They don’t make mobile games like they used to anymore. The predatory “free-to-play,” “gacha” genre is far too profitable for most developers to deviate from. And no, mobile ports of classic games can hardly be considered real mobile titles. It’s depressing that almost all the good mobile games—ones that were specifically designed with the mobile platform in mind and weren’t cash grabs—came from the platform’s infancy: the early 2010s. Many of these titles are still available for download, except a few that met their untimely demise. The most notable among these is the “Chaos Rings” series.
This was a turn-based, Japanese RPG series published by Square Enix, the developer most known for the “Final Fantasy” franchise (my FF14 review is on the horizon), so you knew these were damn good games. Indeed, they were SE’s last great attempt at making quality mobile titles. The production value was astounding even by today’s standards: plenty of memorable soundtracks, voiced dialogue, stylized pixelated graphics, beautiful character illustrations, innovative gameplay, hours of replayability and a gripping storyline above all. The game sold for $15 to reflect that, which was and still is pretty steep for a mobile game, but it was well worth every penny. There were no microtransactions.
In the original “Chaos Rings,” you played as Escher and Musiea, seemingly a pair of strangers who find themselves mysteriously transported to the “Ark Arena.” There, an ominous humanoid construct simply known as “the Agent” pits them against four other couples in lethal tournaments for the ultimate prize of immortality. Why were these people chosen? What is the Ark Arena? Who is behind the Agent? What is the purpose of holding the tournament? Why is the prize immortality? The premise was so interesting with these looming questions hinting at a much larger picture that I was immediately sucked into the game, and the incredible revelations and twists discovered along the way kept me playing for hours on a tiny screen. After finishing Escher and Musiea’s story, you had the option to replay the game with the other pairs of characters to experience alternate timelines and dig even deeper into the lore. No other mobile title had this much depth when it came to the narrative experience, even to this day.
There were also no other games that played like them. Sure, the basic gameplay loop revolved around roaming different maps, encountering enemies at random and progressing through the story as you explored, much like how old-school JRPG’s were played. But contrary to those games where there were usually four or more characters making their moves one by one, the “Chaos Ring” games allowed you to control only two characters (such as Escher and Musiea) at a time. They could make the same moves together, which meant their attacks were more powerful, but they also became more vulnerable to damage. It was a fun trade-off that added strategy, and it made the turn-based combat feel much faster and more action-packed than other games in the genre. It was bloody brilliant. Having only two characters to control also meant that there were no class systems—no dedicated tank, damage dealer or healer. Although their individual stats nudged you to use them in certain ways, you ultimately decided what role they played based on the situation or the skills—called “genes”—they were equipped with. You acquired genes not by leveling up, but by encountering and slaying different types of enemies, so that you could actually use boss moves if you managed to beat them.
Now, you might say that a static two-person party seemed nevertheless limited. I would agree, but I think this was actually an advantage rather than a flaw. It was clear that the game was designed specifically with the mobile platform in mind. When people play mobile games, they are not looking for tons of mechanics that will have them study the game wiki for an extended period of time and waste their time. They just want engaging, snappy gameplay with incentives to keep playing, and that is exactly what the “Chaos Rings” games offered: a simple, satisfying combat system with a really good plot that kept you hooked. Quality of life features that reflected this mobile-oriented design philosophy included a manual save button (it’s surprising how rare it is in games these days) which was perfect for short sessions, a toggle for enabling/disabling random encounters to allow for more efficient backtracking and auto healing to full after each combat encounter so you could focus on exploring the map without fumbling through your inventory for heals every so often. The games were by no means easy though. They were just difficult enough, with many bosses taking me quite a few tries before I figured them out, to be challenging but never frustrating.
It’s too bad that you’ll never be able to play these games now, as they were removed by Square Enix from the App Store and the Google Play Store in 2016 for reasons unknown. The latest installment, “Chaos Rings III,” is still available, but it is such a huge departure from the earlier titles that I don’t recommend it. It also came out in 2015, so it seems that the series is basically dead. The only official way to access the previous games is if you bought them before and have a device old enough to run them. I hope that one day we might get a re-release or a remaster of the series, for they were a shining beacon of what mobile gaming should have been. Rest in peace, Chaos Rings. You were too good for this cruel world.