Eastern mythology and lots of great-looking swordplay combine in Kingdom of Paradise, an exciting and action-packed 3D role-playing game exclusively for the PSP. It's worth noting right up front that Kingdom of Paradise would have been a solid console game if it weren't portable, so the fact that you can carry this full-fledged, graphically remarkable RPG with you wherever you go is an impressive feat. But it's refreshing to see this game only on the PSP, considering the system's library is laced so heavily with console hand-me-downs. Kingdom of Paradise has somewhat of a steep learning curve and its flashy combat system has a few problems, but the quality of the game's presentation and the generally entertaining battles almost completely overshadow these setbacks.
The hero of the story is Shinbu, a young swordsman dedicated to perfecting his martial arts. He's a former disciple of Seiryu, but fell from the graces of his nation's military sect when his curiosity got the better of him and he discovered some forbidden fighting techniques. But Shinbu is a good-natured guy and not a rebel--he'd like nothing better than to regain his good standing. The problem is, it seems the other Seiryu disciples have been wiped out. So Shinbu sets off on a journey to figure out what's going on, which will take him all across the country of Ouka and its different regions, each one named for and inspired by a monstrous god (Seiryu, for instance, is a blue dragon). During his adventure, he'll meet all manner of friend and foe, and many of these characters are quite compelling, thanks to some excellent character design and lots of high-quality speech. However, the story itself is rather dense and fairly predictable, though it's perfectly serviceable stuff to carry a role-playing game.
If you're familiar with Eastern mythology, you'll recognize some of the names and characters in Kingdom of Paradise, and will be in a better position to soak up all the different, unusual names the game quickly throws at you. The combination of both Chinese and Japanese influences gives Kingdom of Paradise its own unique feel, though in another way this makes the game quite reminiscent of this year's Jade Empire for the Xbox, another martial arts RPG set in a made-up version of the ancient Orient. What's mildly annoying is that if you do happen to know a little Japanese, you'll find that the otherwise-competent voice-over cast screws up a lot of the pronunciations. You'll even hear some inconsistencies in the pronunciations of certain names from one character to the next, but then again, we don't know for sure how they pronounce things in the country of Ouka. Regardless, the game's Eastern styling definitely shines through, making for a role-playing experience that's out of the ordinary. For instance, it's great that most battles pit you against enemy swordsmen rather than your typical host of generic fantasy creatures.
Two words you'll need to learn early on in Kingdom of Paradise are "bugei" and "kenpu." The game's manual does a better job explaining these than the game itself, but in short, bugei are special combat scrolls and kenpu are the tiles that are used to fill them out. Swordplay in Kingdom of Paradise involves equipping Shinbu with various bugei scrolls you find; but before you do that, you'll want to fill out your bugei with as many kenpu tiles as you can. Defeated enemies will often drop kenpu tiles, and it quickly gets to be quite addictive finding all the dozens of these to fill out your assortment of combos. Each bugei scroll consists of a completely different string of combat moves, and bugei scrolls are also aligned with the four elemental gods or other fighting styles. On top of that, Shinbu will also learn chi arts, which are powerful elemental strikes that damage all his surrounding foes. And if all this sounds like a lot to take in at first, that's because it definitely is.
Fortunately, the combat itself is really quite fun and simple once you get past the complicated systems behind it, especially because Shinbu's sword-fighting techniques just look so terrific. The look of the combat bears much more resemblance to fighting games than to role-playing games, and yes, that's a high compliment. You'll see Shinbu deftly execute elaborate strings of slashes, twirls, and kicks, which will often cause his foes to get knocked off their feet and then juggled midair by successive strikes. He'll also learn to throw his sword (which returns to him like a boomerang), allowing for a finishing move of sorts that causes a hapless foe to get impaled and then blasted by the full force of Shinbu's chi attacks. All this is accomplished primarily by mashing on the attack button, so the combat is quite easy to control.
The only real problem with the combat system is that Shinbu's chi attacks quickly become much more potent than his fancy swordsmanship. Chi attacks are functionally similar to magic spells in other RPGs, but they can be used as often as you like--you just need to stand still for a moment to charge them up, and you can avoid even the tougher enemies in the game long enough to make time for this. Then you can cut loose with the technique at the touch of a button. You're completely invulnerable as you perform the elemental strike, whereas all your surrounding foes will take massive damage. Doesn't sound too fair, does it? The chi attacks start to feel pretty repetitive, too, because they aren't nearly as varied as all the dozens of different sword moves you can learn. So it's a bit of a shame that chi attacks eventually overwhelm the combat, because there's much more depth to the swordplay, and especially because certain bugei scrolls give you the freedom to string together whichever moves you want in whichever order you choose.
