Developer: Sting Entertainmnet
Publisher: Atlus USA
Genre: Roguelike RPG
Platform: Playstation 2, Wii
NA Release Date: April 8, 2008 (about one year, five months after the PS3 launch)
Welcome to Games You May Have Missed. This will be a recurring feature highlighting games that are considered to be obscure, forgotten, or released at the wrong time. The most common entries will likely be about games that released on consoles when they were fading into obscurity, or dying a slow, painful death. The purpose is to prop these games up one by one, and give others a chance to learn about them, and decide whether or not it might be a game they’d enjoy. Hopefully, they’ll appeal to you!
A Tale of Two Franchises
A nameless hero finds himself in an apocalyptic world where humanity has been corrupted, and turned into horrific beasts called “Meta-Beings.” Greeted outside of a giant building called the Neuro Tower by a mysterious angel, the hero is given a rifle. He is also given a task – to make it to the bottom of the tower. If he can do that, his long forgotten sin will be forgiven.
To progress in the tower, the hero must defend against the Meta-Beings and “purify” them. However, these Beings are no slouches – the hero can and will die. Each time he dies, he’s brought back outside the tower, stripped of all the levels and equipment he’s gained, and told to do it again. And again. Each time he tries, the tower changes. Randomly generated floor by floor, it proves to be just as big an enemy as the Meta-Beings. The only constant is that, over the course of his numerous attempts, the hero’s story will become clear, and his sin will be remembered.
This is the plot of Baroque, and if it sounds like a little like a Souls game, that’s because it is, in some ways. Originally developed for the Sega Saturn by Sting Entertainment, Baroque was first ported to the Playstation, and then remade for the Playstation 2 and Wii. Atlus (known for Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology among other games) localized the remake, banking on its status as a hardcore RPG roguelike to succeed.
Roguelikes are described by their difficulty. Characters are often faced with multiple avenues towards death in a randomly generated world, and the players must learn to navigate the rules and rhythms of the game firsthand in order to succeed. Modern examples of roguelikes today can be found in the Mystery Dungeon series and Darkest Dungeon. FromSoftware RPGs, like Demon’s Souls, take some of their ideas from this genre. However, where the Souls series has inspired a new style of RPGs like Lords of the Fallen and Nioh, Baroque remains a more classic take on the idea.
This comparison to FromSoftware games is not by chance. The original Baroque, released on May 21st 1998 exclusively in Japan, looks a lot like FromSoftware’s King’s Field series. On the surface, this can be seen in their minimal first-person HUD and general aesthetic. Beneath that, both games seem to subscribe to similar ideas about keeping players on their toes so that if they’re not careful, any enemy can kill them. The difference between the two only becomes apparent when one remembers that King’s Field has a static environment. It never changes; that world is that world each time the game boots up. Baroque changes with each death, meaning that the only way to effectively strategize is for a player to be aware of their limitations and the limitations of the game, and use those to their advantage.
While this may seem difficult for some gamers, what works about this design is that it’s strict and intentional. There are a consistent set of rules established, and while the game is not there to hold the player’s hand, it will treat them fairly. After all, dying is part of the charm. Like a Souls game, Baroque uses player death to its advantage. Not only does the story become clearer through repeated attempts in the tower, but other systems, such as an item database, can be carried far into numerous new game pluses.
As they both started out on similar footing as obscure and difficult RPGs in the 32-bit era, it’s interesting how widely the paths of Baroque and FromSoftware’s RPG lineage have split since then. The Baroque remake, released first in Japan in 2007, stayed relatively faithful to the original game, only really adding a third person camera perspective, and a modern save system. When it came to the West the next year, it remained relatively obscure, releasing on the Playstation 2, which was past its prime, and the Wii, a console notorious for how little fans of hardcore games paid attention to it.
Meanwhile, FromSoftware’s Playstation 3 exclusive Demon’s Souls released worldwide throughout 2009. Instead of serving as a remake or sequel to King’s Field, Demon’s Souls became a new take on those same ideas, with a new presentation to appeal to modern gamers. Also taking on a third person perspective, the game moves faster, looks prettier, and features an updated HUD, along with a clearer message that death is expected. Demon’s Souls tutorial ends with the player character’s death.
Atlus published both games in North America about a year and half apart. Both of them offered hardcore experiences in the RPG space. Yet, Demon’s Souls went on to sell nearly two million copies worldwide, while Barqoue languished on last-gen hardware. Could advancement in technology alone be why there’s such a gap between them? Could it be that a true roguelike is that much harder to sell?
The Metacritic scores between the two reveal the same struggle, this time played out through critics. What is it about the two that inspired such different responses, when the biggest differences between them are scope? While death is more brutal in Baroque, the quest is quite simple. Get to the bottom of the tower. Death is more forgiving in Demon’s Souls, with items remaining after death and the opportunity to get player’s Souls back if they’re lucky. The game allows for much more freedom, spreading its challenge among several levels that can be visited and beaten in any order.
The video game space is large enough to welcome both of these designs, as they both have their strengths and weaknesses. While Baroque‘s lower score might seem like a good reason to write it off as simply not being as good as a Souls game, that’s not taking into account these differences. These reviews were written over a year apart, often by different people. Who knows what would have happened if Baroque released as-is in a post-Demon’s Souls world?
This would all be easier to talk about if Baroque’s official sales number were public. Though it is harder to speak objectively without this information, it’s not impossible. The claim that the game suffered, and still suffers, from obscurity is self-evident. The Souls games became more prevalent over time, Baroque did not.
To offer another comparison, Atlus also publishes the Persona series, and also released Persona 4 on Playstation 2 in 2008 – July in Japan and December in North America. Though the game perhaps did not sell as well as Atlus expected on these shores, it still sold over 410,000 copies in Japan and America combined, which lead to a Vita version of Persona 4, a sequel, a fighting game, and a dancing game dedicated to it. Atlus certainly believed Baroque had some marketability as a hardcore RPG, and they were proven right that the market was there with Demon’s Souls. If Baroque had gone on to stellar sales like other Atlus games have, the public would have known about it.
While there are many possible reasons why Baroque didn’t do as well, they will probably never be verified. The facts are, though, that the game released on one system well past its prime, another system where hardcore games struggled to find an audience, and was touted for its true difficulty. It’s a great recommendation for people who like FromSoftware games and others like Darkest Dungeon, but it may struggle to gain an audience beyond that even today. For those reasons, the game has remained obscure, forgotten, and left in the shadow of Atlus’ subsequent success.
And that’s why you may have missed it.
A version of this post is also hosted here.