Proof That Giving Gust Time and Money Is a Great Idea of the Year: Atelier Ryza 3: Alchemist of the End & the Secret Key
Ever since 2019’s Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness & the Secret Hideout reignited the Atelier series, the Secret (Ryza) sub-series saw drastic improvements from one entry to the next. The vast number of complex systems and mechanics have allowed the developers at Gust to continually challenge themselves and the player by keeping every facet of Atelier Ryza 3 exciting, rewarding, and, most importantly, fun. With a longer development cycle and bigger budget, Gust finally achieved their ambitious dreams that we saw glimpses of in earlier Atelier titles. It’s been a long time coming, yet the developers have hit their stride and continually put out their best titles one after the other.
Atelier Ryza 3 is not only one of the best Atelier games or best Gust games, it’s also one of the best RPGs of 2023. It’s proof that while the developers have always had heart and ambition, they only needed a little extra time and money to realize those dreams and live up to the heightened expectations. It is the perfect cap to Ryza’s story and opens the door to the next adventure.
Where the Hell Did This Come From and Why Is It So Good of the Year: WitchSpring R
Who knew that a remake of a little-known indie mobile game would be one of the best RPGs of 2023? Certainly not me. WitchSpring R is a game that came out of nowhere, rushing ahead like a dark horse to race past its contemporaries and bite at the heels of developers with exponentially higher budgets, larger teams, and more abundant resources. WitchSpring R is one of those games where the devs know exactly how and why the games they pull inspiration from work. They understand pacing, combat and encounter design, interesting and complex mechanics, level design and worldbuilding, unit design, and, most importantly, character growth.
WitchSpring R is an example of a developer who squeezed every single bit out of their resources to produce a gorgeous, hilarious, heartwarming, challenging, and fantastic little gem that punches far above its weight. The game is perfectly paced, and despite a few typos and occasional blemishes, it fires on all cylinders and serves as one of the most inspirational projects of 2023. If anyone were to ask me what the ideal remake would be, WitchSpring R would be my number one choice, for it’s a fully realized vision that shows what KIWIWALKS truly wanted to create years ago.
Playable Anime of the Year: Fate Samurai/Remnant
I’ve been a fan of Musou/Warriors games since playing Dynasty Warriors 3 long ago. Yet it’s always been an uphill battle trying to get detractors to actually play one. Most people I’ve met have played a handful of Musou/Warriors games well over a decade ago and think every Omega Force game is the same: hack-and-slash one-versus-one-thousand battles of an overpowered historical figure versus brainless sword fodder. But I’ve noticed that some people forget their distaste for the style when there’s a Musou/Warriors game for an existing property (e.g. Persona, Zelda, Fire Emblem).
All of this ranting is simply a prelude to saying that Fate Samurai/Remnant is not, in fact, a Musou/Warriors game. While previous works by Omega Force have still been that old and tiring-to-some style, this title is an action RPG through and through. Fate Samurai/Remnant doesn’t rely on fanservice, something the developers realized early on. The confidence they have in their work in handling one of the biggest media franchises in the world shows through every moment with Fate Samurai/Remnant. The story, characters, music, world design, setting, combat, and progression are all fantastic, yet the game shines brightest in the one-on-one duels between servants. Omega Force has grown over the decades, and the last few years have shown incredible improvement as they continue experimenting with new systems while honing their skills in designing exciting and fun action RPGs.
Spectacle of the Year: Final Fantasy XVI
Overall, I like Final Fantasy XVI a lot. It has some of my favorite characters, including one of the best protagonists in the series. The world is unique and interesting, the combat is exciting and kinetic, and the music is simply out of this world. There is a lot I don’t like, namely the sidequesting structure, lack of playable party members, and some story beats I really don’t agree with. But on the whole, Final Fantasy XVI is one of the best experiences I had in 2023.
The game is simply bombastic in every way. It bleeds money, style, and ambition, and it looks damn good while doing it. The best part about Final Fantasy XVI is simply the spectacle. Every Eikon battle is a vivid and gorgeous clash of beasts, and time after time, you feel like you’re playing a movie rife with kaiju battles. More often than not, I sat on my couch with my jaw dropped as another absurdly anime boss battle played out with the music blasting and the screen searing my eyes. For a game that had so much expectation and so much to live up to, it defied the odds and became one of the best Final Fantasy games to date.
Undoing Over Twenty Years of Ignorance of the Year: Pokémon: The Trading Card Game
I grew up with Pokémon. I watched the anime, collected the cards, and played the games. For the longest time, I lived and breathed Pokémon. When I was little, I even had a Pokémon Pikachu (or Pocket Pikachu), which I would let my friend borrow throughout the day to take turns generating electricity to spend on the in-game slot machine. Yet, despite all the games and memorabilia littering my room, my collection of cards was perhaps the most expensive thing I owned as a child. I had hundreds of cards, including some rare holographic cards (sadly, no Charizard). With such a grand collection of rare and powerful cards, surely I must be an expert at the Trading Card Game (TCG), right?
I’ve never known how to play the TCG. My sister and I would just flip coins, pick our strongest move, and hope for the best. However, when Nintendo added the Pokémon TCG Game Boy game to the Switch Online Game Boy Expansion service, I figured it was time to learn what I never bothered to learn.
First things first: the GB Pokémon TCG is hell. The CPU cheats. The flips are unfair. The trainers use banned cards. You never get the card you want. Your opponent always stacks up tons of energy on cards to wipe out your whole team. You get metaphorically Mud Slap’d again and again and again, and yet… It’s extremely fun. The challenge faced when prepping your best Pokémon to swing in and sweep the enemy team, the excitement when landing every coin flip needed, the clutch wins and the chaos of battle is just… fun, even when losing. The strategy and luck involved make every encounter a blast, and there’s nothing better than blasting your opponent with a beam that forces them to remove their energy cards and wallow in despair as they can no longer use their moves.
Now it’s time to try the actual (physical) game with my newfound (and extremely outdated) knowledge. I hope it’s even a fraction as fun as the Game Boy version from over twenty years ago.