Review: Toukiden: The Age of Demons (Sony Playstation Vita)

Toukiden: The Age of Demons
Genre: Action
Developer: Omega Force
Publisher: Tecmo Koei
Release Date: 2/11/14

Though it’s taken a while for the genre to pick up steam, Monster Hunter style games are starting to become more common, stateside and abroad. US fans have already seen a few releases, with games like Dragon’s Dogma and Gods Eater Burst making their way stateside, while Japan has a fairly large amount of exclusive Monster Hunter titles and games that have yet to be ported, like God Eater 2. The Vita in particular seems like something of a fertile ground for such games, which makes a certain amount of sense; with Capcom having migrated the Monster Hunter series over to the 3DS, other developers have every reason to try to create a game that can achieve a success on Sony’s current generation handheld now that Capcom isn’t around to do so. It is a little surprising to see Omega Force try their hand at such a thing, however; while the developer is absolutely known for their solid development work, this comes almost entirely from their work on the Dynasty Warriors franchise. It might not seem like it at first, but there’s a good bit of difference between making a game where you mow through thousands of dudes with crazy special attacks and making a tactical action game where you take on giant monsters that are far more likely to smear you than you are them. The end result of this attempt, Toukiden: The Age of Demons, actually ends up being a pretty good effort, largely because it simplifies a lot of the elements that make Monster Hunter difficult to approach for newcomers while adding in new elements that give the game its own unique feel. While the game does oversimplify a bit too much sometimes, for the most part the end result is a game that allows players a much easier learning curve than some of its contemporaries, as well as mechanics that should interest diehard genre fans enough to give it more than a passing glance.

The basic plot of Toukiden is one that anyone who has played a game in the genre before should recognize: you’re a new recruit who has been dispatched to the town of Utakata to help shore up their efforts at demon hunting, as their staffing is a bit lax and they’re basically one bad battle away from the whole town being wiped out. From here you more or less become the chosen one through a combination of brute force and random chance, giving the townspeople hope as you rend demons asunder and deliver the town from its fate through the power of your combat skills and pure, uncompromising lack of dialogue. Pretty much every game in the “hunt giant monsters for upgrades and survival” genre has some variation of this plot, so genre fans won’t come away from the game with any sort of new take on the story. Toukiden takes its cues more from God Eater than Monster Hunter in this regard, however, as it introduces several allied characters, each with their own personalities and uses, to fill in story elements instead of leaving the gameplay to carry along the experience. Their personalities aren’t anything new and novel and you’ve probably seen similar characters in other games before, but the game does a fine enough job of building up its ensemble cast and giving all of them clear and understandable motivations. The game also offers you the option to increase your loyalty with the various characters, which, while not new in the strictest sense, is practically unheard of in the genre, and it’s actually pretty interesting to see it here. While you won’t likely take anything substantial away from the game’s plot, or choose party members based on their personalities over their combat capabilities, you’ll more than likely find the plot to be solid enough to carry the experience, and that’s honestly good enough for the type of game this is.

Toukiden has a definite visual flair to it, owing in large part to its use of feudal Japanese aesthetics and its generally strong art direction. On a technical level the game is solid; characters are well animated and combat animations are fluid, the game looks solid in motion, and the giant monsters you face down are basically all very impressive and imposing when you first meet up with them. The artistry of the game is where it shines, however, as it does a lot with its ingrained mythology to make the experience feel unique. Each of the different realms you visit draws its inspiration from a different period of Japanese history, giving each realm a unique and interesting presentation, as well as its own varied risks and style. Further, the oni you face all draw from Japanese folklore in some form or fashion, so those who have some familiarity with Japanese folklore may find the inspiration interesting, while those who don’t will still find the monsters impressive and awe-inspiring in their own way. Aurally the game also does a good job of evoking the feudal Japanese aesthetic, as the soundtrack features several strongly composed pieces that evoke this theme effectively, whether in battle or at rest. The voice work in the game is entirely Japanese, so those who would rather have an English dub won’t find it here, but the performances here are mostly fitting to the characters associated and the voice work itself is generally pretty good. The important storyline bits of dialogue are also translated well so you won’t miss anything but the random bits of dialogue characters shout in battle, which are likely nothing important in any case. The sound effects are exactly what you’d expect from such a game, as battle noises are appropriately powerful and match the weapons associated, while the various oni sound about as threatening as their respective size would dictate, giving them added personality beyond their freakish appearances.

