It's December 1998, and a huge explosion has ripped Mt. Fuji in two. At that moment, the same thing happens in other parts of Japan, causing large balls of fire to rise in the sky and converge in a pillar of fire 150km high and 10km wide. Fourteen percent of Japan's population dies as a result of these explosions. That day, Mizuho Mikanagi, a high school girl from Noborito, realized she was waiting for this to happen. It was up to her and four of her friends to save Japan from the forces that would invade. This was her destiny. This was Soukaigi.
Perhaps Square is spreading itself too thin. Take Soukaigi for example - an ambitious project announced by Square last fall. Mouths watered at the thought of playing a game with an apocalyptic premise along the lines of the anime classic, Akira. Soukaigi is a game that attempts to create its own genre. The perspective is played a la Tomb Raider, the game environments are similar to Bushido Blade, and the fighting is reminiscent of, er, Toshinden. It's not so heavily interactive that you could call it an action-RPG, nor would you call it strictly an adventure game. It's definitely not a platformer, either. So what is it?
Let's start with the basic elements. Your character has four basic moves at his disposal. Magic, dash, attack, and jump are all triggered using the circle, square, triangle, and X buttons. The shoulder buttons control the camera and allow your character to do quick 180-degree turns. You start with one predetermined character, but as you progress, up to four additional characters will become available to you, each with distinct abilities and moves. Throughout the game you will encounter many monsters, which are actually the souls of the dead. While dispensing with these tortured souls, you must also seek out and destroy the crystals that are scattered throughout the island. The dead gravitate towards these crystals, so their destruction becomes the focal point of the game. Every few levels you fight a different boss who is integral to the storyline at that point. At the end of each stage you gain experience points that can be applied to your various attributes: power, HP, jumping ability, magic, speed, etc. Enhancing certain abilities is crucial to achieving certain objectives; for example, some crystals are too high to reach earlier in the game, but later, after having gained enough experience, you can augment your jumping power and eventually reach those same crystals.
Interwoven among the multiple levels are storytelling cutscenes rendered using the game engine. Worth mentioning is that these cutscenes are extremely long. Some scenes will last as long as five or six minutes, and unless you speak Japanese, you'll probably want to skip these moments. In fact, if you don't read Japanese either, you might miss out on a lot in Soukaigi, because there are a lot of options that are written in kanji.
The game spans three discs, which makes for a considerably lengthy gaming experience. Unfortunately, Soukaigi isn't a game you'll want to play for too long because its problems are many and, unfortunately, the game doesn't offer enough pros to compensate for its flaws. First of all, the control is poor. Think Battle Arena Toshinden and Tomb Raider combined, and you're halfway there. While that might sound fine to some, in practice it falls way short. Trying to align with your enemies is difficult at best and frustrating at its worst. Combine that with the often-jerky character animation, and you really just want to put the controller down. Graphically, Soukaigi leaves a lot to be desired. While certainly not the worst-looking game, a lot of data had to be crammed into the PlayStation's minuscule amount of RAM. The environments are huge, and the enemies are numerous, therefore, compromises had to be made. Everything has a relatively low polygon count, resulting in overly blocky, angular-looking enemies and landscapes. Textures are extremely pixelated, and when they aren't, they're merely flat-shaded. Spell and weapon effects are simple yet impressive; however, they too are grainy and dithered.
Considering how much graphics information has been stuffed into the system memory, it's little wonder the sound effects are so poor. While sword slashes, explosions, and ambient sounds are all adequate, the characters' vocal samples sound like they're speaking through a sock. This is particularly aggravating since each level has a song or instrumental (check level one) that cycles repeatedly (or, rather, endlessly) until the stage is completed. Another glaring fault is the enemies' practically nonexistent AI. Creatures will just lie there until you either hack them to death or walk close enough to take damage. Those with a little more chutzpah will float around aimlessly until you negotiate the controls enough to vanquish them. Even the bosses don't make especially concerted efforts to hinder your progress; instead, they wander around in preset patterns, sometimes roaming close enough to serve up a little damage.
On the plus side, the frame rates run at a smooth 30fps, without any trace of slowdown. Character designs, if a bit generic, are well done. Designed by the Saga Frontier team, Soukaigi's look can best be described as "future/traditional Japanese."
Ultimately, Soukaigi fails to live up to its expectations. You know that Yuke's had grand ideas at heart, but possibly the scope of its vision was too great for the hardware. What remains is a game that has you, primarily, running around and smashing crystals and the creatures that flock to those crystals, with a side order of bosses thrown in as a distraction. A decent enough idea, ten years ago, in 2D, with games like Spy Hunter as your competition - but in this day of modern wonders like Panzer Dragoon Saga, Tenchu, and GoldenEye raising the bar for video games daily, Soukaigi just doesn't cut the mustard. In fact, it just isn't fun. Coupled with the fact that this is the publisher that gave us games like Tobal 2 and Final Fantasy VII, you know they could do better. While certainly a commendable effort, games like Soukaigi really don't stand a chance of reaching their full potential in the 32-bit era. There's just not enough RAM or processing power to go around. When you have visions of grandeur such as this, you have to look to a higher power. Dreamcast anyone?