Review: Makai Kingdom (PS2)

Makai Kingdom
Developer: Nippon Ichi
Publisher: NIS America
Genre: SRPG
Release Date: 7.27.05

You know, when I first heard about Makai Kingdom, I was both excited and worried. I was excited because there hasn’t been a Nippon Ichi SPRG I’ve given under a 7. Rhapsody and Disagaea are in my top 30 RPG’s of all time, and I enjoy Phantom Brave and La Pucelle a lot. So my gut told me this was going to be another amazing game. However I was worried about how long a company could keep a streak of quality Strategy Role Play games alive. Especially a streak like this. It’s easily on par with Camelot’s Shining Force series in terms of sheer brilliance, until Sega started whoring out the franchise to make awful action RPG’s like Shining Tears and Shining Force Neo, which should be hitting Stateside eventually. My other worry came in the fact that they rushed Makai Kingdom through production. I was worried the short turn-around time from development to the shelves would leave this game strongly flawed. It’s an understandable worry, as there are many games that due to tight deadlines and bad planning, end up being amazingly awful. I hoped and prayed this would not be the fate of Makai Kingdom.

And guess what? My fears were needless. Makai Kingdom is a wonderful game, surpassing every other effort Nippon Ichi has produced. It’s even better than Disgaea in a certain ways, and that’s the game that won our 2003 GOTY award almost unanimously from the staff. And for me to say this occasionally outshines Disgaea? Well, that’s high praise indeed. Makai Kingdom has taken the best aspects of all their previous games and fused them together in a game that has so much to offer, that well…it may actually tax the limits of all but the most extremely zealous SRPG fans. Makai Kingdom is certainly a game that shows there can be too much of a good thing. Confused? Let’s take a look.

Let’s Review

1. Story

The Tale of Makai Kingdom is an odd one. It is the story of Lord Zetta, and yet you never play as him (At least your first time playing it). Lord Zetta is the most powerful overlord in the Multiverse. Remember Laharl from Disgaea? Zetta could destroy him without even getting up from the toilet.

However Zetta’s arrogance and overconfidence become his undoing after he learns from Pram, a demonic Oracle, that his Netherworld is going to be destroyed. Zetta sets out to find the Sacred Book and keep that future from occurring. Of course, in true tragic fashion, Zetta’s quest to save his reality ends up destroying it. And if not for some quick thinking, he too would have died as existence as he knew it ceased to exist. You see, Zetta confined his soul to the Sacred Book itself. The most powerful being in existence is now a tome of paper and dried out cow skin. In other words, Zetta still has all his power, but no way to use it.

And this is before the game even begins!

The actual game of Makai Kingdom revolves around Zetta and Pram enlisting other Overlords and Demons from across the Multiverse to help Zetta rebuild his Netherworld. How is this done? Various Overlords writer within the Sacred Book asking for bits of Zetta’s reality to be restored. Zetta must then conquer the pieces before him, and eventually his Netherworld will again exist permanently. The question is, will restoring Zetta’s reality also bring his body back?

Now, you’ll notice I mention that the plot revolved around Zetta and the Overlords, but you never play as them your first time through the game? The possibility to unlock plot based characters happens on your second to fifth walkthrough, but as most people don’t play games of the 60-100 hour mark more than once, this is a reward only the most hardcore of gamers will get to take part in. For the other 95% of you, you will be using ONLY characters that lack any personality or depth to them. Straight two dimensional characters that gain no individuality aside from you naming them. It’s rather a disappointment, but it does make sense. After all, Zetta has drafted souls into his Hellish army, and when is the last time you saw the leader of a country jump into the fray, wielding a sword or axe?

It comes down to the fact that Makai Kingdom has the best story and plot out of any Nippon Ichi game, with the most original and well developed characters they’ve made. The problem is the game focuses far too much on battles and mindlessly leveling up character with which there is no emotional attachment to. And thus, in spite of the wonderful story bits you get, there’s just very little plot or tale compared to other Nippon Ichi games, which are chock full of story. Rhapsody, one of Nippon Ichi’s first games, is a SRPG you can beat in under a dozen hours, and there’s more story in that game than the entire 60 or so hours you will put into Makai Kingdom if you streamline it.

And this flaw is the one you will see running through the entire game. Makai Kingdom gives you SO MUCH to do, but the little neglected bits stick out like a sore thumb.

