I spent hundreds of hours this year immersed in role-playing games like "Fallout 3," "Fable II" and "Lost Odyssey."
The genre is special to those of us who like our small-screen adventures to have a widescreen feel. I've saved the world from total annihilation too many times to count, and I'm always ready to rally another motley band of fighters and take on another megalomaniacal supervillain.
But what if you took the trappings of an RPG and applied them to a smaller-scale drama?
That's the experiment Atlus has pursued with its ambitious, bizarre "Persona" series — and the results have earned the devotion of one of the most dedicated fan bases in gaming.
—"Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4" (Atlus, for the PlayStation 2, $39.99): The latest edition of this saga begins in a small Japanese town, where teenagers are abuzz about the "Midnight Channel" that appears on TV on rainy nights.
The protagonist and his friends discover they can enter the Midnight Channel — and, they hope, find clues to the identity of a murderer.
Despite its contemporary appearance, "Persona 4" will feel familiar to anyone who's enjoyed a classic RPG like "Final Fantasy" or "Dragon Quest."
Your party roams around mazes, fighting increasingly powerful monsters before taking on each dungeon's super-vicious boss.
In "P4," however, the "dungeons" come from the heroes' nightmares, and the "bosses" represent concealed aspects of their own personalities.
This is the first game I've ever played that tries to address the emotional and sexual confusion of teenagers, and it will make some parents uncomfortable. But it's a fascinating and often quite funny journey, thanks to its likable leads and cleverly conceived villains.
It's only held back by its last-generation graphics. Three-and-a-half stars out of four.
—"The Last Remnant" (Square Enix, for the Xbox 360, $59.99): The plot of this RPG is far more traditional, with a reluctant hero swept up in a vast battle over some ancient artifacts.
Instead of controlling a handful of fighters, though, you end up in charge of an army — and once you have several dozen units duking it out, things get hectic.
Unfortunately, the action is often ruined by serious technical glitches that can slow a battle down to a crawl. While the landscapes are phenomenal, the animation is often dreadful.
"The Last Remnant" brings some fresh ideas to the genre, but most RPG fans will find it too frustrating to play to the finish. Two stars.
—"Rise of the Argonauts" (Codemasters, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99): Who wouldn't want to step into the sandals of Jason, Hercules, Achilles and all those other Greek legends?
It's a great idea for an RPG — and one that Codemasters has completely botched.
Sloppy graphics, tedious dialog scenes and unimaginative hack-and-slash combat sink this ship before it even gets launched. No stars.