Hello, gentle readers, and welcome to the very first edition of RPG Reload. In what I hope will be an ongoing regular feature, each week I'll be shining some light on a different iOS RPG. These are not reviews. Many of the games I'll be talking about already have reviews on the site, some even written by me. Instead, think of this column as a chance to revisit an old friend, catch up on how it's doing, and reflect a bit on it. I hope to cover all kinds of RPGs here, whether they are ports or originals, JRPGs or WRPGs, action RPGs or strategy RPGs, famous or unknown, new or old, or anything in between. I absolutely encourage you to fire up the game, give it a play, and share your thoughts in the comments below. It's fun to play along! Just to underline how much I want this to be a community thing, once a month I will be playing an RPG selected by you. Simply head down to the comments and nominate the RPG you'd like me to feature. I'll tally the votes over the next few weeks and the winner will be the subject of RPG Reload File 004. Captain Planet was right, the power is yours!

I thought I'd kick off this column with something I replayed just recently for fun, Square Enix's Chaos Rings [$3.99 / $4.99 (HD)]. It helps that it's both a pretty big title and, I feel, of historical value to iOS RPGs. Chaos Rings wasn't Square Enix's first release on iOS by any means, but it represented a certain commitment of resources to the platform that made it significant. This wasn't a gimmick game or a port, but rather a lengthy, fully 3D original JRPG with the biggest name in RPG publishing attached to it. The game launched on April 20th, 2010, and you can do a little time traveling and read the TouchArcade review written by the excellent Mr. Jared Nelson here if you like. Suffice it to say, it was a very well-received game, and with good reason, in my opinion.

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Of course, for how much was made of Square Enix making an original JRPG for iOS, it wasn't actually developed internally. While Square Enix certainly oversaw things and had a few employees in on it, the bulk of development on Chaos Rings was handled by Media.Vision, the team behind the fairly popular Wild Arms series of RPGs on various PlayStation consoles. They also developed the Xbox platformer title Sneakers, but we don't talk about that. Media.Vision has a lot of experience and a good bit of success in the RPG genre, and it clearly shows in Chaos Rings, a great adventure that is parceled out in tiny, digestible chunks intended to suit the mobile gamer's lifestyle. With excellent character art by Square Enix's Yusuke Naora and a fun story full of twists written by Synthese's Yukinori Kitajima, it's not surprising that the game proved to be a big success, launching a series that is still running today.

That was more than four years ago, however, and as mobile gamers know all too well, this market grows and changes quickly. There are a ton of choices in the RPG genre, and as with any trailblazer, there's certainly a risk that Chaos Rings could come up short against more modern offerings. In firing it up for the first time on a 4-inch display, the dead zones on the sides immediately caught my eye. It's only a minor nuisance, but it's a firm reminder that Square Enix likes to updates things on its own schedule. That said, in the years following its release, the game was updated for retina displays, multiple extra languages were added, and full Japanese voice acting was introduced. Most importantly, it still runs just fine, which is more than many sparsely-updated games from four years ago can say. Maybe in the future we'll get 4-inch screen and MFi support.

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The game itself holds up very well, I feel. The story lacks its initial impact, but that's to be expected. The first time through the game is pretty special, as layers of the onion are peeled back one-by-one until you finally have a proper understanding of what the Ark Arena is really about. I think a lot of players stopped after playing through with one couple, but if you did, you missed out on the actual story of the game. Since I'm going here, this is your one and only spoiler warning. If you don't want to know the plot of Chaos Rings, don't read the rest of this paragraph or the one after it. I think most everyone is aware that you can play through the game with four different sets of couples, and the assumption a person might make is that it simply lets you see the same story from a different perspective and get a different ending. You finish the game, probably with Escher and Musiea since they're first on the selection screen, you get your ending, you watch the credits, and there's some business about extra areas opening up, but you're busy and don't care about the usual crazy stuff RPGs throw as post-game content, so you declare Chaos Rings to be finished. Maybe the next time you get a hankering, you'll try a different couple, but how different could it be, anyway?

