Let's face it – the PSP, while having an initially attractive lineup at launch, really hasn't had an absolutely great lineup of games. Sony sort of dropped the ball on the PSP by only having a slow trickle of new games since its launch, many of which weren't that well-done or original, and only in a smattering of the usual genres. Now that Sony is in-between breaths from ranting and raving about how the PS3 will save humanity, the PSP is finally picking up some steam, and we're finally starting to see some decent games emerge. One game genre where the PSP once experienced a drought – the RPG – is now having a deluge, as a slew of RPG titles have been recently released, with more on the way. One of the raindrops amongst this new RPG monsoon is Kingdom of Paradise, from developer Climax, and while Kingdom of Paradise isn't strictly RPG paradise, it's still a welcome addition to an otherwise previously RPG-starved platform.
Kingdom of Paradise (not to be confused with the movie Kingdom of Heaven, folks), unlike its other Japanese turn-based cousins released in the same time frame for the PSP, is a more action-oriented hack-and-slash title, akin to the Untold Legends series or the PSP port of X-Men Legends II.. As such, Kingdom of Paradise takes a page from the Dynasty Warriors series, by taking the action to the stage of ancient Chinese mythology (or the Japanese interpretation of it, anyway), plunking the player into a fictional Oriental fantasy land ruled by the laws of Chi.
The fictional land in Kingdom of Paradise is called Ouka, and is divided into five kingdoms, each of which is aligned with one of the basic elements of the Chinese chi system – wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Despite their age, the themes, imagery, and esoteric wisdom of ancient Chinese mythology are fresh and intriguing even today, as the popularity of present-day wuxia martial arts films demonstrate. However, many people outside of China just can't seem to think of much of anything original to do using it. Sadly, Climax is no exception. The protagonist, Shinbu, is yet another sullen unlikely hero, who, as predictability goes, becomes the hero completely by accident, and meteorically rises to the occasion with little stumbling. Of course, the main antagonist is a horrible ancient secret buried within the land that our hero is intrinsically tied to and, of course, predetermined by fate to deal with. Even though the main protagonist follows a predictable path, many of the supporting characters are three-dimensional enough, most of the time, to prevent the story from descending into endless clichés. The interaction between the ruling clans of Ouka adds a nice element of political intrigue. Sometimes, though, events in the storyline seem particularly contrived, and overly linear. I don't mind linear stories most of the time, but linear stories shouldn't feel overtly so, as if it's being deliberately forced on you. (See Half-Life 2 for a good example of how to properly handle a linear storyline.)
Despite the flaws in the game's story, the visuals at least deliver a unique enough vision of Chinese mythology. The predominant visual style in Kingdom of Paradise blends the general visual feel of traditional wuxia films with subtle Japanese anime touches. Although the environments are chiefly derivative, there are some distinctive original areas, like the steel-walled capital of Byakko, the metal Chi clan, and a city that is one giant waterlogged harbor belonging to the water-based Genbu clan. Ditto with the character models – many are in pretty standard warrior garb, and of course many of the warrior women wear revealing clothing, but there are some wild, out-there character models, especially of major NPC villains. The leader of the all-female Suzaku clan, for instance, while still having body-hugging clothing, wears glasses, which is an unexpected touch considering the dominant garb of female warriors in Kingdom of Paradise.
Technologically, Kingdom of Paradise is a great demonstration of the 3D power of the PSP. Of special note are its detailed character models, which is of high importance. This is because one of the unique ways in which Kingdom of Paradise tells its story is not only through spoken dialogue, but a close-up of conversations. In these, the game screen fades into the background while the characters are brought up close, so the player can see their facial expressions and detailed movements. Plenty of special effects abound, from the motion blurs of the animations of combat, to the sparks of clanging swords, to the fairly underwhelming chi magic. One other aspect of the graphics that stick out, however, is the animations for the sword combat, which are stunning. Many of Shinbu's attack animations – and there are many – are individually and exquisitely animated, with almost no recycling. There's everything from simple slashes to kicks to elaborate dance-like moves, and later in the game these moves can be chained together however you see fit to create your own combos. Although NPCs are more limited in their animation sets, they are no less fluid and thorough.
Sonically, one major draw of Kingdom of Paradise is actual spoken dialogue for major cutscenes. Usually, with RPGs containing large amounts of dialogue, RPG players are lucky to hear any spoken dialogue at all, and with most, it's horribly corny. With Kingdom of Paradise, the dialogue in the major cutscenes is done pretty well, with mostly decent emotional expression and little in the way of cliché accents and hamming. However, there is the occasional overacted character and stiff delivery, and the cliché plot also results in cliché lines of dialogue in some scenes. Dialogue during battle is monotonous and repetitive, as characters say the same things over and over again when starting or fighting a battle. At least the sword swooshes, weapon impacts, beast roars, and other miscellaneous sounds help add to the wuxia mood. The music is okay, being a contemporary rendition of traditional Chinese music, dropping the occasional techno beat in during the more intense encounters. It's not really noteworthy, as it doesn't seek to do much other than be ambient.
