Thoughts On: Level-5

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Remember when Square Enix was basically the go-to destination for RPGs? I mean, from the late 80s to the beginning of the 2000s, they were the RPG makers to be on the watch for. They were especially the guys to respect when Squaresoft acquired Enix becoming Square Enix, and had both Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest under their belt. Up to 2006, they were king of the RPGs, but after that, around Final Fantasy XII’s release, Square Enix became the butt of every RPG maker’s joke, when Final Fantasy XII, XIII, the first version of XIV, and XIII’s sequels caused some major issues within the Square Enix fan base. For the most part, it was because most of the fan base thought the games were not as good or up to the standards of past games. That changed slightly in 2013, when they decided not to beat around the bush, and impressed us by improving Final Fantasy XIV, and showing us what Final Fantasy XV was going to look like. During that seven year span, some trust was lost between the developer and the consumer. When that happened, gamers had to rediscover or find alternative RPG games or franchises, and back then, that was like journeying into the unknown. Sure, there were other RPGs made by other companies than Square Enix, but they were risky investments since the Square Enix name was a familiar one in terms of quality RPGs. Anyway, gamers turned to different franchises like Wild Arms, Persona, Shadow Hearts, Suikoden, and Grandia, just to name a few. RPG gamers also had a multitude of developers available to satisfy their RPG fix, like tri-Ace, tri-Crescendo, Game Arts, Atlus, Konami, and you get the idea. However, one company throughout the years has shown that they have the RPG chops to play with the big boys, and that was the independent Japanese developer, Level-5. These guys arrived around the PlayStation 2’s launch back in the early 2000s, and have since become a rather famous company that has developed many popular games. They also got the help of publishers, like Namco Bandai and Square Enix, to release games like Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, and two Dragon Quest games. They do have their faults and I do think some of these faults are major, but the good that they have done obviously outweighs some of their issues. Let’s get started.

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The company was officially founded in 1998 by a guy named Akihiro Hino, who was a part of the now defunct developer Riverhillsoft. While he was working at Riverhillsoft, he worked on the OverBlood franchise. When he founded Level-5, he decided to cooperate with Sony on working on the PlayStation 2, but would only do it if he could have his own company. After they made the agreement, Level-5 was born. Before I talk about the games this developer has made, I am only going to focus on the RPGs and the games that they are known for, which means I am going to skip over the Inazuman Eleven games and others, unless they are important in some way, shape, or form. Their first game for the PlayStation 2 was the very popular Dark Cloud. It was originally meant to be a launch title for the PlayStation 2, but it was delayed until a later time. It was well received for its action-oriented combat, multiple playable characters, town-building gameplay, and randomized dungeons. The game sold a little over a million copies, but I haven’t personally played the game. I have seen it on the shelves of rental stores many times, but never knew anything about it. If you all recommend it, I will go find a copy. In 2002, they released a sequel to Dark Cloud known as Dark Chronicle in Japan, but as Dark Cloud 2 in America. It had a different art style and some new gameplay mechanics that would both be used in a title that I will talk about soon. It was also well received, and once again, I haven’t played this game. If you have played this game and recommend it, I will go get a copy to review.

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After working on the Dark Cloud games, Level-5 basically got a request by Square Enix to make the next game in the very popular Dragon Quest franchise. In 2004, they released Dragon Question VIII: Journey of the Cursed King for the PlayStation 2. It was, again, well received, and sold well in both Japan and in America, but knowing how American gamers were towards the franchise back then, saying it sold well in America is really saying something, especially if you compared the huge number of copies that were sold in Japan to the number of copies sold in America. Personally, this is my favorite PlayStation 2 RPG, and is one of my all-time favorite video games. It was just an amazing game that went back to the basics of the franchise and had entertaining gameplay, and a very enjoyable story. This wouldn’t be the only game in the Dragon Quest franchise they would work on, but we will get back to the franchise in a minute or more. Their next PlayStation 2 RPG was released in 2005 in Japan, and in 2007 in America, called Rogue Galaxy. This is, once again, another RPG that was well received, and I know a lot of people really like this game, but I didn’t really care for Rogue Galaxy. I remember not liking the gameplay that much, but this was a few years ago, and my patience for RPGs has expanded, so tell me what you all think about the game and I might give it another try. It just didn’t give me a good first impression. In 2006, Level-5 released a tactical RPG for the PlayStation Portable called Jeanne d'Arc, and it was released in America in 2007. It got pretty good reviews, and I always hear that people recommend this game.

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Like I said, I am going to skip over a chunk of the games that don’t really matter, since this company is more known for their RPGs, but I would feel stupid if I didn’t mention this other famous franchise. In 2007, they released their first major puzzle game, Professor Layton and the Curious Village. This game was released in America a year later. It was known for some rather challenging puzzles, and a rather charming art style that other games have tried to copy, but failed to do so. It was well received, and it resulted in a new franchise of games that came out almost every single year, with a new game in development as we speak, along with the crossover game with Phoenix Wright coming out next year here in the states.

