5) Half-Minute Hero (PSP) - The throwback RPG is a pretty hot trend these days and Half-Minute Hero is part of that trend. But rather than taking the classic old-school formula and polishing it up the way titles like Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled and Crimson Gem Saga do, Half-Minute Hero takes the formula, completely deconstructs it, and reinterprets it in a myriad of unique ways while adding their own twists. It takes typical Japanese RPG conventions and turns them on their ear, making for a strange yet quite fun RPG. RPGFan's classification of Half-Minute Hero as a "??? RPG" speaks volumes because it truly offers an RPG experience unlike any I've ever seen.
4) Dawn's Light (PC) - When I was first informed of Dawn's Light by John Wizard, the screenshots and trailer made me think "ho hum, another RPGM VX project." I was actually not looking too forward to reviewing it, but Mama always taught me never to judge a book by its cover. And this time, Mama's wisdom was right on. Dawn's Light was one of the most fun RPGs I've played this year and it also impressed me with a fantastic soundtrack and the most well-written script I have seen in a commercial RPG Maker game to date. Dawn's Light has certainly elevated people's expectations for John Wizard's next project and I hope they continue to capture the magic.
3) Fading Hearts (PC) - This independently developed visual novel features a bizarre storyline, a surreal view of anime and manga conventions, a great soundtrack, and addicting gameplay. Fans of visual novels like Ever17 or RPGs with life-sim elements like Persona 3, or Persona 4 should give Fading Hearts a whirl. I played this game at least five to seven times in a row, and want to keep playing till I uncover all the secrets (which are often tricky to unravel). What more needs to be said? Fading Hearts is a sweet game.
2) Millennium (episodes 1 and 2) (PC) - Aldorlea has to be the most ambitious developer of commercial RPGM games. This year alone they released: 3 Stars of Destiny, Laxius Force II, two installments of the episodic Millennium, a new IP called Asguaard, and even found time to sneak in a freeware game for their fanbase entitled Laxius Party. All of these games were pretty involved projects (Asguaard being Aldorlea's biggest commercial product to date), but my personal favorite of theirs this year was Millennium. So far only two episodes have been released but both A New Hope and Take Me Higher have been great and future episodes should rock as well. Millennium sports beautiful production values with its varied soundtrack, custom textures in the tile-based graphics, the most beautiful character art I have seen in a long time, and a cool story with likeable characters. If I could only keep up with one Aldorlea series, it would be Millennium.
1) Shin Megami Tensei: Persona (PSP) - I probably seem like a hypocrite for putting a remake as my #1 for 2009. It is well known in the RPGFan community that I often talk about wanting to see new intellectual properties and finding the "next best thing" or "new revolution" in the genre. One of the reasons I am so supportive of independent developers is because I truly believe that, like with music culture, the next big thing will come from the underground. Even the indie stuff I didn't like is worth a look for someone tired of all the "me too" games from the mainstream. But I digress.
No matter how you slice it, Persona is one of my favorite RPGs of all time. Even with the Playstation original's chop-job localization with flawed text, stilted Americanizations, and half the game's content being dummied out (I refer to the Snow Queen Quest), I loved it. It's because of the original's egregious flaws that Persona for PSP was a remake that simply had to happen for US audiences. This is Persona as it was meant to be, with dialogue to Atlus's current golden standards, the Snow Queen Quest fully intact, an improved interface, and other enhancements. I fell in love with the game all over again. It is also very telling of the scene that despite all the shiny, flashy, new stuff coming out, a cult classic circa-1996 was still the 2009 apple of my eye. Now how about Innocent Sin in English and an Eternal Punishment redux?
My favorite RPG character of 2009
Spinel from Crimson Gem Saga (PSP) - Crimson Gem Saga was one of many above-average throwback RPGs, but what truly set it apart from the pack was Spinel. Spinel was my favorite RPG character of 2009 and her voice actress, Laura Bailey, put forth the best English language voice acting performance I've heard this year. Spinel was more than just a fresh take on a classic RPG character archetype. She had that je ne sais quois that made me select her as the best out of all the RPG characters I've met this year. I want to play a Crimson Gem Saga spinoff game starring Spinel. I want a Spinel action figure or plushie. I want Spinel's US voice actress to become a household name because she was that good. Okay, the rest of Crimson Gem Saga was great too, but Spinel absolutely made the game for me.
My Disappointment of the Year 2009
Nostalgia (DS) - Nostalgia is a game that held so much promise and potential. The prerelease buzz surrounding the game made people think of Wild Arms and Skies of Arcadia; two much beloved classics. I thought that with the unique 19th century steampunk setting in an alternate Earth, Nostalgia would have a hint of originality in its story and characters. I also thought that the prominent role of airships and travel would make the game's world rich, developed, and fun to explore. Unfortunately, the world was quite superficial, and the game as a whole was laughably generic, horribly clichéd, and just downright boring. I love traditional turn-based RPGs that recapture the joy I felt playing these games as a youth, but with so many fantastic throwback RPGs out there like Crimson Gem Saga, Half-Minute Hero, and Millennium, a lukewarm effort like Nostalgia just fails to cut the mustard.