Toukiden: The Age of Demons Review
Sony PS Vita
Japanese mythology is a deep and unfamiliar (at least to Western gamers) source that features some of the most disturbing and unconventional monsters (or oni) in folklore. Arriving on the Vita amidst a particularly dry spell of releases, Toukiden blends this source material with accessible, Western-orientated gameplay. One look at Toukiden is enough to see that its heritage also lies with the Monster Hunter franchise – this is, after all, a game where a team battle demons both large and small – as well as the combat of Dynasty Warriors.
After an entertainingly slick opening movie, Toukiden asks you to create a character – a new warrior arriving in one of the few last-standing villages in the war against the demon hordes. The plot is very much a mix of mystical wonder delivered in leaden, uninteresting ways. Dialogue – voiced in Japanese – quickly becomes staid and you’ll likely skip most of it, skimming the key points to ascertain what prophecy is important now and what magical barrier needs restoring here. There are options in the dialogue to select, broadly good and bad, but they don’t seem to do much in the long run. Characters are also stereotypical – all of the women are beautiful, all the men are powerful – but it’s rarely a problem. Instead, the fact they adhere to the usual brand of Japanese stereotypes means that they are even less interesting than their admittedly well-drawn portraits.
The hub of the game revolves around a small, traditional Japanese village, home to shops, armourers, shrines and what is essentially a guild. The time in-between missions can be wisely spent upgrading your weapons and armour, buying and selling the assorted junk acquired during missions, making offerings at the local shrine and bathing in the Pool of Purification. For a handheld title it’s a perfectly adequate amount of things to do outside of the main game and it breaks up the rather repetitive nature that comprises the meat of Toukiden’s gameplay.
It’s these missions, along with added sidequests, that determine your feelings towards Toukiden. Your character can wield any weapon in combat with missions starting from killing a certain number of lowly enemies to the larger-scale boss battle that top off each chapter. Occasionally a mission might revolve around activating prayer stones or taking on waves of enemies. Toukiden mixes these up with acceptable regularity. Combat itself revolves around basic button-based attacks – with a few basic combos and special moves – and the power of your Mitama. The soul of a legendary warrior (again, the wonderful interpolation of Japanese folklore), your Mitama determines your extra powers and specialties in battle. Some will focus on healing, allowing you to generously refill your health bar or create a restorative force field, while others may buff your strength or defense. These powers can be upgraded by completing missions, improving their potency and occasionally opening up a new power or two.
Your propensity for repetitive button mashing makes or breaks the combat in game, especially around lower-level enemies. A power-draining vision mode allows you to see the health bars of most enemies but it’s the boss battles and larger scale foes that introduce a strategic wrinkle to fights. The limbs of these opponents are susceptible to sustained damage, indicated by their colour when using the alternate vision mode. Eventually they’ll come off entirely, crippling the enemy and revealing a weakpoint to concentrate upon. Most enemies will have at least six of these destroyable points and, although they soon regenerate, once the limb is gone it’s far easier to whittle down their health bars. The first time you fight a specific oni it feels exhilaratingly satisfying, targeting your attacks and revelling in each limb that you lop off. The problem remains that, never mind how interesting the character design, you’ll fight variants of each oni repeatedly during each chapter. The fourth or fifth time you realise that the quest is going to take a good few minutes, given the limb-chopping needed, you soon tire of the game.
Sidequests are shameless grinding material, leavened by the ease with which you acquire the necessary items for completion. Most revolve around finding ten bits of soil, or three jewels – none particularly inspiring but a good source of revenue in the downtime between missions. It’s filler, yes, but it does bring a degree of bitesize replayability which is always welcome in a handheld title.
It’s also a shame that Toukiden’s level design is uninspired, with levels comprising of one large area divided into smaller fields. Given the mission, any of these fields may be inaccessible or require trawling through each in order to find a specific enemy. Graphically they do the job but they do have the barren, static quality of Dynasty Warriors’ environments, lessening their appeal.
The game improves with the addition of ad hoc and local multiplayer, instigated through prayer stones in your home village. Missions can be completed and foes fought – the larger the better with other people. Although the AI isn’t bad at all, the strategy and unpredictable nature of live comrades heightens the fun and Toukiden, despite the repetition, is indeed enjoyable. It’s not particularly taxing either, given generous healing spells, AI comrades who are near invincible and quick to revive a fallen player and a small penalty if you respawn should worst come to worst. You’ll also accrue more than enough revenue to keep buying and upgrading equipment and there’s even a pet tenko who’ll forage for more items mid-mission.
Toukiden isn’t quite up there in terms of attractive aesthetics as Monster Hunter but, on a system that’s always in need of new games, it certainly does the job. Its accessibility makes it easy to pick up and play but a lack of personality, combined with repetition, mean there’s little that sticks in the mind after the Vita has been packed away. Competent, initially addictive and definitely appealing to Japanophiles, Toukiden might rewrite Japanese folklore to fit its gameplay, but it certainly doesn’t rewrite the rules of the genre. There’s plenty here to do and see – just don’t be surprised if you’ve witnessed it all before.