A Victim of Their Own Success
At the end of the day, one thing becomes clear about Nippon Ichi’s Makai Kingdom: it is inessential. Hardcore strategy RPG fans will have, of course, already bought it, but if you’re at all on the fence about it, well, your life won’t be changed either way.
Compare this to Disgaea: Hour of Darkness , Nippon Ichi’s 2003 title which put the company on the map in the States. Widely considered to be one of the greatest strategy RPGs of all time, Disgaea revolutionized the subgenre. To hear games like Final Fantasy Tactics tell it, an SRPG has to feature a super-serious storyline that needed a built-in encyclopedia to keep track of it (always a sign that a story is poorly told.) Disgaea took the genre’s basic concept of a grid-based map, vaguely complicated rules and statistics, and turn-based battling with computer-controlled enemies and made it a blast to play. Disgaea has a remarkably deep battle system; a character creation system that allows you to create not only fighters of different classes but also any monster that you face; a quirky, amusing storyline; multiple endings; and a limitless series of random dungeons. One could conceivably play Disgaea and only Disgaea for the rest of one’s life—it’s a perfect desert island game—and that’s unfortunately Nippon Ichi’s downfall. For the company’s other games—La Pucelle: Tactics (actually released before Disgaea in Japan, but a year later in America), Phantom Brave, and now Makai Kingdom—all have remarkably deep battle systems, complex character creation systems, and quirky storylines. After all, if Disgaea is such a good game, why should one buy Makai Kingdom?
If storyline is your thing, well, Makai Kingdom does have a good one. In the world of Makai Kingdom, powerful beings known as Overlords fight each other for control over their personal Netherworlds—floating lands full of enemies to battle. Through a vague series of events involving an oracle and a magic book (the Sacred Tome of the subtitle), our main character, Overlord Zetta, manages to destroy his Netherworld; in order to save himself, he possesses the Tome. In cutscenes he’s depicted as a floating book with eyes and a mouth, and the characters get a great deal of comedic mileage out of making fun of the situation.
But as greedy and mean-spirited as the other Overlords may be, they’re willing to help out a friend in need. Before long, a small crowd of the finest Overlords has gathered, all of whom are ready to help out by creating new Netherworlds for Zetta’s army to fight through so he can regain his power. And of course there is the obligatory love interest, the obligatory mysterious girl, the obligatory rival, and the obligatory shadowy plot that Zetta has somehow found himself embroiled in.
The cast of characters, their interactions, and the absurdity of the situation all play against each other in a storyline that is often genuinely funny. However, the game presents its story as an afterthought—or more accurately, as an interlude. The earliest cutscenes were little more than quick cartoons in between levels. After beating a level of Pac-Man, for example, we’re treated to a humorous animation of Pac-Man and a ghost chasing each other. But it doesn’t do anything except give us a quick laugh and an opportunity to stretch. The story scenes of Makai Kingdom are treated similarly. While the plot is advanced, many of them are simply opportunities to put characters in a room together and have them riff on each other. One particularly notable scene consists entirely of a character hoeing a field, planting seeds, putting up a crop marker, and standing back to admire her handiwork. It’s an ‘80s arcade game interlude. Certainly it’s preferable to a game like Xenosaga—where gameplay is a nominal element to prevent it from becoming an anime series—but certainly the storyline could be given a little more importance here.
The gameplay itself is that of a solid strategy RPG. Although the terrain is very blocky and gives off the impression that it was designed with a grid-based game in mind, it is not grid-based. Instead, characters have a circular area based on their statistics, and, as it is with all of Nippon Ichi’s games, there are some twists. Buildings called facilities can hold a certain number of characters; characters which enter the battlefield via a facility have special status effects (i.e. stronger attacks or defense), and they last as long as the facility is standing. As for the battlefield, only a section of it is revealed from the start. Defeating certain enemies slowly reveals more land, and many battlefields are sprawling by the time they’re cleared. Most notable is the addition of a points system. Whereas most strategy RPGs require you to defeat every enemy on the battlefield, Makai Kingdom assigns a certain point goal to each level and a certain number of points to each enemy; one only needs to defeat enough enemies to reach the goal. It adds a deeper level of strategy to the game, and, more importantly, keeps most battles from dragging on.
However, in spite of all the tweaks, Makai Kingdom still feels slight. In many ways, Nippon Ichi is the victim of its own success. Disgaea was and is a revolutionary game. Even though Makai Kingdom might have improved upon some of the elements first introduced in Disgaea, Disgaea is still miles ahead of anything else. If I’ve still not plumbed the depths of a game that I consider to be one of the best made, what is my impetus for wanting to start a lesser one? On its own terms, Makai Kingdom is a good game. It’s got a decent (but underplayed) storyline, and the battle system is quite good. However, expectations being what they are, Makai Kingdom just plain isn’t enough.