"I envisaged an epic struggle through the colourful floors of Monster Tower, fighting ancient beasts with fearsome spells. In hindsight, my expectations were a little high."
It's tough to have much sympathy for the people of Mondominio. You should never expect too much from the citizens of doomed RPG towns, but you'd think the presence of a Monster Tower might make them a tiny bit wary of settling in this part of the desert. BUT NO! The Mondominions are a hardy bunch, or at least the hunters that inhabit the town are. These jaded travellers are drawn to the Monster Tower by the valuable eggs sealed away inside. Tao's Adventure: Curse of the Demon Seal displays one slight glimmer of logic with this idea that people will brave the threats of the Monster Tower for economic gain.
You may as well forget this fleeting moment of sociological insight, though! It doesn't happen again. Tao's Adventure soon settles into familiar RPG territory with a lead character who's young, determined and tormented by memories of the beasts who cursed his race. Tao escaped being turned to stone by these monsters, of course, as did a bunch of wise old men, who lecture him about the Monster Tower. It was during the rainy season, which comes to Mondominio once every three years, that lightning struck the Tower's seal. This unleashed the creatures that cursed the people of Bente Island. Not only do you have to suffer tedious dialogue, you also have to deal with countless plot-holes. Why didn't the Mondominions create a seal which could withstand lightning? Why are the monsters invading random islands and cursing races? Why did a boy and a few senior citizens survive?
You never really learn the answers to these questions. The story of Tao's Adventure is made irrelevant by the throw-away conversations and excessive clichés -- the only part that matters is that you MUST climb the Monster Tower. Konami fail to hold your attention to this tiring ascent, though. I envisaged an epic struggle through the colourful floors of Monster Tower, fighting ancient beasts with fearsome spells. In hindsight, my expectations were a little high.
To be any sort of success, it was imperative that Tao's Adventure avoided any sense of routine. You're allowed to explore one town and one town only in this quest, so it's important for the Monster Tower to always remain a source of mystery and suspense. In effect Tao's Adventure has one dungeon, so it needed to live up to seven, or eight, or nine, or however many it could! After just a few floors it begins to feel like one massive, tedious prison, though. No surprise, no tension, no grand revelations -- nothing. Just this routine:
STEP ONE: You climb to a new floor.
STEP TWO: You clear this floor and collect any items.
STEP THREE: You reach another new floor and clear it.
STEP FOUR: You leave the Tower to save and sell your items.
I was in the middle of floor five when it occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, there were some bosses hiding away on certain floors. Then I encountered a suspicious hooded figure who helpfully told me that bosses appear, like clockwork, on every fifth floor. Gee, thanks. Way to SHATTER MY DREAMS, Konami! The Monster Tower doesn't feel like a dungeon where chaos reigns and monster runs wild. It's little more than an ordinary tower occupied by some dismal monsters. Do RPGs still need to include the token feeble rat creature?
The tedium of Tao's Adventure is compounded by the unintuitive use it makes of the DS touch screen. Konami have decided to go for broke and demand that you control every move from the touch screen, so you use the stylus to select the magic and strike options. I see the potential of the dual screen set-up, but this isn't it. You have to get the stylus out to do everything, which is a novelty at first, but soon wears off. I can't believe I need to defend the DS's buttons, but they're still the simplest way to control the action. It's okay to take advantage of the touch screen for maps and inventory management, but that's enough! On the touch screen there's even a circle with arrows pointing out from the middle of it. Konami are being very optimistic if they truly believe that I'm going to navigate my way through this adventure by pushing a stylus around a circle.
Fortunately, the d-pad also controls movement so you don't have to tolerate all of the strange touch screen features. You do have to deal with spell-casting, though. This is reminiscent of the seals from Dawn of Sorrow, only the patterns are less intricate. It can still be hard to draw them on a consistent basis every time you need to strike a goofy bat demon with a lightning spell or teleport between floors by drawing a V symbol. Either there's little margin for error or the symbol registering is erratic, because sometimes you can stand there for ages drawing Vs over and over again, while other times you can scrawl the spell down and hit it first time. It's best to just buy a sword and a shield and forget spell-casting until you earn some impressive magic or find yourself staring at some formidable bosses.
When you're avoiding the central selling point of the battle system because it's underwhelming and cumbersome, you know a game has a problem. Tao's Adventure doesn't even feel like it has a true battle system either. Monsters just stroll up to you and Tao stands face to face with them, exchanging blows until someone dies. This is the way in a lot of RPGs, but here the action is shallow and made duller by the uninspiring visuals. You could've watched as battles are fought out in vivid 2D on the touch screen, but instead Tao just stands there -- a blocky, sloppy 3D-ish model duelling with an equally uninspiring creature. Hatching a monster from an egg fails to add to these anti-climactic contests because you have no control over the monsters. They merely hang around you, attacking when they feel like it. Even Pokemon felt deeper and more engaging than this!
Tao's Adventure is undone by the monotony that plagues the Monster Tower, the half-hearted battle system and the awkward use of the touch screen. To ask people to be content with one enormous tower that tortures you with endless identical floors is pushing it somewhat. If the Monster Tower had delivered surprise, tension and intrigue on each of its floors then it would've been different. You would be marching back to the town of Mondominio with relish, eager to show off your sacred treasures and mighty beasts to the townsfolk. Instead every step you take on the nauseating sands of the blocky town is another step towards complete boredom, while the Monster Tower is ridden by a total lack of imagination.
The routine of this RPG is never broken by any thrilling battles or discoveries, and it asks you to cope with too many protracted features. Walking all the way back to the town to save is irritating, especially when you have to use the stylus to select everything. One day in the not-to-distant future (I hope), someone will deliver an RPG that utilises the DS to actually benefit the action. Sadly, this is not it. Tao's Adventure is cursed by the demon touch screen!
Freelance review by Freelance Writer (June 15, 2006)
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