No awful Mento puns in the title this week - I'm on the road to recovery. It's been a long road, as Rorie might say (or soulfully belt out). But that's neither here nor there, as what matters is that it's been a long time and my time is finally near to write a Level-5 retrospective.
Level-5 is a prestigious developer of (chiefly) JRPGs. Like all the best smaller JRPG studios (like Quintet), it's had a strong relationship with Enix, creating two well-received iterations of Enix's flagship Dragon Quest series. Along the way, it's also developed several respectable IPs of its own, such as everyone's favorite dapper puzzle solver Professor Layton, the deep Dark Cloud duology, the expansive Rogue Galaxy and the sort of disappointing White Knight Chronicles. I'll be reminiscing about several Level-5 games I've played since 2001, when the first Dark Cloud hit Western shores.
Game: Dark Cloud
Dark Cloud is Level-5's first title, and is very much a game that hints at the greater hits to come. While plagued with the usual myriad of minor issues that are inescapable with any studio's debut, what mattered to fans (like myself) was how different it felt to everything else on the market. While the combat was classic action RPG, the dungeons generated on the fly like any familiar Diablo/roguelike and the characters more or less JRPG archetypes with little personality, the balance between its generic yet colorful and fun dungeon-delving and the thoughtful, sophisticated Georama puzzle/sim system is really what stood out. Like Pikmin, another IP debut with a lot of weight on its adorable shoulders, it had so much charm and innovation that the shortcomings could be easily forgiven. And like Pikmin, it was fated to receive a sequel that would completely shadow the original.
Personally, it was the first game that made me glad I had a PS2. After almost half a year of ownership. Slow start, but we all know how amazing the PS2's library would eventually become.
Dark Cloud 2 is fantastic. I love it to pieces. It's hard to write about it objectively, which is why this is a retrospective and not some attempt at me being some kind of professional game-writing-about kinda guy (perish the thought). It deepens both sides of the Dark Cloud equation: The combat has a stronger focus on elemental traits, and the balance between your ranged weapon (useful for fast, flying enemies), your melee weapon (useful for everything else) and the RidePod mecha (useful for bosses). The Georama is far more in-depth too, as you're no longer given entire pre-built houses and features but are rather given the blueprints and left to your own devices to gather the resources needed to make them. There's also the closely related photography and invention additions, the Spheda "mini golf with a difference" side-quest, the fishing side-quest, the weapon upgrade system (mostly intact from the original), and so on and so forth. It's hard to name a game that offers more for the player to be getting on with. But I sure do go on about Dark Cloud 2, and so we move onto..
Game: Dragon Quest VIII
Dragon Quest VIII was Level-5's big break. DQ has always rivaled Final Fantasy in its native territory for sheer fan numbers, and perhaps surpasses it. Everyone's aware at this point of how releases are timed to coincide with national holidays and weekends so Japan's entire economy doesn't seize up with everyone taking sickies to go play it. In an unprecedented turn, DQ8 was actually localized and released almost globally for the first time ever for the franchise. Usually, the States was lucky to get every other DQ title and Europe none at all. So not only was DQ8 the third ever game made by Level-5 and the first time they were ever given the IP of an outside organization, but it was also the most important JRPG release (or Japanese game in general, perhaps) of the year worldwide. A lot of pressure, then.
Needless to say, they nailed it. The huge 3D world, though mostly filled with dead space, was as colorful and bright as DQ has always been, and every other aspect (the Akira Toriyama design, the humor, the music) matched blow-for-blow Enix's consistently high standards for their flagship franchise. They kind of needed the boost after the dreck they've been producing as part of Square-Enix.
Game: Rogue Galaxy
Rogue Galaxy was Level-5 coming back to the drawing board for a big new IP, something to rival Dark Cloud with the lessons they learned with DQ8 (and to a lesser extent their first portable: Jeanne d'Arc, a small but competent SPRG). Rogue Galaxy is, for appearance's sake, a sci-fi Dark Cloud - one that focuses again on the dungeon-delving and massive amounts of sanity-testing side-projects. However, for the strides it makes in characterization and story, it still lacks much of the depth of Dark Cloud that so enamoured the first wave of fans (or the Level-5 hipsters, I suppose, if JRPG fans can be called such a thing). It's a fine game, far surpassing most of their competition, but it still felt kinda slight. Besides a non-too-captivating bug raising and battling side-quest (which probably appealed way more to the Pokemon crowd) and an interesting Pipe Mania-esque factory simulator for creating new technology, it seemed like a step down in the amount of content it offered. Still, the different worlds you visit are amazing to look at and the giant bosses are well thought-out, so maybe they simply decided to strengthen the parts I perhaps didn't care so much about.
Great, but not the next trailblazer I was hoping for. Maybe I'm just picky.
And thus we come to present day, and the last Level-5 game I played. The Professor Layton series, now three-strong in Europe and the US and five-strong in its home turf, is undoubtedly the thing people think of when they think of Level-5 (that is, if they're the type to be aware of developers). It's their most famous and most popular IP at this point, and depicts the episodic adventures of a Victorian-era (though the occasional anachronism suggest it's some alternate history instead) professor and his apprentice as they solve puzzles to unriddle larger mysteries. Most of these puzzles have nothing to do with the mystery plot, and simply exhibit the sometimes inexplicable puzzle-loving nature of the duo and everyone they meet. Lushly animated and drawn in a storybook format, each new adventure is a treasure, though understandably after so many sliding block puzzles or chess piece conundrums, a little goes a long way. It's why I won't be playing Unwound Future until next year at the earliest.
The past three years were also Level-5's busiest, with a new Dragon Quest for DS (highly regarded, though I have yet to play it), bizarre soccer RPG Inazuma Eleven finally seeing a European release (but not the US, presumably because Europe's a huge fan of soccer?) and the aforementioned White Knight Chronicles, which again takes another step back from Dark Cloud 2's amazing diversity and simply focuses on dull MMO-type action RPG gameplay. WKC 2 is available to rent where I am, but I'm still kind of reluctant to try it. It's kind of a shame.
Level-5 is perhaps still my favorite developer, all things considered. It's a company I've been keen to follow over the years, unlike FromSoftware (the subject of my last ten-year retrospective) where my familiarity with their games turned out to be largely incidental. They're a little too recent to have been my motivation for pursuing game design as a career (my stint in university actually began before Dark Cloud came out) but if I were a little younger and had played Dark Cloud 2 during my formative years, it would've no doubt had the same effect. Here's hoping for a Dark Cloud 3!