Summary: On a dark and gloomy bridge, suspended between the world of the living and the dead, lurks Raikoh, a skilled warrior from a cursed clan. Once tasked with ending the lives of others, Raikoh himself sits between life and death after the Great Seal was broken, spreading destruction and darkness across the land. A mysterious princess spares Raikoh's life so that he may rid the world of the grotesque demons and cleanse his soul of his past misdeeds.
Otogi's trip across the pacific wasn't the quickest one, as it was released over nine months ago in Japan before setting foot on our shores. Developed by From Software, one of the few small Japanese developers to support Xbox, Otogi hung in localization limbo until Sega announced just before E3 2003 that it would be publishing the action title in North America.
"Otogibanashi" is the Japanese word for fairy tale, which hints at the overall theme of the game. Mind you, we're not talking about Mother Goose and Grim, but rather tales of mythology based on Japanese history during its Heian era (794-1185 AD). The word "Otogi" by itself (as Kanji printed on the box cover), however, means to attend upon or keep someone company.
You play Raikoh, a clan executioner in his former life. One day he was given the duty of ending his own father's life, which he refused and then promptly abandoned his clan. The Great Seal, or something or other, collapsed and would have ended Raikoh's life if it weren't for a mysterious Princess who saved him. In exchange for saving Raikoh from death, the Princess assigns quests which he must fulfill in order to atone for his blood-filled past. Most of these quests involve going into a stage and "purifying" the area (i.e., obliterate all demons).
Even though most of the combat is straight forward, occasionally you'll be faced with a slight twist on how you'll approach battles. For example, certain enemies are invulnerable unless they are in under direct moonlight. In this case, you'll have to carefully avoid contact until the clouds pass before attacking. For the most part, Raikoh is defenseless and must rely on his speed and agility to avoid attacks. His only defensive ability is batting back enemy spells. By pressing one of the attack buttons at the exact right time, Raikoh will reflect the spell right back to the caster.
Another really cool aspect of Otogi is its destroyable environments. Faced with a big wall that you can't jump over? Then go through it with a heavy swing from your sword. Instead of just being a gimmick, you're rewarded for using a weapon of mass destruction. Apparently, human spirits are trapped within inanimate objects such as walls, pillars, wells, etc., and smashing them apart frees them, giving you experience points and gold. The results of your destructive tendencies are saved to the Xbox hard disk, so that when you later decide to revisit an earlier stage (which you can do at any time), you can finish the job of a one-man wrecking crew.
Otogi is one gorgeous game. Much of the game takes place in darker conditions, emphasizing Otogi's soft-lighting effects. Weapon slash effects, smoke and dust clouds, elemental effects, and the destruction of environment are all impressive. But what makes Otogi gorgeous isn't just the fancy special effects, but rather the inspired art direction. It feels as though everything was designed with artistic purpose instead of just making things look cool or demonic. Sure, demons still look like demons, but they're truly unique. Even the design of the protagonist isn't quite like anything we've seen before.
Just as beautiful as the graphics is the soundtrack. Layered with moody, traditional Japanese instruments, the music of Otogi is wonderfully haunting -- perfectly fitting the game's themes. The sound effects aren't particularly strong or aggressive, but that just leaves more room for the visuals and music to work together.
SIDEBAR: We've been hearing that Otogi is becoming a difficult game to find in stores, mostly due to low initial orders from retailers. Hopefully this won't become another Rez.
If there's anything holding Otogi back from becoming an instant classic, it would be the camera system and indirectly, the control scheme. The camera is easily controllable with the right analog stick, except that during the times when you need a change in camera angle the most, your thumb is busy hitting buttons. Clicking the left thumbstick down immediately re-centers the camera, but it gets a little bothersome to have to constantly click the thumbstick just to see what you're up against. Hitting the left shoulder trigger will make the camera lock-on to a certain enemy, making sure that the camera never takes it lens off the target. That works fine for bosses or areas with few enemies, but it becomes less effective when you're surrounded.
SIDEBAR: Developer From Software has also done Murakumo, another Xbox exclusive title. Unfortunately, that title is not nearly as good as Otogi.
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