RPGs, or Role Playing Games, started with paper, pen and dice when Dungeons & Dragons was king. With the rise of videogames, the pen, paper and dice were tossed aside for electronically designed worlds and computer-based random number selection. RPGs are now a huge part of the videogame world, with thousands available due to the relative easiness of making them. An RPG consists of a story line the main characters run through, conquering obstacles and fighting battles. There are several formats created for fighting situations but all of them include strategy and luck, and most of them have nothing to do with actual one-on-one combat since you direct your characters to attack rather than doing it yourself. Kind of like playing demi-god. Here's what one company, Atlus, has to offer the RPG genre.
Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga
Set in a sci-fi type world, Digital Devil Saga shows a lot of promise in the opening scenes. The intro has a nice blend of drawn manga-style graphics and CGI, making the visuals pretty impressive for the humble origins of the game. And the story is solid: Demons are taking root in the characters' bodies and whoever consumes the other warring factions goes on to Nirvana. It's an interesting goal, considering the gateway to Nirvana is controlled by a computer and in order to win, you have to eat the dead bodies of your enemies. The roots of this conflict seem to come right from Japan, the clash of old versus new, machine versus man, and tradition versus the frightening encroachment of modern values. Some of the themes explored in famous Japanese movies like Ringu are present in this game despite the English dubbing, but if the player is clueless to Japanese culture, the story comes off as simple and perhaps even corny, using the words Zen and Nirvana freely as if it's some New Age videogame trend.
As for the gaming system, the battles are pretty much straightforward. There are only a few weapons to choose from, but you can expand your powers on a grid map that allows strong powers to come quickly, making battle much more exciting. For example, the ability to attack multiple enemies while still being at a low-level is a welcome one that isn't so common in RPGs.
Downfalls include a lack of exploration areas. If you choose not to follow the story, there's nothing to do, few to no secrets to uncover. The one time I really went out and explored, I ended up in a pitch black tunnel with no map directions and had to restart the game in order to get out. Who programs a black hole into their game?
Overall, Digital Devil Saga is worth some play, but after a point the battles come too often with too similar enemies. You can only die so many times in an RPG before you're no longer willing to play it again. Still, I enjoyed it just for the fun of eating the dead.
Stella Deus: The Gate of Eternity
Stella Deus has a whammy of an opener that feels like the beginning credits of an anime show -- pretty amazing graphics for a low-budget production. This one also deals with Japanese themes. The world is being swallowed by a deadly miasma, some byproduct of industrial civilization, and the characters must find some way to save their world. Dealing with the fear of world annihilation by pollutants and war, this simple videogame manages to stretch beyond the medium's simplicities to attack pretty deep issues. There's a militant group that bans apathy, killing the apathetic so the truly driven may live. The characters are forced to kill "spirits" in order to save the world, and they discuss whether or not they should be killing to save themselves. Even vegetarianism is brought up when one character asks another, "Would you feel bad over a steak dinner? Then why mourn the spirits?"
The depth of the story is nice, but the characters generally take no such leaps. Their drives are typical fantasy ones: A son avenging his father, an alchemist who is too much like a young Gandalf, an ultimately evil warlord. If only the writers could have pushed the characters to the level of their story's heights, I might have enjoyed the game as a whole.
Battles are lengthy due to the choices one has of moving characters about during battle. While this opens up strategy, it takes a lot of time. It also opens the player to a lot more losses. There's no leeway with the enemies here. They strike harder than the characters and win more often than not. This is frustrating because there are not enough save points and I found myself starting over after an hour's worth of play. Eventually, despite the cool story, I just gave in and let the game go.