Review: River King: Mystic Valley (Nintendo DS)

River King: Mystic Valley
Publisher: Natsume
Developer: Marvelous
Genre: Sports – Fishing
Release Date: 04/29/2008

Here’s the thing: I HATE fishing. I hate the sitting on a pontoon for hours hoping to catch an animal only to have the hook enter the poor thing in some hideous way other than the mouth and then having to kill, clean and gut it. Or worse, the fish is too small and because the hooks went through the girls or eyes or some such, it has to be killed anyway; just not for food.

However there is something Zen about being in the middle of a lake or river, communing with nature and allowing yourself to be free of society and modern technology. This is probably the reason I have always loved the River King franchise. It’s one of the few video games that teaches patience and you don’t have to feel bad when that perch or sunfish dies a terrible agonizing death. YAY VIDEO GAMES.

This is the fifth game in the River King series to hit US shores and the fourth on a portable system. It’s also the first on the Nintendo DS, so I was quite eager to try the game with the touch pad and stylus controls. With the River King franchise skipping the GBA generation of handhelds in the US, this is Natsume’s first portable River King in seven years. Does the latest entry into the series do it justice, or were we better off with a big thick battery guzzling old school Game Boy?

Let’s Review

1. Story

Hello there nameless mute protagonist! Welcome back from 9 bit and 16 bit RPG’s. It’s now2008, but we missed you!

As the main character you return home one morning to find your little sister Yunna has fallen asleep and is unable to awaken. Your oder friend Sasara, who is a biologist believes Yunna has fallen under a magical curse that can only be broken by a scale from the River King itself. The River King is basically the spirit of fresh water fish. As your main character loves fishing, he sets out on a journey to hook and reel in the River King, and so save his sister.

That’s the whole story in a nutshell. There really isn’t a lot of plot to the game. You just fish, buy new stuff, and fish again until you unlock something that lets you advance to a new area and repeat until after many, many long grueling hours, you catch the River King. Through your travels you’ll meet a lot of new characters and even befriend some monster babies you’ll adopt as your pets. None of them are truly fleshed out to the detail you would expect from a 40+ hour game, but they are charming nonetheless.

If you’re looking for something like Harvest Moon which balances story with simulation, you won’t find it here. 85 percent plus of Mystic Valley is fishing. Flat out nothing but fishing. It’s why this particular River King is classified as a sports title rather than a simulation.

The plot is very shallow and almost an after thought, but the character do have their charms and you’ll grow attached to them far quicker than you imagined you could.

Story Rating: Mediocre

2. Graphics

Obviously there is huge improvement in the graphics when you compare River King Mystic Valley to its Game Boy and Game Boy Colour predecessors. However when compared to other DS titles, this latest River King doesn’t hod up as well.

The character designs are nice and the outworld graphics are decent. The water effects are some of the better that I’ve seen on the DS, but I’ve still seen better (Pokemon D/P for example)..

Where the game really falls apart visually is in the actual fishing graphics. Your top screen shows your character with his pole in the lake and your stamina and line tension gauges. The bottom is a poorly rendered showing of a blob of a fish in some pretty nondescript water. In fact the water doesn’t even look like water. It’s more a blue background that occasionally ripples. I was really disappointed in this as the actual visuals of the fish themselves should have been a huge selling point of the game. Instead it looks like they were ripped out of a Sega Genesis fishing game.

I do think the character designs are very cute, even if your monster babies look like Schmoo from the Herculoids and they grow up to be furries. I loved the forests and waterfalls and all the terrains. It’s just too bad the ugliest part of the game is also the majority of the game.

Graphics Rating: Mediocre

3. Sound

Sound is a bit tricky, because there’s very little noise in the game. In fact, most of the game is eerily silent. The only real music you get is in your house or the game’s title screen. Everything else is pretty silent save for the occasional sound effects, and even those depend on what part of the map you are in. The mountain stream for example sounds exactly like a bubbling brook with a waterfall beside it. It’s quite uncanny. It’s just that that is the ONLY sound you get except for when you meet Ayaha. The quiet fits the fishing nature of the game, but it can be unsettling at times. Especially during the fishing itself where you’re sitting and waiting for a bite. It’s even worse when you are fishing because all you here is the never ending sound of your line being reeled in.

