Released earlier this year in Japan under the name Boku to Maoh (either "The Devil and I" or "Me and Satan King," depending on who you ask to translate), Okage: Shadow King is one of the most unorthodox role-playing games to come out in years. While other RPGs attempt to outdo each other in the areas of special effects and eye candy, this one manages to stay competitive by being incredibly funny. How funny? Think Harlan Ellison's A Boy and His Dog, written by Daniel Pinkwater, and you have the general idea.
The game's premise is about a boy who makes a deal with an evil spirit to cure his sister of a curse that's caused her to speak entirely in pig Latin. The spirit, Evil King Stanley Hihat Trinidad XIV (or Stan for short), assumes the role of your shadow and orders you to track down the lost remnants of his power, which have been siphoned away by imposter Evil Kings over the last few thousand years while he was trapped in a bottle. And, while you're at it, Stan would also like you to help him take over the world.
Okage: Shadow King pays a notable homage to Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, a movie that earned a huge cult following in Japan but never really caught on here in the US. Nearly every single character in the game is reminiscent in some way of one of Burton's Halloween land cast, and its off-kilter sense of humor often smacks of the film as well. Only missing are the musical numbers...although it does bear pointing out that your enemies always appear to be dancing to whatever battle music is playing.
You routinely end up playing the straight man to your terse, arrogant, and bitingly sarcastic shadow. Whenever you begin a conversation with a new person, Stan butts in and begins ordering the person to drop to his or her knees and tremble in his mighty presence. Everyone in the game thinks that this is very funny, and you're congratulated numerous times on the strange trick that you can play with your shadow. It's a joke that never gets old--no one ever takes Stan seriously and it drives him crazy.
Your character is no slouch in the comedy department either. You're given three choices of things to say every time there's a break in the dialogue, and one of your lines usually includes something like "That's some really cutting edge headgear" or "(Man, that's really profound.)" You'll find yourself going back to talk to people multiple times to see if you have new and better lines with which to harass them.
Beyond that, instead of fighting evil wizards and dragons, as you do in standard RPGs, the enemies in Okage: Shadow King run more along the lines of wild cows and man-eating onions. The local townspeople also have names like "Old Guy Who Appears to Be an Elder" or "Freaked-Out Man," and they sometimes like to tell you embarrassing personal secrets. The beginning of the game is a constant barrage of funny dialogue, odd premises, and strange creatures. While the humor in Okage does begin to fall off after a certain point, the first few hours of the game are nearly worth the price of admission alone.
The battles are turn based, requiring commands to attack, cast spells, and use items, just like in traditional RPGs. Stan helps during battles by offering powerful attacks when you're severely injured, and he also quizzes you on evil catchphrases at certain points in the game and rewards you with help if he likes what you've come up with. And Stan's not the only one who can aide you--you can execute joint attacks with members of your party as well. Those RPG fans who despise random battles will appreciate Okage's ability to avoid fights, but the longer you go without fighting, the more enemies appear, and the chances that one materializes right in front of you increases. Combat can be repetitive, as in many other RPGs, but the battles rarely take long, and you can escape them easily.
Yet Okage is only a nontraditional RPG up to a point. After about seven or eight hours, the excellent dialogue and pacing take a turn for the traditional, and you begin to find yourself in numerous fights, which are not the game's strong point. It's only because what comes before this is so fantastic and unique that it's a letdown when it becomes more familiar. There are still many funny and original moments found in Okage after this point, but they're fewer and farther between.
Okage's graphics are stylized but are very basic 3D. The environments are sparsely populated and sometimes call back to early Dreamcast games, sans the pop-up. Many of the models and textures are repeated, especially in the dungeons. The game's camera undercuts its visuals even more. You constantly need to rotate it around behind you so that you can properly see where you're going. Even then, objects in the environments will block your view of your character at times. The game's soundtrack, however, is excellent, composed of charmingly hokey oddball tracks. Unfortunately, there aren't nearly enough songs, so you end up hearing them repeated far too many times.
Unlike some RPGs that seem to artificially extend their length through long breaks in the action and numerous unrelated side quests, Okage: Shadow King is very direct and always keeps to the matter at hand. The game's side quests can almost always be accomplished without diverging too far from the main game, and there are usually numerous hints as to where you should go next if you need them. Because of that, Okage is shorter in length than some RPGs, clocking in at around a little less than 30 hours, but that's not something you'll end up complaining about.
Okage: Shadow King has the same sort of universal appeal that Bugs Bunny cartoons have; there's humor that younger audiences will enjoy, as well as jokes that only older players will understand and appreciate. Okage is a good game for those who have never played an RPG, as well as those who have played too many of them and are looking for something new. If the game had been able to maintain the high quality established early on, it could have ranked as one of the year's best. Yet even with its flaws, Okage remains a breath of fresh air for a genre in desperate need of the kind of originality and variety that it provides.