The rise of anime, along with an all-around obsession with Japanese culture, has brought about quite a few releases that would have been considered strange only five or six years ago. While console gaming has always been a Japanese-dominated area since the days of Nintendo's domination with the NES, many niche and, well, mediocre Japanese games never made it over. Now, in the midst of a widespread American fascination with the country, largely set off by the success of Dragonball Z and Pokemon, the strange and the average are finally making their way out of the Island to the East. This is a mixed blessing; some people may fall in love with these games, but many of them are simply too hard to find anything likeable in, and they still run for the full price at any store.
Example: For a longtime Gundam fan, it might be hard to avoid picking up Gundam games as they release, despite the fact that they universally play like garbage. But they come, and the fans have trouble turning them down. After all, before the local publishers caught on to the fad, everybody had to import these gaming travesties for the sake of their fandom; at least that process is just about done with. (And somehow, the good titles like the Gamecube Naruto games never seem to make it over here...) Shaman King: Legacy of the Spirits is one of these games. A mediocre RPG that does not take its audience very seriously and does not play up link features as much as its peers do. There isn't much to play, the dialogue is weak, and the controls feel awkward when applied to the intricate yet out of place backgrounds.
The U.S. version of the Japanese weekly Shonen Jump has popularized quite a few manga series that are usually applicable to western audiences. One of the more popular (and marketable) is Shaman King, the story of a young boy named Yoh Asakura who communicates with spirits, converting them to his side to help him on his travels to bring rest to the spirit world. This premise serves the marketing machine in a number of ways: Drama can be incinuated through the interactions between the spirits, and the "collection" aspect can be played upon in a cheap-to-develop Gameboy Advance game with uselessly split versions, a la Pokemon. And thus Shaman King: Legacy of the Spirits was born.
The game never shakes the comparisons to Pokemon from start to finish; in fact, it seems to revel in the simplicity of that title in terms of gameplay. Simple gameplay can be admissible in the right game (see: Dragon Warrior), but Legacy of the Spirits is not it. More than anything, this is because of the ambling story that seats itself in the foreground of the production -- complete with cheesy "aw shucks" jokes, bad grammar, lifeless characters, and emotionless events that rarely receive the response the developers were lazily hoping for.
Players are forced to sit through all that for nothing more than a few mindless straight turn-based battles with the spirits they collect. Take a turn, choose one of a handful of attacks with pointlessly limited usage, get attacked, throw another spirit in to build up its experience, rise, repeast, rinse, repeat. Pokemon at least gave players a focus on playing the game, reveling in the simplicity, and making sure everything was both streamlined and fun to play, with a good amount of unique attacks for each pokemon, and well-balanced battles that made the game a genuine challenge for children and adults alike. <I>Legacy of the Spirits ignores all of this, and goes ahead with its cockamamy story focus, and sticking with a battle system that feels like a fourth generation carbon copy of what Pokemon Red and Blue set up nearly ten years ago.
The backdrops are simply beautiful – clearly, the artists spent a great deal of time working on them. Even for a Gameboy Advance game releasing this late in the system's life, they are impressive – the sort of 2D work that should have been on this system in the first place. High resolution on the smaller portable screen or not, this couldn't have been done so nicely on the Super Nintendo. However, the team that developed the sprites must have been ignoring the former team's body of work. Every character seems out of place when compared with their wonderfully rendered surroundings. The movement engine guy must have been out of the loop, also; there is a massive amount of areas that require diagonal movement to best traverse them... which is not supported by the game. Perhaps the inattentive sprite team was too lazy to draw diagonally facing sprites?
Battle graphics, of course, fare better, with high resolution sprites being the name of the game. Again taking a cue from Pokemon, they don't move a pixel within the boundaries of the art; they are static avatars that shake and perhaps change colors here and there as a representation of the battle. This worked for the original Gameboy, but at this point, I think even the cheapest RPGs need a little more action on-screen than this. High-resolution sprites don't mean much to me when the likes of stiff games like Phantasy Star II and IV managed to show more on-screen action than a game that was just recently put on store shelves.
Legacy of the Spirits sounds mostly like a Super Nintendo game, however. This is not to say that it doesn't make use of the sound chip; it does, with wonderful, sweeping compositions reminescient of the Golden Sun series. It just doesn't take advantage of things on a technological scale. The only reason I note this little complaint is because it is all the more incongruent with the quality of the backgrounds, but the final sound is still good enough on its own. It simply isn't the best out there.
Shaman King: Legacy of the Spirits is a for-fans-only release, along with those Bandai-developed Gundam action and fighting games, that boring and clunky Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex game, every Japanese Dragonball release, and almost every other damned manga/anime turned <I>Pokemon-clone out there.
With gameplay stuck in a mid-90's fad that was in itself considered arcane by any gamer's standards at the height of its popularity, Legacy of the Spirits troubles me with its thrown-together, "let's take advantage of a passing craze before it completely dies" feel. Even the yongest gamers have been getting their hands dirty with deeper games since the onset of Pokemon -- that game worked like a gateway drug into the likes of Final Fantasy and other, more complex RPG experiences – so these types of games have little place in the world. Just as Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest was released to a gaming public without an audience, this gaming toilet trainer will fall on deaf ears outside of the diehard Shaman King fans hoping, praying, that their 30 dollars will get them some enjoyment.
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