A sheep in wolf’s clothing

  • Developer: Hudson Soft
  • Publisher: Hudson Soft
  • Original Release Date: January 22nd, 1988 (Japan)
  • Available on: PC Engine, Wii/Wii U (via the Virtual Console), TurboGrafx-16/Core Grafx/PC Engine Mini, PS3/PSP/PS Vita (via the Japanese Playstation Network), Mobile (via TurboGrafx-16 GameBox, which was delisted)
  • Genre: JRPG

The 16-bit era of console gaming is often regarded as one of the best times to be a fan of Japanese RPGs, with games like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI still being considered some of the best the genre has to offer. These memorable RPGs took time and years of hardware proficiency to create though, and those of us outside Japan missed out on a whole lot of JRPGs in general, including the less impressive ones that showed clear signs of growing pains. During the 8-bit console era, imitating Dragon Quest was the way to go, so you had a lot of games doing most of the same stuff, maybe with a cool setting or mechanical twist thrown in, and calling it a day. This carried on through some of the 16-bit era too, with early RPGs like Gdleen and Phantasy Star II only utilizing the new hardware for audiovisual and storytelling enhancements, leaving the core gameplay loops unchanged from the days of the Famicom and Sega Mark III.

Jaseiken Necromancer is perhaps the ultimate example of this as the first JRPG to grace the PC Engine in 1988, a year before Phantasy Star II and two years before the Super Famicom even came out! Inspired by the likes of H.P. Lovecraft and H.R. Giger, Jaseiken Necromancer gives off an appearance of sophistication, seemingly offering a gritty, mature experience you wouldn’t get on your aging 8-bit consoles (it’s debatable whether or not the PC Engine is actually a 16-bit console due to its 8-bit CPU, but bear with me here!). The box art is adorned with part of H.R. Giger’s “The Spell III” painting and it looks absolutely captivating – I wouldn’t be surprised if a bunch of people bought this game solely because of its box art! But in reality, it’s no different than all of those Dragon Quest clones, offering remarkably little of interest in terms of mechanics or worldbuilding while putting up one heck of a fight the whole way through. It’s not a bad game or anything, just one that was very much a product of its time, meant to hold over PC Engine owners who cut their teeth on RPGs while they waited for more ambitious adventures like Tengai Makyo: Ziria and Ys Book I & II to grace the console.

As someone who grew up with access to a SNES (and a Genesis, though I never played any of its awesome RPGs until way later for some reason), Earthbound and Final Fantasy VI were some of my first gaming experiences, but I never had a chance to check out any NES or Master System RPGs while they were contemporary, only dabbling with a secondhand copy of Dragon Warrior briefly before getting bored and going back to newer consoles. That has long since been rectified and now I find myself oddly enamored with 8-bit RPGs in general (and Dragon Quest, those games rule). Most people seem to find them unbearable nowadays unless they played them when they were younger or if they were remade in some capacity, but I’ve come to appreciate them more and more over time. They work on multiple levels, both as a nail-biting test of risk management and as a way to relax and vibe while working towards a goal, ideally with a podcast or movie in tow.

Based on how the conversation surrounding the genre is nowadays, I’m in the distinct minority as a person who plays the genre for the gameplay above all else. I’ve enjoyed plenty of stories in the genre and continue to do so, but the games that really stick with me are the ones that emphasize strategy, experimentation, and decision making. It’s why I find Final Fantasy IV underwhelming and why Final Fantasy V is my favorite of the series and one of my favorite games of all time. One game seeks to get you from plot point to plot point as quickly as possible, sparing no time to let the player experiment with much of anything, while the other is like a blank canvas paired with the finest brushes around, letting you try whatever you can think of while providing you with more and more options as you go along, resulting in a game that’s practically a different experience every time.

Nowadays, JRPGs have embraced things like visible encounters, the ability to save anywhere, unlimited inventories, and even the removal of conventional dungeons all in the interest of pushing players along to the story and character drama that they crave with minimal fuss. While modern JRPGs are still a ton of fun for me thanks to more complex worlds to explore and battle systems to learn, it’s not quite the same fix for someone like me who also gets cravings for those lengthy dungeon crawls where one mistake can mean losing progress or having to limp back to safety. Thankfully, first person dungeon crawlers are still around and they usually serve my interests well enough (Etrian Odyssey being a particular highlight), but even modern renditions of those tend to make compromises in certain aspects. That’s where 8-bit RPGs come in, as they revolve almost entirely around treacherous, uncompromising dungeon crawls, so for someone like me, who may or may not be a masochist, they’re essential comfort food for whenever I need more punishment and dread in my life.

