a review of FolksSoul -Ushinawareta DenshÅ- Folklore outside japan)
a videogame developed by game republic
and published by sony computer entertainment
for the playstation 3 computer entertainment system
text by tim rogers
I really, really wanted to love this game. I wanted to champion it as my own, a game I could love and not have to compete with anyone for that love — a game like cavia’s Ghost in the Shell or Drag-on Dragoon 2. It has all the hallmarks I look for — forget playability or graphics or what have you, I want names, and this game had them: Yoshiki “Street Fighter II” Okamoto, Kozy “Shin Megami Tensei” Okada, and even Hirohiko “JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure” Araki.
Well, that last name is kind of a long story — Araki actually had nothing to do with the creation of the game. Why is his name on the box, then? I have no idea. It’s there, though. It’s even better than being on the box — it’s on a sticker stuck to the shrink-wrap. I have a friend who works in the Japanese videogame box art trade. My friend says a sticker on the box is never a last-minute idea — there are hour-long presentations about meetings about these sorts of things. Quoth Araki, on the sticker (fairy-like, limp-wristed, foppish grammatical lisp added by yours truly), “Might this game have been inspired by my manga’s ‘Stand’ attacks? Oh my, I do believe it might have been!” Araki’s signature is a beauty to behold, scripted like a master calligrapher who’s experimented with either drugs or rock and roll. The sticker shines dully, half gold, half purple, like two colors plucked off a vintage JoJo manga volume cover on which a man poses like a wall-painting in an Egyptian tomb, dodging intercontinental ballistic missiles. I see it, and recall my youth, dangling beneath weapons of mass destruction with a machinegun in my beefy arms — or maybe that was Contra. Et cetera.
Why was Araki’s name shoehorned onto this game? A hundred reasons, and all of them are bubble-like flashes on one hot pan. The key ingredient is that the developers had no names left. Who the hell knows Yoshiki Okamoto, in this age of Brain Training and games appealing to the casual market? There are those (like me) who revere the man as something of a demigod who enters boardrooms and bathrooms alike with the sound of a bitching, asbestos-shattering overdriven power chord. We recall his faux-hawked visage every time we scream “SHORYUKEN” as we ejaculate beneath our girlfriends. Likewise, every time I see a hopped-up family restaurant waitress with razor cuts running down her arms, I think of Kozy Okada’s games, and how they most certainly didn’t make her that way. Two men — one capable of bringing the action, the other capable of bringing the atmosphere. There’s no way a collaboration could go wrong. And it didn’t, kind of. It just didn’t go right.
Originally, this game was planned as Monster Kingdom: Unknown Realms. This was to semantically link it to Monster Kingdom: Jewel Summoner, a beyond-sweet PSP monster-catching game with brooding teenagers as the main character (think Pokemon for pop-punk-rockers); though seeing as Monster Kingdom: Jewel Summoner was kind of a flop, they figured they could rename the pseudo-sequel whatever they wanted and not stuff off too many cosplayers. Besides, what better way to differentiate Monster Kingdom: Unknown Realms from Monster Hunter, Monster Rancher, and Untold Legends: Dark Kingdom?
What had started as something of a friendly bet between Okada and Okamoto, two rivals with different dreams, two men whose names both begin with the name kanji, two men who had both fled the companies they had helped put on the map, has now graduated into a matter of life and death. This was supposed to be Okamoto’s game; well, now it’s both of theirs. Okamoto had his chance to regain his former splendor with Genji on the PlayStation 2; likewise, Okada had had Monster Kingdom on the PSP. These two runaway game designers must have figured that, by now, they’d be back on top, and ready to release hot, original creations. Monster Kingdom: Unknown Realms was to be the first such creation for Okamoto.
I looked forward to it with turgid excitement. After all, Monster Kingdom on PSP had had an excellent soundtrack, filled with contributions from the almighty Yasunori Mitsuda, the saintly Hitoshi Sakimoto, the lordlike Kenji Eno, and the occasionally amusing Yoko Shimomura, among other people with Japanese names. The resulting soundtrack was amazing; the two or three tracks submitted by each composer highlighted all the best aspects of their respective composing styles. To hear Mr. Okada explain it, he’d selected multiple composers because that would be the best way to ensure maximum quality. He picked them all to do tracks that he personally felt they would excel at. Yasunori Mitsuda got the opening movie, for example. I liked the way Okada described it. It made me interested in his little Monster Kingdom project. It seemed like a series of gamers’ games. The PSP outing was, already, something like Pokemon to be played by kids who might have already started smoking.
