Since I ride the subway nearly every day, I probably give my PSP more of a workout than most people. I've dropped it a couple times (thank heavens for the wrist strap), the face is scratched up a fair bit, and the first P in PSP got rubbed off when it was in my backpack smashed up against something abrasive.
It's just too bad that something wasn't a sweet new PSP game, because for the past couple months the software has been lacking. Ben lucked out with his recent Liberty City Stories assignment, but I thought I scored big time by scooping up one of the few RPGs for the system, Sony and Climax's Kingdom of Paradise. However, this action/RPG romp proves only entertaining enough to amuse me as far as the Brooklyn Bridge, losing its luster well before SoHo. Paradise? Not quite.
You are Shinbu, the last disciple of the recently slaughtered Eastern Seiryu clan…or you would be if you hadn't been expelled for daring to gaze upon your school's ancient monument and learning its Chi Arts secrets. But with everyone else dead, you pretty much get to be the whole clan by default. Here's to promotion through attrition.
And that's about a far as I could follow the story. The rest of it descends into an oddly translated manga mess involving four gates, a few keys (which may or may not also be swords), the four gods, the ancient Toshintetsu relic, San'yuan technique, some freaky twins, the ancient Seima people, your father, your mother, the four generals of Kirin, some crazy chick named Sui Lin who may or may not be your new clan lord, and the preposterous Umu brothers who the game also occasionally calls the Odo brothers. Dragonball Z almost makes this much sense.
Here's the labyrinthine plot in a nutshell: You're the good guy. There are quite a lot of bad guys. You hit them with your sword. You are pleased with this and continue to do it.
Which is by far the best part of Kingdom of Paradise. Shinbu really manages to put the action into this RPG with enough crazy sword techniques to make a crouching tiger proud. Each of these moves is called a Kenpu, and while you start off with only a few of them, your collection will gradually grow as you nab them from slain enemies.
Of course, a Kenpu won't do you any good by itself – every one needs to be put in a Bugei scroll. Didn't your mom teach you anything? You don't start with many scrolls, either, and although they are rarer than Kenpu, you can also collect them throughout your journey. Each Bugei contains a list of Kenpu from different schools of swordfighting. If you find all the right Kenpu to fill up a Bugei, you gain access to some brutal, Matrix-style moves. You might even find some freestyle Bugei so you can mix and match your own move sets.
To add some excitement to the complexity, you can fight multiple enemies at once, and whether attacking or blocking, the collision detection is great. Your sword will even bounce off an enemy shield, although you may be lucky enough to knock the shield out of his hands. Spin and fling your sword at your next enemy, impaling him and pinning him in place, until, with a gesture, your sword comes spinning back to your hand. It all looks very cool.
There are also five Chi Arts attacks: Wood, Fire, Water, Metal, and Earth. However, they're all just the same area smart-bomb that knocks your enemies back for massive damage. These attacks are enormously strong and can be recharged endlessly, so you end up using them constantly. The problem is that they're totally overpowered and although Shinbu poses dramatically, the Chi Arts don't look anywhere near as cool as the swordplay.
Still, that's where Kingdom of Paradise scores all of its points. The swordfighting is handled really well and the fighting system is deep and rewarding. Compared to most action/RPGs, it's something of a treat.
Unfortunately, it puts the action so far ahead of the role-playing that you'll have to squint to find any RPG depth. You only have three stats - Body, Mind and Technique - and they just go up as you level up so there's no customization. There a few swords available for purchase, but I couldn't figure out any reason to ever buy one instead of just "tempering," and thus upgrading your own magic sword that lets you use the Chi Arts. You can also equip up to two items, of which there are only about twenty or so in the game.
I also think it's high time for game developers to stop encouraging breaking and entering. Running into people's homes and smashing all their crates and barrels so that I can steal their "Do Powder" does not make any sense. Stop programming that into your games or I will come over to your house and start smashing stuff to see how you like it.
First, though, I should give props to the graphics. The scenery is diverse and brightly colored and the framerate stays nice and smooth. But as cool as Shinbu looks when swinging a sword, he runs like he's got one stuck up his butt. All too often with the PSP, good scenery means plenty of loading screens, and there's no surprise here. Expect a loading screen between every single area in the game.
If the graphics aren't quite paradise, the sound is pure hell. The only thing worse than the dialogue might be the "actors" reading it. With possibly a dozen sounds effects in the whole game, it's unbelievably repetitive. Shinbu shouts "Here we go! Chi Arts!" and "I'm not done yet!" thousands upon thousands of times. When Shinbu runs, his feet make the tap-tap-tap noise we all remember from games a dozen years back and it doesn't change regardless of what he's running on. Dirt? Tap-tap-tap. Wood? Tap-tap-tap. Grass? Tap-tap-tap. Every human enemy screams exactly the same way upon every death, and I swear it's the Wilhelm.
Kingdom of Paradise tosses a little multiplayer into the mix, but just a little. Infrastructure Mode is only for downloading new content and currently requires a password from a Japanese website. Assuming you can read Japanese and even find the passwords, they are in Japanese, so there is no way to input them into a U.S. PSP. Awesome. At least the Ad Hoc network game actually works, allowing you to duel another Kingdom of Paradise player one on one. You can only select one Bugei (Chi Arts don't work) and the sword throw is a super cheap tactic, so the duels aren't very compelling. You can also trade Kenpu, however, which is a great way to fill in the gaps you missed.
It's really a shame that a game with so much depth in its combat system turns up so thin everywhere else. It's the exact opposite of Untold Legends, but that doesn't make it a great deal better. Looks like my subway ride stays in Purgatory.