Gameplay is where things get interesting, as it has several esoteric aspects to it, seeking to mix the simplicity of button-mashing action games like Dynasty Warriors with the complex statistics and customizability of PC-based RPGs. The result is a compelling and intricate system of combat and advancement that combines the best of both worlds. Much of the complexity comes from the sword fighting system, where you construct your moves on scrolls called "bugei," with "kenpu" being the pieces. The bugei then become the moves you have available to you in a combat situation. A bugei scroll is generally set to only have certain kenpu in it, usually specific to the clan it has come from; a bugei from the Genbu clan, for example, will as a rule only accept Genbu kenpu. However, there are bugei called "freestyle" that allow you to put any kenpu you may possess into the slots, allowing you to create your own custom move sets. The other major aspect to combat is chi magic, treated much differently than other RPGs treat their magic. Chi in Kingdom of Paradise is charged by holding down the appropriate button, and when your chi meter is at the appropriate place you can press the button again to unleash your chi attack. Your chi magic increases as you use it more and more often. Also, depending on which chi magic you're currently using (choosing from the same alignments as the five clans described earlier), your strengths and weaknesses against other chi types will change.
This sort of combat system really lends itself well to a more freeform style of fighting bad guys. Although the bugei scroll system at first seems to be restrictive, as your bugei and kenpu collection grows you will have lots of moves at your disposal. It will be your choice as to which move set to use and when, and although certain bugei are more effective against certain types of enemies thanks to their chi attribute, other bugei can still be used effectively depending on the player's playing style. The chi magic charging system is also a nice touch, winning points for its uniqueness in a genre that before now seemed unwilling to break the mold of a "magic points" system. All in all, the combat system seems to strike a nice balance between simplicity and complexity. The complexity lies in the preparation before combat encounters, setting up your character to be the most effective killing machine possible, before heading into a combat situation and button-mashing your way through the bad guys.
That said, it's not perfect by any stretch. One of the biggest problems the combat system lends itself to is inconsistent difficulty, being too easy in some parts and frustratingly hard in others. Early on in the game, some monsters are a bit too powerful to defeat with what you have at the time, and require multiple tries to figure out how to beat. Then, later on when your chi arts have advanced several levels, the game can become too easy at times, because your chi arts have grown to room-clearing power, where they simply overpower anyone and anything in your immediate vicinity. Just when you're getting used to that, however, another boss comes along and severely punishes you – you get the idea. Kingdom of Paradise has a hard time finding that happy medium between challenging and frustrating, when it's not too easy. There are also some control issues that mar the experience, one of which is camera control, or lack thereof – there is absolutely no way to control the camera. As a result, sometimes the camera isn't placed properly or zoomed out enough to allow you to see all the enemies you're fighting, and sometimes an obstacle can get directly in front of it, obstructing the view completely. Also, item and bugei scroll selection is a bit cumbersome in the middle of combat, being solely bound to the shoulder buttons – it can be quite annoying to have to mash a shoulder button a certain number of times to get the item or bugei scroll you want, especially considering how sometimes they're unresponsive. Ditto with the blocking, which even when you hold the button down often doesn't work until you take several hits.
Most surprisingly in Kingdom of Paradise, and it is a pleasant surprise indeed, are the multiplayer aspects of the game. Although limited, they are a nice touch – the main multiplayer feature that allows you to play with other players comes in the form of one-on-one battles over local Wi-Fi. This mode uses the character you've built from the single-player game, so it pays to find someone who's in the same area of the single-player game you are to fight with. It's a fairly robust mode, with different fighting areas, time limits, defensive attribute settings, and upgrades to pick up during the fight. There's also the option to trade bugei scrolls, including freestyle, with other local Wi-Fi players, so players can get their whole "gotta collect 'em all" thing going. However, the best feature of Kingdom of Paradise's online capability is the ability to download new content for the single-player game. Players can download content such as new bugei scrolls, powerful items, and other things to aid the player in the game. However, the process to do so is quite cumbersome. One must go online using either one's PC or the PSP's web browser and search for passwords (found on most gaming help sites like GameFAQs), then subsequently enter these passwords into Kingdom of Paradise's web browser to download the content. Even with this annoying process, though, it is still cool nonetheless, and a great use of the PSP's online capabilities.
Overall, Kingdom of Paradise is a solid investment for console action RPG fans who happen to own a PSP and have waited long to enjoy a solid RPG experience on the portable. Although there are annoyances that will deter some, Kingdom of Paradise is still fun enough that it's worth playing past the rough spots to get to the good stuff. Hopefully it's a sign of better things to come for the PSP.