One of the biggest ideological challenges currently facing game developers is a conundrum almost as big as the old chicken or the egg argument: should franchise games play it safe and continue to do what's worked in the past, or should they be bold and strive to cover new ground at the risk of alienating the core fanbase in the process? For years now, my personal response has always been in favor of the latter option. Lord knows there are enough stale and derivative games out there coasting by on mere name recognition when the flame of creativity was extinguished long ago.
However, after spending time with a game like Yu-Gi-Oh!: The Falsebound Kingdom, I can almost see why developers stick with the tried and true-there's a veritable minefield of potential pitfalls in attempting to take a franchise in a new direction, and unfortunately, this latest Yu-Gi-Oh! title manages to trip over most of them. What starts out as an interesting idea for a strategy role-playing game (RPG) soon crumbles under the weight of poor design decisions, unintuitive gameplay, and an aesthetic presentation that would have been more at home on the Nintendo Entertainment System than the powerful GameCube.
For those gamers who don't keep up with the latest kid fads, Yu-Gi-Oh! is a collectable card game. In the grand scheme of the games, the little kids play Pokémon, the teens play Magic: The Gathering, and the middle school kids play Yu-Gi-Oh!. The game centers on (as far as I understand it—I'm not a fan of collectable card games, personally) building decks of monster cards, which players then use in battles against another player's cards. Most of the fun isn't in winning—it's in building a killer deck (or set of decks—most players seem to like to have a variety of decks at their disposal).
The previous games in the Yu-Gi-Oh! series have been based on the collectable card game. Players collect virtual cards, make decks, and enter tournaments to advance the plot. This formula has been pretty successful, as the games have appeared on a multitude of platforms in the past few years.
Apparently, though, someone thought this approach was getting old. So, rather than craft another collectable card game, the makers of The Falsebound Kingdom decided to create an RPG instead. While the ambition was admirable, the results are not.
Players can take control of either Yugi or Kaiba—each character has a different campaign scenario, although the main crux of the story is generally the same. It seems that Yugi, Kaiba, and their friends have been invited to test out a new virtual reality dueling game. As luck would have it, the machine malfunctions during the test, and Yugi and crew wind up inside the game's world. Their only way out is to try to "win" the game.
For a next generation game, the presentation of the plot is terrible. The whole thing is presented in still screens with text. That's right—there are no cutscenes, nor is there any dialogue. It's like a sad trip back to the 8-bit era
The graphics aren't a whole lot better. While playing The Falsebound Kingdom, I couldn't help but be reminded of another less-than-stellar Konami RPG, Ephemeral Fantasia. Visually, the games look pretty similar—they're bland, low resolution, and everything seems to be made up of as few polygons as possible. Character animations in battle are stiff, and on the world map they're painfully bad. Needless to say, this game isn't going to be winning any awards for visual excellence.
It's a good thing that there's more to a game than graphics, though. Well, it would be if The Falsebound Kingdom could make up for its shortcomings with some brilliant gameplay. Unfortunately, this isn't meant to be.
Konami Japan has attempted to take the traditional card-based battles of the Yu-Gi-Oh! card game and hybridize them into a variation of your standard turn-based RPG with strategy RPG elements. While the idea is an intriguing one, the execution just never quite gels in any meaningful way.
As Yugi or Kaiba, players take control of various monsters along with several other marshals (marshals are monster masters in the game world—sort of like the duelists in the card game). Each marshal can control three monsters, which do battle against enemy forces. Battles feature a sort of tweaked turn-based approach—it's definitely turn-based, but the timing seems reminiscent of the active time battle system in various Final Fantasy titles. After a certain amount of damage has been done (even if both sides are still alive), the fight ends and experience is gained for the monsters and the marshal. If either side is still alive, the battle can be rejoined moments later.
The game makes a feeble attempt to infuse strategy elements into its approach by allowing the player to control several marshals. These marshals can be given different orders—players might send two groups out to attack an enemy fort while leaving a third behind to protect one that was already won, or they may send all their forces out in an attempt to overrun the enemy hordes. It's too bad most of the game's battles are simply wars of attrition wherein the guy with the better numbers wins because he has a stronger force. Players may pull off the occasional upset victory, but it often feels more like luck (landing a series of critical blows, which are seemingly random) than through any deft military maneuvering.
I'm not an expert on the Yu-Gi-Oh! universe by any stretch of the imagination, but I've played enough games to know when a title was thrown together just to capitalize on the appeal of its name (yes, I'm looking at you, Dragonball Z: Legacy of Goku). While I can certainly admire the attempt by Konami to do something new and different with this series, I have to wonder why they'd even bother if they were just going turn out a mediocre game. I'm all for taking established franchises in new directions, but if the developer's heart isn't in it, then what's the point? That's the question that still lingers with me after playing through Yu-Gi-Oh!: The Falsebound Kingdom.