Roughly a year after its release, the PlayStation 2 is finally starting to get some quality software. Fans of action games now have Metal Gear Solid 2 and Devil May Cry; survival horror nuts have Resident Evil: Code Veronica; guys who like a more cerebral game have the lovely ICO; racing is well represented by Gran Tourismo 3; and sports fans can pick and choose from a multitude of solid titles. Yes, it finally looks like that PS2 investment is starting to pay off for gamers-all except the fans of RPGs.
While the PS2 launched with no less than four role-playing games (all of which were fairly forgettable, although I didn't hate Summoner), it's been slim pickings ever since. Sure, they've thrown us a few bones-in the form of the tedious Dark Cloud or the absolutely dreadful Ephemeral Fantasia-but the system has yet to have a classic RPG. And, that's not about to change with the release of Okage: Shadow King.
Of course, just because the game's not a classic doesn't mean that it's without merit. Okage is a solid game that aims for greatness yet falls well short of the mark.
I'm Evil King Stanley Hihat Trinidad XIV, but you can call me Stan
The strongest part of Okage is its story.
Eschewing most of the major RPG clichés, the game tells a fairy tale-like story about a young boy named Ari, a quiet lad who doesn't seem to possess much backbone. People walk all over him and often act as if he's not even there.
Things begin to change when a ghost attacks his younger sister Annie. Annie survives the assault, but she's been infected with the curse of Pig Latin-meaning she talks really weird. Ari's family is desperate to save their daughter from a lifetime of speaking what sounds like gibberish, so they open a strange urn that Ari's father (a wannabe scholar) has recently found.
Out of the urn comes none other than Evil King Stan-a black shadow who claims to be the world's dark ruler-and his ghostly manservant, James. Stan agrees to free Annie from the curse-for a price. That price is that he be allowed to live in one of the family member's shadows so that he can begin his quest to re-acquire his lost power-power that's been usurped by a group of phony evil kings during his imprisonment in the urn. The family willingly agrees, and Stan takes up residence in Ari's shadow.
With Ari as his slave, Stan sets out to conquer the world and regain his lost power by defeating the other evil kings in combat. Along the way, the duo will meet up with a variety of friends-the Hero Rosalyn, the goofy Professor Kisling, a pushy princess, and even some deposed imposters to Stan's throne. Choose your allies wisely; because once you've defeated most of the evil kings, an even more dangerous enemy will appear.
There are several elements that make the story of Okage as strong as it is. First off is the plot itself. While the traditional 'save the world' motif does eventually figure into the plotline, it doesn't happen until late in the game. Because of this, much of the story is a refreshing change of pace-you're trying to help Stan regain his lost power so that he can take over the world-not exactly the noblest of undertakings.
The game's other strongpoint is the dialogue. In the first quarter or so of Okage, the game is hilarious. Stan's a funny guy who interjects himself into nearly every conversation-demanding that people bow down before his terrifying might. The people just laugh at him, which enrages him even further-inspiring yet another tirade. Of course, Stan doesn't get all the funny lines-Ari is given three dialogue choices whenever he gets asked a question and some of them are quite sarcastic. It's fun to simply try all three conversational gambits with each person you encounter just to see what their reaction is.
In many ways, the game reminded me a lot of the old SNES RPG, Earthbound-another game with an odd and quirky cast of characters, strange and hilarious dialogue, and a whacked out visual style. Okage isn't quite as wild as Earthbound, but if you liked the odd mood of that game, then Okage should appeal to you on some level as well.
However, while plot and dialogue are good, the translation is a somewhat sloppy affair. There are numerous instances where the dialogue is awkward, the grammar is off, or words are misspelled. It's disappointing, primarily because these things seem so easy to fix.
Despite the flaws, Okage still manages to tell an entertaining tale that should appeal to a wide variety of gamers-especially those looking for something a little different than normal.
This is the category that holds Okage: Shadow King back from being something truly special.
The game is a traditional, turn-based RPG, complete with menus and pauses in the action while you make your selections. It's the best traditional RPG on the PS2 at this point, but that's not saying much when your only real competition is Ephemeral Fantasia. The game is broken up into seven chapters-you reach a new chapter when you complete all of the events in the chapter you're in currently. This adds to the fairy tale feel of the title in a big way.
Unfortunately, the battle system is overly simplistic-making Okage seem more like a beginner's RPG than anything else.
