Kakurenbou Battle Monster Tactics - Staff Retroview  

Time for Hide 'n' Seek!
by Michael Baker

Less than 20 Hours
+ Interesting battle gimmick
+ Fast-paced combat
+ Good variety of enemies
- Music is on par with other GBC titles
- Little to see or do outside the dungeons
- No friends available for multiplayer
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My first year in Japan, I would often go around the local secondhand games stores and see what I could get for 1000 yen. Depending on the store, I could buy as many as five Super Famicom or GameBoy games with that 1000 yen bill (about $10). Most of them weren't particularly good, but there were a few pearls to be had here and there. One of these was Kakurenbou Battle Monster Tactics, a GBC title published in 2000. For the record, as this game came out about the same time as Pokémon Ruby/Sapphire, I am using that game's staff review as a benchmark for this game's graphics and sound.

The basic plot is as follows: the kingdom is built upon nine levels of pitch-black, monster-filled dungeons. Every so often there's a big tournament where teams blaze their way through the darkness with the goal of nabbing the biggest trophy bits from the strongest monsters. For some reason, this year a mysterious mastermind is trying to keep people from reaching the bottom. It's a simple enough plot, but it's well supported by random character development in the form of post-battle monologues or banter between team members.

In MonTac, the fun lies in the battle system. Kakurenbou is the Japanese word for "hide and seek," which should give some idea of what the typical battle is like. With the exception of the first tutorial battle, every room in every dungeon is dark, with visibility limited to maybe three spaces in front of a character, maybe less. There are usually lots of shadowy corners and blind spots, and the enemy AI is both good enough to take advantage, and dumb enough to walk right past a character who is well enough out of the line of sight.

Caption Monsters to the left of me...

Every turn, the player chooses one out of three team members to move around. The character can be moved freely for as long as the action bar lasts, and may make a single attack at any time. Each character has a personal skill which can be used repeatedly throughout the battle, and up to six monster skills, which can only be used once per battle. Skills are extracted from a monster's trophy bits if said monster was strong enough. Most characters have more skills than they can equip, so there's some customization available.

Menus in and out of battle are easy to navigate. MonTac makes extensive use of icon-based ring menus similar to those found in Secret of Mana. The only complaint to be made here is that when one attacks, there is no target confirmation. The character will fire in whichever direction he or she is currently facing, so the player can be punished for being trigger happy.

Battles are usually three on three, but groups of four or five monsters in a room are not unheard of. It's possible to check the general make-up of a room's monster population beforehand, and adjust the party accordingly. Aside from the usual elements of earth, wind, fire, and water, a few more attack types are available: ice, force, lightning, and life (or rather, death) magic all come into play. There are also two movement types, flying and ghost, which have their own strengths and weaknesses to add.

Caption Demons to the right...

MonTac may have a limited amount of space for exploration, but it tries to keep things different. The town portion of each floor is functionally identical, but differences in pallet and shading give them some distinctiveness. Dungeon designs are much more varied, from wide, open rooms to narrow catacombs, which supports different tactical styles. There are traps and problematic floor panels to negotiate, chokepoints to mine, and hidden rooms to discover.

The majority of the game's 126 monsters have unique game sprites, with maybe half a dozen re-used images. This includes poses for resting, moving, attacking, and taking damage, all animated. The attack skills aren't so visually varied, but they do the job.

Anyone expecting superb music and sound effects here is playing the wrong system. Which is not to say that the music in MonTac is bad, just that it is about on par with the rest of the late-generation GBC titles. The player-phase music is appropriately upbeat and fast, while the monster-phase music is lower-key, and matches the feeling of being stalked in the darkness fairly well.

Caption Here I am, stuck in a scanner with you...

The language barrier in this game is lower than average. Anyone with a good knowledge of the Japanese phonetic writing system (hiragana and katakana) can play this game with no real problems. It helps that, with the exception of a symbol for money, there are no kanji to be found anywhere in the game. In fact, all that is truly necessary to complete the game is to memorize the words for the various attack types, and perhaps enough to remember what the status-healing items do.

The game also includes a few multi-player options, though only one, the player vs. player battles, is worth the effort. Playing against the computer can be entertaining, but playing against someone else who really knows how to take advantage of the hide-and-seek mechanic is well worth the extra three dollars another copy of the game would cost.

In closing, the game's final grace needs to be mentioned. It plays quickly. A single battle will take five to ten minutes to finish, while boss battles take as much as twenty minutes. At the same time, there is usually enough challenge to make short battles interesting, especially if one is aiming for the Perfect Finish bonus for each room. Its only critical flaw is that, when played on an SP and the SP is shut, the game will freeze up. That's hardly the fault of the game, however, and doesn't detract from the overall experience. Good tactical games that can be picked up and played with little time invested are few and far between, and for those with the time and the means, this one is worth a try.

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