If you follow the order that the couples are in on the selection screen, you'll choose Zhamo and Eluca next, and in most ways, it does indeed feel like the same story again. Maybe you notice that Escher and Musiea seem a little friendlier than you remember, or that there's a bit more animosity between Zhamo and Eluca than you saw from Escher's side, but that's all just off-camera stuff, right? Naturally, the ending turns out quite differently, but all in all, it still feels like you've just seen things from another angle. Once you move on to Olgar and Vahti's tale, however, it quickly becomes apparent that this is not the same scenario you've seen before, and even the people seem fairly different. You might be curious enough now to load up one of your finished runs with the other couples and see what that extra door is all about, and before too long, it's quite apparent that this isn't a Rashomon-like multiple-perspective take on the same plot, but rather, it's one continuous story that spans parallel universes. It all winds up in a very predictable way, far more typical than the ending you first got, but the trick is a satisfying one.

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Once you catch on to what the game is doing, playing with the other couples feels less like a chore and more like reading the next issue of a truly exciting comic book series. It's a clever trick, and a necessary one, because while this was a relatively big budget project for an iOS game at the time, it's obviously working with pocket change compared to console or even dedicated handheld RPGs. The game's basic structure seems built around this, with a small hub area that warps you into and out of a handful of larger stages. Though each couple plays through the stages in a different order with different puzzles included, the stages themselves, along with the bosses, are exactly the same each time. There are also very few types of enemies, with palette swaps used liberally to inflate the enemy count. Clearly, asset reuse was a priority, but because the story has replays built into it in an interesting way, the game gets a lot of mileage out of very little.

It should be noted that those replays go by pretty quickly thanks to being able to carry over your gene plates, and going through the game a second time entirely, it's even faster, the kind of RPG you can crank out over a lazy weekend and still have lots of time to hang out with your family. The level-based structure is very friendly towards stop and go play sessions, but you probably won't want to take too long of a break, lest you forget some of the dangling threads of the story. The worst thing I can say about the game's setup is that the hardest part of the game is in the very beginning, when you have few abilities, while the rest of the game is, for the most part, very easy. Once you have a good selection of gene abilities and a big cash buffer built up, you're ready for almost any situation, though Olgar and Vahti's story does throw a very interesting spanner into the works. I think the developers made the right call given the assets they had to work with, but the last bosses really should have been a bit more threatening, I think, especially after all the build-up.

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Chaos Rings still looks surprisingly good, too. It has certainly been surpassed, but I think the game is still quite beautiful. Some elements of the prerendered backdrops look a little jaggy on retina displays, but there's not much to be done about that. The art direction is really strong, the character models are good, and the prerendered backgrounds are full of little details that raise questions you'll never get answers to, something I am quite fine with. Yusuke Naora's character designs give the game a very unique feel, and I'm going to miss his work in the upcoming Chaos Rings 3. I feel like the Chaos Rings series represents some of his finest work. The voice work that was added in the 2.0 update is pretty decent stuff, very typical of shounen anime, though since it's all in Japanese, the quality probably doesn't matter much to English players. A lot of people didn't like how the addition of the VA inflated the size of the app, and while I agree it might have best been left as an option, I think it does add a fair bit to the game's atmosphere, particularly the haunting voice of The Agent.

For me, Chaos Rings is still a relevant entry into the genre. The gameplay may not have much sizzle to it, and in broad strokes, the story setup is almost certainly cribbing from Battle Royale, but its snappy pace, interesting characters, fun twists, and well-done melodrama are still a good time even today. Although I think both of its sequels surpass it in overall quality, it's worth pointing out that neither of them attempted to use the same structure as Chaos Rings, lending this installment a unique feel that is unlikely to be replicated. You can't pull the same trick twice, after all, and get the same impact. I would definitely say Chaos Rings is a recommended RPG reload. What do you think? I want to know, so please leave your comments below, and don't forget to vote on which RPG you'd like to see me play and write up for the reader's choice installment. Thanks for reading!

Next Week's Reload Hint: It's about time.

  • spsummer

    Wow, nice recap Shaun. Look forward to this in the future.

  • Louis Ace

    Next week is Chrono Trigger

  • TJF588

    Resplendent wordswordswords, but even though I've already Chaos Rings (which, in the spirit of this endeavor, I haven't gone much through yet, especially with its file size engorging on mandatory voice acting), I am excited to see more RPGs spotlighted, since it's still a hurdle to sift through the chaff around SQEX's (variably technically capable) kernels.

