Release Date: March 21, 2006
I'll admit it – I'm a fan of RPGs. I don't just mean the ultra-realistic Oblivion style life-sim ones, either, since, I cut my teeth on those old super-sappy 16-bit SNES affairs. While they were never short on action and adventure, their stories were often relatively interchangeable and went something like this: Some evil empire has seized control of the planet, and the world's only hope is a disparate collection of gargantuan-headed sprites. They have gigantic swords, exaggerated magical powers, and any combination of accoutrements ranging from two-foot tall hair to pet robots to a single spike-covered shoulder-pad. Sometimes, one of them is a frog. I'm not kidding. I really loved those games, so much so that I simply can't play them anymore. Every time I try, I'm forcefully reminded of every technological and artistic advancement in the field of gaming that has occurred since those days. It's like trying to watch the first season of He-Man. I think I remember these things as being better than they actually were.
So it was, then, with some trepidation, that I inserted Tao's Adventures: Curse of the Demon Seal into my DS. With the highly stylized box art and the familiar bobble-head characters displayed on the back cover screenshots, I couldn't help but be filled with a dangerous level of nostalgia. Surely, a game so steeped with tried-and-true RPG conventions would definitely rule, and my deep-seated concerns amounted to so much unneeded apprehension. I relaxed in my seat, took a deep breath, and with fingers that trembled only ever so slightly, I pressed the power button on my DS.
I was greeted with exactly that which is to be expected in an action/RPG. A lengthy and verbose exposition sets out the story, which is relatively standard in its scope. Tao, as it turns out, belongs to a none-too-popular race known as the Bente. A race of magic wielding "air-spellers," the Bente were responsible for sealing all of the world's monsters into a massive tower in the faraway city of Mondominio. The problem is that a freak lightning storm has blown apart the seal that confines the critters, and they have, as monsters are wont to do, broken free and visited havoc upon the world. In a particular stroke of poetic justice, they've managed to reach the Bente home island and have petrified almost everyone in the town, including Tao's father. In a fit of heroic bravado, young Tao sets off to the Monster Tower to retrieve an egg that is vital to the restoration of his home.
After what seems like a small eternity, the opening sequence finally ends, and the adventure begins in earnest. What follows is a by-the-numbers business of slashing, stabbing, spell-casting and monster-summoning. While Tao's Adventures certainly isn't a bad game, it isn't in any way earth-shattering either. As in Nintendo's seminal Pokémon series, Tao is able to find and hatch monster eggs, thereby providing himself a number of allies with which to delve deeper (or, in this case, higher) into the dungeon-like Monster Tower. Just as in that other creature collection game, Tao's beasts gain experience, level up, and become more powerful. Unlike the Pokémon titles, however, the monsters act completely independently of the player's control. That being said, the monster companions in Tao's Adventure barely break the barrier of completely useless. While they provide a meager sum of supplemental damage, they invariably explode into a pile of rotting meat the second or third time they get smacked by anything as vile as a lovely butterfly.
The action, though rote, isn't entirely unpleasant. Following a fairly standard formula, combat is a turned-based matter that involves a steady progression of swords and shields that can be upgraded in a local shop. While there aren't any special attacks or combinations, the fights are complemented by an interesting, if poorly implemented, magic system that requires the player to draw spell sigils with the stylus. There are five basic sigils, and as Tao levels up, extra lines are added to the sigils to create new, more powerful versions of these spells. The sigils are simple and easy to remember, but should you forget how to draw a particular spell, each of them can be found in your spell book. Magic is powerful, and the spells are well animated, but the whole system feels just a touch clumsy. Rods do minimal melee damage but are necessary for spell casting. This means that, should you need magic mid-combat, you'll find yourself wasting a turn to swap your sword for a wand.
The dungeons themselves are robust and interesting at first, with each level having its own distinct geography and layout. Every fifth level ends with a marginally difficult boss fight, and every sixth introduces a change in texture palette. Sadly, these tiny adjustments in color and (admittedly pretty cool) bosses simply aren't enough to fend off the ever-mounting pain of constant repetition. Floor after floor of beastie slicing and item collecting grates on the nerves, and eventually, the game becomes vaguely chore-like.
The graphics in Tao's Adventures are, thankfully, above par for the current DS fare. Bright, colorful visuals complement smooth animations and lovely spell effects to make a truly immersive little world. Dialogue is accompanied by well-drawn caricatures that are reminiscent of those vaunted SNES RPGs of old. The sounds are well done. Fire spells thump, and lightning spells crackle with electricity. Unfortunately, everything positive about the sound direction is very nearly completely undone by the music. There are only about three short songs, and they play non-stop throughout every moment of the game. They are so patently annoying that I often muted the DS just to avoid having to claw out my own ear drums.
This situation is compounded by frightfully inaccurate controls. The player has the option of using either the D-pad or a touchscreen-based directional wheel to steer Tao through his adventure. In either case, the character will frequently get stuck on geography, sometimes stopping in apparently unhindered tracks. Though these snags are easily resolved, they occur often enough to be frustrating. Other than the D-pad, almost none of the hardware buttons are active, and every function of the game is controlled via the touch screen. This isn't altogether troublesome, since the commands are intuitive and easy to use, but the whole thing does feel a bit forced. It seems that Konami is focusing on the potential of the DS' most notable feature at the expense of a more efficient game mechanic.
None of this is to say that Tao's Adventure is completely devoid of joy. One particularly appealing feature is a sort of coliseum in which you can battle or trade for a friend's monsters. In this limited multiplayer mode, you can finally show up your buddy by crushing his hulking yellow slug-thing with your murderous blue puppy, and there's something oddly satisfying about that.
When all is said and done, Tao's Adventure: Curse of the Demon Seal is a playable, if uninspired game, and one that you should definitely pick up if you're in desperate need of a decent RPG for your DS. On the other hand, if you're looking for something excellent, something special, something to remind you what it was about those old days that you so longingly crave, give this one a miss. It'll hurt less that way.