I confess I'm a bit excited. Maybe even as excited as I was to talk about "Path Of Exile"!
As we continue to celebrate "The Summer Of Free" at The Spirit Blade Underground, we turn our attention now to some great, Old School RPG video games. Most of which bring back fond memories of turn-based classics like the Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior/Dragon Quest games. Unlike those games, however, these titles have updated 2D graphics with smoother images and higher texture detail. And of course they are all 100% FREE!
Most of these games were created by software specifically made to allow the average gamer to create their own RPG video game. ("RPG Maker" is probably the most popular series of tools for this purpose on the market.) Although the various versions of RPG Maker and similar software come with their own character sprites, enemy images and environmental tile-sets (which become familiar quickly if you play more than a couple of games made by the same software), users also can and do utilize custom graphics and music (some of which are heavily inspired or recreated versions of elements found in previously published games). After users create their games, they often publish them online. Sometimes to be sold, but more often than not to be downloaded for free.
No software is required to play these games other than the download of the game itself. And even older PCs and laptops should have no trouble running them. All but the last game listed here are designed to be played on PC with a keyboard, but for that classic console RPG feel, a controller is recommended.
Several of the following games were found on websites that host collections of these kinds of games, organizing them by type, user rating and several other available filters. To do some searching of your own, I'd highly recommend rpgmaker.net.
Each of the following games I've played for at least one hour, usually more. And though they aren't without their flaws (including some tired retreads of classic RPG material), these are pretty easily ignored in light of their genuine strengths. Any one of these games I would be willing to pay at least a few bucks for(but thankfully don't have to!), and all are easily recommended to fans of old-school, turn-based RPG video games. Not just good because they are free, these games are quality RPG experiences regardless of price.
Featuring 4.5-16 hours of game play (no cut scenes, just action), EpiQuest uses first person, turn based combat much like the Dragon Warrior/Dragon Quest series. Enemies are not animated in combat, but spell and ability effects still look nice and make combat visually satisfying.
The protagonists are represented by light-hearted sprites but they go up against some pretty serious looking enemy designs. So aesthetically it's a nice balance. Not too dark and not too light.
Skills are useful and battles are enjoyable though not terribly strategic. However you can see and avoid enemies that appear in dungeons altogether if you like, rather than having forced random encounters.
There is VERY little story to introduce the game. You wake up and begin finding your way in the world, which slowly leads to bigger adventures.
Based on the first 90 minutes of game play I'd score this a 7.5 (as always, not factoring in that it's free, which may bump the score up a bit for your consideration). So it has some very solid aspects to it that make it worth trying for any classic JRPG fan looking for some enjoyable, free entertainment. You can find the game at- http://rpgmaker.net/games/1986/
Legionwood- Tale Of The Two Swords
This one features 20+ hours of game play and a story and setting that have me interested right away.
Legionwood uses a classic side-view style of combat that feels much like early Final Fantasy games.
Combat is about using the right skills and managing resources. It's turn-based, but the selection and execution of commands keeps combat moving about as quick as your mind can carry it along.
Sound design and visuals are all satisfying. Enemy design and sprites are light-hearted but not silly.
I only planned to play an hour of this game but ended up giving it well over 90 minutes. So far I'd give it a solid 8.0 in quality, with potential for a decent relevance score as well if the rest of the game uses the potential of some elements introduced in the opening story sequence.
Some users may have trouble getting the game to play in full screen. I had to uncheck the full screen launch option under "properties" when right-clicking on the windowed game. You can also press Alt+Enter to toggle window and full screen. (This works on many of these RPG Maker games.) You can find Legionwood at- http://rpgmaker.net/games/792/
A story driven game about a world in which a uniquely gifted race of people are feared and hated. (Think X-Men mutants but in a fantasy setting.) It may not be long before this race is wiped out. Your mission is to show the world rulers that your people are not a danger. But with a corrupt ruler bent on your people's destruction it may take much more than words.