When a battle begins, you'll have the option of choosing a move once your character's attack meter fills. Your options are standard things-attack, cast spells, use an item, or defend/escape. Once you choose an action, your character will carry it out. The problem is, when you command your character to do something and the next character's turn comes up, it stops everything-even the attack that is currently happening-while you select your next move. This might not seem like much, but if you have a character being attacked, and another character's turn comes up, you won't know if you need to heal the attacked character until after you've chosen what you want the next character to do. This makes it so there's a great deal of guesswork involved in the battles.
Now, this wouldn't be such a negative if it weren't for the fact that Ari cannot die in battle. If Ari dies in a fight, it's game over-automatically. You cannot revive him, you cannot fight on without him, you've simply lost. Because of this, keeping Ari alive is the main goal of many of the game's battles-but this is a real challenge because you can't always see how much damage he's taken until you've chosen your next move. To me, that's a pretty big flaw in the battle system.
The other flaw deals with the fact that you cannot choose a specific monster to attack. If two kinds of monsters are on the screen, you can choose which species to attack, but not which specific monster. This is annoying because if you want to concentrate all your attackers on eliminating one of a potentially strong breed of monster, your characters will instead attack both of them in one turn-eliminating neither.
Other than that, battling is a relatively simple and intuitive affair. If you've played one traditional turn-based RPG, you'll have no problems with this one.
Aside from your group's attacks (you'll have three party members plus Stan for the majority of the game), you'll also occasionally get some assistance from Stan himself. If Ari takes a large amount of damage, Stan will generally jump in with a large-scale attack to help you out. Unfortunately, this seems somewhat arbitrary-and Stan really doesn't help out as often as he should.
The game does feature magic, but spells don't cost magic points-they cost labor points. Labor points are a numerical figure that equals the strength of the party as a whole. All spells cast draw from this pool of points-hit zero, and you won't be casting any more spells. Aside from that, there are also various attacks that cost hit points-use those carefully, particularly in Ari's case.
One interesting feature in the battle system is the ability to combine attacks. Basically, if you have characters wait through their turn, they can team up with another attacker on the next go around. These combined attacks aren't as fancy as the ones found in games like Chrono Trigger, but they do dish out some additional damage.
Okage doesn't feature random battles, but they're also not like Chrono Trigger, where you can see the enemy, either. As you're wandering around the overworld or dungeons, ghosts will appear. The ghosts represent enemies-you can run into them and battle, or avoid them and keep moving. Unlike games like Chrono Trigger, you'll have no idea what you're fighting until the battle screen loads-the ghosts are just an indicator, not the enemy.
Eventually, when encountering a ghost, Stan will give you the opportunity to earn a pre-emptive strike from him. To get this, you must answer one of his silly questions correctly. Get it right, and he usually wipes out your opponents for you. Miss it, and you'll be fighting on your own.
After each battle, you get the standard spoils of war. Sukel (money), experience points, and the occasional item. Earn 1,000 experience points and you'll level up, which gives you stat increases in all the major categories and sometimes leads to learning new spells and skills. While only needing 1,000 points for each level sounds simple, the game makes it more difficult by having monsters in an area offer less and less experience as you grow stronger. This makes leveling up a real pain at times.
When you're not battling, you'll be exploring. The game has several overworld maps, all relatively small. Treasures and monsters are scattered about the land, so exploring all the nooks and crannies is definitely recommended. You'll also find yourself in a wide variety of towns-each relatively unique. Here you can buy items, stay at an inn, or help the local citizenry solve some of their problems.
Aside from the towns, you'll also find yourself exploring a number of dungeons. Dungeons invariably lead to one of the imposter evil kings and Stan regaining some of his dark power. The dungeons seem to alternate between relatively straightforward and the more challenging puzzle-oriented ones. The puzzle ones simply require hitting switches to open up new areas, but it can be a bit of challenge.
To reach the next floor of each dungeon, you have to battle and defeat the four urns on that floor. I have no idea why they chose urns, nor why they kept the urns throughout the whole game, because it seems kind of silly.
As far as game length goes, Okage comes up a bit short for an RPG. Expect to spend roughly 25-30 hours to beat the game on your first run through. While that may seem quick for those of us used to those 50-hour epics, trust me when I say that Okage benefits from a shorter length. The story here can sustain 25 hours of gameplay without wearing out its welcome-it could not sustain twice that.