For those who haven’t yet checked out the demo, Toukiden plays roughly how you’d expect a game from this genre to play, though if you’re coming into the genre brand new, you’ll still find the controls to be easy enough to understand. The left and right sticks control movement and the camera perspective, respectively, while the face buttons offer you a light and heavy attack (both of which can be chained into combos), a dodge/interact action, and a special attack button that provides different effects depending on the weapon you’re currently carrying. Holding down the left trigger will allow you to lock onto the closest enemy to you, though you can switch targets on the fly once lock-on is engaged, making targeting specific enemies easier than it might be otherwise. You can also hold down the right trigger while moving to break out into a run if you need to clear ground quickly for one reason or another. The game uses the standard health and stamina bars you’ve likely come to expect from the genre, though stamina use isn’t as restrictive here as it can be in other games, as you’ll only deplete stamina when running, dodging, and when your special move state is active, so normal attacking doesn’t deplete it at all. As such, newcomers should be able to work with what the game does and adjust without too much trouble, and genre fans should find that they have a good idea what’s going on from jump, though the mechanics should be slightly easier to manage than they may expect.

Toukiden comes into its own once you start being exposed to the more advanced systems in play, as they change up how the game functions a good bit. Your characters don’t have an inventory to speak of out on the battlefield, so curatives and status modifying items aren’t a thing to expect here. What you’ll work with instead is Mitama, which are essentially the souls of dead warriors that you’ll find on the battlefield and affix to your weapons to impart various benefits in battle. Mitama influence your performance in two ways: first, their type dictates the special abilities you have access to in battle, and second, each Mitama also imparts passive bonuses that improve your performance in some way when equipped. Regarding the first point, each Mitama offers four skills that can be kicked on when you’re in Purification stance, by holding down the right trigger without moving, and pressing the corresponding face button. Each Mitama’s skills vary depending on the type of Mitama (though self-healing is always assigned to X) so an Attack Mitama will offer damage-dealing boosts, a Healing Mitama will offer health and stamina recovery effects, and so on. Whichever Mitama you have set as the primary will influence what skills you have available to you in battle, so you can equip whatever Mitama you think offers the best skillset for a given mission based on personal preference and group needs. Regarding the second point, each Mitama offers passive boosts based on the Mitama itself and its current level, meaning it might increase your statistics, improve combat capability, increase the stock of specific skills you have equipped, or other fun things. Any Mitama you have equipped will contribute its passive skills to your abilities, so if you have multiple slots in a weapon, each Mitama will impart its statistical bonuses to you when slotted into your weapon, so it pays to level up multiple Mitama instead of focusing on one. Mitama can either level up in battle, as they earn experience while you kill things, or can be improved in town by talking to the shrine maiden Shikimi, who can level up Mitama in exchange for Haku, the currency used in the game.

While fighting demons is simplified somewhat due to the lack of an inventory, meaning you don’t have to carry around all kinds of crazy items to help in combat, there are also a few novelties to be aware of when you’re running about the different ages. You’re given access to a skill dubbed the “Eye of Truth” early on that allows you to basically see the space between dimensions; in gameplay terms, this shows enemy health bars, the condition and location of breakable limbs on boss monsters, and hidden items in the environment. While normal enemies can simply be beaten on until they die, larger oni instead must have their limbs hacked off to reveal their weak points before you can really tear into them. Each limb changes color when viewed through the Eye of Truth, from white to red, before it finally breaks away from the oni; this stuns the oni as they create a shadowy phantom version of the limb, which takes physical damage when attacked, allowing you to actually do damage to the creature proper. This brings us to the next point of consideration, in the Purification stance. When you slay an enemy or hack off a limb, holding down the right trigger kicks you into this stance so long as the button is held and you take no damage, allowing you to purify the body or body part into a useful item. It’s essentially carving, for lack of a better term, though with some notable differences; multiple people purifying the same item will expedite the process, the amount of time spend purifying an item depends on what it is (IE small oni take seconds, large oni parts take upwards of a minute) and every player gets an item when a purification is performed, period. You’ll really want to dog-pile on purifying the components of larger oni when they drop, not only because of the items given for doing so, but also because large oni can initiate techniques that allow them to reattach their severed limbs if they physically exist in the world. If they succeed, it makes beating them that much harder, and robs you of the loot until you cut off the limb again, so you’ll want to get into the habit of purifying frequently to make progress.