Manifest has a typical Final Fantasy inspired combat system, with skills learned automatically rather than purchased or learned through training. So character development (in the first 90 minutes anyway) seems linear and without much choice aside from equipment. But battles are still strategic, dependent upon learning and exploiting your enemy's weakness.
Combat also uses an Active Time Battle system, in which each character and enemy charges up a meter before they can take an action. The higher your agility, the faster this bar charges. This element was added to classic Final Fantasy games to add some tension and pressure to decision making, although I'm not a fan of it. Thankfully, you can speed up or slow down the overall battle speed to your taste in the settings menu, or give yourself time to think by opening up the item selection window during combat. So whether you like ATB systems or not, you can play this game to suit your tastes.
There are also a number of puzzles to be found along the way and several other game play mechanisms, such as lock picking, that I haven't reached yet in my play through.
What strikes me most is the writing. I was surprised at the quality and impact of the dialogue. The intro is a bit long-winded as it sets up the world and characters, but after that it settles into a nice pace, peppered with brief character scenes that made me truly care about the members of my party and what their eventual fates might be.
For now I'd give this a quality score of 8.0. Too early to comment on a relevance score.
You can find Manifest at- http://rpgmaker.net/games/3694/
This classic style rpg follows the story of a young village boy named Hilbert, who dreams of being a great hero and helping people. He has committed himself to being the protector of his village, but finds his ability to fall short of his ambition. He is also the object of ridicule for his "naive" desire to do good.
Hilbert reminds me of a fantasy version of Steve Rogers (Captain America) as presented by Chris Evans in the recent Marvel movies . Hilbert wants to do good for no other reason than the sake of doing good and helping others. He is an outcast of sorts, but views his treatment by others as an opportunity to be the better man and grow in character. It's this refreshing take on an RPG protagonist that captured my attention and kept me interested in seeing where the story will go.
Hilbert is told by a mysterious woman that he is the descendant of a legendary hero, and it is his destiny to save the land from demonic forces. In order to prepare himself for this task, Hilbert enlists in the army to train and grow as both a warrior and leader. From this starting point his journey to becoming a hero begins.
The sprites, tiles and objects found in towns, the world map and dungeons all look nice and clean, but also fairly generic. The art in combat is much improved, however. Although there are no animations for the characters in combat, they are drawn and colored very well, in a more serious "western rpg" style than the Japanese RPG inspired sprites used in the rest of the game.
Combat is turn-based, viewed in third person, but from a bird's-eye view. Rather than the side view of classic Final Fantasy games, or the 1st person view of Dragon Quest, the camera sits behind and above the heroes, facing the enemies, with the backs of the heroes in view near the bottom left of the screen. There seems to be a good variety of enemies, which all look great and provide plenty of challenge. The art and the unusual placement of heroes makes for a unique look in combat.
The combat itself, however, is not that unique. Your access to spells or special abilities is very limited during the first hour of the game, though based on some of the shops I've visited there is a rather large selection of spells to eventually acquire. The main strategy for combat in the beginning of the game is figuring out when to heal yourself and whether to do so with a spell or potion. Resources are tight and being too liberal or conservative with either potions or spells can get you killed. A little further in you'll need to start figuring out enemy weaknesses and exploiting them with the right spells. Nothing intensely captivating, but it flies by quickly when you know what you're doing and is still enjoyable enough to keep things interesting as you explore and progress the story.
Based on the first hour or so I'd give this one a solid 8.0 in quality, with the seeds planted for a good relevance score as well.
You can find Last Scenario at- http://site.scfworks.com/?page_id=8
The creator of Last Scenario followed up that well received game with another that has a few cosmetic similarities, but improves upon game play significantly.
Exit Fate initially triggered mixed feelings. Primarily because of the jarring difference in graphical quality when comparing the sprites used for your characters on town, dungeon and world maps, and those used for the same characters during combat and as character portraits during dialogue. The "walking" sprites have lots of old-school 16-bit jaggies, while the dialogue portraits and combat sprites use high quality, high definition artwork. Enemies on the combat screen also look fantastic.
