It should go without saying that, as a Nippon Ichi developed strategy RPG (SRPG), Makai Kingdom (MK) is wonderfully complex, filled to the brim with strategy and polished as only the finest of SRPG makers could do. It should also, sadly, go without saying that the graphics have not risen much (if at all) beyond the barrier set by their last game and you will no doubt feel a nagging sense of deja vu as you progress. As a die hard fan of everything Nippon Ichi touches however, everything stated above simply means that I have another beautifully pieced together title that adds just enough to it to come across as a new experience with another fun set of challenges and a decent (if not perfect) plot.
MK comes across as something of a love child made between Disgaea and Phantom Brave. It takes the zany, yet fun and light-hearted, story of Disgaea and combines it with (some) of the convoluted micro-management found in Phantom Brave. Rather than revert back to the grid-based tiles of old, movement in MK stays with the advancements made in Phantom Brave and allows you to move freely around the battle field. While this was one of the more annoying aspects of Phantom Brave due largely in part to massive amounts of characters and enemies stacking on top of each other, it works rather well in MK due to some rather nice tweaking on the developer’s part.
MK eschews the confine system found in Phantom Brave in favor of the much nicer invite system. Basically, you can now invite characters, vehicles and buildings (more on that later) directly out into the battle field and they will stay until they are either killed or tossed out of bounds. Yes, you can still go out of bounds and yes, picking up and throwing is still a large part of the game. Are you starting to get the picture here? Nippon Ichi seems to have kept the best of its series’ gameplay elements and rolled them together into one very nice package.
Let’s move on to some of the new stuff that has been merged into MK. You now have the ability to collect, upgrade, level up and completely micro-manage all aspects of both buildings and vehicles. Buildings function as sort of carriers where you can stack characters into and then deploy from, a large part of your army; all in one swoop. Deploying characters from a building typically gives a status boost of some kind, tactfully correlating to the type of building that has been invited (for example, a hospital causes life recovery and a university gives an experience boost.) Vehicles, on the other hand, function something like a building that you can stack a single character into (as a pilot.) The difference is that you can control the vehicle, level it up and equip it with all sorts of good stuff. They even come stock with their own attacks! The downside is that I found the attacks to be pretty much useless compared to character skills, but I am sure they could be harnessed for some serious damage.
Character classes still abound in MK and the way to boost up a character has reverted back to something closer to the Disgaea method, rather than the Phantom Brave “title” method (which confused me at first.) Therefore, when you are ready to upgrade your character class, you kill them off and reincarnate them anew. By doing this over and over (and expending mana,) you can pass a single character along to multiple classes, collecting abilities as you go. A little strategy is added to the pile by making reincarnation change slightly based upon how many stars the item you reincarnate into has. Overall, the system is incredibly in depth allowing for a veritable wealth of management options when creating your powerhouse army.
Plot wise, I found MK to be slightly on the lacking side of things. What is there is somewhat interesting and amusing, but never really ground breaking or revolutionary. The entire story is told through the usual cut scenes that occur between battles where either a cinema occurs (using the in-game engine,) two (or more) talking heads go at it or (rarely) an entire zoomed in cut scene occurs. The dialogue is nicely voice acted, very well written and brilliantly translated yet fails to save an overall weak storyline. I suppose that I am so used to watching larger than life heroes save entire planetary systems from the biggest, baddest boss creatures ever to grace a pixel that this kind of light hearted story telling is rather lost on me. Don’t get me wrong, it will keep you entertained, but I actually found myself waiting anxiously to get back to battling (a rarity for me.)
Graphically, if you have played one Nippon Ichi title, you have played them all. MK does not do much of anything new in the graphics department; it still looks as though it would be quite comfortable on the PS1. That being said, I enjoy the character modeling and art style and I still love a good sprite or two. Series fans will be glad to see the return of many favorite characters, all slightly remixed to look a little different and beefed up to look good and hardcore. Those who are used to more graphically endowed titles however may have a hard time getting used to this one.
From a musical score point of view, I put MK about on the same level as Disgaea and La Pucelle and slightly above Phantom Brave. The tracks are catchy, fitting and diverse enough to keep you yearning for more. I consider the soundtrack to be a worthy addition to the collection of Nippon Ichi scores that I frequently listen to. It is also one of the aspects about MK that really makes it feel different than its predecessors although it follows in largely the same vein. All in all, there is certainly a reason to keep the volume on (if the superior voice acting wasn’t reason enough already.)
To conclude, MK was exactly what I was looking for to satiate my SRPG jones; but not quite enough of it. I cruised through this game in less than 30 hours- a series low for me. In previous titles, I have had to put blood and sweat into getting past some of the ridiculous challenges the games put in front of me. In MK I walked into the final battle and obliterated it so completely that I had a hard time convincing myself it was over. I believe you can put MK into the (rather short) list of games you will quite likely want to retry the second you have completed it and it encourages the concept with a very robust new game plus mode. Overall, I felt a little disappointed to see what should have been the ultimate SRPG (due to its stripping of the finest elements of its predecessors) fall a little flat due to a smaller scope. I highly recommend MK to anyone who is a fan of the series or of SRPGs in general, but be prepared for the eventual heartache of watching what could have been great become slightly above average.