Okage: Shadow King


    Despite all the innovation and experimentation in RPGs over the last several years, the genre remains mired in the clichés of the past. This isn't always a bad thing -- many great games have proven that you don't need to break with conventions to craft an excellent title, but it is surprising that so few games try to outright parody them. Sony's Okage: Shadow King attempts to do just that -- but only half-succeeds. While the game's premise and art style present an amusing, and often very funny take on the clichés of the genre, Okage's by-the-book gameplay keeps it from living up to its promise.

  This joke was funnier in Japanese.
The Evil King and his Evil Butler.

    Okage's main character Ari is almost the exact opposite of the standard RPG youth; he's nearly a wallflower. Neither spunky nor in search of adventure, he lives a quiet life in the town of Tenel, where he's continually bossed around by his parents, his popular sister, and even the local shopkeepers. All that changes one day when a wild ghost attacks his sister, an event that leaves the girl only able to speak in pig latin. Rather than let the poor girl be consigned to a future as Comic Relief (her mother always hoped she'd become a precocious Princess), the father summons what he believes is a powerful spirit trapped in mysterious jar. What he gets instead is a weak, petty, and quarrelsome Evil King by the name of Stanley High-Hat Trinidad the 14th, or Stan for short.

   In order to manifest himself back into the world, however, Stan needs a host, and Ari is reluctantly pushed into offering his shadow as a home for the demon. Stan drafts the unwilling Ari into his plans for world domination, and the two set off to reclaim Stan's rightful place as the one true Evil King. The story that follows plays out like satirical inversion of the usual RPG quest. Stan drives Ari from town to town, defeating the fake Evil Kings, not to save the world, but to conquer it by reclaiming his lost powers. Though Ari is ostensibly the lead, Stan takes center stage, and his wild mood swings and often bizarre plans for world domination keep the plot moving at a steady pace.

You are rude like hell, miss.
I don't know much about proper English, but I know what I like.

   Okage is also blessed with one of the freshest cast of supporting characters seen in quite a while. Though most of them are drawn from the familiar pool of RPG types (the Hero, the Strongman, the Spoiled Princess), the game presents each of them a comedic twist. The interplay between the characters, whose goals are often at odds, is consistently amusing and the clever dialog is helped along by the game's hard-to-categorize translation. Simply put, Okage has one of the best bad translations ever. It's impossible to label it "good" - the text is still riddled with the misspellings and stilted dialog we've come to expect from SCEA -- but at the same time, the quality of the original script shines through, and the Okage manages to be very, very funny.

   Part of the humor comes from the creative situations the game presents, but a larger part of it is that Okage's designers seem very aware of the ridiculousness of most RPG storylines. The game doesn't quite push its parody as far as it could; the story eventually evolves into a quest to save the world, but it's done in such a fresh and interesting way, and in keeping with the game's overall feel, that most players will hardly notice the shift until it's almost over. Regardless, any game that takes the time to make fun of crate puzzles is obviously on the right track.

  Stan and Ari face off against Sylvia Plath.
Kooky. Oooky.

    The unique story is complimented by the game's strikingly different art style. Okage's world is drawn with a cartoonish, gothic flair, similar to The Nightmare Before Christmas or the work of Edward Gorey. The frazzled, sketchy design of Okage's characters complements the game's quirky storyline, and the whole world, right down to the unusual monster designs, almost has the look of an overturned toy box. While the graphics used in the towns and field maps of game certainly can't compare technically with the PS2's more impressive offerings, they are rendered with careful, almost hand drawn quality and a great deal of minute detail. At the very least, Okage is proof that you needn't resort to cel-shading to give your game a unique look.

    Unfortunately, the game's creativity starts to falter once you get down to the actual gameplay. Okage's battle system is a predictable mix of elements from past RPGs: the active time battles of Final Fantasy (though the game does pause for your input), the shared magic pool from Skies of Arcadia, and a simple system of elemental affinities from, well, every RPG ever. There are a few interesting twists, however. The most powerful spells actually consume hit points, meaning you can't simply fire off the big guns and recharge later, and each character can be set to Wait mode during their turn, which allows you to active them at any time later or combine their attacks with the other two party members. The battles are challenging and competently executed, but they never really move beyond being mere stumbling blocks to the next amusing story sequence.

A maze of twisty passages, all alike.
My sentiments exactly.

    While the battle system is adequate, if predictable, the game takes a major nosedive once you venture into its handful of dungeons. These all employ the same drab, brick face textures, and all revolve around the exact same mechanic -- find switches to activate doors and bridges to find your way to more switches to repeat all over again. Meanwhile, each floor of a dungeon is home to a number or "Urns," all of which must be defeated to open the passage to next level. The dungeons quickly devolve into endless backtracking through the dull, maze-like environments to find that last switch or Urn. Considering how smart the rest of the game is, one is almost tempted to view Okage's endless procession of dull mazes as a sort of extended satire of just how uncreative an RPG can be. Unfortunately, the joke's on the gamer this time, and Okage is one of the few games in recent memory that actually would have been improved by relying on randomly created dungeons. The designers seemed to have recognized this, however, and dungeon crawling takes up a minimum of time in the overall game - though it still manages to be tedious every time.

    With all its good points, it's unfortunate that the jaded RPG audience most likely to find Okage's story and setting a charming change of pace will also as be the most infuriated by the game's flaws. If Zener Works had applied the same creativity that was put into the plot and art to the gameplay itself, Okage could have been something truly special. The game's strange mix of inspiration and mediocrity still averages out to a worthwhile game, but it could have been much, much more.

Review by Zak McClendon, GIA.
Okage: Shadow King
Developer Zener Works
Publisher SCEA
Genre Traditional RPG
Medium CD-ROM (1)
Platform Sony PlayStation 2
Release Date  March 15, 2001
 October 2, 2001
E3: Okage: Shadow King impressions
178 English screenshots
11 character designs
Japanese box art