It bears repeating that 2020 has been a catastrophic year for a variety of media. Yet, on the scope of Japanese video games, this year has been truly stellar. Several fantastic titles have been released on that front, and my top 5 list for this year comprises entirely Japanese video games.
5. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim
13 Sentinels Aegis Rim is a title that has been quite a massive hit, to say the least. While I did not follow its lengthy localization process, it was difficult to avoid the hype for this Visual Novel/ RTS hybrid. However, after playing it, I can certainly understand why such a substantial hype fueled this title.
Sci-fi is a genre that, to be completely honest, has almost run its course for me. There is such a constant influx of new stories dealing with time travel, mecha, and the other well-known tropes that the genre has become a bit of a turnoff. However, 13 Sentinels Aegis Rim breathes some much-needed life into these tropes, and then some. Boasting 13 playable protagonists, all with their own compelling plights and motivations, is spectacular enough on its own, but the magnificent English dub really gives this title some extra notches. I was admittedly hesitant about how such a large number of protagonists would work in a story of this nature. Still, it utilizes its unconventional style of storytelling to tell a truly moving story. The iconic Vanillaware studio art only propels the engagement of the narrative.
However, what ultimately prevents me from putting this title up higher on my list is its RTS combat. To be blunt, I found this combat’s inclusion to be a detractor from the narrative’s pacing, and it just was not fun for me whatsoever. While the visuals on the battle maps are cool, and the way the combat mode was incorporated into the story was clever, nothing regarding the battle system itself was engaging to me in any way. I even began to dread taking part in the battles at a certain point.
While Odin Sphere Leifthrasir and Muramasa: Rebirth remain my preferred Vanillaware titles, 13 Sentinels Aegis Rim tells a genuinely harrowing, moving tale. If you have not played it yet, I highly advise doing so.
4. Kingdom Hearts Melody of Memory
I feel a bit weird putting this game in my top 5 list, but it is one of the most fun titles I have played this year. Kingdom Hearts is a heavily criticized and controversial franchise, more than most other JRPG series, but despite that, it is still my favorite franchise in all of gaming. Melody of Memory has earned a lot of flack for it being a canonical rhythm game title. Not to mention its $60 price point and PlayStation 2 era art style. Still, an incredible boon people fail to consider is how this game has over 140 tracks, far more than the standard amount most rhythm games provide without DLC. And, well, it’s Kingdom Hearts music, some of the most acclaimed music in all of gaming.
Everything about this game feels clean from its beautiful menus and overall UI. The incorporation of the old artstyle provided some breadth for nostalgia, and it helped me reflect on the series I’ve followed ever since its inception. The unique manner of how the rhythm gameplay works also hooked me so much that I am still playing it long after having obtained the Platinum Trophy. The one critique I have is how barebones the online mode feels, with there being no method to match make with specific players. Aside from that blemish, however, Kingdom Hearts Melody of Memory is a well-deserved victory lap for this legendary series, and its addicting gameplay loop will certainly hook me for months to come.
3. Persona 5 Royal
The original Persona 5 was one of my preferred entries in the series, and Royal steps it up all around. Well, for the most part. Sporting a brand new story arc, improved dungeons, revamped boss fights, new characters, quality of life improvements, and more, Persona 5 Royal improved upon almost all of the qualms I had with the original title. Not to mention the brand new tracks being some of my favorite tracks in the series as a whole.
Some issues persisted, such as Haru not getting enough limelight and how guns were too overpowered in battles. Still, as a whole, this package felt truly definitive and is the quintessential Persona 5 experience.
2. Final Fantasy VII Remake
I’ll be honest. The original Final Fantasy VII is not my cup of tea. I never managed to progress far in it and have honestly had little desire to in recent years. It has not aged well, and no mods can do enough to supplement the fundamental issues I have with that game. So when Final Fantasy VII Remake was close to release, my excitement peaked since I would finally begin to enjoy the legendary narrative that is considered to be masterful among so many gamers. That is not what we got with this Remake, but I still enjoyed its narrative immensely. The story did leave me scratching my head. Still, I am a Kingdom Hearts fan, so that’s something I’m used to regularly doing.
The combat present in this title is, at least so far, the most exemplary application of synergized turn-based and action combat that I have ever seen. There is an ideal unification of strategy and strategic movement coupled with classic RPG menu navigation. This stupendous synergy only amplified its efficacy in Hard mode, where you truly had to master the combat as a whole. This title’s visuals were among the best I have ever seen, with character expressions looking especially more vivid and realistic than what I am used to. The title also provided a fair challenge, and I actually had to alter my setups for bosses and specific encounters. In all honesty, this is some of the most enjoyment I have ever derived from any game I have played in recent memory. Really hoping the next part of this Remake project manages to provide the same immersive combat level that this initial title did.
1. The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV
The Trails series is one I hold especially close to my heart. Except for the Crossbell duology, I have greatly enjoyed every title, and they have impacted me strongly for an endless sea of reasons. The Cold Steel saga, in particular, is my favorite saga of the franchise, as unpopular as that is. Each subsequent entry has amazed me more than the last, and the last entry in this saga brought me to tears at various points.
While its plot not as strong as a few of the franchise’s prior titles’, this narrative is by far the one that struck me the most emotionally, right next to Sky the 3rd. The cast engaged me consistently with their plights and collective sense of despair. The twists shocked and pulled me to my core, truly causing outcries of emotion that I have rarely experienced from video games. Rean, my favorite protagonist in the Trails series, felt written at his best in this entry as well. The sheer, stark depth present with his doomsday like conundrums made this feel worthy of being a finale all on its own. However, several characters from the Sky and Crossbell sagas only added to the grandiloquent hype this game provided. This title even made me appreciate and feel some sense of admiration for the Crossbell cast, who I ordinarily do not care for in the slightest. It perfectly blended character interaction, fanservice for knowledgable fans, and jaw-dropping story scenes in one of the best products I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing.
Except for a few tracks, the music in this finale is almost masterful, and I’ve been listening to a good chunk of the tracks on repeat for years at this point, ever since the title was initially released in Japan. Combat is at its most broken yet in this title, yet I can’t deny that I found great pleasure in optimizing my character setups and experimenting to my heart’s content. Furthermore, this entry has the most immersive NPC dialogue the series has ever seen. While the localization team still has yet to fix some rather noticeable errors, never before have I been so invested and engaged by the denizens and passersby of various towns and cities. Every element of this game truly immersed and amazed me, and I am overjoyed to have followed this series for so long. That isn’t to say I think this title is faultless. No game is. But the critiques I have with this title are so minor that they did not detract from my overall enjoyment in any which way.
I know that all of what I said there sounds a bit much, but I have followed this series ever since the first Sky entry got localized, and seeing it reach this culminating point legitimately brought tears to my eyes. The Cold Steel saga and Cold Steel IV have received severe detestation from fans, but I won’t lie about how I feel to accommodate myself more cleanly into the accepted norm. The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV is currently my favorite game of all time, and I am yearning to see Falcom further bewilder me in the future. Here’s hoping Hajimari no Kiseki gets localized in 2021! Highly doubtful, but I can dream.
There are a few titles that I really wanted to include but could not figure out appropriate placements for them. These titles are Trials of Mana, Robotics;Notes Elite, and Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time. I also wanted to include Kingdom Hearts III Re Mind somehow, but that is DLC, so alas, I could not.
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