Jaseiken Necromancer isn’t the gold standard of everything I’ve just said though, funnily enough. The vast majority of the game is indeed spent fighting tense battles while managing resources, but almost every dungeon is the same identical cave (most of which are pretty short) and the battle system doesn’t extend beyond the typical set of attack/magic/defend/item commands, so it unfortunately lacks the multifaceted number crunching and team building exercises my brain ceaselessly craves. Still, I’ve wanted to give this one a chance for a long time now since it always looked cool and I have a strong appreciation for Hudson Soft’s catalog, having grown up with various Adventure Island and Bomberman games as some of my earliest gaming memories. This certainly isn’t one of Hudson Soft’s best games, but it is an interesting one that deviates greatly from their typical output and even in comparison to their other RPGs like Momotarou Densetsu, which is worth examining no matter how it actually is to play.

An alluring aspect of Jaseiken Necromancer is just how unknown it is to audiences outside of Japan. It’s not a game you ever hear about aside from the occasional person lamenting its lack of localization and English resources for it are pretty limited, though a complete guide on Gamefaqs was extremely helpful for whenever I needed some tips or when I wanted to compare equipment and spells. Between the game’s steep difficulty, its language barrier, and the general unpopularity of the TurboGrafx-16 compared to the SNES and Genesis in the US, it’s possible I’m one of the scant few people in the country to ever play it, let alone complete it, and that’s pretty cool! I have absolutely zero ways of proving that if I’m being honest, but hey, let me have this!

As someone who is slowly trying to learn Japanese, I found that this game wasn’t exactly the best choice to try and learn from, though just making it through the game at all was a satisfying enough reward. On one hand, the game uses no Kanji whatsoever, so it’s possible to read it knowing only Kana, which doesn’t take long to learn. It’s also a simple game in terms of plot and dialogue, with few characters of note, basic menus, and a mostly silent party of three under your control. Most NPCs aren’t particularly helpful either, as they tend to just flatter the protagonist or mention how afraid of the demons they are. On the other hand, the game uses an ugly font that makes things difficult to parse and there are some parts, namely the beginning and ending as well as combat logs, where the text advances automatically, making it difficult to read for someone like me. I did learn one valuable lesson from all this – not having Kanji in sentences is a huge pain! For a total beginner like me, figuring out where words began and ended without Kanji was challenging and I had to rely heavily on translators like DeepL to get an idea of what words were. Playing games in Japanese as a way to learn is a lot of fun, but pick something easier like Pokemon or Dragon Quest if that’s your goal!

Jaseiken Necromancer takes place in a world that lives in fear of demons that are causing all sorts of problems. You play as a demon hunter who arrives at the town of Randameria after he was called there to assist with the demonic threat in the wake of the king’s murder. His attendant at the castle speaks of the legendary sword known as Necromancer (the game’s title translates to something like “Evil Holy Sword Necromancer”) which is the only hope our hero has of defeating the demons. The hero is then instructed to pick two companions out of a lineup of five, after which the remaining three will stay behind to defend the town.

This is one of the game’s most interesting bits since this choice determines the difficulty of your playthrough and your general approach. Each character has different stats, can equip different weapons and armor, wields magic with varying rates of proficiency, and even has unique level caps and experience curves. Lime the mage is a reliable pick because she gets access to a wide array of spells pretty quickly, though it takes a long time for you to actually find or afford those spells. Chaos is the equivalent of a cleric, capable of learning lots of supporting spells. If you want pure physical strength, Baron is your guy, so much so that he’s completely unable to use magic. Maist falls into the rogue archetype, being a character that’s quick but weak physically, though she is decent with magic too. For those who enjoy long-term investments, Romina is the character for you; she starts off exceptionally weak, but becomes one of the best characters by the end and is one of two characters capable of using a party heal spell.

