and the history of the strange worlds of the Bionis and Mechonis, as well as the more personal struggles of the characters. I also quite enjoy the many allusions to Gnosticism. I really do need to revisit this game someday to remind myself why I love Xenoblade so much. There will soon be an enhanced Nintendo Switch release that will give me just that opportunity.
Four Pokémon generations have come out since 2010, and each one has its good points. While, in some respects, Sun and Moon and Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon are better games, I absolutely love Pokémon Black and White the most. I will admit to some “regional bias,” as Unova is based on my home state of New York. The Pokémon designs are terrific as well, and I love how you only encounter creatures introduced in Unova during the main game. The music is excellent, too. They’re the first Pokémon games that I feel have genuinely great soundtracks.
Where Black and White really shine, though, are in their story and characters. The plot is weaker compared to most other entries on this top ten list, but it’s unique and still the Pokémon series’ strongest story yet. It has the best balance between the trainer’s journey and conflict against antagonist forces. I love how Black and White’s ending is subverted in such a major way: the champion can only be challenged properly after the credits roll. Many of the NPCs undergo their own development arc throughout the game, particularly friendly rival Bianca, the Unova Champion Alder, and especially the apparent leader of Team Plasma, N. Even the Gym Leaders have more in the way of personalities than previous games, and play minor but important roles in the main story. I still wish later generations of games could at least match Black and White in terms of story.
Skyward Sword is quite possibly my favorite Zelda game, although I’m undecided on how well it stacks up against my other favorite Zelda, The Wind Waker. At the time of its release, Skyward Sword had the strongest story in the series. I especially enjoyed how Skyward Sword endeared me to its characters. Zelda has a playful, casual personality not seen in her other incarnations, likely because she isn’t a princess in Skyward Sword. It’s also made very apparent how much she and Link care for each other. Groose is pompous and conceited at first but does become friends with Link after a time and some character development. I even like a few of the NPCs. The game’s use of motion controls is a bit controversial, but I actually had a lot of fun with them. Dungeon designs and the large overworld areas are great, too. “Ballad of the Goddess” is still my single favorite piece of Zelda music. I haven’t replayed any Zelda game, but this is one that I most would like to return to.
For those wondering how I could possibly rank this game over Breath of the Wild; I actually don’t. I still haven’t played BotW, so I can’t compare the two yet.
Like other Atlus-developed DS games, Radiant Historia saw an enhanced port released on the 3DS, albeit late in the handheld’s lifespan. Like the previous Devil Survivor Overclocked, the Perfect Chronology version is clearly the definitive edition. The original game already had a strong, intriguing plot revolving around the ongoing conflict between two nations on a continent ravaged by magically-induced desertification.
Perfect Chronology adds additional story content in the form of Possible Histories, which are worlds different from the main Standard and Alternate Timelines. These are seemingly a series of unconnected side quests, although the artifacts found within these timelines are needed to get a new ending. Also, like the Devil Survivor ports, Perfect Chronology features fantastic voice acting, which really helps to flesh out the characters and story. The battle system is still fun and strategic, with its focus on manipulating turn order and grouping enemies together. While I was hoping for a sequel to the original game, I am glad to see a new, better version of Radiant Historia and consider it one of my favorite games on the 3DS.
Arc Rise Fantasia‘s localization has become somewhat infamous, at least among the few who are aware of this Wii game. Considering how often the strength of a game’s voice acting affected my enjoyment of an RPG, I thought what befell ARF was especially unfortunate. Yet I still love this game, despite its glaring flaws. Arc Rise Fantasia has possibly my favorite traditional turn-based combat system thus far. I especially love to combine spells and special attacks to create devastatingly powerful combos. This firepower is quite necessary, as there are some very difficult boss fights. While hard, I didn’t find them unfair, as even losing fights can show the means to change up my strategy and come out on top next time. ARF also has an excellent soundtrack, an interesting story, and some neat characters.
I don’t know how likely a remake or rerelease of this game is, with Imageepoch’s untimely demise, but it’s something I wish to see someday. Other than introducing the game to more people, I really hope to see it get the localization it deserves.
The original Shin Megami Tensei IV felt like it was less than the sum of its parts, which is why I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse. While I enjoyed the gameplay of the original SMT IV, it was very lacking in terms of story and characters. The improved focus on Apocalypse’s story, as well as the better pacing, not only makes it much better than its predecessor but makes it a great story overall. Apocalypse is more character-driven than SMT IV as well, and I ended up liking most of them, even the arrogant Gaston once he stopped being so much of a loner-jerk. As is to be expected with an Atlus-published game, the English voice acting and localized script are excellent as well. I like how the common Law vs. Chaos struggle found in other MegaTen games is subsumed by the new faction fighting against Lucifer and Merkabah, the Divine Powers. I also like the themes of the making and breaking of bonds in the story, even if it seems to me that it clearly pushes the player towards keeping Nanashi’s bonds with his friends. The battle system is a marked improvement over the original. I love battle systems with weakness exploitation, and Apocalypse has one of the best incarnations of the Press Turn System to date. I’m rather glad Atlus made this an entirely new game instead of an enhanced version of the original Shin Megami Tensei IV.
Also, Apocalypse finally gave me the chance to kick YHVH’s butt in an official English localized release. I have to appreciate that!
Two Megami Tensei games made my list, and technically three Fire Emblem games did, so it stands to reason that their unique fusion Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE would appear here as well. Sure, I first envisioned this game to be a take on Devil Survivor’s combat system with both Fire Emblem characters and demons, but I’m actually rather happy with how TMS turned out. It’s such a delightfully colorful, irreverent game, and I love how it combines both franchises in different, unforeseen ways. The story is somewhat shallow but still entertaining and the characters are fun and likable. My favorite aspect of the game, though, is its combat system. While the exploitation of weaknesses is reminiscent of MegaTen’s Press Turn System, it’s unlike either series. I really enjoy stringing together attacks in a long session, even if it makes battles drag on a bit. Surprise Duo Arts or Ad-lib attacks are always a treat during combat. While some of the instrumental pieces are lacking, the vocal songs are appropriately catchy and well done.
TMS even got the Switch port I hoped it would, introducing it to more players than presumably the original Wii U version ever did. I’m still disappointed in the lack of an English dub version, but there’s always hope of a possible sequel.