  • Louis Ace

    I think it'd be cool if you did one for Aralon: Sword and Shadow.

  • swisssk8er1

    I vote for The Quest to be next.

    • swisssk8er1

      I mean 4th.

    • Louis Ace

      Actually that's a great idea

    • Womble

      Agreed! Then the Undercroft!

    • ducksFANjason

      I vote for The Quest as well

  • PoloBaquerizoH

    My vote goes for Baldur's Gate II

    • PoloBaquerizoH

      It would be great to see you play this classic

  • Goggles789

    Chronotrigger next week. Also, while I found Chaos Rings initially stunning for a mobile release, it got tedious quickly. Now, back to DQ4!

    • Dailon Huskey

      When all else fails we have Dragon Quest!

      • Goggles789

        Yeah!!!

  • Touchdoku

    Nice Shaun. Keep it up. Really like this new weekly feature

  • InkyTheGhost

    Cthulhu Saves The World!

    • drlemon

      I'd have to cast my vote for this as well

  • Gafferman

    Great article! Never played much of Chaos Rings, so I might just give it another go. How about some Horn next week?

  • noah0706

    How about Zenonia 3. Loved that game!

    • Kakorot214

      Zenonia 3 please!!

  • noah0706

    You should do Zenonia 3! amazing game.

  • noah0706

    Sorry I said it twice :/

  • Billy Ocean

    Maybe one feature could be a roguelike roundup? Some under-exposed but interesting games like Powder, Wazhack, Cavern, etc.

    • Shaun Musgrave

      This is a good idea, but I think some Roguelikes (like Wazhack) easily merit their own article, so I'll have to think about how to group them.

  • octopus

    One of the iOS exclusives (which isn’t exclusive now) I enjoyed the most. I have never expected to see a game of this calibre on iOS when it came out back in 2010. The story is really nice and well told, I had a blast with it. San-ken-po-like battle system is good too. Not too complicated, not to easy.
    I think this was one of the first games that defined iOS as serious portable gaming platform.

  • Pagan Fox

    What a refreshing idea and re-review.
    Looking forward to more of these.
    Cheers S.

  • PoloBaquerizoH

    Chrono Trigger is not for ipad, is not worth

  • Tyra

    Loved Captain Planet!!! ^_____^

  • br4nd0n

    I vote The Quest. great underrated game.

  • HelperMonkey

    I'd love to see you cover Shining Force. It was a mediocre port of a great game, but it's a seminal example of the strategy sub-genre of RPGs, if you were to take a look at the many directions in which traditional RPGs have branched out.
    Of course I mostly just want to stir the waters in hopes of Shining Force 2 getting ported.

  • http://www.silentrocco.com/ Silent Rocco

    Nice article. Chaos Rings completely absorbed me. By far the best iOS RPG series. Epic, original. I love it way more than all the Final Fantasy ports.

  • Krautboy

    I started replaying The World Ends With You about a week ago. When it came out i finished it but couldn't get all pins due to the mingle pp. It absolutely dragged me in again and now i'm going for 100% items and pins. My vote goes to TWEWY. Great idea Shaun,keep it up please!

  • Darkenroll

    I think the original chaos rings represents a significant milestone in ios gaming, but more of a stepping stone than a quality full length RPG. Most of the length came from repetition(playing through 4 times with only the last being significantly different). It was great for its time though. I have similar feelings towards Brandnew Boy, which I'm gonna put a vote towards.

  • NickyNichols

    The next one better be Hodappy Bird

  • pajman sarafzadeh

    Good start, but to critique, maybe consider going much more in depth

    • Shaun Musgrave

      Thanks for the feedback! This is the first one, of course, so I hope it will only improve from here.

  • tunaW

    Wasn't this supposed to be a regular feature for old iOS games in general on TouchArcade? What happened to that? Why limit yourselves to only RPGs?

    • Shaun Musgrave

      Hi! I'm focusing on RPGs because I really love to write about them, and I think the genre lends itself especially well to this sort of extended look.

