The Top Shelf: Case Files 076-085: "Vexxed and Confused"

Welcome to The Top Shelf, a weekly feature wherein I sort through my extensive PS2 collection for the diamonds in the rough. My goal here is to narrow down a library of 185 games to a svelte 44: the number of spaces on my bookshelf set aside for my PS2 collection. That means a whole lot of vetting and a whole lot of science that needs to be done, ten games at a time. Be sure to check out the Case File Repository for more details and a full list of games/links!

Case File 076: Capcom's Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter

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  • Original Release (JP): 14/11/2002
  • PS2 Exclusive!

All right, so we got a little too mainstream last time. This week's rundown promises to be anything but, however, and to prove we're not messing around we're going to start with Capcom's fifth and almost-final entry in their Breath of Fire series, and easily one of the strangest RPGs in my collection. While there was little to connect the earlier games in terms of chronology - it had sort of a Legend of Zelda vibe going, with recurring character names and plot tokens but different actual people and landscapes each time - they all shared a vaguely medieval fantasy setting of the like that would accommodate dragons. Each game centers around dragons in some way, with its recurring protagonist Ryu shapeshifting into a dragon in every entry as both a last resort super move in combat and as a major component of his backstory. The games explore the role of dragons in their worlds and the importance of Ryu being one, and this is perhaps the one thread that continues to the otherwise completely disparate Dragon Quarter, which shifts the narrative genre from fantasy to a subterranean dystopian science-fiction right out of 12 Monkeys. Here, shifting into a dragon is considered both grisly body horror and the highest of honors, a status that the elite of a heavily stratified population are attempting to reach, with one's very worth as a person tied to how compatible one might hypothetically be to these legendary body-jacking creatures. Everyone lives many miles underground, the surface was abandoned long ago as being inhospitable due to human technology running amok, and the game's version of Nina - usually an outgoing winged princess who orders the mute Ryu around - is a silent, terrified waif who was genetically engineered to be a living air filtration system and is wracked with terrible debilitating pain at all times because of it. It is not a nice fantasy world. More distinctive than even that, however, is how the game is built around restarts: the player has to rely on their dragon-shifting ability early on, but the use of this power is finite and will eventually kill Ryu once it hits its limit. In order to successfully reach the game's conclusion, the player must reset their progress while carrying over a certain amount of unlockables - not dissimilar to a roguelike, but it doesn't play much like one - in order to start on slightly surer footing the next time around. It was a wholly unique idea at the time, and one that Capcom would later adapt for their Dead Rising series.

While it's a hard game to grow accustomed to, I generally believe it's one of the most important and distinctive RPGs the PS2 has to offer. Its bizarre systems and story necessitate an acquired taste, but its exciting to see where its insane story goes and how it deals with some of the more meta elements of what you're doing with this endless recycling. For one, Ryu slowly gets better "D-ratio" ranks (the aforementioned class-determining factor related to dragon compatibility) as the player makes more progress before resetting, opening more doors early on for better starting gear and giving him more respect from his peers. I like its moody industrial music - I wrote about it as part of a retrospective on Hitoshi Sakimoto's discography - and I particularly like the gritty sci-fi hard swerve Capcom took the series, and while it might not be a game I intend to play again any time soon it's up there as one of my favorites. Approved.

Case File 077: Midway's Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance

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  • Original Release (NA): 16/11/2002
  • Not PS2 Exclusive (came out on everything)

As someone who was never fanatical about Mortal Kombat, even back when it was good and more recently when it became good again, I didn't follow the "dark ages" of the fighter franchise too closely as it passed through its awkward 3D phase and introduced a lot of characters that people didn't seem to like a whole lot. To the extent that any outsider might walk away with the impression that the only worthwhile new characters that series ever sees are those that join ever-increasing rainbow of chromatic ninjas. As neither a fighter fan nor a Spawn fan, I've observed the struggles of this series with a certain amount of detached bemusement. In the traditional sense of the word bemusement, to clarify. I've said it before and I'll say it again: the most appealing aspect of any fighter series for me is seeing how its roster of characters float in and out of subsequent entries, and how they serve to expand a mythos that, in some players' views, only serve to distract from the combos, cross-ups and fatalities to memorize. Someone (Boon) put a whole lot of work into Mortal Kombat's convoluted history, to the extent that they felt they needed a plot-rebooting contrivance to start over and begin murdering the major cast members in a different order. It's my most favorite thing about Mortal Kombat as a whole, and I absolutely believe there's a book (or an ebook, if we're being realistic) in chronicling where the plot and characters of this series have gone, where it will go, and why anyone thought Bo Rai Cho was a good idea in the first place.

