Published by NIS America
Developed by Nippon Ichi Software
Platform: Playstation 2
ESRB Rating: Teen
After attempting to foil the destruction of his Netherworld (foretold by a prophetess), things went kind of badly for Lord Zetta (because, apparently, nobody in Japanese RPGs ever reads Sophocles). He lost his body and is now trapped within the confines of the Sacred Tome, a book of phenomenal cosmic power where every passage inscribed in its pages is made real. On the one hand, this makes Zetta incredibly powerful, as he is now bonded with the ultimate tool to control reality. On the other hand, the situation really sucks, because now he can’t hold a pen. The answer? Get a bunch of other lords of the Netherworld to write stuff in the book for him, and battle his way back to power and (hopefully) his body and his very own Netherworld (there are a bunch of parallel universes…kinda like pre-Crisis DC only without Maaldor the Dark Lord).
[ad#longpost]But how can a book battle his way to dominance of the Netherworld? Why, by binding lost souls into inanimate objects to make soldiers, of course. This is the crux of the game’s character development system. You select an inanimate object that resides in your proto-Netherworld, and you bind a soul into it. This turns it into a little person who will then go out and do your evil bidding, killing and maiming and inevitably getting whacked themselves in return. The type of object selected as the “base” determines the characteristics of the resulting character. Boulders are good for physically tough, very resilient front-line combatants. Crystals and other New Age hippie crap are really good bases for spellcasters and support characters. It sounds strange, and it’s definitely an interesting premise, but it really does work out very smoothly in actual play.
Once you’ve got your intial strike force assembled, you can dispatch them into battle to advance the story, gather loot, and improve the characters through battle experience. Eventually, you’ll have your choice of dozens of character classes, monster types, vehicles, and buildings that you can deploy into combat from the pages of the Sacred Tome, so a little creative army development can lead to a very different tactical experience on multiple playthroughs. As with all of the Nippon Ichi games in the La Pucelle Tactics/Disgaea/Phantom Brave/Makai Kingdom series, there is a vast amount of bonus content, secret characters, bonus levels, and the like that one can access by level-grinding your hapless soldiers into the stratosphere. In a nod to the original confines of 8-bit RPGs, where a characters maximum level was 99, these games sport a level cap of 9999, though the sort of dedicated freak it would take to ever approach that cap frightens me to think of (for perspective, I clocked over 100 hours on Disgaea and never got anybody past level 150).
This leads me to my chief complaint regarding this game: the level-grinding. With Disgaea, players were given the ability to adventure into “Item World,” the microcosm contained within every object in the game. You could travel into your own sword, for example, and defeat the various creatures within, eventually slaying the sword’s “Item God,” and when you exited back to the real world, the item would be insanely powerful, and your characters likely would have picked up a few levels of experience. The best part? Item world battlefields were entirely randomized, so the experience was always fresh and the challenges varied. However, in Makai Kingdom, your only recourse in order to do the serious leveling up necessary to unlock the coolness is to either work your way through the tiny handful of bonus dungeons (which wouldn’t amount to much, and they don’t seem to be replayable), or to revisit previous battles over and over and over again, fighting the same enemies on the same terrain dozens of times to squeak out one or two extra levels. As one might expect, this repetitive gameplay gets a little bit tedious somewhere around hour 10.
The only other real problem I had was the switch to a vector-based, rather than grid-mapped, tactical system. Ostensibly, the vector-based movement should provide you with more mobility and tactical options, and to a point it does. However, without a grid system or some more effectively implemented zones of control for your troops, it’s virtually impossible to deploy a series of strong frontline combatants, and then use them to shield weaker support characters from the enemy’s troops. Enemy soldiers rush directly past the warriors and go hack up your mages and clerics. Every. Single. Battle. This makes it damned difficult to keep your support casters on par level-wise with your axe-wielding barbarians. It also makes real strategy pretty much impossible. Your clever scheme will collapse as soon as the baddies get close enough to run straight past your carefully built lines and blast whoever they want to blast.
Since the release of 2003’s sleeper hit strategy RPG, Disgaea, Nippon Ichi Software have been sticking to a tried and true formula. With Makai Kingdom, we get another incredibly deep strategy RPG with the potential for hundreds of hours of gameplay, but the game is sadly lacking a few of the minor elements that made previous offerings from the company such a hit. While the die-hard will be drawn to this one like so many moths to flame, there really isn’t nearly as much to recommend this title if you’re already got one of NIS’ other games.