The Five-Year Switch RPG Tour – Part Three
It may come as a surprise to you to hear that, prior to the release of the Nintendo Switch, I was anticipating playing Breath of the Wild on Wii U and making that my last new game. Like, ever. Clearly, that hasn’t been the case, and the past five years of Switch ownership have been a wild and crazy opportunity to further my understanding of and passion for games, with a tenure at SwitchRPG that some might call successful, while others still might instead label “unhealthy.”
In any case, I’ve played a LOT of RPGs for the Nintendo Switch, so I think I’m rather qualified to declare some of the best releases on the system from the past five years. Yes, some of my takes will be hot, but you should hopefully know by now that I have questionable taste. Without further ado, here are my favorite Switch RPGs from each of the last five years:
Favorite: Xenoblade Chronicles 2
I’ve since cooled on this monstrosity of a game, which dominated the last months of 2017 and continued to threaten my free time in 2018, but as an early adopter of the title, I’ve seen the ups and downs and been through the hardest of times with Xenoblade 2. A game with such incredibly addictive and satisfying combat that is heavily influenced by a terrifying Gacha blade roulette and endless sidequests, Xenoblade 2 never reaches the narrative highs of the original title nor does it feature the exploration of Xenoblade Chronicles X (which STILL needs to make the jump to the Switch!).
However, its soundtrack is easily on par with the first game and the sheer amount of content to explore makes it one of the most lucrative Switch purchases, even to this day. The only unfortunate aspect of this release (at least, in my opinion) is that its DLC expansion/prequel Torna: The Golden Country condenses just about every aspect into a tighter package with even better combat. Despite that, the individual release of Torna isn’t my 2018 pick, but instead…
Maybe because I didn’t actually play all that many RPGs on the Switch during its first year, or maybe because I limited myself to titles that I would actually enjoy, 2017 didn’t manage to squeeze in any controversial takes from me. That won’t always be the case moving forward, however, so look forward to that.
Favorite: Hand of Fate 2
Listen. I will die on this hill: Hand of Fate 2 is a love letter to both tabletop role-playing and the act of beating the hell out of players. While some of its late-game quest requirements are absolutely devilish, this is a game featuring lovingly crafted scenarios that put a proper twist on its gameplay fundamentals in continuously inventive and punishing ways. If you want a game that plays like several different kinds of games, Hand of Fate 2 offers grid-based exploration, Arkham-style action combat, occasional dungeon crawling, roguelike challenges, and impactful narrative decisions… and more!
It may be the despair I feel knowing that the developers at Defiant Development will never get a chance to further iterate on this series after having closed their doors, but I think my love of Hand of Fate 2 mainly stems from my background with card and tabletop games. It is a sharp looking game with plenty of lore to be gleaned, plenty of content to play, and plenty of challenges to overcome, and slips in above any other SwitchRPG release during 2018.
Not-So-Favorite: Fallen Legion: Rise to Glory
A feature-light RPG that prides itself on its decision-making interludes that pepper long and aggravating cooldown-based gameplay, Fallen Legion is a game that requires a great deal of suspension of disbelief. If you like the idea of constantly running through battlefields while solving issues presented by your subjects, then this game might just appeal to you- because that’s all there is to do, here. Apparently there are some people who find this sort of gameplay, which is also found in the Valkyrie Profile series, but there’s little outside of this cooldown combat mechanic to enjoy, and that makes Fallen Legion… well, not very enjoyable.
Favorite: Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen
Where do I even begin? Part of the joy of the Nintendo Switch is not only its ever-increasing library of new releases, but the fact that we get absolute gems like Dragon’s Dogma making a return appearance in the current generation. Yes, this was the year of Fire Emblem: Three Houses and Dragon Quest XI S, I don’t care. Neither of those games evokes the joy of exploration and combat, the thrill of overwhelming odds, and the dank and grimy reality that Dragon’s Dogma musters.
If you haven’t been sold on the game from the copious amounts of praise I seem to exclusively lump upon it as well as its frequent sale price of less than twenty dollars, I’m not sure what else to say. Maybe this will suffice: This is Capcom’s Dark Souls, a harsh look at fantasy and cyclical destiny quests set in a world of uncertainty and despair, utilizing action combat that offers punishing defeat as well as thrilling highs. There is nothing else quite like latching onto an enemy as it rampages across the landscape, taking advantage of weak points and the concerted efforts of your pawns as you cling to the hope of victory. The game’s DLC expansion offers more intense combat and opportunities to optimize your build. My greatest wish is that the success of this port and my continued, sole efforts to have a sequel made will convince Capcom to make it happen, ironing out the kinks and offering us a new journey to Gransys, along with more monsters to slay.
Not-So-Favorite: Pokemon Shield
Yes, there was a great deal of controversy surrounding the leadup and release of this game, which it might have been able to sidestep if it pulled through and delivered a revolutionary and compelling iteration in this long-standing popular franchise. Spoiler alert: the base game fails to do that, featuring heavy amounts of linearity, bland visuals and narrative design, and an experience that feels more like a handheld-sized title presented in high definition. This was not a jump to home consoles, but a staggered and tentative first few steps that Game Freak has managed to patch up with DLC and more ambitious titles following.