The lack of sound is realistic, but also quite boring. At least the rare bits of music are very well done and quite serene. I really wish the game showed off its score more frequently. Instead you’re stuck with little to no noise save for your line being brought back to shore with a wriggly fish in tow for the majority of the game.

Sound Rating: Mediocre

4. Control and Gameplay

For the most part controls are pretty solid, but there are a few issues that can break the game for the more detail oriented gamer.
The fishing gameplay is pretty simple, and yet it mimics real fishing quite well. You pick your type of rod and either bait, lure, or fly (depending on your rod) and you cast it into the water. Once a fish bites, you press A and you go into battle with the fish! Well, not a battle like you’d see in a RPG or Street Fighter, but it’s man vs. fish nonetheless.

Once you’ve locked in a fish, you take your stylus and make small clockwise circles. Each one brings you a step closer to landing the fish. The fish will struggle and try to break free however, so watch your tension gauge. If it fills up, the fish will break free. In order to empty the bar, you are SUPPOSED to click in the lower right hand part of the screen, but the actual position you are supposed to click in never seems to stay put; either from fish to fish, or even each time you empty the gauge on the same fish. This can be very frustrating as you peck all over the screen trying to fins where the spot is now. Meanwhile the fish is undoing all your reeling in by swimming away. It would have been nice if Marvelous including a specific spot to do this on the screen saying “Tap here.” Instead each time you fish is a game of guess and check once the bar fills up.

When a fish tries to run with your line, you are supposed to tap the opposite side of the screen from where it is running to pull it back in. You can also press the D pad, which actually works much better. IN fact, you can just hold the D pad down and it will work far more efficiently.

When you land a fish you earn points that can be traded it for new items, food, or fishing equipment. The fish you catch can be kept in your basket until you get enough of one type of fish to trade in your fish cards. Fish Cards can then be kept just to have for a collection, or you can trade them in for more points. Personally I keep the cards just to have them. You can also feed the fish to your pet. Each fish fills up their XP bar, although the amount it fills depends on how much the pet likes that particular type of fish. When the XP bar is filled, the pet evolves into a new form and it’s special ability increases. There are a number of pets to earn, each with their own abilities.

There is one other issue I have with the controls. The game really REALLY does not want you to position your character diagonally when you cast your line. I’m not sure why, but it is exceptionally hard to get your character into a diagonal position. As many times, this can be to your advantage instead of straight vertical or horizontal casting, you will find yourself frustrated by this limitation.

For the most part, the gameplay of Mystic Valley is solid and fun, but there is certainly room for improvement. Not a bad first try on the DS though.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Good

5. Replayability

Here’s the thing. River King: Mystic Valley is a long game and it is exceptionally linear. You do a lot of work for little to no reward. It takes some time to evolve your pet, or to move on to the next phase of the story or even to raise your fishing rank. In fact, with fishing rank, you never know when it is going to go up, or why. It just happens. If there was some sort of clue, like an XP gauge, it would be easier. Instead, you just raise rank for no fathomable reason.

Because the game is so long, advancements are nebulous at best, and the only thing that will change on your next playthrough is what fish you catch or what order you buy items in, the game really is a one time play title. Of course, most playthroughs of Mystic Valley will be at least 40 hours long, and even that is low-baling it. With that one playthrough though, you’ll find yourself playing the game quite a bit in order to get cards, gain new pets, or make new friends. It’s a lot of fun, especially with the wi-fi enabled fishing tournaments, but there is absolutely no reason to ever start a second game. Just keep your first character and all your earned items and cards.

There’s a lot of replay value in your one game, but you’d have to be an idiot to start from scratch a second or third time, especially with all the features you’ll lose because of it.