All this preamble is to say that, no, I have no idea what Deadly Alliance is and why it's so forgettable/important to the Mortal Kombat anthology. It fell into my collection like so many others due to bundles or poor impulse control, and I've never felt the need to boot up a game meant for local multiplayer and figure it out. At this point it'd be like walking into the fifth season of Game of Thrones without seeing any the preceding four, where I have no idea who anyone is and why I should care that one of them just brutally murdered another. Eliminated.

Case File 078: Traveller's Tales's Haven: Call of the King

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  • Original Release (NA): 18/11/2002
  • PS2 Exclusive!

You know that whole idea about the death of the artistic soul? When an artist creates his or her most challenging and ambitious piece of art, which then sees little recognition or acclaim, and the artist reverts back to crowd-pleasing but substance-free fare for the rest of their careers? I'm not suggesting that's what happened here with Traveller's Tales and Haven: Call of the King, and whether it had anything to do with the company's mission directive to put out identikit LEGO licensed platformers every eighteen months until the heat death of the universe, but it does make one stop and think about the road less Traveller'd. Haven is a lot of things and attempts a lot of things, but one of the few descriptors I might not use for the game is "good". Or even "coherent". It's a 3D platformer with some combat and vehicle sections and a whole universe-in-peril planet-hopping sci-fi story, not unlike Ratchet & Clank or Ubisoft's then-upcoming Beyond Good & Evil, but spreads itself far too thin across its various modes and is jam-packed with weird glitches. I vividly remember seeing a downer ending after defeating the final boss and sat there wondering what I'd done wrong. I recall agonizing over this for weeks, figuring I missed a collectible somewhere and causing the bad ending to happen, but... no, they planned two more games after this to resolve whatever was going on with some magical bell and an evil space overlord and other plot details lost to the hazy mists of time and the plots of better games. I got Empire Strikes Back'd and didn't even realise it.

I can't hate a game as ambitious as Haven: Call of the King. Or more specifically, while I can fault every single element it got wrong or didn't give enough attention to for the sake of its overreaching ambition, and will happily do so, I won't disdain too harshly the game as a whole for wanting to take those risks and present something that had the moxie to become a major and memorable stop in the evolution of the 3D platformer-slash-"action-adventure" genre. As it is, it's kind of a mess with a few too many bad ideas and a grandiose multi-game space opera plot that, when you only factor the one game's story, is far too abstruse for its own good. In fact, you might say it's the Destiny of 3D platformers. Eliminated.

Case File 079: Midway's Dr. Muto

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  • Original Release (NA): 19/11/2002
  • Not PS2 Exclusive (Xbox, GameCube and GBA also)

Dr. Muto suffers many of the same problems as Haven - specifically, to use the professional Quality Assurance vernacular, in that it is "glitched as fuck" - but I find myself being a little more tolerant here, oddly enough. I think it's because the look and comic sensibility of Dr. Muto hearkens to a few N64 games I really enjoyed, such as Space Station Silicon Valley and Banjo-Kazooie, with its tale of a mad scientist that can transform into various animals who endeavors to recover all the broken pieces of his latest experiment across the solar system after it accidentally blows up his home planet, which is inexplicably named after the game's developer Midway. Each planet has its own theme, of course, and the majority of the game is spent collecting items in the environment through hook or by crook. Sometimes you need a new upgrade and have to come back to collect the rest. It's a traditional format for this type of platformer, though one that was beginning to fall out of style in response to a new more linear action-adventure approach, and I think the idea of Midway making a Rare platformer is what tickles me most, even if the game was more than a little rough around the edges.

However, we must come to the second-most prevaling rule of this feature after the superior sequel clause, which is that genres that are extremely well-represented - platformers and RPGs in particular - need to be exceptional to be considered for the shelf, simply because I don't want the resulting thing to be completely dominated by my two favorite game genres. I mean, that is what most of my collection consists of, but I'm likening this shelf to one that can run the gamut of everything I liked about the PS2. That means the occasional FPS, the occasional third-person shooter, the occasional adventure game, and other infrequent genre representations. If I can think of ten PS2 platformers I own that are better than Dr. Muto, and believe me I can, then I shouldn't string the poor doctor along unnecessarily. Eliminated.

Case File 080: Level-5's Dark Chronicle

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  • Original Release (JP): 28/11/2002
  • PS2 Exclusive!

