For those who enjoyed Disgaea, Makai Kingdom represents Nippon Ichi pretty much throwing the kitchen sink at the Tactical RPG genre. It’s bigger, more wacky and pushes the idea of what can be included in a battle further than any other title.
Released exclusively on the PlayStation 2 and later gaining an enhanced port for the PSP in Japan to coincide with the release of ‘Disgaea 4’, Makai Kingdom was the seond title Nippon Ichi worked on and released after ‘Hour of Darkness’. Outside Japan this gap was filled with a translated edition of ‘La Pucelle Tactics’ to keep interest high in the company and ‘Phantom Brave’ was released shortly before this game. With Phantom Brave using its own systems to keep combat interesting, people were eager to see what the studio could come up with next. In many ways, Makai Kingdom is experimental in the systems that it uses, retaining the concept of dropping the ‘grid’ formula and pushing elements of Tactical combat into new directions. In many ways it serves very much as a primer for ‘Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories’, introducing the concept of multiple dimensions into series canon and allowing the property to step away from re-using the same cast.
Graphically, Makai Kingdom uses all-new assets with a few sprites from Disgaea re-used (such as the archer, who was becoming something of a mascot for Nippon Ichi at the time) and of course characters from that title make cameo appearances. The same graphical engine is powering this game as the one seen in earlier titles from the studio, but this time it employs a darker colour palette that gives everything a more adult tone. Character designs remain vivid and interesting to look at, with the game bundled with an art-book in the UK that outlined some of the design aspects and concept illustrations for the title. These range from a relatively mundane ‘soldier’ character all of the way up to an impressive overlord named ‘Valvolga’ who satires the final boss as envisioned in many ‘Final Fantasy’ games. Speech and story elements feature a lot more on-screen action and fewer large portraits in this title, and text boxes contain beautifully rendered character faces to make up for that. The game features no less than 7 guest illustrators and each of them brings something very different to the table. Though the overall menu system looks bland at first, it’s a complex series of stats and information that is displayed in a manner that’s easily legible at all times.
Music is more varied than an average Nippon Ichi game, whilst they usually employ Tenpei Sato to score that series solo, a collection of 8 composers (Sato included) worked on Makai Kingdom and it gives a rounded feel to the games soundtrack. Whilst a singular vision is normally a soundtrack’s strength, in this case the scatty nature of the games premise and game design lends itself to a more varied score. Sound effects are nothing special, though new ones have been added to cope with the games zanier elements, most are series staples put to good use again. There are vocal performances throughout the games run, and these are as over the top as can be imagined.
The story in Makai Kingdom presents an interesting premise. In Disgaea the player party is summoned from a glowing portal that’s never given a plot function, in Makai Kingdom you are cast into the role of Overlord Zetta, whose arrogance leads to the accidental destruction of his Netherworld. In order to save it he becomes irrevocable bonded to a Sacred Tome and exists as a book. It is from this book that characters are created and summoned into battle. Zetta is in effect that inanimate portal, it’s a clever piece of writing indeed. As a book floating in space he needs to rebuild his empire and (having no arms) requires help to write into himself in order to start building his forces. Luckily his Netherworld was only one of many parallel Netherworlds and the Overlords of these other realms act as a comedy collective who help and hinder Zetta in a number of ways. This gives rise to two of the greatest Nippon Ichi characters to date, Pram (an oracle who foresaw Zetta’s fall from grace and is very sarcastic about it) and Valvolga, whose body is made up of three bickering beings and who makes his living acting as the ‘final boss’ for many heroic quests. It’s all played for laughs and returns the writing to more stable ground after the emotional punch in the face that was ‘Phantom Brave’.
Gameplay is split between a home location from which you can create characters, buildings, weapons and armour among other things, and battles. Weapons are split into distinct types and each have expansive sets, whilst classes are usually proficient in one of the four key weapon types. Mastering weapons leads to new moves being unlocked for these characters. Buildings of various types can be created and summoned onto the battle field, allowing characters to enter them and receive a variety of bonus effects. Vehicles are added to the system as well, and act as mobile, battle ready buildings in most cases. Battles do away with the generic grid-based movement and instead allow characters to move anywhere within a sphere that grows as their movement range increases. Attacks too have their own ranges clearly marked and this system allows for multiple characters to cluster in on an enemy where a maximum of 4 could be in ‘close’ range traditionally. It feels a little floaty for those used to working with a grid, but those that played Phantom Brave can quickly get to grips with it. The levels are largely randomly generated, starting from an initial pre-set starting map and then growing exponentially outward into new territory through a system called ‘Extension’ that sees anything thrown out of bounds trigger a randomly generated map that links to the new one. This reveals new rules, enemies and treasures to plunder. Extensions come in two forms, ‘Locked’ and ‘Secret’ with those that are locked needing a specific unit to be destroyed to open up the map. Occasionally special events will occur when doing these actions, giving map-wide bonuses or negative effects that change how you need to approach the battle. With the addition of vehicles, new classes, buildings and extension systems the battles in Makai Kingdom feel very much like campaigns in their own right and can take a while to conquer. The game itself is based around the concept of the player replaying multiple times, starting with the ‘bad’ ending and then working through progressive new game plus options until earning the best version.
In essence, Makai Kingdom is a fantastic game, but it does require one hell of a commitment to see even the bad ending. Though the free-roaming movement would be dropped in time for the second Disgaea game to hit the shelves it feels like a terrible waste that the Extension system never made it into a later title, especially with the Item World being a perfect fit for it. The game itself would be perfect for mobile phones in this day and age, with plenty to make and do. I’d advise caution going in to Makai Kingdom, as it’s somewhat addictive and presents a plethora of options straight out of the tutorial. It’s certainly worth your time if you enjoy zany plots and interesting game mechanics and easy to hunt down for the PS2 in English.