  • curtneedsaride

    Yes, I agree, this is an awesome feature article! And I am totally stoked to read these every week, especially if I hear about one that I've never played. Can't wait! I loved Chaos Rings, but did only beat it once. So, now you've got me curious about the other couples. So, thanks to this, I may go back and play some more after I beat Chaos Rings II.
    Personally, I loved a port of Crimson Gem Saga, and played a ton of that until the iOS outgrew it and support died. So, even though the game is no longer stable on iOS 7, I'd love to hear what you thought about it!
    But if you don't want to touch that one, my vote goes for ASH. That was a great modern classic!

    • Shaun Musgrave

      I really wish they would fix Crimson Gem Saga or pull it. SK Telecom is a big company, they don't have much in the way of good excuses.

      • cmmc38

        Seconded! I was very into this game and stopped playing because of an iOS bug with one of the mage characters' mana not regenerating as it should. I waited, and waited, and waited, and finally gave up when the app became unstable (with iOS 5 iirc).

        I would love to see SK telecom rescue this game. I have come sooo close to picking it up on PSN just to play all the way through but part of me is still holding out hope.

      • Hero Killer Id

        Crimson Gem Saga was ok I played through it on the PSP biggest issue was it ended on a cliff hanger (not that I remember the specifics.

        Either way the game was much better than it's predecessor Astonishia Story. To bad they never finished the story.

      • PoloBaquerizoH

        Yes is a shame that this company have forgotten this port.,Too many bugs on Crimson Gem Saga? Would it be worth on my ipad?, anyone have try it on ipad?

      • PoloBaquerizoH

        Shaun why don't you try contacting someone from SK telecom? And make them realize that lots of fans, would love an actual update for Crimson Gem Saga

      • Shaun Musgrave

        I've tried in the past to little success, but I'll give it another shot. Unfortunately, they're one of those companies that are so big, it's almost impossible to find someone that will take responsibility for relatively small projects like their mobile stuff.

      • PoloBaquerizoH

        Thanks, Please try it again

  • rpgmind

    This is awesome. Thanks for this!!!

  • Hero Killer Id

    Awesome sauce man I look forward to this. I loved the http://www.iosrpg.com website but unfortunately it didn't receive the interest and participation to keep it up and running. My vote is for Cthulhu saves the world.

    And I think there should be like a RPG club where anyone who wants to participate can run the games with you.

    • Shaun Musgrave

      I love this idea! I'll look into how we might be able to do it.

    • cmmc38

      Sign me up!

    • Dankrio

      Wish I had time... :(

    • PoloBaquerizoH

      Yes this is a good idea!

    • Shaun Musgrave

      Okay, I made a thread in the General Game Discussion section of the forum. Please go there if you want to play along!

    • Winter9

      Amzing idea!!

  • fxgogo

    Let's see a baulders gate review

  • ElPumo

    Another great article. I was amazed at this game when it came out. A very impressive RPG especially considering the devices it was designed for. I even replayed the whole game after the Japanese voicing was added.

    Haven't finished the most recent Chaos Rings - one of the problems of downsizing your phone to one with only half the memory capacity.

    I'd love to read about any JRPGs you want to write about. I don't have the time to replay them quickly enough to keep up with your schedule but the suggestion for an RPG club is a great idea!

  • seyEliveD

    Great idea. I recommend Final Fantasy Tactics - an amazing game all around and the ios port is awesome.

    • Joe Welke

      I second that emotion. Tactics is just so incredibly deep, and the story is well told. It begs for the Shaun treatment.

  • Empfmil

    Very interesting read! I have CS2 installed on my iPad but haven't touched it yet, but now I feel eager to do that!

    Oh and please, please would you do an article on 9th Dawn? That game has been on my wishlist for a while as it seems to be the best type of Oblivion-like game I could play on the go with my iPhone, and neither Aralon or Ravensword 2 has been able to scratch that itch for me!

  • cmmc38

    How about Vay? It was the first ported RPG on the App Store I believe.

  • JCho133

    Spiral for 004

  • KBPrinceO

    The Quest and Crimsonheart should get some love please.

  • unexpect3rd

    I guess all those FF vs DQ discussion got you a new gig, Shuan. Looking forward to more articles

  • Echoen

    What happens when you reach File 999?

