Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Sollosi's Favorite PSP Games

Hey, remember when I ranked my favorite DS games in early April?  Well here it is again in early June, except for PSP games. Just in time to commemorate the device following Sony's recent announcement that production is being discontinued.  And please pardon my long delay between posts.  

Chances are, you don't own a PSP.  It wasn't a very successful console in English-speaking territories, but it was popular in Japan, it had a few die-hard fans in the West (like yours truly), and it was probably valuable as a test case for the PSN and as a predecessor to the Vita, which is a much better machine with major synergy with the PS4.

Now I'm in the minority, but I probably played my PSP more than any other console in the past eight years (I bought a PSP in 2006).  Not because it has better games than the DS - oh heavens, not at all - but because so many of its games are typically lengthy time-sinks aimed at hardcore gamers.  I'm the PSP's exact target audience: I play a lot of RPGs and strategy games, I enjoy handheld experiences, and I can play games for dozens of hours if I get engrossed.  So while I will never say that the PSP's library is as strong as the DS's library, I ended up playing my PSP for hundreds and hundreds of hours.  I'm not exactly proud of that, but there ya go.  Now let's list some games. 

These Remakes Are Pretty Good

Final Fantasy IV Complete
Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions
Gitaroo Man Lives! 
Star Ocean: Second Evolution
Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness
Disgaea 2: Dark Hero Days 
Persona 2: Innocent Sin
Mega Man Powered Up
Mega Man Maverick Hunter X
Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together

Holy crap.  Look at all those.  There are a ton of pretty good remakes on the PSP, that's for sure.  All of those games are very good, adding something to the original game and in some cases straight-up rebuilding it, but not enough for me to throw it in the list proper.  Except for Tactics Ogre, which looks great, but I haven't played it enough.  Maybe next year. There are also a few remakes on the bigger list below, but they're either new to English-speaking territories or are significantly-enough improved that I felt they merited a spot.  I'd have to add even more games if I was including straight PS1 ports and game anthologies on this list (plenty of good ones on the PSP, like the ones for Powerstone and Gradius), but I'm not.  *whew*

These Games Are Stuck in Japan

The Legend of Heroes series (five games)
Kenka Banchou + Gachitora! series (five games)
Super Robot Wars series (six games)
Final Fantasy Type-0
Alternative Saga: Ys vs Sora no Kiseki
Monster Hunter Portable 3rd
Valkyria Chronicles 3
The Last Ranker

A few of these are remakes of games that the United States never got anyway, but I'm not going to break it down in fine detail.  That list only scratches the surface.  Bottom line - the PSP was a huge success in Japan and not in the United States.  As such, the English-speaking world missed out on a lot of really good-looking PSP games.  Last year I almost made a list of them similar to this one; that's pretty much the out-of-order list right there, with Danganronpa 1+2 removed (we got those on Vita).  So with all this summary out of the way, here's the real list:

Sollosi's Top Ten Favorite PSP Games

Honorable Mention
Star Ocean: First Departure

Is First Departure a better game than all of those remakes listed above? No. It's not even as good as Star Ocean: Second Evolution.  But MAN is it better than its original incarnation, Star Ocean: Fantastic Space Odyssey for the Super Famicom.  The combat in the emulated SO1 I played was so bad and the event flagging so weird that I barely could understand what was going on; this PSP version incorporates design elements of SO2 and cleans up the story a bit, resulting in a pretty solid RPG with some cool party customization.  I don't think First Departure is as good as the PSP versions of Star Ocean 2, Disgaea, Disgaea 2, Persona 2, or Final Fantasy Tactics, but the jump in quality from its original version really stuck with me.  Good on you, Star Ocean. 


