The history of beat-'em-ups is one of making bad things happen to people on purpose. Over the course of past games, I've seen countless martial arts techniques and weaponry used to beat down countless punks, cyborgs, robots, ninjas, mooks, two-legged dinosaurs, mutants, thugs, supervillains, demons, and bizarrely-dressed gang members. I think that most of you reading this can say the same thing.
Before I played Otogi, I had not yet slammed anyone through a building.
I wasn't expecting it, to be honest with you. They said that you could pummel the environments in Otogi, and I had heard about it. Then I swung my sword with the Y button and slammed this one thing--I'm not sure what it was, it's like half insect, half demon, all annoying spellcaster--through a pagoda. It collapses into shrapnel and dust. He explodes into a festive party mix of health items, so I turn to his friend and beat him into and through a massive stone obelisk. He dies. The last guy is still shooting at me, so I hold down X and fry him with a magical firebird the size of a California condor.
Playing Otogi is sort of like being a superhero. You're unbelievably agile, you're superhumanly strong, and nine-tenths of what you run into isn't even vaguely threatening. They may be annoying, but unless they can call in an orbital strike on my undead samurai ninja ass, then they aren't worth bothering about. I hit them with my sword, they die, but it's really just to see if their flying bodies will break anything else. They aren't opponents so much as annoying ammunition.
Otogi is ostensibly the story of Prince Raikoh, a runaway member of a clan of executioners. Raikoh, caught between life and death, is offered a deal by an entity known only as the Princess; the Great Seal that separates the worlds of demons and man has broken down. Raikoh must carry out a variety of tasks--twenty-nine of them, to be precise--that will lead to the reestablishment of the Seal. In return, the stain of dishonor he's brought to his clan will be cleansed.
What I get a kick out of is that Raikoh's missions involve "purifying" the areas he's sent to, and the demons he fights. In the parlance of Otogi, destroying an entire village in pursuit of a bunch of hopping disembodied skulls, while occasionally pausing to electrocute mutant plants with your magic samurai powers, is "purification." But maybe this is some kind of metaphysical thing. I don't know.
Just the same, according to the Princess, breaking something into toothpicks and killing everything within a mile counts as "purifying" it. You're supposed to do it. You're rewarded for it. You're graded on it. When you finish a level and you've gotten an "E" in pointless devastation than damn it, you're going back in.
Otogi handles pretty well, too. Raikoh's got a variety of combinations he can execute with the B button, which he can finish either with the A button, to cast a spell, or the Y button, to slam the unwitting target about half a mile in a random direction. Y is also his generic heavy attack, which destroys most features of your environment. Run up to a support column, hit Y, and watch as the entire floor above you collapses on your head. Smack a lit lantern into an opponent, they'll light on fire.
As you "purify"--and that's never going to stop being funny, okay?--the stages, you collect experience points, items, and gold. The XP is so Raikoh can level up, which does everything you'd expect leveling up to do: his attack and defense increase.
You spend your gold at the shop, repairing the weapons you already have, buying new ones, or picking up accessories. One of the things I really like about Otogi, besides "purifying" a demon straight through two walls and a mountain, is that Raikoh has a huge arsenal of items and weapons to find and use. It's an excellent way to combat button-masher syndrome, since no two weapons act quite the same way. If you're bored with Raikoh's current fighting style, trade it in for dual-wielding scimitars, or a double-bladed staff. The same thing goes for his magic talismans; if your current spell isn't working well on a given level, which happens more often than you'd think, you can ditch it and equip a new one. Granted, Raikoh can't carry more than one weapon and switch on the fly, which would be nice, but you can't have everything.
The game's sort of pretty, too. Your journey tends to bring you through deserted villages and ancient ruins, which are softly lit by the setting sun or dozens of lanterns. The music is inobtrusive, and classically Japanese. The problem with this, unfortunately, is that both are frequently made utterly irrelevant by what's happening onscreen. It's a credit to the engine that no matter what's happening--a building's collapsing on your head while Raikoh fights off a dozen demons, all of whom are throwing fireballs at you--the framerate doesn't drop.
Speaking of demons, the game's not easy. Otogi starts off with a few softball levels, where the real trick is frequently keeping from completing the level objectives long enough that you can explore the stage. Once you reach the first boss, though--an immortal, undead priest who is throwing bizarrely well-aimed meteors at you from the moment you enter his territory--the gloves are off. Otogi's favored tactics include swarming you, which is often frustrating, as Raikoh is bounced from enemy to enemy without much of a chance to retaliate, but you can usually get out of a tight spot with the Y button or a couple of spells.
Otogi's tendency towards breakneck action on an apocalyptic scale means that as nice or pretty as the backgrounds or music are, they're drowned out by explosions, screams, thuds, or the grumbling crash of architecture imploding. I just finished playing the game and I can't remember what the music sounds like. There's also some minor annoyance to be had from the backgrounds, as most things detonate in a cloud of dust, smoke, and shrapnel, which can obscure your vision. Slamming a demon through a wall feels pretty good, but then you can't see where his three friends are, and they're fireballing you.
Since we're in the part of the review where I offhandedly mention the game's flaws, let's talk about your health meter. Raikoh has two stats you need to keep track of; one is his magic, the other's his stamina. Your magic constantly dwindles, regardless of whatever else you're doing, and if it runs out, your life starts to drop at the same slow rate. Theoretically, you can refill your magic meter by finding talismans or destroying enemies, but neither of them are worth enough meter to be really worthwhile. On some monsters, like the evasive flying spellcasters, you'll lose more magic while you're trying to kill them than you'll get once they're dead. The result is a sort of impromptu, flexible time limit, which lends itself well to a fast-paced combat experience, but also actually punishes you for trying anything subtler than a full-on assault. It's also hard to explore the larger levels, looking for secrets and items, when your magic and health are constantly dwindling.
There also isn't anything like a block button, which is really annoying. You can parry most incoming attacks with a well-timed sword strike, but in my mind, that's no substitute for being able to go completely defensive. I don't care if I get guard crushed occasionally, but when I'm being bum-rushed by nine spellcasting aerial demons, all of whom can generate and throw burning chunks of rock at me at a pace somewhere between "unsettling" and "obscene"--it's like being hosed down by some kind of malevolent, intelligent avalanche--then damn it twice, I'd like to be able to block.
The short version is that Otogi is an incredibly satisfying brawler, with levels you can clear in a few minutes each. It's got a few drawbacks, and it's by no means easy, but it's an extraordinary game from a developer that I'd written off as mediocre. (From Software is officially off the hook for Evergrace. The already-announced Otogi 2 might get me to forgive them for Eternal Ring.) It may be difficult to track down a copy, but Otogi is well worth the search.