Reviewed: August 12, 2005
Released: August 8, 2005
Every once in a while, I get really excited over a video game idea. I love games, but in all truthfulness, it's become harder and harder for developers to come up with new and original ideas over the years. So when I hear of an idea such as a video game allowing the ability to play with characters of my own creation, I feel like a kid on Christmas morning.
Imagine a fantasy world where anything you draw magically comes to life, but this kingdom has been twisted by dark magic. You must help a young prince save the day in this action packed adventure. Armed with the ability to transform into anything that you draw, he must battle his way past hordes of monsters to save his kingdom. Modify over 220 pre-made characters or create your own from scratch. Customize your creations with over 160 different attack moves. Draw wings to fly, draw wheels to go faster. The more you adventure, the more powerful your drawings become. Trade characters with your friends or fight against them in 2-Player Mode.
Graffiti Kingdom is such a game, and while a previous title (Magic Pengel: The Quest for Color) has done the create a character thing before, it's still a rarely used idea, which means there is a lot players can do with it. Still, a good idea doesn't necessarily translate to a good creation.
Hot-B's Graffiti Kingdom is a platforming action/RPG with a heavy emphasis on the action. There's no equipment and there are no traditional dialogue interactions with NPC’s aside from cutscenes. In fact, the only RPG element is level, which determines your effectiveness in battle. A level 10 character can take and dish out more damage than a level 5 character, for example. Really though, action and platforming are its main focus.
Players will play as Prince Pixel, a not so bright, but cute as a button, child prince who, like most children brought up in the upper echelons of society (in this case, royalty) would rather spend his time away from fussy tutors and snotty family members in favor of playing and getting into mischief. (In the opening scene, we see Pixel happily and clumsily scaling a dangerously high castle tower with his bare hands.
Wondering how he got up there in the first place had me scratching my head in confusion.) Pixel is saved from plummeting to his death only by plummeting down a hidden passage he manages to stumble across instead, falling deep into the bowels of the castle. Here, he finds a mysterious wand that shoots out vibrant waves of color with a flick of the wrist. As he waves his new found toy about with reckless abandon, a box shaped dog with a ridiculously high pitched and sugary sweet voice appears, and tells Pixel that the wand he is holding is a wand that once saved his kingdom from destruction.
It would seem that in the past, a demon descended upon the kingdom, and doing what demons love to do, tried to lord over the kingdom with his demonic powers. However, a higher power granted a few warriors the power of “graffiti,” and with it, they sealed the demon away and saved the kingdom from his dark clutches.
Pixel, in some serious need of Ritalin, pays absolutely no attention to the box dog's story, and in between the short period of time where she is telling her story and Pixel is waving the immensely powerful wand about without a care in the world, the little prince manages to destroy the seal in one fell swoop. The demon, now released, once again enslaves the kingdom. It's up to Pixel and the box dog (whose name turns out to be Pastel) to save the land once again with the power of the graffiti wand.
Now, I know I sound cynical sometimes, but in all seriousness, the premise of the game is quite charming, imaginative, and a child's wildest dream. While it's basically a "prince saves the day" story, it does throw in a lot of its own ideas and into the mix, and the opening story sequence appears quite promising. It turns out that Pixel can use the graffiti wand on enemies and transform into them for short periods of time, and thusly use their abilities. He can also collect their "cards" when he defeats them, and set them in a menu screen that shows up at save spots.
While many cards can be saved to his collection, only three can be set at once, or put in your active party, so to speak. The drawing canvas is also in the menu screen, and this is where Graffiti Kingdom gets interesting. New characters can be drawn, colored, and voiced differently with a wide variety of abilities to set, however players see fit. Between all of the characters that can be caught and the basically infinite number of characters that can be created, there is quite a bit of variety. Sounds good, right? Well, it could have been.
Graffiti Kingdom's inherent charm and originality start to wear off pretty quickly, once you get into the meat of the game. As a platformer, the controls are horrible. Jumping from one platform to another is a dangerous, frustrating and time consuming endeavor, considering that the edge sensitivity that any decent platformer should have is nearly nonexistent in Graffiti Kingdom. In most cases, characters just slide right off the edges of platforms.
The action element here isn't much better, as the game seems to have problems recognizing enemies. Half of the time, you will be mashing buttons and missing enemies when you shouldn't be. Thankfully, the computer seems to have just as hard of a time as you with accurately attacking. Couple this with repetitive worlds, and Graffiti Kingdom becomes a headache after barely 30 minutes of gameplay.
The big feature here is obviously creating your own characters. This is where it should get fun. Well, let me just say, that things would have been a bit easier if the tutorial over drawing characters wasn't so sparse. I honestly had a hard enough time even finding where to go in the menu screen to even make a character. I finally did find it, hidden away in an inconspicuous place, and it was time to create my character. Like the gameplay controls, the drawing pen is incredibly inaccurate. You start by drawing the body, using the joystick to free hand an organic shape. This is much more difficult than it sounds.
Unless you are willing to spend countless hours trying or have an incredible visual intuition and a steady hand, the body of your character will always look like a misshapen lump. Once you have made the body (which probably looks like a circus peanut, or a loaf of bread) you may then put the connectors on, which serve as arms, legs, and other miscellaneous body parts. You may also choose the thickness and color of your lumpy character. You can then access another screen where you may name your creation, set its skills, customize its voice, and even choose its walk...only to find that, because of poor tutorials, it walks sideways.