Honorable Mention
Dissidia: Final Fantasy 012

The PSP has a lot of "dream battle" crossover fanservice games, like the Tales of the World games, the PSP Itadaki Street game, and Alternative Saga (the latter of which I played and reviewed last year), combining multiple characters from games in different worlds and having them fight, or collaborate, or at least hang out.  If the gameplay's solid (yes for Alternative Saga and Dissidia, no for Tales of the World) then I can really get into this sort of game; Dissidia's the best one.  An arena combat game with a focus on customization, a TON of cool skills and strategies, and interesting, unusual mechanics for movement and spacing, Dissidia 012 is intense and fun, combining around 30 heroes and villains from the Final Fantasy series.  Great stuff.


The 012 version has a new story starring Lightning, Vaan, and a few characters not in the first Dissidia plus it has the ENTIRETY of the original Dissidia's story.  My favorite characters to use were Zidane (jumps n jumps n jumps n jumps), Terra (MAGIC), and the Warrior of Light (rock-solid from mid-range), but there is something for everyone here.  Dissidia is a must-play if you like fighting games and Final Fantasy characters, and probably worth a shot if you like only one of those two things. 


Honorable Mention
Crush


Crush is decent at best as a 3D platformer - it's probably not as good as the Ratchet & Clank PSP games, for one - but it has a really cool gimmick that is really awesome for its brief playtime. Our hero Danny navigates the landscapes of his own dreams in an attempt to cure his phobias, manipulating camera angles and crushing, flattening, and restoring the geometry of each stage.  It's like an entire game made of Clank puzzles or a cartoonier version of a gimmicky puzzler like EchoChrome.  Crush isn't an *amazing* action game, but it is super interesting for its short duration. Underrated. 


Honorable Mention
Castlevania: Dracula X Chronicles
  
Incredible value for Castlevania fans, and a good game for fans of character action games in general.  The base game of Castlevania DXC is a gorgeous 2.5D remake of Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, a hard-to-find TurboGrafx CD Castlevania game that was never released in English.  This new version of Rondo looks great, is chock-full of secrets and alternate pathways, and is a solid Castlevania game on its own.  

But wait! There's more!  Hidden throughout DXC are music tracks, pieces of artwork, and three full games.  That's right - if you search diligently (or check a guide), you can unlock playable emulations of the original Rondo of Blood, the SNES Rondo remake Castlevania Dracula X, and the game's beloved successor, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.  One of my favorite games ever.  That's right, DXC is a pretty good game on its own, but it also has Symphony of the Night hidden within.  Hell of a collection.  But not a top-ten-PSP-game collection. 


Honorable Mention
Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII

This game was almost in the list in the neighborhood of eighth to tenth, but I eventually backed down.  Crisis Core is a very fun game with a solid main quest, oodles of new lore and fanservice for fans of Final Fantasy VII, and a large amount of optional gameplay content.  It also looks and sounds positively gorgeous.  The only problem was... the bulk of the game is just pressing the confirm button.  The combat is unsophisticated (attack enemies and use items until a slot machine aligns for a special attack) and the quest amounts to samey dungeons that you run dozens of times in optional missions.  Basic design could have been stronger. 

The storyline is entertaining but completely bonkers, partially telling a prequel to Final Fantasy VII and partially featuring characters based on Japanese pop stars posturing at one another.  Zack is a likeable character and I had fun playing through Crisis Core, but it feels like empty calories.  Play Final Fantasy VII first, and if you like that and want to play Zack's game, then go ahead. It's pretty good.  Whatever.  Let's get to the real deal.  


Number Ten
Half-Minute Hero 


I almost put Dissidia or Crisis Core in this spot, but I really want to give Half-Minute Hero its props.  It is a clever puzzle game disguised as a traditional Japanese RPG, with our hero trying to accomplish basic RPG tasks (generally defeating a boss at the other end of a map) in less than 30 seconds before that boss ends the world.  You need to hustle around each map leveling up, visiting towns, recruiting allies, and finding items before reaching the boss, occasionally spending gold to reset the timer back to 30 seconds. Sometimes it feels too lengthy or too convoluted between stages, but Half-Minute Hero is a really good time for awhile. 

