Hironobu Sakaguchi; if you’re a fan of RPG’s chances are you’ll know this name. The creator of a series that was to be his last foray into video games if it didn’t succeed which also shared the gambits name: Final Fantasy. Arguably some of the greatest RPG’s of a span of console generations sprung from this man’s creative mind as he worked at the venerable Square Enix.
However, after a huge gamble in the shape of a film named The Spirits Within, Sakaguchi-san left Square Enix in a move that I believe the company never really recovered from. In 2004 the video game legend created a new game development studio with the help of Microsoft Game Studios financial backing. That studio would be named Mistwalker and go on to, in my opinion, co-develop some of the greatest RPGs of this generation of gaming. Preferring to focus on story and music, the development studio co-develops most of their games with other companies such as: Artoon, tri-Crescendo, feelplus, Brownie Brown, Racjin, Cavia, Bird Studio and AQ Interactive.
Originally announced to bolster Japanese support of the Xbox 360, two little RPGs that could were announced at a Microsoft Press Conference: Lost Odyssey and Blue Dragon. Thematically and graphically the two games couldn’t have been much more different, yet they both shared a key point. The music for both games was done by one of the biggest names in video game music: Nobuo Uematsu. Uesmatsu-san is well known for his sweeping and memorable music through numerous recent RPGs, but he was also the man that created the music for the original Final Fantasy and spawned some of video games most wonderful tracks. Nobuo Uematsu’s involvement with Mistwalker didn’t just stop with these two titles as he would go on to write music for all but one of Mistwalker’s current releases.
Both games embraced old school sensibilities while also adapting some newer ideas into the games. Blue Dragon was about a group of children who could manifest magical shadows shaped like dragons, pigs, a phoenix and other such creatures. As purple clouds cover the land people die, and it’s up to Shu and his friends to find out what is causing them and stop it. Standard turn based gameplay was augmented by a deep and engaging class mechanism that would allow you to custom build your group of characters in whatever way you saw fit. The graphics were nothing short of amazing for the time and all the designs were done by the same artist that’s popular for his Dragonball Z designs and Dragon Quest characters. It looked just like a playable anime and to this day remains one of the more impressive graphical styles I’ve seen on the system.
Blue Dragon would go on to spawn a couple of follow ups in different genres on the DS. Blue Dragon Plus would be the first release and was actually a rather engaging real time strategy game and its subsequent follow up Blue Dragon Awakened Shadow was actually an action based RPG. The series also spawned two seasons of an anime and a manga, though both never garnered much success and Mistwalker didn’t develop the story as evidenced by the departure from key points in the game series.
The DS in fact went on to be Mistwalker’s most supported system to date. In addition to the Blue Dragon games, Away Shuffle Dungeon, a dungeon crawling games on which the maps would shift around, was published in North America by Majesco. The game garnered poor critical reviews overall, but was a niche success and a fun game once one got past the repetition of the dungeons themselves. The only game not yet released on US shores from Mistwalker was a strategy RPG game entitled ASH Archaic Sealed Heat. It was a baffling and disappointing absence as a voice cast had been hired and ESRB had confirmed the English release. Sadly we will probably never see it on these shores, as we’ve moved onto the next generation of handhelds.
Blue Dragon was just one of two games released on Xbox 360, of course, the other being Lost Odyssey. While Blue Dragon was colorful and had much more old school vibe, Lost Odyssey was much closer to the event scenes and impressive graphics of later generation Final Fantasy games. What was so appealing about Lost Odyssey, and one of the things that made it my favorite RPG of this generation so far, was the fact that it stuck with old school sensibilities, but upgraded them with various systems. In addition, Kaim is probably one of my favorite protagonists and to be honest this shocked me. When you first see him he invokes memories of other JRPG pretty boys, but thanks to brilliantly written memories you can come across he is probably one of the deeper characters in most any RPG I’ve played. The entire game’s story in fact invokes fond memories when I think of it and I can’t recommend this RPG highly enough.
Of course nowadays just about every gaming development studio is watching iOS and Mistwalker proves to be no exception. One of Sakaguchi-san’s greatest loves is surfing and so he’s released a game about that very subject. For just $1.99 on the iOS store you can control a group of surfers that seek to navigate ocean obstacles. It’s certainly more casual then Mistwalker’s other endeavors, but it’s also a well designed and addictive little game with beautiful graphics, great music and some old school difficulty; not to mention a host of fun unlockables. It also doesn’t appear that this will be Hironobu Sakaguchi’s only foray into iOS as two other games have been mentioned being in development, though they haven’t yet been announced.
This brings us to the upcoming North American release of The Last Story. Critically acclaimed already in UK and Japan we almost didn’t see it here on US shores. Thanks to xSeed and in no small part I believe, Operation Rainfall, we will be seeing this gem touch down on US shores on August 14th, 2012. The story of a tight knit group of mercenaries fighting together to survive on Lazulis Island has been praised as engaging and the third person action elements are a unique addition to the JRPG genre. With abilities to crouch behind walls, affect the environment for massive damage and combo magic and attacks with your comrades it seems to be heading in the right direction. Add to that a multiplayer competitive mode where you seek to take down other players and a co-op mode that sees you picking from all the characters in the game to take down bosses together and you have, what is in my opinion, a clear winner and might just sit side by side with my other favorite Mistwalker RPG. Either way if you are a fan of RPGs you certainly need to give Mistwalker’s stuff a try if you haven’t already. They are one of the finest game developers in RPG’s and I look forward to playing much more from them in the years to come.