Khamrai - Staff Retroview  

Of Dogma and Deities
by Michael Baker

Very Hard
40-60 Hours
+ Strong background to the narrative.
+ An interesting and frantic combat system.
+ Enjoyable visuals and sound throughout.
- Excessively railroaded.
- Extreme enounter rates, with no way to escape.
- No quick save function.
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   When I started Khamrai back in June, it was with the expectation of a quick play through an interesting story and world. While the plot was good enough to pull me all the way through, the game itself seemed to drag on and on. Thus the reason why this review is arriving in November. I just couldn't force myself to push through it any faster.

   The story is a sweeping epic set against the backdrop of a world reminiscent of both ancient Japan and feudal China. Six continents float serenely through the sky, home to both humans and godkind. For centuries the godkind have nurtured and shepherded their human followers, but in recent decades things have soured. Of the six Great Lords of the gods, only four still rule. The Sage Lord is dead, killed in an accident years before. The Song Lord has abandoned his demesne, and now wanders the world incognito. The Leaf Lord struggles to maintain the balance of nature on his continent in the face of monstrous incursions, while the Torch Lord keeps the peace between man and god even as rebel forces rise in favor of self-rule. The Life Lord busies himself with missionary work, spreading the dogma of godkind to all ears, willing and unwilling. As for the Sky Lord, he has fallen to madness and now sits in his castle, planning the subjugation of the human savages once and for all. Into this come two protagonists: Kagato of the godless Dark Country and Fushi, divinity supremacist and heir to the Sage Throne. Across seven chapters their paths intertwine, leading both to discover uncomfortable truths about the world, its history, and their role in it.

   The two protagonists form a wonderful contrast, with Kagato as the country boy on his first foray into the wide world versus Fushi as the jaded, racist prince who cannot accept that he needs help to save the day. Their motives come from opposite sides of the spectrum, their personalities are wildly different, and they regularly get into arguments every time their paths intersect. The assortment of friends, allies, and lackeys that accompany them are similarly opinionated, so the big story scenes end up full of conversational twists that keep things rolling quite well.

   The plot is the strongest element of Khamrai. With this focus on narrative, the rest of the gameplay should serve to present the story, so it's a shame that for much of the game it is instead an obstruction to progress. For example, during the adventure segments in town it is usually necessary to visit places in a very strict order, jumping through hard-to-see hoops in order to activate the next major plot point. This makes sense in a few cases, as a logical progression to these narrative hoops exists that builds inexorably to the conclusion. At other times, it's an annoyance that a few innocuous, non sequitur lines from a random NPC can prevent everything from occurring.

Swords That Smash Evil Surviving on a wing and a prayer.

   The battle system itself cannot be faulted, as it's an interesting take on real-time tactical action, similar to Star Ocean. Characters dash around the field of their own volition, taking basic directions from the player but otherwise attacking as they desire. The X and O buttons switch between defensive and offensive modes, while the L1 and L2 buttons affect the automatic targeting parameters. The triangle button accesses the magic and item menu, and learning how best to time spells is an important factor here. On its own, the battle system is hard to fault — but not so, the things that come with it.

   The most obvious problem is the encounter rate, which is so high that a battle happens every six steps or so. In some particularly annoying zones, it's every two or three steps. Since battles are never short, zippy affairs, even the smallest of dungeons can take an enormous investment of time in order to complete. There is no way to lower the encounter rate, nor does there seem to be a means to escape battle. The player just has to accept the lumps, take as little damage as possible, and hope the stock of recovery items lasts. High-power spells are mandatory to make timely progress, or even achieve basic survival, late in the game. This makes supply lines a grave concern when it can take two or three hours to travel between save points, not all of which restore health. The extreme railroading present in the storyline means that it's not always possible to backtrack to a town, and even when it is, it can often take an exorbitant amount of time to do so. On the plus side, the player will see at least one character level up every two battles or so. It's a shame that no health or mana is restored at the same time.

Caption When it comes to hair, pink is the new black.

   The other problem is the game's relationship system. While it makes sense to have one, as it helps determine party AI in battle, it is extremely bipolar at times. Arranged on a pair of axes (Trust/Mistrust and Love/Hate), it is difficult to raise and very easy to lower its attributes in battle. The Trust Axis is supposed to reward good tactical decisions based on battle mode choice, spell use, and targeting, but it also penalizes the player if someone is hit while casting a spell, if a character disagrees with a choice (even if it's to their detriment), or if an enemy heals or buffs itself — which does not make much sense at all. The application of rewards and penalties is heavily biased towards the negative. Likewise, the Love Axis rewards the player if the protagonist (and only he) uses curative items or magic, but penalizes for damage taken by the party. In some cases, a character can lose several points on this axis just through nickel and dime damage before a healing spell can go off. While items exist to alter the balance, they can be hard to come by, and in any case a bad turn in the next generic fight can be enough to send an ally into a dive towards the deep end of the chart. At its best, the system helps coordinate attacks and lets special skills activate automatically, but often it also means characters remain aloof while the hero is pummeled, or even quit combat entirely.

   More of a shame is the fact that all this combat means the player rarely has time to enjoy the scenery or the music. The 3D-rendered environments are actually better than is usually expected for the PSX, and the character and monster sprites are equally well done. The magic library consists entirely of kamui, or spiritual summons, with at least a little bit of 3D animation to each spell. It's certainly not too hard on the eyes, and the intro video sequence is rather impressive.

Swords That Smash Evil Monsters, monsters, everywhere.

   The soundtrack is equally easy on the ears. Varied battle themes ensure that the same one rarely plays twice in a row and event themes are well matched to their scenes, but unfortunately locale compositions got the short end of the stick. While the town themes are nice, if a little dull, the dungeon themes are rarely even heard for more than ten seconds at a stretch unless the player walks away from the grind to make a sandwich. There is some voice talent involved with this game, but the only lines of spoken dialogue occur as battle quotes, which are often lost amid the loud battle music and only noticeable because the action slows down to accomodate the drama.

   While I finally made it to the end, it wasn't an easy journey. The large time investment and lack of quick save meant there were several times when I had to turn off the game and lose progress because I didn't have the time available to continue. The final dungeon was a slog, but I felt the game turning into a chore well before then. This is never a good sign, but particularly not in a game intended as a strong narrative vehicle, like this one was. When an RPG lets its gameplay get in the way of the story it's meant to deliver, that can only mean that at some point its internal workings have broken down. Sadly, this seems to be the case with Khamrai.

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