Monday, September 03, 2012

Level-5 Developer Overview: Part 1 of 3

Since making their debut in 1998, Level-5 has had great success both with their own franchises and also by partnering with companies such as Square-Enix and Studio Ghibli. Based in Fukuoka, Japan, they are primarily known for their excellently crafted RPG's, but have also launched amazingly popular puzzle and football franchises. In 2010, they became one of the ten biggest companies in Japan, where they hold a 2.9% market share.

Akihiro Hino
Akihiro Hino is the company President and CEO, who also amazingly finds the time to design, plan and produce all of Level-5's major releases.  He started his tenure in the video game industry with the developer Riverhillsoft where he worked on the Overblood series, before leaving to found Level-5.  More recently, he was approached by Bandai to create a Gundam game, which morphed into a full blown anime series called Mobile Suit Gundam AGE, with Hino in charge of the scripts.

Personally speaking, Level-5 has become one of the most consistent and exciting developers for me. Throughout the rest of this article, I am going to touch on each of their games, in particular their RPG's and go into just why I regard them so highly. I have to say though, I have only spent a very limited amount of time playing the Professor Layton games as the puzzles are a little too hard for me, and my complete lack of football accounts for the reason why I have never played any of the Inazuma Eleven games.

 Year released: 2001  |  Format: PlayStation 2  |  Genre: RPG

Dark Cloud is one of the earliest RPG's I can remember playing on the PS2, and it is still a highly memorable experience for me. You explore floor after floor of randomly generated dungeons, hacking and slashing monsters with a very action oriented battle system, while finding loot and unlocking "georama" pieces.  The georama system is the reason why the game was so addictive to me - it's basically a whole town building game within the main RPG.  As you unlock pieces, be they buildings, scenery or people, you can put them down where you see fit and gradually recreate the town.

At any time, you could go from an overhead town planning view, to full control of your character, where you could then explore what you'd been creating mere seconds before.  Talking to the residents of your village would often give you rewards, and they sometimes had special requests for you which made things even more interesting and compelling.  For example, one person may wish to live near a lake, but perhaps they can't stand a certain individual and don't want to live near them.  If you manage to factor this into your design, then you would be suitably rewarded for your troubles.

Dark Cloud is by no means a perfect game: the graphics were somewhat basic, even at the time of its release. However, as there were so few other RPG's available at the time, and the georama system was both addictive and fun, I still spent many an hour playing it and enjoying it.

Dark Cloud - boxy, but good!

Year released: 2003  |  Format: PlayStation 2  |  Genre: RPG

Dark Chronicle as most of the world knows it, or Dark Cloud 2 to those in the US & Canada, fixes everything that was not quite right about the original game and introduces quite a few new elements besides.  What is most evident upon playing the game for the first time is that the graphics have been completely overhauled.  This is the first time Level-5 used their cel shaded graphics engine, but by no means the last.  It really does look good even today, especially if you are playing the game through an old fashioned tube television and not a modern HDTV.  Georama and the randomly generated dungeons also return, and this game is absolutely huge.  There are many dungeons to explore and villages to rebuild, and combined with the many optional mini games this game should take you around the region of 100 hours to complete.

Those mini games include photography: you are given a camera pretty early on in the game and can take pictures of enemies and objects dotted around the world.  You can then use these pictures, or “ideas” to come up with new inventions.  This can actually be a bit of a pain as you are not really sure what you are supposed to be taking pictures of most of the time, and you often only have one chance to snap a boss.  Actually taking a picture of some hellish creature or infernal machine as it is rearing up to kill you is easier said than done!  Next comes Spheda, which is the Dark Chronicle version of golf.  This takes place within the dungeons, and your objective is to get the ball into the hole within a certain number of shots.  It can be pretty addictive if you get into it, but it is entirely optional. Then there is fishing, which is similar to fishing in many other games, and Finny Frenzy – where you pit the fish you have captured against others in a race. 

