"Any character can learn the skills associated with any of the numerous classes available in the game. This means that you can start a character out as a witch, learn a few powerful spells, then switch her over to the archer class to boost her strength and speed. Any reincarnated party member retains the stat-boosting skills he or she may have gained in the previous life. The minute you grasp this concept, its enormity hits you like a Mac truck."
I’ll cut right to the chase. Makai Kingdom: Chronicles of the Sacred Tome is two thick slabs of badass, placed between delicious sourdough bread with lettuce, mustard, tomato and plenty of Swiss cheese. When a strategy RPG is good, life is beautiful. After playing this game, I’m dancing on the clouds. So, you must be asking yourself: what makes it so good?
The short answer is ‘just about everything.’ If you’ve played Disgaea: Hour of Darkness or Phantom Brave, the two most recent efforts from developer Nippon Ichi Software, you know about what to expect. Makai Kingdom is a pleasant mix of the two, with heavy reliance on the former. You get the almost endless personality and character customization from Disgaea, coupled with the grid-free combat and confinement concept from Phantom Brave.
Confinement has changed for the better. You no longer have to confine your characters to items strewn across the landscape, then hope that your monsters finish the fight before running out of turns. Instead, you bind a soul to an object from the main area hub. Suppose you’ve found a sexy boulder that has all sorts of defensive capabilities, and you want a soldier. Just confine the soul and your character is created.
Once that’s done, the fun begins. Any character can learn the skills associated with any of the numerous classes available in the game. This means that you can start a character out as a witch, learn a few powerful spells, then switch her over to the archer class to boost her strength and speed. Any reincarnated party member retains the stat-boosting skills he or she may have gained in the previous life. The minute you grasp this concept, its enormity hits you like a Mac truck. When do you abandon one class? Which combinations will result in a well-rounded warrior or magic user?
If you’re thinking to yourself “Wow, that sounds too complex,” don’t worry. There’s a lot of depth here, to the extent that you can easily spend more time tweaking your soldiers than actually progressing through the game, but it’s all so much fun! This isn’t one of those stale strategy titles where you dread diving into the menus. Here, you look forward to it.
You’ll also appreciate the battles and plot.
When you enter a battle in Makai Kingdom, the enemies are standing around, looking devious, as the lone protagonist sits at the edge or center of the map. You then can ‘invite’ your party members to join the battle and kick ass. They’ll either wander onto the scene, or you can have them stored in a moveable facility that comes crashing down from the skies at your request. This is the preferable way to go about things, as facilities boost things like attack power, defense and even the amount of experience gleaned from combat.
With the soldiers on the field, it’s time to fight. You issue your commands first, before the enemy even attacks, which means you’ll want to try and do all the damage possible. In some cases, you can even obliterate your opponents before they are able to attack. However, this occurrence is infrequent for one simple reason: maps expand.
Scattered throughout the area, you’ll often find enemies with the word ‘key’ hanging over their heads. If you defeat the foe in question, more of the map is revealed. Because each enemy you defeat carries a point value, and because maps require a certain score before you can win, you’ll often have to expand the playfield at least twice. This stretches battles out to multiple turns. Sometimes, even if you don’t want to expand the map, an enemy may do so on your behalf. Since layouts are generated randomly (you never know what an expansion will bring), this keeps things dynamic. Better yet, it almost never feels gimmicky. This is the first time I’ve seen a company ‘randomly generate’ such things in a manner that wasn’t off-putting.
Still, battles can last a long while. You shouldn’t play unless you have at least a half-hour to spare. There are just so many things to consider before you make your move. Besides that, maps can grow enormous, even if you hop aboard a vehicle and ride across most of the zone in a single turn (I mostly just ignored the feature, but it was nice to have the option). Makai Kingdom could easily keep you entertained for months on end. Nippon Ichi wanted that, obviously. After the main story ends, you can still keep playing to unlock hidden characters (with stats in the stratosphere) and plot twists.
Speaking of plot, I really liked what I found here. Disgaea: Hour of Darkness was so refreshing because it put you in the role of a vicious demon that you grew to like by the end of the game. Makai Kingdom takes a similar approach, but with a few tantalizing twists.
You are Lord Zeta, the most powerful demon overlord in the cosmos. Out of curiosity, or perhaps because destiny wants to kick your ass, you try to destroy the Sacred Tome and in the end must bind your soul to it in order to remain alive. Now trapped in the spine of an old book, you must convince other overlords and soldiers to join your cause as you work to rebuild your Netherworld. Along the way, you’ll find out secrets about your companions, and learn what it really means to sacrifice for the one you… love? Yes, even anti-heroes sometimes find themselves questioning such matters. Fortunately, the pacing here is fast and the characters are so dynamic that it’s simple to get caught up in their plight. Then, before anything can truly get tiresome, you’re at the end of the game. This is how RPG stories should be.
The same is true of the game as a whole. Everything that should be present is, and then some. Though the producer admitted that it was made on a rushed schedule, the final product doesn’t betray that fact. Polished until it gleams, Makai Kingdom is the sort of game that absolutely belongs in your library if you like strategy RPGs at all. Pick it up now, before you can’t find it anymore.
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Staff review by Jason Venter (August 18, 2005)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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