Thursday, July 17, 2014

REVIEW - Genroku Legends: A Cause to Daikon For.

Genroku Legends: A Cause to Daikon For is the second of four planned pieces of five-dollar single-player DLC for the Vita's sublime Muramasa Rebirth.  A (gorgeous) 2D sidescrolling action-RPG with an emphasis on the action, Daikon follows the pathetic plight of a brave but foolish farmer named Gonbe, who sucks so bad at farming he couldn't afford medicine to save his dear wife Otae from the plague.

Since her death, things in his humble han have gone from bad to worse, as the area is being worked to death under the crushing yoke of impossibly-high taxation - and the only crops Gonbe doesn't have to pay in taxes are invariably eaten by the local crows, which make for effective target practice in the DLC's combat tutorial.

And Gonbe's had enough.

Rebellions were a whispered but rarely-executed option for the peasantry of Edo and Genroku-era Japan, as strict laws forbade the farmers, fishermen and craftsmen any variety of true weapons.  Swords, spears and the implements of war were the sole possession of the Samurai caste, and - hidden cashes of weapons kept beneath floorboards aside - if villagers wished to rise up, they had to do it with the tools of their trade, or what could be cobbled together.

I adore this sort of historical accuracy in A Cause to Daikon for, as Gonbe fights with hand sickles (used for harvesting rice) as a ranged option, a sharpened pole of bamboo (which can get wicked sharp) for graceful combos and air juggles and a simple farmer's hoe, which swings slow and hits like a truck.

Such uprisings were regularly crushed without mercy, and participating villagers could expect to find themselves and their families executed for their troubles - not an appealing proposition for any but those in the direst of straights - but Gonbe, with no family to lose, and a few like-minded villagers agree to risk their lives and those of their loved ones to win justice for their countrymen.

The night of that brave choice, which (spoiler) doesn't go well, his dead wife appears to him,

explains that she's found it terribly painful to watch him suffer in the years since her death, and she feels the best thing is just for her to kill him so he can go be dead with her.

Gonbe insists he needs to lead an uprising first, so Otae agrees to accompany him until he's kept his word.  Then she'll kill him.

And off they go across Japan!

This mix of historically-accurate cultural norms, supernatural folk tales and energetic storytelling is a big part of Muramasa and its Genroku Legends' minitales success - and it's the single most enjoyable aspect of Daikon.  It's not as arresting and involving as Muramasa's campaigns or January's uniformly-excellent Fishy Tales of Nekomata, but it remains a sweet plum.

The combat is less successful.  It works - it works just fine, but much of its pleasures are locked behind the three-branched skill tree Gonbe can work through (which upgrades the effectiveness of his weapons and adds additional skills and utilities to his combat mechanics).

It's not Muramasa without trips to the hot springs in your undies.

Until those skills are unlocked, Gonbe's combat style is slow-paced (some might suggest tactical) when compared to Okoi's claws or Kisuke's swords. Gonbe's dodge, for example, lasts three times longer than any other character as he comically stumbles back on one leg, pinwheeling his arms through eons of generous invincibility frames before falling on his ass and slowly gathering himself to his feet.  It looks funny, it works for the character, but one gets the sense that some of those choices were made in the name of style instead of substance.  He feels very different from any other hero Vanillaware have put forth, and thus is a bit uncomfortable to control.

Once you've invested deep enough, Gonbe's zipping back and forth across the screen like a farmer posessed as Otae's spectral fingers fling him to and fro, laying waste to haughty Samurai and demonkind, lifting them into the air for repeated juggling pokes of his bamboo and crushing them beneath his mighty hoe.

The final swing of Gonbe's ground combo with the hoe can be charged, and deals huge damage.

Gonbe himself, with his big round nose, balding head and patchwork clothes, fits in to the gorgeous Japan Vanillaware crafted for Muramasa, but he doesn't fit well in the foreground.  His character design and lumbering (almost awkward) animations aren't as beautiful and stylish as the game world he inhabits, and after an awesome samurai princess, a badass rogue ninja and a demonic shapeshifting cat, he's the least enjoyable character to watch and play as.

It's not fun watching Gonbe run.

His story, while painted with rich details and pleasant humor, doesn't offer some fascinating tragic and heroic character evolution - the no-nonsense, hard-working fellow we meet at the beginning of the game is unchanged by the DLC's amusing, comical ending - and there's less, here, between how he plays and who he is, that resonates with the player after flicking off their Vita.

In that way, A Cause to Daikon For is a bit like the later core Ratchet & Clank games - it lacks a bit of the nuance that made its forebears so special, but it's still a game in which you stylishly brawl your way across Genroku-era Japan to the tune of a zany story.  It's a game in which you fight a giant, drunken sumo wrestler, a flock of hungry crows and a batallion of pink-uniformed ninja maidens.

It's a game in which, when you die, your departed wife's ghost intercepts your soul as it ascends and forcibly shoves it back into your corpse (if you mash buttons).

It's a game with character.  Even with its weaknesses, then, A Cause to Daikon For remains pure Vanillaware - and even an imperfect taste of good Vanillaware is still delicious.

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