Right when its gimmick begins to wear thin, HMH introduces three new main characters with new gameplay for each.  Eventually everything comes together in a delightful 300-second final stage that I found extremely satisfying.  If you like RPGs, puzzle games, and a script that pokes fun at the traditions and tropes of both of those game genres, then definitely try out some Half-Minute Hero.  I love the PSP version, but it's also on Steam. 

Number Nine
Jeanne d'Arc

In the world of strategy games, Fire Emblem stands at one extreme and Disgaea stands at the other.  Fire Emblem is about high strategy, manipulating random number generators, and trying to survive each chapter with your party fully intact; Disgaea is about creating custom characters, building and customizing them to absurd heights, and then exploiting Disgaea's arcane systems to overpower foes.  I love both series dearly, but they are on opposite ends of the Japanese strategy RPG spectrum. 


So why am I talking about Disgaea and Fire Emblem?  Jeanne D'Arc is the perfect balance of the two.  Similar to a Fire Emblem game in how you recruit characters and use them in set, specific roles, but similar to a Disgaea game with customizable skills and a few SUPER-powered units that can take over battle.  Jeanne D'Arc has great strategy combat, appealing story and characters, and excellent production values.  It's hard to pick it over Final Fantasy Tactics (which is a better game), but I feel it's the best *original* strategy RPG available on the PSP. I owe 90+% of my FFT love to the PS1 version. 


Number Eight
Daxter

I am probably overrating Daxter a bit thanks to the fact that it was nearly a PSP launch title, coming out just under a year after the PSP's North American debut; when I bought my first PSP (which I wore out in about 4 years) in late 2006, Daxter came bundled with it.  While it's not the best game in that launch window (you'll see a sequel to that game a few numbers down, representing its predecessor), Daxter was probably the first handheld game that really stunned me with its visuals.  This game looks better than any 3D PS1 platformer and has a pretty solid set of environments, skills, and alternate gameplay modes.  The PSP billed itself as a console-quality experience in a handheld form, and Daxter was the first game that seemed to live up to that claim, at least visually.  

And while Daxter was (and still is) a good-looking game, its gameplay isn't half-bad.  Sure, most of it revolves around insect extermination, but the game has a steady progression of skills and expansion of explorable areas that fits in great with its console platformer ilk.  Daxter also does an extremely cool thing in the larger Jak universe: it fills in the two-year time gap in between the first and second games while giving us alternative looks of Haven.  Sure, it's mostly in sewers and construction sites, but that's where the bugs are.  Really.  Look, this game is worth its price if you like 3D platformers. 


Number Seven
Ys Seven

X-Men Legends.  Seiken Densetsu.  Those are two very good answers to the question "what series did I love to play ten years ago, but haven't seen in awhile?" or also to the question "what are two series that came to mind when I first played Ys Seven?"  This might be an extreme case of recency bias, since I beat Ys Seven only a few months ago, but it's a rock-solid action RPG that speaks to a great many of my preferences.  Diverse cast with different playstyles; customizable weapons and armor; consistently learning new abilities and skills; entertaining dialog and a plot with some twists and turns that feel earned and not trite.  All things I love, and emblematic in Ys Seven.  

You can check my review of the game for more info (here ya go) but I've probably said enough.  If you like action RPGs with fast action, multiple characters, big dungeons and boss fights, and anime visuals, then this is absolutely a game for you.  The music is killer, but the visuals are only so-so by late-2000s standards.  Still, Ys Seven is a worth seventh for this list.  Yes, the numbering was on purpose. 

Number Six
God of War: Chains of Olympus
I enjoyed the God of War games I played, and, well, damn.  The first PSP one is really good.  Visually excellent for a PSP game, with action that's only a small step down from the whirling, violent ballet of the PS2 God of War games, which I consider two of the best character action games around.  Chains of Olympus is a prequel in which Kratos is still serving Ares and the other Olympian gods, and his arsenal consists primarily of his signature Blades of Chaos and the hard-hitting Gauntlets of Zeus.  Gorgeous visuals and meaty, satisfying combat.  It's only six or seven hours, though, and I wish it were longer.  

