BY SEGA & FROM SOFTWARE, 2003
25 WORDS OR LESS:
Step inside Japanese mythology and clear out wave after wave of demons with all the panache a resurrected badass can muster.
Sleeper hits are common in games, but pleasant surprises are few far in between. So when one comes along it usually does so with some noise. And especially when it’s brought to us by From Software, whose every release is like a house of cards waiting to tumble down. Not so with Otogi, their new intricate action game that combines stat-upping with frenetic ass-kicking and succeeds throughout
Otogi is based on the mythology of Japan’s Heian era, which began in the the 8th century and continued on through the 12th. It was a time when literature and creativity was blossoming in the country and Buddhist sects gave way to a wealth of spiritual growth. The game tells the tale of Raikoh, the remaining member of a clan that ends the lives of those in pain or otherwise deserving. When it’s ordered one day that Raikoh kill his father, he refuses and leaves his position. Soon after he almost runs into death himself, but an enigmatic princess keeps him in the world between life and death and instructs him to complete quests in order to annul the abandoning of his clan and release the world from an overbearing darkness.
But Otogi is far from a meaningful epic. There’s no cutscenes connecting each level; Raikoh’s just dropped in there and that’s that. And anyway, he’s a guy with a crazy getup and a long sword, so he’s not the type to abide by codes of conduct. All of the 29 levels are exercises in swordplay, shredding demons left and right with no remorse. And it’s easy to look artful by linking hits together. Magic is also at Raikoh’s disposal, in four types and 3 levels, each shooting beams that wipe out the bad guys.
As with lots of games that have even a tiny shred of mysticism, Otogi naturally has an RPG bent. Naturally! And it’s undercomplicated, too: Raikoh gains levels and raises only four attributes: defense, attack, MP and HP. Experience is gained via colored spheres dropped by dead enemies, à la Kingdom Hearts. You can also buy and sell new weapons, magic and accessories between stages in a menu-driven "shop." Lastly, as an adventure element, every stage contains a certain number of spirits trapped inside random structures or even a tree. Collecting 100% of them in every one earns you a bonus item of some sort, and of course bragging rights. It probably wasn’t all that necessary to include all this, especially since there’s not much of a story to be had. Regardless, going back and building Raikoh up will be worth it a few times during the game.
Otogi has another gimmick, too, in the form of destructible stages. Virtually every building, tree and monument can be toppled. Heck, you can even slam enemies into the ground and form a little crater. On top of that, the game uses the hard drive to save the state of each stage, i.e. whatever you’ve destroyed stays destroyed. Seperate map saves will reside on the drive, and if you delete them you don’t lose any progress aside from the spirits you’ve freed. In fact, when revisiting a stage you can choose to start with it intact or not. It’s human nature to enjoy breaking shit, and Otogi lets you do a pretty good job of it.
In what seems to be a theme in today’s action games, it’s a long, arduous trip to the end. There’s a fair amount of challenge, and not just because of irritating flying monsters and pissant bosses. Magic power slowly depletes throughout a level, and will begin siphoning life when it goes empty, but can be replenished by killing enemies. Additionally, the attack power of Raikoh’s swords lessen the more you use them, but can be repaired in the shop. So while some levels will go by in a breeze, others will demand some skill and time management, as well as just keeping your cool.
Even though it’s almost a year old, Otogi still looks great. With an emphasis on organic, rocky environments, the game depicts each one beautifully. While it isn’t the greatest at up-close detail, the faraway angles and overall majesty of some of the levels really shine. Slowdown is uncommon, too, and you can tell the system is fighting against it as it spools the disc like crazy. The game doesn’t run at 60 FPS, but at 30 you do get a slight cinematic feel which really lends itself nicely to a game with lush stages like this one. And it’s even made better by the soundtrack, a haunting series of ancient-style melodies that fit in like wooden blocks. To further compliment things, the English voice acting is rather well done, and the game retains the Japanese voice track. Not such a shock considering the nature of the game, but anything to appease the dorks, right?
When we step back for a moment, we can concede that Sega done did good. A combination of atmosphere and great gameplay makes Otogi one of the best Xbox games in America this year. It’s a strong marriage of fast action, RPG elements and good old fashioned violence-inducing challenge that keeps you coming back for more. On the whole it’s an insanely fun product and From’s greatest game to date. And that is very pleasant indeed. –Ray Barnholt
Official page (Japanese)