A Mystical Tale Awaits
If there's one thing the original Xbox needed more of it would be games in the RPG genre. The ability to manage a screenfull of stats, tactically approach battles, sort through extensive items menus and direct a group of characters at once would be rare on this console. Sudeki would be one of the titles to fill in the gap.
The game starts off on a bad note with the overall atmosphere, mainly due to the audio and story. The music itself is quite good, often matching the style with the current environment and providing some wonderful set piece tracks to highlight key sequences. There is strong variation and some quality tunes in here to make it work. Sound effects in general do a very solid job of reflecting the onscreen action and translating that into audio cues.
The issue here is the voice acting. To its credit everyone in the game, even down to random NPC villager number 6, possess actual voice clips to listen to. For a RPG that alone is outstanding. However, when over half the cast sounds like they just stepped off the set of Hollyoaks then it tends to ruin the mood. A setting rich in magical lore and ancient tales is butchered by the voice actors who apparently put no effort in altering their vocal accents to match. The delivery wasn't always the best either, so ultimately I felt that only Buki actually sounded right and everyone else just hurt the production.
The story is another flop, which is surprising given the potential here. The setting of the game is amazing, with a world crafted from a combination of magical civilisations, steampunk and tribal. The result is a deep immersive world with a lot of character to it.
However, nothing else quite matches up to that. The characters themselves are mostly generic and shallow. Generally there's nothing wrong with going with genre traditions, but when the player doesn't care about the characters then there is a problem. Likewise the story itself never felt all that good. There was something about an ancient evil coming back from something that happened ages ago, but honestly I lost interest partway through because the scenario and execution were quite boring.
Thankfully the visuals of the game don't allow any room for complaint. The world of Sudeki is stunning, with such a diverse range of locations and constructed with all sorts of hills, roads, pits, caves and more. Clearly the designers acknowledge that the world does not largely consist of flatlands. The amount of depth put into the design is excellent, with stuff like buildings, ships and even the grass looking very good.
Character models have been rendered to near perfection as well. Although there is a clear sway towards the male demographic here in terms of clothing choices it's nice to see everyone in the game possessing such great appearances. Animation is mostly good, with facial expressions and movements working. At times it does become a bit awkward and even a bit too fast but not enough to damage the performance.
Moving away from the turn based norms of the genre, Sudeki uses real time combat to give the player the chance to pull off their own attacks at their own timings. At first I was hoping this would allow me to dodge battles (much like Tales of Symphonia) but no such luck as the game actually locks you into an area once enemies appears and won't unlock until you beat them.
There are two ways to approach combat depending on which character you choose to control. Tal and Buki are the melee brawlers. Here you issue attack commands via A and X, with correct timing producing some varied combo attacks. Different combos of button presses produce different results but ultimately it's about finding one that suits and using that.
At first the timing will feel very awkward, as rather than give the player a fast paced means of attacking you actually have to pace yourself with pauses between attack commands. It's possible to get used to it, and you will if you choose to main the melee brawlers, but it would flow better at a faster pace.
These characters can also produce guard moves that protect from attacks from all directions and a knock down move that is weak but blows enemies away from you. It's generally the mix of these that will see you through.
Ailish and Elco provide a rather different style of combat, with a bizarre combination of RPG and FPS. When enemies appear the view switches to first person mode. These two can't combo or guard but have the benefit of attacking from a distance. There's no limit on ammo, although you do have to allow for recharging/reloading after every few shots (dependant on the weapon used). You also have the knock down move the melee brawlers have, just in case everyone's getting too close for comfort.
It seems like a really odd direction, but I found it quite fun. There's no lock-on so you have to be really accurate and the lack of guarding means you have to keep moving around but it's a refreshing approach to the genre. The inability to simply mass spam firing helps too.
All characters can access a sub menu during battle which slows down (but does not pause) the action. Here you can access various things. Items can be used here, although going through the menu to find the item you want can be a little cumbersome. Thankfully you can assign items to directions on the D-Pad for faster access.
Then there are the special moves like skill strikes and spirit strikes. Skill strikes must be purchased with experience gains and will use up skill points to use. These moves involve either unleashing high powered attacks, inflicting some negative ailments or supporting the party with boosts or healing. Skill points aren't abundant so the player has to take care not to abuse these talents. It must be said that I found many of the offensive ones unneeded though, as combos or firing was often simple enough to reach victory.
Spirit strikes are similar, but these are earned at scripted points in the story, are more impressive and use up a different kind of energy to activate that is gained by defeating baddies. These simply work as an addition to the standard skill strikes, although can prove useful with the correct timing.
AI behaviour is quite good too. Enemies come in a variety of shapes and sizes, with a wide ranges of attack approaches. The seem quite smart about it too, with dodging moves and slow approaches. These beasts will pose quite a threat to you. Your allied partners also seem mostly adept. They dash around obstacles well enough and will usually handle combat at a fair pace without killing everything for you. There were times when the intelligence dropped (one time I had Tal constantly getting himself poisoned because he couldn't figure out how to block spider attacks) but these times were rare.
Character development is quite interesting in this game. Firstly, level up gains are entirely in the hands of the player. Once you've gotten enough exp points you will gain the ability to raise one stat or to purchase a new skill strike. The choice is yours, and you can even choose to wait and level up later if you want. This lets you develop the team as you want.
Weapons and armour is handled quite differently in this game than others in the genre. Put simply you don't buy either. New weapons can be obtained and switched around, but these are rare and are either found or obtained as part of a sidequest. New armour is obtained as part of scripted events and simple replaces older armour.
Both item types can be powered up though by using runes and blacksmiths. Each item can only have so many runes applied, and you need to find the runes first. Effects can either boost stats or poses special effects like restoring HP or SP for every successful hit. This gives the equipment setup a lot of depth without giving us a million different weapons to equip.
Other consumable items, like healing elixirs and ailment curing potions, can be purchased through the traditional RPG shop. Money isn't too easy to get as well so it helps keep things nicely balanced.
The game world is a joy to explore, with winding paths and offshoots to go to. At first it may seem daunting to go exploring but a handy minimap and cursor help you to find your way to the next location. The varied locations are very interesting to explore as well and the environment is large and filled with much to see. Towns are brimming with life and you can talk to a lot of NPCs just to see how life is going.
Exploration also relies on the special talents of the four main characters. Tal can move heavy objects, Ailish can reveal hidden objects or openings, Buki can climb walls and Elco can fly at times. Sometimes these do feel too scripted, like Buki can climb but only when the game says you can climb but they do help break things up.
Many areas will present some kinds of puzzles to engage you too. A lot will involve figuring out how to open the way ahead, and some of quite ingenious, like a music challenge where you listen to a tune and use that to complete a puzzle. None of them are too difficult though so it avoids too much frustration.
The lifespan is a little shorter than expected though. On its own merits Sudeki has a fairly decent lifespan that will keep you engaged for quite a while. However, when we're talking about a genre known for very long adventures and numerous sidequests then Sudeki seems to fall short a bit here. Sudeki's main quest probably isn't half the size of the usual RPG game and while there are a few sidequests to do there aren't as many as others of the genre offer.
But that's nitpicking. Sudeki is a wonderful game with a lot of depth and a fantastic environment. Presentation issues aside it is certainly a game I encourage people to look into, especially if you're a fan of RPGs looking for a fresh take on the genre.
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