Makai Kingdom(PS2)

I feel sorry for Nippon Ichi in a way. Their career took a big upswing when they turned the good-against-evil formula of La Pucelle upside-down and taught the world the joys of mass demon slaughter in Disgaea. Since then, they rather admirably decided not to so much follow up with direct sequels, but take the basic mechanics, tweak them, concoct a new cast and world, and basically start over new with each successive game. Yet, as interesting as the different variations and tweaks were, pretty much anyone talking about them will start with, "It's not as good as Disgaea, but..." Well, they've finally buckled and made a Disgaea 2 at this point (with plans for 3 already in the pipe), so I think it's as good a time as any to finally make myself talk about the last post-Disgaea title.

Makai Kingdom takes place in the same universe as it, and basically broadens the scale to include multiple Netherworlds, each ruled by its respective overlord. Our star is one of the most feared Overlords of all, the flame-haired Lord Zetta (who repeatedly describes himself as "One BAD-ASS FRICKIN' OVERLORD.") After hearing a prophecy that his world would be destroyed, he sets out to stop it by tracking down a sacred tome, and inadvertantly causes the very destruction he wanted to stop. With the world ending, his only way to survive is by binding his soul inside the Sacred Tome. So, he's alive, but completely immobile and basically useless. He's not even able to use the book's ability to grant wishes since he hasn't the arms to write in himself. Enter the other Overlords, who will help him out, though mainly for their own self-serving needs. Each one takes turns writing wishes to bring back Zetta's world (if just one of them were to wish an entire world back by themselves, the magic drain would kill them outright.) The mischevious, prophetic pedobait Pram, the ancient, slightly senile Babylon, and the boisterous moron Drake are among the other Overlords, though my favorite of the bunch is Dark Lord Vavolga, a chimeric sort of beast described as being the 'last boss of many worlds.' He's made up of a zombie dragon head, the bitching head of a fallen angel, and "Mickey," the four-armed upper body who talks with a pronounced lithp and seems to be the only one with genuine concern for Zetta. Hooray for the cosmic gay neighbor.

Also, there's a girl named Trenia who basically just hangs out in deep space. She tries to set fire to Lord Zetta for no reason and is often seen tending a garden (Again, in the middle of space.)

The biggest change from the other games to this one is a noticeable lack of story. You get a cutscene at the start and end of a chapter, and that's about it. There are a lot of interesting story fragments on display, like a near-omnipotent being being imprisoned in a book and left to the mercies of his rivals, and his connection to Lady Salome, a human former lover of his who went on to rule her own Netherworld, but you're not exactly drawn into the plot as deeply as Disgaea or La Pucelle since these blurbs of story are dispensed in 2-3 minute chunks between every seven to ten maps. About every time a cutscene did come up, I usually had to smack my forehead straining to remember what the name of that jackass lion was, or exactly who that samurai was supposed to be. "OHHHH! That guy! I don't know who he is, but I bet he's trouble!"

Each chapter, you pick which Overlord's help you want in creating the next section of your new world to conquer, and your choice will influence what sort of enemies will inhabit each board. Many times, levels start small but have a KEY item or foe to kill, which will cause a sudden extension of the level to spring into being. They carried over the confine system from Phantom Brave in a way- though the characters you create from whatever random items you find don't expire after x turns. Of note is the fact you don't normally have control of ANY story characters, your party consists entirely of created ones. So, on the one hand, you're given total freedom over what your forces are going to be, but on the other, relying purely on 'generic' troops tends to make for some pretty bland battles. To dig up the bones of Disgaea again, sure it was annoying as fuck to hear Flonne say "LORD! GIVE ME STRENGTH!" every time she used her specials, but at least you're not on a map of a dozen completely identical characters who all grunt "TAKE THIS" when they execute their orders.

There's no grid like many strategy games use. This gives you a bit more freedom placing your men, which is normally a good thing except for the fact they also added the ability to knock people "out of bounds." Normally you can't, but on occasion, rubbing up against map corners has lost me a character over the edge. The Out of Bounds rule adds a little to the system, but mainly leads to some annoying accidental kills (See also: Soul Calibur.) See, if your guy is knocked off the map, it frees up a 'population' slot (However many guys you can use at a time, the max POP decreases as they're killed, but OOB just gets rid of the current character). But if you knock an enemy off the map, it causes every other enemy still on it to shoot up a few levels. Wow! Such balance. The Lift/Throw mechanic has changed a bit too, so you don't have the ability to throw your own men, or lift/throw anything at all without unequipping your weapon. The whole system is just so damn awkward it took me a few accidental tosses of my own weapons off the edge of the board before I got the hang of it.

