It's unusual for a role-playing game to put style ahead of character development and complex battle mechanics. Yet, the lack of depth doesn't feel egregious in the case of The Denpa Men 2: Beyond the Waves. What it lacks in complexity, it makes up for with colorful exuberance. Despite the uplifting visual style, the strength of the enemies standing in your path keeps you on your toes, and you spend so much time outfitting, capturing, and switching out your colorful cast Denpa Men to keep up with the challenge that you never miss the emotional trappings of a traditional collection of intimately connected adventurers.
The purest of motivations drive you forward here: the hunt for treasure and, ultimately, discovery. With this laser focus on the core elements of the dungeon-crawling experience, Denpa Men 2 avoids the burden of proving that its characters and story are worth your time. Instead, it allows exploration and combat to take center stage, and paints the world in a kaleidoscope of color and personality that's often too adorable to ignore.
Your quest to rescue the abruptly abducted dwarf children at the start of the game begins with a single Denpa Man: the hero. During the hunt, you explore deep caves and tall mountains in search of the responsible party, but despite the fact that lives of children hang in the balance, your journey is a lighthearted one. Even fearsome characters, such as the diabolical King of Evil, are softened by the writing, which turns the maniacal desires of a powerful enemy into a humorous take on the naive possessiveness of children. The storyline serves only to carry your team to the next dungeon or town, but it offers a gleeful twist on RPG cliches.
Before things get serious, your randomly generated hero needs some assistance, and through his chirpy Denpa speech, he opens your eyes to the secret world of the Denpa Men. Denpas are captured through an augmented-reality interface where they float and soar about your surroundings as seen through the 3DS camera. Though their flight paths are occasionally erratic, recruiting Denpa Men is the easy part and is as simple as pointing your camera and snapping a picture.
There's a Denpa Man for every unique Wi-Fi device in existence, and a major component of the game's draw hinges on the near-endless variety of potential recruits. Readily available are the common Denpa Men, who have a single-colored outfit and lack antennas, which are the source of magic for some. However, if you take the time to look for Denpa Men in different real-world locations, there's a fair chance you'll discover some with striped outfits, oddball expressions, and powerful adornments atop their heads.
Though their expressions are more for amusement than practicality, the size and color of your squad members determine their balance of strength and agility, and elemental resistances, respectively. As in the Pokemon series, the success of any exchange in combat is defined by the elemental makeup of the attacker and the target, and preparing your team properly or haphazardly diving into a dungeon is the difference between enjoying an empowering experience or suffering an embarrassing reminder of why you should have taken the time to test the waters and form your team accordingly.
Players with experience in the first Denpa Men game eventually get to import their old hero and supporting cast into the new game, but anyone can enlist the help of other people's Denpa Men through the use of QR codes, albeit at level 1. Their meager stats are important, because if you fail to protect them from harm, Denpa Men generated from QR codes disappear completely if left to die in battle. The benefit of this exchange is in the elemental makeup of the Denpa Men in question. Since you are limited to capturing Denpa Men in the real world, and held to the restrictions therein, a QR code may be the most reliable way to acquire a red, fire-based Denpa Man that also has an antenna with water magic, for example.
Another way would be to dye your Denpa Men through the use of flowers. You collect various seeds throughout the game, and planting them in patches of soil throughout the world yields flowers that can be used to alter your Denpa Men's colors and elemental resistances. Growing flowers, fishing for lucrative water life to sell, and competing in the online-enabled coliseum against other teams of Denpa Men can keep you busy for hours, if not days, should you wish to extend your time with the game beyond the main story path.
Indeed, exploring the world around you can be an exciting and potentially dangerous experience. After the first few hours, you gain access to a ship. With it, the remainder of the map is yours to explore. But beware: enemies have fixed levels and stats, and it's not hard to stumble into a patch of particularly high-level enemies. If your team gets beaten down, the hero is transported back to his home area of Digitown, and you have to spend hard-earned funds to resurrect other fallen Denpa Men, one at a time. Though the promise of a beatdown might deter some explorers, there's comfort to be found in the game's jump mechanic, which lets you instantly teleport, ship and all, to any landmark that you've encountered along the way. It's a suitable take on the world-map style of exploration for quick gameplay sessions, and a surefire means of escape when you're under threat behind enemy lines.
On the whole, Denpa Men 2 isn't a difficult game when the proper precautions are taken, because, unfortunately, it has a tendency to break the combat system in your favor. The enemies you encounter range from cute piglet-fish to horrible octopus-arachnid hybrids, and while you can typically find relative comfort by fighting easy-to-grind lightweights, there's always a more formidable foe lurking just around the corner. Enemies materialize into view, and combat is initialized only when you make contact. It's possible to outrun some enemies, but others catch up to you.
Be sure to watch your back, because the orientation of the impact determines which team moves first at the start of battle. Combat sequences are essentially a series of rounds, and actions are assigned to each character before the start. When the plans are set, friend and foe then execute their actions in order based on their individual speed ranking. You have the option to assign individual commands, allow the game to calculate actions, or have the entire team attack or defend, but every action is determined before the start of a round; at least they're supposed to be.
The exception to the rule occurs when choosing to auto-assign actions to your entire team. If, mid-round, an enemy kills one of your Denpa Men, any of your Denpa Men that have yet to take their turn automatically cast a revive spell or use a potion to resurrect their fallen teammate. Obviously, neither you nor the computer could have predicted a fallen character, but it's clear that the action is assigned ad hoc, mid-round. While this works out in your favor, it betrays the supposed defined battle mechanics. Perhaps this occurs in the name of player enjoyment, but your skill, or lack thereof, is effectively disrespected in the process. Granted, there isn't always a teammate to lift you off the ground, and some battles leave you begging for mercy, but because revivals occur out of turn and completely refill the victim's health meter, you occasionally get the feeling that you've cheated or somehow don't deserve your victory.
The game’s soundtrack is unsurprisingly built on up-tempo ditties, but the effect is, at times, too strong. The tunes that keep you company while exploring the map and walking around various dungeons can be catchy, but the battle theme will likely drive you to mute your 3DS an hour or two into your journey. It's a maddening cacophony of high-pitched electronic melodies, and the contrast that exists between the overworld jingles and the battle theme is too jarring to overlook.
Games that rehash old formulas are liable to be judged in a negative light, but in the case of The Denpa Men 2: Beyond the Waves, the tried-and-true pattern of treasure hunting and monster slaying is uplifted by Denpa's charming sense of style and the unique way it uses the 3DS hardware. Despite the child-kidnapping-based plot, and the presence of gruesome monsters, Denpa Men 2 remains a cheerful and upbeat experience from start to finish. It's a refreshingly lighthearted RPG that packs a challenge and a surprising amount of content to explore, and despite its few flaws, Denpa Men 2 gets the moment-to-moment gameplay right. It's enough to make any dungeon-crawling veteran swoon, and the cheerful delivery is a nice change of pace from heavy-handed, dramatic RPG sagas.