Monday, February 10, 2014

Toukiden: The Age of Demons (PS VITA)

The factual, and mythological history of Japan is a rich one. It is filled with fantastical tales of honor, tradition, and the brave warriors of the past who held quick to their beliefs. Just as real Japan carries with it a vastly expansive past rich with it's own time honored traditions so too does Tecmo Koei's latest multiplayer RPG experience. This latest ancient Japanese tribute titled "Toukiden: The Age of Demons" comes complete with a cast of interesting ancient Japanese characters, a mythology all it's own, and a threat that mirrors the real ancient Japan's own mythology. In this tale of bravery, and survival we find a select group of samurai warriors known as "Slayers" who are each standing their ground, and protecting their homelands from the threat of otherworldly soul devouring Oni. Eight years ago during an event called "The Awakening" a portal to the other world opened up releasing upon the land, and it's citizens a hellbent wrath. Oni swarmed the lands for seven days, and seven nights. It wasn't until that last night though that the slayers, the "Bearers of the Eye of Truth" finally made progress, and were able to save a piece of their fading history for the time being.

As an unnamed slayer you begin your journey of discovery by first creating a name for yourself, and customizing your equipment as well as your preferred gender. This personalization of sorts comes in the form of a pre-game setup menu that takes in account everything from hair color to face type, and even what type of weapon you will be wielding during gameplay. If you happen to have save data from the demo though you can bypass this introductory setup, and upload your saved data in it's stead. That is definitely an option. Once you have everything set to your liking you will be thrust head first into gameplay via a cinematic intro, and a following battle with a larger than life Oni. While the game does little to explain things at first there will be control hints dropped from time to time explaining how to defeat this monstrous adversary. The story of it all comes into play shortly thereafter.

After successfully dealing with the ominous threat before you your newly created slayer will be welcomed in by the head general (Yamato), and his leading group of slayers at the Utakata village. This is one of the last remaining villages, and is the current forefront of the war between the human race, and the Oni who keep spawning on the battle filled wastelands. Yamato the head general of the Utakata slayer army will teach you the ropes of being a slayer shortly after proper introductions are given, and will allow you to participate in missions, and quests alongside other Utakata slayers afterwards. Oka who is one of the female slayers will guide you through the first portion of your playthrough, and will aid you on your first actual mission in order to help you get familiar with the in-game mechanics. Following Oka's tutorial you will be able to return to Yamato within the village base camp, and hone your skills to perfection via some training in his interactive menu. This includes everything from the basics to specific weapon specialties.

In Toukiden you will find that you can switch between, and master any weapon that you like at any given time. It should be known though that these weapons of Oni destruction come in an interesting variety that greatly varies from weapon to weapon. In total there are six different weapon categories each with their own attack/defense styles, and range. Included in the optional set is a sword, dual knives, a spear, gauntlets, a chain & sickle, and a longbow. While you can learn to use any of these weapons the best one for you will greatly depend on your playing style. If you like heavy hacking, and slashing then the sword will be the way to go. If you like quicker hacking, and slashing then the dual knives will no doubt suit your fancy. The remaining three weapons including the spear, gauntlets, and the chain & sickle will likely attract the more advanced players as they carry with them more diverse functions, and mechanics. The more you play Toukiden, the more you earn Haku (in-game currency), and the more you gather needed materials the better equipped you will be to upgrade, and create new weapons, and armor for yourself (via the local blacksmith, Tatara).

Along with your equipped weapons, and equipped armor (Head, Chest, Arms, Legs) you'll find that the freed souls of formerly devoured warriors called "Mitama" can also connect to your weapons giving you an advantage that you would not have otherwise. Their bonus attributes come in the form of Defense, Attack, Spirit, and Healing. It should also be noted that certain weapons alone carry with them elemental attributes (Wind, Fire, Earth, Water, Air). As far as the Mitama go they too have their own individual background stories which they will share with you upon being freed. If you upgrade, or "Pacify (Downgrade)" their abilities via the local Mitama healer (Shikimi) you will find that more of their past will be revealed along the way. The good thing about having Mitama is that they have special abilities that level up with the conquering of Oni. The more Oni you defeat the more these aiding assistants of old will be able to help you in your missions. Also keep in mind that as you upgrade (Fortify) your weapons you'll make more Mitama slots available, and will be able to equip more of them to a single weapon.

