Generally speaking, calling something a ‘one-trick pony’ is derogatory at best. The term refers to something that does one thing pretty well — generally to the exclusion of all else.
Gaming has had its share of one-trick ponies over the years, and most of those games have been consigned to the great clearance rack of failed games. However, a few have been so good at the one thing they do to make them unique that they’ve carved out their own special niche in gaming history. Magic Pengel: The Quest for Color is one of those games.
Everything about this lite RPG is pedestrian at best. The story (which is minimal) doesn’t have any major impact, the battle system is little more than a glorified version of ‘rock, paper, scissors’, and the graphics look like early PS2. Everything here points to mediocrity — except for the game’s one selling point: the ability to draw your own creatures (which are called doodles) and fight with them in battles.
Imagine Pokémon, only rather than catching them all you make them, and you wind up with a fair idea of what Magic Pengel is all about. This drawing component is what sets the game apart from pretty much every other monster ranching game and RPG out there — and despite a few kinks in the design, there’s really no denying that the system is amazing.
The game’s story, however, is not. Magic Pengel features two distinct missions for the player — finding the missing father of two of the kids who befriend you on the island, and saving the island itself from a corrupt ruler. It’s pretty basic stuff, although it does maintain some sense of importance because doing the main quests is a necessity in order to get more powerful doodling techniques and things of that nature. If you miss out on these segments, your doodles will be woefully underpowered for the rest of the game.
The story itself is told through a mixture of spoken dialogue and readable text. The text is relatively good — there are some typos and a few clunker sentences littered throughout the translation, but nothing that should detract from the overall experience.
Much like the story, the gameplay is pretty simplistic. Much of the player’s time will be spent drawing new doodles to take into battle at the arenas throughout the land. This is actually the fun part of the game though. Using your Pengel (which is like a little fairy with a paint brush sticking out of its butt), players can draw any number of doodles — limited only by imagination and artistic ability. Granted, in the early stages you won’t have access to a full range of body parts, a wide variety of colors (or a great deal of any color to use), or brushes, but your first ugly little doodles will soon grow into something unique as you advance through the game.
In another interesting twist, the colors you use to create a doodle affect its character. For example, using lots of red will make a stronger attack doodle, while green will be more magic-oriented. Because of this, there’s yet another element to the entire doodling aspect of the game.
Once you’ve drawn and named your doodles, you can take them to the arena to fight it out and grow stronger. There are various tournaments you can enter that are generally tied into the main plot — these are the things you want to do to keep advancing the main portion of the game. In your downtime, you can challenge the locals to battles as well. This is the best way to both make your doodles stronger and acquire more gems and color for future doodles.
Battling is frighteningly simplistic. The entire battle engine runs on a variation of the rock, paper, scissors game that we all played as kids. Attack is stronger than blocking, blocking negates magic, and magic is stronger than attack. A fourth move, called charging, is weak against all of the aforementioned attacks — however, employing it allows your doodle to regenerate some hit points and strike back with a much more powerful attack in the next turn.
For such a simple system, there’s a fair amount of depth to the fights. Unfortunately, in some instances, it seems that the outcome is determined solely by luck (as any fight involving mostly guesswork is bound to be). Because of this, each battle is a unique experience — you just never know how it’s all going to play out. It’s not really all based on luck — but there is a fair amount of memorization involved in trying to remember what moves beat other moves.
On the negative side of the ledger is a camera that often doesn’t work as well as it should (this seems like the one great recurring refrain of game reviews) and a single town to explore throughout the entire adventure. Couple this with the fact that you can beat the main quest in well under 15 hours if you work at it, and you find a game that often appears to come up short despite the brilliance of the doodling system.
And, even that isn’t without a few problems. For those who aren’t particularly artistic (yours truly included), the doodling elements can be downright frustrating. Using the controller to draw isn’t as intuitive as using a pencil or a paintbrush…or even a mouse — which is why a lot of my own doodles looked like crap. Oh, sure, there’s a certain amount of charm in sending your triangle with teeth into battle, but when I saw the cool things I was going up against, my triangle looked even lamer than I originally thought.
If the doodling is too much for you, you can always splurge and buy doodles from the locals. This is cool, but to me it feels like cheating. I want my own doodles to go into the fights — not ones that I bought from someone who was obviously more talented than me.
To alleviate this problem, and make the game more accessible to those of us who aren’t artists, I wish the developers had included some pre-drawn shapes that could be used in the doodles. I mean, when you can’t even draw a good circle, it’s hard to make anything cool for your future battles. The ability to choose some pre-drawn shapes and manipulate them with the controller would have been excellent — and I’d have not felt like such a loser since I can’t draw.
The control in Magic Pengel is quite good. Granted, drawing with the analog stick isn’t quite as intuitive as using a stylus or even a mouse, but it works. My own shortcomings as an artist were to blame for all of my retarded-looking creations, not the game’s controls.
Finally, a few words about the game’s score, sound effects, and voice acting.
Musically speaking, the game is satisfying. The lighthearted and airy tunes fit nicely with the game’s visual aesthetics. There’s nothing here that’s going to make you want to run out and buy a soundtrack, but the music never overwhelms the gameplay itself, either.
The voice acting is a little more over-the-top, but also seems to fit with the mood. The English language dub sounds a lot like a dubbed anime, but it never bothered me overtly. Yes, the voice acting could be better (as it could be in almost all games), but it never gave me the cringe-inducing shudder of something like the Sea Mother’s tale in Shadow Hearts (schloop schloop anyone?)
Sound effects are pretty primitive by today’s standards. They’re not anything overly flashy or jaw-dropping, but again, they fit with the game. It’s a cartoonish title, and the sound work fits — to the point where you never really notice it since it all just blends in with the game experience as a whole.
Ultimately, Magic Pengel isn’t for everyone. This is a niche game even by RPG standards, so it’s almost assuredly a rent-before-you-buy title. However, those of you out there with artistic inclinations will undoubtedly take great joy in seeing your creations come to life in the game. Even I, with my pathetic doodles, was constantly amazed to see my 2D character realized in 3D graphics.
While the main story mode is short, there’s no limit to the replay value as you can continue to make new doodles and fight with the locals long after the main story has ended. Add in the two-player feature (wherein your doodles can go head-to-head with your friends’ creations), the replay value only increases.
However, if you want this one, you’d better act fast. Being a niche game, Magic Pengel probably had a small print run — and future pressings could be unlikely. Grab this one while you can…or be prepared to pay collector’s prices on Ebay later.