Replayability Rating: Mediocre

6. Balance

River King: Mystic Valley is an incredibly well-balanced game. Each type of fish has their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as their own likes and dislikes for bait. Each of your pets also has their own fish preferences, and no one pet is truly better than another. Tenuki and Tengu help you reach new locations, while Kyubi can refresh your stamina and also helps you catch fish. The first two are the best for advancing the plot or discovering new fish, but for all out fish catching, your fox girl is your best bet.

There are no severe challenges in the game, but advancement is due to luck. You might have the correct rod and bait, and you might be in the right location for the fish you are trying to get, but that doesn’t mean it will bite your hook. You might get a totally different fish altogether, or none at all. Patience and acceptance are the two key factors to succeed at River King since it goes so incredibly slow.

Gamers who can accept both a slow grind and reward scheme will fins an exceptionally made game guaranteed to test you, if not challenge you.

Balance Rating: Unparalelled

7. Originality

Although this is the fifth game in the US, there are over a dozen River King games; even more if you count the salt water (RK is a fresh water series) spin offs that have yet to hit US shores. The only real new things here are the pets (and even that is a gimmick at best) and the new touch screen based controls. I love the new controls save for the occasional detection issue they have, and it makes Mystic Valley the best of the series gameplay wise so far.

Still, the game is like most Natsume titles: a nearly complete and utter rehash squeezing blood from a stone where a face lift could do the series wonders.

Originality Rating: Bad

8. Addictiveness

I had a lot of fun with this game. Whether it was advancing the plot, or catching enough of a particular fish to get a card, I was playing the games for hours at a time. I love the River King series and this is by far the best portable version yet to hit North America. It’s a very simple game in terms of story and gameplay, but that simplicity is what made it so much fun. You don’t have to have extreme hand-eye coordination like you do for bullet hell or joystick mastery like King of Fighters. River King: Mystic Valley is just a wonderful little fishing game where you can enjoy the plot and also drift off as you wait for a bite on your line. Very relaxing and enjoyable game.

Addictiveness Rating: Great

9. Appeal Factor

River King is a truly niche genre. Fishing games on their own are never huge sellers or very popular with mainstream gamers. Heck, besides this series, I think the only other fishing game I remotely enjoyed was Sega Marine Fishing. It’s just not something that transfers well to video games. Marvelous has done a wonderful job by including a fantasy story with your fishing gameplay and weaved it together into a great combination.

The problem still remains getting gamers to try this, much less make them aware the series exists. Fishing combined with Harvest Moon does not equal the type of game most US gamers would want to purchase. More’s the pity, as Mystic Valley is a solid game.

The vast majority of gamers will run from this as if it was the plague. Those of you who like indie games, obscure titles or innovative gameplay will find this title quite enjoyable indeed. I just wish there were more of you out there as it is a bitch trying to find someone to play against online.

Appeal Factor: Bad

10. Miscellaneous

I really had a lot of fun with this game despite its shortcomings. I really haven’t been a fan of the DS, finding the system exceptionally lackluster compares to the GB, GBC and GBA. That said, Mystic Valley is only title in my in my DS collection that doesn’t feature Pokemon or Bub N’ Bob. Everything else gets traded it or I give to another staff member. This should speak volumes to the quality of the title, even if the graphics are a little shabby and the music is only in the rarest of instances.

The game is solid, addicting, and offers some of the best touch screen based controls I’ve played on the system so far. There may not be a lot of extras, but the fishing tournament mode and the card collecting adds a lot of depth to the game, and the characters are very cute. Other Natsume fans can keep their Harvest Moon. Make mine River King

Miscellaneous Rating: Good

The Scores
Story: Mediocre
Graphics: Mediocre
Sound: Mediocre
Control and Gameplay: Good
Replayability: Mediocre
Balance: Unparalelled
Originality: Bad
Addictiveness: Great
Appeal Factor: Bad
Miscellaneous: Good
FINAL SCORE: ABOVE AVERAGE

Short Attention Span Summary

If you’re looking for something oft-kilter and relaxing, River King: Mystic valley just might be up your alley. It’s a fun game to play and it’s great for all ages. You might have issue with the outdated visuals and the lack of music for most of the game, but I hate fishing and I really liked this game, so if you find it, it’s definitely worth trying or renting, if not an instant purchase.

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