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New role-playing games for Xbox 360 include ‘Infinite Undiscovery’

The role-playing game was invented by Americans (thanks, Gary Gygax, for “Dungeons & Dragons”), but it’s always been somewhat of a niche product among U.S. video-game enthusiasts. Sure, RPG series like “Final Fantasy” and “Diablo” have their devotees, but they’re far outnumbered by fans of shooters like “Halo” or sports games like “Madden NFL.”

Not so in Japan, where the release of a new “Dragon Quest” game is treated like a national holiday. That’s why Microsoft, which has had trouble getting Japanese consumers to buy the Xbox 360, has turned to RPG developers to help broaden its market.

The results, so far, have been mixed. “Final Fantasy” creator Hironobu Sakaguchi’s “Blue Dragon” left me cold, but his “Lost Odyssey” was one of the most compelling RPGs in years. Meanwhile, the Japanese RPG masters at Square Enix and Namco Bandai have got on board with Microsoft, heralding a possible revival of a somewhat moribund genre. As someone who has loved JRPGs ever since 1988’s “Phantasy Star,” I’m hoping for the best.

-“Infinite Undiscovery” (Square Enix, for the Xbox 360): Worst RPG title ever? I used to think it was “Divine Divinity,” but we have a new contender here. Isn’t “undiscovery” the last thing you want to do in a game?

As this adventure begins, a teenage flute-player named Capell has been thrown into prison. When an archer named Aya comes to his rescue, Capell discovers he’s a dead ringer for a knight named Sigmund – and that he’s surprisingly handy with a sword. After meeting the real Sigmund, Capell ends up supporting the hero’s cause to fight the Order of Chains, who have dragged the moon out of the sky.

It’s a standard setup – a gang of misfits take on The Man – populated by characters who are sometimes likable, sometimes annoying. And after a sluggish start, the story becomes fairly intriguing. But combat, in which you control Capell’s swordplay while barking orders at your comrades, is awkward and often frustrating. And the world feels uninspired and underpopulated, taking the fun out of exploration. “Undiscovery” has its moments, but it feels sloppy in comparison with other Square RPGs. Two stars out of four.

-“Tales of Vesperia” (Namco Bandai, for the Xbox 360): The games in Namco’s “Tales” series – now up to the double digits – are largely freestanding, although they share some elements. One common factor is a real-time battle scheme in which you control the hero while the other members in your party do whatever they please (although you can alter the strategies each character uses to fight). “Vesperia” is action-packed, but I was disheartened to find that most battles can be won by rapidly pushing one or two buttons.

In “Vesperia,” a purple-haired dude named Yuri is searching for a substance called “blastia” that protects towns against monsters. He’s also searching for his childhood friend Flynn, an imperial knight with a few secrets. Both missions lead Yuri into escalating danger as he unveils a conspiracy that (naturally) could destroy his world.

You’ll meet plenty of interesting characters (including a talking, pipe-smoking dog) amid a pretty, anime-style environment. The game also allows a lot of side missions, hidden dungeons and the now standard cooking games, giving you plenty of places to explore. “Vesperia” isn’t a terribly ambitious game, but it does look terrific on the Xbox 360. Two-and-a-half stars.

-“Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen” (Square Enix, for the Nintendo DS): With the rise of action-oriented RPGs like the two above, “turn-based” RPGs – in which time stops while you decide the next move for each character on your squad – have gone out of fashion. I miss the more cerebral style, though, and I welcome remakes of classics like this adventure from 1992.

“DQ IV” has one of the genre’s more distinctive stories. Each of its main characters stars in a special mini-adventure before they all gather to conquer their common foe. The stories aren’t just about battles, either; the most endearing character is a chubby merchant who would rather do anything but fight.

The mini-adventures are fun, providing vivid snapshots of small parts of the world before thrusting the combined team into a planet-spanning drama. “DQ IV” is one of the most innovative old-school RPGs, and its charms hold up 16 years later. Three stars.


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