Dark Half (ダークハーフ), released 5/31/1996, developed by Weston, released by Enix
This game tried a lot of interesting new system ideas, but ultimately I didn’t like it.
The idea of the game is that you switch off between two protagonists — one is Falco, a hero, and then Rukyu, the Dark King. 1000 years ago, six heroes defeated Rukyu. He is now out for revenge against them, whereas Falco hears of the Dark King’s revival and gets caught up in the attempts to stop his evil plans.
The game takes place over 7 days. For the first 6, you switch off between Ryuku and Falco, and the 7th day is the final chapter. The two protagonists work differently, but have some similarities.
Both characters have “soul power” (at the top left) which goes down with every step you take, and for Rukyu it powers his spells. If it hits 0, you get a game over. The dungeons have a lot of traps that are designed to steal your soul power or make you walk a bunch of extra steps. The save points give you 500 soul power back but you can only use each save point once, and there aren’t very many of them. This makes the game quite frustrating to play if you want to play it straight — I used save states.
Rukyu has demon/monster allies — starting in the second day he can use the Dark Gate to capture monsters. This powers up his spell levels but also allows the monster to join the team. The battles are on a grid, but you can’t control the monsters at all, even general AI settings. Also Rukyu cannot move or attack, only cast spells. So even if a monster comes right up to him (like in the image above) all he can do is sit there and take the hits. Healing also doesn’t work on him; all you have is a small amount of HP you recover at the end of each fight.
For Falco, you have human companions. You get scrolls from defeating enemies that can be used as spells, and also “Chaos Orbs” that increase stats. There is no normal levelling system. You can control your allies and Falco but you can’t move freely, you can only choose who you want to attack — this is annoying because the spells have areas of effect but you can’t actually move your characters into specific positions to take advantage of them.
Because of all of this, the difficulty level is quite high if you want to play without any assistance. If you know some tricks you can make it somewhat easier, but there are still some frustrating boss battles where the enemies seem to get 5 or 6 turns for every one turn of yours. The most powerful equipment is also hidden in random areas on the map.
When you walk around as Ryuku, you gain soul power by killing the humans in the towns and absorbing their spirits. The dialogue is always interesting when you do this as the humans beg for their lives or else are resigned to their fate. When you are Falco you can come across these dead bodies and take their “light of hope”; if you can collect 90 of them throughout the game you can get the best ending.
Now for the plot spoilers. As you continue in the game with Ryuku, there are hints that he’s not really a “dark king” — ultimately it turns out he is the creator of the world, who was ready to destroy humans because of their sins, but decided to wait 1000 years to give the humans a chance to do better. Now the 1000 years are up and they haven’t done any better so he decides to wipe them out.
Meanwhile on the Falco side, the king who was once one of the 6 heroes has decided to use Ryuku’s ring to control the world himself. Once you complete the first 6 days for both characters, Falco and Ryuku do a final showdown. You can pick which character you want to control for the fight.
I picked Falco because if you have the Dark Gate for him you can kill Ryuku in one use of the spell. I did not have 90 lights of hope so I got a medium ending where Ryuku entrusts his ring to Falco, who becomes the new ruler of humanity but it leaves the question open of how Falco does that. I looked at some of the other endings but they looked equally vague.
As I said in the opening, I didn’t like the game. I found the system annoying and poorly implemented, and the plot was only so-so. It has a translation patch so you can try it out for yourself, if you want.