As alluded before, the biggest problem is that practically everyone and everything looks exactly alike. The scenery pretty much adheres to the standard video game background terrain, and the randomized expansions tend to clash noticeably (Let's see, I started in a steel-plated laboratory, then an aquarium, and finally a desert). It's not hard to accidentally kill your own men in a close quarters battle either since enemy and friendly units are again, all of the generic types that both sides use. Again, it really would have helped if your characters would actually look or act differently than anyone else; as it is, you pretty much have to rely on attacking the enemies with the most hilariously mismatched weapon in their hand (I wonder if it's an inside joke at Nippon Ichi to make the game's AI randomly assign wildly out of class equipment to all the enemies- we have healers with broadswords here).

The vehicles were a promising addition, and they are fun to tool around in, but they tend to be a bit more hassle than they're worth. You see, vehicles gain EXP and level up as most things in turn based gaming do, but in order to actually make good on the earned levels, you must create a mechanic so you can sell some of your junk for Materials(MT) so you can pay your also-freshly-created Scientist to upgrade it. Meanwhile, while your vehicle is fighting and gaining EXP, it also happens to be depriving its driver of it. Naturally, your now improved vehicle will now need a better driver too to keep pushing those miscellaneous numbers and such up.

Also new to the game are Facilities, huge buildings that you can drop out of the sky and store people in. Facilities are important in that you'll need them if you ever, EVER want to take a weakened character off the map. You can't do the old 'cancel-cancel' backstep if you summon your level one priestess into a level inhabited by giant ogres in tanks. Which I suppose merits a further explanation of how the summoning works- rather than a base panel, your 'home base' is the book Zetta, and he can 'Invite' characters, buildings, and so on into the battlefield since he's incapable of fighting (or moving) for himself. If enemies get their mitts on/damage Lord Zetta, you'll lose a bunch of Points and all your deployed characters take damage. So just don't let that happen, alright? (Zetta starts the game at about level 2000 in book form, though, so they probably can't kill him very easily until you get to some of the secret double dog bosses and such)

Now, another hallmark of Nippon Ichi involves experience grinding and item hunting to almost ridiculous extents (with characters capping in level at about 9999, though you can generally finish the game with much, much less.) Makai Kingdom requires you to create high level characters specifically so you can kill them off. Specifically, so you can create new buildings. Granted you can ressurrect a sacrificed character through transmigration, but it's still rather annoying when you reach the point where you have to hari-kiri a level 50 fighter so you can wish for a University facility that will speed up the process of grinding up the rest of your forces (possibly for more eventual horrible demises. How bleak!)

For what it is, though, Makai Kingdom is worthy of the collection of a strategy fan. The vehicles and facilities add extra dimensions to the game (Or you could just make a swordsman and a handful of support mages, just saying...), and the non-combat characters make for an interesting change of pace. I think I'd like to see some of the classes and elements created here carry over into Disgaea 2 (please oh please, keep the Infantry) even if some of the things it attempted fell flat. The biggest hits to the look and feel come from the absence of the original composers and the lack of proper character portraits during the dialogue scenes. Yes, just like the RPGs of yore, you're going to watch a lot of game sprites walking back and forth and doing little 'flavor' animations to accent the dialogue at the bottom of the screen. There are occasional uses of nice full-screen still art at certain junctions, including 'special events' from map expansions. The constantly-expanding map is one of the best ideas the game has, as is the point system which allows you to walk away victorious from a battle after destroying a number of targets that meets the completion requirement at the bottom of the screen. One early stage makes you bait a ridiculously strong enemy away so you can close in on and kill a pathetic blob at the back of the map who has just enough point value to get you out of there. The most aggravating thing for me is that with all these wonderful new tactical additions and strategically fighting to take out the highest scoring targets, an overpowered guy with a sword (Or that god damned ball and chain) is still pretty much guaranteed to win. With rare exceptions like the above, I really miss things in the vein of the Disgaea geo panel puzzles or even La Pucelle's Dark Energy flows that relied on positioning and careful tossing of people and things to break up the "Walk over there, attack that, end turn" routine.

Makai Kingdom also gets points for shamelessly having a level that serves no other purpose than to gain craploads of experience without touching the controller. Woo!

Makai Kingdom(PS2) (a.k.a.: Phantom Kingdom, in a rare case of the Japanese title sounding more western than the American one.)

In a nutshell: A refined edition of Nippon Ichi's typical SRPG format, which offers a lot of ways to customize your forces and strategies, but it's somewhat lacking in that N1 charm and story.