Last year's Otogi: Myth of Demons distinguished itself from other Xbox action games on account of its beautifully surreal setting of a medieval Japan overcome by demonic infestation, as well as for the immense measures of destruction possible within that setting. That the game looked and sounded fantastic didn't hurt, either. Developer From Software has since delivered a follow-up to Otogi, which has finally made it to these shores courtesy of Sega. Fortunately, the game is a worthy successor to the original, and it delivers a similar experience but with a number of interesting, new playable characters, new challenges, and new levels. It's enough to make Otogi 2 easily recommendable to fans of the original, as just like its predecessor, this is a great action game in its own right.
Otogi 2 takes place sometime after the original game, and it weaves a similar story. Demons and evil spirits have besieged Japan, and only an undead swordsman named Raikoh apparently has the power to stop them. Raikoh, the silent and immensely powerful warrior who was the sole playable character in the original Otogi, will not fight alone in this chapter. He is resurrected by the priestess Seimei and her four generals: Tsuna, a feral warrior who's lightning fast; Kintoki, a massive axe fighter who can effortlessly pick up and throw enemies twice his size; Sadamitsu, a scythe-wielding girl with the power to freeze her foes; and Suetake, a sorcerer that resembles a living tree trunk. These generals sacrifice themselves at the beginning of the game so that Raikoh may stand and fight once more. In their afterlives, these generals' powers rival that of Raikoh's, and you'll get to play as all six of these different characters during the course of this single-player adventure. The game is broken up into a diverse series of levels, several of which are unlocked at a time.
For the most part, you may choose to take any of the characters into any of the levels, but this will prevent you from being able to select that character in the next level you play. In practice, this means you'll get to spend a good amount of time playing as each character, especially since their particular skills make them better suited to some levels more than others--and you're given a sense of this prior to taking on any of the missions. Otogi 2's story unravels before and after each mission in brief but often memorable cutscenes using the game's 3D engine. The cutscene may change depending on which character you choose, which is a nice touch. As in the previous Otogi, creative character designs and excellent dialogue make both the protagonists and their enigmatic foes captivating to watch, provided, of course, that the ancient Eastern subject matter of the game appeals to you.
The actual gameplay of Otogi 2 is much like that of the original. This is primarily a third-person-perspective hack-and-slash game in which your characters can cause massive destruction to all they touch. Literally just about everything in the environments, no matter how big or how solid-looking, can be smashed to smithereens using your stronger attacks, and this effect is both incredibly well-done and satisfying. The controls are basically easy to pick up. By using the face buttons on the controller, you can make the characters jump, execute light and heavy attacks, and cast their equipped magic spell. Also, when you press the right shoulder button they can quickly glide forward, either on the ground or in midair. It's possible to execute a few different attack strings using the slash buttons, and you may also perform alternate attacks while holding down the right shoulder button. Some of these let you climb higher and higher into the sky with every strike, and Otogi 2's floaty jumps and wide-open areas lend themselves to plenty of midair battles. In fact, some of the game's best, most dramatic stages take place almost entirely above ground.
Also, the six different characters play noticeably differently and each is quite interesting in his or her own right. For example, Kintoki's unique ability to throw his enemies is offset by his lack of a high jump, while Suetake can keep jumping up and up and up indefinitely. But they're basically all similar, so it's easy to switch from one to the other. In the end, Otogi fans will probably prefer the well-balanced Raikoh most of all, but Seimei and the four generals result in a more diverse and interesting story this time around.
Otogi 2 unfortunately retains some of the gameplay issues of the original, though none of these are particularly serious. Your character's health gauge and dwindling magic meter (which essentially serves as a time limit for each mission) are rather difficult to read, especially at first. The camera angle remains centered on your character but won't rotate on its own; you can manually rotate the perspective using the right analog stick, but this is slow. The alternative is to press down on the left stick to quickly reset the camera behind your character, but this doesn't work reliably. The result is that you'll occasionally find yourself battling without really knowing what's going on. And the fact that enemies explode in showers of weird, blurry sparks adds to Otogi 2's occasionally disorienting feel. However, in the game's defense, this disorientation tends to occur in the best possible way--as you're ferociously cutting down several strange demons at a time, shattering stone and splintering wood as you go. Sometimes you can't help but sit back and bask in all the carnage that ensues.