At last. It's all been leading up to Dark Chronicle. Dark Chronicle, or Dark Cloud 2 in the States, is far and away my favorite PlayStation 2 game of all time. It is, in fact, my favorite console game of all time as well. Dark Chronicle represents everything I love about video games. It features a charming presentation buoyed by a cel-shaded hand-drawn animated look, it features a JRPG plot which is both completely insane and entirely within the game's internal logic, and it features a sense of adventure and mystery, sometimes dark, that pushes the protagonists across a geographically diverse world in order to solve it. Beyond and above all that, however, is the game's immaculate juggling act of gameplay systems and loops all configured perfectly, like an impossible Escher diagram come to life. The game's core of semi-randomized dungeoneering becomes palatable due to the dripfeed of plot-relevant treasures and real-time combat that relies as much on reflexes as it does strategy and numbers. When it begins to grind you down many hours in, the best salve for these dungeons are the game's many other modes, each engineered to carry some of the weight of the player's attention span. The "Georama" town-building, which recontextualizes urban planning and civil engineering as a puzzle game, like a SimCity with multiple short term goals. The fishing, which slows the game's already leisurely pace to a saunter as you relax with a rod and a number of options for where best to catch a whopper for the game's semi-regular fishing contests. The golf, which can be as weird and irritating as it is rewarding and ends up becoming the game's most compelling mini-game. The photography, which lets the player explore a detailed world from a viewfinder and use those discoveries to create new items for themselves. The ways each of these modes feed back into one another, ensuring that you're always improving your station in the main game even if it appears to all the world that you're taking a temporary sabbatical to engage in side content. Like everything related to good design, I can only put so much of it into words; it's all in the playing itself, where everything intuitively feels and progresses like it should, that a game's brilliant design is most keenly felt. From a game design perspective, Dark Cloud 2 is a goddamn masterpiece, and I'm still flabbergasted to this day by how Level-5 managed to pull it off. I imagine Level-5 itself is in the same boat, if the comparatively weak imitation Fantasy Life is much to go on. Nothing else on the PS2 really even comes close, though I'm not quite crazy enough to fill the shelf with forty-four copies of this game.

What more is there left to say? Approved. Approved, Approved, Approved.

Case File 081: Squaresoft's Unlimited SaGa

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  • Original Release (JP): 19/12/2002
  • PS2 Exclusive!

So, last week when I talked about this upcoming episode of The Top Shelf, I mentioned how it includes games that confused and irritated me. We've seen something like that a few times with this list already: Dragon Quarter's paradigm-shifting and bizarre innovations; the sad strange cautionary tale that is Haven: Call of the King and how its ambition exceeded its grasp; and who the hell anybody is in Deadly Alliance and whether the name has anything to do with that dangerous alliance wrestling thing Dan keeps talking about. Unlimited SaGa, however, might as well be the most inexplicable game in my entire game collection. And I mean the entire 500+ thing, not just PS2. The brainchild of Square-Enix's resident auteur nutcase Akitoshi Kawazu, Unlimited was meant to be the big bold generational relaunch of his SaGa franchise: a series that rivalled Final Fantasy itself for the number of risks it took. The Romancing SaGa games were scenario-based, the Game Boy SaGa games (best known here as "Final Fantasy Legend") incorporated a lot of odd ideas like genetic mutants and robots as party members who leveled up in an entirely different manner to the player's humans, and the SaGa Frontier games were... I don't even know what the deal was with those. Something about telling an achronological story through vignettes and short gameplay chapters. Unlimited was set to eclipse them all. What happened? Well, it got a little too crazy. To the extent that none of its wacky-innovative ideas were any fun or made any sense. Most of the traditional elements were still there: the game was scenario-based, with an episode from the perspective of each of its rogue gallery of cast members, and it was still a turn-based RPG at its core. Yet it was also a board game? And had some kind of gambling reels thing for the combat? And you had to decipher all the icons on those reels to fight effectively. There might've been a time limit also. Oh, and there were two separately tracked stats for health: one of which would eventually kill you permanently if it ran out.

I've tried multiple times to figure out what this game is and what it's aiming for, but my own experience and feedback from others have convinced me that what lies in the center of this enigma wrapped in a mystery isn't worth the mental fatigue to suss out. Unlike Vagrant Story, which also has a lot of strange rules to which the player must quickly adapt if they hope to survive the prologue, there's no great storytelling or hauntingly beautiful aesthetic or really even much of a memorable soundtrack to buoy a few outlandish mechanics. It's SaGa in its purest form, and much like a Lovecraftian Elder Thing it kinda hurts the brain to look directly at it or contemplate its existence for too long. Eliminated.

Case File 082: Tamsoft's Eternal Quest

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  • Original Release (JP): 19/12/2002
  • PS2 Exclusive!

