Genre : Action
Developer: Hudson Soft
Release Date: April 26, 2005
Rengoku is a really, really weird game. This is a welcome change of pace on a system whose library, with a few exceptions like Lumines and Mercury, is dominated by fairly mundane ports of PS2 franchises. Rengoku does a lot to show off the strengths of the PSP, but also shows some of the current limitations of Sony’s portable. As a game, there’s some fun to be had with it, but its unique gameplay suffers from a profound lack of polish.
The game’s story – or, I should say, the story the cut-scenes imply – is about a world where the masses enjoyed watching super-powerful androids called A.D.A.M.s fight each other in a sort of gladiatorial combat sport. One of these A.D.A.Ms, who is of course the game’s hero, has come to question the status quo and wants some answers about why his existence is so brutal. To find the answers, he is willing to climb to the top of the Tower of Purgatory, fighting every opposing A.D.A.M. that tries to stand in his way. There will be a lot of them, of course, as each of the Tower’s levels will be randomly generated. Crawling through a level unlocks a fight with a preset boss, and after winning, you can project to the next level. You pretty much do this until the game ends.
As you go, you can pick up weapon capsules dropped by your defeated enemies and equip them yourself, sort of like Mega Man gone grisly and surreal. This allows you to alter your A.D.A.M.’s appearance, sometimes quite dramatically, and it’s fun to play around with customizing your android’s look. To the game’s credit, equipping parts onto your android isn’t simply a matter of attaching the bits with the biggest numbers on; winning battles consistently involves a sense of strategy and fast reflexes on the part of the player. The most damaging items tend to be melee weapons, but fighting using ranged weapons like guns will keep you more easily out of harm’s way. However, melee weapons will be able to be used more times before needed to be recharged at the “terminal”, basically the safe point at the beginning of a level map. The most powerful designs will combine melee and ranged weaponry, and make sure your A.D.A.M. can deal with any situation.
While character customization is addictive, the need to backtrack to the Terminal in order to change parts or restore your ammunition is tedious. It can also get you killed, since there’s no guarantee that a room you’ve cleared out earlier will remain android-free. This generally works against the title’s otherwise fast-paced and brutal gameplay, forcing you to constantly micromanage your ammunition stores in a very RPG-esque fashion. While I like obsessive micromanagement as much as the next strategy and simulation fan, it’s not something I really want to do while I’m playing an otherwise fast-paced action title. I want to be able to live or die by my reflexes while also rending enemy androids with my mighty scythe-arms and machine gun head. I think this is a more or less universal emotion that Hudson should’ve done more to cater to. Instead, the emphasis on micromanagement slows down the action immensely, and also breaks the difficulty curve in a way that hurts the gameplay.
Rengoku is a fairly difficult and demanding title, at first. Part of it is due to the simple nature of the gameplay, which revolves around the ability to furiously dodge-roll. You can dodge-roll in either direction by tapping the D-Pad twice in rapid succession; otherwise the D-Pad will just let you run around. Each of your weapons is keyed to a different button, triangle for the head, circle for right arm, square for left arm, cross for any chest-mounted weaponry you ever acquire. Camera controls are keyed to the L and R trigger buttons in a system that works much better than it should. As you play, you need to be able to make split-second decisions about which button you need to be hitting, where you need to be running, and willing to dodge-roll at a moment’s notice if the enemy starts firing or slashing at you. Getting enemies to drop weapon capsules instead of just the “Ether Skin” points you’ll use to upgrade your stats involves doing as much damage as possible over the base amount needed to disable them. This damage is represented as an orange “overkill” meter, and filling it completely can result in enemies dropping as many as four weapon capsules.
This is how the Overkill meter more or less breaks the game, though. At the beginning of the game, you’ll have an extremely hard time doing overkill damage since your weapons will be weak, which makes it difficult to get enemies to drop weapon capsules. This, in turn, can make surviving the crawls through the Tower exceptionally difficult, since your opponents are randomly generated. You can easily end up fighting someone you have no hope of beating with your current weapons layout, and no options but running and trying to scum better weapons out of respawns on a lower level of the Tower. Once you do get weapons good enough to fill Overkill meters quickly, then the game will go from brutally impossible to laughably easy. Winning fights will at this point require little skill, and your weapons will keep improving even further because of all the weapon capsule drops you’ll get. The total lack of a middle ground makes both phases of the game a lot more tedious than they should be. It’s hard to keep yourself playing in the early game because it’s so hard to get resources, and hard to motivate yourself in the late game because everything becomes so easy.
There isn’t much to keep you playing once you’ve beaten the Tower, too. There’s a multiplayer mode, and you can swap items with other players, and… well, that’s really it. The actual combat is fairly repetitive, with the only variations being whether you’re fighting more than one enemy at once, so I can’t see anyone wanting more of the same once they’d cleared the game.
The main reason to check out this game at all is for the graphics and sound, although even that is flawed. The robot models look great in motion, even if the backgrounds quickly become dull and sterile rooms full of cubes. Unfortunately, the PSP’s low-res screen really works against the game’s attempts to put a lot of detail into the robot models. Even on the status screen, you just can’t see the details of your character very well, and in combat you sometimes can’t see what you’re shooting at all that well. You can tell that each android is made up of a sadly low number of polygons, though, especially when you watch your A.D.A.M. run around. The sound effects for the game are quite impressive, even given the PSP’s pinhole speakers, but a wider variety of music for the actual dungeon-crawling would have been an immense improvement. What tracks there are make for nice listening, but it’s just too repetitive.
After playing it for a week, I can’t really recommend Rengoku to anyone, save PSP enthusiasts who really want to see something unique. The title as it stands is not terribly fun past the first couple days of play, and skilled gamers probably will have finished it by then. Still, I faintly hope that Rengoku does well enough to merit a sequel, perhaps even on one of the main consoles. An appealing idea for a game is present in Rengoku, and Hudson could create something powerfully addictive and fun if they just revised some basic aspects of the game design and moved it to a system powerful enough to do Suemi’s designs justice. I somehow doubt this Rengoku will be well-received enough to merit sequels, though.