Also of note: the God of War series is a dark, brutal interpretation of Greek myth, animating and illustrating already-violent Greek folktales and building a new revenge fantasy story out of them.  You're beheading monsters, impaling warriors, and performing a variety of (implied) sexual acts.  God of War games typically earn their "M" ESRB ratings.  Chains of Olympus is interesting in that its chief antagonist, Persephone (!?), adopts a nihilist, destructive attitude that seems like a contrast to her role in myth, but makes sense upon analysis.  It's that kind of interpretation of Greek myth that makes God of War's occasionally juvenile or nonsensical narratives a little more worthwhile.  Pretty cool stuff. 

Number Five
Ys: The Oath in Felghana
 
You can play Oath in Felghana on a number of systems; I played it on the PC, and then found a PSP copy and ran through that as well.  No matter how you play it, Oath in Felghana is one of the best action RPGs around.  Adol is an agile, tightly-controlled swordsman that can use various combinations of slashes and three versatile special moves to hack and slash through several dungeons (I... want to say there are eight or nine?), with great design and atmosphere, KILLER music, and absolutely terrific boss battles.  These are maybe the most satisfying and challenging bosses I've ever played in an action RPG.  No, I haven't played Dark Souls.  And no, I'm not counting Monster Hunter as an RPG.  Shut up.

I think that The Oath in Felghana is the signature Ys experience, and it's probably best on the PSP.  The action is stellar, the boss battles are great, and there are even a few side quests, equipment upgrades, and postgame super-bosses to try. The PSP version has more endgame content and a few additional trappings than the PC version, and it's the closest thing that the PSP will get to a Zelda title.  And hell, I think that Oath in Felghana is better than either of the DS Zelda games and on par with or better than the best of handheld Zelda.  [Shots fired]

Number Four
The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky


Trails in the Sky was the first Legend of Heroes game that I actually enjoyed (avoid the non-Trails LoH PSP games at all costs), and damn.  It has everything I love about Japanese RPGs in it, but also a lot of what people hate about them.  Appealing cast, great dialog, long main quest, large number of side quests, customizable skills, battle system that's versatile and requires some strategy, and rock solid visuals and audio.  There's a lot to love here.  But it's also about teenagers on a journey of self-discovery; it has some very specific event flagging and fetch questing; and the main plot is a little ham-fisted, enough to get some fans rolling their eyes.

Look, if you love Japanese RPGs and know what I mean when I say "JRPG-honed patience" then you will love Trails in the Sky.  It has what's great about Japanese RPGs all there, but with less grinding than any Dragon Quest, better dialog than most Final Fantasy, and 90% of the charm of a Lunar or a Chrono Trigger.  Wow.  Strong words.  But I'll stand by them. 

Number Three
Persona 3 Portable

This is the most dubious pick of this list.  It's a remake of a game that I played twice (!) on the PS2 before trying the PSP version.  But I have to say, the way that Persona 3 Portable simplifies and streamlines the Persona 3 experience is significant, and the alternative story, with a female main character and eight brand-new Social Links, is a literal game-changer.  It's all excellent.  While visually inferior to the PS2 original and incorporating a few obvious cost-cutting factors (MC can wield only one weapon type; areas are navigated via menus with no player avatar), Persona 3 Portable's additions of skill cards, a fast-travel mechanic, and, um, portability make an excellent game a little more accessible. Not to mention actually controlling your allies instead of relying on iffy AI. And letting you manage your party in a standard menu instead of only in the dungeon.  That might even be the single greatest change. 


But honestly?  I'm not sure P3P is the definitive version of Persona 3.  The lack of anime cutscenes and physically present characters lessens the impact of Persona 3's major story scenes.  Maybe FES is the better version to play *first*, but once that's out of the way P3P is the perfect way to re-experience the game.  More control, more freedom, and the new FeMC route make up for the loss in visual quality and storytelling.  Probably.  Whatever.  Persona 3 is excellent, and the portable version is great enough and different enough to never make me want to go back.  Probably.  


