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Which RPGs are a good fit for mobile devices?


This is a column by Kat Bailey dedicated to the analysis of the once beloved Japanese RPG sub-genre. Tune in every Wednesday for thoughts on white-haired villains, giant robots, Infinity+1 swords, and everything else the wonderful world of JRPGs has to offer.

Between Final Fantasy XIII-2, Xenoblade Chronicles, and The Last Story, it's been a surprisingly good year for RPG enthusiasts who prefer the home console experience. It's been nice to sit on the couch and really dive into a console RPG outside of the Mass Effect and Elder Scrolls franchises.

But it's November now, and things are getting back to normal. I've put more than a hundred hours into Pokemon Black 2/White 2 and I've just downloaded Persona 4 Golden. As usual, I will be playing a lot of handheld RPGs through the holidays.

And yet, not all handheld RPGs are created equal. Depending on the sub-genre, it can be a great fit for your mobile device of choice, a better fit for home consoles, or both. I got to thinking about the differences while downloading Persona 4 Golden, itself an odd fit for handhelds, and decided to break them down a bit.

The Flagship Handheld RPG

Pokémon: This should be a given, right? Pokémon's portability was originally what enabled its primary function as one of the first major social games. Though the internet has cut down on the need to meet up with friends for gaming, the 3DS has interesting social features, like StreetPass functionality, that Pokémon fans haven't had the luxury of using. There have been any number of calls for the series to "get with the times" and transition to consoles or the MMORPG space, but it's hard to imagine Pokémon as anything but Nintendo's flagship portable franchise. I'm guessing Game Freak feels the same way.

Best Enjoyed on the Bus

Strategy RPGs (Final Fantasy Tactics): I have oddly mixed feelings about the forthcoming Super Robot Taisen on PS3. I'm sure it'll be gorgeous, but I had grown used to the series being my companion in the course of my commutes. It feels like Super Robot Wars and other strategy RPGs like it are meant to be played while listening to a podcast on the way to work, or while enjoying a cup of coffee in the morning. It's the pacing that does it, each turn being a discrete opportunity to turn on the system, make a few moves, and put it away. It's the same formula that has propelled the likes of Words With Friends to incredible success. So while I certainly won't complain when SRW finally returns to console in late November, a part of me will be secretly wishing that it were for the Vita instead. Then I'll play it anyway because, you know, I'm a helpless addict.

First-Person Dungeon Crawlers (Etrian Odyssey): Etrian Odyssey and its ilk require endless amounts of patience, and no small amount of skill, to complete. They can be engrossing to the point that you'll look up and find yourself abruptly arriving at your train station or bus stop, at which point you'll flail around trying to save while grabbing your bag and elbowing your way past the little old lady and the homeless person. The downside is that they can be more frustrating than most RPGs. I can't count the number of times that I've died deep in a dungeon, realized that I just wasted 25 minutes of my time, and put away my handheld in disgust. When that happens, you just sit there and pretend to enjoy concrete outside while silently stewing over the FOE that surprised and killed you moments before saving. It's the worst.

Roguelikes (Shiren the Wanderer): Like first-person dungeon crawlers, but with perma-death. They can also be enjoyed while sitting at a computer, but I don't know why you would do that to yourself. Every time I die in FTL: Faster Than Light now, I look down to realize that I had spent two hours hunched over my computer, slowly destroying my spine in the name of defeating the rebels. Done properly, I bet it could be great on iPad.

Faded Memories that Come to Life on Handhelds

16-bit RPGs (Final Fantasy VI): I recently downloaded Final Fantasy VI from the Wii's Virtual Console, making me one of the last people in the country to remember that it exists (and that it's actually pretty great). It's still pretty solid on the big screen, but a part of me really wanted to be playing it on my 3DS. Square Enix, being the most prominent of the 16-bit RPG developers, has shown a deft hand in porting the likes of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest to the Nintendo DS and PSP. The bright colors and the sprites typically look great on the smaller screens, and the battle systems are often simple enough that they can be readily enjoyed on a smaller scale platform. Yet one more example of how great RPGs can be when you go in and trim some of the fat.

Faded Memories That Really Don't Come to Life on Handhelds

32-bit RPGs (Dragon Quest VII): Square Enix recently announced that Dragon Quest VII – one of the biggest and most unwieldy RPGs ever produced – will soon be coming to the Nintendo 3DS. Some outlets have expressed optimism that Square Enix will use this opportunity to fix some of its glaring flaws, such as its glacial pace. But given the Japanese audience's tendency to scream bloody murder anytime someone makes even the smallest change to a Dragon Quest game, I somehow doubt it. That's unfortunate, because if any game could use some editing, it's Dragon Quest VII.

At its heart, it's a fine RPG, but it struggles with the self-indulgence that infected developers in the post-Final Fantasy VII era. Such self-indulgence is rife in even high end PSX games like Valkyrie Profile, where cutscenes and story sequences can last more than an hour at a time. If I'm going to watch old CG while reading old text boxes for an hour, I might as well do it from the comfort of my couch.

RPGs That Are Best Enjoyed At Home

Action RPGs (Kingdom Hearts): I've already written at some length about why I feel Kingdom Hearts isn't a great fit for handheld systems. Basically, it combines all of the elements that make modern RPGs unsuitable for handheld platforms into one tidy package, including long, unwieldy cutscenes and twitch-based combat that strains the eyes on smaller screens. That it persists on platforms like the Nintendo 3DS is a disservice to both fans and non-fans alike (though the 3DS LL screen certainly helps).

There are exceptions, of course. Ys: Oath in Felghana is one example of an action RPG that is a good fit for handheld platforms due to its combination of retro top-down action and relatively simple mechanics. Monster Hunter remains the epitome of handheld gaming in Japan. Still, I'd rather play both of them on my television. When it comes to Monster Hunter in particular, all I want is to be able to sit in party chat with my friends while killing monsters over Xbox Live. Who needs a real social life anyway?

And Then There's Persona

I downloaded Persona 4 Golden onto my Vita and started playing earlier this week. Thus far, I've been very pleased with the fresh coat of paint, but it sure does take a while to get going. I've had to play it in discrete chunks, picking it up for fifteen to twenty minutes at a time to bang out a day or two of dialogue before setting it down again. It takes at least an hour for any action to pop up; and for handheld owners, it figures to be a very long hour indeed.

But in a lot of other ways, both Persona 4 Golden and Persona 3 Portable are great fits for the Vita. The pace afforded by their turn-based combat remain a good fit for mobile devices, and the music is really great when played over headphones. Most importantly, each day takes as little as ten minutes to complete, making it easy to quickly jump in and feel like you've accomplished something. It can get a little dangerous though – the temptation to keep going for another day, week, or month can be really strong.

It's such an odd mix. It feels daunting to pick up on the bus; but once I get going, I'm completely relaxed, and I don't want to stop playing. It's not nearly as self-indulgent as the 32-bit RPGs of the past, and it's not nearly as frustrating as the first-person dungeon crawlers that are its close relatives. It kind of makes me wish that I had a long commute to look forward to.

Kat Bailey is a freelance writer based out of San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on multiple outlets, including GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, gamesTM, and GameSpot. You can follow her on Twitter at @the_katbot.

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