The name "Eternal Quest" might not ring any bells, or it might sound so generic that it could well be any game, but if I were to tell you that the game's title in Japan is "Simple 2000 Series Vol. 20: The Dungeon RPG", that should give you a better idea of what this game is, or at least its general level of quality. It is entirely a budget version of Chunsoft's Mystery Dungeon series, better known over here as the roguelike genre, and about as captivating as the equally bland and soulless Fatal Labyrinth for Genesis. The game's chief problem, which was almost certainly a budgetary concern, is that it lacks the fixtures and trimmings of better games in this genre. The games that bother to create hub towns where you can restock between sessions, or NPCs that have their own sub-plots that develop during the game, or perhaps even a stylistically cohesive graphical style, like Shiren the Wanderer's feudal Japan or the Akira Toriyama cuteness of the original Taloon Torneko games. A hook, like NecroDancer's rhythm-based movement, Dungeons of Dredmor's sense of humor or crafting, or Pokémon Mystery Dungeon's... well, Pokémon. Eternal Quest is what it is and I can't bug it too much for that. Sometimes all you want is a cheap personality-free roguelike to master over any number of brief sessions. It's not enough for me, though.

Here's a fun spoiler for the rest of this feature: any game that was once part of the PlayStation 2's Simple 2000 range is probably not going on the shelf. I'm not saying they're universally terrible, but there's a reason they were sold for less than half the retail price of most everything else on here. Eliminated.

Case File 083: Nippon Ichi Software's Disgaea: Hour of Darkness

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  • Original Release (JP): 30/01/2003
  • Not PS2 Exclusive (enhanced ports for DS, PSP and, much later, Steam)

La Pucelle Tactics didn't quite make the grade, and that's largely because Disgaea does all the same things but better. As Laharl, the former Prince of the Netherworld who entered a long sleep to cure himself of a normally fatal poisoning attempt, the player fights to reclaim lost ground, getting all of their wayward subjects in order by essentially beating the crap out of them until they remember who is boss. He's assisted by a female demon he barely trusts, a guileless trainee angel sent to assassinate the already dead King who finds herself completely out of her depth, and a procession of colorful foes who become allies soon after their defeat, eventually including a team of 1950s sci-fi adventurers who accidentally make a wrong turn to the underworld. La Pucelle could be goofy at spots, particularly where its butch protagonist was involved, but Disgaea is in full on parody mode from the moment it starts. If you aren't fighting an egotistical fop that the anti-hero protagonist immediately rebrands as "mid-boss" to stop his self-aggrandizing, or fighting a Super Sentai team who get taken out mid-transformation, it's a generic Eastern European vampire who was exiled for stealing pretzels and whose hypnotic powers aren't quite as potent as he believes. The NIS SRPGs tend to prove themselves formidable due to their extra-curricular activities - in Disgaea's case, that's the ludicrously expansive "Item World" fixture and the ability to change game parameters by filibustering, and occasionally regular busting, a congress of demons - but the core progression itself is compelling enough to follow just because of how funny it all is. It's an easy game to get lost in for weeks and months, and many of its sequels and spin-offs aim to recreate that magic.

I am very tempted to put Disgaea: House of Darkness straight through to the shelf, but there's a few extenuating circumstances. The first is that I also own Disgaea 2, which isn't quite as funny but makes up for it with various refinements to the first game's systems. I also own two other NIS SRPGs yet to appear here: Phantom Brave, which has a number of unusual subversions to NIS's usual format and features a story that makes me feel emotions, something games don't often do; and Makai Kingdom, which I've never played and really ought to give a try before deciding on a single representative for the NIS SRPG construct. It might just happen that I end up approving several of them - the sequel clause doesn't necessarily extend to spin-offs - but for now I'm planning to sort out where I stand with the NIS games once this first round is over. Considered.

Case File 084: Acclaim Studios Austin's Vexx

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  • Original Release (NA): 11/02/2003
  • Not PS2 Exclusive (also on GameCube and Xbox)

A more aptly named game I doubt we'll ever see on this feature. Vexx has its heart in the right place, in so far that it tries to Shadow the Hedgehog the mascot platformer genre before it was truly ready (which was never, thanks for asking) with a grim, claw-wielding, almost-vampiric protagonist wearing goth makeup that's still three feet tall and cute as the dickens. I couldn't tell you what the plot of Vexx was about. Not that I couldn't immediately look it up, just that I would prefer not to. Of the few lasting memories from this particular attempt to drag mascot platformers kicking and screamcore-ing into the 21st century, one concerns Vexx's versatile claws which he uses as a weapon and as a vertical wall-climbing traversal tool alike, and the second concerns a very retro approach to retaining collectibles after death. Which is to say, no retention at all. Either beat the stage perfectly after grabbing 100 glowy doodads, or go home and play a game for babies where its heroes feel emotions other than anger or depression. You wuss. This isn't to suggest that some of the best 3D platformers haven't done this also - Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie immediately come to mind - but by the time Vexx came around it had become an irritating inconvenience that had been bred out of the genre. That makes it all the more glaring when someone adds it back in.

