Of all the games I’ve listed thus far, this is the most obscure. And yet, it’s also the one I would select as my choice for the top spot. What is Baroque then? How could an obscure japanese game from an unknown developer garner that much praise from me? The short answer is that when a game clicks with you, it just does. For the long answer, well, let’s see.
In the year 2032, the world goes to hell. The Great Heat Wave turns pretty much everything into a barren wasteland, and all living beings are twisted into grotesque monsters. You wake up with no memories of what happened, but according to the winged human outside, it’s all your fault. You are then sent inside the Nerve Tower, a bizarre place where the God of Creation and Preservation resides, with one purpose: kill the God, and heal the world, to atone for your sin.
Baroque is a console roguelike at heart. Each tower run is started on level 1 from the very entrance, with the mere consolation of being able to preserve a few items if you were able to “save” them in the previous run. The game encourages you to die, since doing so will elicit more responses from the cast of NPCs in the base level. It is not necessary to do so at any one point, however. But unless you are really really good, you will die a lot. So you’ll meet and talk to many characters many times, which really empowers the atmosphere of the game.
And the atmosphere is, in one word, bleak. Everything is brown or grey, and you know that some area is going to be important if it uses other colors. Monsters are indeed grotesque, and their slow stalking will come to haunt you. Better learn to defend yourself, and you get a few ways to do so: not so much your puny punches, but swords, torturers, traps and brands will come to your aid. Nothing of this ever distracts you from the idea that you are utterly powerless, even getting to the last floor simply feels like you’ll have to enter this hell again soon. It’s overwhelming at points, and few games managed this much dreariness. Silent Hill comes to mind, and indeed the design similarities are many.
The music really brings the tower to life, if you can speak of life. Masaharu Iwata forgoes the typical music of japanese RPGs, and instead brings to the table an industrial-ambient soundtrack perfectly suited to the theme of the game. To this day, it’s still among my favorite soundtracks. The lack of voices is yet a plus. Visuals and design collaborate to make the player feel completely alone. The 3D graphics may be primitive, but the short draw distance in this case works well, making the world look like it’s enveloped in darkness. You never know what’s ahead… and then a monster pops up from the shadows. Chilling.
So what is the long answer? With amazing visual design, an oppressive musical score, and all the elements of a good roguelike, Baroque stands above many games from the era and beyond. Its merits are enough to overshadow its faults, of which there are admittedly quite a few. But again, it’s greater than even the sum of its parts, and many of those parts were already pretty good indeed.
Playing today: this is where it gets complicated. Baroque was only released in Japan in 1998, for the Saturn. It was eventually ported to the PS1 in 1999, with a few additions such as item registration and a special dungeon, and runs a bit smoother. The Saturn version is a lot cheaper today, but aside from a true widescreen option (nice!), it’s inferior to the PS1 version. This version is also more easily available on the japanese PS Store. The elephant in the room, of coruse, is that you must know some japanese. And it’s a pretty text-heavy game.
If you aren’t willing to go that far, Sting eventually remade the game in 2007 for the PS2 console, with also a Wii port (which added 480p and widescreen) in 2008. Atlus released these two versions in the west, giving us a chance to enjoy the game. But be warned: the remake, while mantaining exactly the same plot and dialogue, makes some severe changes to the visual style (more animesque and less oppressive), music (newly composed by Shigeki Hayashi) and gameplay flow (overall it’s more forgiving). I far prefer the original game, although this remake is pretty good too. Just keep it in mind: if you are looking for the survival horror-like experience, the original is the one to choose.