My first character, the aptly named "Abomination" (later renamed "The Gimp") was a mess of ill proportioned, floppy, and lumpy shapes, and sauntered about the battle screen like a peacock, only to get beaten very easily, and very quickly. It seemed to be evolution at work. My point? It's waaaaay to difficult to create anything that even remotely resembles something cool. Artistic ability doesn't matter here; it's all about luck, patience, and tons and tons of practice.
Graffiti Kingdom would serve better as a PC game, since the PS2 controller is really about the worst thing to "draw" with that I can think of. Even support for a USB mouse input would have potentially saved this game on the PS2. It's too bad too, because Graffiti Kingdom's biggest feature is nothing short of a disappointment, and the rest of the game certainly won‘t pick up the slack.
Graffiti Kingdom is a very stylized game when it comes to graphics, and overall, it succeeds. Colors are bright and vibrant, and human characters have a lot of personality both facially and bodily. Pixel himself is very much anime inspired, and it's hard to go wrong with that, especially if you are going for cute. And cute it is. Even the big, evil villain manages to come off as cute.
Still, cuteness can only go so far. Some enemy designs I think were supposed to come off as cute, but many times came off as slightly unnerving, or just stupid. It's just plain embarrassing to get the stuffing kicked out of you be a lanky frog in a diaper, with large, vacant eyes. And don't even get me started on the faceless, naked people who look like they were molded from poop.
As far as original characters go, once you can create a decent looking character, they do appear to fit right in with the other enemies, which is nice. Even "The Gimp" didn't look too terribly out of place...whether or not that is a good thing, I'm still deciding.
While bright and colorful, Graffiti Kingdom still isn't anything awe inspiring. The raw quality of the graphics is actually quite poor. And while some levels were very well put together, others just seemed generic or redundant. There was an actually quite stunning lake inside an ice cavern at one point, that glittered and gleamed like a scene from a fantasy. And there was also a layered waterfall, complete with arching rainbows. Still, it's mostly grass and tree layouts, some caves, and not a whole lot in between. Graffiti Kingdom looks pretty good on the surface, but once you pay attention to the details, it’s revealed as being much more mundane, just like its gameplay.
I just have to get this off of my chest: I hate Pastel’s voice. Seriously, she's a blocky, pointy-eared dog with some vicious looking teeth, and beady little eyes. She should not sound like a preschool teacher at story time. Her voice is mismatched with her appearance so much, it was annoying every time she spoke. And it didn't help that her voice actor has no sense of proper inflection. When she's supposed to be angry at Pixel's lack of attention span and haughty attitude (which happens a lot) you wouldn't know it if it weren't for the actual dialog. When she screams, she actually seems to be saying "Ahhhh" in a rather bored and disinterested voice, rather than really screaming.
Other than Pastel, the voice acting isn't too bad, though. Pixel in particular is voiced well. He sounds a lot like Goku from Dragonball, which is also very fitting for his positive, albeit dumb as a stick personality. I also enjoyed the set of "voices" enemies and created characters have. They are pretty much battle cries and grunts, but there is a decent variety. Some are fitting of their character designs, while others are more or less for humor value. I got a kick out of giving my large, butch characters the highest voices possible, and vice versa.
Music in Graffiti Kingdom is pretty decent too, which is all I ask from a children's game. It's not too cutesy, repetitive, or annoying. It fits the mood and atmosphere of the game, which is nice. I did tire a bit of the music in the drawing screen though. I felt like I was in a daycare, listening to kiddy music while finger-painting. Given the frustrating nature of creating characters, this felt very condescending after some time, but I digress.
While creating characters in Graffiti Kingdom didn't exactly hold the exciting magic qualities I was hoping it would have, some people will most likely get a kick out of it. Being able to create your own characters is where the value here really lies. While there is a story to play through, many characters to collect and try out, the endless possibilities lie in creating characters. Whether you're just goofing around or really trying to create something as elaborate as a unicorn (yeah right), creating characters is Graffiti Kingdom's strong point.
However, as I've already said, it's difficult and time consuming, which sucks a lot of the fun right out of it. I have a hard time seeing younger kids actually having the patience to even have much fun with it, which is really bad news for Graffiti Kingdom. Still, there are those weird little kids out there who actually make a point to color inside the lines, so Graffiti Kingdom isn't going to be lost on everyone, just more people than the developers had probably hoped for.
There's also a two player versus mode, which is basically just a chance to pit your creations against your friends. A nice touch, but it's nothing too exciting, considering any ability can be set to any character, and the controls are awful to begin with.
Original ideas are novel these days it seems like, but even more novel are original creations. Graffiti Kingdom is one of those. It’s a great idea which sounds like a lot of fun, but falls short when it comes to fruition. I'd love to see Hot-B and Taito try this again, while paying closer attention to gameplay, controls, and streamlining the create-a-character in such a way that makes it much more accessible.
While Graffiti Kingdom isn't a horrible game, it is disappointing. Oh well. Maybe next time.