Generally, high fantasy is not so much to my taste. The standard was primarily set by The Lord of the Rings, and everything else since then has often paid homage to that trilogy in some shape or form, often reusing many similar tropes. But sometimes, the reuse of familiar material doesn’t matter. Sometimes its just the quality of what or how the story is told that keeps the audience in their seats.
So here are five high fantasy games, books and television series that maybe more esoteric, but are definitely worth checking out…
Record of Lodoss War, by Group SNE
Once, Manuel mentioned Record of Lodoss War as an anime that inspired him. The series is quite Tolkienesque in nature, with many races and elements akin to Dungeons and Dragons. You may find the tropes very familiar.
For many fantasy franchises, there’s a kind of chicken-vs-egg origin question. Sometimes it’s a story that inspires a game, which tries to relive or create new scenarios to expand those adventures. Other times, the game is weaved around the gaming system itself. Record of Lodoss War is the latter of these two, coming from a looser role-playing system called Forcelia. From this, Ryo Mizuno wrote several novels, which expanded into a few games and three separate anime series of varying quality.
Of these anime series, I’ve enjoyed watching the very first. And I have seen elements of the second OVA series called Record of Lodoss War: Chronicles of the Heroic Knight, whose opening can be viewed below.
The first series really did create a traditional RPG party. The main characters were a knight, a dwarven fighter, an elven shaman, a priest, a magician and a thief. No, really. The one-hundred percent traditional, balanced party you would otherwise only see in video games was in fact the main cast of a 13-episode television series.
Record of Lodoss War went back and forth from lighthearted to dark. You had tender scenes where naive knight Parn hit it off with Deedlit on the dance floor. In another scene, you see a man killed by… I don’t even know how to describe it. He turned purple and collapsed violently. Magic? Vicious poison? Who knows. But there are other high fantasy elements such as prophecies and enormous dragons. I suppose if you like traditional high fantasy and don’t mind large anime eyes, Record of Lodoss War is your thing.
The Secret of Mana, by Squaresoft
Back in the days of the SNES, Squaresoft came up with a stellar idea for a Legend of Zelda-like action/adventure/RPG. Their concept? A three-player game, more about the collusion of magic and nature against technology and industrism, aging traditions clashing against expanding imperial powers. The past against the future. If you’ve ever seen Ralph Bakshi’s unusual film Wizards then probably have a some idea.
The story surrounded a boy who accidentally drew a sword from the waterfall near his home, acting on “Chosen One” trope. This otherwise innocent act unleashes a series of monsters and problems throughout the land. The boy is banished from his village and sent to solve the world’s dilemma.
Along the way he is joined by a girl trying to save a warrior she loves (a nice flip on the “Save the Princess” trope) and a sprite. By sealing eight seeds of Mana, they will be able to restore balance to the world. Unfortunately, the (Evil) Empire seeks the secrets of Mana for themselves to unlock the Mana Fortress.
The Secret of Mana shined as a fantastic game, a rewarding experience that was more about the joys of playing with a friend or two, discovery and teamwork. The environment was highly colorful and diverse. And the music was soft, haunting and unforgettable. The story of the game was nothing groundbreaking then or now, but moderately well told. Here’s the opening theme, and as Youtube user elrandohorse correctly asserted, it will result in “Manly tears.”
Tactics Ogre: The March of the Black Queen, by Enix
I’ve only played one of the Tactics Ogre games, but it was good. Damn good. That particular game was Ogre Battle: The March of the Black Queen by Enix. The game oddly mixed RTS elements with traditional RPG details, but did so simply and quite well. The game’s plot focuses on a rebellion to overthrow an Empress who took control of the continent some 25 years earlier, but thickens a little bit after they succeed. An intriguing point mentioned on the Wikipedia is that the game was partially inspired by the Yugoslav Wars of the 90s.
The gameplay of the series was relatively simple. You organize multiple parties of up to five ordinary soldiers. They can be moved about the map, and when they come into contact with a foe they will engage. Battle was simply a set of rounds, with each character fighting pretty much on autopilot. Units cost money, which is raised every day based on the number of liberated towns and temples. Given the mouse-like user interface, I’m actually surprised it has not yet been ported to mobile devices.
There was considerable depth to the SNES game. As soldiers survive, they can be promoted to other classes and gain interesting new abilities. There were some 75 different classes they could become. Tarot cards were collected throughout the campaign, each possessing unusual, powerful properties that could alter the course of battle. Characters could also become evil or good on a scale from 0 to 100. This effects battle, as good characters fight better during the day while evil ones during the night.
Between this morality scale and several choices in the game, there were 13 different endings. These features were somewhat ahead of their time, making Tactics Ogre: March of the Black Queen easily one of the most interesting approaches to the RTS genre.
The Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander
When you say old school fantasy, you usually cannot get more traditional than Lloyd Alexander’s five-book series, The Chronicles of Prydain. In truth the series is a hybrid, blending elements of high and dark fantasy with Welsh mythology, yet staying at the Young Adult reading range. Folks may be somewhat familiar with the series thanks to Disney’s movie The Black Cauldron, based on the first and second books and named after the latter.
Taran is a pig boy who dreams of a bigger life, yet is charged with the care of an oracle pig named Hen Wen who escapes after a frightening vision. Taran pursues his charge and is accidentally thrust into the conflict between the House of Dôn and the Horned King, followed by his master Arawn. Over the series, Taran grows into a man, particularly during the fourth book during which he travels with only the man-beast Gurgi.
The Chronicles of Prydain is one of the earliest dark fantasy series I’ve ever read, and what turned me onto the genre long before Berserk or the Diablo series ever came to my attention. The brilliance of course is that it’s still made for a younger audience, so the quintology manages to possess many thrills and foreboding sense of dread while never becoming so terrifying as to offset its readers.
The Pirates of Dark Water, by Hanna-Barbera
Created by Hanna-Barbera, The Pirates of Dark Water take place on the ocean-covered world of Mer (French for sea.) The planet is suffering from a black substance that leaves whatever it touches barren and dead. Yet scattered throughout the world are thirteen treasures which can dispel this toxic mass.
Ren, a boy raised as a lighthouse keeper, is charged with finding and reuniting these treasures. Joined by a few unusual allies, Ren is opposed by Bloth, a rival pirate captain who seek the treasures in order to control the dark water for his own gains.
Although the series lasted but 21 episodes and ended before the story’s completion, the show must be praised for its daring and bold vision. Its influences fly against the orthodox medieval European settings common in most fantasy series. Rather, The Pirates of Dark Water feels like a cultural creole of many Asian countries. The clothing, weapons and even character designs all borrow historical hints from Korea, China, Thailand, Japan and several other countries. It’s a shame that it was cancelled before its time.