While you don’t carry items out into the field of battle, you do earn them frequently during missions, either from purifying enemies or as rewards post-mission. Generally, any items you acquire can either be used to create new gear, fulfill requests, or to sell to the vendor in town for Haku. You can manage gear with the blacksmith in town, who will either allow you to create a new piece of equipment if you have the components and Haku to do so or upgrade existing gear once you’ve maxed your current affinity to the piece. Creating new gear is generally done by ruining large oni and collecting their disembodied pieces to forge into armor and weapons, which improve as you go on and add elemental damage/resistances based on the type of monster you faced. Upgrading gear is totally free and only requires that you’ve been through enough combat to raise your affinity at the current level, and makes minor improvements to your stats for doing so. In the case of weapons, this can also open up added Mitama slots, allowing you to equip multiple Mitama at once for more statistical improvements. Now, some items you find don’t factor into equipment making, but instead often pop up as requirements for requests the townsfolk will ask you to take on. You can have five requests active at any one time, and by turning it the items requested, you’ll earn Haku, items and occasionally upgrades to your storage space in your home, so it pays to take on and complete these requests whenever you can. These requests can also improve the affinity of those who request them with your character, which, depending on the character, imparts various benefits. Finally, you can just sell your unwanted goods to the town merchant, which not only earns you Haku, but also improves your standing with him. He essentially ascribes values to your transactions with him that improve your customer ranking, and as you improve said ranking he opens up new items and weapons for you to purchase. You can probably go farm oni for many of the items he sells, of course, but there’s a certain amount of benefit in not having to do so, so it’s something to keep in mind.

Outside of the above, the town also has a few other useful things to poke around with. There’s a tree spirit of questionable nature in town that you can give Haku to in order to receive blessings, which are generally items of variable worth, and as you go along he’ll ask for increasingly larger sums while providing better items in the process. You can also talk to the random townsfolk to potentially unlock new missions if they have something of interest to say, so checking in every so often isn’t a bad idea. You can also return to your house, which allows you to save your game, check any messages that have been delivered, check your inventory and change equipment at your leisure. Early on, you’re also given a Tenko, a multi-tailed fox spirit pet who will scavenge the various ages you can enter for items while you’re out on missions, so if nothing else, sending it off on such errands is probably worth doing consistently. It can also change colors when it returns, which means that it has a greater chance of finding better stuff depending on the color it is at the time. You can also check the records of demons you’ve faced in battle as well as the affinity each of the villagers has with you, boost your stats by praying to the gods and donating to them before battle, and visit the hot springs to potentially hang out with the townsfolk in various states of undress, for those who are into that sort of thing.

Once you get out into the field of battle, things are generally more or less the same regardless of where you are or what your objective is. You’re started off at the same place depending on the age the mission takes place in, and you’ll have to either kill a bunch of smaller enemies, kill one giant enemy, or find various items in the field to interact with/bring back with you. The game’s combat zones are divided into various ages, which represent different periods of historical Japan, as the game world is such that there are dimensional rifts connecting to these combat planes that can be accessed as needed. Each age is aesthetically and structurally different from the last, and often contains different enemies based on the environmental differences, as well as different large oni that pop up as part of missions (though these can cross over depending on various circumstances). You can take on the various missions alone or in a group, though playing in a group is a far better choice, as not only do you have multiple bodies to supplement damage and boosts, but you also have allies on the field to help you should you go unconscious. If you take enough damage to knock you out solo, you basically have to retreat back to the entry point of the zone and head back to where you were to keep going. If you get knocked out in a group, however, your allies can run to your body and go into Purification stance to bring you back into the fight with a fraction of your health, allowing you to heal up and get back into battle. You can also do the same for them, so if everyone somehow runs out of healing, if you can keep bringing everyone back from unconsciousness you can still potentially salvage the situation, so even if you’ve burned everything you’ve got on the enemy, you still have a chance if you can keep everyone upright long enough to take it out.

