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Tengai Makyō III: Namida (PlayStation 2)

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100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
2.8
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Written by  :  אולג 小奥 (168604)
Written on  :  Jan 02, 2006
Rating  :  4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars

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Summary

Remember the good old days?

The Good

For many years, Tengai Makyō games, developed by RED Company, were among the most beloved Japanese RPGs in existence. The first of them, Ziria, was one of those great pioneers of the genre, being the first RPG with a humorous setting , the first RPG on a CD ROM, the first RPG with voice acting and cartoon-style animations. The sequel Manjimaru followed, becoming the most popular game in the series, spawning a side-story Kabuki Den. Those three games marked the PC Engine CD console forever as a classic platform for Japanese RPGs.

After a delay of ten years (!), the "true" third game has finally arrived. There is only one question for which the tired, frustrated fans need an answer: is the game worth the long wait?

For the most part, I'd say "yes". Namida gives you everything you would expect from a Tengai Makyō game. Those games are mostly about being absorbed into the unique Japan-like fantasy world, exploring it, meeting colorful characters, and mostly playing a lot. And Namida is no exception. It's just that in early nineties, most Japanese RPGs were about exploration and battles. But by 2005, a new standard has established itself in the genre. The worlds of Japanese RPGs became smaller, the exploration more and more limited, the gameplay more sophisticated and more focused on preparation and strategy than on character-building, and story and characters got a tremendous boost. Japanese RPGs became more cinematic; cutscenes became a sort of trademark of the genre, and the gameplay, no matter how deep and clever it was, lost its primary importance and was reduced to a tool that allowed you to move from one cutscene to another.

It cannot be denied that a certain "old-school" feeling of Japanese role-playing seems to be lost forever. Well, that is precisely what Namida tries to correct. If you are annoyed by the tiny worlds of most modern Japanese RPGs, you will sigh with relief when looking at this game. Namida is a monster. The game world consists of seven large islands, which you'll have to explore fully. Now, if you think each island has one town and a couple of dungeons, you are wrong. Every island is a whole country. It has a capital city, several smaller cities, a couple of villages, and all kinds of dungeons imaginable - caves, mountain paths, castles, and so on. In addition, there are the famous Tengu Retreats, the only source of magic spells in the game, which you are encouraged to find on the world map.

Every island has its own style and is like a world on itself. The cities are very large. Capital cities really take a while to explore. For instance, Nagasaki has four or five large sections, each one complete with houses to visit and people to talk to. There is an enormous amount of houses, also two-story ones; most of them offer nothing essential to the plot, but are simply there for you to explore. The cities are full of NPCs with unique conversation lines. Needless to say there is a proper world map on which you can go anywhere. The enormous size of the game and its not entirely linear nature make Namida a very long game. It can easily eat up 60 or more hours of your time.

The game shares with the rest of the series a solid gameplay system with a good balance. As in all Tengai Makyō games, you have three types of actions in battles: physical attacks, magic, and techs. In addition, you can equip, learn, and use smaller-scale tech attacks: they might have an element attached, do more damage than regular attack, increase the strength of the next attack, etc. In general, the game does a very good job at preserving a certain amount of old-school difficulty (primarily for boss battles) while at the same time being more user-friendly and accessible than earlier installments.

Namida is not entirely conservative; it has picked up a few tricks from contemporary Japanese RPGs. The interesting part of its system is your ability to gain access to higher techs by learning smaller once. For example, in the beginning Namida starts without any techs at all; master some smaller techs, and you'll get some new small ones and a high one. You never know which tech leads to which, and are encouraged to experiment. You learn techs simply by repeatedly using them in battles. Same applies to magic. Once you have cast a magic spell a certain amount of times, it will become more powerful, you'll need to spend less MP for casting it, and you'll be able to use it without equipping. This makes fighting countless random enemies much easier to endure, because you have a feeling of constant growth and interest in character development, which is crucial to RPG enjoyment.

Previous installments of the series have left you with pre-set parties. In Namida, you can swap characters pretty much whenever you want to, and quite a few of them join Namida on his journey. This is always a plus in my book, because this feature brings variety and desire to experiment into the monotonous nature of Japanese RPGs.

