What is the meaning of life? To some, life is an unending routine of repeated drudgery, with days stacking on days, the same pointless tasks and meaningless decisions made done until it ends, pain dulled only by more pain, a dreary mockery of time and energy, matter and space, the cruel torture of beings that need not exist, dragged on until it ends, with no answers to be sure of and only hope guiding us ever onward down the road towards the miserable end. To others, it's just like those other guys say, but what the heck -- might as well make the most of it...
The action-RPG Rengoku: The Tower of Purgatory takes up the meaning of life as its main theme. In doing so, it poses another question: what is the meaning of this game? In eight monotonous levels, you battle an endless number of robots who look and fight the same. You tediously trudge through levels that seem little different from the last. You fight with the same combat techniques against enemies with few strategies, utilizing weapons that offer a wealth of options and a dearth of technique. And when it's over, you can do it over and over and over in randomly-generated versions of this world.
Ain't life grand?
When Hudson debuted Rengoku at E3 2004, the game's intriguing design and promising customization looked like it might offer promise. Much of that potential is lost in the final game's fall from grace, but there are elements that might still hold interest. Underneath the drabness is still a combat system that has its few moments if you continue to move parts around in the customizing options, as well as a good host of multiplayer features that roots out the upsides of a downer game. With Untold Legends being the only other option for RPG fans thus far in North America, it makes sense why Konami would pick up this import for release here. But this is a truffle for swine desperately hungry for anything -- it can't fulfill desires you wish for it to be.
The story of Rengoku concerns a world of sentient androids built, apparently, for the purpose of being destroyed. Originally, the A.D.A.M. (Autonomous Dueling Armed Machine ... not that it matters, it's the misplaced biblical reference that is key to the acronym) race was created to fight wars for humanity. When humanity finally figured out, after dwindling to numbers too small to fight about, that war solved, it all just sort of lost its meaning. Still, all the robots had guns and blades and stuff, so what the hey, on with the combat. A tower called Purgatory houses televised fights as the bots crush and smash each other, for no particular reason but for fun. One A.D.A.M. developed an electronic soul, and, finding the whole set-up an exercise of pissing in the wind, decides to get out.
It's an admirable attempt at bringing some literary elevation to a videogame -- the whole thing is inspired by Dante's Purgatory Cantos -- but the game loses all of that credit in its deathly dry presentation. After a chilling non-verbal opening CG sequence and a semi-rendered introduction to the A.D.A.M. character at the moment of consciousness, the storytellers hung up their quills. Boss battle sequences are directed with all the flair of a college lecture on a lectern projector. The camera "dramatically" zooms from a mile away to 3/4s of a mile away and sits there while the two robots exchange sixth grade theology betwixt each other. Then they fight, the bad guy dies, a short text block appears expounding further on the premise already explored in the previous exchange, and you move on to Nth stage. Dramatic CG and overdrawn animated sequences typically bloat Japanese games, but this game is dying for life, and all it needed to do was take a breath in these big scenes. Intriguing character design by Japanese manga artist Jun Suemi is wasted everywhere but in the included gallery mode -- the character models used in the PSP game are strong enough to be allowed scenes to carry, but instead, they just fight and die to no great tragedy or importance.
Alright then, so there's no tale worth telling -- let's fight. Rengoku makes use of an action-RPG structure that allows for an overwhelming degree of customization for battles that largely play out with a combination of button-mashing and tap-dodging. Weapons you wrench off of fallen opponents on the battlefield can be configured to either of four spots on your body -- the head, the two arms, and the chest (special armaments can also be assigned to your feet, although you'll usually only use shields or technique upgrades here.) This is the game's chief contribution to the action-RPG genre -- each of the four face buttons on the controller is used to control a different attached weapon, so you can have a Howitzer growing out of your forehead while you go charging in for melee combat with a chainsaw arm and a sword in hand.
Ideally, you would get some combo opportunities out of mixing and matching weapons, and there is some strategy to placing weapons that compliment each other. (There is also a reward system for employing combos, since "overkilling" an enemy with a combo after he dies gives a better chance of him dropping his weapons.) In execution, there's less technique to it than that. For one, you can't move when you execute an attack, and you also can't use two weapons at once or mix-and-match their skills. (There is a punishment system for mixing wrong, as weapons can overheat, and fire weapons speed that up, but you can't make a fire-spitting chainsaw.) We found a good combo with a mix of weapons where we ran in with a headbutt of a head-mounted Attack Hammer, then immediately followed up with three auto-combo swipes of the Fire Sword and finished that off with a spray of Needle Gun fire ... that worked great and was a fun find, but after that wore off, we quickly discovered that few other weapons gelled better than that, and that the best result we could do beyond that combo was to use weapons that did the exact same thing with varying damage rates. From then on, every battle which wasn't solved with a cannon-fire exchange was one-note repeated: charge in, hit hard, melee combo, and then spray the corpse with some fire.
