There can be only...five?
As a wee nerdling, I was really into ninjas and venomous reptiles. Other kids were really into pirates, but to me, having a scraggly beard, stinky breath and a bad case of scurvy didn't seem to kick much ass.
Except on Halloween. After spilling my bag of treasure on the living room carpet and counting my booty, it all made sense. Pirates didn't have stinking, toothless mouths because they couldn't eat enough fruits and vegetables. No, they ate too much candy! "Aaargh'ing and cursing, I'd eat about a pound of Spree. Then I'd barf, and the horrible pirate curse would become clear to me: there is such a thing as too much candy. Fearing for the health of my molars, I'd gobble down fruits and vegetables and swear to my imaginary ninja guide never to stray from ninjahood again. Hai!
Clearly, the developers at From Software never learned this lesson, and I bet they're all toothless for it. Their new game, Otogi 2: Immortal Warriors, published by Sega for the Xbox, is a third-person action romp through a fantastical Japan, and it's pure eye-candy. The environments look awesome, everything is destructible, every time you hit an enemy all sorts of lighting effects go off, and the framerate stays rock solid the whole time. But after wailing on the same enemy for a couple hours and winning entire battles by spamming the 'Y' button, Otogi 2's sweetness sours, and you'll be left wishing for something a bit more substantial.
Otogi 2's plot is more of a wrapper than a compelling story. You are Raikou, hero of the previous game, and are a demon butt-kicker extraordinaire. Seimei, a powerful, mysterious sorceress, brings together a band of four generals, who promptly commit suicide to bring you back to life. But they're alive still too, sort of. With the help of your friends and the guidance of Seimei, you'll kill tons of bad demons and save the world. Just like last time. Kinda.
The main difference between this Otogi and the last is the inclusion of the five other playable warriors. Tsuna is a dog-man with a lance who plays just like Raikou. Sadamitsu is a girl-warrior with a scythe, and she plays just like Tsuna. Seimei is a mysterious sorceress, and she also plays just like Raikou, Tsuna and Sadamitsu. Kintoki is a big fat-guy with an axe, and he plays a lot like the others, except he can grab and throw enemies. Finally, Suetake is a living tree stump with a wheel on his back, and he is surprisingly just like the others but much, much cheaper and splintery.
As diverse as they sound, most of the characters handle identically. They can all jump, dash, target, spell-cast, weak attack, and strong attack. Otogi 2 basically plays like a dumbed-down version of the recent Shinobi games. You just target an enemy, jump into the air, dash into them, mash the attack buttons, and repeat until everything is dead. The combo system is pretty archaic, just a series of B and X or B and Y presses. Dashing uses magical power and can be done in mid-air until you run out of magic. Keep in mind, though, that the magic generated by your friends killing themselves is all that keeps you alive. If you run out of magic, your health will gradually diminish and you'll probably die. For real, this time.
To counter this process, you must kill things and hope that the magic in their bodies is released into the air for you to absorb. This is where you're in luck, because there are a bazillion things to kill in Otogi 2. Unfortunately, almost none of them have any answer to the Y button, which is most characters' strong attack. In one battle, I was beset by about 300 stone golems. I jammed on the Y button furiously, racked up a 500 hit combo, and eventually killed everything and its mother. If you have a wireless controller, you can actually get up and do other things, like laundry, while playing. Just don't stop tapping that Y button!
Your characters can also cast spells that look amazing but are usually ineffective. For example, you can summon an electric centipede that will fry everything around you with lightning bolts...unless there's an environmental obstacle in the way, in which case the centipede will show up and kill nothing. This goes for all spells. They look good, but they don't always work, and they can't hold a candle to the vicious Y button, so why bother?
Because, silly, you get money for completing missions, and with it you can buy spells, accessories, and enhancement supplements. Spells and accessories can be equipped before missions, while the supplements are merely items you can buy to increase any of your stats. However, every time you buy a stat supplement its price goes up for every character. This sort of renders the depth moot. You'll wind up having each warrior focus on a specialty rather than truly customizing each one.
Once you choose and equip a character, you're dropped into a small level. The best thing about Otogi 2's environments is that they're all highly destructable. You can cut down trees, smash enemies into statues and just burninate all over the place. Unfortunately, all of the levels are quite small, and they're never populated by anything other than enemies. As a result, the environments take on an arena-like feel, dissipating any sense of immersion created by the atmospheric visuals.
In some missions, you'll be required to fight your way up to a boss character. Then the boss kills you, says something sassy about it, and you have to start over from the beginning of the whole level. Otogi 2 goes from action to reaction pretty quickly as you repeat an entire level ad nauseum just to kill the boss. Insert expletive here.
Each level is made up of about three missions that can be completed in any order. Events are supposed to be happening at the same time, so you can't use the same warrior on two missions in the same level. There are about ten levels (thirty missions) in all, and even though each one is quite short, some are very hard. On top of that, you can play the Havoc mode version of any level you've completed. This usually amounts to running through a level with some goal like "Kill 99 thingies" or "Fly through the hoops." While not particularly fun, they do add some re-playability.
What the game lacks in gameplay depth, though, it makes up for in its looks. Otogi 2 is visually stunning. The graphics are good almost to the point of photo-realism, the animations are sophisticated and fluid, and just about every action in the game is accompanied by some visual flourish. For example, Raikou has a long, streaming black mane that follows him everywhere and looks very cool. When Tsuna jumps, he does fancy things with his lance that make you want to jump all the time, everywhere you go. And when you use whatever colossal weapon you're wielding to bash rocks or homes or statues, the screen blurs tastefully and your target explodes into debris. It may not always play like a winner, but Otogi 2 sure does look like one.
It also sounds great thanks to the bells and whistles that accompany every tap of the Y button. The hacking and slashing sounds like, well hacking and slashing. The voice acting is pretty stiff, and the music is the Medieval Japanese equivalent of easy listening - it gets drowned out as soon as the fighting starts.
With the right amount of variety and a glass of milk to wash it all down, even a sugar-holic can keep things tasty long after the sweet feast has turned unhealthy. Unfortunately, Otogi 2 is the video game equivalent of a bag of M&M's: candy coating on the outside, mindless hack'n slash on the inside, and not a lot in between. That was fine the first time, but we expect a little more nutrition out of our sequels.