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CONSOLE: PlayStation 2 DEVELOPER: Zener Works PUBLISHER: Sony
RELEASE DATE (NA): October 1, 2001 GENRE: RPG
// review by EscapeRouteBritish

The King and I...

Okage is a JRPG from the first year of the PlayStation 2's run, and according to reviewers from the time, it was the best RPG available. Not exactly a challenge when Ephemeral Fantasia and Dark Cloud are the only competition. Okage saw a new lease of life when it was re-released on PlayStation 4 with 1080p HD upscaling and trophy support. This is essentially the same game as the PlayStation 2 release just with improved load speeds and a new sound emulation bug that doesn't detract from the experience too much. This also marked the first time Okage was made available in Europe.

As a JRPG from the turn of the millennium, Okage does suffer from the trappings you would expect. Long periods without save points, a combat system so antiquated it barely stood up when it was released, and an increased difficulty spike in the US version because the Japanese version was deemed too easy.

I have to be brutally honest: Okage is not a game that is fun to play. The story and characters are what raise this game to a higher level, with an astounding musical score to back it up. It is a case where the mysteries surrounding the world in which it takes place are much more fun to theorize over than the game itself is.

In this game you play as an unassuming child named Ari, who lives at home with his mom, dad, sister, and two grandparents. He's a stereotypical normal boy, and he, like everyone else in the game world, is what they are because whoever created the world says that is what they are. Due to a conflict involving a ghost, Ari's sister Maggie is attacked and cursed. In order to break the curse, Ari must form a pact with a shadowy figure stored in a jar, evil king Stanley Hihat Trinidad XIV. Or Stan for short; he likes Stan. In exchange for curing Maggie's curse, Stan makes Ari his slave and the two set off to subjugate other "evil kings" in order to restore Stan's power.

The writing is on point with a searing sense of caustic wit. Ari's dialogue responses are chortle-worthy, like something you wish you were clever enough to come up with by yourself. Stan is immediately lovable but makes for a terrible "evil king", spreading love, goodwill, and cheer wherever he goes despite his intentions.

On this journey you'll put together a team of like-minded sarcastic geniuses each with their own unique brand of comedy — Rosalyn the Heroine, Kisling the Researcher, Linda the Idol, Bull the Martial-Artist, and Epros the Magician. While some get less screen-time than others, you still get to know them well.

While the humour does take a backseat to the more serious storylines closer to the end of the game, this is not without good reason. I aim to keep this review spoiler-free and shall simply say that as the game proceeds and as we live vicariously through Ari, we indeed see the world for what it is, and it's no laughing matter.

Okage: Part of a balanced breakfa—oh, great, I'm dead.

While I simply adore Okage for all of its positives, there are significant negatives, factors which almost led to me walking away several times, though the solid script kept me coming back. This combat system is horrendously abhorrent. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, with contemporaries such as Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy setting a suitable precedent when it comes to battle systems. Okage instead chooses to be as different as possible, as though the "unique" moniker is somehow worth it. The battles are set up in a way that you can't attack singular enemies, but instead must target enemy groups. While this is good when an enemy group consists of up to ten enemies whom you can one-shot with a magic attack, an attack usually targets a single enemy and it will pick an enemy from the group at random.

As soon as a team member's time bar fills, you can give commands to them. However, if it fills during an enemy attack you don't know whether the enemy dealt enough damage to warrant a heal. Instead, you have to choose to wait, then choose the command. Wouldn't it be great if the bar filled and then didn't pause the entire battle to input actions? Similar to Chrono Trigger, you can tell your teammates to wait and then combine their attacks for a hefty damage boost. It's not as flashy as in Chrono Trigger; there aren't any cool looking special techniques you can perform by doing so, but for taking out bosses it's genuinely the only strategy you can actively use. Unfortunately, waiting for all team members to be ready to attack gives the enemy an opportunity to send someone to sleep or paralyze them, rendering your attack futile.

Status effects stack. I think I need to repeat that sentence for emphasis — status effects STACK. And along with status ailments there are also curses which are similar but persist between fights.

If this was a straightforward RPG you could grind to give yourself an advantage, but Okage has other plans. As you level up, enemies provide less experience points. It's a base 1000 EXP per level, no matter what, but the same enemies will net you less experience the stronger you get. Grinding is possible, but the game actively pushes you towards fighting harder enemies to power up. Nearer the end of the game, a single group of enemies can kill you in seconds yet they only give you miserable experience if you beat them. So you have to keep grinding despite diminishing returns. Ad nauseum.

Truly Okage's difficulty level is just a little higher than what might be a comfortable challenge, but at least it has the decency to heal you at every major save point, so you can traipse back to the start of the dungeon for an instant heal. If you choose to spend time grinding some extra levels, at least the game heals you between saves. You can tactically balance healing skills to gain a level before heading back to the save point.

One of the game's falsest economies is the special skills — they do next to nothing. An enemy weak to fire will still take more damage from your base sword attacks than they do from the "flaming sword" that "enemies won't soon forget". You're better off just mashing attacks or combining nine times out of ten. You can cast magic spells with LP (Labour Points), a shared pool of points that your team shares. Like how Skies of Arcadia did it. However, the best skills cost HP to cast. The payoff from stronger attacks is not worth being perpetually close to death — especially when most enemy attacks range from 1 to 80 hit points of damage depending on how they feel and whether they had their Weetabix this morning.

If you're not carrying 99 health restoring nuts at all times, you're not managing your inventory properly. It feels like the majority of game time is spent in underground dungeons, battle after battle, munching on nuts like a kernel-krunching vegan. Fighting magical urns to open gates, standing on magic tiles to open doors or raise platforms, and some rudimentary puzzles that mostly serve to infuriate. What did you expect from a game of this age?

All these negative aspects can be ignored somewhat when taking into account the excellent storytelling and exceptional soundtrack you'll be hearing over and over without tiring. Every track sounds like a mish-mash of genres and melodiess, a feeling I believe to be intentional given the nature of the game's world.

The shadow puppet aesthetic is so engrained in Okage's design, and the influences are apparent. From the flailing arms and erratic character motions reminiscent of cartoons to the environment designs clearly inspired by the work of Tim Burton and Henry Sellick, Okage uses its inspirations to form a very clear personal aesthetic and design very much of its own. If it didn't have this, I simply wouldnt be able to recommend it. The characters, story and vibe is what makes Okage so damn enjoyable.

Come for the puppets, stay for the biting narrative and immersive world. Enjoy the endless speculation. Okage may be almost two decades old, but due to its obscurity so many questions remain unanswered. If you like Japanese RPGs and are looking for a poignant growing up story set in a bizarre world of mystique and absurdity, Okage is the game you never knew you needed.

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