With that said, the combat in Kingdom of Paradise is still a highlight. It's fast and intense, often pitting you against a half-dozen enemies or more, some of whom might be trying to pelt you with ranged attacks (which you can reflect right back at them with a well-timed swing). Combat happens seamlessly out in the field. As you're running around from place to place, sometimes you'll see enemies rush or jump out from offscreen, and Shinbu will swiftly draw his sword and begin fighting. He'll sheath his sword when the coast is clear, or if you're in a hurry (or in real danger), you can also just outrun your foes. Fights can be pretty challenging, as some of your tougher foes can hurt you real bad, fast. It doesn't help matters that there isn't an easy way to block incoming attacks, though by pressing and holding the attack button, you can effectively break the enemy's combos and leap away to safety. Ultimately, the combat forces you to stay on your toes, as well it should.
Apart from all the fighting, Kingdom of Paradise tasks you with the sorts of activities typical to role-playing games, which means you'll be doing a lot of running about from place to place, talking to lots of different people. This sometimes gets a little tedious or confusing, either because your objectives are dictated to you vaguely, or because you need to do something highly specific (like talk to a cookie-cutter guard standing next to a gate) in order to trigger the next event. You have access to a quest log of sorts from the main menu, as well as a world map that helps you get your bearings, but you'll probably still find yourself a little frustrated at times, running around trying to figure out what, exactly, you're supposed to do next. The world of the game feels quite vast, but there gets to be a fair amount of backtracking across familiar territory later on. You'll face tougher foes when you revisit areas, but still, you'll wish the game just kept throwing more scenery at you, if only because what's there looks so pretty.
Kingdom of Paradise smartly avoids giving you any control over the camera angle whatsoever; instead, the camera angle is automatically predetermined based on the type of area you're in. Most areas have you running from one side of the screen to the other, but sometimes the perspective shifts dramatically, such as for certain boss fights. The camera angle can occasionally be obtrusive, but all in all, it's great that you never really have to worry about it. What's more, the game lets you save your progress quickly and anywhere, which really helps when you're playing on the go. Relatively brief loading times also mean you can reasonably play this game for a few minutes at a time without it feeling like a waste.
Fast, stylized, and richly detailed visuals make Kingdom of Paradise a real treat to watch. Shinbu animates extremely well as he hightails it from one nice-looking locale to the next, but it's the game's character close-ups that really steal the show. During key plot sequences (of which there are many), you'll see the main characters depicted with sharply drawn, fully articulated 3D models, complete with lifelike facial expressions and animations, plus full voice-over. These close-ups really look great, showcasing the game's anime-inspired art design. Occasional bits of slowdown during some of the bigger battles are really the only major blemish on an otherwise smooth looking game. The audio lives up to the graphics, too. The music and sound effects perfectly match the style and theme of the game, and the voice cast does a great job overall. Most of the dialogue is delivered with surprisingly natural cadence, making the characters seem that much more believable.
Kingdom of Paradise packs in a satisfyingly lengthy adventure, especially for a portable game, so don't expect to cut your way through this one in less than 15 hours. Some bonus Wi-Fi features are thrown in, letting you trade kenpu with a friend so that the two of you can more quickly complete your collections, and you can also take on your buddy in an arena battle. Both players' stats are balanced out in this arena battle, so it's purely a test of skills, making the fighting-game influences that much more apparent here. But the fighting itself is quite simple, and there's nothing to stop the two of you from running around and avoiding each other, so the arena battles are more of a distraction than anything else. Kingdom of Paradise also features some downloadable content via the PSP's infrastructure mode, but good luck getting the necessary passwords from the game's official Web site, which is all in Japanese.
PSP owners need look no further for a great role-playing game to call their own. Kingdom of Paradise is original, well-produced, and fun to play, and it looks really great. It isn't easy to get into, and can definitely be confusing at times, but the game's vivid setting and its fast-paced combat ought to keep you motivated all the way through.