Roll up, roll up, ladies and gentlemen, and witness the freakshow: behold, a strategy RPG with no meat on its bones! Made out of the skeleton of its predecessor Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, the bones boiled, stirred for not-long-enough with “bad-ass freakin'” dialogue and a dollop of misplaced kitchen-sink drama, Makai Kingdom: Chronicles of the Sacred Tome emerges. Gather round and let me tell the tale of its heinous birth!
There is an enemy in Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, a member of the Zombie class who is composed thusly:
Makai Kingdom is the Zombie – or Frankenstein, if you prefer – of videogames, with body parts stitched together haphazardly from its successful spiritual predecessor, the zany cult classic, Disgaea. Squint and Makai Kingdom looks like a game, it certainly sounds like a game, but the parts don’t add up to a successful whole.
The story goes that the most powerful overlord in the universe, Zetta, is told by an oracle called Pram that he will lose his Netherworld. Zetta goes to find the Sacred Tome, a sacred book with the future written in, to find out why and what’s going on. However when he gets there, all he finds in the book are insults directed at himself. Infuriated, he burns the book (idiot). Thus – because the book is the future – he is forced to bind (“confine”) his soul to the book in order to prevent the destruction of the universe. He loses his body and is trapped in a book for the rest of the game – you play as his minions, rebuilding his Netherworld so that he can get his body back and discover who was behind this nefarious plot.
It is worth noting that the confine concept is central to the game’s mechanics, where you use random items in the game (trees, rocks, weapons, you name it) to make new characters. The items have stats that carry over to the new character you’ve made. It’s a weird but enjoyable part of the gameplay, ensuring thousands of combinations and loads of variety when making new classes/characters. The confine ability, as well as the vehicle creation, the use of facilities which you can “throw” into battle (which can help you earn 50% more experience, or some other stat category) are the best original parts of Makai Kingdom. It’s quirky and new, and it satisfies the strategy fiend inside of me. In general, the gameplay is similar to Disgaea, but it’s different enough to keep it engaging and satisfying.
Unfortunately, this is where the compliments end. The term “bare bones” is perfect for this game: the characterisation is poor, the story is plain, and what’s worse the scenes of dialogue are entirely set against the backdrop of space – so it’s not even interesting to look at. The main problem story-wise is that the overlords – the main characters essentially – are annoying, irredeemably narcissistic and totally uncharismatic. Makai Kingdom should have been totally different to the Disgaea series, but it was as if half of Nippon Ichi Software clung on to the irreverent, parodic style of Disgaea, while the other half had a totally different direction in mind – one which was intent on exploring Netherworlds as a philosophical concept, and considering what these overlords would be like i.e. how “ultimate” power could impact a personality.
Zetta is the protagonist. He is a “bad ass freakin’ overlord”. Now, you mustn’t worry about forgetting this crucial one liner – you will hear it repeated over and over – but it is very important to remember because his motto is, quite literally, the only characteristic Zetta has. I think Zetta was meant to be a kind of adult version of Laharl, the main character from Disgaea: Hour of Darkness – they share that same obnoxious teenage attitude. The difference is that Laharl develops throughout the game in a series of surprisingly touching plot twists. By the end of the game, Laharl is an empathetic character, even endearing, despite being recognisably Laharl. On the other hand, Zetta maintains his “bad ass” attitude throughout the entire game, and doesn’t really develop into a 3D character at all. This is detrimental because, as a player, I didn’t care if he remained stuck in book form forever. He is probably the least sympathetic protagonist I have ever had the displeasure of working with.
Same problem with the supporting characters, who are all the 2D shadows of their Disgaea counterparts. For example, Pram is the “Etna” of Makai Kingdom – but where is the complexity of Etna’s storyline, which explores themes like memory, betrayal and loyalty? Instead, the big issue with Pram is her status as an oracle is being questioned, and so she acts like a complete brat for no apparent reason.
To put it simply, the overlords are human, all too human. And yet oddly not human enough.
Another issue: I kept wondering who this game was actually for. At first it comes across relatively child-friendly, but a couple of swear words pop up later and are spoken with such unnatural relish I didn’t know what to think. It fits with the game’s wildly varying, erratic tone, I guess. But is this game for teenagers? For early teens? Children? I was left with the distinct impression that the writers’ ideas were only half-realised, leaving me confused and apathetic.
Makai Kingdom is a weird one. I love the variety in the gameplay: the equipment, the playable characters/classes, the vehicles and facilities are all pure fun, and add wonderful depth to the strategy on the battlefield. The music is also really good. There is something really quirky and weird about the game (how many times have I used these adjectives to describe this game?!). And I like weird things. In many ways, playing Makai Kingdom feels like playing an intriguing indie title – but this is as much a compliment as a criticism. It’s a shame that so many interesting gameplay ideas were lost in the abyss of it’s spiritual predecessor, Disgaea. Part of me thinks only die-hard Disgaea fans need apply. But I would urge those of you who like strategy-RPGs and/or Disgaea to give this a shot because it is very interesting, even if the Zombie can’t quite stand up on its own.