Wackiness is hard work. Anybody can come up with a random quip that makes his friends laugh, but true silliness requires almost managerial skill. Humor is an art of incongruities; a good humorist must know them intimately, and fit them together like puzzle pieces or cogs in a machine. Okage: Shadow King is an offbeat game in both senses of the word. While the game can be funny and intriguing, it's often unable to keep up with its own momentum.
Things start out silly enough. Ari is a boy whose shadow has been possessed by a very un-scary demon. Evil King Stanley Hihat Trinidad XIV—Stan to his friends and pawns—has his own butler and a vendetta against all the fake Evil Kings trying to mooch off his badness. He and Ari are going to teach these phonies a lesson.
It only gets weirder from there. Stan and Ari fight chickens, Loser Crocodiles, and a Teen Idol Evil King who is, in fact, a woman. They meet people who love gears so much that they want to kiss and hug them. And they make friends with a woman who carries a pink parasol at all times, even indoors. Those who like their role-playing games (RPGs) filled with Euripidean gravitas need not apply.
Irreverent energy is apparent as soon as one starts playing Okage: Shadow King. Its characters seem made of glazed clay; the women look like bells, the men like oversized hatpins. Beauty and ugliness melt together into charm. Here's Tim Burton's Halloween Town in broad daylight.
Unfortunately, the energy that gives the game world an almost hallucinatory quality is sometimes overwhelming. Humor is a personal thing and, for me, Okage's jokes are so wild that they don't always hit their marks. Sure, Stan's insecure, narcissistic tantrums— "I'll smash you, slam you, and blow my nose on you!"—tickled me. I chuckled when Princess Marlene accuses a gossipmonger of telling "housewife lies." But the jabs at Rosalyn's butt size? They continued long after they stopped being funny.
The music, too, suffers from the game's boundless frenzy. Many game soundtracks are too bland, too blended into the background to be noticed. Okage: Shadow King has plenty of unique tunes (eg. the "hunga hunga" chant in a couple of dungeons) but some stuck out so much that they were distracting. Trumpets and ding-dong bells didn't quite jive for me. The music was sometimes a little too strange.
Okage's experience-point system is also a little strange. What's even stranger is that its own manual explains that system incorrectly. The manual says, "The EP [experience points] needed to increase a character's LV [level] increases as their LV increases." That's how most RPGs work. But in Okage: Shadow King, the experience points needed for growth are fixed at 1000, regardless of level. As characters get stronger, monsters they've killed in the past lose their experience-point worth. The Perky Frogs worth 1000 points at level one will be worth five points at level 50. I don't know why the manual says differently. But I do know that I was halfway through the game before I could make sense of leveling up, and I had to look at an online FAQ to do it.
But we don't play RPGs for pretty pictures or jokes or music, or even for clear explanations of how to level up. What about Okage's gameplay? Therein likes my most serious complaint. Like other turn-based RPGs, players wait their turn to attack monsters. In Okage: Shadow King they can even gang up on enemies by instructing a character to wait and combine his or her attack with the next fighter(s) in line. This is a solid battle system, decent in and of itself. But why must enemies stop in mid-air while players issue battle commands? Perhaps the developers wanted to create the illusion of fighting in real time; monsters holding swords over their heads seem more dramatic that way. Still, such freeze-framing interrupts the flow of battle. I often had a hard time telling whose turn was when. It's like the game is out of step with itself.
That's Okage: Shadow King's biggest problem: its parts all march to different drummers, ruining any chance of harmony. The game does a lot of things well. It infuses the age-old battle between good and evil with refreshing shades of gray. It's funny, sometimes. Its fighting system is almost entirely solid. But, like the enemies frozen in space when Ari and his friends are forming a battle plan, all these things are somehow out of sync. And since Okage's pieces never really worked together, I never could immerse myself in its world.
Maybe I'm being too hard on Okage: Shadow King. It's an offbeat title not meant for everyone. Still, I've seen offbeat titles done better. Their gameplay was unlike any that came before, and it followed a comfortable rhythm. Okage: Shadow King has its charm. But it is, ironically, too off-kilter for me to consider it a cult classic.