Sunday, October 23, 2011

Ok, this is really about Sengoku Basara.

After having been reminded that I had not talked about it very much, except to cryptically refer to it inthe title of an April blog post, it seems I should get around to talking about Sengoku Basara, and its predecessor, Devil Kings.

When I got a PS2, it was the Christmas after it launched. I was all excited to finally have a DVD player and Tekken Tag Tournament and a way to play PS1 games that didn't involve putting the unit on its side. Despite the good reviews, I had avoided Dynasty Warriors 2. I somehow had gotten the impression that it was a strategy game and you were not directly controlling a character, but merely giving orders to an army out on a battlefield and watching it play out. When I first saw Command and Conquer on PC, I was turned off by the indirect control and didn't want to play a PS2 game where I just clicked on a map and shouted at the screen about how bad my troops were. So, I skipped the Dynasty Warriors series because of my misconception about the game, even though it had gotten good reviews. It wasn't a tough thing to skip this game as there were lots of other good games for PS2 that I hadn't played. Since I had skipped this I opted to also skip Capcom's Devil Kings when it came out, since the way it was marketed I thought that they were similar games. As it turns out, they are similar games, but I was wrong about both Dynasty Warriors and Devil Kings.

It is true that Devil Kings takes place on a large battlefield with many characters on screen, and there is some strategy to it, but for the most part, you control a single character and your so-called allied troops don't do a doggone thing other than get in trouble and make you have to rescue them. Most of the weapons in the game are fantasy versions of feudal weapons, and the characters that you play as all seem to have some supernatural power tied in to them. The Dynasty Warriors games are similar in that you control a single player on a large battlefield, and try to meet certain battle conditions. The biggest difference is that the Dynasty Warriors games take place in China around the end of the HanDynasty and into the Three Kingdoms period. Devil Kings takes place in Japan nearly 1200 years later in the Sengoku, or Warring States period.

A friend of mine had played Devil Kings because it had made it down to the bargain bin and it was a Capcom game, so he gave it a try. When he explained the game to me from his perspective, it seemed a little less like a strategy game and more like a conventional action game. I had mostly forgotten about the conversation other than to remember that he had a lot of fun playing it, and went back to playing whatever it was that I was playing. At the time, it was probably Devil May Cry 3 or Pikmin.

Some time later, probably around the time I was looking for a Gamecube copy of Killer 7 last year, I had spotted both Chaos Legion and Devil Kings for PS2 in the really cheap bin in a GameStop that I was driving past every Friday at the time. I couldn't remember with 100% certainty which of the two games my friend had already played, but I thought it was Devil Kings. Then, I couldn't remember if he had played Chaos Legion or not, but both games gave off a Devil May Cry vibe. Devil Kings goes so far as to use the same font for the title that Devil May Cry does. The character on the Chaos Legion box has that same steely gaze as Devil May Cry's protagonist, Dante, and it has some blurbs on the back imploring people that liked Devil May Cry to try Chaos Legion. Since they were both Capcom games and bargain priced besides, I picked up both of them. I didn't want to get one only to find out later that I should have gotten the other one. I started both the games, got a basic idea of the gameplay, and then called my friend back. He confirmed that Devil Kings was the game that he played, and that he had not played Chaos Legion. I got the idea from the opening movies that the art style of Chaos Legion would be much to my friend's liking, so I sent Chaos Legion to him later. (I never did hear if he liked Chaos Legion or not.)

So that leaves us with Devil Kings. As it turns out, the game is a lot of fun, and I had not played anything on PS2 that was anything like it except for the God of War games. Certainly, God of War does a great job of making you feel like you have to fight against an entire army yourself, and I really like the feeling of being able to tear into large groups of enemies (and not have the game slow down like Gauntlet:Dark Legacy does). I looked up some things online about the game, and found out that it was an overly Americanized version of a game they had made for a Japanese audience called Sengoku Basara. They changed the names of all the characters to presumably suit an American audience, they tweaked the attack system a little to make it more stylish like "Devil May Cry", and they made the map of feudal Japan into a more generic looking land mass so Americans wouldn't have to feel they were playing something based on history in the slightest.

Looking at it now, the game looks a little dated, with enemies popping in to view once you get close enough, and some fog in the backgrounds, but the gameplay is still fun. Each level has a map up in the corner to show you where you, your commanders, the enemy commanders, and where the bosses are. The camera is situated behind you and slightly above. It feels like a brawler, or like the aforementioned God of War, as you fight through hordes of enemies with swords and pikes and various other weapons from the era. (Of course, since I tend to play games without cultural context due to playing them at different times as everybody else, I was unaware that this and Chaos Legion is part of a genre referred to as 'hack and slash'.) A couple of characters have guns, but thankfully you are spared the tedium of endless reloading that the single shot rifles of the feudal era would have required. As you fight, you build up Fury Drive, filling up a bar that lets you unleash a super attack when completed. The controls involve two attack buttons, the fury attack button, a jump button, a block button, and a button that modifies your two regular attacks into some alternate attacks. There are a dozen or so characters to choose from but not all are available at the outset. Each time you play through the story of each character, you level up their attributes a little more. Nothing stops you from playing through on Easy a bunch of times to level up, but you only get 70% of the experience points that you would get playing on Normal, and you don't get the better treasures when you play it too safe. As you level up a character you can pick different weapons and different alternate attacks for them. Also, some treasures collected in levels help you modify your attack and defense attributes as needed, and you are given an opportunity to change them around at the beginning of each level. You are given your pick of enemies at each stage, usually one of two or three, but bear in mind that anybody that you don't fight could come up again later. By the last stage, you have no choice in who to fight since they'll be the only opponent left. You can't save in the middle of a stage, but typically the stages last only a few minutes. I really like that you can play a single session and still make progress. I also like that you can play the same level in different ways and potentially reap different rewards. Some levels even give you experience point bonuses based on meeting certain battle conditions.

The game got horrible reviews at the time, partly due to the heavy-handed localization. This seems ridiculous to me, since people playing Devil Kings were largely unaware that there was a corresponding Japanese game called Sengoku Basara, so I can't see why the localization mattered that much to the review score. The Japanese game has characters pulled from history - the leader Nobunaga Oda is the character in Devil Kings called Devil King.

So since Devil Kings was so fun to play, my older son and I were so excited that Sengoku Basara 3 was made available on Wii as Sengoku Basara:Samurai Heroes. The graphics are greatly improved, due in to no small part to Capcom porting their MT Framework engine to Wii as MT Framework Lite. (There is also a PS3 version, which runs on the full-size MT Framework engine.) Correction: Even the PS3 version runs on the 'Lite' version of MT Framework. Two player splitscreen co-op was included, many more stages are available, more items and weapons were included, some characters were added, although a few characters from Devil Kings are now NPC's, and an Ally system was added to single player mode. As you progress through the game, in addition to collecting items, you can collect allies. When playing in single player mode, you can take one ally with you. As you use them more, they level up their particular attribute. Some Allies are suited to fighting on certain types of stages, some have elemental attacks, some are suited to fighting certain types of enemies. Another thing that I really like in the game is being able to see on the map by color what areas you have already captured, and where the enemies are. All the character names reverted to the original Japanese names, so now my son and I now have confusing conversations involving Japanese names and the corresponding stupid American names from Devil Kings.

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