    • Shaun Musgrave

      Then I start 'RPG Revolutions', the tales of a 50-something trying to play text-heavy games on a 4-inch screen while complaining about the sprite filters.

  • Echoen

    Eli should start a Flappy Reload too

  • timmfox

    You have high praise in your previous article for FF V. How about featuring it? I've played 1,4, and 6 on ios. Still on the fence on 5.

  • unexpect3rd

    i fear this column may become a Square enix publicity section. Many titles I would vote for, but they all come from SE. So I"ll cast my vote on something niche: >>> WILD FRONTIER <<<

    • Shaun Musgrave

      I've got the schedule planned out through the end of January, and apart from whatever you guys choose, there are only five SE titles from now til then. If it tilts that way, it's all on you guys!

  • Dankrio

    Just writting to say I love your work here on TA, Shaun. Always a joy to read.

    • Shaun Musgrave

      Thank you!

  • Grimjak

    Best website ever.

  • Rubius

    I'd like to see 'Across Age DX', and 'Vay' on an upcoming RPG Reload.

  • LanceAvion

    This is a cool little addition to the site, I hope it continues. How I haven't read the entire article yet, oh but I will haha, but just wanted you and everyone else to know about "The Quest." It should definitely be a contender for next month. First person view, old school gameplay, dozens of hours of content in the base game alone, and that's not even counting the 14 or so expansions for it. Yeah that's right, an iOS RPG with 14 expansions and counting. For a game released in 2009 that is fantastic. Perhaps if they get enough support they'll have the funds and motivation to redo the art assets for widescreen supports.

    Even without widescreen however that game is a gem. I recommend any newbies to check out "The Quest Gold" which contains the base game and three expansions for a reduced price.

  • Hero Killer Id

    Your little hint is obviously Chrono Trigger

  • Llew

    Awesome article, looking forward to more... Have u tried Silversword? It's a really solid old school Bard's Tale/Wizardry alike I'm currently into - very well done by a part-time lone developer that still gets updates. Not as pretty as some, but the heart and soul r there...

  • Winter9

    Vote for The Quest :)

  • Winter9

    But I see someone said Shining Force II which is actually a great idea! Sega teased us with Phantasy Star II (which I would vote for first, but lonely votes doesn't count) and Shining Force and then just left us in the dark which make no sense at all since it can't cost them much to mkake these ports and they had so many great rpg's in the past. Makes no sense..

  • Eugene Smozhevsky

    I think the story - or the structure in which the story was told - was a very smart and - dare I say - wise usage of resources. Once you FULLY finish the game every questionable "repetition" suddenly fall into place and make sense. In fact, one game that came to mind after I finished CR was... Quake 3! If only id Software had thought a bit harder - they could do a way better Quake 3 if they used a bit of tricks from CR - they could do a perfect single player campaign for a multiplayer game, which they failed to do. So yep, CR is a masterpiece in it's own way...

    Regarding suggested games. "The Quest" pops up a lot in comments, but if you look at it without any emotional attachments you will notice two things:
    1. The whole thing about the Quest is in being first in it's own class on iOS - otherwise it is just the same as many-many others.
    2. Somewhere right after 2nd add-on developers started to go mad slowly - every other add-on became more and more ridiculous and ridiculously harder, becoming more and more of a torture for gamers, rather than an expiring and engaging RPG experience...
    However, I must agree 'The Quest' did it's job of being first classic turn-based thing.

    "Cthulhu saves the world" is a good one as well. It makes you laugh and in generally is a good call on many jRPG and RPG cliches out there.

    Although many would probably disagree, but I'd say Infinity Blade 1 deserves it's own prize - it has the same clever usage of resources as CH, it was a first real swipe thing that was not just a re-thinking of gamepad controls or whatever and after all updates it has quiet a story line with lots of space for imagination and questions that was completely wiped up and ruined with sequels filled with ridiculous "I must save humanity" crap.

  • bilboad

    This was a very interesting and enjoyable read. I've never played a JRPG, but reading this motivated me to finally try one. I've really been enjoying Chaos Rings so far on my iPad. Looking forward to the other articles in your series.