Role playing games are dead.
Okay, maybe the situation isn't so dire as all that. There are still RPGs that come out that are worth picking up. I've not yet played Star Ocean 4, but what I've seen of it looks very impressive. Sega's upcoming (and awesomely bizarre) 7th Dragon looks quite good too. It still doesn't change the fact that most of the RPGs that have come out of late have been underwhelming when not downright awful, and the glut of MMO gaming has further dumbed down the genre. World of Warcraft is, by far, the worst thing to happen to RPG gaming since Final Fantasy 7.
I don't say that because I'm some sort of crusty Ultima fanboy who spends his time playing NetHack and downing Energy Potions. I also don't say it because I'm angry at "cinematic" stylings of some of the newer RPGs. I say that because of games like Kingdom Hearts and Dungeon Siege. Games that strive so hard to not be role playing games and yet have that label attached to them for some ungodly and inscrutable reason. If I can rage in battle without having to do anything other than press the "attack" button until the next cinematic pops up and win the game, it's not a role playing game. As a matter of fact, that's not even a game. It's a movie; and more often than not, a bad one. Dungeon Siege doesn't completely do away with any real gameplay as Kingdom Hearts does, but it does do away with what defines RPGs: Stats. The whole point of Role Playing is that you develop your hero (or other characters, if the game has a party system) according to the specific stats that he/she needs in order to be a successful adventurer. In console RPGs (and in Japanese developed RPGs most often) stats and party members are auto-assigned, forcing the player to strategize based on what is available -- which fighters have which weapons and attack power, which spell casters have what spells and how much they cost, etc.
Other RPGs require the player to assign experience and decide character classes. "Rogue-likes" simply drop the player into randomly generated labyrinths with constantly decreasing health and limited resources. Action RPGs put the player in control of combat designed to be fun in and of itself, but the character can still be developed and customized either by character creation, class, or equipment and level upgrades. Strategy RPGs put the combat on a larger scale with armies rather than parties and often precise rules of movement. There are all sorts of variations, but they all boil down to numbers. RPGs are about variables: levels, stats, equipment, inventory. RPGs are about intelligence and skill: which variables need which values in order to win the equation. Role Playing is algebra, trig, calculus... and in a couple of cases, geometry. Not that they are simply math problems in and of themselves, but that the math is an important means to an end, the end being an actual game.
This is why I have a problem with video game "journalists" who have misrepresented the genre as nothing more than frilly cut-scenes and bad story telling to appeal to weeaboo retards and basement dwelling nerds.
All that is to say, Nightmare of Druaga: Fushigino Dungeon is one of the better designed RPGs on the Playstation 2.
A psuedo-sequel to the massively popular (in Japan) Japanese arcade game, Tower of Druaga, this is a game that wears its old-school label proudly. It's subtitle, "fushigino dungeon" should scare off most of the average RPG players who consider Mass Effect or Final Fantasy 7 the apex of RPGs, although it won't because they don't know what it means. It means "mystery dungeon," which entails vaguely Rogue-like gameplay designed by Japanese developer Chunsoft, who has been making "mystery dungeon" games since the Super Famicom days with their spin-off of Dragon Quest, Torneko's Great Adventure (Torneko no Daibōken: Fushigi no Dungeon, 1993). All mystery dungeon games follow the same pattern: Turn based gameplay (as in, nothing moves -- at all -- until after the player does) on grid based maps, in ever expanding dungeons where the goal is to reach the end without running out of energy (light in this case) and collecting new equipment along the way. Be warned, if you die in the dungeon, you lose half your gold and all of your equipment, and you'll be sent back to the town, losing your progress in the dungeon.
Nightmare of Druaga keeps all of these elements, although unlike previous games in the "mystery dungeon" line, the dungeons are not randomly generated.
It probably sounds a lot like Diablo or possibly Phantasy Star Online to those who don't play this sub-genre of RPGs, and there is some truth to that. Both games play on the constant desire to get new and more bad-ass stuff. Druaga similarly strings the player along by dropping equipment and items in need of identification while promising rare, powerful equipment for the player patient enough to work his way to the bottom of the labyrinth. It's supplemented by an equipment system in which weapons and armor can be combined with others of their same type (ie weapon with weapon, armor with armor, shield with shield) in order to beef up their statistical values and to imbue elemental alignments. Equipment also is slotted, allowing for the use of gems to augment equipment either with bonuses (Strength +1) or elemental/status resistances. The same can be done with various herbs that are acquired, combining them into potions, and extra quests are available outside of the main dungeon, which usually come with compelling rewards. Weapons have special attacks that can be used, often coming with status ailments (one move can put monsters to sleep, another can poison). When weapons have been leveled up enough through combining, they can actually absorb the special attacks of weapons that they are combined with. When they get to +15, you don't lose weapons or equipment if you die in the dungeon.