Had the game been given more cut scenes or even a little depth given to the PLAYABLE characters, Makai Kingdom could have easily been one of the best games storywise made this generation. Instead it has to settle for being very good. And that really isn’t that bad of a consolation prize when you think about it.

Makai Kingdom is funny, well written, and has characters that are memorable in every way possible. It’s just too bad there’s so little of this, and the actual characters you play has have no personality at all.

Story Rating: 7/10

2. Graphics

Like all Nippon Ichi games, the graphics are okay, but nowhere push the power of the Playstation 2. This is a trait that is inherent in all Strategy RPG’s for some reason. It’s not a bad thing, as I’d rather have plot and a good engine than amazingly hi-tech graphics anyday. But Makai Kingdom does look like a game that could have been done on the PSX or Sega Saturn easily. Even the “poster” style graphics that happen during an occasional battle are…meh. A little above average, but there’s no reason why an older system couldn’t produce the same thing with a good development team.

Often you will see jaggies on both your characters and in the level design as well. It’s very oft-setting, especially as there are other SRPG’s that provide much better graphics, including other Nippon Ichi titles themselves.

What is nice about the graphics are the colours. Everything in the game is vibrant and brilliant looking. The game may not be up to the technological peak graphic wise, but all the special attacks look good for what they are, and some are even quite amusing. Character designs, especially the Overlords, range from Average, like Alexander and Salome, to highly original designs like Valvoga aka Mickey and pals. Even though Makai Kingdom doesn’t attempt to make the most of the PS2’s potential, what is here is quite decent and enjoyable. After all, you’re here to play a game, not to just stare at one, right?

Graphics Rating: 6/10

3. Sound

As always, Nippon Ichi does an amazingly job with the audio qualities of a game. The voice acting in Makai Kingdom is top notch, with Crispin Freeman earning another paycheck from these guys again; this time stepping into the role of Lord Zetta himself. The rest of the cast is equally skilled at delivering their lines. Of note is the fact Mickey aka the head and arms of Valvoga received the “Xellos” treatment here, with him being faaaaaabulously flaming. There’s not a single bad performance in the voice acting, even with the playable characters as they speak when they are summoned or attack. Every bit here is top notch.

The music is quite good too. It doesn’t detract from the gameplay at all, and stays in the background, letting you enjoy it without being overwhelmed. The music is quite appropriate for the game, but it’s nothing that would make you jump out and want to buy the soundtrack or anything. In fact, the music is quite forgettable unless you have the game on at the time. It’s the only real flaw in this category, but it is a flaw nonetheless.

For an added bonus, you can also get the original Japanese dialogue and voice actors by simply selecting it in the options menu. I find the original Japanese cast to not be as good or emotive as the NIS chosen cast, but it’s wonderful to see the option was included.
Whether you prefer English or Japanese babble to go along with your game, you will be very satisfied indeed with the product Nippon Ichi has provided us with.

Sound Rating: 9/10

4. Control/Gameplay

Wow. Just…wow. This is where Makai Kingdom really shines. And so it’s going to be a long section indeed. Please bear with me on this.

First up: The Phantom Brave engine returns. Unlike other SRPG’s, that use a tactical placement grid, Makai Kingdom reuses Nippon Ichi’s “Do what you like” style of gameplay. This means your characters are place on a map and can go just about anywhere based on their movement and jump ratings. This allows a lot more options than in most game of this genre, but of course, that also means those same options are open to the computer controlled opponents as well.

The freestyle gameplay for SPRG’s was not originated by Nippon Ichi. Camelot’s Shining Force (Twice I’ve mentioned that series in this review…) had it back in the days of the Sega Genesis, but Nippon Ichi has taken that concept and really perfected it. In Shining Force you could move anywhere in your allotted movement space and then attack, and that was it. In Makai Kingdom, you can move, attack, move some more, maybe climb into a Raider Hut or a Hospital, then jump out and get into a Mech! As long as you have movement left, your options are limited only by your imagination. It’s wonderful, and it is truly something you have to engage in first hand to truly understand why this engine is so loved by SRPG aficionados.

