Youkaidou - Staff Retroview  

Strange Ways
by Michael Baker

20-40 Hours
+ Wide variety of odd critters
+ Unique battle system requiring some strategy.
- Typing sound is highly annoying.
- Story is largely a non-starter.
Click here for scoring definitions 

   On an average day, I tend to commute a lot. Because of this, I burn through portable titles a lot faster than console games. Thankfully, there are a lot of old handheld games in this country, and today it's time to talk about Youkaido. This monster-collecting RPG was put out in 2001 for the Game Boy Advance by Fuuki, whom I should thank for the helpful bare-bones walkthrough that is still available on the company website after all these years.

   The story of Youkaido is a simple one. It is the late 1920's, and Japan is building itself up (mentally and structurally) for war. In this emotional climate, youkai (Japanese spirits and monsters) flourish. Unfortunately, few with the power to deal with them remain. Yasha-o is one of them. Born from a long line of Japanese exorcists, Yasha-o is able to bind and command youkai to battle their fellows. At the start of the game, a band of foreign demonologists strike his hometown, busting open a small shrine outside town. Large numbers of powerful youkai are released and recruited to the cause of reviving Shutendoji, a demon who was defeated and bound more than two centuries ago.

   This is the game's background, but it really doesn't go much beyond this. The overall feel of the game could be described as "cartoonish," and the town-to-town episodic pacing of the game reinforces this. The various plots hatched by the band of villains are usually about scams and extortion, and the hero always foils the plan with the ease of a Saturday morning cartoon deus ex machina. There's pretty much no plot carryover for the various ladies Yasha-o befriends in each town, and not much point to caring about them. For the most part, the story carries on exactly as one would expect from reading the basic premise.

Caption Panel de ATTACK!

   Youkaido is a monster-collecting game, but that's not to say that it bears any resemblance to Pokémon (for good or for ill). Combat in this title actually comes in the form of a panel drop puzzle game. Each side gets a four-by-five space full of tiles. Only tiles on the bottom row of this space may be selected, but any adjacent tiles of the same type will be used up as well in a chain reaction. At the start of each battle only the bottom two rows are available, though it is possible to expand or limit availability with items. Aside from the basic attack and defense types, there are tiles for each of the game's six elements (earth, wind, fire, water, light, dark). If a youkai uses an element tile associated with its type, then Yasha-o can stock MP for special skills. It is also up to the player to choose the make-up of Yasha-o's deck of tiles. A deck can only have forty tiles in it, and there are eight types of tile. At max, there can be ten tiles of a particular type within the deck. It's important to stack the deck with element types that favor the player's youkai.

   The number of tiles chosen in an action has a major impact on the effects. One-tile attacks don't hit hard, but attacks using seven tiles (or more) will often take out anything at or around the same level as the attacker. Likewise, using more elemental tiles at once garners the player more MP.

   The combat is actually quite fun and strategic, once one has a grasp of the basics. Each turn, one side has to decide on an action first, and the other side can see what sort of action that will be. With a bit of forethought, it's possible to outguess the opponent, or trick them into making an action based on what they think Yasha-o is doing. Unfortunately, it falls through in several areas. Youkaidou has six elements (earth, wind, fire, water, light, and dark), and the game gives no definite information on what weaknesses each elemental has. For youkai of a basic elemental type, this isn't much of a problem, and the vague hint to "use opposites" (the only mention of it in the game) suffices. Youkaido has eleven other types, however, each with a different two-element combination (e.g. fire+water is Smoke, and wind+dark is Ice), and no clue as to what might work best against each of these. Even if the manual had something to say about it, the page dedicated to elemental combinations has definite and obvious errors on it. The company's own walkthrough isn't much help in this department, either.

   Added to this is the overall difficulty. Battles with enemy youkai of the same level are often close calls that may rely as much on one's starting tileset as on one's strategy in using it. While all three active youkai receive experience from a battle, when split three ways this never adds up to much. Late in the game it becomes a choice of a long time spent in low-level grinding, or gambling on high-level grinding while getting a full party wipeout every third battle or so. Wipeouts get Yasha-o sent back to the most recent inn with full healing at no cost, but like a normal stay at the inn in this game, only the three active youkai are healed. All monsters in reserve are left untouched, usually wih the one hit point they have when they join after a battle. Even though monsters may be switched out at any time outside of battle, the player may have to visit the same inn (or be wiped out) twelve times in a row in order to heal the entire roster.

Caption This little guy has a skill that heals him to full health. He is worth his weight in platinum.

   This is all without mentioning the worst issue the game has, a problem which, if only it were fixed, would make everything mentioned prior to this merely annoying. That problem is the game's inventory. Between healing, recovery, and deck-alteration, there are about fifteen items available, all potentially useful. Unfortunately, Yasha-o can only carry six items, with each item being single-use. Simply stocking enough healing items to survive a level may take more space than is available, and the only alternative is to level-grind or run away from everything and hope for the best. Healing skills are only available in-battle, and only for the monster using it. Deck-altering items can make or break a difficult battle, if one can find the space. And the only recovery item worth the purchase is the panacea, as it allows the player to be prepared for any status ailment without completely maxing the inventory space.

   The developers made some interesting choices when they designed this game's interface. The most annoying is the need to buy items one at a time, going through the entire purchase menu each time. The weirdest, however, is how the player must use the R button on the shoulderpad to open the game's menu. The L and R buttons have various other uses within the menu.

   As should be expected from a monster-collecting title, it's possible to swap youkai with other players or with an NPC within the game. The in-game trades are semi-randomized, with three or four possible trades for any given youkai. Monsters received in this manner will always be thirty percent weaker than the one that the player gives up. A level 10 youkai will trade for a level 7, for example. Also, in any trade it is a possibility that the player will get back the exact same youkai that was traded out, only at seventy percent of its original strength. In the end, the in-game trading option is only useful for variety and should be used with caution and a recent save game file to fall back on.

   Visually, the game has more going for it. Youkaido has one-hundred eight unique monsters, all taken from Japanese myth, folklore, and urban legend. Each of these has its own memorable design. Some are obviously based on work by the ukiyoe masters, and others take inspiration from the manga stylings of Mizuki Shigeru. Many others have been modernized in hilarious ways, like the portrayal of a rokurokubi as a plumber with his head stuck through several pipes. Human characters are a bit more iffy, as they all suffer from excessively large eyeballs (even by anime standards). There are some nice splash pages, and even a few cases of sprite-based animation scattered throughout the game, including the game's intro sequence, transport sequences, battle animations, and the occasional case of bouncy cleavage in a character portrait.

   Youkaido has music. It's hard to say much more than that, as it's some of the most generic RPG music available for the GBA. The main exception would be in the opening intro sequence, when it sounds more like generic Mega Man music. There isn't much going for or against it. Like many games of yesteryear, it has a typewriter-like noise that sounds whenever a letter appears in the text box. The constant staccato tak-tak-tak that accompanies a normal conversation in this game is enough to make one mute it indefinitely. Fortunately, setting the text speed to "fastest" reduces the noise to a single burst.

   I really wanted to like Youkaido, really I did. At first glance, it had all the stuff I like going for it — historic Japanese setting, interesting battle system, and lots of cool monsters. There were just so many things that got in the way of that enjoyment. I would guess that the game was intended to be played in about 20 hours, but with all the grinding and element guesswork, it takes far longer than that. And that was just too long for what it had.

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