The worlds you visit are surreal spaces that aren't so much about being traversed as they are simply about being inhabited.
Subtitle: Immortal Warriors
Multimedia: Otogi 2
Number of players: 1
ESRB rating: Teen
US release date: 2007-07
Otogi 2: Immortal Warriors is loosely based on characters from Japanese mythology, and like any good myth, is full of oppositions and contradictions: life and death, construction and destruction, watching and acting. Just like a good myth, though, it successfully weaves its contradictions into a coherent (for the most part, at least) and satisfying whole.
The game tells the story of an undead hero named Raikoh, resurrected by the sorceress Seimei in a ceremony that includes the ritual suicides of Raikoh's four lieutenants. It's okay, though -- the ceremony also results in the lieutenants being brought back to life, fully animated and fully playable. Alternating between these six characters, you wage a campaign against various tribes of demons. These demons range from (living) giant spiders to (dead) ghouls, from (undead) beheaded soldiers to (never-were-alive) manifestations of abstract concepts -- I've played through the game twice and am still not sure how that last one works.
Whatever their vital status, they're all just as spry as your own troupe of undead warriors, and are threatening medieval Kyoto. Your job is to "cleanse" the world of these nuisances in order to save the city and earn yourself a restfully complete death. Cleansing demons mostly involves hitting them very hard with sharp weapons (regardless of vital status, demons and ghosts are also quite solid); the game avoids having to answer any confusing metaphysical questions by having you simply cut through the Gordian knot with your sword. Demons and vague plot points aren't the only things you'll be cutting through, though.
Practically speaking, the game's levels are designed well. There's an appropriate variety of spaces, they're neither too big nor too small, and they're busy enough to be interesting without being so cluttered as to become confusing. Seeing the levels in Otogi 2 merely as spaces to be navigated is beside the point, however. They have to be seen to be understood. The worlds you visit have been built not only to provide a Point A and a Point B for you to travel between, but to exist as exquisite, surreal spaces that aren't so much about being traversed as they are simply about being inhabited.
One level has you struggling to remain afloat in midair, battling a fleet of airborne ships as the sun sets below you, bathing the sky in golden light. Another has you hunting for relics inside an ornately decorated temple, full of carved wooden railings and minor deities. Even that hoariest of level-design clichés, the deep cave, seems to come alive here, lit by torches and phosphorescent rocks as you chase your foe down into its depths.
Everywhere you go the air is suffused with light, with mist and fire, with dust and effluvia, with autumn leaves and spring blossoms. You don't normally think about air when you're playing a video game, but here you're always reminded of it, are conscious of moving through it. It makes you hyper-aware of your surroundings, makes you concentrate even harder than you normally would in a game. The painted screens dividing a room, the wooden arches rising above you, the empty suit of armor off in the corner: as in a dream, everything seems to signify.
So it's kind of odd that the game is so eager for you to bash the hell out of these dreamscapes. Nearly all the scenery in Otogi 2 can be destroyed, either by hitting it hard enough with your weapon or by knocking a demon into it. Even solid ground and rock walls can have chunks taken out of them by a ricocheting spider demon or ghoul. It's an impressive sight, and to be honest, it's a lot of fun in its own way, but it can also be a little saddening to finish a fight and gaze upon the shattered remains of the battlefield, at all the destruction you've wrought. "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair," indeed.
Video games are about nothing if not second chances, though -- for the world as well as for the player -- so there's a handy option to reset a level to its original state and return the scenery to its former splendor. While it could be argued that the ability to restore your environment fits in with the timeless dreaminess of the game, though, other aspects make Otogi 2 seem less dreamy and more gamey. Experience points and character levels add an element of stat-juggling to the game that distracts from the simple pleasures of running and jumping and whacking. Even more disconcertingly, power-ups and accessories can be bought from a "shop" menu with gold received from dead demons. While gameplay devices like these are standard conventions in role-playing games, they seem terribly out of place in a game like this.
Luckily, the numbers are only a momentary distraction, and most of your time is spent floating through the game's wonderful environments, hacking away at demons and watching the world blow up around you. Most video games have a goal of making you abandon your material existence to invest yourself fully in their fictional worlds. Otogi 2 almost fails in this goal by being too aesthetically pleasing. There are times when you just want to stare at the game rather than play it, times when you want to put the controller down and watch your character flying through the mist, leaping down from atop crumbling mountains and bashing demons' skulls, forgetting that you're supposed to be the one making your on-screen avatar do all these things.
Putting the controller down is a bad idea anyway, because the action rarely stops to permit such luxuries. While you may be tempted to hold still for a moment and examine the intricate patterns woven into your characters' robes and armor, the demons surrounding you have no such appreciation for the finer things, and continually press the attack. Enemies in Otogi 2 are plentiful and powerful; they have a tendency to gang up on you and attack from all sides, and as much fun as it is to bounce demons off the walls, you are just as prone to be sent reeling by a hard hit, compounding the damage you take. The game also comes with a time-limit: your undead warriors are only kept alive by the use of magical energy, which depletes over time. Killing demons replenishes this energy somewhat, but if you run out, it's game over. So you not only have to kill all the demons to progress, you have to do it quickly. Toss in a few nasty boss fights for good measure, and you have a game that's as difficult as it is beautiful.
Once you get the hang of the controls, though, and perhaps level up a bit to strengthen your characters, it becomes much easier to get into the flow of things. Eventually you settle into a rhythm with your avatar, and learn to appreciate not only the environments you inhabit, but the way you move within them as well: Tsuna's twirling blades, Sadamitsu flitting nimbly through the air, Raikoh's hair flowing behind him like a calligraphic brushstroke. It's quite a sight to behold, and despite the often frenetic action, the easy grace of the characters makes the whole experience seem almost relaxing, and provides us with yet another contradiction: restfulness amidst button-mashing.