The Oni in Toukiden are a different thing altogether. In Toukiden the various types of Oni that you happen upon will pose different levels of threats, mainly depending on their size. In the early missions of each age (Age of Honor ...) you will only encounter lesser Oni which will  be easy work for any slayer not running, and slashing like a wild fool. It does take different attack, and defensive techniques to defeat even the lesser of the Oni army though. While the lesser Oni are more in number within the game's lands you will find that the more powerful ones (the ones who have devoured many souls) will pose the biggest threat to you, and your four man/woman party. These end of an age Oni are larger than life in comparison to the lesser ones, and will demand strategic tactics to defeat as well as certain in-game techniques in order to end their reign of terror. The larger, more powerful Oni usually have hidden weak points that can only be found by using the "Eye of Truth". This unique in-game feature will bring you to the same plane of existence as your Oni adversary, and will allow you to pinpoint exactly where you need to land your attacks. By simply pressing "SELECT" on the PS VITA console you will be able to view anything in the surrounding area with the "Eye of Truth" vision. Keep in mind though that this feature runs on meter energy which will deplete as you remain in the "Eye of Truth" visionary mode. Upon leaving the special sight seeing feature your energy bar will refill though.

Killing off the Oni of your world is only the beginning of your duty as a slayer. After defeating any Oni, whether it be a lesser Oni, or a greater one you'll find that their corpses leave behind a "Miasma" fume. Only "Bearers of the Eye of Truth", and other special slayers (such as yourself) can deal with these lingering Miasma. In order to rid the world of it's hazardous effects you must purify the remains via "Purification". By standing close to the lifeless bodies of the Oni/s you merely have to press, and hold down the (Right Shoulder) button until a rune outlined ring of magic appears, and the corpse of the defeated Oni starts glowing purple. After a few seconds time (or longer if dealing with Boss parts) the Miasma will be released, and come into your slayer as Oni material. This gathered material which can be kept, or sold at the end of a mission will come in handy for upgrading various equipment items, and creating new equipment.

Aside from your slayer, and the Oni you are up against the game also contains a fully interactive village filled with merchants, and persons of interest who will aid you in bettering yourself as a slayer. As I mentioned earlier Yamato (The general) acts as a commanding officer during special cinematic mission orientations as well as a means to hone your in-game skills, and the knowledge thereof. Shikimi who has her own unique purpose will help you to either "Pacify (Revert Mitama back to lvl.1)", or enhance/upgrade the Mitama spirits who have chosen to follow you. Within the actual main village building you'll also find a knowledgeable slayer named 'Shusui' who holds info pertaining to all in-game content. His knowledge covers everything from characters, and Oni types to terms, and even age info. Of course there's also a Blacksmith (Tatara) who deals with weapon creation/upgrades, as well as a lesser important merchant who buys/sells everything from weapons to materials. Your home base, or room is also located on the grounds of the village, and can be accessed through the main base camp, or the outside house. Inside this humble abode you'll find a save place, a weapon rack for changing weapons/equipment, and an upgradeable item shelf where all your gathered materials are kept. There's also a scribing table where letters are received, and where your journey as a slayer is recorded chapter by chapter (upon completion).

Last, but not least you'll also find within the main village structure a secretarial desk run by Yamato's daughter, 'Yu'. This secretary will act as your initiation point for the missions, and quests that you choose to take on. While missions can only be carried out one at a time the accompanying quests (for other individuals) can be taken on in multiples. This way you can knock out two birds with one stone, or something of that sort. As far as Missions go they will land you smack dab in the middle of the battlefield which is divided by color coded gates, and portals. Passing through a gated area that is marked with glowing blue rings will take you to an area with a low number of Oni, and lesser Oni types. Going through a gate with red pulsing rings though will take you to a more difficult area with more numerous Oni, and mission based objectives (kill of waves of Oni, etc., ...). In the red ring areas you will find that the Oni are more difficult to defeat, but not as difficult as the Oni past the boss gates (red ring + blue portal).

After entering any accessible gated area you will have to defeat all of the Oni contained within in a certain amount of time, even if it is a boss Oni. Should you run out of health in the process you can either retreat back to the starting area and sacrifice a little revive meter, or let a fellow slayer revive you by pressing, and holding down the "Right Shoulder" button until the ring on the screen fills back up. If you choose to retreat too often your slayer will be harder to revive by fellow slayers due to your lower revive timer's time. Eventually if you retreat to much your game will come to an abrupt end, a permanent end that will land you back at the Utakata village with diddly squat. If you don't clear all of the gates within a mission are in time you'll also return to the village without anything.