Monster Kingdom: Unknown Realms ended up retitled Folkssoul, which is probably the worst name a videogame has ever had (the English title will be Folklore, which is better, if super-bland), though all the fancy word combinations in the world can’t hide the fact that it’s just another action game.
There were hopes that it’d be something of the Romancing SaGa of action games. These hopes were mostly mine. I fantasized semi-sexually about the game for something like six months. I’d played it at Tokyo Game Show, where, at Sony’s booth, the demo stations were equipped with the same television that I have at home, and I thought, hey, this game isn’t bad . . . maybe! Well! It’s definitely not terrible! It had some smooth crunch to it. A quick glance at a brochure and I knew enough to make me want this game, hard: you play as Keats, a long-coat-wearing, bespectacled, long-haired, stubble-faced columnist for a “third-rate occult magazine” (yes!) called “Unknown Realms“. (Or as a mostly bland girl named Elena, a proverbial Pokemon trainer out to catch her own dead mother.) One day, as research for a story, you go to the town of Lemrick, Ireland, where it’s rumored that average people can be reunited with the souls of their dead loved ones. Following a few spooky events, you’re allowed entrance into the Netherworld, home of over a hundred collectible monsters.
As you fight and defeat monsters, you can choose to suck their soul out of their bodies. When you do this, you can then use the monster to fight other monsters. “Just like Pokemon!” you might say. And you’d be half-wrong. Because Folkssoul is an action game. Press the L2 button to open a quick menu that displays all your monsters. You can sort them by category (defensive, magical, blunt, slashing, smashing, et cetera) or by which region of the world you found them in. Highlight a monster and press one of the four face buttons to set that monster to that button. Now, press the L2 button again to resume the game. If you’ve set a little slashing goblin to the square button, pressing the square button will result in your main character slashing with his arm, while a lifelike (hologram-like?) shadow of the slashing goblin appears a few inches in front of his body. Different monsters have different attack speeds and ranges, and some monsters have attacks that lead directly into other monsters’ attacks, which means that, yes, you can build your own multi-tiered combos. FIght enough with a monster to level it the hell up, resulting in increased strength, more combo hits, et cetera.
So yeah, this game sounds like plenty of fun for the RPG crowd and the spastic, frame-counting Devil May Cry meatheads alike, yeah? Well, kind of “yes”, kind of “no”. Folkssoul‘s ultimate problem is that it doesn’t contain enough of either of its genres for any of its influences to feel worthwhile. As an RPG, the customization is thin and weird — the only way to level up your monsters is to continue sucking the soul of that monster type. This makes sense, I guess, as long as you don’t think of this game as wanting to be exactly like Pokemon and not succeeding. I suppose the game designers didn’t want the player thinking, “Oh, I already have this monster; I can just avoid them, then, and continue through the stage.” Besides, when you already have a Geodude, it’s awesome to use your Squirtle to take down Geodudes in one hit, right?
Except, as an action game, this kind of doesn’t work. Action game players don’t want to be able to equip one weapon that can kill a certain type of enemy in one hit. They don’t want to reconfigure all four of their attacks every time the fight music starts up. They don’t want to even have the option to decimate a certain type of enemy with a certain type of attack, because this will only make them, as super players with super skills, need to use the correct attacks, or else feel inefficient. Forcing the player to be correct or incorrect about what button he uses to kill the bad guys is to shed an eerie, existentially damning light on videogames as a medium: in videogames, you’re either killing an enemy with as few hits as possible, or as many hits as possible. In other words, you’re either getting the enemy out of your sight, or you’re keeping the enemy in your sight for long enough to be considered stylish. Isn’t it pointless, either way? Think about it in this way, and games that focus on enemies who take a “modest” number of hits to kill seem like they might be covering something up.
