Sometimes you need to settle into something just predictable enough.
For many years, especially when my daughter was small and I was always tired, I watched procedural shows at night. They mostly featured a charismatic lead, a one-word title, and a puzzle that was solved within the hour. House. Castle. Bones. Or the ancestor of them all, Law & Order (I watched all 200+ episodes of the original).
They’re the perfect amount of predictability and twists, a dash of wit and justice served. You don’t have to follow a complex mythology. There’s a cold open, a bit of banter, character establishment, red herring, twist, final answer. On Law & Order, if there was a rich kid, they always did it. On House, it was never lupus. And if you don’t like an episode, well, there would be a different one next week.
Mobile Gaming’s Version of the TV Procedural
In the role-playing game (RPG) world, those looking for a similar escape have Kemco. A venerable Japanese publisher, Kemco has over the past decade cranked out a constant stream of similar-but-different, 8- and 16-bit-style Japanese RPGs on a nearly monthly basis. Kemco’s games have plucky and sassy heroes, customizable skill systems, and brisk plots. They pop up for iOS, Android, consoles, and on Steam.
There are currently 109 Kemco games in the Google Play Store. Not every one is a JRPG, and some are free/paid duplicates, but it’s still a lot of games.
She’s a wall! Why is she a wall! You sort of have a romance with the wall.
Kemco’s games come from a handful of Japanese studios; Kemco is responsible for internationalizing them. Each studio has its own house style and mechanics. I initially preferred World Wide Software’s mechanics, but over the past few years I’ve leaned towards Exe-Create, which has focused on turn-based, 2D games with tap-navigation controls and 16-bit art. When Kemco tries to go, say, 3D (or even 2.5D, like in the SF-flavored Dimension Cross) the controls tend to get annoying and awkward. I strongly prefer tap navigation to virtual controllers, and I find Kemco’s ventures into 8-bit or sub-8-bit art to be ugly to look at.
Kemco games have a very predictable JRPG rhythm to them. An often somewhat sulky, male primary character gains a party that always includes at least one quirky girl and a tank. One of the sidekicks has something really weird about her—she could be a slime monster, a cyborg, an amnesiac princess, or made out of magical bricks. You visit towns, get a main quest and side quests, level up and—in the best ones—are able to design custom equipment and spell combinations. There are a few puzzles. They’re never that complicated. It’s hard to get stuck. If you do, you probably just have to grind levels for an hour or two.
Don’t mess with the maids; they will mess you up.
There’s usually a old-timey, quasi-European setting where the heroes are drawn into some complex, political nonsense involving place names that sound comical in translation. Sometimes there are all-powerful, godlike women in maid costumes. (The maids keep recurring, and they have their own subtle character drama.) The final boss will have some insane art; maybe he’ll have six demon wings and be riding on a motorcycle of skulls and take up half your screen. You don’t have to pay too much attention to the plot, because they will keep reminding you of it, which is exactly what I want. About half of the cutscenes are marginally too long.
If Kemco offered me a job localizing their games, by the way, I’d totally take it.
Some games have overworlds; some just have dungeon and town levels you teleport between. I prefer the ones with overworlds, because I like that sense of exploration, although it’s strictly controlled: you can’t skip ahead to towns or dungeons that the plot doesn’t want you to pursue yet. Eventually, you save the world; sometimes there’s a somewhat depressing ending you can redeem by reloading the game and playing an alternate ending. It’s all over in 20 hours or so. A few months later, there’s a new world to save.
Yes, the lemur living in his hair is a battle companion.
Just Smart Enough, Not Too Smart
Kemco games are brilliant because they’re just smart enough to be a challenge, but just limited enough that you don’t have to focus too hard. Turn-based combat means you think rather than stress. Quest trackers, easy-to-navigate areas, very chatty characters and (mostly) a lack of real-time clocks mean you can put the games down and pick them up whenever, even if you forgot key elements of the plot. And the detailed plots and characters draw you into much more of a story than a simple dungeon crawl.
But they’re also brilliant because they’re just predictable enough. I want to see what the next weird sidekick is made of. I’m super curious to see if there’s ever an actual romance.
The games cost between free and $9, and they’re often on sale. I usually pick up about $5 of in-app purchases to smooth the way. I’m happy to do so for 20 hours of entertainment; I like buying games because I want to direct money to the creators without encouraging the programmatic ad economy. (You should too.)
I mean, who doesn’t want diamond muffs?
My Top 5 Kemco JRPGs for Android
I’ve played so many of these games at this point that they blur together a little. This isn’t bad; it’s like how there are 200 episodes of Law & Order. I just finished Miden Tower, which takes place in a magical tower where each level is a different ecosystem, like a colony ship, and features “passive skills” that reward you with constant and semi-random levels up. It wasn’t Kemco’s best game, but it was worth $9 and occupied me for 20 hours of subway commuting.
If I had to pick five of Kemco’s 100-plus games, they would be:
Probably the best plot of all Kemco’s games, Fernz Gate has a special place in my heart thanks to a fun companion system involving cute pets and special magic attacks that two characters do together.
Probably the most mature of Kemco’s character settings, Glorious Savior features lots of flirting and cute double-entendres in the plot, as well as lots of weapon equipping and upgrading options.
Wizards of Brandel
Another goofy setting with amusing if trope-y characters and plenty of banter, Wizards of Brandel features an entertainingly twisty plot, and there’s a lot of item crafting.
The Asdivine series all takes place on the same world with roughly the same dynamics, where you’re usually saving the world from some sort of evil god; they’re well-polished and have a really fun skill-choice mechanism involving slotting Tetris pieces into a square.
Symphony of Eternity
There’s a new one out now. Something to do with dragons? Never mind. I’m downloading. Find out more about Kemco’s lineup on its own site or on RPGInsanity, a forum site devoted solely to Kemco’s mobile JRPGs.