So I must once again invoke the second of The Top Shelf Corollaries (I really ought to write these down for posterity), in that I generally won't accept any game from a genre that is already over-represented enough on the shelf if I can think of many more deserving examples. I realize that despite this rule the shelf is still going to be loaded with platformers and JRPGs, but all the same Vexx won't be one of them. (I could also add a third corollary here that we immediately drop any Acclaim-published games to save time, but I'm still giving Headhunter the benefit of the doubt.) Eliminated.

Case File 085: Capcom's Chaos Legion

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  • Original Release (NA): 06/03/2003
  • Not PS2 Exclusive (also on PC)

Oh boy, this one. Capcom was riding a wave they began with the first Onimusha and more profoundly with Devil May Cry, and were looking to experiment with this burgeoning "character action" format of theirs before too many rivals got wind of it and flooded the market with their own versions of people running through mansions stylishly killing everything while also on an endless hunt for keys, switches, emblems, levers, crank handles and secret doors. Chaos Legion was a more... tactical approach to this sort of game, presenting an androgynous knight with command over demonic forces and using them to conquer the even eviller demonic forces of an even prettier rival-turned-villain. The game really ramps up the whole gothic romantic angle, presenting both the hero and villain as dignified fops with a tragic history that has led them both inexorably along this path where only one might survive. There's also a female love interest that looks like Jill Valentine, wields dual guns and wears a giant scarf with a school uniform underneath in what might be the most Capcom creation ever made, but then a certain amount of creative license can be given to a fantastical setting. Chaos Legion is perhaps better known, or reviled to be more accurate, for its punishing strategic action gameplay. The hero, Sieg, can summon from a pool of demons named after the deadly sins (just... don't ask, it was the early aughts) but only one at a time. He controls them, to a certain extent, but his own combat prowess is lessened while he's focusing on supervising his companions. Each of these "chaos legions" has a specific combat role, and tend to be stronger against certain enemies. The ranged ones tend to be good for eliminating distant enemies, naturally enough, while others can be used to boost Sieg's defensive capabilities. It takes a while to get used to them all and when best to bring them out, and the game's abilitease opener doesn't help with the sudden difficulty lunges. I ended up with a begrudging respect for the game's difficulty and its harsh lessons in teaching you not to rush in, guns blazing, in a manner that certain other contemporary Capcom franchises would normally encourage.

Yet, all the same, for as much as I tend to think that this game gets a bad rap - apparently the PC version is less than optimal, and might account for a significant deal of that bad blood - it's not really shelf worthy. In fact, I'd probably put every other PS2 Capcom game I own above it, not least of which the first game on this week's list. I don't think it's terrible and the idea of a more deliberately-paced character action game in an oppressively grim medieval world definitely has merit, as Dark Souls would eventually prove, but... well, this has been a long enough edition already, so let's leave it at that. Eliminated.

Results

Now this is more like a typical The Top Shelf: five JRPGs, three platformers, at least one bad game I apparently felt I had to defend, and another that I've owned for years and yet know almost nothing about beyond its reputation. Also worth mentioning is that we hit a big milestone this week: we've now entered 2003, the third full year of the PS2's lifespan. Not to completely lay all my cards out on the table but this has been one of my favorite blogs to write in a while, and not just because it gave me another opportunity to sing the praises of Dark Chronicle to whomever might be reading. I feel like if I suddenly lost all my PS2 games overnight to a fire or meteor or plane crash or break-in (why did my brain think of those hypothetical disasters in that order?) except for the ten above, it'd still represent what that collection was all about in a perfect microcosm. Also I think I was extra sassy this week, and that's always a plus.

In an unusually cruel twist of... me being a dick, we only have one more Considered this week to bring the ongoing totals to 29 out of 85 for the second round to assess, and two more for the Approved list to bring us up to eight filled positions on that most elevated of storage units. Next week will be kind of a similar dynamic, in fact, though I imagine I'll be a lot kinder to this next lot than I was on this week's record seven eliminations. Man, though, will I have some choice language for at least two of them. Be sure to find out what's grinding my gears on the next edition of The Top Shelf, won't you? Keep it shelfy, y'all. (We'll workshop that sign-off.)

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