Ningyo no Rakuin - Staff Retroview  

A Part Out of This World
by Michael Baker

Less than 20 Hours
+ Many inside references to the Cthulhu Mythos.
+ Party members have their own unique balance.
+ Music is well suited to the game.
- Not always easy to see targeting ranges.
- No deviation from the plotline.
- No sexy mermaids.
Click here for scoring definitions 

   An airplane crashes. The survivors wash up on a mysterious, uncharted island. Crazed fanatics chase after them, and vile abominations lurk in the shadows. No, this is not a new season of Lost, it's Ningyo no Rakuin. The title translates as "Mark of the Mermaid," which is one reason why it caught my attention. As it turns out, the story has nothing in common with Hans Christian Andersen, but a lot to do with the works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft.

   While more than a few Japanese RPGs have used elements of Lovecraftian imagery over the years, much of it cribbed from the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual, the writers for Ningyo no Rakuin obviously had a fondness for the source material. Between the fanatical quasi-human tribesmen, the Deep Ones rising from beneath the waves, and the grad student from Miskatonic University, there are more references to the Mythos than you can shake a shoggoth at.* The plot itself is fast-paced, centering first on surviving the dangers of the island and later on rescuing the main character's girlfriend from a particularly nasty fate involving an unnamed Elder God and a transformation into a fishy abomination. Elements of the storyline play out before and after (and sometimes during) each battle, and the interludes between battle chapters include a short summary of recent events leading up to the current plot point.

   The main issue to be had with this game's plot and pacing is that it's in constant forward motion. There is no backtracking, no side-questing, and no shopping (or even monetary rewards for battle). All equipment must be found in treasure chests scattered across the combat maps, and the very fact that it's possible to miss upgrades makes the game's survival aspect all the stronger. However, the straightforward plot movement means that the game is equally playable by someone with limited knowledge of Japanese. The story has its good points, but the combat does not require nearly the same reading level.

Caption There's nowhere to hide... nowhere to run...

   In terms of gameplay, Ningyo no Rakuin is a straight tactical RPG, and plays similarly to other PSX titles of the genre such as Vandal Hearts. Instead of having attack phases for enemies and allies, turn order is set by the relative speed of each character in play. The game's eight playable characters each have their own dedicated weapons and abilities. Skills come in two varieties. All attacks in the game, even the most basic, use MP, but as the characters gain in level more attack techniques become available, with different ranges, targeting types, and added effects. Special abilities cover a wide range of support, healing, and status-inflicting skills, and each character has his or her own specific skillset that expands as levels increase. As well, everyone has a different inherent support skill that often affects the game's attack-counterattack mechanic, and a different movement type that increases that person's effectiveness over certain terrain. While certain party members are definitely more useful than others, there is a time and a need for every single one. Unfortunately, the five member limit for each battle, combined with the set number of scenarios in the game, makes it easy to have underleveled characters.

   In terms of graphics, Ningyo no Rakuin is about what one would expect of a PSX title with sprite-based characters in a 3D tactical field. A dominance of dark, moody background colors can make it difficult to see the targeting range of attacks or skills, while the camera can be rotated, that's not always enough to allow the player to see where an enemy is positioned. These two issues can lead to some difficult situations, as several characters have a minimum range to their attacks, and it's not always easy to tell if a character can hit an enemy until after they've already been moved on the map. The game does not allow take-backs once someone has been moved, so it's possible to place one of the long-range attacks too close to an enemy without realizing it.

   There are decent-looking splash pages at appropriate points in the story, and these pictures often capture the feel of the Lovecraftian horror elements very well. The game's musical score is not especially broad, but its handful of themes and combat music again fit the game's core horror theme quite well. Not a one of these tunes could be described as upbeat or peppy, but some manage a decent level of creepiness, especially in combination with the level designs.

Caption With infinite glee, it's going to be she who slaughters us all.

   Typically, there are three possible goals in combat — kill the target, kill everything, or survive. Battles featuring that last one tend to be the nastiest, in spite of sounding fairly simple. While survival usually entails getting as many people as possible to a specific point on the map, the game likes to throw curve balls at the player. Survival levels have at least one respawning enemy type, and killing one enemy may cause another to pop up behind the party's current position. Often, these levels will also have special events that pop up at the worst possible time. One example is a level where everyone must cross a bridge. Halfway across, the main character loses his balance and falls off. He lies stunned in the water for several rounds, but if anyone tries to go back across the bridge, that triggers the appearance of enemy reinforcements. Getting through one of these levels takes a good deal of trial and error. Sometimes the only thing going in the player's favor is the ability for characters to stand in place for a turn and recover health at no cost.

   Ningyo no Rakuin stands out in the crowded field of PSX role-playing titles because of its setting more than anything else. Beneath the veneer of Western horror lies a fairly typical tactical experience — though not without its fair share of challenge. It's a pity this game never left Japan, as it probably would have been well received by US gamers circa 2000.

   *RPGamer does not promote the swinging of shoggoths, and takes no responsibility for loss of life, limb, or sanity should one be stupid enough to do so.

Review Archives

© 1998-2017 RPGamer All Rights Reserved
Privacy Policy