As you press on, you'll note that the game's targeting system is a little clunky. You can lock onto an opponent using the left shoulder button, which helps keep that foe squarely in your sights--but sometimes the opponent will break the lock and it will throw you off. It can also be difficult to isolate a particular enemy from a pack, but in Otogi 2, it's rarely necessary to go for a particular target when you might as well just destroy everything. Finally, Otogi 2's menu system is awkwardly presented. Though this is fundamentally an action game, there's a fairly dense network of menus to navigate as you move from level to level. Even the simple act of saving your progress between levels is made rather obtuse by the menus. Again, none of these things are much of a big deal, but all the same, they're things that could have been better about Otogi 2.
The variety of levels in Otogi 2 is certainly one of the highlights. Some are protracted battles against some of the most malevolent forces threatening Japan (these boss fights look amazing and are actually quite numerous). Other missions involve stampeding through hordes of demons while causing immense collateral damage in your wake--since the demons have already defiled the land, there's no need to worry about being selective in your destruction. Other missions are a bit more puzzlelike in nature, such as one particularly tough (and somewhat frustrating) point at which Raikoh must guide his shadow--essentially his soul--to salvation. Otogi 2's levels aren't that long, but some of them are quite challenging, and there are a lot of them. They take place in starkly different environments, from otherworldly dimensions to serene villages to ancient catacombs. It's a pleasure just to move from one to the next, witnessing what sort of strange place you'll get to obliterate next. Also, in addition to the main story missions, you'll unlock "havoc" missions, which are mostly a series of very tough challenges (many of them are timed), which grant you powerful items and other bonuses in exchange for their successful completion.
Otogi 2 adds some role-playing elements, which generally work pretty well. Characters gain experience levels in between missions, which makes them stronger and hardier, and you may also use the money you earn from slain foes to further augment their abilities. The best part about this is that it addresses one of the problems in the original Otogi, where you desperately needed to find and defeat certain elusive foes in order to raise your maximum health. The experience system, along with the presence of many hidden items and power-ups in most missions, gives you incentive to go back into missions you've already cleared. In fact, you may find that it's necessary to do so in order to beef up for some of the later challenges. It almost feels like cheating to repeatedly go back into the same mission over and over to build up your warriors, but then again, Otogi 2 is plenty difficult practically no matter how much time you spend leveling up. At any rate, as you fight your way through the game, you'll not only see your characters grow a lot stronger, but you'll also find a number of new magic spells, accessories that augment your characters in certain ways (like by making them stronger or tougher, or immune to fire or frost), new weapons, and alternate costumes. Ultimately, most players should find a good 15 to 20 hours of gameplay here, and potentially even more, depending on how willing you are to brave havoc mode and go back through the missions multiple times. After you finish the story mode, you're invited to play through it again, beginning with all of your experience and items you've accrued till that point.
Like its predecessor, Otogi 2 is a truly beautiful game, though its visuals aren't quite as striking today as the original Otogi's were at the time. Nevertheless, the sheer amounts of destruction possible in the game's hazy, dreamlike environments and the highly original character designs on display throughout the game add up to some truly great looks. Amid all the cataclysmic explosions and things, Otogi 2's frame rate frequently bogs down--an effect that's somewhat unsightly, but not detrimental to the gameplay, and it's just about the only thing that doesn't look great here. The audio is another very strong point, thanks partly to a haunting, minimalist soundtrack consisting of traditional Japanese strings and percussion, and excellent English or Japanese voice-over for all of the game's cutscenes; given the game's subject matter, you might feel inclined to go straight for the Japanese language option, but Otogi 2's English language track perfectly captures the game's tone and style. Sound effects during battle sound a bit muted, but they are nonetheless effective, and Otogi fans will recognize most of them from the previous game.
Otogi 2 is a satisfying follow-up to a great game. Though sheer originality was one of the main strengths of the original Otogi: Myth of Demons, Otogi 2: Immortal Warriors retains much of its predecessor's unique and awe-inspiring style, thanks to a great new cast of characters, some completely new types of challenges, and a presentation that's second to none. So, especially if you enjoyed the original or if you're dubious of all the cookie-cutter action games out there, you'd do well to check this one out.