Next up, are the randomized dungeons. That’s correct. Instead of set battlefields you can memorize by buying a strategy guide and looking at your eventual opponents and layout, Makai Kingdom actually forces you to think by dealing with randomized monsters and maps. Now, this isn’t that new to longtime Nippon Ichi fans, as Disgaea and Phantom Brave had fixed maps, but gave you the option to play in randomly generated dungeons to cheese/level up. In Makai Kingdom, almost everything, except for certain important battles, is completely randomized.

Okay, not COMPLETELY randomized. You see, there are some aspects about each level you can know about before heading into each battle. Before each “Chapter” of the game, you must ask an Overlord to create a new piece of the Netherworld for you. Which Overlord you chose determines the type of random enemies that will occur, how powerful they will be, and also the size of the maps. Pram, for example, will make small battlefields with a tiny amount of monsters, primarily those that use magic. Valvoga will use mainly straightforward warrior types and give you simplistic levels. The Dragon Babylon will give you enormous world with lots of weird monsters. And so on for the others Overlords who will join with you. Knowing what each overlord gives you does help a bit in terms of preparation. But remember, you’re still just guessing until you start the battle.

As I mentioned in the Story section of the review, the vast majority of the game involves nameless characters who have no personalities and do battle for Zetta. This is a bit discouraging in regards to plot, but the gameplay more than makes up for it. There are FOURTY different classes and monster types. And each of these has 6 SUB types. That’s 240 different possible playable things in the game without any repetition. Like I said, this can be too much of a good thing, especially if you want to try and unlock all the playable things (Prinnies!). The real problem here is the fact that your characters can’t actually become a new class as they would in other SRPG’s. What you make is what you are stuck with. And as new classes open up, you’ll have to spend a lot of Mana to make them and then dump your old characters.

Or maybe you don’t. It’s all up to you. There’s also an option to sacrifice your characters and let them be reincarnated. In this way, your old original characters can achieve new classes. The problem is that they start back at level freaking ONE. So you’re probably wondering why you would do that, right? If you reincarnate a character, they receive MUCH higher beginning stats than a normal level one character would receive for being in that class. However, this entire process is long, drawn out, and boring to all but the most anal retentive or those suffering from OCD. I’m not a fan of it, as to go through it all adds literally hours to your gameplay time when you could actually be battling or getting more story. I’d have MUCH preferred to have a promotion style function in this game that take a character, remove all their items, go to a facility screen to see if you have enough Mana to make something and have enough left Mana over with another character to reincarnate the now dead character to the class you want, sacrifice them for a facility, and then reincarnate them while allotting the bonus points. The other problem with this is that EACH character gains Mana. There isn’t just one big Mana pool, so you may have all the Mana you need for say, an Academy, but you can’t use it as it is all dispersed. This also means you have to change your leader CONSTANTLY. It’s just too much work for a simple class change and this is the big annoyance about Makai Kingdom that ruins the game for me on occasion.

Luckily there is the transmigration wish, but that’s not very common. I played through the first 3 Chapters before I got a single character that could access transmigration as a wish to Lord Zetta. Annoying.

But this is really the only flaw in the game in terms of control or gameplay, and even then it is a preference/taste aspect rather than anything wrong with the game. Heck, there’s even a bug that make up for this where every so often the computer will accidentally clone one of your characters. Hey look! Now I have TWO level 63 Chef’s. Yay!

As mentioned sporadically in this review already, Makai Kingdom introduces the concept of facilities and vehicles to the Nippon Ichi multiverse. Vehicles are self-explanatory. You get a transporter to carry your guys around with, and also to run over or just generally slaughter your opponent.

Facilities are a bit more in depth though. Facilities can be summoned onto the battlefield like troops, and your opponents can do the same thing, although most often, their building(s) will already be on the map. Each building has a different aspect to it, such as the attack boosting dog house, to the Weapon Mastery increasing Library. Each building has its own power, and it really becomes a preference to the individual gamer. I prefer the Store and the Academy for a nice boost of XP and money (called Hell in Makai Kingdom).

Facilities are also the key to summoning extra characters onto the battlefield. Normally you can only have 8 characters on a battlefield and as each dies, that number drops. However, characters inside facilities don’t count as in play, so if someone gets weak or hurt, you can run them back and bring out someone new and healthy. You won’t use this tactic often, but it’s a great choice to have. As well, if you bring out a fire mage and it turns out your normally weak against magic enemy warrior has a 90% resistance to flames, you can shuttle hum back in and bring out an ice or wind Witch. It’s just another depth to the gameplay and it’s a lot of fun, especially to see a large building coming down on an enemy character. Squish!

