Reviewed: August 14, 2005
Released: July 26, 2005
By now, the name Nippon Ichi Software has become synonymous with hopeless gaming geeks, and for good reason. After the company's sleeper hit Disgaea: Hour of Darkness was snatched up from store shelves in 2003, they chose to release another, older tactical RPG, La Pucelle Tactics, the following year. It was also a big hit, and with the waters thus tested, NIS America was born, as a first-party outlet for the Japanese company to bring American gamers the strategy fixes we crave.
Makai Kingdom: Chronicles of the Sacred Tome is the third PS2 title to be published by NIS America, and the fifth tactical RPG from Nippon Ichi to reach US shores. As usual, it innovates just enough to not quite be innovative, a comfortable evolution from the last game, the under-appreciated Phantom Brave. More importantly for many fans, the irreverent, devil-may-care attitudes and goofy humor seen in Disgaea make a full return here as well.
The game takes place in the void between the Netherworlds of various different universes, and involves several different Overlords, all of whom are interesting and many of whom are just as funny as Laharl and Etna, if not more so. Makai Kingdom is Nippon Ichi's most complete effort to date, and it really shows.
Where do I begin? If you're a fan, you'll already know much of what to expect. A mind-boggling series of interlocking systems are in place to level up passive skills, character and building levels, create or buy new items, keep everything healthy and repaired and (of course) score lots of rare items and become ridiculously powerful. All of the details would make this review a ponderous nightmare of a strategy guide, so I won't go into a lot of detail.
For those of you who might not know, a tactical RPG (or "TRPG") is a story-based game in which you assume the role of a character in the game and play the story through, mostly in battle. Unlike traditional RPG’s such as Final Fantasy X, the vast majority of a TRPG's play time is spent on the battlefield. You'll marshal a large contingent of forces to your side, and then deploy them one at a time, alternating turns with the enemy, performing individual and combo attacks, looking for secrets on an interactive battle map, and carefully choosing your position, formation and the types of characters you deploy. It might sound confusing, and it is. It's also incredibly addictive once you get over the hump in the learning curve, though. Story is usually played out in short sequences between fights.
The biggest change to the Nippon Ichi TRPG formula this time around is the addition of buildings and vehicles to the mix of things to micromanage. Both add to the general sense of greater flexibility about Makai Kingdom than in any previous NIS game. Buildings, or "facilities," include such structures as Academies, Fortresses, Hospitals and a Dog House (a Dog House?). Each has a certain number of slots, and items, characters or vehicles can be placed into them prior to a battle.
During battle, they can be summoned, and then the characters inside can be placed onto the battlefield from inside. So why would you want to do this? First of all, most buildings generate some sort of protection effect on characters who've been inside the facility, such as healing a percentage of HP per turn or adding a percentage to a character's attack power. Second of all, enemy buildings can be invaded and taken over, as well as simply hopped into and out of to "steal" a bonus effect for as long as that building is around, provided there's at least one empty slot inside.
Lastly, Makai Kingdom has a strict battlefield limit of eight characters/vehicles in play at any given time, but characters and vehicles inside facilities don't count toward that limit. You might deploy an engineer piloting a big nasty MechWarrior-lookin' thing to take out a spellcaster, then send him back into a building and pull out a witch to finish off that physical fighter with no spell resistance. Once again, the theme is setting rules and then allowing you, the player, to bend them to your liking.
Vehicles are very interesting. As a simple device for covering large amounts of ground they're invaluble: a character can move to the limit of his or her radius, hop into a vehicle, move to the limit of the vehicle's radius, and then hope out anywhere within a fairly wide ring around it. In this way, a character can cover triple or more the distance they usually could. This comes in handy in many situations.
Aside from that, vehicles also have their own stats and special attacks. In the hands of the right character (soldiers and mechanics are two of the best classes for piloting), the vehicle's attack can become much more powerful than a regular attack. Add to this the fact that a character who hopped into a vehicle, moved t and attacked with it can then hop out, move themselves and make their own attack, as well, all on the same turn.
Of course, vehicles and facilities aren't all sweetness and light. As I've mentioned, the enemies get access to this stuff, too, and worst of all, if you leave a vehicle unattended or a facility lightly defended, an enemy character can easily take control of it. In true Nippon Ichi fashion, the new additions are double-bladed swords, requiring players to think and strategize very carefully.
Other than that, old hands will recognize most of what's featured in the game. Reincarnation of characters once again takes center stage over meddling with items for the best way to overpower your characters, and the gridless battle system from Phantom Brave makes a return as well. For those of you who disliked that system in Phantom Brave, I'd like to say that you'll probably be pleasantly surprised by Makai Kingdom's implementation of it. This game manages to bring back a lot of the strategic depth that was missing from PB, in most part by making the enemy AI cleverer, but also by fine-tuning the grid-less system. This time, it really does make a huge difference where you position your characters. The grid-less movement allows for more strategy this time, not less.
All of this combines with what is, for the first time since the beloved Disgaea, a wickedly funny tale of transformation, reclamation and vengeance. Lord Zetta, the self-proclaimed "most bad-ass freakin' Overlord in the cosmos," is on one of his usual sorts of quests for ultimate power, when his own foolishness binds his body into that of the Sacred Tome, a book upon which the fabric of reality is written. His home netherworld destroyed, and his old enemies out to get him in his weakened state, Zetta summons the help of some Overlords who either owe him favors or are loyal to him, and sets about completing the arduous task of reclaiming his lost kingdom. From the short-tempered Pram to the hilariously dim King Drake the Third, the cast of characters never fails to entertain.