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So, move back to the year 2008. Level-5 was doing pretty well for themselves and were getting the recognition that they deserved. It seemed like nothing could bring this developer down. Well, something did. At least in my opinion, this shows off their weaknesses in game developing. They released White Knight Chronicles in 2008 in Japan and 2010 for the U.S.A. The biggest draw for this game was its MMO-inspired design, its multiplayer component, and the gimmick of being able to summon a giant suit of armor that reminds me of the anime The Vision of Escaflowne. In the end, the game received mixed reviews, and gamers either liked the game to an extent or hated it. The game has its draws, but in the end, it’s just average. I always kept hearing how people enjoyed the multiplayer component, but since they shut down the servers a few months back, you are stuck with the single player story that was considered average to mediocre, a “make your own” avatar character that would make you feel more like a creepy third wheel within the game’s story, bland looking graphics, and gameplay that could be rather repetitive and tedious at times. The biggest waste of time was the giant knight you could summon. There really wasn’t much to this mechanic, and it felt shallow. It was easily one of Level-5’s most disappointing releases to many gamers. Obviously, they would take the criticism, and improve on it in the sequel. They released White Knight Chronicles II in 2010 and America got it a year later. The game got more mixed to negative reviews because they didn’t fix a thing! Well, they have fixed a few things, but the overall game was left unchanged. You would think the sequel would be even better than the first game, but this is one of those cases where the sequel just feels worse than the original. This franchise had potential to be more than what it ended up being, but they sure didn’t do anything to make it stand out among JRPGs released during that time. There is also a prequel game on the PSP, but I could barely find out any information on this game. Level-5 also got to work on the next Dragon Quest game, and released it in Japan in 2009 and in America in 2010, Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies for the Nintendo DS. It was highly praised for the small changes to the overall design, and the inclusion of being able to play with your friends through online multiplayer. This is another game that just isn’t my cup of tea. I know a lot of people really love this game due to its multiplayer mode, but that takes away from the story and the single player experience, which is what I really loved about the previous Dragon Quest game, but maybe I’m making the multiplayer sound worse than it is because it really isn’t so bad. I can see the appeal of playing through the creative world of Dragon Quest with a couple friends.

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Their next big RPG came out in 2010 where they collaborated with famed animation studio, Studio Ghibli, and the result of this collaboration was Ni no Kuni: Shikkoku no Madōshi, which translates to Second Country: The Jet Black Mage. It was released for the Nintendo DS and was pretty well received, but from what I read, it sold only half a million copies. They then made a PlayStation 3 version called Ni no Kuni: Shiroki Seihai no Joō. This translates to Second Country: The Queen of White Sacred Ash. It came over here to America as Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch. The difference between the two games, besides the titles, was the combat. From what I could tell, The Nintendo DS version was more tactical turn-based combat, and the PlayStation 3 version was more action-oriented. What do I think about Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch? Well, you will have to wait to read my review of it. Level-5 has also made an anthology game series called Guild01 and Guild02. They were a bunch of games made by different developers and designers. I hear good things about the individual games, and I would recommend checking out a few of them. Currently, they are working on a RPG for the PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Android, IOS, PlayStation Vita, PlayStation 4, and Wii U called Wonder Flick. It looks interesting, and I wanted to write an article about it, but there isn’t enough information about the game yet, so I am going to wait on making an article about this RPG.

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Boy, that was quite the history about their line of RPGs and other well-known games, wasn’t it? Anyway, what do I like about Level-5? Well, when they hit the mark of making a great RPG, they really hit it. You can tell when they put their passion, heart, and soul into an RPG. They know how to keep what old RPG fans like in their games, but bring something new and interesting to keep the gameplay addicting and investing to the player. I still think their best games are Dragons Quest XIII and Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch because they were doing something that Square wasn’t doing during that time, making stories and characters we actually care about and are invested in, not piling on the melodrama like chocolate sauce on an ice cream sundae. They were changing up the RPG genre by either going back to their roots or innovating where it’s needed. Sometimes, it’s just a little change that is needed in a game or genre to make it great.

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So, what would I like to see them tackle next? What would I like to see change about them? Like any other company, I would like to see what they could do with other genres besides the RPG and the adventure puzzle game. They do work on other games like the Inazuman Eleven and some Gundam games, but they don’t do many other original IPs that are different genres besides the RPG or puzzle game. I think they also need to polish up their track record. They kind of have the same issue as Gearbox Software, where they will release a good game, then a bad game, then a good game, and then a bad game. In this day and age, where gamers are being as finicky as ever with what games they buy on day one, you really need to put your all into the game, no matter what budget or time limit you have. While Level-5’s track record isn’t as inconsistent in quality as Gearbox Software, it is definitely there. They release Dragon Quest VIII, fantastic RPG. They release Rogue Galaxy, pretty good, but not on par with Dragon Quest VIII. They release White Knight Chronicles, pretty disappointing. They release Dragon Quest IX, everyone loves it. They release White Knight Chronicles II, the game sucked. They release Ni No Kuni, pretty much everyone loves it. Who knows how well Wonder Flick will do, but let’s hope it does well.

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In the end, Level-5 is a good developer. They do make good RPGs. Even their weaker RPGs are better than the worst games that Gearbox has made. I know there are other RPG developers that are mixing up the RPG genre, but Level-5 was the company that reminded us that, “hey, other Japanese companies make RPGs also!” They are obviously very talented at Level-5, and I hope they do well in the future with their next couple of games! As for me, I am going to play some more Ni No Kuni and find some more info on Wonder Flick!