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SummaryMakes a good case for creationism
The GoodThere's one thing you can't take away from 46 Okunen Monogatari, and that's originality. An RPG based on the premise of evolution of animal species, which allows the player to evolve into different creatures? What an idea!
Indeed, this idea is what drew me to the game. In all my years exploring the world of RPGs and finding some rather unique examples, I think none beats 46 Okunen Monogatari in terms of sheer magnitude of the premise: play as the entire animal kingdom, from fish to human!
Before you think this is just a boring biology class, let me tell you that 46 Okunen Monogatari plays very similarly to "normal" RPGs: you walk/swim/crawl around, fight enemies, collect experience points (called "evolution points" here), become stronger, receive and complete quests, advance the plot, and so on.
The game amazed me in the beginning with the elegant simplicity of its character growth concept. You gather experience points from battles (very basic turn-based, one-on-one affairs), random natural disasters you get caught in, or (more rarely) from glowing orbs you can find in some locations. So far, so good. The unique aspect here is the player's ability to manually distribute those experience points in one of the four possible categories.
Those categories include attack power, health bar (self-explanatory), mind power (increases the effects of special techniques, such as healing), and the ability to adapt to environment. This last one is particularly interesting, since your animal always receives damage from environment types he isn't used to. For example, a fish would suffer and eventually die if it ventures into deep waters, unless the player has invested enough points into this category.
This initial freedom of choice is what made 46 Okunen Monogatari so appealing to me; it strives to allow a higher degree of customization than it is usually the case with Japanese RPGs.
After you have accumulated a certain amount of experience/evolution points in any of the four categories, you can choose to evolve into a different creature. It was certainly a great moment when I evolved from a tiny blue fish I started the game as into a menacing green beast with sharp teeth and maniacal expression. You watch how you grow, become more powerful, and easily eliminate smaller creatures you thought were fearsome monsters just a while ago.
There are no random battles in the game; all hostile creatures are visible on the screen and can be avoided (though it is rather hard in most cases). Needless to say the game deserves praise for this design choice, especially considering the time its was released in.
Graphically, the game is anything but spectacular, but it has some very nice full-screen scenes that serve to advance the plot. Also, the music is absolutely charming, the style betraying the composer Koichi Sugiyama of Dragon Quest fame.
The BadThat sounded so cool, didn't it? Alas, behind the facade of a unique idea hides a game that screams "I could have been so much more".
46 Okunen Monogatari is a blast to play for the first hour or so. You swim around, fight hostile octopuses and assorted fish, gain points, hoping to turn into a smoked salmon or something one day. But after the fish stage is complete and you become an amphibian, you realize that something is going wrong... because the amphibian stage plays suspiciously similarly to the fish one. When you turn into a reptile, the repetitiveness becomes overwhelming.
If we disregard the evolutions, the basic gameplay in 46 Okunen Monogatari is frighteningly simple. You make your way through hordes of enemies, taking on each one of them in primitive, lackluster one-on-one turn-based combat. There are no party members, no bosses, no special encounters, just waves of repetitive enemies. You can't ever use any items. You do learn some special abilities, but most of them are absolutely useless; what's worse, those abilities are the same whether you are a fish, a reptile, or a mammal.
Evolving into different animals is great fun in the beginning, but it ceases being so after you realize that the evolution is a pure cosmetic change; yes, you look different, and you are stronger, but the skills and the gameplay still remain exactly the same. The new animal lacks any distinguishing characteristics that would make it truly different. You see a different picture, and you fight better, that's all. You don't need to use the strengths or deal with the weaknesses of the new animal, because there are none. You don't need to think of new strategies in battles, because there aren't any available.
Another thing that damages the game is its inability to convey the feeling of achievement and growth, which are essential to RPG enjoyment. After you complete a chapter (marking the evolution to a new class), you begin everything from scratch. Your statistics are high on paper, but in reality you are reverted to your initial stage: you are weak, you have no abilities, any unusual terrain depletes your (suddenly shrunken) health bar, etc. This is an irritating design choice which is, unfortunately, just one of the many similar ones that hamper the enjoyment from this promising game.
After struggling during the initial stage of every chapter, enduring confusing map layouts, dull dungeons, over-abundance of enemies, bad weather conditions, and other hazards, you'll finally raise your parameters enough to bravely walk through shallow waters without dropping dead in three seconds. And then you encounter yet another inexplicable, fatal design flaw: level cap.
That's right, the game imposes an infuriating limit on your achievements, and does it so early that I seriously suspected I was playing a corrupt copy. Mind you, I'm anything but an extreme "level grinder", but already during the second chapter I hit the cap somewhere in the middle. Which means I had to play through three or four hostile areas with constantly spawning enemies and fight absolutely pointless battles (which were never particularly exciting to begin with) over and over again.
There are random natural disasters that damage you, but also award you large chunks of experience. They continue doing so even when you've reached the cap. But since you can't gain experience any more, you just get damaged for nothing. I think someone here seriously forgot to test the game before releasing it.
The level cap essentially kills off any remnants of strategy that were still present in this otherwise very simplistic game. Why bother thinking which parameter you are going to raise if you know that anyway you'll soon reach the cap in each one of them? Sooner or later, you will have all four of them maxed out; so all you do is quickly raise them all, evolve into whoever is the strongest critter of that chapter, and clench your teeth as you fight more and more one-one-one battles without any purpose whatsoever.
For a game with an educational premise, 46 Okunen Monogatari is disappointingly... well, non-educational. Yes, you learn fancy dinosaur names and all, but there is precious little information about anything in the game. A game like this should contain at least a small encyclopaedia section with pictures and descriptions of animals or something like that.
I found the whole reptile sections much too long. Three chapters out of six are played as cold-blooded creatures. I like lizards and (like most males, I guess), I had a period of dinosaur fascination when I was a kid, but... come on, mammals are more interesting! Why do I have to wait for such a long time until I can finally play as an orangutan and feel like myself again?..
Finally, if you play RPGs for the story, 46 Okunen Monogatari is not really the title to recommend. Granted, a game that is dedicated to evolution of animals probably never intended to be a fascinating psychological drama, but it should be noted that animals talk to each other in the game, and it still follows the usual "go there - complete a quest - proceed to the next area" formula. The talking animals seem cute in the beginning, but later you begin to realize that none of them develops into a real personality, you are always alone on your journey, and your quest involves some rather boring ecological challenges and dubious pseudo-sci-fi encounters.
The Bottom Line46 Okunen Monogatari is a textbook example of game design in which one (admittedly awesome) idea filled the minds of the creators and distracted them from paying any serious attention to what usually matters in games: the gameplay. With all its charm and originality, 46 Okunen Monogatari ends up being a simplistic and frustratingly repetitive RPG.
Note: the SNES title E.V.O., though sharing the original name and the premise with this one, is a completely different game. I played it for an hour or so and found it rather unexciting, though perhaps it will appeal more to fans of action games.