Publisher Nippon Ichi has repeatedly answered the prayers of strategy RPG lovers with games like La Pucelle and Phantom Brave, and they deliver once again with Makai Kingdom: Chronicles of the Sacred Tome. While fans of the genre will find it familiar yet enjoyably original, the average gamer — even the average RPG gamer — might feel a bit overwhelmed.
The story begins with punk overlord Zetta who, like all other overlords, is master of his own netherworld. Perpetually angry, perhaps because his name sounds like a popular German car, Zetta is under attack in his own netherworld by a demon sent from another overlord. All of this plays out in a very poor 2D cutscene with characters that look like Darkstalkers rejects, setting the player up for the graphics of the rest of the game. It’s also preparation for voiceover dialogue that’s even worse than the graphics (no mean feat).
The battle between Zetta and the demon serves as a brief (as in, two turns) battle tutorial, after which he discovers that someone has written a page into his “Sacred Tome” saying he’ll destroy his own netherworld. Since anything written in the tome comes true, this fate is unavoidable and to escape the destruction Zetta binds his soul to the book, losing his body in the process. Trapped in the tome, he needs the help of the other overlords to reclaim his body and world and discover who planned his destruction.
To harness the power he needs, Zetta must summon minions who battle through worlds created by writing in, well, him, in effect wishing them into existence. True to form, creating and equipping characters is complex, with enough numbers and percentages that a mathematics degree is required to fully understand the intricacies. Character creation is one of the more interesting aspects of the game, as Zetta can summon a new persona by using any item in the game, and the nature of the item determines the resulting stat bonuses and penalties. Players who love stats and especially uber-characters will be in strategy RPG heaven.
The combat system is disappointingly simple. While movement is free instead of being confined to squares or hexes, the terrain is still built from square blocks. There’s little to do each turn aside from move-attack, and turns are divided into the player’s move and the enemy’s move instead of a single, combined round for the action of both sides. There’s no opportunity fire and little effect from varying terrain. Even worse, the randomized battles occasionally generate toothless enemies without weapons. There are interesting facility and vehicle systems with their own intricacies, and relying on scoring instead of simply destroying all enemies to clear a stage does add a twist. Still, combat seems a bit sterile, certainly not up to the standards of a game released in 2005.
The sheer number of different character classes and equipment is compelling and does give Makai Kingdom some legs despite the bland battles. The typical warrior, thief, wizard, and healer classes are present, but as the game progresses and the steampunk setting is introduced with rifles and mechs, other classes open up; mechanics, professors, samurai, and even previously defeated monsters. Weapons run the gamut from swords, axes, and spears to gatling guns, UFO’s, fishing poles, balloons, magnets, and pie (yep, you read that right, pie is actually a weapon). Weapon leveling with learned skills and attacks makes character progression deep even if combat isn’t.
Any gamer worth his or her salt will tell you that graphics aren’t everything, but in Makai Kingdom, they’re barely anything. This game could have easily been released for the PS1, with 2D sprites on a 3D battlefield. Everything is well-drawn, but there’s nothing here visually that goes beyond what Final Fantasy Tactics did over five years ago. Even the advanced skill and spell effects, while nicely done, are far from impressive. Add in cut scenes that use those same sprites, and you’ve got bargain title presentation.
The voiceovers are technically superb but in practice they’re downright annoying. Zetta has what can only be described as the worst dialogue in the history of the PS2, frequently reminding us that he’s a “freakin’ badass overlord” and scripted as a tough but dumb foil. Other characters don’t come out much better, with a valley girl oracle and one third of a powerful overlord trio stuck in a single body who was supposed to be voiced by Gene Simmons until the producers realized they could only afford Richard Simmons. The dialogue is supposed to be funny, and sometimes it even is. Thankfully, one of the options is to use Japanese dialogue with English subtitles, a highly recommended feature. The music is annoyingly repetitive synthesized orchestration that will force you to listen to Jethro Tull’s Greatest Hits just to get it out of your head.
The poor presentation goes beyond just the audio and visual aspects to the player interface as well. Is it too much to ask to allow equipping items from the purchase menu, showing effects before buying? The entire item system is needlessly complicated, from equipping weapons and armor to figuring out how to just examine stuff. The item and character lists tend to grow to enormous sizes, further complicating things.
Makai Kingdom does fulfill many needs and wishes for hardcore strategy RPG addicts. The stat system is involving and equipment possibilities are nearly endless, with some weapons only available by stealing them from enemies. Some battles are more like puzzles, while others take place on completely random battlefields. Hours upon hours can be poured into the game, with things only really getting started after the first ten. Power gamers will find plenty of opportunity to develop super characters able to crush most opponents and a New Game+ option that allows them to start all over with those super characters. Others, however, will find some challenge in barreling through stage after stage.
The rest of us may not see Makai Kingdom as a panacea. Creating and outfitting characters takes quite a bit of time, almost as much as the actual battles. The various themes, with mechs, wizards, ninja, and animated corn stalks all alongside each other, feel mashed together, and not in a Danger Mouse, Grey Album kind of way. The presentation screams low budget, but it retails at $50. To the average gamer, it may seem like Makai Kingdom doesn’t know what it wants to be, but to the strategy RPG fan it’s exactly what it should be.