While the DS has been well-received in Japan and the US, and has brought much innovation to the industry, the RPG genre has not fared so well on the handheld console thus far. Sure, there have been a few good titles, but the majority have been terrible. Unfortunately, I am writing a review for one of those terrible RPGs right now.
Tao’s Adventure: Curse of the Demon Seal, developed by Konami’s Shanghai Department, is a somewhat unique attempt at merging Action RPG elements with a turn-based battle system on a grid-based field. You control the main character, Tao, and each time you move, attack, use an item, or “do nothing” (my favorite command), your allies and enemies can also make a move. In this way, the basic gameplay features action, strategy, and traditional turn-based elements.
If the innovation had worked out, I’d have nothing but praise for the title. As it turns out, the awkward combination of varying gameplay elements created a somewhat tedious, always luck-based system to determine who strikes first. And, generally speaking, whoever strikes first wins. Regardless of your level and equipment, you generally can take two or three hits before dying. The same normally holds true for the foe, whoever it may be. Since Tao can have two monster allies tagging along, battles aren’t too hard to win, so long as you can coax the enemy into walking toward you. However, since your allies’ AI is terrible, they’re normally just as dumb and are likely to ruin whatever strategy you may have planned out.
Ranged attacks through the form of magic also exist, but these are used less often based on the balance of play. Tao can cast magic when the player draws symbols on a screen (which always takes a ferocious amount of time to load) or by using special items. Spells can be powerful, but MP is always very limited.
In fact, everything is limited. Tao can only carry a maximum of 40 items on him at a time, with a storage facility back in his room. Since money is generally earned by picking up large and small gold or silver nuggets, one’s inventory fills up rather quickly. There isn’t enough room to hold a wealth of healing items. Generally speaking, each time you reach a new floor of the 40 floor tower (which is all the game really consists of), you will have to return to sell the nuggets (and other useless items) to a shopkeeper, and then replenish your stock of healing supplies.
Sounds tedious, right? It is. This tedium is only exacerbated by the lengthy loading times and terrible user interface (which I will be talking about at length). The only thing I found even mildly interesting in terms of gameplay was navigating each of the 40 floors. The dungeon designs are usually straightforward, but there are a few puzzles on the higher levels (including ice-sliding puzzles) that I found to be at least mildly challenging and enjoyable. Bosses (found on every fifth floor) are less strategic than these puzzles, which is unfortunate. Bosses usually involve a bit of luck and hope that your allies don’t make stupid decisions.
There’s also the town. Exploring the town is, again, tedious. A coliseum-based mini-game to have your monsters fight also exists. The mini-game is essentially rock/paper/scissors, and it’s not very much fun at all. Exploration in the game is a complete letdown. One small town and one huge tower: what fun!
The game took me 30 hours to complete. That’s fairly lengthy for a handheld RPG. If the game had been fun, this large chunk of time would have worked in favor of a high score. Instead, since the game was so mundane from beginning to end, I feel its length hurts the game even more. Sure there’s plenty of content, but it’s all repetitive, so who really cares? Konami is fortunate to get a 60% out of me for this boring title.
Konami’s press release announcing the US version of Tao’s Adventure boasted that the game made complete use of the DS’s capabilities. Not only is this untrue (the microphone is never used), but they also failed to find any balance in the controls. In an attempt to emphasize the touch-screen, the game becomes a burden to play. The four buttons on the right? They generally don’t do anything. One button is used to let Tao run (instead of walk), but the rest, to my knowledge, don’t do much of anything. Even when text is being displayed, the game demands you touch the screen rather than press a button. You can’t use the D-pad and buttons for menu selection: you are forced to touch small lines of text. Innovative? No, more like frustrating.
Spell recognition was another problem. Sometimes I’d draw what I thought to be a fairly accurate representation of a spell, and the game would demand I try again. Then, I would draw something completely off-scale and the game would accept it (sometimes as something other than what I intended to cast). I suspect this is because the game is tracking only the direction and scalar quantity of the stroke, rather than what the final image looks like. If you want to cast spells by drawing weird runic symbols, I suggest Taito’s LostMagic, which had 400 different spells; (compare that to Tao’s 42 spells, many of which were useless in combat).
The game was also somewhat glitchy; it froze on me three or four times when moving from one area to another (this happened to me on two different DS systems, so I know this problem was not due to a faulty handheld device). Text prompts are also glitchy, and translation was also poor. My favorite sentence was “The Tao ate the Powa Seed,” which I must have seen dozens of times throughout the game.
