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Top RPGs If Stuck on a Desert Island
Budget RPGs
You Might Have Missed
11) The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap
22) Final Fantasy XII
33) Valkyria Chronicles
44) Final Fantasy X
55) Dragon Quest VIII
66) Dragon Warrior VII
77) Final Fantasy IX
88) Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
99) Shenmue
1010) Skies of Arcadia

There was definitely something lost in the 3D Zelda games: speed. The now expansive worlds with long, long hikes separated opportunities to use the latest gadget, which remove obstructions to progress or finding a new power-up. Minish Cap wowed on almost every screen, and incredibly, this 2D title managed to come up with new items and matching puzzles to the series, making sure that, yes, Zelda was still leading innovative game design in that "old style." The sprites come from The Four Swords, and Minish Cap has perhaps the most vibrant, colorful graphics in the series to date. The music is also excellent and quite fresh. The Zelda titles can easily be described as one of the few franchises where the same care and attention to detail -- especially in terms of intelligent game design -- can be found on the handheld as in the console counterparts. Minish Cap is completely fresh and polished, and is simply gaming bliss.

Final Fantasy XII has some truly impressive parts, and appreciating them depends on the player. For one, the pacing of the story makes perfect sense if the cutscenes are seen apart from the gameplay; it is highly divergent and ingeniously layered, especially when it comes time to make its point via the theme at the end (punctuated by the subtle but overwhelmingly powerful message in the song, "Kiss Me Goodbye"--it takes a little bit of thought to realize the perspective of the lyrics in context of the story) Sadly, the feat of storytelling is easy to miss because of the way the gameplay is clumsily threaded into it--it is so very easy to lose track of the details that add up one of the best, most expertly-told stories found in any RPG. The License board skill development facet is great, as a system that allows for some customization, with characters having different starting abilities, and yet it is not overly punishing to reverse decisions made along the way. Most notably, the difficulty balancing is one of the most amazing feats of any game's design over the last decade: no matter how many sidequests are done, the difficulty always feels like every minute spent developing characters was just enough for what the player is up against next. It cannot be overemphasized what an accomplishment Team Ivalice made in this respect. And speaking of "Ivalice," the sheer attention to detail that went into crafting even the smallest parts of the virtual world, with such a distinct art style, makes this land among the most elaborate ever rendered. The so-called Gambit "system" is just something that allows combat to flow in realtime a little more (rather than, say, pausing every time a timed bar fills up), but nevertheless the effect feels like "Final Fantasy" on steroids, capturing all of the series' greatest suspense and more. With all its foibles and some strange quirks, Final Fantasy XII is meaningful on almost every level, and if a gamer can handle the way some of its parts come together, an unparalleled experience.

Valkyria Chronicles is easy to pick up, but very hard to put down. This game has a learning curve that is as smooth as silk and is fun from the get-go, but it only gets better as progress is made. With a few fighter classes, the battlefields are intense and intricate, and the system Sega made for this game may be one of the most ingenious solutions for playing and feeling the experience of every member in a gun-battle. The graphics amaze in their organic effect, and the cutscenes are well done from a cinematic standpoint, and the characterizations stand out as fresh and sincere among so many me-too RPGs in recent years. Everything about Valkyria Chronicles comes together as an unmissable experience.

Final Fantasy X offers pure enjoyment. As far as the Final Fantasy series goes, its story and direction are very straightforward and not very complex, and a few plot twists do not make very much sense (such as the real reason for the rivalry of the Al Bhed), but the direction allowed for a close focus on the fully-voiced characters. The story of "Tidus" who comes to Yuna and the rest of the party in mysterious circumstances, instantly grips at a personal level, and probably best of all, Final Fantasy X is known for an unforgettable ending that managed to satisfy gamers everywhere--quite a rare event. The cinematography of the cutscenes is Oscar-worthy and more, impressing with (for instance) the sheer size of "Sin." The world of Spira is beautiful and colorful, holding enough interest to keep one doing everything that can be done in the world. The "Sphere Grid" development system was arguably improved in FFXII, but proved to be an addictive one at its inception.

At last, Dragon Quest is realized in the aesthetics department. The writing is as sharp as anything in the series, and now presented in a timeless cel-shaded look with a regal soundtrack. Artist Toriyama and composer Sugiyama have finally shown their talents in full force thanks to technology. The Dragon Quest style is perfectly preserved, with sharp, often tongue-in-cheek writing for entertainment, both the bread-and-butter sort and also some fresh varieties. The attention to detail is amazing, just one example being an animation for the hero putting his hand in a sack when he searches it. Dragon Quest VIII just nails all of its targets: classic, fresh, epic, fun. This time, Dragon Quest also became an experience as well as a game.

Dragon Warrior VII is all about taking four characters developed over a long time and doing virtually everything possible with them in an adventure. The concept of putting a world back together is genius for an epically episodic RPG, and all of the scenarios are interesting and well-written. The game is not simply long, but with over a hundred hours of filler-free gameplay, there is truly nothing quite like Dragon Warrior VII--an adventure that spans a scope of this level is practically nowhere else to be found.

Final Fantasy IX, in a manner of speaking, did something new by outright embracing RPG clichés with polish and sincerity. Its big budget and horsepower (for the console) makes this entry a celebration of everything the audiences came to enjoy from the oldest days of the genre.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is very much Star Wars, but has a little bit more: more detail, more methodical playing elements, and more maturity. The quests and subplots are wonderful, and tied into an engaging main plot that brought an interesting ensemble together.

Shenmue--the voicework was kind of lame in this dialogue-heavy game, and the compressed audio was grating. The story is essentially kind of absurd, about a young man who wants revenge for his father, gets mixed up with gangs and lives to tell about it--basically, an unbelievable story in a believable setting. Regardless, exploring Yokosuka is great, and a remarkably convincing depiction of a normal world with expressive characters and locations. Unlike many worlds with an emphasis on the population (Oblivion comes to mind, in which the place burning to the ground seems kind of inconsequential) there is a sense of care put into the individuality of every character in Yokosuka, making it easy to relate to the world as it was intended.

Skies of Arcadia cannot be called a game that takes many chances, and is in many ways almost pedestrian in its approach. The experience is often lukewarm and slow (why couldn't characters attack at once like in Suikoden?), but the delightful aspects come from the likable, if not terribly deep, characters and their chemistry. The concept comes straight out of the movie Castle in the Sky and nothing out of the game is particularly original, but Skies of Arcadia provides well-paced and relaxing adventures with some sincere storytelling.

- Josh Czoski
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