You can take the game on in either single player or multiplayer mode, each of which changes up the elements of play a bit. In both cases you’ll essentially take on missions and head out into battle, either with a party of CPU controlled NPC’s or with your allied party members through online play. When playing offline, you’ll go through the game’s seven chapters locally (five of which are plot heavy, while the last two are more challenge based) with the AI allies, boosting allegiances, finding awesome gear and generally building up your character. When playing online, you and your friends can take on missions at a level equivalent to the lowest level online player in the group, allowing you to plow through missions similar to those of the storyline, without the associated plotlines. You can also find exclusive gear in both modes to boost your character’s performance, in case the online or offline modes were not appealing on their own merits. There are also plenty of Trophies to unlock as you plow through the game for those who are interested, and there’s honestly a hundred or so hours of content to the game, all told, between the online and offline play, character affinities, and exclusive gear each mode holds, so anyone who loves the genre or collecting powerful gear and wrecking monsters will have a blast here.

That said, while Toukiden is simplified to a level where most players should be able to jump in and play it fairly easily, that simplification comes at the price of making the game feel too simple in comparison to its brethren. There are only six types of weapons to carry into battle, for instance, and while there’s a decent amount of weapons to build in those categories, a little more variety would have been appreciated. Part of this comes from the limited amount of giant oni you can face; while Monster Hunter has had years to build up a laundry list of monsters to face, that doesn’t entirely excuse the limited amount of monsters you’ll face off against here, unfortunately. The limitations in variety also generally mean that you’ll end up moving on to the next weapons and armor you can create simply because they’re generally better even if their elemental affinities might not be ideal simply because, overall, they’ll have better overall stats, while other games offer a large variety of gear and give you reasons to swap and mix things up. You can’t carry items into battle, either, and while you can use the mystical stones around the game world to replenish some of your skills to keep you going, the lack of an inventory and the ability to fill it with things you might need removes a lot of the strategy of the experience. It also bears noting that the game does, eventually, turn into something of a grind-fest when you want to build boss armors, especially when some bosses simply refuse to drop the one item you need to finish the set, or when you find a set that needs an item you’ve never seen before and have no idea where to find. This is par for the course, certainly, but given the simplification done to so much of the game outside of this, simplifying random drops (especially since this starts as early as the second chapter) would’ve gone a long way toward earning goodwill with new players or those who hate Monster Hunter for this exact reason.

All told, Toukiden: The Age of Demons can essentially be considered something of an entry level game in the “hunt giant monsters” genre, as it removes a lot of the ponderous management aspects and adds in plot and fun mechanics that end up giving the game a lot of personality, even if all the simplification isn’t entirely beneficial overall. The plot works well enough and the characters are generally likable, if not exceptionally unique, the game looks and sounds great on the Vita, and the core mechanics should be easy to pick up for basically anyone. The specialized systems, such as Purification, the Eyes of Truth, and Mitama all add a lot to the experience that’s lacking in similar titles, giving the game its own unique feel and style, and there’s plenty to see and do in the game online and off to keep interested parties coming back for more. The simplification of the experience hurts a little in the variety department as the game lacks the sheer volume of enemies and gear something like Monster Hunter has, the lack of usable inventory items reduces some of the strategy of the game, and there’s grinding early and often in the game, which probably should have been slimmed down in the early going at the least. Toukiden should give newcomers a way to learn the basics of the genre without feeling like they’re being punished while also giving some variety and novelty to genre fans, and anyone with a Vita who’s itching to slay some giant monsters would do well to pick this up as soon as they can.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Toukiden: The Age of Demons is something of a “Monster Hunter for people who hate Monster Hunter” experience, as it simplifies the mechanics of the genre and tacks on some novelty and plot to give newcomers a helping hand and diehards fun toys to use, at the cost of some variety along the way. The plot is actually fairly solid and offers some decent characters, the game looks and sounds great on the Vita, and the gameplay should be accessible to newcomers and fans alike. The added gameplay options expand the customization and gameplay noticeably, and with online and offline play complete with unique gear in each, there’s plenty of reason to pick the game up any time and play through it in both modes. The game lacks in variety due to a lot of the streamlining of the experience, which also reduces the battle strategy due to a lack of an inventory to use in the field, and the game goes to the grinding well too early and often which may upset newer players since that’s a sticking point of similar titles. Still, the overall package Toukiden offers is one that should offer plenty of appeal to anyone who wants to obliterate giant monsters with feudal Japanese weaponry, regardless of whether they’re a genre fan or not, and it’s well worth picking up if you can overlook its flaws.

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