So, it’s glitchy, it’s unwieldy, and it’s not fun. Control earns a 45%.
Can things get worse? Yes, they can. They just did, in fact, as we’re now going to talk about the game’s storyline.
You are Tao, a young Bente (it’s an ethnicity) from a small island where the entire Bente tribe lives in peace. One day, in a faraway town, a tower filled with monsters loses its magical seal of holding, and fierce creatures break loose and wreak havoc across the land. Previously, these towers had been used by hunters who harvested monsters’ eggs for wealth; so it looks like man’s greed is taking a toll.
One of these ferocious monsters flies to the Bente island and turns everyone in the village into stone. Everyone, that is, except for Tao and a few elderly survivors who tell Tao what he needs to do next. Tao takes a boat to the town with the monster tower in an attempt to save the day. Note that the “hero’s village is destroyed” opening has been used at least two hundred times in the last decade of video games.
Tao gets to the town, and nearly everyone hates him. A few people sympathize for him, however, since he’s so young and he doesn’t know why people hate him. It turns out they actually hate all Bente people due to a disaster that happened awhile back. Apparently these magic-casting people made a brash decision to save the world from a previous human-versus-monster war: they sacrificed human lives to cast super-powerful magic. Now they’re looked upon as the embodiment of all things evil. Note that this plot technique (hero is ostracized for a wrong he didn’t commit) has been used at least thirty times in the last decade of video games. Not quite as common, but certainly not original.
Tao endears himself to the community, little by little, through acts of extreme mercy. He ventures into the now-pandemonic tower, salvages monster eggs, and has the doctor turn them into medicine for various town victims. Tao also rescues some children later in the game. Eventually, people start to like him.
In the end, everyone likes Tao, and Tao saves the day. I’m sure you saw that coming: it’s not really a spoiler.
Dialogue throughout the game isn’t that great either. Much dialogue takes place between Tao and Petcho, a monster that Tao saved early in his tower-traveling adventures. Petcho isn’t very sympathetic towards the humans, and this prejudice is generally all he has to say. He’s the comic relief. Tao seems to have a love interest named Min-Min, but all she ever does is stop by now and then to tell Tao that he’s doing a great job. She serves no purpose in the plot; (but at least Konami didn’t stoop to the level of making Tao rescue her).
I already mentioned translation problems in the control section, but again, the translation here had to have been rushed. Put it all together, and what do you get? A 25%, that’s what.
Alright, we’re done talking about the terrible stuff. The aesthetic values of this game are definitely its only selling point. The graphics in the game are reminiscent of late-PS1 era titles. The 3D polygonal in-game graphics are accompanied by 2D anime stills for characters, which looks decent. The dungeon’s color and motif change every five floors, so even this doesn’t get too boring to the eyes.
Motion is sometimes choppy, especially in battle. This is really my only complaint in terms of graphics. They get the job done, and I applaud Konami Shanghai’s graphics department for making a decent-looking game on what I suspect would be a low budget. I’m handing out an 80% here.
According to the end-game credits, the majority of the game was developed by Chinese programmers and designers. This is to be expected, since Konami Shanghai developed the game. However, the music was written by Japanese composers. And, as we all know, Konami rarely fails to please when it comes to music.
I actually liked the music to this game a lot. Not only were the melodies catchy, but the sound quality was far beyond what I’ve heard on other GBA and DS games. Really, it’s good.
Sound effects were also well done. There weren’t any screechy noises that give you a headache, and nothing seemed out-of-place.
Little could have been done to improve this game in terms of sound. It’s just a shame that an above-average score had to be wasted on such a worthless game. I’m giving the sound an 85%.
If you’ve already beaten every DS RPG to date and you have plenty of money, then buy this one. If you’re into repetitive dungeon-crawling and repetitive fighting to level monsters who are much less interesting than their franchise-based rivals (Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh), then give this title a play. Everyone else, stay very, very far away. This game made Lunar: Dragon Song look like a good launch title. In fact, I’m very glad I played this game so that I don’t have to call Dragon Song “the worst DS RPG ever made.” I’ve found a new candidate.
The tragedy is that non-Japanese Asian games rarely find their way to the US. And some of them are actually a fair bit of fun (such as the Korean-developed Magna Carta games). So, why did we have to get such a piece-of-junk title to represent the Chinese videogame market? It’s a mystery to me. What’s not a mystery is the score this game deserves. Essentially a “failing” grade, I award Tao’s Adventure a 55% and remind you to not waste your time with it.