It's no secret that I don't have much faith in Image Epoch. They claim to be some kind of savior of the JRPG, but they've yet to produce anything above average in my opinion. Fate/Extra was good, but I owe that more to Nasu's narrative than to the game itself.
You can probably imagine my skepticism-filled face when they went and announced Tokitowa, a PS3 game touted as the first HD 2D animation RPG. Early trailers left me unimpressed and while I thought the concept was cool, I had no reason to believe Image Epoch would be able to pull it off convincingly.
After leaving my fate up to a Twitter vote, I purchased the game and have thus far played through the first six hours of the game.
These are my thoughts.
Developer: Image Epoch
Publisher: Bandai Namco Games
Release Date: October 11, 2012
MSRP: 7,376 Yen ($92.90)
Image Epoch's latest RPG release also happens to be their first true HD game this generation. Trying to blur the boundaries between Japanese animation and video games, Tokitowa is being touted as the first "HD Animation RPG." What exactly does this mean? Well, it's actually quite simple. All the characters and enemies in the game are hand drawn; you control the anime character onscreen. It's undoubtedly an in interesting idea with a lot of promise. I think being able to truly control an anime is something a lot of people would be interested in. To handle this momentous task, Image Epoch hired the folks from Satelight, who some of you might be familiar with from Muv-Luv Alternative: Total Eclipse and Macross Frontier, among many others. The result of this collaboration is the birth of something that feels fresh and new.
At least for the first 20 minutes of the game, anyway.
Players take control of Toki, a beautiful and kind princess whose wedding ceremony is interrupted when her fiance Zack is stabbed by a bunch of ninja assassins. With her lover slowly fading away, her hair turns from red to blonde, and the second soul that lives within her takes control. This second being, Towa, occupies the same body as Toki and as fate would have it, is also in love with Zack. With the love of her life dying on the floor from a fatal wound, Toki is forced to take matters into her own hands. Fortunately, she possesses the ability to travel through time thanks to her royal blood. Little do Toki or Towa know however, that Zack's soul travels back in time with them and enters the body of their pet dragon.
Trailers and various press materials would have you believe that Tokitowa's trying to tell a serious story. Within the first few minutes of the game, this is turned on its head as Zack is revealed to be a huge pervert. Far more interested in getting to have sex with his fiance than he is with the actual wedding proper, he'll take any opportunity to excitedly jabber on about getting laid finally. In fact, he pretty much makes eyes for any attractive woman that he comes into contact with, including Toki's friends. If you happen to enjoy nonstop jokes about getting into the bath with unsuspecting naked women, this might be up your alley.
In general, Tokitowa doesn't try to make sense of its story, simply choosing to roll with the punches instead and grind the pace to a halt in the name of a flat joke. At the same time though, it's just stupid/ridiculous enough that I kind of want to know what happens next. I guess that's a positive?
City traversal is all handled via menus in which you can select parts of the kingdom to travel to. When you choose a street, the game shifts to another menu where you can select a more specific location that may or may not have a sub-quest character waiting for you. For those looking for HD RPG cities, don't hold your breath on this one; it's all menus. Still, they're clean and easy to navigate even if they feel completely lifeless.
Dungeons are where you'll finally get to control Toki and Towa, but as of where I am right now, I've yet to be impressed. The first two areas I explored were "islands" that were flat as far as the eye could see, save for the occasional tree or rock. The 3D environments lack detail and are covered in textures that wouldn't be out of place in an early PS2 title. Pressing square will bring up a map that not only shows you the entire dungeon, but also where treasure chests, events, and your primary objective are located. Some might find this a good thing, but I personally feel that it robs an already linear game of any kind of exploration element.
Battles are random, but not so frequent that it becomes an annoyance to get from point A to B. Combat itself is where Tokitowa almost gets a chance to flex its muscles, utilizing a real time battle system that's not altogether unlike the one in Black Rock Shooter, another Image Epoch RPG. Enemy encounters are one on one affairs in which tapping left or right on the analog stick will allow Toki or Towa to dodge in different directions. By tapping up on the stick, your character will dash forward and attack your opponent, engaging them in close range combat. The circle button is reserved for your standard attack, which you can use as many times as you want without limitation.
Of course, enemies aren't just going to let you do that, which is where the dodge and blocking mechanisms come into play. As you progress in the game, you unlock magic and other various skills which you can assign to the triangle, square, and circle buttons. These are limited attacks however, and require meter to use. Building meter is as simple as pressing circle and attacking the opponent. While combat is one on one, you will sometimes be attacked by parties of enemies, in which case very little actually changes. Defeating one opponent will result in Toki awkwardly turning (un-animated) and facing the new challenger.
Unfortunately, you can't freely choose between playing as Toki or Towa, at least not where I am thus far. Every level, the characters switch back and forth, changing cutscene dialogue and attacks. You see, both girls have different skill sets that you can level up, and they also specialize in different weapons. Toki is skilled with her rifle, and Towa is much more capable with a knife. Zack is also present on the battlefield and though you can't control him directly, he'll occasionally chip in with a fireball, melee attack or even a healing spell.
While this all sounds like a grand ole' time, it actually gets boring very fast. Enemies have very few attack variations, making them extremely easy and tedious to fight, especially when they have a huge amount of HP. More often than not, battles in the first six hours turned into me mashing buttons until the monster was dead. To be honest, there were a number of a times where I was more focused on an Extra Life stream during battle, mashing the circle button without looking. Even bosses haven't faired much better; they have a couple of moves and a huge amount of HP to spare. I've also encountered a pitiful number of enemy types in six hours. For the love of all that is good in the world, no more golems please.
It's interesting, because all of these problems can be traced back to Tokitowa's primary selling point, it's HD animation. I can't even begin to imagine the amount of work it would have taken to animate hundreds upon hundreds of monsters, character animations and attacks. Unfortunately, Image Epoch couldn't either. Toki and Towa, despite being very different characters, share character animation for pretty much everything. Enemy characters are reused over and over again via color swaps and suffer from being poorly animated. I can't even begin to count how many times I've bumped into the chicken monster poorly hidden with a coat of paint. Cutscenes are awkward as the same set of animated sequences are used repeatedly. Combat fairs better than the rest of the game due to being fast paced, but even then it looks strange because animation loops are short and lack the frames needed to blend one motion into the next.
To be completely honest, yes, Tokitowa does look like an anime at times. An extremely low budget anime that most wouldn't give the time of day. It's bad when I find myself wishing the game had just been animated the normal way so I wouldn't have to watch the awkward mess unfolding on my TV. I can only hope that now that the first arc is complete, Tokitowa starts to open up a little bit and the skills become more interesting. I really want to enjoy this game, and not in a "look at this train wreck!" sort of way. There's also still a lot more to talk about, so hopefully things turn around for Tokitowa. I'm not holding my breath though
Tune in sometime next week for my full review, and feel free to leave any questions in the comments section below.