Favorite: Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling
As a longtime fan of the original, turn-based, role-playing gameplay of the Paper Mario series (what a mouthful), Bug Fables was a nostalgic godsend. The game uses aesthetics to pull players back to the Game Cube era, but moves this style of action combat forward with tight gameplay and a surprising degree of difficulty. There’s plenty to discover in Bug Fables, whether it’s challenging optional boss battles, a card-battling system with plenty of rewards for a completionist mindset, and plenty of cooking and character-oriented side quests. All of this is tied together with a story that is not without its twists and turns, but always errs on the side of sentimentality. In short, Bug Fables is more than worthy of receiving the torch from its inspiration, and makes me excited to see what developer Moonsprout has planned for the future.
Not-So-Favorite: Arc of Alchemist
Idea Factory started the year off wrong with this 3D dungeon crawling action RPG. While its chibi aesthetic and charming character design were initial draws, the actual gameplay experience amounted to navigating a post-apocalyptic wasteland peppered with generic monster designs until reaching a technical or narrative checkpoint. Boasting such a large roster of playable characters feels meaningless when the main narrative centers around only a few at most, but the length of the experience- clocking in around eight hours- barely feels like enough time to flesh out any of the cast. While its side-vignettes that unfold back at the base camp might fill in some blanks, they mostly amount to stereotypical, trope-laden events that serve to flatten out the characters more than the opposite. What’s more, its combat mechanics are dull and the base-building portion does little to deepen the experience. Simply put, Arc of Alchemist might seem appealing on the surface, but that’s just about all it can accomplish- the attempt to look passable.
Favorite: Black Book
Although I made a big fuss about the long-awaited Shin Megami Tensei V on Switch last year, 2021 was most definitely a year of surprises and upsets. Against my better judgment, I will nominate the beautifully unique and extremely clever Black Book for this year, if only because it came out of nowhere to tell a deeply nuanced and rewarding tale that I never expected to fall in love with.
This slavic-rooted fantasy story offers a glimpse into the life, culture, and folklore of a place far from my home, but remains approachable through its fundamental moral values. Yes, witchery is an opportunity for devious role-playing, but the alternate endings and multiple outcomes of the main narrative are deeply satisfying and empowering no matter your moral alignment- the game never judges. This is combined with a card-battling system with heaps of depth and exploitative potential, and the game takes its time via side quests to present many unique mechanics and their synergies. This creates a title that possesses weighty narrative decisions and elaborate and daunting deck-based challenges. The game is never satisfied with a comfortable rhythm, instead tossing twist after twist as well as increasing challenges.
If there is any truth to be realized through Black Book, it is to always remember this: The ability to access an unfamiliar world and better understand the culture of another people is a unique and wonderful gift of this medium. It is one that circumvents politics and the uncertain state of the world and serves as a reminder of the humanizing power of art, presenting us with moments of and many moments of frustration and joy as it does triumph and defeat. Thank you, Morteshka!
Not-So-Favorite: Cris Tales
In a curious twist, both of the games I am highlighting for 2021 are products of crowdfunding, a risky environment within the larger scope of independent development. On one hand, a crowd-funded project can speak directly to a specific audience and offer a wholly unique or lovingly inspired product. On the other hand, transparency with investors and a rocky development period can result in mixed reception to a game before it has even been released. Sometimes, an idea can offer a great deal of potential that a developer may not be able to fully execute. There is no better example of this than Cris Tales.
Boasting a gorgeous art style and plenty of references to Colombian art and culture, Cris Tales teased the promise of time-traveling gameplay and plenty of narrative implications. However, the reliance on random encounters, slow movement speed and loading times, and surface-level character dialogue and narrative made this loving homage to classic RPGs more of a victory lap of the genre’s most archaic elements. One can only hope the developers at Modus Games have taken feedback and critique to heart, and will either patch some fundamental fixes or create a finer experience moving forward.
Favorite: Pokemon Legends Arceus
…I’ll be frank: I don’t think Legends Arceus is the best game I’ve played all year, just… the not-worst. Most of what I have played and reviewed for the site has been lacking in some way or shape or form, and while Legends Arceus does have flaws, the experience is free-form and engaging enough to carry those lacking elements. Simply put, it’s still a linear narrative and path towards progression, but there’s something visceral about pelting a Pokemon with a Pokeball, or a rotten berry, or whatever. Game Freak have managed to make the act of catching fun again, though the verdict on battling is still out. Even so, Legends Arceus introduces enough new ideas to feel like a legitimate step forward, and further stimulates the imagination in anticipation for this year’s Pokemon Scarlet and Violet.
Potential Favorite: Xenoblade Chronicles 3
If my experience with the previous Xenoblade titles is any indication of what this next installment will hold, one can assume that exploring the combat and world of Xenoblade 3 will be a mixed, yet ultimately addictive and engrossing experience. Although details are scarce on the fundamental mechanics of this title, if it represents even a fraction of the step forward that Torna offered in relation to the original Xenoblade 2, we can expect a Monolith Soft title with extremely accessible and frenzied combat. Of course, the blending of worlds from the original Xenoblade and its sequel should also prove for an expansive, albeit familiar world. We’ll see what surprises might await us as we uncover more.