And then there’s the blue-balling. If you’ve played Devil May Cry 3, you may remember the experience of entering the tower stage for the first time. After some bitching-awesome battles, you’re forced to wander around aimlessly looking for some key that’ll open a door. Man, what a blue-baller! I got pretty mad at that part, let me tell you. Well, Folkssoul, halfway frightened at a different half of its audience at any given time, has shoehorned a sometimes-infuriating blue-balling structure into each stage, to draw them out to the maximum length. I wouldn’t have a problem with this — I like fighting! I like pressing buttons! I don’t mind backtracking through a stage if it means I get to do more fighting and/or pressing buttons! — so long as the game has a good, quick explanation for why I’m doing what I’m doing.
The game’s explanation, then, is kind of &^#$#ed. In each stage, you’re given a picture book. You have to find the five pages of the picture book. They’re scattered across the stage, usually contained inside — of course — hovering magic stones. As you find the pages, you can read the picture book from your item menu. Each page shows a different monster from the area, as well as a semi-abstract representation of one of the attacks that the boss is going to use. Once all five pages are assembled, you’ll have a step-by-step representation of which monsters you’ll have to use to beat the boss.
If that sounds kind of cool to you, that’s probably only because I’m not done explaining it: you need the picture book, or you can’t fight the boss. Without the picture book, you are not allowed near the boss. And not even by some citizen of the fantasy world, who deems it too difficult — no, there’s no one standing there with arms akimbo, shaking his head, telling you its impossible. There’s usually some barrier. In the first stage, it’s glowing thorns, for example. You can run your character against the thorns, watch him sprinting in place a bit. No dialogue window pops up and says “Get the picture book pages”, probably because the level designers feared that would expose how stupid it is that possessing a book would make magic thorns cease to exist.
If it doesn’t sound terrible yet, that’s probably only because I’m not done explaining it: in order to get all of the pages for the picture book, you need to run back and forth through the stage, searching for the floating magic stones that you can’t destroy with your basic attacks. When you can’t destroy a magic stone with all your current attacks, that means you need a new attack, which means you have to defeat and capture a different kind of monster in order to destroy that stone. Sometimes you’ll poke yourself into an unexplored corner of the map, and see a monster you don’t have yet, only you won’t be able to get to him, because of — yep — a floating row of magic stones of a color you can’t destroy yet. So, being hypothetical, let’s say that you find a yellow magic stone you can’t destroy, and then you see a row of red indestructible magic stones, behind which you can see a monster you don’t own yet. Eventually, you find a monster you haven’t soul-sucked yet; you suck his soul, and try using it against the yellow magic stone. That doesn’t work, so you use it against the red stones blocking the other new monster — it works! You soul-suck the new monster, and use his power to successfully break the yellow stone, and score a picture book page that shows the monster you used to destroy the yellow stone, dodging, say, a flame attack.
It’s kind of ridiculous. Then again, what videogame isn’t? That’s not the question — for all its scattered, hackneyed moments, Devil May Cry 3 manages to remain tightly focused on action. That you’re able to pause the game and change your weapon in Devil May Cry 3 is a fact, not a strategy. At the end of the day, Devil May Cry 3‘s designers chose to make a hardcore action game with multi-layered boss fights and a twitch-tastic parry system. They did this because they had confidence in the essence of their game’s action. Folkssoul‘s producers were obviously just overcompensating, and repeatedly, for what they perceived as a deficit in either of the contributing genres. The story is pretty stuffty in Folkssoul, though they force you to play through these sometimes hour-long actionless segments because they’re convinced that someone out there has to be enjoying it. There you are, wandering around the town, talking to residents, finding photographs in people’s houses, chatting with the bartender, combing the sand on the beach. And for what? So that you can open the portal to the next stage, with more picture book pages, more collectible monsters, more floating magic stones.
Maybe it could have worked as a straight action game. It already has one of those early-1990s Japanese arcade-game plots, and an aesthetic stolen from all the best pop-culture — part Tim Burton (the battle music is very Danny Elfman-inspired), part vintage “Doctor Who” (why else is there an old blue phone box in town square?), part JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure (an invisible dandy-man wearing a Phantom of the Opera mask serves as your guide through the Nether-realms) — it could have worked, if only the designers were able to come up with better excuses for why the characters are fighting so much. Or maybe if they’d added some Zelda-like ingenuity or flow to the stages. Or some bosses that you beat by learning their patterns and then improvising grandly, instead of bosses that you beat by tinkering around with your monster menu.