All of the missions, and quests in the game are rated by difficulty, time, Oni type, payout, and objectives. The missions typed in black are usually the easiest while the ones typed in red lettering are the more challenging. Upon completing a mission, or a quest be sure to check all around the village, and with key characters (Characters with an exclamation marks above their head) as you will often times trigger special in-game CG scenes that will lead to new encounters, and special battles. Speaking of exclamation marks your slayer is equipped to relay gestures to fellow slayers as well as display feelings through visual emoticons. Things like bowing, praying, and clapping are among the visually displayed actions/gestures you can perform. The gestures, and emoticons (Heart, Demon Symbol, Sleeping Symbol, Exclamation Mark ...) both serve a purpose mainly in online scenarios where you wish to relay your feelings to other players, but can be assign as seen fit for the singleplayer campaign.

About Online Multiplayer ...

When it comes to online offerings they come in two different yet similar forms. You can join local players in completed singleplayer missions via ad-hoc, or you can join in with total strangers via the infrastructure mode. Both online modes of play work the same, and will allow the player to take their equipped slayer online, and complete missions with the aid of real gamers. All the missions in the online modes mirror those of the offline mode. The only real difference is that the potentially earned Haku (in-game currency) is much more, and the opportunity to gain needed materials is better. There's also an option in place to join a quick match, a standard match, a custom match, or create a match of your own. You can back out of the multiplayer modes only after, and before a mission starts. To exit the online mode you simply have to press "X" in front of the usual room entrance within the Utakata main building. I actually played the game online today (Infrastructure), and found it to be a smooth experience even at a 2-3 bar ping.

Stuff I forgot to mention ...

Some of the other extra features that you'll find amongst the virtual cornucopia of content featured in Toukiden is an easy access equipment registry menu that can be found with in your slayer's own save room. This equipment registry will allow you to name weapon, and armor setups that you have put together over the course of your playthrough. In turn you can equip these setups, and even mix, and match them to your liking before battle. It makes for quick equipment switches between missions, and helps you to be prepared for battle without having to reassign things over again. There are a total of 15 registry slots for both weapons, and armor.

Another key aspect of gameplay revolves around character interactions. As I mentioned before you will be given multiple choice answers from time to time which can be chosen as a reply to a characters' question. Some answer choices border on being blunt, or sarcastic while others lean toward character favoritism. By choosing from these optional answers players will in turn develop a relationship with the characters that they speak to. After establishing a connection with characters your relationship will be measured by status. You'll either be a friend, an acquaintance, comrade or something along those lines. The better your relationship is the more benefits you'll gain from the characters who accompany you on missions, and other aspects of the story. Your friendship stats can be checked up on in the main building of the Utakata village at the desk of Shusui who keeps track of all in-game knowledge. It will be listed under the "Character" menu of the main menu.

Battle is also something that adds to the diversity of gameplay in Toukiden. On the battlefield you will apply standard attacks, special attacks (CIRCLE), and an all powerful attack (TRIANGLE + CIRCLE) that becomes available after landing enough strikes. The orb with the weapon icon at the top of the screen is in essence your combo meter, and once it is filled with a glowing orange color you will be able to unleash a devastating attack that will do significant damage to the larger boss type Oni. Something else to keep in mind is that aside from a health meter all that you do in the battlefield is only made possible if you have enough stamina meter in place to do so. While the stamina meter does refill when not evading, running (R.Shoulder), or attacking you must keep a watch on it at all times so you don't end up taking damage from the boss Oni's attacks. Another helpful hint involves the in-game lock-on mechanism. By pressing, and holding (L.Shoulder) for a second, or two you will lock onto the Oni before you, and in turn your movement will be drawn to it's movement. This is definitely helpful when dealing with a Boss Oni.

As far as Boss Oni encounters go you'll find that Boss Oni, or the greater Oni of the hierarchy can be dismembered during battle. By ridding the Boss Oni of it's arms, legs, or appendages you can purify the parts like other lesser Oni, and gather the more rare materials contained within. While this is definitely a thing that you'll run across in the battles with the Boss Oni you do not have to dismember, and purify all fallen body parts in order to defeat the beast. If you land enough strikes you will eventually kill the boss Oni regardless of whether, or not you purified the body parts, or if you severed all parts from the Boss Oni. Keep in mind though that by purifying the body parts you will gather the harder to get materials of the game.

