I played an unhealthy amount of Shadow Hearts II this weekend, and after my sixth straight hour yesterday I realized that I was near the end of the game and that I was still completely engrossed in the story and gameplay after thirty-five hours. I did some FAQ digging and read about sidequests, I started hunting for each character's extra loot and ultimate weapons, finished collecting all the magic crests and fusions... and then it hit me that this is the most enjoyable RPG that I've played since the first Shadow Hearts, which I beat in either 2003 or 2004. I usually drop about 2-6 hours into an RPG and then just give up because either the battles suck, the story sucks, the music sucks, the characters are ripoffs of a ripoff of your typical Square main character, etc.
This got me thinking about RPGs, and how things have changed over the years and so on and so forth. There's a mental divide between the pre-PSX and post-PSX era in my mind, which is where the whole old school VS new school comes into play. What I'm curious about is what are your favorite RPGs from each era - pre and post-32 bit? I'd like to keep things to console RPGs, and not PC hack'n'slash or MMOs. A lot has changed since 1993, some for the better, some for the worse. I've found that I can't really play "classic" RPGs anymore, regardless of my fond nostalgia or intense initial interest. FFV Advance bested me after several hours, and the last time I tried to replay Chrono Cross I made it to Fossil Valley and just gave up; also, it takes something really special to get me to finish an RPG nowadays. I loved Shadow Hearts, and I beat Xenosaga Ep. 1 on mere principle alone, but that has been it since Final Fantasy X was released.
Anyway, here are my picks for best old and new style RPGs:
SNES - Final Fantasy III / VI
The penultimate classic RPG in my books, FFVI was my first real indulgence into a turn-based classic-styled RPG. I tried FFII/IV at a friend's house and played Dragon Warrior on NES when I was a kid, but FFVI was the first game I dug into on my own and allowed myself to be completely enveloped in. I remember during my second or third playthrough the battery in my cart shorted out and I lost twenty hours or so of progress, and instead of giving up I just started it over again from scratch. And I was excited to do it again and didn't mourn the loss of my data in the least.
Final Fantasy VI was a first for me on so many levels; it was the first time video game characters had depth of personality, the first time I experienced a world-shattering experience on a console (literally), the first time I really heard Uematsu's music, the first time I buried hundreds of hours into a game... just talking about it is an intense experience for me. Being able to recruit and swap out more than a dozen characters, all with their own personalities and backstories and sidequests, was mindblowing at the time, and looking back I feel that Cyan, Celes and the gang are still some of my favorite game characters ever. I eventually beat FFII/IV, but it couldn't hold a candle to what I experienced in FFVI. I'm not going to pick up FFVI Advance because the game is so pristine in my memory. I don't want to tarnish any recollections of my journey with tinny GBA sound, bogus sidequests and extra Espers. My memories of the SNES game are more than enough for me.
PS2 - Shadow Hearts II
Sure, FFVII is a great game, but it's also a flawed game. And after playing Shadow Hearts II for almost forty hours I feel like I'm seeing the flaws I wouldn't allow myself to see before in FFVII more and more, if only because SHII is so freakin' atypical. Yeah, it's a turn-based console RPG. Yeah, you recruit a party of eight characters that you can equip and swap out at will. And, yeah, you fight random battles and get cash to upgrade equipment and sell the old stuff, et cetera, et cetera. But I'll say that's where the conventional crap stops.
Yuri is the perfect anti-hero and is as atypical as you can get when compared to the angrily introspective metrosexual teenager that most RPGs put you in control of. And his supporting cast is fairly diverse as well; the German soldier woman that may not be who the game says she is, a pedophilic doll maker, a vampire wrestler that wears a masquerade ball mask, a normal wolf (a potential in-joke referencing Red XIII, perhaps), a super hot (and super dumb) mystic dancer that plays Tarot for the party in battle, the princess of the empire of Russia and a samurai that can fuse into other monsters like Yuri can. There can be some lines drawn between these characters and a more general "type" of RPG character, but it's mostly superficial and design-oriented; each character's personality and backstory is unique and enjoyable enough to separate them from your usual "spunky young magic user" and "powerful middle-aged male" stereotypes.
The Judgement Ring system works very well in the game, and once you try it it's going to be hard to go back to the primitive "Press X to attack" nonsense that other RPGs have in their main menu systems. What's good about the Ring is that it makes you feel like you're an active part of the fight and that your actions determine the strength and accuracy of your characters' attacks; you're not just sitting on the sidelines watching attack animations anymore. Add to the fact that everything is completely customizable (from the ring style and size to magic crests and attributes), the turn-based combo attacks that chain up for extra damage, and the fact that the battle system is just so damn fun and you have yourself an RPG where you're not dreading that screen-swirl when you're wandering around dungeons.
Speaking of dungeons, I'll admit that they could have been better. There are lots of winding corridors and similar looking rooms, but it's eased by the minimap in the corner that helps you find where you're going. The puzzles are challenging but never too obtrusive (sidequests barred), and the level of exploration is pretty good. The enemy designs are amazing, and rank up there with some of the best (and creepiest) RPG characters and enemies ever. There was one place in the game that actually scared me... it's a late-game sidequest that I won't ruin for those who want to play the game on their own. And the music... oh, the music. It's mainly Hirota and Mitsuda, and it's awesome. If you haven't had the chance to get the OST, you should probably do that. Now.
I have never genuinely laughed at an RPG like I've laughed at Shadow Hearts II. The story is great, and although it's quite serious it never takes itself too seriously, and seems to poke fun at the game whenever it has the chance. It's campy, but that's what makes it great. By the end of the game you really feel like it has been too short of a ride, despite the 30+ hours you'll have surely logged by then. It's a shame that this title never really got the "mainstream" reputation that it deserves, because it's an excellent RPG that should be experienced by anyone who's into this type of game, and the overall experience beats the shit out of the measly generic crap Final Fantasy X offered (OST aside).
There's a TON more to talk about, but I've already overstated here. Anyone else?