Child of Light is a highly-rated multi-platform side-scrolling turn-based RPG with an Active Time Battle system that is so much more than all the hyphenated adjectives used to describe it. It’s a fairy tale set inside a beautiful painting where the environment seems as alive and as important as any of the many varied colorful characters. The soundtrack fits the art design perfectly, and the world is brought further to life with the sounds of soft slaps of our titular heroine’s feet on the ground or hum of her wings in flight. The seamless blend of side-scrolling platformer and turn-based RPG works far more naturally that it ought to, and the story is just as magical as the races of characters that inhabit the game world. Clocking in at approximately a dozen hours, Child of Light is an easily enjoyed shorter RPG experience, perfect for on-the-go Vita gaming.
Contrary to most of the other developers on this list, Zeboyd Games are a relative newcomer on the gaming scene. After a few years and a handful of efforts, the indie duo of Robert Boyd and William Stiernberg in 2017 released what was arguably their best effort to date, and a great addition to the modern-but-looks-classic genre that is experiencing some recent popularity. Cosmic Star Heroine makes no bones about its inspirations, drawing heavily from such beloved classics as Chrono Trigger, while implementing a wholly new and involved combat system all its own.
Players take on the role of Alyssa L’Salle, one of the top agents in the intergalactic Agency for Peace and Intelligence. Resolving armed hostage situations and infiltrating clandestine bioresearch labs are all in a day’s work for Alyssa in this sci-fi RPG that offers something a bit different from the bog-standard fantasy epics common in the genre. While successive platform ports haven’t drastically changed what’s on offer, Vita players finally got the chance to become cosmic star heroes for themselves about a year after the game’s initial release.
The Vita has no shortage of first-person dungeon crawlers. This is great for people like me that need a fix between Etrian Odyssey releases. Demon Gaze was the first dungeon crawler I played on the Vita, and ended up being one of my favorite games for the system.
You play as a silent protagonist called a “Demon Gazer” who finds himself at the Dragon Princess Inn. From there, you create your party and get sent on an adventure into several different dungeons. You use your Demon Gaze power to trap demons in your eye in order to unleash in fights as powerful summons.
Dungeon crawling is a blast in this game. Each dungeon has a creepy atmosphere that matches the game’s demonic tone. The monster artwork for each encounter is gorgeous with many unique designs and colorful images. Where the game shines is the boss fights. They provide a fair challenge where you have to think about your strategy and take each fight turn-by-turn. This is where your demon gaze powers come into play. Summoning the right demon for the right situation can make or break a fight.
Aside from the on-point dungeon crawling, the characters are what sold me the most on this game. The Dragon Princess Inn is your hub for all of your adventures. Like the Etrian Odyssey games, most of the story comes from everyone working in the inn. Whether it’s the adorable dragon princess Fran, the mischievous Lezerem from the item shop, or the quirky stylist Kukure, you are always in for a smile when you talk to an NPC.
Demon Gaze is a bright gem in the Vita’s sea of dungeon crawlers. It has the challenge that will keep you on your toes.
As Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness showed us, the Disgaea series is a perfect fit for portables. The mix of classic turn-based strategy and obsessive min/maxing via the item world proved to be the perfect companion for players to bring with them on the go. Of course, the ability to suspend the system in the middle of a long item world run certainly helped as well. So naturally, when the series moved to PlayStation 3, a portable version was inevitable; it would just have to wait for a more powerful system.
Enter the Vita, and it didn’t take long for a port of the game to be announced. Despite some minor control quibbles, namely the weird use of the rear touch pad, the game was a natural fit for the system, especially with the inclusion of the original’s DLC. One of the early RPGs to use DLC, its expanded content was extensive and fun. All in all, Disgaea 3 provided tons of story content with some of the best characters in the series, exquisitely designed battles, and a nearly endless supply of additional content to play after the main story wrapped up. Even with years of new Vita releases since its launch, Mao and company’s adventure remains one of the most compelling games on the system.
Dragon Fantasy makes no bones about being inspired by the classic JRPGs of yore, just look at its title for example. However, the Muteki Corporation throwback is more than a simple emulation of the games its founders enjoyed. The games have some interesting history that is worthwhile reading up on, dating back past their original 2011 release on iOS.
Both Dragon Fantasy and its sequel are firmly tongue-in-cheek and this adds some great charm to the games. They certainly aren’t the deepest or lengthiest RPGs that have come to the Vita, but their relative simplicity and the ease with which they can be just picked up and played ensures that the games are still thoroughly enjoyable. Though the Vita is just one of the games’ many homes, they are a more than welcome addition to the libraries of owners.
