There aren't many role-playing games available for the PSP, and judging from the release schedule for the remainder of 2005 that situation isn't going to change anytime soon. It's a different story in the land of the rising sun, however, with Japanese gamers getting their pick from titles such as Gagharv Trilogy, Breath of Fire III, Generation of Chaos IV, and Ys: The Ark of Napishtim. In August, Sony is set to give Japan one more entry into the RPG genre, a sword-heavy action-RPG entitled Tenchi No Mon.
We picked up the latest issue of Famitsu PSP magazine, which included a playable demo of Tenchi No Mon. Not only were we surprised to find that the demo contained well over an hour of gameplay, but we were also struck by the game's overall production values--to the point that we really think Sony Computer Entertainment America would have a winner on their hands if they were to localize and publish the game in North America.
The demo opens up to show the main character, Shinpu, practicing sword katas on a hill next to his village (which is located somewhere in ancient China). Shinpu hears a commotion down below and goes to check it out, only to find armed soldiers chasing a "hapless" woman. Shinpu scares the soldiers off with his swordplay and strikes up a conversation with the woman. She turns out to be Suirin, the last survivor of the original eastern martial arts faction. Shinpu and Suirin go to the village to visit Shinpu's teacher, and Suirin tells the group about an evil sorcerer's plan to unseal a powerful weapon known as the divination stone. Apparently, 300 years earlier, the divination stone was sealed away by the five major martial arts factions. Nowadays, however, the factions are so splintered that it'll be impossible to find five representatives to stand against the coming evil. That's where Shinpu comes in. He just happens to be training himself in the ways of the five different martial arts. If he can manage to master them all, he'll be able to seal away the divination stone by himself.
At least, that's the gist of the plot I managed to get from my limited grasp of the Japanese language and a BabelFish translation of the game's web site. After a series of cut scenes and dialogue sequences, Shinpu and Suirin leave the teacher's dwelling and set out to find clues that will lead them to the first of many opponents in their journey to find the divination stone... a journey that will ultimately span nine continents.
The world in Tenchi No Mon is an active, living environment, similar to what you've seen in games like Final Fantasy X or Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, only without the cutesy graphics. Like those games, Tenchi No Mon employs a third-person camera that lets you see the world from a perspective right behind the main character. The game's visual style is fairly realistic, although the usual anime overtones are also plainly evident (characters have big eyes and insane hair-dos, for example). The demo features locations in and around Shinpu's village--a lakeside dock, a large dojo complex, the village itself (complete with wooden shanties and merchant stalls), a large terraced irrigation system, a temple, and a few length grass-lined paths in-between. There isn't a bland world map. Instead, you have to walk on foot to the places you want to go. This goes a long way toward establishing a sense of setting, since you'll become very familiar with the various landmarks and flora that you see while traveling back and forth. In places like Shinpu's village and down by the dock, people are often milling about, going about their business, and you can go up and talk to them at any time. You can also go into and explore many of the buildings and structures, further adding to the feeling that you're in an active, living, breathing world.
The graphics, on the whole, are impressive. Sticklers will complain that the polygon count isn't the best. If you look closely, you'll notice that some environmental details, such as hills and mountains, appear rather uhhh "pointy." However, there's just so much detail and so much going on, and the scope is just so "big" that it's easy to quickly forgive the game's technical flaws. When you stand atop the hill where Shinpu was first shown practicing his katas, you can see two sets of mountains in the distance, the sunlight shimmering off the water of the lake down below, and the sun up in the sky casting a purple-orange glow on everything. The sheer sense of scope is awe-inspiring. In the village, there are dozens of people hanging around and going about their business. Out in the countryside, you'll notice features such as mountains, temples, and farms off in the distance... plus, a fair portion of the objects in the environment are destructible. The characters, meanwhile, are large and expressive. In what I think is a clever stroke of genius, the developers got around the low poly count by using high-resolution textures for the characters' clothing, hair, and eyes. Because of that, their eyes are perfectly round and you can see fine details in their clothing and hair, even though their arms and legs often have a squareish appearance. Another positive side effect of this "technique" is that the characters never look jagged or out of focus no matter how far away or how close the camera viewpoint is at the time.
It's impossible to judge the game's audio from the demo, since only the sound effects and a handful of musical themes were present. We did notice that that there were a lot of environmental noises though--For example, the wind blowing through the trees, and the water sloshing around in the irrigation pools. These auditory cues add another layer of realism to the game's already rich atmosphere.
Like most role-playing games, there are shops to visit and items to buy, and you can level up your characters' experience and weapons by fighting the enemies that lurk in the meadows and paths outside of populated areas. Tenchi No Mon is an action-RPG, however, so combat isn't turn-based or bogged down with menus. When enemies appear, Shinpu and the other party members automatically draw their swords. Players control Shinpu, while the CPU controls Suirin and any additional party members. The controls aren't terribly complex. You can press X to attack, circle to use Shinpu's weapon like a boomerang, Y to use an item (herbs, bombs, etc.), and square to charge and activate Shinpu's special attack.
The R button lets you change Shinpu's fighting stance. There are six different stances. Each one lets you perform a different multi-hit combo attack, which is done by pressing the attack button repeatedly. What's really cool about the way this is setup is that you can actually edit the combos for each stance. When an enemy dies, they'll often leave behind an attack scroll. These scrolls contain martial arts techniques that you can insert into your combos. In all, there are more than 150 different attack scrolls to collect. A combo can hold anywhere between 2 and 8 individual attacks, so it's really up to the player whether Shinpu's attacks are to-the-point or elaborate.
Of course, like any good RPG, you can also buy and find new weapons for Shinpu to use. Each weapon has its own damage characteristics and a unique special attack. Just as the characters do, weapons gain experience when they're used. A weapon must be used in battle a few times before its special attack becomes available. Thereafter, each weapon's special attack can be upgraded to three full levels of "charge."
Overall, we came away very impressed with Tenchi No Mon. The sense of scope and atmosphere is deeply moving, and the combat seems to strike a good balance between repetitive and interesting. Our grasp of the Japanese language isn't great, so we can't speak to the quality of the storytelling. Judging from the sheer volume of dialogue and voice acting, however, we get the impression that Climax isn't half-assing the story. Tenchi No Mon goes on sale in Japan in August. We certainly hope that Sony Computer Entertainment America will localize and publish the game here in North America, or at least let another publisher do it.
7/7/2005 Frank Provo