Based on the advice of the resources I could find, speed seemed like it would be a big deal, so I went with Lime and Maist. Turns out, I should have gone with my gut and picked Romina instead of Maist. While Lime did fine enough once I got her some magic, I found Maist to be completely worthless to the point that she struggled to do more than 1 point of damage to the majority of foes for most of the game even with up to date equipment. Speed doesn’t really help if you can’t hurt anything! Not having access to a party heal spell was also a problem when dealing with the game’s nasty final bosses, most of which love to use multiple attacks that hit the entire team. If you, dear reader, ever intend on trying this game for yourself, do yourself a favor and bring Chaos or Romina along. This game is a constant struggle, but the gauntlet of bosses at the end is the roughest part, so building for the long-term is the right move.

Once you set out into the world, your journey is mostly one of repetition. You go from one mostly identical town to another, fighting battles along the way while trying to afford all of the incredibly expensive magic and equipment you can. The narrative of Jaseiken Necromancer feels slim even for its time; there aren’t any supporting cast members and the final boss isn’t introduced or mentioned by name until you’re staring it in the face. The main thrust for just about the entire game ends up being the search for the Necromancer itself, which can’t be acquired without first finding three grails. Talking to the few NPCs that actually provide hints is the key to getting an idea of what needs to be done to find these grails, so being able to understand or translate their hints is important (unless you just use a guide). Even after you’ve gotten the Necromancer, you’re not out of the woods yet – the sword still needs to be powered up to be useful, so you have to find the wizard who’s capable of doing so. This was one of the parts where I got stuck for a bit because the path to the wizard’s abode is hidden in a wall to the immediate south of the guy who gives you the sword, which was certainly not where I expected that to be. Even when you think you’re a tough guy who knows it all, Jaseiken Necromancer always finds a way to beat some humility back into you.

Along the way, there are morsels of potentially interesting scenarios – the town of Baretta is populated only by the elderly because everyone else has fled, a goddess overseeing the town of Talones asks you to find her missing items, and the town of Buroai overcharges you for goods until you can prove your trustworthiness by slaying the demon in the nearby cave – but these do little to break up the tedium of progressing through the game due to the utter lack of personality throughout. Your characters have nothing to say about the situations they encounter and there aren’t any lasting consequences that affect future events in the game or provide you with a new perspective to ponder. This vignette structure works for Dragon Quest because of its boundless creativity and willingness to tug at your heartstrings when you least expect it, but Jaseiken Necromancer makes these scenarios hollow and flavorless, as if it’s hoping you won’t look past its eye-catching exterior and discover what really lies within it. There isn’t even an effective way of backtracking to previous towns nor do you get a vehicle to explore the world from a different angle; in a way, it feels like the game itself is admitting to you that there’s nothing to see here, nothing to take away as a precious memory of your time spent in this world, and considering how talented Hudson Soft was and how prominently their games tend to stick in my mind, this wounds me.

All of this would be forgivable if combat was more interesting, but it’s no different than, say, Dragon Quest II in terms of depth. There are no mechanics beyond basic attacks and spells, so depending on the team you’ve picked, there’s a chance at least one of your characters will do nothing but attack the entire game. This is not new for RPGs of this vintage, but considering this was the game that was supposed to convince RPG players to buy a PC Engine, the fact that it doesn’t surpass its Famicom peers in strategic depth is worth noting. Magic is at least fairly robust, including a variety of damaging spells, status effects, buff and debuffs, quality of life spells, and a magic reflecting spell that’s practically necessary for the final battles. A minor but neat twist on the magic system is that spells can be freely shared between characters, so assuming they’re all capable of using a given spell, you can pass it around as characters run out of MP in order to get a bit more mileage out of it. This isn’t really necessary after a certain point, but it’s a valid tactical consideration early on that allows you to last a bit longer when traveling and save a bit of cash by skipping out on purchasing duplicate spells.

In terms of resource management outside of combat, inventory space is very tight and equipment takes up space in said inventory even when you’re wearing it, so saving room by relying on healing magic is essential to success. The biggest problem you’ll encounter when managing inventory is the sheer number of key items you’ll get, some of which don’t have any use until very late in the game. Some of them, such as the books that just give you a hint, can probably be disposed of safely in retrospect, but I sure wasn’t going to try at the time! Thus, I was oftentimes forced to make hard decisions in order to accommodate all of these extraneous key items. While it might sound like a complaint, management like this is always a welcome complement to a good old fashioned dungeon crawl where decisions you made earlier on could potentially snowball into a difficult situation later on. Status effects come at you suddenly, so it can really sting (in a thrilling way, mind you) when you throw away a restorative that could have made your life easier.