Finally, a word about load times. Unfortunately, Okage: Shadow King loads a lot. In some places, it loads every time you enter a new room…and these aren't small loads, either. It's too bad that the game has to stop so often to load the new areas, because it really detracts from the game as a whole. If load times bother you, prepare to be annoyed.
Perhaps the toughest area of the game to grade are the graphics.
Much has been made about how Okage resembles a videogame version of Tim Burton's A Nightmare Before Christmas or the film James and the Giant Peach. I agree with that assessment wholeheartedly (I also think it looks as if it drew some inspiration from the work of Edward Gorey)-the game does look like those two films inspired it. The oddly designed characters, the bizarre landscapes, and the hyper-stylized colors all support the point. It's hard not to love the graphics, really-they're so different from what we've all become used to seeing in RPGs.
However, the game has numerous graphical flaws as well. First amongst them is the relatively low poly count throughout the whole game. Honestly, this is the least of the flaws because in some ways it adds to the simple and kid-like feel of the game. Still, for a game running on a system like the PS2, a few more polygons would have been appreciated-and made the game look better as a whole.
More disturbing than that is the lack of textures throughout the game. What textures are used turn up time and time again in the various dungeons (which all generally look the same) and give Okage a very ho-hum feel at many points. Add that in with some annoying pop-up and draw-in and the game loses a few more points.
Another problem lies with the game's camera. The camera is rotateable using the left analog stick, but it has the annoying tendency to get caught on walls, houses, buildings, etc. Worse yet is the fact that it rarely positions itself where you want, making it difficult to see your characters, or ghosts you might want to avoid, and causing you to stop moving and re-adjust the camera.
Okage redeems itself with its character designs. Stan is a simple black shadow, but there's something appealing about that simplicity. The rest of the cast is no less impressive-including Linda, the teen-idol evil king who prances about with a microphone as her weapon, or Big Bull, who does a funny little workout dance while fighting.
Aside from that, the characters are also well animated. While battle takes place in the traditional RPG fashion of good guys on one side, bad guys on the other, the good guys do actually run up to the bad guys to attack and vice versa. Battle animations are smooth and pleasing, but spell effects disappointingly simple.
Enemies are another treat, given just how strange most of them are. You'll encounter killer rabbits, wild onions, dancing crabs, and more during the course of your adventure. Sadly, you'll also encounter a lot of enemies who are simply palette swapped versions of earlier monsters.
So, overall, the graphics are a toss-up. The Nightmare Before Christmas styling of the characters and world is appealing, as are the battle animations. On the other side of the ledger, the low poly count, pop-up, draw-in, lack of textures, poor camera, and palette swapped enemies all take the final score down a few notches. Okage is a pretty game, in a cartoonish way, but it could have been even more impressive with a little more polish.
Since Okage is such a lighthearted game, one wouldn't expect to hear anything too heavy or somber in terms of music. The game succeeds in this category by providing a soundtrack comprised of light and funny tunes that complement the mood of the game quite well.
On the downside is the fact that there aren't a lot of tracks used in the game itself. Because of this, you'll hear a lot of the same tunes over and over. This isn't a bad thing (because I didn't find any single song that annoyed me to point of muting the game), but it's a shame because adding some more songs would have only made Okage that much better.
The rest of the sound work is decent, if a bit under-whelming as a whole. There's no voice acting for the characters (although there is a narrator who speaks from time to time), so that's not an issue. Doors creak when opened and clump when closed, Ari's footsteps make noise when he runs (he does make the same noise no matter what the surface, though), and battle sounds are pretty much what you'd expect to hear. There's nothing mesmerizing in any of the game's sound effects work, really.
The one nice touch is the incorporation of some cartoon-styled sound effects. When Ari and company fall down a hole, you're treated to a sound effect that sounds like something right out of a Road Runner episode. Adding more effects like this to the game would have been nice-they complement the mood of the game perfectly.
Ultimately, Okage: Shadow King is the best traditional RPG available on the PS2. Of course, it's not really any big honor when your only competition for the title is Ephemeral Fantasia. It's also not going to hold that title for long-the long awaited major PS2 RPGs are looming just on the horizon-and many of them will be better than this game.
Overall, Okage is a simple game with a broad based appeal. Veteran RPG fans will likely enjoy it for the quirky story and strange characters. Newcomers will like that it's a relatively easy game with a very simplistic battle system. People will enjoy it in spite of its flaws because it's a charming little game. The most disappointing thing of all was that with a little more work and polish, this could have been something special. Instead, it's just slightly better than average.