Other Vanillaware titles have held appeal beyond the aesthetics and gameplay, but Dragon’s Crown is not one for a person seeking a meaty narrative. It has a spectacularly effective narrator, to be sure, but the tale told in Dragon’s Crown is nothing that will stick with the player. One should instead come to it for a rather effective melding of brawler and RPG, expecting to fight quite a bit.
The game’s bizarre choice to withhold online interaction with others until quite a bit of play time has taken place is tough to accept for anyone seeking a romp through the proceedings with friends, but as a brawler it’s quite fun. True to other Vanillaware titles it looks superb all the time, and its characters do not play anything like each other, requiring some attention to be paid to the techniques and equipment available. For a brawler it’s also a meaty package, though compared to most other types of RPGs it’s pretty short. Dragon’s Crown isn’t the best software from Vanillaware to be found on the Vita, but it is worth experiencing for anyone just seeking a fun brawl.
While I didn’t play a large amount of Vita RPGs, I did purchase the Sony handheld for one of the exclusive games in its library: Tales of Hearts R. While limited, Hearts is a nice addition to the Tales franchise. Series fans will enjoy the battle system which is a simplified rendition of the 3D battle engine the series is famous for, with each character having normal and special attacks. I enjoyed most of the characters, whose attitudes exploded out of the Vita. The overprotective older brother Kohaku Hearts added a well-placed element of comedy to the overall experience and was a nice touch to the story.
Tales of Hearts R helped secure another great RPG system to my collection. Afterward, I mainly used the Vita for PS1 ports of older RPG classics, but Hearts R was a fine addition to the Tales series. It has all the charm fans should expect from games in the long-standing series, and deserves a look for any owners of the Sony portable console.
Indie darling Undertale has lots of classic JRPG DNA in it, pulling from the likes of Earthbound. It’s still very much its own thing though, which explains the massive following it has gained over the years. Still it seemed a perfect fit for consoles, and proved to be just that when it finally arrived on PlayStation 4 and Vita. The way the game turns classic gameplay ideas on their head seems particularly aimed at fans of classic console RPGs, and its pixel art and small download size made it ideal for the Vita. There’s not much out there quite like Undertale, and Vita fans who haven’t already experienced the RPG where no one has to die owe it to themselves to pick it up.
Sony’s handhelds have been one of the prime forces for the Ys series’ resurgence, particularly in the west as the series made itself home on both the PlayStation Portable and then PlayStation Vita. Though Ys Origin was initially released on PC before coming to other platforms, including the Vita, it’s another entry in the series that feels right at home there.
A distant prequel to the series, Ys Origin‘s mark on the series comes in its replayability, as the game offers three different characters to control as they head up a tower of evil, each coming with their own distinct styles of combat. Other than that, Ys Origin offers just what you’d expect from a Ys game: great action combat and fantastic boss battles. There are plenty of reasons the series has more than its fair share of titles in this feature.
It may be taking the Ys series a very long time to count towards double-digit titles, but when each one manages to be such a blast to play, it’s hard to get too irate. Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana manages the surprising feat of being considerably longer than anything else in the series without becoming a bore to play. Even its initial localization, while not among the finest ever released, was a far cry from 1990s-level.
Ys VIII isn’t Vita-exclusive, and some material won’t be found on the system. Having said that, there is absolutely nothing the matter with enjoying another frenetic and entertaining action romp in the Ys world using this incredibly handy platform. The game runs superbly and plays without issue, affording #teamhandheld another opportunity to take a game for a spin without having to reserve time in front of a television. Nihon Falcom has delivered a very worthy iteration in the series to the Vita and it should be immediately experienced by anyone with even the slightest interest who has not already done so.
This feature is dedicated to the memory of our friend Michael A. Cunningham. Mac started at RPGamer in 2006 and would go on to become the long-running Editor-in-Chief. While Mac loved RPGs, he especially loved handheld games, founding the #TeamHandheld hashtag as well as running a personal project site, Pocket Console, where you can read more of his musings on portable games. In addition to this feature, you can see Michael’s top Vita games, which we incorporated into the voting for this feature. The link is to a Google Document because Mac loved organizing lists in spreadsheets. You can also read the tributes to Michael from the community as well as a list of our favorite works by Mac. Also, a special thanks to our friends at RPGFan who dedicated their recent Top 25 Nintendo 3DS Games feature to Michael’s memory.