By Jeremy Parish

If you’ve spent any time poking through the virtual storefronts for consoles or mobile phones, you know them: That constant stream of role-playing games, somehow familiar even though you’ve never seen them before. With names like Sephirothic Stories and Asdivine Hearts, they look like escapees from the 16-bit console era. Sometimes, their art evokes the stylings of RPG classics like Tales of Destiny or Lufia. And at some point or another, they show up in physical form for a PlayStation platform through Limited Run Games.

They’re Kemco RPGs, and they’re the ultimate in video game comfort food. That’s no exaggeration: For Hit-Point, the studio behind the latest Kemco offering to arrive in disc form (Bonds of the Skies for PlayStation 4), “comfort food” is the entire point.

“One of our big concepts is to express the simple turn-based RPGs of the ’90s,” says a Hit-Point representative via email. “We have been influenced by popular titles in the '90s, so we try to keep that atmosphere while adding a mix of new flash and ideas. We proudly can say that Bonds of the Skies has been developed with enough hope and certainty that it can provide entertainment to JRPG fans of the ’90s!”

With its retro-style graphics and first-person combat viewpoint, Bonds of the Skies calls to mind timeless classics like Sega’s Phantasy Star II even as it introduces its share of new wrinkles. For example, the seemingly abstract battle perspective actually represents the spatial relationship of each of the player’s party members to that of their foes, forcing you to take the resulting damage perks or reductions into consideration as you target enemies. A limit break-style mechanic also allows each character to execute unique power moves as they fight, based on which battle modifier (called Grimoas) they currently have equipped.

Kemco’s focus on classic RPGs might come as a surprise for gamers who remember the company from its work in the ’80s and ’90s. A prolific publisher in the 8- and 16-bit days, Kemco once specialized in action titles like Bugs Bunny’s Crazy Castle and the Top Gear racing series. The closest it typically came to RPGs was its ports of MacVenture adventure games (including, yes, the NES version of Shadowgate) and its own MacVenture-inspired creations like The Sword of Hope. Kemco’s Overseas Marketing Director Matteo Conti acknowledges the publisher’s past and explains that its current direction is part of a constant evolution to meet the demands of the gaming audience, a shift that began nearly two decades ago.

“Many people might know Kemco with a different face,” says Conti. “As a game publisher, we have challenged many things and appeared in different places and ways in the history of gaming.

“About 20 years ago, before smartphones replaced traditional phones, the Japanese mobile phone game market was an independent market where users started to look for casual gaming experiences—even on those tiny screens and low-performance devices. At that time, we thought RPGs would be an innovative genre that could supply a core experience through quality story and strategic, turn-based battles. As you may guess, these two elements don’t necessarily need [high] visual quality or a high-end device to be unique and fun, and that’s why we started to focus on RPGs.”

Conti says that using mobile devices as a baseline has allowed Kemco to bring its creations to a wide variety of platforms. Now, as in the ’90s, RPGs rely more on interesting battle mechanics and engrossing stories than on sheer visual panache.

“We work closely with several developers, [publishing] many different titles during the year,” Conti says. “For us the narrative, gameplay balance, and battle system are the most important elements that differentiate each title from one another. In this way, users can live and play a unique experience each time.

“Since the transition to smartphones, we have been evolving the experience of our games by collaborating closely with developers [for] smartphone technology. Now that there’s almost no difference between consoles and mobile potential—unless you develop using super 3D graphics—we decided to go back to the console market, providing the same experience across all possible platforms.”

According to Conti, Hit-Point is one of several developers currently working with Kemco to produce the company’s ever-growing RPG selection. Each studio has its own area of specialization, which helps shape the final outcome of each game. In the case of Bonds of the Skies, this translates into large, detailed enemy sprites, particularly during combat encounters—something that Conti says sets it apart among Kemco releases.

“Hit-Point’s strength has always been their beautiful and detailed pixel artwork,” he says. “This is present and visible very clearly in Bonds of the Skies. The pixel animations of the characters as they explore the world, and the fluid monster animations in battle scenes of first-person view, help to immerse [players] in the fantasy world, which is what an RPG should actually do. 

“Actually, many of our titles feature turn-based battles from the third-person perspective, so this makes the title very unique as well. The bonds between the Grimoas (can you get them all?) influence the character skills and battle strategies, making the sometimes repetitive battles challenging and entertaining. I personally like the main characters, who [grow] very close to the users through their familiarity and simplicity. I think this makes for a title that anyone can enjoy and approach with a heartwarming story.”

Conti says the RPG development process is a collaborative one, with developers like Hit-Point given ample freedom to develop narrative and mechanical ideas as they see fit. Kemco’s role tends to be more advisory, bringing its many years of work with the genre to bear on the current release as they consult with the developers. Together, they’re able to refine and perfect each new RPG offering.

“We work with the developers closely, but usually they take the creative lead and initiative,” he explains. “During the development stage, they focus on the planning, narration, design and programming. We review their initial planning and give detailed feedback or directions from a very early stage, and provide technical support and quality assurance during the development until the game is finished and well polished. Once a title is finished, we start working together again for another title.”

Although Kemco RPGs like Bonds of the Skies aren’t headline-grabbing million-sellers along the lines of major productions like, say, Final Fantasy VII Remake, neither are they meant to be. They’re modest nods to nostalgia, games infused with the spirit of a bygone era that deliver a quick endorphin hit without overstaying their welcome. For loyal RPG fans who miss the games of the Sega Genesis and Nintendo DS eras, that amounts to a critical hit.

Bonds of the Skies for PlayStation 4 is now sold out on the Limited Run Games website.

May 13, 2020