We love JRPGs at Hardcore Gamer. Hell, our publication was practically founded on them. But we don’t just love the big ones, as anyone who’s been reading our site for any stretch of time could see. We have a special spot in our heart for the more niche endeavors, but some of us here go even deeper than that. Some of us here love the niches within a niche. That’s what today’s focus on: a niche within a niche sub-genre of JRPGs: RPG Maker games.
Now, before you groan or roll your eyes, hear us out. There are some truly profound RPG Maker games out on the market. Yes, there are loads of garbage one – that much is true – but the ones that are good tend to be really good. In fact, there’s one particular studio that churns out hit after hit, giving us some of our absolute favorite titles in the genre. While To the Moon might be our favorite RPG Maker game, one cannot deny that Dancing Dragon Games is in the upper echelon of indie game developers and quite possibly at the top in terms of RPG Maker JRPGs.
We want to focus on Dancing Dragon’s small, but amazing, library of games in preparation for their fourth title that launches later this month, Echoes of Aetheria. While Echoes looks to be the culmination of Phil Hamilton’s work, the works that came before it all paved the way for its hopeful greatness, and it was those works that really made us sit up and take notice of just how magical the RPG Maker community can be.
So today we want to look at the three previous Dancing Dragon Games’ titles and even rank them. Sure, there’s only three of them, but who cares! Everyone loves a good list!
3. Deadly Sin
It’s the studio’s oldest title, but no less compelling. Deadly Sin is a traditional JRPG that tells a story in the vein of earlier Final Fantasy’s through the eyes of a party of four heroes. Better still is the focus on our leading heroine here, Lorelai. Her quest of discovering that she is the heir to a powerful empire is an interesting one, if for nothing else than for the fact that it’s not every day we get a JRPG that stars a strong female character. Sure, Lightning comes immediately to mind when checking that box — and there are a few others along the way, no doubt — but it certainly is the exception and not the rule in JRPGs. Of course, we wouldn’t be singing the praises of this decision if Lorelai wasn’t an interesting character, but she most certainly is, really bringing to life a tale that could’ve felt “by the numbers” had the game taken a more traditional route to characterization.
On top of a great protagonist is tried and true gameplay conventions that will feel familiar to anyone who grew up on the SNES, Genesis, and even the PSX and Saturn, since 2D JRPGs were in abundance on those platforms as well. But even though its trappings are “old-school” they are no less sound, and ultimately come together to create an overall throwback experience sure to delight those of us who prefer a dash of nostalgia in our JRPGs.
As Dancing Dragon’s newest game, Skyborn feels the most technically savvy of the bunch. With two other sizable games under their belt, the development team new very well how to manipulate the RPG Maker engine. In doing so, we get a game that is a thing of pixel beauty, thanks to some brilliantly animated sprites and backgrounds. Where Skyborn excels most, however, is in its setting. Taking place in a steampunk world gave the designers a greater sense of creativity due to not being shackled to the more typical high-fantasy JRPG setting of Deadly Sin and its sequel. As a result, it’s probably Dancing Dragon’s most creatively accomplished title, and one that sets itself apart from so many of the other games out there that do in fact take that more common medieval route.
But, Skyborn is more than just a pretty coat of paint; there’s a great gameplay experience to be had, as well. Yet again, though, what makes Skyborn such a delight is the cast of characters. Dancing Dragon just knows how to write affable characters, and that fact is on display once again in Skyborn. Like Lorelai of Deadly Sin, Skyborn‘s leading lady, Claret, is such a strong, confident hero that it’s refreshing to see a game, that’s part of a genre ripe with particular archetypes, break away from the stereotypes and deliver not just a wonderful protagonist, but great supporting characters too.
1. Deadly Sin 2
We’ve been gaming since the late 80s/early 90s, so we’ve seen our fair share of 2D fantasy-driven JRPGs — many of which have been timeless classics, such as Final Fantasy VI, Phantasy Star IV, Shining Force II, Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, Albert Odyssey and countless others. Thus, it’s strange when a game comes along — in some cases, almost 15 years after those gems — and can manage to best some of them. That’s Deadly Sin 2, though. It is not only the best Dancing Dragon game from practically every aspect, but it’s one of the best 2D JRPGs on the market, regardless of platform. Like its predecessor, as well as Skyborn, this is thanks to one of our favorite cast of characters in all of gaming, a very political, socially-relevant and thematically poignant story, a rock-solid combat engine and a phenomenal presentation both aesthetically and aurally. In actuality, Deadly Sin 2 has one of our favorite soundtracks in JRPGs of the last decade or so.
Truly, the game is the epitome of quality world-building, game design, and narration. Whenever someone asks me for a 2D RPG recommendation, I without hesitation point them in the direction of Deadly Sin 2. Hell, whenever someone asks me for a JRPG recommendation in general, Deadly Sin 2 is somewhere in the conversation. It’s that good of a game. And if that doesn’t sell you on the game, maybe this will: it’s the closest thing we’re ever going to get to a Final Fantasy VI sequel. So, yeah… There’s that.
Echoes of Aeternia, from what we’ve seen, looks to carry the torch of the game-making that has left us satisfied each time we’ve completed one of Dancing Dragon’s titles. It blends the settings of Skyborn and Deadly Sin, incorporating stock high-fantasy with cyberpunk, giving us a stark Dungeons & Dragons: Eberron vibe. It also has the most unique combat system out of all the Dancing games, opting for something more akin to Ogre Battle or Suikoden than Final Fantasy or Phantasy Star. It builds on the systems in previous games as well, implementing crafting and non-random encounters this time. Not to mention, it’s the most graphically sophisticated game the studio’s put out.
Echoes of Aetheria launches on January 15 on Steam.