There is something unusual about the battles in Namida, which the player can notice immediately: you are attacked by an enormous amount of enemies, quite proportional to the gargantuan size of the game itself. Battles against 15 or 20 enemies at once are not uncommon. The fun part is that even with physical attack you can hit several enemies at the same time.

The dungeon design is clearly above average. Instead of being standard monotonous mazes, many dungeons require you to solve puzzles, and nearly each one has a unique style. You'll hunt for images of statues in a sinister mansion, avoid crazy monkeys throwing rocks at you on a mountain path, climb on bizarre plants, manipulate switches in an electric factory, and do lots of other interesting tasks.

Where Namida truly shines is in the music department. Every title is impeccable, from the broad world map melody and the tender village tune to the weird Ichimotsu theme and the grotesque dungeon music. The entire score is fully orchestrated. Really, the music of this game deserves a special award.

The story may not be that special, but there is something undeniably epic in it; and the ending is excellent. We get the longest and most beautiful cutscene, accompanied by superb music. Not only that, but the ending is appropriately majestic and touching. Really, Japanese developers seem to be the only ones who conclude their games with long and beautiful ending sequences, so that the player finally has a feeling of being rewarded for the hard boss battle and all the time and effort he had invested in the game. When will Western developers learn from their Japanese colleagues?

The Bad

I know I shouldn't really blame Namida for being so blatantly traditional. But I had to remind myself over and over that this game was actually conceived ten years ago. Not much has changed since the golden days of Tengai Makyō, the days of PC Engine, the first animations, the first voice overs. So yes, Namida also has good voice-overs and nice animations. But in our days, they don't surprise anyone any more. Gone is the time when the series was leading in production values. Namida almost evokes pity when we realize it is part of a series that was a great multimedia pioneer fifteen or so years ago. Sometimes you think this is a revived fossil.

I'm not talking only about its production values. Yes, it has somewhat uninspired 3D graphics without much personality, little eye candy, and less style than the previous installments of the series (while at the same time the even more traditional Dragon Quest VIII conquered hearts with its cel-shaded glory). But in terms of story and characterization, Namida is also a relic from grey past. For 1995, it would be really cool to have such a large party with so many colorful characters. But in 2005, nobody is impressed any more. Characterization has become a norm. We no longer have to use our imagination to add traits to the characters; the games have been long doing it for us by themselves. Yes, the cast of Namida is undeniably colorful, but there is little depth in the characters, both "good guys" and villains.

The problem here is rather obvious: having lost their visual charm, the characters in Namida try to walk the fine line between comical and serious, but in the end often turn out to be neither. Compare that to the amusingly charming characters of Dragon Quest VIII. But why make a comparison to that game if we can simply look at earlier Tengai Makyō games. Their character casts were smaller, but generally more interesting than the party in Namida. Most of the characters here are also woefully underwritten, and some of the more promising ones simply join your party for no reason (sometimes much too late), and just remain silent until the end. It seems that a lot of material was cut out of the game.

The story is disproportionally short compared to the monstrous size of the game itself. Very few modern gamers will have enough patience to play through the game. It has a lot of gameplay, but so little story that you'll often find yourself running around, exploring the land, fighting, talking to people for several hours without making any progress in the story, just as it was in those old classic RPGs.

The structure of the game is as formulaic as it has always been in Tengai Makyō games: you travel from province to province (each complete with a capital city and several villages), defeating one villain per each, etc. Everything is very predictable, and the few side quests concerning your party members aren't particularly exciting. Also, even though Namida is still quite humorous, its humor borrows too heavily from earlier Tengai Makyō games, and doesn't have original elements worth mentioning.

The Bottom Line

A victim of commercial approach that dominates video game industry, Namida would have been a better game if it were released when it was conceived, which was ten years ago. It is, however, still enjoyable if you are willing to cope with its archaic structure and disappointing graphics. The star of the series has fallen, and Namida feels mostly like a curious remnant of the past; but the spirit of its predecessors is still alive in it. It has more gameplay than cutscenes, more exploration than linear advancement, and its villains are truly evil and can be defeated only by overwhelming friendship and love.