There are hundreds of amazing games for the Super Famicom that remain a mystery to Western gamers. Dark Half is one such game, published by Enix in 1996. It is a late generation Super Famicom title that at first glance seems to be your typical JRPG, with the player taking control of Falco, the Paladin (not to be confused with the cocky Star Fox mercenary) in his quest to prevent an ancient evil from once again roaming the land - in short, a pretty standard RPG plot. However, play it past the first few minutes and Dark Half reveals that is anything but standard.
After Falco spectacularly fails his quest in the prologue, the Demon King reincarnates in the character Rukyu. This is where the game starts to set itself apart, because it drops Rukyu in the hands of the player to control. In each of the game's chapters you get to control both Rukyu in his evil deeds followed by Falco (who just so happens to be channeling the spirit of the noble god Roda, Rukyu's nemesis), with the hero having to deal with the predictable bloody aftermath. Make no mistake, this was never meant to be a child-friendly offering; Rukyu will not simply enter a village to rest at the Inn and save his game after browsing the local Item Shop for the latest goods. He will instead enter the village to indiscriminately kill each and every villager he can find, including helpless women and children.
Let that one sink in for a while: a Super Nintendo RPG that expects you to kill villager NPCs as an integral part of the story. Indeed, there was no way back in 1996 this game would ever be considered for release anywhere outside of Japan, since you are essentially the Devil going about killing innocent people. The only saving grace from a conceptual standpoint is that after the evil is done, you get to right a few wrongs as the Paladin good guy, but that doesn't detract from the fact that blood is very much on the player's hands, as they are controlling Rukyu during his murderous onslaught.
Both characters suffer from what could be referred to as Gauntlet disease: their Soul Points are constantly dropping and if either of them reaches zero, it's curtains for the tale. Both sides play rather differently, reinforcing the unique two-in-one style RPG approach even more. Rukyu can both control beasts and learn spells from them, replenishing his Soul Points by the aforementioned murder of innocents. On the other hand, Falco does what is expected from a Paladin: fight evil monsters, equip armour and weapons, hire mercenaries to form a party and all the expected tropes of a virtuous character.
Nobody levels up in this game, so not unlike Capcom's sublime Monster Hunter series, growth comes from preparation and learning new tricks for your characters. Despite the fact that none of them really speaks much, the story is driven by the various NPCs that accompany you. Rukyu will get regular updates from his servants while Falco will get the plot from his family, friends and travel companions. It's an excellent way to drive the story.
The entire game is presented via an isometric view, not much different from Landstalker on the Mega Drive / Genesis. The locations and environments really shine, but the characters are slightly blocky and are not very strongly animated. At least they are varied, with lots of neat little details to them. The combat system opts for a turn-based approach, which takes place on a separate isometric battlefield. The music composition is excellent, with composers Takeshi Sato and Takashi Tsumaki transmitting Rukyu's evil intent by means of oppressive church organ pieces, or quieter themes while you're walking about in the villages. In terms of presentation Dark Half is arguably quite disappointing for a game released in 1996, yet it can hardly be described as ugly.
Dark Half easily ticks all the checkboxes we come to expect when looking at late-generation Super Famicom titles, with the exception perhaps of the graphics, which feel a little dated. This is mitigated by a clever premise that affords plenty of replayability value; you cannot explore everything in the world in a single playthrough, as the Soul Point depletion system simply won't allow it. This means repeated plays are required to "learn" the game and see all of its secrets. Also, in an extreme case of "You have to be cruel to be kind", the best possible ending can only be achieved if you kill the most innocents with Rukyu as possible so that Falco can retrieve more of their Soul Stones during his turn.
Dark Half is one of many hidden gems of the Super Famicom's later years that remained out of reach for non- Japanese-fluent gamers until AGTP Translations released the complete English translation patch. It is by far the most leftfield production from Westone - famous for the more upbeat Wonder Boy series - and we have yet to see a game explore the duality of good and evil with as much class as this one manages to do.
If you're seeking a JRPG with a dark and gritty adult theme, look no further. Dark Half is unique, made during a time where it was becoming increasingly hard to choose from the multitude of "me too" RPGs on the Super Famicom, and as such even in its homeland it was unfairly overlooked. Correct that lapse by tracking down a copy of this game and loading it into your RetroN 5 or Retro Freak, since both support soft-patching of cartridges. Just make sure you are perfectly clear on the point that this is not a story of happy feelings and colourful worlds, like many JRPGs on the system.