In the main dungeon, each floor contains two secret treasure chests that will usually include rare (or at least valuable) items. In order to progress a key to the next floor must be found. Once a floor is cleared, the door can be kicked down on the second playthrough, which then leads to an extra floor with harder enemies and tons of rare items (often gems). The player goes as far as he can until he can go no further, then teleports back to town, selling unneeded items, combining uselfu equipment, and buying new stuff. The player then repeats until the game is beat.
That's the whole game.
Which is actually really something considering how much there is to do in a relatively confined space. This isn't trying to be an epic tale. It isn't trying to be Final Fantasy. The Nightmare of Druaga is a dungeon crawler, a number grinder, a rogue-like. It is about numbers. It's about the stats on strenght, dexterity, intelligence, and luck; it's about the levels of affinity towards ice, water, fire, thunder, wind, light and dark. It's about carefully planning your movements based on what you have left in your characters energy, health, and inventory. It's about how the player decides to augment, and which he decides to augment, and how he decides to play. It doesn't hold your hand, it doesn't spell things out, and it doesn't try and force you to sit through a story that wouldn't get published in print or wind up in a working screenplay. It is an RPG.
Some of the complaints leveled at the game are that it's battle system is simple and that the difficulty of the harder enemies is ridiculous. The battle system is not that simple, so long as you know how to use the special attacks and tailor your weapon upgrades to give you an advantage. Your character is slow, and enemies attack first, so go find lighter equipment (or equipment so powerful it doesn't matter if they attack first). If you know what you're doing, some of the harder enemies can be defeated (not the will-o-wisps, which are invincible) with a bit of smart playing. If you get stuck and can't win, you can always teleport back to town; it's why that option is always available. Back in town, you can get more items or tweak your equipment, and then try again. The game is based on using these rules and allowances to your advantage. The battle system is directly influenced by the choices you make while using your character and the choices of where and when you move in the dungeon. It's not like certain JRPGs where battle is totally disconnected from the rest of the game. The battle system is rather fast paced, especially so for a turn based game (the enemies move at the same time as the player to give the effect of real-time). The lack of flashy graphics, five minute long summon animations, and the ability to press one button while not paying attention to win a boss battle are what makes some people think the battle system is poor.
It's a very well designed game. The graphics are far from amazing, but they're passable and they get the job done. The music is actually quite good, and even atmospheric while in the dungeon. The story is nonsensical: a pastiche of ancient world names, Japanese RPG cliche and tried-and-true "damsel in distress" plotting. The localization is mostly fine, although there's nothing particularly memorable about the characters. It's the gameplay that will keep people hooked on this one.
Or nostalgia, if you have it. Namco and Arika provide plenty of fan service for the Japanese gamers who grew up on Druaga. Familiar themes start the game, the initial armor set of the hero, Gilgamesh, comes right out of the artwork for the old games, and the story probably means more to those who have known the characters and the games for over twenty years (Tower of Druaga was released in 1984, and Nightmare of Druaga in 2004: a twentieth aniversary commemoration, so to speak). For US gamers unfamiliar with this series, there will probably still be a few familiar sights. In Namco's weapon based fighter, Soul Calibur 2, the character Sophitia has a weapon set consisting of the blue crystal rod and red stripe shield, both of which are prominent items in the Druaga series. Her third costume is also a recreation of the one worn by the female protagonist (and oft kidnapped) Ki. Namco frequently nods to their hardcore fans. Sophitia's sister in Soul Calibur 2, Cassandra, has an alternate costume and weapon set that recreates another of Namco's more obscure (though also boasting a rabid fanbase) games, Legend of Valkyrie.
The Nightmare of Druaga: Fushigino Dungeon is a good game. It received mostly poor reviews from those who value production value over solid gameplay. A shame, since this is a very good addition to the "mystery dungeon" series. It continues to expand the possibilities of what you can do while developing your character for the singular goal of continuing to crunch numbers and get further in the game. Overall, I like it better than Baroque (I know some who would disagree) and as far as RPGs of this type go, these are two of the few available on the previous generation of consoles. Since I'd rather not play a game with nothing but ASCII graphics, it's more than worth it.