Balance is just all over the place in this game. You could excuse some of the blandness of the action on this being an action-RPG (let's face it, Untold Legends wasn't exactly Tekken-deep), but there's a lot of responsibility if you're going to stick that "role-playing game" term on a game. Rengoku's system for leveling up is a system of sparse points earned in battle (these points are actually called "Elixir Skin", but how "elixir" or "skin" applies to a robot, I haven't the foggiest.) You earn a handful of points for each downed combatant, while it takes hundreds and hundreds to cash in for a simple upgrade (and unlike in regular RPGs where you can get into lots of fights to slowly build points, each battle takes a while to play out even when you are powered up.) The trick is to cash in some of your collected weapon and upgrades, melting them down to make "elixir."
However, when you die in battle, the game strips you of every weapon you have activated -- if you recycle all of your weapons, you're screwed when you start again. And since the doors lock behind you when you enter a room with a new opponent (backtracking through respawned enemy areas allows you in-and-out access), there will often be cases where you are vastly outclassed by an enemy you can't escape from, so there will be times that you get killed and lose everything when you thought you were doing good. Of course, you could just fight through the earlier floors of enemies and try to strip away some weapons (which you might as well do, since the game starts over at the bottom floor and forces you to go through every loading screen on the way as you take the elevator each floor up), but you won't have any starter weapons, and enemies rarely drop stuff even if you get in some good "overkill". Your better bet is to just restart from the last save point (which is a pain to do, because there's no "Quit to Menu" selection on any menu and the soft-reset button combo is only listed in the manual), but that's cheating some of the game's strategy even if it does alleviate the monotony.
All this weapon arming is interesting to play with, but the menu for customizing your bot is a giant waste of space. It takes four menus to do what would have worked fine with just one. And while some of the menus are nice and descriptive (it's good to know exactly what damage each weapon does), others just have a vague line about a shield or upgrade being good for you or doing something. There's a tutorial video that starts up the game (which you can replay at any time), but the text flies by while you're still trying to read (you can't pause or rewind), and the manual leaves a few details on customizing out of the book. For all the detail that this menu seems to indicate, there's still a lot that you need to field-test before you know what it does.
And on a final note with the controls: we will never understand why the developers went with D-Pad control only, but our thumbs will never forgive them for it. The PSP's analog stick can almost entirely be ignored in this game -- it does move the camera around a little bit if you're so bored to play with it, but it doesn't lock in a direction, it doesn't zoom in or out to check out the details, and it doesn't even spin all the way around. Instead, the game is played entirely with the D-Pad, which is serviceable even though it's annoying (you will be doing tap-dodge or tap-dash moves in almost every battle, so in some ways, it makes stupid sense). The L-trigger is there to auto-lock on an enemy, and you'll be tapping that all the time since the lock drops every time the enemy clears your viewpoint. The R-trigger, meanwhile, is used for centering the camera, which is slightly helpful when exploring, but really could have been used for something more important (like putting the danged analog nub back in play) since keeping the camera straight in square rooms isn't all that tricky.
The only aspect that holds up of the amazing visual design presented in the cover is the character design -- everything else is drab and routine. Your A.D.A.M. is detailed with quirky charm, all bio-mechanical protrusions and golden metallic sheen. It only gets more freaky as you add on weapons, and while the texture and modeling work doesn't blow you away on closer inspection (nor does the simple animation), it's overall a good central character from a great original template. Foe bosses are also somewhat interesting, but they're all just walking robots the same height and build as yours, and that's where the variety starts to break down. Enemies are decked out with creepy headpieces and wicked-looking weapons, but there are no minor figures to fight, so it's one battle all the same. You'll never face masses of opponents at a time -- you will take on a few challengers at once, but never an overwhelming force (which is just as well, since the combat system really only handles one opponent at a time well.) And even the bosses, who have names to fear and personalities designed to get in your head, are basically just the same regular Joes.
That's the good part of the visual design. The bad part is that the environments are square and empty. There are exploding crates to smash scattered throughout the rectangular rooms, but there's little detail and no discerning features to be had. (The game features a random-generating feature for mixing up stage layouts, but that's no excuse for boring general design.) The blandness doesn't help keep the draw distance in line -- the far background will fade in like an old-school corridor shooter, and even enemies disappear at the far back of a small room (they also can't be auto-locked at that distance, which impedes on the play.) The effects that drape across the opening sequence are pixilated, but still nice -- why can't we get those effects anywhere else in the game? We really liked the spider-like terminal access port, but that one intriguing feature is repeated across every stage of the game. This title could have used a few hundred cool little details like that, but we get just the one.
Multiplayer was one of the saving graces of the title. Of course, finding people to play a game that few will like may prove tough (the game only supports local LAN play), but there is a lot of detail and customization to the multiplayer mode. You can join in battles across a number of stages with any number of weapon options on, or you can bring your own custom set from your Memory Stick. Picking up weapons in multiplayer is different and a little odd compared to the single player mission -- to get rid of the customizing terminal, weapons are just auto-assigned when you pick them up, but it doesn't let you move them once locked in (or see what you're picking up. Building combos off of gear not arranged the way you want is less than ideal. On the other hand, it does force you to play a little different each time you spawn and start picking up weapons, and the four-player combat allows for a decent mix of melee and ranged combat when the four collide. There is also a handy item swap mode for trading parts between players to try out stuff you may not have collected.
NOTE: This game is one of a number of PSP titles to feature the wrong logo on the box regarding wireless multiplayer modes -- Rengoku only supports local "Ad-Hoc" play, and does not feature wireless internet "Infrastructure" mode.
©2005, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved