"Common knowledge" around the gaming community these days is that JRPGs are a dying breed. A relic of an older era and a flagging Japanese gaming industry. Not that us Nintendo fans would recognize it. Nintendo systems have been graced with a number of delightful JRPGs in recent months. Things like Xenoblade, The Last Story, and the handheld Bravely Default have received plenty of positive press, but they're not the only games out there. A little game called The Denpa Men: They Came By Wave squeaked its way into the 3DS eShop, and it brought with it buckets of old-school RPG action--mixed with almost devious levels of quirky Japanese charm.
It's often said that RPGs are all about the story, but that's one department where The Denpa Men doesn't mince words. All around you, so the story goes, there are tiny creatures called Denpa Men that live on radio waves. They sort of resemble what might happen if some aberration of science combined a Pikmin with a Mii. Normally, they're invisible to humans, but with the aid of a special optical device (namely, your 3DS camera), you can see them and talk to them. One particular Denpa Man, randomly generated when you first start your game, comes to you out of the ether and asks you for assistance. The King of Evil kidnapped his girlfriend! So... help him save her! That's all the story you're going to get, so you'd better be happy with it. But if you couldn't guess from the game's happy-go-lucky title screen and quirky music, this isn't really an "epic" kind of game. Instead, it's focused on providing a tight and polished gameplay experience, and it delivers in spades.
In order to fight the King of Evil, you'll need to recruit some Denpa Men to fight with you. This takes the form of an AR mini-game where the game superimposes some Denpa Men on the world around you (as seen through the 3DS camera), and you peer around the area, looking for the Denpas and pressing the A button to fire capture nets at them. It's very similar to the built-in Face Raiders. Where the game switches it up is in how it creates the recruitable Denpas in the area--they're generated based on the local wireless signals in the area, whether or not your 3DS is actively tapped into them. Every new wireless signal you find creates a different crop of Denpas, with randomly generated names, elemental strengths and resistances (as demonstrated by the color of their clothes), abilities (as shown by the colorful antennas on their heads), stats, and appearances. Not every wireless signal will give you every kind of Denpa, and some are rarer than others. Some Denpas have crazy appearances, such as heads shaped like stars or crescent moons. Some Denpas have multiple elements, and some have rare skills. Although the actual gameplay of this AR minigame is simplistic, there's something very compelling about seeking out Wi-Fi hotspots and just seeing what kind of new recruitable Denpa Men there are. Having all the elemental skills on hand is useful, of course, so it's nice to build your team of Denpas to be balanced. But there's an astonishingly great variety of features the Denpa Men can have, and it's neat just seeing what the game will throw together--how about a cool Denpa with a masquerade mask and cat ears, or one with long blonde hair like a rocker and a spiked head? More hot-spots also means more chances to catch rare Denpas with amazing skills, such as one that attacks all enemies with searing flames or one that heals your entire party. It's the thrill of discovery that makes this mode so fun, more so than the simple AR minigame--though if you go hotspot hunting in public, playing it will make you look like a bit of a loon. If this isn't an option for you, the game allows you to swap Denpa Men with other players by means of QR codes, just like Miis.
There'd be no point in catching Denpas were there nothing to do with them, however, and that's where the main draw of the game lies. In order to rescue your lead Denpa Man's girlfriend, you'll need to form a party of Denpas to plumb the depths of the local dungeons. This game takes a similar approach to dungeon crawling as the Mystery Dungeon series: Dungeons are (somewhat) randomly-generated collections of rooms and corridors, with monsters randomly appearing within them as pre-existing overworld encounters. However, touching them goes into a separate battle screen, more like Dragon Quest--and you can even score preemptive hits if you sneak up on enemies from behind! Your goal is to find the exit on each floor of the dungeon, be it a stairway, door, or warp point, and make it through the floors to the boss. Rather than just have rando-gen mazes, however, the game does include multiple exits throughout its floors, brief puzzles usually based around getting from Point A to Point B, and even a few small inter-dungeon villages with NPCs! There are also, of course, heaps of treasure chests to find, and many of the secret exits and bonus rooms lead to areas with many, many treasures in them. Some dungeons even have warp points or doors in them that lead to hidden areas in earlier dungeons! Although on the surface, the dungeon format seems simplistic, the developers actually managed to do a decent number of creative things with it. One of my favorite examples is the "volcano" dungeon, which is full of scattered NPCs who tell you the wisdom of their tribe's Chief. When you finally meet said Chief, he'll actually quiz you on his wisdom before letting you fight the boss!
