PAL Shinken Densetsu - Staff Retroview  

It's a Dog's Life
by Michael Baker

20-40 Hours
+ Nice music.
+ And the villains are hilarious.
- But never used to their potential.
- Heavily unbalanced by the end.
- One-on-one with a final boss is a bad idea.
- Critical information is left hidden.
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   Ages ago, a servant of the divine gained the gift of prophecy, and in doing so he turned against his master, with predictable results. Crushed and defeated, he had one last vision — a girl, far in the future, who would hold the fate of the world in her hands. Thus the nefarious Nostradamus swore that he would live on so that he could find this girl at any cost and secure the future he desired. He's not the protagonist, however, and neither is the girl. Instead, the eponymous hero of PAL: Shinken Densetsu is the girl's beloved puppy dog. How's that for a twist?

   When Pal's mistress, Kaoru, is kidnapped by the mysterious Nostradamus Society, he is chosen by the god Zeus to be trained by the Seven Lucky Gods. He is then reborn as a rather doggy samurai warrior. Two mid-level deities, the quibbling old married couple Binbogami and Yamanokami, are assigned to help him, and Kaoru's boyfriend Yukito signs on as well. It's a moderately interesting ensemble, but it's nothing compared to the villain list.

   The entire list of Society members would take too much space, but here are a few highlights. There's Granny Da Vinci with her steam-powered volcano activation drill, and Grandpa Monalisa in a helical screw gunship. Ms. Volt has a love-powered typhoon generator. Lieutenant Archimedes runs a health spa with a special formula of brainwashing shampoo. Master Darwin is a chimera-creating druid. Reverend Pythagoras leads a mystery cult based on sacred triangles. The Wright Sisters have an armada of robot flying monkeys. And Colonel Galileo is the leader of the Four Moon Super Sentai Squad (with giant transforming robot).

   These villains are the ones with the greatest impact on the story. There are still others, like Madame Newton and her anti-gravity apple, who just appear for the sake of a boss battle. PAL is a title wherein the antagonists are roughly a thousand times more interesting than the heroes (or the actual plot), but get almost no screen time. Madame Newton's dog gets more lines in this game than she does, as just one example. This is a shame, as the story instead turns out to be a railroaded, mediocre snoozefest that makes little sense — when instead it could have been an insane experience on par with a Tengai Makyou title. That way, it would have been entertaining no matter how little sense it made.

Caption A dog's worst nightmare: a bad girl with nunchucks.

   At face value this game's battle system is a simple, turn-based affair. It is primarly icon-based, sporting a menu only for the item option. While the main text of the game is completely in kana, the menu icons (including the Yes/No choices outside of battle) for some reason use uncommon kanji. Still, it's very easy to figure out commands.

   Unfortunately, every other part of the battle system is deliberately and severely obfuscated. HP and MP are shown as colors filling in character icons. The only way to see the actual numbers (and thus get an idea for how much damage an enemy is really doing) is to go through the item menu. That menu is actually the most useful part of the whole thing, as it lets the player sort through items according to their offensive, defensive, or healing properties. There's a lot of overlap between such items, however, with almost no way to distinguish the relative effectiveness of healing items because those numbers are again provided neither in combat nor in the items' own descriptions. The player can figure out some of it with deductive reasoning — though that's something better left to puzzles than the heat of combat — but even that won't help when it comes to the various stat-boosting items.

   The characters' skills and magic are not exempt from this, though magic isn't as difficult to work with due to the icon-based menu. Still, MP costs are never stated outright. Magic can be used to attack or, if a character is targeted, to bolster elemental defenses. A severe lack of enemy attack animation makes it hard to tell what to defend against, however. Each element has an associated status ailment, which proves useful throughout the game.

Caption Up in the air, junior birdman!

   While Pal starts out with level 1 magic for all elements, Binbogami and Yamanokami have to learn from scratch. Each character can be equipped with two scrolls at shrines throughout the game, and magic can only be leveled while these scrolls are equipped. This is mentioned only once in the game, and players who can't read Japanese or who skim too quickly may be left puzzled because there is no way to measure progress towards mastering an element for most of the game. At only one location is it possible to see how much progress has been made, and it's only available late in the game.

   Yukito, the game's token human protagonist, has no magic but instead uses recipes to heal and support the others. Unlike with magic, these recipes clearly show how much of each ingredient is left, giving the player some idea of Yukito's limits. What the game doesn't give is any idea what these recipes do. Ten are listed in the manual with their various effects, but that leaves about thirty left undefined. The final blow to Yukito's usefulness is the amount limitations. The game only allows the player to carry nine of any given item, even though there is otherwise no practical limit to how much can be carried. There are several ingredients that are common to a wide range of cuisine, and one, rice, is found in every single healing recipe. So while Yukito learns over a dozen ways to restore MP and HP (for both single characters and groups), he's still limited to nine meals before the player needs to head back to the grocery store.

   Since that is the case, it's perhaps fortunate that the majority of this game's action occurs in towns. The handful of dungeons are barely long enough to deserve the name, but the towns make up for it by being large, sprawling, and full of monsters. Likewise, urban areas are often graphically varied while the dungeons and caves are the definition of generic.

Caption The mysterious cabal.

   Sprites are where this game's graphics shine best. The NPCs that wander through towns look like something out of a Quintet title on the SNES, and PAL's use of the 16-bit style of graphics throughout has ensured that it has at least aged better than many of its contemporaries. Monster sprites in combat look more like something out of Earthbound, with colorful, caricaturish designs that are entertaining in their own right. However, the game would have one believe that all battles take place on the street, at night, with a single street lamp directly above the party. There's simply no background to speak of in combat, except in a few rare instances where the enemy is the background.

   The game's difficulty level varies considerably as the player advances. Early on, it's practically a cakewalk. Later in the game, the enemies get mountains of HP, making each battle into a slog that drains away precious resources. There are several instances where the player is forced to go through multiple battles with the same semi-generic mooks, with each one feeling like a mini-boss battle in its own right, before facing the actual boss of that area. In the final act, the player can only use Pal, however, and this is where things really start to feel unfair. There are half a dozen boss battles in the endgame, including the game's only two-boss team up, the only element-shuffling boss, and the only boss to rely on stat-reducing skills. And then there's the final boss, a behemoth of hit points that can take an hour to whittle down to size, even with a spell that allows for multiple actions in a turn. Any fun the game might provide has withered up and blown away by this point. It's enough to make the game's palpable pre-battle loading times trivial in comparison.

   One last oddity to mention is the game's configuration menu. It is possible to have the Accept and Decline/Menu buttons, usually set to Circle and X, instead be mapped to the L1/2 or R1/2 buttons. Likewise, the directional controls may be switched to the O/X/Square/Triangle buttons, making this game playable one-handed on either side. While it's not really that handy, it does allow the player to keep playing while doing more worthwhile things like checking YouTube videos.

   Lest one think this title has no redeeming qualities, there is the soundtrack. With half a dozen battle tracks and unique themes for each locale, PAL provides a decent auditory experience. Tracks include rock-and-roll, pseudo-rap and hip-hop, synthesizer jazz, and Okinawan shamisen rock influences, making this the only part of part of the game to show quality all the way through.

   In all seriousness, I can see where this could have made for a good game. Maybe not a great game, but all the proper elements were there. With all its obvious issues, however, I have to declare this one to be half-baked at its best, and a total flop at its worst. Don't waste time on this one unless you really need something to keep you busy.

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