Release Date: October 14, 2008
Atlus can be relied upon to consistently publish some of the most delightful and weird games Japan has to offer, and even better, to try and acquaint American gamers with classic and niche franchises that never got a fair shake back in the day. The Dokapon games actually go back to the SNES, and always emphasized light multiplayer RPG action. They were really the party games that existed before the term "party game" got popular. So, between the chunk of gaming history it represents and the fact that it's really fun to play, Dokapon Kingdom seems like a really exciting upcoming title. The graphics are cute and bright, it offers multiplayer without shackling you to the multitap, and it's really just not like anything at all you can play on a PS2 right now.
Actually, it's hard to think of similar games. Atlus' reps likened it to Mario Party, which it does broadly resemble, but the emphasis on backstabbing and strategizing is more reminiscent of competitive hardcore board games like Settlers of Catan, or card games like Munchkin. If you enjoy these types of geeky competitive party games, then Dokapon Kingdom is probably really something you want to play. If you're a fan of Mario Party and similar stuff … well, maybe. What is really necessary to enjoy Dokapon Kingdom is a room full of talkative people with sharp minds for tactics and strategy.
Dokapon Kingdom is interesting in that it's both an RPG in the truest sense of the word and a party game in the truest sense of the word. As RPG, it's a game that Atlus puts at about 15 hours, but in reality, I can tell this is an investment that will last much, much longer. A campaign is pretty much going to call for a certain number of players to always be together, so it seems like the sort of thing you'd have to schedule time for, in the manner of a D&D group or a raiding guild. I can imagine most people playing this roughly once a week on weekends with a select group of three to four friends. You can play it in single- or two-player mode, but after playing a four-man demo session with Atlus, I can't imagine playing the game this way would be remotely fun. In true RPG fashion, the characters you start at the beginning of the game are going to have special class-based abilities, will be able to level up by killing monsters, eventually take on more potent character classes, and acquire weapons and armor to enhance their inherent stats.
Missions for the characters are issued by the king at Dokapon Castle, with a suitable reward issued to the character who succeeds at the mission and then returns to the castle first. Characters amass experience and gold by defeating monsters, randomly wandering about various points on the map, or in towns the monsters have taken over. Liberating towns lets you take control of them, and the towns will funnel gold to you at the end of turns (they also ask for gold for improvements, which enhance value). At each turn, characters progress in terms of how much gold value they have to their name, money, towns controlled, and missions completed. This deliberate pacing means that it takes a very long time to complete turns, and especially to complete the game. Turns can go by very slowly if characters are engaged in strategizing, or if someone is trying to pull off some ridiculous feats, like robbing shops while using the Clever Disguise so they can choose to frame another character for it. It also slows the game when characters end up fighting each other (although this can be incredibly fun), or if a significant number of characters start struggling to beat the monster encounters, which can be stiffly challenging. Turns are grouped into weeks, and your progress is measured against everyone else's at the end of a week. Once characters amass some momentum, turns begin passing much more rapidly, and weeks seem shorter.
Where Dokapon Kingdom is a really perfect party game is in the pacing of fights, which are very rapid, and all the amazing chances the characters have to backstab and ruin each other. You can, in theory, form alliances, too, but this seems unlikely. The game just offers too many rewards for exclusively looking out for number one. Every character can find, win, or purchase items like magic spells that let them directly attack opposing characters or their towns. The Thief class can steal items, including valuable buffs and heals. Characters can fight each other when they're at the same location, or attack an opponent's towns to try and seize control of it. Even if someone seems to get into an unassailable position of strength, it's very likely to only last for a couple of turns.
If someone falls really behind, he can opt to temporarily become a villain character class called the Darkling that can effectively ruin all the other players and level the playing field — at the cost of everyone else in the room hating you for at least an hour or two. As far as turn-based games of competition go, Dokapon Kingdom is really magnificent for building up a lot of tension and competitive spirit, and getting people to eat a lot of pretzels while they watch things unfold. Also, helpfully, you don't need the awkward PS2 multitap to let four people play. You can actually instead opt to have one controller passed around between up to four players, which would work perfectly well, given the game's turn-based nature.
Since Dokapon Kingdom is an RPG, it's worth talking about the story and localization for a moment. The localization is Atlus at their comedic best, with the text full of silly puns and localized gags (one character is a master of Roshambo), and always at places that don't feel too disruptive or inappropriate. The character models are simple, expressive, and pleasingly cartoony, somewhat comparable to the computer animation in the "Pucca" television cartoon. A character taking damage affects silly anime swirly eyed expressions, and death is so cute that it's kind of pitiful.
The voice acting embraces the cartoon aesthetic with very broad performances that were well done in the demo session. The princess's voice is high and squeaky, and the king of Dokapon sounds like and resembles the Mayor of Townsville from Power Puff Girls. Each character class gets it own cute design, too, and some of the monsters seem far too adorable to be something you should kill (not that this will stop you). The world map itself is roughly based on the "real" map of the world, but each town has its own silly looking mayor, and the map is full of little local landmarks that help build visual interest and help you orient yourself. This is not a game with complicated graphics, even by PS2 standards, but nothing about them ever detracts from the gameplay or feels displeasing.
Atlus is advertising Dokapon Kingdom as the "friendship-destroying game," and despite the title's candy-sweet exterior, the backstabbing and skullduggery can actually get that intense. If you've ever had a friend who just couldn't be allowed to play something like "Aggravation" or "Catan," then that person is probably going to end up wanting to murder someone over Dokapon Kingdom. A well-timed theft, battle or item use can really take whoever's in first place and send him plunging into last place.
Screwing up, such as robbing an item or weapon shop without a Clever Disguise to shift the blame, can leave you in a terrible position. The punishment for robbery, for instance, is that you're locked out of Dokapon Castle for a certain number of terms. If you're carrying a mission item, that's three turns the other players can use to heap punishment and inevitably steal it from you. The battle rules are cleverly vicious, allowing a player who defeats another player character to take any of their items or add on other humiliations like terrible haircuts and drawn-on faces. Also, when a character is wanted after a robbery, any other player who defeats him or her gets a nice fat bounty on top of any ill-gotten gains from battle.
I was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed Dokapon Kingdom after a nice four-player session. I played as a ninja and managed to complete the mission offered in the demo session (returning the princess' stolen piggy bank to Dokapon Castle), but the fact that I did so hinged entirely on a particularly tense battle with the Thief that just happened to go my way. Making even one incorrect decision, or even once mis-guessing what my opponent would do in battle, would have cost me the entire game. That's the sign that one of these competitive board games is designed well, and the RPG elements work a lot better than I was expecting. It's hard to say how the entire campaign would play out based on a one-mission demo, but right now, Dokapon Kingdom looks like it could be something really fun for a player with three convenient friends.
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