The environmental tiles also vary, from 16-bit to hi-def. Initially this inconsistency was a big turn off. But surprisingly I quickly got over it. The story, the game play and the characters soon won me over.
Exit Fate centers on Daniel, an officer in the army of one of two world powers that have been warring for ages over the same territory. Though periods of war are short compared to the peacetime between them, the seemingly endless pattern of returning to war has made Daniel an unlikely pacifist, who yearns for his countrymen and their enemies to find a new way to resolve their disputes.
Add to this his childhood friend becoming a newly minted General, and the inner turmoil for Daniel only swells. After the first battle of a new war, Daniel awakens with no memory of the conflict, and is greeted by his people as a traitor. Now he is on the run, trying to figure out what happened in the forgotten battle and what his place in this world will now be.
The game is said to be heavily inspired by Suikoden 2, which I haven't played. Although I've read that this doesn't prove to be a hindrance to the experience.
Combat is turn-based, with a running timeline at the bottom of the screen letting you know the order of the next 6 turns. This allows you to plan ahead and manage your spells and resources in a more rich and tactical way than most turn-based RPGs allow for.
Spells fall into around 8 elemental categories, and so does every enemy and ally you encounter. This means that to maximize both offense and defense you'll want to exploit weaknesses and utilize strengths with your selection of spells and abilities.
Mana points for using magic also reset at the beginning of every combat, slowly building as combat progresses. Characters share a pool of available spells, but each spell may only be cast a certain number of times per combat. So managing the timing of your spell casting adds a satisfying layer of strategy to combat.
Additionally, each spell affects a different shape and size area on the combat screen. Some spells effect all enemies in the same column or row. Others effect only single enemies, or maybe all enemies. The strength of spells is weaker for those affecting larger groups of enemies and stronger for those affecting fewer.
If this different approach to magic sounds complicated, it isn't at all in practice. And the added depth it brings to the game play makes combat very enjoyable.
Animation during combat is pretty sparse, but spell and ability effects are nice, the art looks great and the game play itself is so fun that animation was soon no longer on my mind.
Like the Suikoden series, you will also have larger battles using a completely different interface, in which you lead multiple army units against enemy units in a large scale conflict. However these kinds of battle are the exception. Combat as described above is the norm. The graphics in these encounters take a turn for the worse, but the tactics are still very satisfying.
A quick rundown of other features includes:
50-60 hours of game play
Up to 6 party members, and 75 characters to recruit.
Numerous battle formation options under your control.
Lots of side quests.
Your own castle.
You can find Exit Fate at- http://site.scfworks.com/?page_id=10
Unlike all the other games listed here, Undercroft is an iPhone game. It's also not in the Japanese RPG tradition, but in the Western PC tradition of first-person, space-by-space-movement dungeon crawlers of the 80's and 90's.
You control a party of four heroes, taking on numerous quests for various people in your town, which eventually leads you outside of your town and into new parts of the traditional, medieval fantasy land. There are no funny hair colors, squinting children or light-hearted enemy designs. This is a D&D inspired classic loot-fest, with turn-based combat that, while not too deep, can be enjoyed for just a few minutes or for much longer stretches. The cycle of exploring, fighting and looting is about as addictive as ever in this game.
Your party members cover the usual class types, such as rogue, fighter, wizard and cleric. Each has its own skill tree you may develop as you wish. Each has favored weapons and subtly contributes something different to combat, though all have pretty decent regular attacks.
Time advances as it does in "rogue-like" games. The world stands still unless you are moving or taking actions. So despite being turn-based, combat can really fly along if you know what you're doing.
The graphics are rendered in 2D and are about on par with the Playstation 1 in detail. The music is wonderful, with a score that brings the intended fantasy experience to life. You may even find yourself humming the tunes even when you're not playing. Be sure to wear headphones to fully appreciate what the soundtrack has to offer.
With a combination of 5,10 and 20 minute sessions I've put well over three hours into Undercroft so far. It is my "go to" iPhone game and probably will be for quite awhile, given its 20 hours of content.
You can find Undercroft in the iPhone App Store.