You can take a paltry four Denpas with you into a dungeon at first, but that number later expands to six, and then eight. Sounds like a lot of party members, doesn't it? But every single one of those slots counts. You see, each and every Denpa man in the game can have one skill. One. Those skills do level up and get stronger, but that one skill will never change. You'll have to build your party carefully based around both the dungeon you're going to and the Denpas you have available. If you're going to a water-themed dungeon, packing your party full of Denpas with the Ice abilities sounds good... but if those Denpa Men wear red, Fire-type clothing, they're going to be in trouble. You could bring some Denpa men in blue Water clothing, but if they have no skills, you're going to have a tough time taking down enemies. Denpa Men with no antennas and no elements have higher stats than those who do, but they can only offer you physical attacks which don't always work on all enemies--unless you shill out cash for extra equipment. But then you can't use other equipment to make their stats better! There's a lot to consider when building your party in this game, and it offers loads of strategy.
You'll need that strategy, too, because when it comes to the monsters, this game pulls no punches. This game is unapologetically, old-school, backs-to-the-wall hard. They've got loads of HP, meaning one-hit kills are unlikely on your first run through of the dungeon. Use skills to take them down, and they'll drain your precious Antenna Points (this game's flavor of MP) quicker than water through a sieve. Even low-level flunkies have potentially lethal attacks. Status effects have brutal effects. And while you can always revive fallen party members from within a dungeon, if you leave the dungeon with them downed, they're gone. Only by leaving the rare Offering item at a resurrection shrine can you call them back, and those aren't easy to come by. Although you see monsters on the dungeon map first, and can potentially run from them, many of them move more quickly than you can, and fleeing isn't always possible. There are also a lot of said monsters. One nice departure from RPG-norm that this difficulty provides is that items are actually very useful in this game--you'll need those 20-odd healing potions and Antidotes to survive most dungeons, and gold is just sparse enough that you can't just splurge on 99 of them and call it a day. The level is balance in the game is actually quite impressive. The Denpa Men level up in just such a fashion, and experience is doled out just so, that you're almost always right about the correct level for a dungeon, and grinding is both unnecessary and too difficult to really want to do. Plus, while the game is difficult, it's rarely cheap. Enemies do not randomly get the jump on you and force you to take untold damage. They usually don't spam their nastiest attacks. You usually don't fight more than 3 at once, though parties of up to 5 do happen. Running away actually works most of the time. And just about everything in the game can be dealt with the proper preparation. Gold doesn't fountain down from the sky, but there's usually enough left over after getting new equipment to stock up on potions. If your weaker, antennaed Denapas are getting KO'd frequently, maybe you need to put more sturdy skill-less Denpas in your party. And don't be afraid to bring Denpas along who have those skills you shun in other games, like Speed-droppers or Poison-healers. Every item and skill has value here, and the game wants you to use them all to their greatest effect.
And if the game's battles are cruel, the game offers other small mercies that help contribute to the game's well-honed sense of balance. For example, all Denpa Men gain experience at exactly the same rate. The ones in your party, the benched ones left in your house, even the random Denpas you find around the overworld--they're all gaining experience at the same rate, which means they're all leveling up and are always ready to go. The sole exception to this is Denpa Men gotten from QR codes, which always start at level 1--but again, the experience distribution from monsters is exactly such that they catch up quickly. You never, ever have to grind. The game's Autobattle option is quite smart, and you don't have to force your entire party to autobattle--you can give certain Denpas specific orders, and let others (such as your healers) decide what to do for themselves depending on how the battle goes. (There's also a quick autobattle option for "don't use skills," meaning you don't have to worry about wasting precious AP.) Your "hero" Denpa Man is also always blessed with the "Revive" ability, meaning that you rarely have to worry too much about fallen party members. Basic items like Potions are priced cheaply enough that you can in fact stock up if you don't have luck finding a healer Denpa. And dungeons are often littered with warp points that mean you can exit them to heal and then return to them halfway through. Challenging though it is, the game never feels impossible, and it never lets you get complacent in one strategy for too long. It engages you with planning, and will punish you if your planning is off, but it won't wail on you for no good reason and it won't cheat on you.
The same level of polish that went into the gameplay and balance went into its presentation, as well. This is a very nice-looking game. Although the Denpa Men themselves have very simplistic designs, their facial features are all very lively and distinctive. The various locations in the game, from the island that serves as your home base to the dungeons themselves, have bright, colorful designs and a charming sense of style. Although the dungeons aren't overly-intricately designed and aren't as chock-full of details as other games are, they still have an excellent sense of atmosphere. The game's models are all smooth-edged and move fluidly--very few "jaggies" here, and the 3-D is similarly smooth. The game's colorful style extends to the enemy monsters you fight--they've got just as much personality as the Denpa Men themselves! Each monster in the game has a distinctive look, and even those that are based on old RPG standbys are lent their own flavor by the style of the game. There are palette swaps of the monsters here and there, but that's understandable given that this is a smaller-sized download title.
The music in the game is quite good, too, though perhaps not in the way one usually thinks of good video game music. It's extremely "quirky," this soundtrack. The instrumentation is full of wacky horns and goofy sound effects, and sometimes doesn't seem to have a melody at all. But it meshes perfectly with the game's cartoonish art style, and the overall mood of the game. Your island hub makes use of "variable mixes", much like the old Banjo-Kazooie games--every area on the island, from the shop, to the house that houses your Denpa Men, to the docks that lead you to the dungeons, has its own variation on the main theme, and the game transitions nicely between them. And while it doesn't initially seem as catchy or melodic as other game music, the game's sounds do grow on you in a weird way. The game's soundtrack was composed by a company called Basiscape, and while you may not know their name, you probably know their music--they've worked on, among other things, the Final Fantasy Tactics Advance series, and cult Wii hit Muramasa: The Demon Blade! If you're familiar with their style, you'll probably be able to hear their signatures in the music. Overall, the soundtrack does an excellent job of bringing the game's mood together. It probably wouldn't stand on its own outside the game, but it doesn't need to.
The overall package this game presents is so generally together that my only real quibbles with it are extremely minor. Some of the "clothing" items you can equip to your Denpa Men don't always scale well to their different body sizes, meaning the textures on the clothing (which is really what it is--different body textures for your Denpa Men) sometimes look a little funny. There's no option to save Denpa Men QR codes to your SD card like you can with Mii codes, meaning you'll have to take off-screen photos of your 3DS to share the codes with the world at large. But even the amount of content in the game is spot-on! There's tons of dungeons to explore, lots of bonus treasures to seek out, and a couple good-old-fashioned optional boss fights for you to challenge yourself with. Although the game is clearly designed more for RPG fans, especially in its difficulty, I could see it working well as an introductory RPG--it's not too long, it's fairly streamlined, and the strategizing involved could serve as a fine introduction to what sort of things the genre has to offer and hos it works. Ultimately, though, I think the people who stand to gain the most from The Denpa Men are those RPG fans looking for a new fix. You certainly don't have anything to lose--except, perhaps, if you go Denpa Man hunting in public, your dignity. But who needs that when there's dungeons to crawl and a King of Evil to defeat?
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