Other things worth mentioning are the weapons in MK. Each character can use 3-4 different weapon types, and they gain weapon XP as well as level XP. So as their level in regards to a weapon grows, they will gain new powers as well. So it really pays to stick with one weapon type throughout the entire game for each character.

Well, I’ve covered all the basics you really need to know about the gameplay of Makai Kingdom. The controls are intuitive and they walk you through them for the first chapter or two so there’s no chance of you getting confused unless you burn your instruction manuals and skip through all the tech demos.

Makai Kingdom is one of the deepest, most customizable games ever made, if not THE deepest and most customizable. You can do and make just about anything your imagination says should be in a Strategy RPG. I honestly can’t imagine what Nippon Ichi is going to do to top what we have in Makai Kingdom without causing overkill and just imploding the whole genre.

Control and Gameplay: 10/10

5. Replayability

And here’s the catch 22. It’s going to take you about 60-100 hours to play through Makai Kingdom just once, depending on if you are just trying to unlock all the playable classes and monsters or trying to access the highest level subclasses. But then, if you want to get to the highest levels possibly, as so many Gygaxian munchkins are wont to in this day and age, Nippon Ichi happily obliges you by gives you levels much higher than 100. Add a couple 0’s to that number. But again, we have even more time sucked into this game.

Then there’s the fact that if you want to 100% complete Makai Kingdom and unlock everything, you have to beat this game FIVE times. Let’s take a rough average of just 60 hours per game. That’s 300 hours or 12.5 days straight of playing Makai Kingdom and nothing else. That’s overkill in my opinion. Obviously you won’t NEED to play the game that long in order to unlock everything, but my god, you could play just this game for half a year and not need anything else depending on how much time you play video games each week.

I have to give Makai Kingdom a 10/10 here because it does have infinite Replayability thanks to the customization, insanely high level maximum and so on, but Nippon Ichi is dangerously close to crossing that line between “Lots to do” and tedious repetitiveness. They haven’t hit it here yet, but NIS is going to have to take a long look at the difference between making a game LONG and making a game FUN, as far too many RPG franchises make this mistake, and I don’t want to see these guys go that route as well.

Replayability Rating: 10/10

6. Balance

Really, like all Nippon Ichi games, balance is the fatal flaw of Makai Kingdom. It’s just far too easy. With 2 healers equipped with books on the field (or a Healer and an idol/Heaven’s Bliss/Medic/what have you), you can run roughshod over 99% of the enemies you will encounter. Leveling up is also very easy thanks to the ability to create free dungeons and you can boost your characters to 3-10 times the level of the opponents you would fight in story mode.

But then, there’s the other 1% of the time. There are certain battles designed in such a way that you simply can not win your first time through the game. Which can be very frustrating to people new to the genre or who don’t get that you’re not supposed to win these battles. Imagine a players reaction when they encounter a Lvl 1100 and there guys are only in the mid 70’s.

Really the only time there is a decent challenge where you have to think to win are in the wish based battles you can access after you beat the game. I enjoy this as it lets you run through a host of classic Nippon Ichi characters. Nostalgia is a wonderful thing.

It would be nice if all the ability to get to level 9999 ever provided you with a challenge outside the rare battles o’ doom. But the game tends to be too long with too little challenge. That doesn’t mean Makai Kingdom’s not fun. It’s just not as rewarding as a few other SRPG’s out there that give you some impressive final battles for your first walk through.

Balance Rating: 4/10

7. Originality

In regards to plot, there’s not a single game out there like Makai Kingdom. The closest would be Nippon Ichi’s own Disgaea. Both deal with comical versions of the netherworld, demons, Prinnies and Hell, along with some character overlapping. But other than that, they feel like quite different games storywise.

In terms of gameplay. Makai Kingdom is a souped up version of the Phantom Brave engine. Yes, they’ve added vehicles and facilities, but it is primarily the same as playing Phantom Brave.