Perhaps the most telling trait of Folkssoul is that, if summarized, on paper, in the fewest of words, it doesn’t seem like a bad game at all. Even the motion sensor controls — yank the controller to pull the souls out of monsters; yank hard for stronger monsters; yank harder, with the correct rhythm, for even stronger monsters — sound like they deserve to exist. Yet there’s a weird, gloppy sheen all over this game’s design document. It screams of the Nintendo Gamecube era, where Nintendo was forcing developers to utilize Gameboy Advance connectivity in some way, any way, and we ended up with mostly-useless remote controlled bombs in Splinter Cell or some stuff.
There are plenty of other things I could pick on — like how every time your character gets hit by an enemy, it cancels your camera lock-on with that enemy (very frustrating), or how moronic it is that every time you press the R1 button to begin sucking an enemy’s soul, a big, ugly dialogue pops up on the bottom of the screen: “PRESS THE R3 BUTTON NOW FOR A TUTORIAL!!” I mean, seriously, I think the casual gamers walked away when they saw “FROM YOSHIKI OKAMOTO AND KOZY OKADA” in huge font on the back of the box.
Instead, I’ll try to be nice about the game: I like the voices. They’re pretty bad, yeah, though they transcend typical videogame bad voices by being 1.) Entirely in English, 2.) Entirely in Irish-accented English. And we’re not just talking any Irish accent — it’s like, alien Irish. I’ve been waiting this whole review to put “Aliens from the planet Ireland” into a sentence where it would fit, and I just couldn’t quite get it.
Another plus is the way the screen freezes for the tiniest instant every time your score a hit. The effect is most awesome when you use a multiple-hit attack, like the one big rolling armadillo attack. The screen pauses so you can savor the sparks of impact, and it gets to feeling kind of groovy. I guess that’s the best developers can do, when the controller doesn’t vibrate.
And lastly, the colors: this game’s colors worked overtime to earn 1.79 of the two stars this game was finally awarded. Since the Super Famicom era we’ve been hearing about how many colors a game system can display. (The Super Famicom reported could display any of 32,768 colors, though never all at the same time.) It’s only now that the promises of our childhoods are coming true. This game shines, blooms, radiates, et cetera. This entire game is made up of that one scene in Dragon Quest VIII with the purple carpets, that scene you could show anyone and have them say “Wow, that looks great.” And it has a hell of an amazing box art, as well. If only such things sufficed for a solid game, for well-executed atmosphere.
I liked Game Republic’s first game, Genji, for PS2. I would have liked it more were it not for the abundance of health-recovery items, and the option to use those items at any time in the game. The presence of these items threw off the balance of boss battles, ruining what could have been a snappy, arcade-like experience. Furthermore, the existence of a twitch-fueled one-hit-kill system, while rewarding for pro-level players, was essentially useless for the casuals the game was catering to with all those healing items. Game Republic had chosen the story of Japanese folk hero Yostuffsune because they thought it would get them big recognition, fast, though they also seemingly went out of their way to bastardize the story as postmodernly as possible — the princess, for example, is kidnapped because of her ability to fuse priceless magical gems. I saw Genji as a confused effort, and generously thought that, in the future, Game Republic could go places, if only they kept all of their testicles in the right place, and made games for a specific audience. If they would just think, “What would Devil May Cry do?” they could make a game that earns the respect of the players. Their PSP RPG Brave Story is a focused, deliberate masterpiece. Their third game, Folkssoul (they did not “make” Every Party for Xbox 360, or Genji 2 for PlayStation 3 so much as they rented out their name), is their second effort on a home console, and in it, the stains of their first game seem to have seeped deeper. It’s trying to please everyone at the same time, and you know what they say about pleasing everyone at the same time: you can’t do it. It’s not possible.
Game Republic: get your act together. This game right here will be sitting in the bargain bins in three to six months’ time, and in ten years, I expect to see it on used shelves for five dollars, and I expect to shudder and remember those days early in the PS3’s life, when we would have bought anything. Whether or not I come to regard those days as having ended or not — I suppose that’s all in your hands. For now, though, consider yourselves on academic probation.