Saturday, January 18, 2014

REVIEW - Genroku Legends : Fishy Tales of the Nekomata.

Genroku Legends : Fishy Tales of the Nekomata is the first of four pieces of downloadable content for 2013's Muramasa Rebirth [review] - one of the best games of the year, and a sprawling narrative-driven Metroidvania-lite brawler for the PlayStation Vita.

Muramasa spun two original tales that spanned 20+ hours for each hero as they explored a gorgeous recreation of Genroku-era Japan (hence the DLC's name), regularly stumbling across scenes from real history and classic legend. Genroku Legends, on the other hand, concerns itself entirely with permitting the player to indulge in the folk tales.

The nekomata is one of hundreds of demons in Japanese folklore.  It's said that if your cat manages to make it to old age or is mistreated, its tail will almost certainly fork at the end and it will become a demon, changing its shape to that of a man, woman or any number of terrifying vestiges to curse and haunt humanity.

Genroku Legends : Fishy Tales of the Nekomata is the story of Miike, a cat, loyal to a girl named Okoi, who witnesses her murder at the hands of ambitious men, and hears her last words - a plea for revenge. Overcome by hatred for those who betrayed her beloved Okoi, Miike's tail splits in two and she becomes a Nekomata, taking her mistress's form to see vengeance done.

It's a great story, and that's just Act I.

Vanillaware have always excelled at offering the player stories that are weirdly involving, despite (or, perhaps due to) their operatic, melodramatically-sweeping emotion.  After playing through the intro once, I described it to my girlfriend and actually found myself choking up a bit - simply retelling the story.

Miike's tale is a beautiful one, full of darkness and betrayal, comedy, love and ultimately redemption - disappointing only in its brevity, as there are only three acts to speak of.  I got to the final boss after about two and a half hours of play, but he kicked the crap out of me and sent me packing back across Japan to level myself up in the hopes of having an easier time with him.

But I don't mind.

Nekomata's boss fights are some of the most challenging, epic boss fights in Vanillaware's history, eclipsing even the screen-filling giants of Muramasa's core game in its centerpiece brawl against a haunted house that takes a half-dozen different forms.  Floating, upside-down severed girl's heads, shirime, a giant cyclops in a cloud,


a huge, flattened demon head, a bell with a creepy little ringer sitting atop it, who rings the bell to hurt you with sound waves, a grotesque lord and lady with twenty-foot, serpentine necks and a raccoon in a straw hat who smacks you with his obscenely large scrotum.

Which, let's be fair, is accurate to the folklore of Genroku-era Japan. Tanuki can do phenomenal things with their nut sacks, according to legend.

Kazusa-ya Iwazô, 1842

That's just history.

The fight can take twenty minutes alone, and its ending - which I'm dying to spoil but won't because let's try to be professional - is absolutely hilarious, and another testament to the exceptional localization work by Aksys.

Aksys retains the script's pathos and humor, and don't shy away from just how ridiculous and flavorfully-Japanese Genroku Legends is.  Instead, they enthusiastically celebrate part of what makes it so damned special, and ensure Fishy Tales of the Nekomata is as touching, funny, creepy and wild as it needs to be.

Fantastic job, Aksys.  Meanwhile Vanillaware, to their credit, have jazzed up the game's mechanics a bit.  While Muramasa Rebirth has the player equipping and swapping out three different swords for use in combat, Nekomata permits you three different forms the shape-shifting Miike can pop back and forth from at will.

In Okoi (human) form, Miike is a traditional Muramasa brawler with zippy combo-based and air-juggle attacks as she tears through ranks of ninja and demons with her mighty claws.  In Miike (cat) form, she's a finesse fighter, faster than Okoi form with less damage in melee, but with an emphasis on powerful ranged attacks, gathering will-o'-wisps to her with a tap of circle to charge once, twice or thrice - depending on how long you can go without being struck - to unleash them with devastating effects.

After dealing enough damage in Okoi or Miike form, the third option - Avatar form - becomes available, and you can transform into a gigantic, invincible cat (or a bundle of cats forming a hideous, huge cat head) capable of laying effortless waste to nearly any enemy with devastating attacks for a limited time.

She is, essentially, a playable boss monster.

It's the inclusion of Miike's cat form that really makes Nekomata's combat feel fresh, and beating the crap out of samurai as an adorable kung-fu kitty doesn't get old.  She'll execute different ranged attacks depending on how many will-o'-wisps you let her gather, and when executed, each will have vastly different effects if you're on the ground or airborne.  Gathering will-o'-wisps with little playful swipes of your paws, letting it build to tier 2 and hucking the ball of energy into a bad guy to watch it explode and hit every other enemy onscreen is terribly satisfying.

Protip : always end each fight by switching to Miike and gathering three wisps while the score screen plays.
Then you can always open the next fight with a rain of cats as she dances and sings nyaa-nya-nyaa!

As in the core game, Nekomata's presentation is impeccable.  New music(!) and enemies add a bit more freshness, and it's always delightful to find yourself in a place you visited in the main game which looks completely different thanks to a change in the time of day.

The DLC's length is disappointing if you permit it to be - most of Muramasa's gigantic rendition of Genroku-era Japan is walled off with glowing spiritual barriers - but Vanillaware have always given players incentive to keep playing their games beyond the basics, and Nekomata is no different.

Unlike the core game, there are no swords to forge and collect in Nekomata.  The expanding sword tree is replaced here by a gigantic skill tree which allows you to purchase unique skills and greater attack power for all three forms (pour everything into Okoi form for massive, reliable damage) - and its sprawling hugeness hints at what the player may choose to face after Miike's tale comes to its (initial) close.

I got myself to around level 30, and about a third of the way down her skill tree, before beating the last boss - and once you've experienced the dark thrills and comforting warm-and-fuzzies of the ending, the game tells you that all the barriers across Japan have been lifted, and you can now challenge every boss and zone from the main game with Miike.  If you do, and obtain the required items from said bosses, you can re-play Miike's final confrontation and earn her true ending.

This extends the content of Fishy Tales of the Nekomata far beyond its initial four-hour playtime, and - if the player desires - makes it a game one can sinks dozens of hours in to, re-discovering Vanillaware's beautiful vision of old Japan and facing its nasties with style.

Muramasa's combat isn't as shockingly deep as Dragon's Crown, but it's still fast, slick and satisfying - and having spent a few hours with Nekomata, I can't admit to being ready to leave, yet.

I want to stick around, have more adventures with the cat whose loyalty to its mistress and hatred of her enemies threatens to consume its immortal soul, and shepherd her to her true ending.  I'll likely be spending a lot more time with Fishy Tales of the Nekomata, and for five bucks, that's a helluva deal.

Now, we dance!

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