There’s something about the mix of swordplay and Eastern environments that speaks of a great backdrop for a game. Maybe it’s the fast paced hacking and slashing by skilled swordsmen or going up against numerous opponents at the same time that’s perfect for action titles. Perhaps it’s the undercurrent of magic and channeling chi, or exploring a lush, sprawling countryside that works well for RPGs. Or maybe it’s the situations that the main character has to go through, such as a quest for redemption. All of these elements are found within Sony’s latest PSP title, Kingdom of Paradise.
Kingdom of Paradise takes place in the fractured kingdom of Ouka, which is ruled by five separate clans. Players are cast as Shinbu, an outcast member of the Seiryu Clan who’s been disgraced because of stupid decisions he made. Still seeking to perfect his swordsmanship, Shinbu practices his swordplay every day in the hopes that he can potentially redeem himself in the eyes of his master. This plan changes one day when he crosses paths with Sui Lin, a fellow disciple who’s seeking his help. Unbeknownst to Shinbu, his clan has been slaughtered, making he and Sui Lin the last of their kind. Even worse, the Seiryu sacred sword has been stolen, endangering the right of the clan to exist. It’s up to Shinbu to regain the sword, exact revenge for his clan, and ultimately find out why his people were attacked in the first place.
As a typical RPG would go, you’ll wind up traveling to a number of exotic places, talking to a large number of people and accomplishing a lot of tasks given to you in the 15 hour plus game. However, as an action title, there’s a lot of hacking and slashing that you’ll wind up doing to eliminate your opponents. Standard attacks are sectioned into two separate concepts, Kenpu tiles and Bugei scrolls. Both items are collected after an enemy is defeated, found in breakable objects or purchased in stores. The terms may seem somewhat confusing, but the easiest way to look at them is to think in terms of moves and combos. Kenpu tiles allow Shinbu to perform new attacks: overhead swings, spinning slashes and roundhouse kicks are all possible attacks from the more than 150 moves available in the game. However, you’re not forced to input some arcane string of button presses; instead, you use Bugei scrolls to tailor your attacks to your personal playing style. Like displaying a lot of strength with your swordplay? You can load up with a lot of power moves, juggling opponents or knocking them down. More into finesse? You can add a lot more spins to keep enemies on their toes. As you progress, you’ll acquire stronger and more diverse styles.
Similarly, you’ll acquire “magic” in the form of Chi Arts, based on the interconnectivity of the elements as well as their relative weaknesses against each other. What you’ll discover is that each one of the five elements (water, metal, fire, earth and wood) have their own complimentary and rival elements that will affect the damage that you’ll inflict upon your opponents. Unlike other RPGs, you won’t be restricted by the number of times you can trigger these magical arts. Instead, you will be given the opportunity to recharge the option to use these skills by charging them up and unleashing them again.
One of the interesting tweaks of Paradise's combat system is that it's both a blessing and a curse to the gameplay. For one, it can be extremely cool to watch a squad of enemies appear from seemingly nowhere, running onscreen or leaping out of hiding places to challenge you. Since you'll often go up against six or more enemies at a time, it can be very exhilarating to watch Shinbu unsheathe his sword and launch into his opponents, blade flashing in every direction. Considering that you have the chance to establish and customize your attacks, it can be somewhat exciting to see your created combos in battle.
However, triggering these attacks exposes the flaws in the combat system. For one, you're not inputting any button combinations to trigger a combo or special attack; instead, you're simply pounding the same button over and over again to create your attacks. Not only does this reduce your "designed" moves to a simple situation of chance when you're in battle, it reduces the amount of skill involved. What's more, you'll find in the midst of battle that it's practically impossible to block incoming attacks. The reason behind this is that the attack button and the block button are one and the same. In fact, attempting to consciously block will often result in launching an attack, which can leave you open to injury. That's if the block command is even recognized at all. Even worse, the strength of the regular attacks pale in comparison to the power of the chi art attacks, which are absurdly more powerful and unbalances the combat system wildly. In fact, since you can use them over and over without fear of losing the ability, you can abandon regular attacks altogether as long as you don't mind running around and avoiding incoming strikes.
One of the other hitches in gameplay comes in the form of quest resolution and plot advancement. Like I mentioned earlier, you'll talk to a lot of people and get a large number of quests over the course of your adventures. However, actually finding the location of some of these tasks can be tricky in and of itself. Towns that you travel to are rather large, some consisting of multiple screens worth of real estate, and having an idea that you need to track this person down or go somewhere else to find one thing can be somewhat daunting. Even trickier is out of town travel, where you will often find that you'll point yourself in one direction and hope that it's the right one, which can cause a lot of backtracking once you realize you're going the wrong way. It's not too much of a hassle considering relatively low load times, but it can be a wee bit annoying.
One of the things that Kingdom of Paradise does have going for it are the strong visuals. For one, you have a nicely animated 3D fighter on the PSP that runs at a rather stable framerate for most of the time. The game can chunk out here and there depending on how many enemies are on screen, how flashy an attack or chi art is displayed and other reasons, but it's usually pretty good. You may also run into an errant camera angle here and there that gets hung up on the odd object, structure or has trouble tracking Shinbu accurately. This isn't too problematic during exploration, but it can be annoying in the midst of a fight. The 3D models are large, and are nicely detailed when you get into close-ups with the camera via the in-game cutscenes, which highlights the game's anime-inspired character designs. The sound effects sound rather appropriate for the game combat, and the score feels pulled from one of the more recent martial arts epics that Hollywood has imported. The standout, however, comes with the voice acting, which plays out for many conversations as well as for cutscenes and overall is rather decent.
There is a mild multiplayer mode in Kingdom of Paradise, but much like the combat in the game, is much more like a button mashing fest for two players in Ad Hoc mode only. Otherwise, you can trade kenpu with a friend, giving each other stronger attacks that can be used in the single player game. It is rather cool that you have the opportunity to expand the gameplay by downloading extras via the infrastructure mode, but you'll need passwords to unlock these items from the websites they're on.
It's great to see an additional RPG on the PSP, since there's only been two others released for the portable platform. If you can forgive the button mashing simplicity and the other hiccups of the fighting system, you'll find an enjoyable action RPG title in a beautiful environmental setting.