Besides all this there are also multiple characters to control this time around, each with their own abilities, and the main character Max gets his very own Ridepod (mech suit) to stomp around and lay waste to monsters in.  If you install the voice box for it, it will even talk!  His name is Steve, by the way.  All of this content adds up to make Dark Chronicle a superior sequel and an RPG well worth picking up for the PS2. Many fans have been clamouring for a sequel, but as yet Level-5 would appear to have laid the series to rest for good.  The georama system did make a return in a future game however, albeit in a slightly modified form.

The two heroes of Dark Chronicle - Max and Monica

Year released: 2005  |  Format: PlayStation 2  |  Genre: RPG

This is the first entry in the Dragon Quest series that I played, and it converted me into a fan.  Two things lured me into trying it in the first place: the fact that Level-5 had developed it, and that it was publish by Square-Enix.  These two things were surely indicators of a high quality RPG experience? I wasn't wrong, this turned out to be my favourite game released that year.

The game begins in the fairy tale realm of Trodain, with the evil jester Dhoulmagus cursing King Trode and the Princess, so that he becomes an ugly toad-like creature and she turns into a horse.  The rest of the kingdom has been put to sleep and entwined in vines, with the exception the mute hero that you control throughout the game.

The presentation of this game is simply sublime, with the same cel shaded style introduced in Dark Chronicle working here to full effect, and backed up by a fully symphonic score.  Gameplay is somewhat traditional turned based fare, although this is true to the roots of the series.  A lot of the boss battles hinge on your ability to buff you party, cast debuffs on the enemy, and then increase the tension of your character.  As your tension gauge increases the amount of damage you can does likewise, though there is always a chance you will miss.

The main adventure takes place across a sprawling open world, where high level monsters roam amongst their regular cousins.  Eventually you will meet Morrie, and then you will be able to tame these monsters once you defeat them.  You can then take part in a monster tournament and eventually should you proceed far enough in that, earn the ability to summon your monsters in regular battles.  No doubt about it, Dragon Quest VIII is one of the best RPG's available for the PS2, and should be considered a must by for fans of the genre.

Just look at the fantastic level of detail in these graphics - brilliant!

Year released: 2006  |  Format: PlayStation Portable | 
Genre: Tactical RPG

Time for a small confession - I have yet to finish playing Jeanne D'Arc.  In fact I am playing it on my way home from work every day.  Nevertheless, I have played enough of it to share some early impressions of it here.  It belongs to a sub genre of RPG's known as the TRPG - the T standing for Tactical of course.  These games are often immensely complicated and challenging - see Tactics Ogre and Final Fantasy Tactics for evidence of that.

Jeanne D'Arc manages to both be accessible and still provide a fun challenge, however.  It eases you in gradually, getting you used to the systems and intricacies of the genre as well as its own unique features - such as the the ability for Jeanne and certain other characters to transform into powerful armoured forms for a fixed amount of time, and later the ability to fuse abilities using your magical frog pal, Cuisses.  That's right - I said magical frog.

The story itself is an interesting fusion of real life history and fantasy - what if the English summoned demons to help them win their war against the French? Now you get to find out.   The graphics are once again cel shaded, and are reminiscent of the more recent Dragon Quest IX for the DS (which I will be covering in part 2 of this article).  They look great, especially given that this game is now six years old.  They are also backed up by a sizable number of animated sequences that are of extremely high quality.  So overall, I would recommend Jeanne D'Arc to any PSP owners looking for an entertaining game to play, be they old hands or newbies to the TRPG genre.

Jeanne at the start of her journey, receiving her magical girl transformation powers!

That is all for part one - join me again in part 2 where I cover Rogue Galaxy, White Knight Chronicles, Dragon Quest IX, and the Professor Layton series.  Then in part 3 I will look at Inazuma Eleven, Ni No Kuni, Guild 01, and the Xbox 360 MMO that never was - True Fantasy Live Online.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Looking forward to parts 2 and 3. I have played all of these except Dragons Squest (for shame!)

Very fond memories of playing Dark Clowd one and two with my son. Jean DeArk got me through a year if commutes and work travel.