However, just became Makai Kingdom is mostly an amalgamation of two previous Nippon Ichi games, it doesn’t mean it’s lacking any originality. The plot is wonderful, there are all new characters, classes, monsters, and the level designs are quite different from anything Nippon Ichi has put out before. It’s a breath of fresh air compared to the vast majority of SRPG’s that have been released in the past decade, and this is certainly worth a look to see all the new things that have been added and what old things have been merged together

Originality Rating: 6/10

8. Addictiveness

For the first third of the game, Makai Kingdom is crack. You find yourself trying each new class and monster out, trying to level everyone up to see which is the best overall style of character, going through the character creation process several times to see what are the best stats you can get, and replaying dungeons to get more bonus items, hell, and XP. This is awesome! You can’t believe all there is to do and try out!

For the second third of the game, you start to find yourself getting bored and frustrated. HOW many more mana points until I can transmigrate? A THOUSAND mana points to have a stupid Prinny? WTF? You will find leveling up feeling a lot slower and you wished the game would just hurry up for srying out loud. You’ve burned yourself out.

For the final third, it’s fresh and exciting again. The battles are getting crazy damage and level wise, you’re able to access the best monsters and classes and you’re experimenting all over again. You’re so close to the ending, and you just want to keep having fun. You’ve basically caught your second wind and you’re remember what made you enjoy this game so much in the first place!

The problem then befalls on what happens after you have beaten the game. Are you really willing to play another 5 times to unlock everything? Or are you really hardcore and willing to go after all EIGHT endings? Or do you just decide to move onto something a little less OCD inducing? It all depends on the gamer.

For me, Makai Kingdom has the potential for Replayability, but it falls too short in balance and story for me to want to sit through the game for than one playthrough at a time. After all the time spent on just getting to ONE ending is this game, I feel myself craving something a little more up tempo.

Addictiveness Rating: 6/10

9. Appeal Factor

If you’re an SRPG fan, you need this game. The Phantom Brave Engine really has revitalized the genre, and Makai Kingdom has a much better plot with far more original and interesting characters. But be warned, as only the most obsessive of you will ever get the full potential out of this game.

If you’re not really an SRPG fan, you’re probably going to hate this game due to all the micromanagement and detail oriented crap MK shoves down you’re throat.

If you’re new to the genre, well, either this game will scare you off of SRPG’s due to it’s utter complexity and leave you looking for games that require less thinking, like Doom 3 or Barbie Horse Adventures, or it will make you into an instant convert completely enthralled by the gameplay and storyline. If the latter happens, I should warn you that after Nippon iIchi SRPG’s, you will be quite let down by other games in the genre. I would probably suggest to people who want a Nippon Ichi game, but may not be ready for this level of commitment, to track down Rhapsody for the PS1. It’s short and simple, but it contains all the elements people love about NI games.

In all, I can see a lot of new people finding an interest in the SRPG genre thanks to this, and other, Nippon Ichi games. But in the end, unless you have a mind for this style of game play already, you’re not going to develop a new appreciation for Strategy RPG’s.

Appeal Factor: 6/10

10 Miscellaneous

Nippon Ichi really has outdone themselves with Makai Kingdom. One could even argue they may have done too much. Personally, I think it’s good they jammed all this on to one disc. It allows for a full range of gamers to experience as much or as little of the game as they want to. In this sense, Makai Kingdom is very inviting and it adapts itself to your preferences, instead of forcing you outside your comfort zone. Sure you can step outside if you want, but you don’t have to. That’s the key point here.

Nippon Ichi has truly outdone themselves and created a SRPG with the most options and potential out of anything in the genre. Yes there are some noticeable flaws, but this game also had half the production time of their other games. Imagine if the developers had been given their normal amount of time to develop this game to its maximum. So considering that time span, it’s hard to imagine any company could create a better end product than what I have here before me. With that in mind, I have to give them a perfect score here for achieving what should have been an unobtainable goal.

Miscellaneous Rating: 10/10

The Scores

Story: 7
Graphics: 6
Sound: 9
Gameplay/Control: 10
Replayability: 10
Balance: 4
Originality: 6
Addictiveness: 6
Appeal Factor: 6
Miscellaneous: 10
Overall: 74
Final Score: 7.5 (Very Good!)

Short Attention Span Summary
Makai Kingdom is a very good game, with several flaws that make it just shy of greatness. It’s the best SRPG out this year, but it still falls a notch below Digital Devil Saga: Avatar Tuner for the best overall RPG to hit stands in 2005. If you’re looking for a long term playing investment or just want a game that stands out from the rest of the SRPG pack, you could do a lot worse than Makai Kingdom. It’s one bad ass FREAKING game…dood.



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