SO5 was quickly dismissed as a mediocre game and a disappointment compared to past entries, but I couldn't disagree more and firmly believe that this game is long overdue for a re-evaluation. This game captures everything that makes the series special even within its smaller scope and budget and is absolutely worthy of standing with the rest of the series as one of its strongest entries. Combat is an absolute delight, the story offers relevant themes and tells its tale in a way that's unprecedented for the genre, it features some of the best characters in the series, and it offers all of the tinkering and depth that I associate with the series. If you come to the genre only wanting best in class visuals, lengthy cutscenes, or turn based combat, this game isn't going to do it for you, but for those who want to see what JRPGs can do when forced to innovate within extremely high stakes and with limited resources, SO5 is perhaps one of the most impressive cases of "greater than the sum of its parts" that I can think of.
Star Ocean: Blue Sphere
Blue Sphere is a bumpy experience at times and will test your patience through gigantic, complex dungeons and battles of wildly varying difficulty, but it is absolutely worth sticking with. Even if the story doesn’t offer a ton to chew on, it gives a perfectly valid excuse to jump into another adventure with the SO2 cast while also offering some PAs to give you a bit of a glimpse into what these characters have been up to in the two years since their original journey. It’s a true passion project through and through, and irrefutable passion is something that I believe makes tri-Ace really stand out. No matter what you may think of their games, no matter how unbalanced or weird they might seem, there’s no denying that their games are truly singular experiences. I’ve always had a strong appreciation for their craft, and Blue Sphere was a wonder to explore while also being a prime example of their strengths and weaknesses.
Castlevania: Grimoire of Souls
When everything is going well and you’re able to just play the game, it’s a really fun time and feels like a proper marriage of Castlevania throughout the years. There’s quite a bit to experiment with and you’ll get to test your skills against enemies from several different Castlevania entries, seeing them in a whole new context. Every character feels like they have a distinct enough playstyle and the 5* items do a great job of rewarding you with fun new attacks to use. But all of that comes with a hesitation to recommend this game for a variety of reasons. This isn’t a game you can just pick up and play even if many of its design choices encourage exactly that when it’s finally in your hands. You need to jump onto a specific ecosystem and pay monthly, it’s a game that works best if you’ve played at least eight or nine Castlevania games to completion to appreciate all the throwbacks, and it’s a game that expects you to keep coming back no matter how much it asks you to grind. You can outsmart it in some ways, but ultimately, this is one that you’ll have to chip away at bit by bit to see it through, no matter how much it gets on your nerves.
Despite my problems with its endgame, Tengoku Yoitoko is absolutely worth trying. It’s rare to see a game with such an unusual combination of elements and a take on platforming that’s more than just “jump on enemy, they’re dead”. When it’s at its best, this game consumes your thoughts in a way that makes you eager to slowly peel back its layers and see what secrets it has in store for you. Its combination of RPG and platforming elements makes you think about them and how they manage to come together in such an interesting way and I had a lot of fun taking notes and piecing together the NPC hints to figure out how to tackle the game’s challenges.
The Famicom had a ridiculously large library and I get the impression a lot of people outside of Japan still have yet to dig deep into its JRPG library beyond the usual suspects. That’s because most people get turned off by their difficulty, their obtuseness, or their slowness, but Shadow Brain defies all of those expectations. Shadow Brain is an exceptionally thoughtful game that offers some of the best world building on the platform alongside convenient and smart features that wouldn’t become commonplace in the genre until years later. It’s rare that we see something so ambitious that actually works out, so this game is worth celebrating for that reason alone.
Disgaea 6: Defiance of Destiny
Disgaea 6 is a game stuck at a crossroads, conflicted between two different experiences it wants to convey. Its story is one of the strongest in the franchise, offering entertaining characters with a heartfelt message about overcoming hardship that resonates strongly and is concisely told. On the other hand, it also wants to be as approachable as possible, providing a method to allow anyone to breeze through the game and witness the story even if it means betraying the themes of said story and offering shallower gameplay to the dedicated fans who have been there since the beginning...
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. But in reality, it's no different than all of those Dragon Quest clones, offering remarkably little of interest in terms of mechanics or world building while putting up one heck of a fight the whole way through.