At its most basic, Into the Breach is an arcade tactical RPG, one not about domination but about defense and survival — a pocket-sized Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri where all the text is in your head. Its pixel art is just so sexy, like the most beautiful GBA game imaginable. Into the Breach features a type of fun that I don't usually seek out (not the ecstasy of Mario or Tetris, not the mythological heavy fun of Zelda or Dragon Quest, not the system-destructive fun of the Junction system in Final Fantasy VIII, for instance), but fun that is based on a series of quick, intelligence-based decisions.
It's at first daunting to try to understand what Obra Dinn expects of the player, and I found myself moving through the motions of the game in awe, forgetting my duty as insurance adjuster on a detective's quest to solve 60 intertwining mysteries. A medium-sized game packed with juicy content, Obra Dinn centers around the examination of increasingly grisly 3D dioramas. The mystery only becomes weirder and more dire as the bodies pile up.
Like Pope's indie hit (and important topical work) Papers, Please, Obra Dinn reduces people and their game bodies to a slew of screwy portraits, slight biographical details, and bits of video game poetry. It's our job to relate to these people, sort out their identities while standing over their desiccated, fly-covered corpses, remember that they are humans with life stories. Not since Her Story have I plunged so far down into a game's mysterious narrative. Lucas Pope is the real deal.
Unfortunately, most of my dragon questing took place in the early morning, and rather than the game sitting comfortably with me, its moments were always colored by the anxieties and dread that I knew lay before me. It took two dozen hours for DQXI to finally click. I could barely make out its inherent shonen RPG quest structure that I now see so clearly (I would never blame anyone for giving the game up in its first 10 hours).
What starts as a complete subversion of the Dragon Quest formula later fleshes out into a wide, classic Dragon Quest adventure a la Dragon Quest III or VII, a magic, anime colored flâneur-hero's myth.
A particular sequence in the middle of the game involving a city encased in ice, which I played across several 30 minute increments over a week, brought me nearly to tears at its heightened conclusion. It was a Dragon Quest sequence at its best, with back and forths between a dead city, a haunted wood, and an ancient library, each with their own unique and mysterious lighting and aura. A violent blizzard beat down on this world. When the sun finally rose, it was such a triumph that I collapsed in my bed with glee (all of my part-time jobs be damned).
If nothing else, DQXI reminds me that I still believe in the RPG fairy tale of good versus evil, and that I could, if I was willing, fight in the name of good, turn-based turn by turn. This is why I love JRPGs. This is why I am so indebted to Dragon Quest. I might soon lose my taste completely for whacking innocent looking slimes in the name of a gnostic-game progress (experience points) as I become less and less complacent with evil in the world, but for now, I shall revel in its abstract play-like motions (as I have done now for over two decades).
Aw hell, maybe I love it most because it reminds me of Demon's Souls, because of the implications of a third person camera following a protagonist with a sword and shield down into a polygon abyss. It's short and to the point, a mood piece, a nightmare vision.
If Panzer Dragoon Saga is a daydream mist, Koudelka is a spurt of nightmare feelings, a claustrophobic equation of equal parts off-brand JRPG gameplay, the aesthetics of Resident Evil's pre-rendered beauty, and Silent Hill-lite narrative. Koudelka features a badass female protagonist, an uncanny sequence of dread-inducing setpieces, and one of my new all-time favorite combat themes. Koudelka is a slight experience, wrapping up just as the player learns its rhythms. There's something unnerving about the survival horror RPG, the sensation of being victim to the numbers and algorithms normally under the player's control in another type of game. Koudelka is not as dire as a game like Sweet Home (Famicom), which benefits from the horrors of archaic 8-bit RPG mechanics (yikes!), but it manages its terror well. An underrated PS1 RPG.