The plot itself isn't half-bad, either, given the sparse pickings one usually finds in a Nippon Ichi game: there are lost lovers, forgotten enemies and mysterious girls who plant carrots in outer space at every turn, leaving players with just enough questions to keep them interested right up to - and past - the end of the game.
About the only things I could find to complain about, gameplay-wise, were small. Once, I directed a character to enter a vehicle parked near a cliff, and he hopped over it into the void and was lost for the rest of the battle. I know this wasn't my mistake because there's a separate command specifically for placing characters into objects, and I used it. This should never happen, but so far it's only happened once, which is okay I guess.
Also, some of the more obscure aspects of the game - the progression of static ability bonuses through class rank, for example - aren't adequately explianed anywhere in either the game or the accompanying instruction booklet. However, I have less to complain about on this front than I've had with past games such as Phantom Brave, because instead of spouting off random weirdness, the characters you converse with when at home now actually drop useful snippets of information. This is a great use of all those text boxes, and even for a seasoned TRPG veteran like myself, these conversations actually dropped a lot of tips that helped me out. Makai Kingdom is, in my opinion, the best Nippon Ichi tactics game yet.
Nippon Ichi ought to use cel-shaded characters. They wouldn't have to give up their beloved 2D, and the characters would look crisper and more detailed. I say this pretty much every time I review a Nippon Ichi game, so I won't harp on for a long time right now. Just let it be clearly understood that sprites have their limits, and even then, these sprites don't look as good as they could (check out Atelier Iris for some really stunning sprite designs).
The reason I'm giving Makai Kingdom more than the usual 5 or 6 in graphics is because the great character design that is a hallmark of all their games really goes above and beyond this time. Zetta, Pram and King Drake the Third all have instantly recognizable and unique character designs, and the rest of the cast is very well done, too, if not quite as iconic. Indeed, Nippon Ichi Software has already printed Pram decals as a preorder bonus.
Makai Kingdom has some of the best character designs in the company's history, and it really helps out when the sprites themselves are silly at best. The sheer number of sprite animations for main characters also helps make up for this. Of course, most of the animations do what sprites do best: exaggerated chibi expressions. In a more serious game, this would feel odd, but given Makai Kingdom's humorous tone, I have to admit that the game is about as well served by its sprites as it could possibly be.
Makai Kingdom has a good soundtrack reminiscent of (what else?) Disgaea's memorable music. It's not magnificent, since most of the songs are there to fade into the background while you fight, but overall the battle and non-battle music are better fit to their respective situations than in some past Nippon Ichi games.
Voice acting has its good points and its bad points. Lord Zetta's English voice is absolutely perfect for his character, and some of the other male characters have good voice work as well. I also really liked Salome's voice on the female side. However, the rest of the female voices were inexpert, and in Pram's case, downright grating, which is too bad because Pram is a great character. Also, some of the male voices (like the wimpiest Overlord, Micky) tried way too hard and ended up being incredibly annoying. Of course there's always a Japanese voice option, but with some of the English voices as good as they are, I was reluctant to make the switch at times.
Overall, the sound package is very nice for the type of game Makai Kingdom is. Given that the roster of weapons includes everything from balloons and pies to flamethrowers and gatling guns, there's a wide range of fun sound effects to be heard. The soundtrack is very good, and some of the voice acting is, too. It's not hard to overlook the game's failings and enjoy the sounds of Makai Kingdom as a well-integrated part of the game.
Those of you in the know about Nippon Ichi's games don't even have to bother reading this part. There's literally as much value in one playthrough of Makai Kingdom as there ever has been in one playthrough of any console game to date. There's a long story campaign, with insane amounts of things to keep track of, discover and enjoy on the side, and then the game keeps going on and on after you "beat" it, with increasingly difficult boss battles to test your skills.
Makai Kingdom isn't a game you beat, it's a game you utterly defeat, and doing that grants you some serious bragging rights. Add infinite random dungeons and a slew of rare items and unlockable characters to the mix, and you've got a game that will keep going for months and months.
The more I play Nippon Ichi's unique line of TRPG’s, the more I like them. Makai Kingdom is no exception, and this time, they have the best game they've ever made on their hands, to boot. It takes beloved settings and ideas, meshes them with gameplay mechanics both old and new, adds a hearty dash of truly new content to the mix and still manages to be more accessible to a new gamer than their last game, Phantom Brave was.
This game has it all: it feels intuitive, because you can direct your characters to do what it seems like they'd be able to do in real life. It's got a wealth of options to explore: do you build your army around heavy vehicles and sacrifice the total number of troops you can bring to battle, or opt for a lightning-fast contingent of deadly single-strike attackers who will survive only if their target doesn't.
There are, of course, systems to be broken, and creating a character whose starting stats approach half a million is always a rewarding feeling, especially when you wipe the floor with the final boss using a level 1 character. There are just so many ways to run with this game it's hard to know where to begin. The sound is just icing on the cake, and the graphics... well, at least they're cute and well thought out. Makai Kingdom is the best TRPG Nippon Ichi has ever published. Check it out if at all possible.