Reviewed: September 30, 2003
Released: September 16, 2003
Every now and then a game comes along that is so innovative it changes the very way we play games. Most people picture avid gamers as unshaven hermits who lurk in darkened rooms pausing their games only long enough to pay the pizza deliveryman and refill their 40oz cup with a caffeinated beverage. It’s not true I tell you…I shaved last month.
Since my gaming system of choice is the Game Boy Advance I am permitted the unheard of luxury of playing games just about anywhere at anytime, and Konami has taken this into consideration with their latest release, Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand. The two things on the box that will capture most gamers’ interests are the production credit of Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear Solid creator) and the actual “requirement” of sunlight to play this game. Yes, you can finally work on your high score and your tan at the same time.
While sun block isn’t provided the game cartridge does come affixed with a highly accurate solar sensor that measure the ambient amount of sunlight and incorporates these readings into the actual gameplay. Now you can use “real sunlight” to kill “virtual vampires”. If you are thinking this is as cool as it sounds you’re absolutely right.
Light also affects the game environments and often the way the gameplay unfolds. Some creatures will actually hide in the dark shadows under bright light conditions and you may have to temporarily cover your solar sensor to make them come out long enough to kill them.
Boktai also has an internal real-time clock that will update the in-game environments to match your real-world playing time. This feature combined with some sort of timer that shuts down your game after so many consecutive hours out in the sun can actually become an annoyance and hinder your gameplay.
Boktai is a bit like Castlevania in that you once again play a vampire hunter of sorts, exploring interesting levels and banishing all sorts of evil creatures with your Solar Gun. You play as Django, a young boy following in his father’s footsteps. You must fight your way through more than seven massive isometric levels and environments destroying all sorts of undead creatures using the power of sunlight to banish them forever. This not only includes trapping them but you must then drag the entombed creatures back through the level to the Pile Driver outside.
The sun is a very important part of Boktai, and since the sun in the game is directly proportional to the sunlight being picked up by the sensor you are literally forced into playing this game outdoors and on sunny days. Living in Indiana with autumn fast approaching, my vampire slaying days may be numbered as daylight hours are shrinking and it gets colder outside. Unless you live in one of the warmer states or closer to the equator you might be sitting on this game until next spring.
So as not to be confused, sunlight does not directly power the weapons in your game but rather empowers the actual sun in the game. You must still recharge your weapons using the in-game sunlight by either going outdoors, using beams of light casting through skylights, or locating numerous solar energy cells scattered about the game.
The sensor is sensitive enough to distinguish from morning, noon, and evening sunlight as indicated by the solar meter measured in bars along the bottom of the screen. A gamer playing under a tree at 10am on a sunny day in Indiana might get 2-5 bars but someone playing on the beach in Daytona, Florida could easily max out all eight bars. The more bars you fill, the more powerful the sunlight is in the game and the faster you can recharge weapons. Sunlight that streams in through windows and cracks is also harmful to the creatures in this game and can be used as environmental traps. You find these are used extensively in the boss battles.
As important as sunlight is in Boktai there are times when you need to override the sensor. Some creatures will hide from the sunlight and if the sensor is picking up too much solar energy it will make your weapon overheat and you will have to shade the sensor with your hand to “cool down” the weapon. Again, a lot of these concepts have been done before in games but none of it has ever been tied into natural sunlight.
Enough about sunlight - how about the rest of the gameplay? Much of Boktai’s gameplay is reminiscent of the stealth aspects found in the Metal Gear games. Coming from Hideo Kojima, we would expect no less, but I was surprised to see how well this type of gameplay actually worked in an isometric-style game that is more typically known for fast-paced arcade action.
The levels are packed with undead and if you go on a berserker rage you won’t last long. You need to sneak around and stealth kill as many creatures as possible or you can quickly find yourself in a whole lot of trouble. To encourage sneaking the designers have given you plenty of cool moves include Snake’s wall-hug move. You can even knock on the wall to lure enemies into an ambush or in some cases distract them into inadvertently standing on a pressure switch to open a door for you in another part of the level. This involves a bit of creative planning and timing.
For as creative as Boktai’ use of sunlight and stealth gameplay is, often the game is reduced to some dated concepts like pushing boxes and tedious switch puzzles. These stale gameplay elements are found in just about every level and even the innovative use of sunlight can’t cast a shadow dark enough to hide them.
Boktai has an interesting artistic vision to it. The isometric level design is admittedly a bit stale by today’s gaming standards but Konami has managed to give it all a fresh and very crisp look and feel to it, so even if the concept is boring, the execution is surprisingly fun.
The character stylings and their animation are wonderful with plenty of original designs and several that are merely the same designs with colors swapped out. The fonts are large and easy to read and the levels are low contrast so everything is easy to see and play outdoors in direct sunlight.
The music is nice and fills in the silence of exploration but it’s nothing special and there are no game cues to switch the tunes to something tense when you are sneaking or exciting during combat. It’s merely forgettable filler material.
The sound effects are crisp and clean and there is an abundance of digitized voices. Overall, the sound package is very good and fits the visual style of the game perfectly.
Boktai does a good job of artificially extending the life of the game by restricting the time and places you can play. Normally, gamers associate a rainy day with staying inside and playing games. Now you can lament over bad weather that keeps you from going out to play.
While the designers have given you some options for playing in non-daylight hours through the use of in-game energy cells and Sun Banks, you are still better off just waiting for that sunny day. The in-game clock will also dictate the time of day within the game and vampires get particularly nasty when the sun goes down. Best to hang some garlic around your GBA and wait for dawn.
And for the record, I have tested Boktai with both a UV black light and a UV fluorescent grow light and using either will net you a 2 or 3-block energy meter in the game if you do want to play indoors. Granted, it’s not the most powerful sun you can get in the game but it may have to suffice on a cloudy day. I’m just waiting for Mad Catz to come up with a GBA-UV accessory.
For those of you with a link cable and friends there is an interesting trading feature that lets you swap items with other players and even a battle mode for 2-4 players. It’s a nice option that definitely extends the value of this title.
It’s not everyday we see a game break free from the confines of perceived normality. Only somebody with the clout of Hideo Kojima could take the daring concept of solar-powered gameplay and turn it into a reality. And kudos to Konami for realizing his brilliance and hopefully introducing more creative opportunities in future game design.
Boktai is an exciting and challenging game that will bring a whole new generation of gamers out into something they might not have seen in a long time, the sunlight.