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Skankin' Garbage's Review of Okage: Shadow King

Around the time that PS2 launched, an RPG doomed to obscurity (par-for-the-course for RPGs released early in a system's lifetime) called Okage: Shadow King was released. Hearing that it was a funny RPG, I picked it up not long after I first bought a PS2. Strangely enough, due to one reason or another, I didn't get around to playing the game until recently. Has the game withstood the test of time? Sure; I think good games tend to do that. That being said, the game was surprisingly very good, but unfortunately has flaws that keep it from being a masterpiece.

You play the role of Ari, a quiet, mild-mannered boy living with your family in a quiet village. Your dad, who enjoys studying artifacts, picks up a mysterious bottle one day. Soon after, ghosts appear in the village, and Ari's sister is given the 'Pig-Latin' curse by a ghost. Fearing that she will become a comic relief character, her parents try to invoke some sort of magic from the mysterious bottle, and out of it comes the shadow of the evil king, Stanley Hihat Trinidad XIV. They ask him to cure Annie's curse, and he accepts on the condition that he can inhabit one of the family members' shadows and use them to go conquer the world. Ari's family accepts, Ari's sister is cured (but left with a hot pink shadow instead!), and Stan chooses to inhabit Ari's shadow. Not long into the quest, Ari and Stan find out that there are a whole bunch of evil kings on the loose in the world, so Stan decides that Ari's mission will be to go around the world, 'subjugating' these fake evil kings, "And we might as well conquer the world while we're at it."

Sound like fun? Trust me, it's quite fun. The dialogue is quirky, like Earthbound, but it doesn't lose its flavor nearly as quickly. Did I mention that it's funny and well-written on top of that? The only problem this game suffers from dialogue-wise is that the grammar is a bit sloppy at times; it doesn't detract from the overall experience, though. The allies you make and the villains you meet are all quite hilarious. On top of all that, it takes the plot into a serious light without ruining the humour, seeming abrupt and contrived, or making drastic, unrealistic changes to any of the characters' personalities (I'm looking at you, Grandia 2 and La Pucelle). The end result is a very funny, enjoyable adventure that tastefully adds in themes such as making yourself heard, and not simply settling for what's given to you in life. Touching, humourous, and also quite short (I like short RPGs; this one is about 15-20 hours sans sidequests).

As far as visual and aural effects go, this game also does quite well. The graphics are 3D, very well drawn, and to top it off, the rendering is really good! The art style is very reminiscent of something you'd see in an animated Tim Burton movie, like The Nightmare Before Christmas or The Corpse Bride. The odd style compliments the game amazingly. The music is mostly good. The character and town themes are all really good, ranging from goofy and hilarious, to somber and serious (the last town theme makes my hairs stand up). The town themes also have a sort of alternate version that plays when you're inside of buildings. The game transitions the two versions seamlessly, and it keeps the music interesting (which is good, because you revisit towns a lot in the game). The only aspect of the music that's consistently boring are the dungeon themes; they're usually bleak, uninspired ambient tunes. Some of them are still really good, though.

So where's the big problem, you might be wondering? Quite simple; the gameplay.

Let's start small...The game has strange pacing issues. The game is divided up into seven chapters (although the last two are really short), and a few sidequests. The game is a bit story-heavy at first (if you enjoy this game, it won't be for the combat system, though, so it's not necesarily a bad thing), but then at about chapter 4, you get a crapload of dungeons thrown at you with a seemingly small amount of dialogue. It's at about that point when you begin to get a little irked with the game, cos it seems to be going nowhere. The big 'serious' stuff then takes place in chapter 5, which does an okay job, and then the last two chapters are sort of hard to categorize as to whether they do a good job or not, because they're so short; for example, Chapter six is literally ten minutes long! It's a little weird, and the second half of the game can be a bit taxing on your nerves, cos you'll wanna see the game progress.

Also, the dungeons are really repetitive. They all look the exact same, and 99% of them work the same way: That is, you go to a floor, you kill off certain monsters, and after you've fought all those mandatory fights, you can access the next floor. It gets really boring to go through dungeons, really quickly. Also, the 'semi-random' battles you get in (after walking for a few seconds, ghosts appear and chase you, like 3D Pac-Man or something) make traversing through the dungeons feel much, much slower. This game would have benefitted a lot from a Wild ARMS 2 type of random battle system, where you can supercede random battles in dungeons if your level is high enough.

Of course, none of that would be a huge issue if the combat wasn't bad. This is Okage's fatal flaw; the fighting downright sucks. Basically, you control three people at a time...the game is somewhat old-school in style; you can attack, use magic, use an item, or defend. Magic will either use up a certain percentage of the user's HP, or it will use up Labor Points (LP), which is a sort of pooled MP that everyone uses. The game moves in psuedo realtime; that is, everyone has a sort of time gauge a la Final Fantasy that gives a character their turn when it fills up; the problem is, while the game moves in real time, it completely stops when your character gets a turn. Why is this bad? An example: Sometimes, you'll see one of your teammates is going to get attacked, and that the attack will kill them. You'll wanna use an item to bring them back to life, but you can't target them, cos they haven't technically been killed yet. This, and many other little things, can make battles feel frustrating, especially when you lose a battle because of it.

Also, the experience system is really bad. You need 1000 experience points to gain a level, but every time you gain a level, the experience you get for fighting a particular enemy is scaled down a bit. This doesn't sound too bad, but it's easy to abuse; it's very easy to just ignore all the enemies on the field, and then fight the mandatory fights that come up in dungeons and gain 1000+ experience from them until you're at the right level. This system gives you little incentive to fight; I'm almost certain I completed less than 100 battles in my playthrough, and I DEFINITELY ran away from more fights than I finished.

Oh, and on top of all that, it's VERY slow, with super-dramatic battle intros, and atrocious load times going out of battles. All this stuff makes combat a drag - more like some sort of necesary evil that they HAD to put in the game. When the game starts getting dungeon-heavy about mid-way through the game, you'll feel your patience waning.

Overall...I really liked this game. It's very, VERY unfortunate that the gameplay was awful, because absolutely everything else, most notably the story and the dialogue, is just great. It really pleases me to see that there are people out there that write for video games that actually know how to use humour while still managing to create dynamic characters, establish pathos, and introduce serious themes without being outrageously off the mark. Put succinctly, it's inspiring to see that good writers still exist in the video game market (especially RPGs), because that's where they're taking the worst hit these days. I really enjoyed it.

That being said, it's difficult to decide what target audience to recommend such a game to; I feel that most people these days that are into RPGs want outrageously complex gameplay, and over-the-top, epic stories, neither or which this game contains. I suppose, if you're a jaded gamer like me, who just wants a change of pace and a bit of humour; or if at one point in your life, you were the guy who was overshadowed, couldn't stand out in a crowd, and could never make your voice be heard, then you could probably enjoy this game as much as I did.