As alluded to before, dungeons in Jaseiken Necromancer are surprisingly tame and rarely have much in the way of traps. Torches or magic are required to see past a square ahead of you, but only a couple of dungeons employ things like trap holes or fake walls, so you could probably fumble your way through most of these in the dark if you really wanted to. What does make things more complicated is the intensity of encounters. The battle system might be lacking in tactical nuance, but the foes you encounter hit hard and appear in big groups. Most enemies are durable enough that only dedicated fighters will do much with physical attacks and encounters are frequent enough that you can’t go wild with magic either. Enemy magic is absolutely devastating and can only be mitigated with a reflect spell, so until you get that, expect to get wiped out by groups of foes who all cast the same spell more than once. Power levels jump suddenly when moving between continents and character levels do make a noticeable difference, so this is very much a game where fighting everything you see as you make multiple excursions into the same dungeon is encouraged. This game has something of a reputation for its difficulty based on what I could find on Japanese websites, and that reputation is very much deserved.

The part of the game that feels most inspired is the monster designs. Everything you’ll encounter is detailed and grotesque in equal measure. Some demons will have organs hanging out in the open and others are difficult to describe monstrosities that command a tremendous, fearsome presence. There are even some straight pulls from Lovecraft such as a fish monster inspired by the Deep Ones (with a name that translates to “Innsmouth”) and a who’s who of Cthulhu Mythos gods reserved for the final boss gauntlet, including the likes of Tsathoggua, Nyarlathotep, Hastur, Yog-Sothoth, and Azathoth. Killing all these eldritch horrors en masse is more satisfying than it would otherwise be thanks to the fact that blood shoots out of every enemy you kill like a geyser, much like what Konami’s Vandal Hearts would go on to do. It’s a much appreciated bit of visual gratuity in an otherwise dull game. Strangely enough, the soundtrack doesn’t really complement the somber visuals at all, opting for some weirdly upbeat tunes and a surprisingly catchy world map theme. The battle theme is unfortunately as bland as it gets, though the music played in caves and the final dungeon stands out as being appropriately moody. Jun Chikuma is a great composer who did excellent work on the Bomberman franchise, but this game just doesn’t feel like the right fit for her style.

Even for a JRPG Superfan like myself, it’s hard to find a compelling enough hook in Jaseiken Necromancer that would make me recommend it to others, which is a shame considering how eager I was to unravel its mysteries as a game virtually unknown to the west. It has plenty of cool enemy designs and impressive visual flourishes (such as idle animations for every single enemy), but that alone isn’t enough to carry a game. If anything, it’s a harsh reminder that not everything we missed out on back in the day was worthy of our time and effort. Selling a JRPG outside of Japan in the 80s was hard enough and something like this simply wasn’t going to cut it in the west, so it’s unsurprising that it was never localized (not to mention the fact that its demonic imagery could have caused some controversy at the time!). Despite all this, I don’t regret playing it and I’m proud of myself for overcoming it. When you’re doing something like this blog, trying to give forgotten games a thorough analysis, you just have to accept that most of these games are going to have some rough edges. I get a lot of enjoyment out of exploring flawed games and trying to discover if they had any weird or valid ideas that could have potential elsewhere. Polish and perfection are just plain boring if you ask me!

Jaseiken Necromancer did manage to get a sequel after 21 years on mobile phones in 2009, which then got ported to DSiware of all places a year later with the name Jaseiken Necromancer: Nightmare Reborn. This game didn’t get localized either, which is a huge shame when you look at some footage and realize how much faster and more stylish it is. According to Wikipedia, it even has a soundtrack by Yuzo Koshiro, an important selling point if I’ve ever heard one. I’ve very much had my fill of demon slaying for now, but I’m definitely interested in checking it out someday. Let’s just hope it nails all of the things that Jaseiken Necromancer wasn’t able to do and lives up to the promise that this game had.

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