Shaman King: Power of Spirit is based on a Japanese animated series (yes, another one) that tells the tale of a world teetering on the brink of almost certain peril. Every 500 years, a celestial body called the Destiny Star appears in the sky (followed closely by the ominous-sounding Star of Destruction) to signal the beginning of the Shaman Tournament. Shamans are individuals who have the power to unite with spirits called guardian ghosts, and they test their mettle against one another to determine who will become the Shaman King.
If the Shaman King uses his power for good, then the world is full of happiness and smiles; if he uses his power for evil, the world is in for some rough times. In the game, like in the cartoon, you'll follow the story of a young man named Yoh Asakura and his ghostly friend Amidamaru (an ancient samurai with the mighty Haohmaru hair), as well as a pack of his human buddies, as they enter the Shaman Tournament.
The game itself is an interesting little hybrid. It eschews the traditional fighting game setup that most titles based on similar anime cleave to, and instead it offers a mix of role-playing elements and strategy in addition to the battle action. You'll start out your fights on an area map that's set up much like a strategy game--in an isometric view--where you'll be able to control Yoh (and any friends he has with him) and use your turn to move him and his friends around according to a range dictated by square units. Enemies will also dot the map, and once you get in range, you have a choice of actions. You can throw an item at the enemies to damage them, you can taunt them, or you can initiate battle with them. You can also use items on yourself or your allies, though some of these items can have negative effects. Although the game is still at an early state of localization, hopefully some of the crazy item names we encountered--like aloe and mushroom soup--will make it to release.
Starting a fight (or being attacked) switches you to a 3D battlefield with a control scheme akin to a 3D fighter. The square button triggers a weak attack, the triangle button is a strong attack, and you can jump with the X button, and block with the circle button. When you begin the game, you'll only be able to perform a very basic kind of spirit unity that lets Yoh fight with a samurai sword, but the initial battle teaches you how to use a power called furyoku. Furyoku lets you enter a state called over soul, where the spirit your character is united with can actually materialize part of itself into corporeal form. The spirit-imbued areas show up on the character as beefed-up limbs, extra wings, or other such craziness, all wreathed in a nimbus of colored light.
As you progress, you'll be able to learn and execute special moves that take advantage of this power. While these battles begin as one-on-one affairs, nearby characters and enemies will all be able to participate in the same battle, so you can have situations where there are three enemies and two allies all duking it out. Winning fights against shamans and various spirits gain the characters experience points, and they'll gain in levels and earn strength points as they go. You can allocate strength points manually to beef up things, like your maximum health or furyoku, or strength or defense.
The game sports some nice, detailed artwork for the characters, particularly in the extended story sequences that occur between battles. These story sequences typically consist of 2D art and character portraits, but the game gives them a lot of personality by doing things like suddenly increasing the size of a character who's looming over another, giving them a good variety of facial expressions, and employing effects in the text dialogue (like wavering words from a nervous character). The 3D models on the battle maps and in the fighting mode also look pretty good, and the environments are simple but functional. There wasn't a lot of voice in the version we played, but what was there was on par with what one would expect from dubbed anime--a bit overwrought in places, but not bad.
Fans of the show are obviously the primary target here, and it appears as though Shaman King: Power of Spirit has served them well. The game's mix of the different genres' gameplay elements seems to mesh well, and the extended and often highly amusing story sequences that break up the action bring the charm and humor of the show to life. If you're a fan of Shaman King, or if you just can't get enough of games built around licensed anime properties, be sure to keep your eye on this charming little game. We'll bring you more on this title as it approaches release on the PlayStation 2 this fall.