Samurai Evolution Oukoku Geist - Staff Retroview  

A Very Cherry Adventure
by Michael Baker

Very High
Less than 20 Hours
+ Interesting concept
- But poor realization
+ Great in-battle graphics
- Sub-par graphics everywhere else
+ Inventive battle system
- Which fails to go the distance
Click here for scoring definitions 

I first heard about Samurai Evolution Oukoku Geist six years or so ago, when it was first mentioned on RPGamer. At the time, it sounded interesting, and I think I even expressed a desire on the message boards to check it out, were I ever to come to Japan (one of my few pre-staff postings, in fact). Obviously, I made it over here, and added this game to my collection. so, how does it stand? Let us see.

Samurai Evolution is set in a bizarrely futuristic version of Japan, where bionic samurai duel and cherry trees have been genetically engineered to serve as supercomputers. About fifteen years previous, contact was made with "Tenkai," or the heavenly realm -- a hidden alien civilization whose citizens and wildlife strongly resemble beings from the legends and myths of Earth. One brief war later, and things began to get interesting. In the era of peace after the conflict, Japan was remade into the Oukoku, or "Cherry Blossom Kingdom," and the Astral Duel becomes a national obsession. This is about where the game starts.

The game's story focuses on either of two siblings, Masamune and Kaguya Honda. The choice is up to the player, though it won't make much difference either way. There is next to no variation in story between the two characters, nor any change in the way other characters interact with them. While there are plenty of secondary characters, for the most part they flit onstage, say a few lines, and then are off again, leaving little answered as to who they are and what the heck they want to do.

Within the game, there's an amazing amount of background information for sale as history books. These books contain in-depth detail on the history and major figures of the Oukoku. Given the amount of detail, it's a shame that almost none of this backstory is mentioned by anyone else in the game, and even when it is, it's generally not relevant to the plot as a whole. Thankfully (if that is the right word), the plot is ramrod-straight, and the player's choices of action are very limited, so in-depth understanding of the story is not necessary. Little exists in the way of exploration, with only two or three areas which are not either cities or connections between cities.

In terms of gameplay, the game is, at its most basic description, a Pokémonesque. In order to participate in the Astral Duel (in other words, fight), the player must convince various creatures to team up with him or her. However, unlike most games in this sub-genre, the hero does all the fighting. The partnered EX (short for Exceed or X-Seed, depending on who one asks in the game) are changed into a variety of weapons, including hammers, tridents, axes, claws, and four varieties of swords. Each EX also has a specific element (earth, wind, fire, water, or love) and an alignment (black or white) which determine their strengths and weaknesses. It's interesting to note that it's not just random creatures being recruited -- at various (usually scripted) points in the game, human or humanoid NPCs will also volunteer to serve as weapons.

Caption Don't mess with schoolgirls...

EX can have anywhere from four to six attacks, depending on the species. These attacks are usually determined by their element and weapon type, though some will learn more specialized techniques as they level up. However, there is a definite lack of variety in the skills department, with little to distinguish an EX of a particular element from any other of the same element. What is more disappointing is that often an EX will have abilities in its native form which disappear once it has been recruited. While there are special scrolls which allow the player to teach new skills to an EX, most often the skill is either very weak or very expensive to get in the first place -- setting aside those won from major duels.

While the variety of attacks is lacking, the variety of commands in battle is a bit more diverse. Besides hitting things with their weapon, the player is able to have up to six songs memorized and ready for use. Songs inflict status ailments, scan the enemy's status, or heal allied EX. As well, there is a gauge on the side of the screen which, when full, allows the player to unleash powerful combo attacks which can be taught to EX.

Using a skill or song costs HP, but basic attacks and combos do not. This makes most major fights into battles of attrition, since basic attacks hit for little, but a good whack at the opponent's elemental weakness hits hard. High hit points tend to trump all, and power-leveling will get the player past any obstacle except the final boss, for whom every single battle mechanic is practically necessary.

Graphically, this game is a mixed bag. "Cities" are collections of buildings with a population that would be counted as low by Dragon Quest standards. Character sprites are flat and low-res. The battle graphics almost make up for it, with detailed character sprites more appropriate for a fighting game. The duels are carried out in a side-scrolling battle screen, with each attack acted out appropriately on the enemy combatant. The battles themselves are not fundamentally too different from a normal Pokémon battle, and as mentioned before are lacking in attack variety, but there's still something cool about being able to lift an opponent twenty feet off the ground with a rising chop.

Much of what could be said about the graphics can be said for the game's sound as well. Being an early Game Boy Advance release, the sound effects are about as one would expect. They're not particularly bad, but not that good either. The generic "singing" sound effect can get annoying, though. Musically, much of the game's music is tinny, generic, and ultimately forgettable. The few exceptions, however, are all based on traditional Japanese music and instruments, and make for an interesting listening experience. The boss battle theme in particular is memorable, if only for the fact that it uses the classic melody "Sakura" as a recuring motif.

Caption ...Unless you're really lonely, then it's OK.

Without an in-game clock, it is difficult to say just how long the game is. The main story can probably be beaten in about fifteen hours. The epilogue and true final boss add a few more hours to that, most of it spent training in order to beat the final boss. The true time-wasters, however, are the Secret Missions. There are over one hundred missions in all, available from early in the game. Only the first is required, but the rest are worth doing for the various rewards. Some give special items, some cash. Several feature EX which do not appear any other time in the game. About two-thirds of them are red herrings, but still fun to figure out. The general idea of a Secret Mission is that the player is given a location and a riddle, written out in katakana. The objective is to solve the meaning of the riddle. Sometimes this is simple, sometimes ridiculously complicated.

As this game has never left Japan, there is no English version, and anyone who wants to play this title will just have to get past the language barrier first. So, how bad is it? It's pretty rough going. This game has one of the highest Japanese reading levels ever seen on the GBA. Everything possible is in kanji. Character stats, attack skills, about ninety percent of all items, various monster names, even the humble HP has been replaced with a kanji, which is very rarely done. While the primary menu isn't too hard to navigate, with only six choices, the Item Menu is split into eight sections according to item type, and each of those sections is labeled in kanji as well. Without a good guide, it will take a lot of trial and error before the player can figure out what items are kept where, or even what items do what. In the end, the only thing keeping the language barrier from making this game unplayable is the fact that it's so linear.

What it boils down to is that Samurai Evolution is a textbook example of Enix in one of its creative phases: it's odd, quirky, difficult to work with, hard to understand at times, and probably should have been kept in development longer. The basic concept holds a lot of promise, but the end result definitely fails to deliver on that.

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