Number Two
Lumines 2

Every handheld needs a signature puzzle game, and for the PSP it's Lumines.  It plays like a Panel de Pon game, matching up like-colored squares into larger polygons to clear them, but adds interesting wrinkles of a scrolling "clear bar" instead of a costantly rising base, and adds some rhythm-game elements to the puzzles along with an eclectic soundtrack - the clear bar will typically fit the tempo of the music, and each stage (or "skin") has different tunes, speeds, and variants of the base game.  You can get some serious mileage out of the regular Lumines.  


And then you have Lumines 2.  It increases the number of game modes from 4 to 9, has a huge number of new skins and songs, and also has almost every track and skin from Lumines 1 available to unlock.  It's a hell of a package.  The new modes start out a little easier than I remembered Lumines being at the beginning, but the difficulty ceiling and new game modes are so much greater than the first game that it's hard to go back.  Lumines 2 is the only PSP game that I'd recommend to basically anyone.  It's one of the best handheld puzzle games ever made. 


Number One
Monster Hunter Freedom Unite

If I've ever had a love-hate relationship with a series of video games, it's Monster Hunter.  I've only played two of them to great length: Monster Hunter Freedom 2, and it's expanded edition, Monster Hunter Freedom Unite.  There's a lot to hate here.  Plodding pace for each hunt, canned animations with precise timing required for any attack, weird hit-boxes for enemies, only twenty or so environments, a long time investment required before significant rewards are earned, and a fiendish camera that will get your fingers cramping if you want full control.  


...but it's also the best handheld multiplayer ever made.  Cooperating and collaborating on intense boss fights, building armor sets and customizing weapons for each hunt, and even just hanging out in the guild hall and your farm with other hunters.  It takes the best parts of player interaction in games like MMORPGs, and pairs it with a skill-intensive gauntlet of boss fights that are COOL AS HELL.  The visuals and audio are superb for a PSP game, and I adore the large majority of the monster designs.  I hate Monster Hunter Freedom Unite for how bad the bad parts are, and I really, really struggle when I try playing the toughest quests solo.  But when you're playing with a friend and crossing hunts off your list, it's my favorite multiplayer game of all time.  MHFU?  Could stand for Monster Hunter, Fuck You.  It's extremely frustrating, but if you're in the right mindset and right situation, it's the best gaming experience on the PSP. 

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This list is... a little more problematic than my DS list from a month ago.  I deliberately excluded a few remakes and ports and included others, and as a result three of my five or six most-played PSP games, Final Fantasy Tactics and Disgaea 1 & 2, aren't on the list at all.  This is a personal list, and I wanted to give credit to the games whose PSP versions were my first and/or best experiences with those games.  And then I sort of break that rule for Felghana and Persona.  Whoops.  Look, if any of these games sound good to you, then I implore you to try them.  I feel that the PSP was neglected and maligned to a degree, and if reading this list makes you consider downloading one of these to a PSP or Vita, then I've performed above expectations.  

Yeesh, that was a lot of words.  Probably too many.  Anyhow, I'm in the midst of preparing for my first major vacation in years: attending a wedding in Austria and then visiting Germany!  Super pumped for that.  Before I head over there are a few more books and games I want to finish reading and playing; hopefully you'll see a got 'im for Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance before I depart on the 21st.  

2 comments:

  1. Heh. This wasn't much at all. My write-up of my favorite Nintendo 64 games from three years ago was five times as long (20,000 words) as this, so I know what it's like to blabber about stuff. Anyways, I never did get into the PSP, but if I ever have time to do so, I'll refer to this list. You certainly made Oath in Felghana seem like something I'd like to try.

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    1. Well, the PSP has ceased development so I can't say I'd recommend getting into it now. Most if not all of these games are available on PSN, so you could definitely play them on a PS Vita or a PS TV. I'm considering re-buying four or five of the games on this list just so I can have them for a Vita when I'm ready to make that purchase.

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