By now everyone's heard of the surprise Strategy Role-Playing Game (SRPG) smash Disgaea. Developers Nippon Ichi made a name for themselves overnight with Disgaea's mix of humor and excellently localized dialogue, immensely deep customization, and solid tactics play. It sent a jolt to players and reminded them that this thinning niche hadn't died quite yet. However, their subsequent releases have failed to keep the momentum going with the same meteoric impact. But, despite the slightly dimmer limelight, their most recent release is an excellent return to form and a better game in many ways than the one that started their instant dynasty.
Set in what appears to be the same universe as Disgaea, Makai Kingdom tells the fervently non-serious story of Zetta, an immensely powerful overlord of the cosmos who finds himself helplessly transformed into a book. With his quest for multi-dimensional conquest on hold, he's forced to enlist the aid of his fellow overlords to restore him back to human shape. Given this irreverent premise, Nippon Ichi has wasted no opportunity for sarcastic dialogue. Although it may not have the laugh-out-loud hilarity of Disgaea's first half (horse wieners, anyone?), Zetta and company more than hold their own. It's a credit to the game's writers that in between the wisecracks there's even a little bit of characterization and depth. We're not talking soul-searching, but the dramatic and comedic elements (…mostly comedic) are in fine form.
In terms of gameplay, Nippon Ichi doesn't explore new territory. Instead, they've taken the core elements from past games and combined them into something that could be called a "best-of" experience. Although I don't see much influence from the underappreciated La Pucelle, Makai Kingdom features the same free-form party creation that makes up the majority of their titles. Most inanimate objects in the game (flowers, swords, etc.) can be turned into a wide array of characters, and then equipped to join the active party. Most levels will allow only eight different characters under the player's control at any time, but it's possible to create and save many more for mixing and matching at will. Stat junkies and people who love to tweak equipment will be in heaven.
After enough pawns are created and in Zetta's employ, battle takes place on small islands of land floating in the ether of space. Although SRPGs usually use a grid-based system of movement, Makai cribs the free-roaming system from Phantom Brave. Personally, Phantom was my least favorite of all the Nippon Ichi releases, and I don't think that this mechanic works well.
After selecting a character, a circle illustrating the range of movement possible becomes visible. The active character can move anywhere at all within the circle. This becomes a problem because the element of strategically positioning units based on strength, defense, and other attributes is totally eliminated when any character can go anywhere. In traditional grid-based systems, it's often wise to have burly, high-defense units taking point and providing a barrier to protect weaker units like archers or magicians. Using free-movement, the game becomes more about being able to withstand unstoppable attacks than using tactics and terrain. There's just no way to prevent enemies from hopping over all defenses and making a beeline for vulnerable healers, thieves, and mages—it's a frustrating choice and undercuts most of the philosophy behind SRPGs. I can appreciate the attempt to innovate something that has not changed since the inception of the genre, but in this case, I think it's a key element that makes the genre what it is. Altering it so significantly is more a disservice than an improvement.
Once I was able to come to terms with the free-movement and devised strategies that succeeded within in its framework (warriors… lots of warriors), Makai Kingdom made a very smart move by including something that Disgaea severely lacked; a reasonable difficulty curve.
Readers of this site will know that I have no love of leveling up. In my opinion, the best games will get my characters where they need to be by the time I get where I need to go. Although I loved Disgaea, I took major issue with the fact that it was often necessary to spend significant amounts of time replaying areas to earn experience. Makai Kingdom does away with this grind almost completely, and wins major points in my book for doing so. Simply by playing each level to completion, it's almost impossible to have a party under-leveled or ill-equipped. Of course, one major issue that still could use some work is that when new characters join an already-strong group, it's a real drag to have to go back to the beginning stages and elevate them from level one status. Still, this is a very small complaint when compared to how drastically the overall difficulty curve has been smoothed out. (But no worries, there's ample content here for people who like a challenge—it's just optional.)
In comparing the two games, I think that Disgaea probably offers a deeper, more involved experience, but this doesn't necessarily mean that it's a better game. In fact, when all was said and done, I appreciated the time spent with Makai Kingdom much more. It shares the same spirit, but comes across as more accessible and friendlier to players than its older brother was. It also felt more cohesive and streamlined, to boot. It's a shame that Makai Kingdom has gone largely unnoticed, but as long as Nippon Ichi keeps turning on games of this quality, I'm going to keep on supporting them.