As much as I dislike Japanese game developer Imageepoch, I respect the fact that they just don't seem to give up despite how below average their games tend to be. Their track record in the States has been decent; Fate/Extra and the Luminous Arc titles were relatively solid games.
Yet in Japan, Imageepoch struggles time and time again to release a decent game. Trailers for their latest release, Tokitowa, did little to arouse excitement within me.
Still, I held some glimmer of hope that maybe this time they'd get it right. Perhaps after all the failures and harsh criticisms, Imageepoch would finally dig deep and make something special.
Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Release Date: October 11, 2012 (Japan)
MSRP: 7,376 Yen ($92.90)
Tokitowa is the story of Princess Toki and a wedding gone awry. Her fiance, Zack, is murdered the day of the wedding by a group of assassins. In order to save him, she and her split personality, Towa, travel months back in time to track down the assassins and prevent the tragedy from occurring. Unbeknownst to the two women however, is that Zack's soul has been transferred into the body of their pet dragon Drake. Together, the strange trio will confront assassin's guilds, giant angry dragons, and hordes of palette swapped enemies on their way to living happily ever after.
A few minutes into Tokitowa and players will quickly realize that the folks at Imageepoch were not aiming to tell an emotional, gripping story. Instead, the game falls back on tired tropes and cliches, repeating them ad nauseam in the hopes that they'll eventually be funny. Tokitowa essentially goes through a laundry list of cliches, and at no point does any of it ever stick. Even worse, every so often the game will attempt to be serious and dramatic, only to fall flat because of an awkwardly placed joke. The characterization certainly doesn't help, with Zack being a highly unlikable male protagonist. The man seems to be interested in nothing but sex, and nearly everything he says or does is driven by it. It might generate a chuckle at first, but after hours upon hours of the same thing, you'll want to strangle him as much as I did.
Toki and Towa, the heroines of the story, aren't a whole lot better. Toki is as near-perfect as can be, simply wanting to be the ideal housewife for Zack. She's clumsy, but good in the kitchen and wants lots of children. It's hard to care about her when she's barely a character to begin with. Towa is a slightly stronger heroine by virtue of being the 'bad ass' one, but is still held back by silly character tropes that reduce her to a bumbling mess. It goes without saying, but she's also a tsundere as well.
The rest of the supporting cast is unfortunately filled with cardboard cutout characters based on popular anime archetypes. You have the glasses wearing and big breasted Wedi, the rich tsundere princess Reijo, and the weird loli girl Enda. Tokitowa tries to develop these characters by having each of them become the focus of the story at different points, but it never amounts to much of anything. At best non-essential, and at worst annoying as all hell, the supporting cast of Tokitowa is entirely forgettable.
I hate to say it, but Tokitowa's HD 2D animation is where the whole package really starts to collapse on itself. Imageepoch hired Satelight (Macross Frontier, Bodacious Space Pirates) to to work on the animation. Unfortunately for the former, Satelight turns in a ultra low grade product that ends up looking like a low budget anime. The effect is initially charming; watching 2D animated characters move on a 3D plane feels fresh. After thirty minutes of watching this however, it becomes clear that you've already seen everything there is to see. Tokitowa suffers from a severe lack of content.
Enemy characters are palette swapped and resize dozens of times; I can't even begin to count how many recolored birds I fought throughout the game. This repetition isn't restricted to the monsters either, as nearly all of Toki and Towa's magic attacks are simply recolored versions of the same animation. Outrageously, even the 3D environments, which should be easier to design, are repeated time and time again with minor changes to the coloring or trees. Even more embarrassingly, dungeons are wide open empty spaces, with only the occasional tree or rock in place to break things up. Tokitowa looks like the early Alpha of a game that was nowhere even close to being ready to ship.
But perhaps the greatest offender of all is the absolute mutilation of Vofan's (Bakemonogatari novels) beautiful art and solid character designs. Had Tokitowa looked anything like his initial artwork, I could have at least given a thumbs up to the game's visuals. As it stands though, the cast looks nothing like their promo art, adding insult to injury. Instead, we're left with generic anime designs that do little to inspire any real excitement. Even better, the game fades to black whenever there's a somewhat complicated cutscene, because there's no animation to cover the sequence. It's cheap, it feels lazy, and in a game that proclaims itself to be a playable anime, it's absolutely laughable.
Unfortunately, the soundtrack doesn't fare much better. With the legendary Yuzo Koshiro (Ys II, the Etrian Odyssey series) at the helm, I was at least expecting to be blown away with some awesome tunes. Instead, the maestro turns in a largely forgettable score that lacks the oomph of his other efforts. There are some solid, catchy tunes here and there (the battle themes), but otherwise there's very little here to excite fans of Koshiro's brilliant compositions. Tokitowa is filled with the usual popular voice actors, though it's worth noting that the game isn't quite fully voiced. NPCs and side quest stuff are voice-less, which looks extremely awkward when combined with the 2D animation. It's kind of like watching a silent film, only more awkward.
If you were expecting the gameplay to cover for some of the visual problems, don't hold your breath. In fact, many of Tokitowa's gameplay issues stem from Imageepoch decision to use 2D animation. I've spoken about the battle system in depth before; combat is played out in real time against a single opponent. By pressing one of the face buttons, Toki (or Towa) will perform a specific attack. As you level up and buy weapons, you gain new skills that you can equip, expanding your attack options. While you can't move freely on the battlefield, you can dodge to the left and right, and attack freely. Skills require SP, which generates when you use your normal attack.
The problem with this battle system is that while it seems fast and even fun at first, there isn't much depth to be had. Dodging enemy attacks is often extremely easy, and eventually you find yourself just rapidly mashing the X button while you wait for a chance to use a skill. It certainly doesn't help that later monsters have absurd amounts of HP, making every encounter long and tedious. After a certain point in the game, I started running away from the random battles because I didn't want to waste another huge chunk of time. As I noted earlier, monsters and even spells are palette swapped to death, meaning there isn't much to enjoy on a visual level. If I had to fight another colored rock golem, I probably would have screamed aloud.
Exploration is no fun either, as any non-dungeon traversal is handled via static menus. Every town you visit has a list of places you can select, which lead to voiceless dialogue with a different colored NPC. More frustrating is the fact that the game will often use 3D rendered sections of the city for cutscenes, despite those locations not actually being available to explore. Dungeons are big empty wastelands that lack any kind of interesting features, and drag on far longer than they need to.
There are plenty of others things I could talk about; the dull side quests, constant tea time breaks, repeated cutscenes, or even the barebones relationship system with Toki and Towa. At the end of the day though, all that would do is draw out the inevitable. I wanted to like Tokitowa. I think in the right hands with the right budget, this is an idea that could still succeed. As it stands, this feels like the alpha version of a game. There's nothing here to keep players around, and if Japanese sales and reactions are any indication, we won't be seeing a sequel anytime soon. Imageepoch touted Tokitowa to be the first HD "2D animation JRPG". What it actually is, is a proof of concept that's a long way from being anything resembling a fun, full featured game.
Don't be fooled by the pretty Vofan art, Tokitowa isn't worth your time or money.
2 -- Bad (2s are a disaster. Any good they might have had are quickly swallowed up by glitches, poor design choices or a plethora of other issues. The desperate or the gullible may find a glimmer of fun hidden somewhere in the pit.)
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