Lastly as you continue to play through Toukiden you'll realize that the gathered materials you happen across come in a wide variety of value ranges. The more common Oni materials you will find, for example will be ranked as a number "1" item in your storage menu while the more rare ones will score an impressive "9" value. Of course in the game's merchant market you can fetch a hefty payout from the sales of the rarer items, but the benefit of holding onto them for weapon, and armor upgrade/creation far outweighs the benefits of any sale. Always remember that your item/material storage is limited, and that it can only be upgraded to hold more if you complete certain quests issued by the blacksmith, 'Tatara'.

About the Graphics & Sound ...

Visually "Toukiden: The Age of Demons" is an artistic masterpiece similar to many of Tecmo Koei's past Japanese oriented games. The visual style is definitely reminiscent of the Dynasty Warrior franchise, and carries with it the same beautiful character renditions as those particular games do. The in-game 3d character models, and 2d representations have that rich quality about them that is synonymous with the Tecmo Koei brand name even though they are minimized. The 2d images for example border on being anime stylized, and semi-realistic like that of previous Tecmo Koei's cover art. The 3d models of the characters you use, and interact with are also detailed giving the character a realistically changing appearance as you add different armor to them. Their movement isn't stiff, and adds realism to the onscreen action that takes place.

As far as the landscape, and Utakata village goes it is a vast improvement over games such as the previously reviewed "Ys: Memories of Celceta". In fact I'd say that Utakata village is somewhat like the villages of the recent Ys release. Even with this obviously inspired land based feature it does well in that it's details are all in HD (High Definition). Even the CG cutscenes look like something you'd see on the PS3, or PS4 consoles. In general the game looks amazing throughout.

Aside from stunning visuals the game also offers the gamer a quality soundtrack that harkens back to the ancient Japanese era. You'll hear traditional Japanese drums, and instruments playing as you go about your business ending the Oni reign. The added Japanese voice-overs, and expertly translated English subtitles help retain the games Japanese ambiance while letting us here in the states enjoy the game the way it was meant to be enjoyed. In the areas of graphics, and sound this game definitely scores a "9 out of 10".

Now on to the verdict ...

Toukiden is an excellent RPG for those looking for action in the online, and offline modes. While the gameplay is limited to an extent you will find that the online offerings extend the game's replay value allowing you to show off your skills, and praiseworthy equipment to those who have yet to master the game. The in-depth in-game features offer a lot to look through, engage in, and explore. You'll find plenty of interesting characters, relationship altering questions, and even alternate endings depending on your conversation/interaction choices made during your adventure. Even your actions on the battlefield matter as it is your duty to aid the "Bearers of the Eye of Truth" in their quest to rid the world of Oni influence. As with any material hunting, gathering, and crafting game you will also spend a lot of time hunting down the things that you need to create the ultimate weapon, and armor sets. This in itself adds to the overall replay value found within the world of Toukiden.

As far as the graphics, and sound quality goes this gaming creation offers a near perfect, if not perfect presentation in those regards. The ancient Japanese world comes to life in a mixture of vivid 2d, and 3d art styles. The look of it is almost like that of the "Dynasty Warriros" franchise making for a visually engaging experience that will no doubt have you wasting hours upon hours exploring. The soundtrack is also impressive in it's own right. It reflects the samurai style time period that the game seems to take place in, and is accented by the original Japanese voice-overs from the original Japanese release. I definitely liked the fact that the developer kept the actual character voices original as often times the English voice actors/actresses do the Japanese characters they are portraying an injustice.

In the end, when it's all said, and done this game is most definitely worth the $39.99 asking price. It offers the gamer a proper "9 out of 10" experience, and does so on a handheld console. That in itself is a feat worthy of praise. If you have not put this on your list of PS Vita games to get you should. I do hate that I wasn't able to give you a proper heads up due to the embargo though as the pre-order bonus came with an exclusive in-game Mitama. It is what it is though. Regardless of this fact you should still pick up "Toukiden: The Age of Demons" when it releases tomorrow. Weather willing of course.

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