While the Game Boy Advance has plenty of great role-playing games in its library, Nintendo's newest handheld has been somewhat lacking on that front so far. Konami seeks to remedy the situation with the release of Tao's Adventure: Curse of the Demon Seal. The game is a simplistic dungeon crawl that has the basic components to appeal to role-playing diehards, but it is too tedious for anyone else.
Tao's Adventure: Curse of the Demon Seal takes place almost entirely in the town of Mondominio. In the center of this town is a massive tower where a magic seal holds a menagerie of nefarious nasties. You wouldn't think a tower full of monsters would do much to promote tourism, but it turns out the monster eggs collected in the tower are worth big money, which is enough to prompt hunters from around the world to take their chances in the tower with the hopes of nabbing the rarest of rare monster eggs. One day during a particularly bad storm, the Monster Tower is struck by lightning, which breaks the magic seal and unleashes all kinds of evil creatures that proceed to run amok and wreak havoc on unsuspecting people all over the world. One of the places hit by the monster attacks is the island of Bente, where a race of magicians peacefully resides. These monsters turn most of the residents to stone, leaving only a young boy named Tao and the Bente elders to come up with a plan to save their friends and families. Turns out the elders are all pretty worthless as heroes, so Tao takes it upon himself to travel to the Monster Tower and procure a special monster egg that will return the Bente folks to normal.
Luckily, just before this calamity struck, Tao learned how to wield powerful magic using the technique of air spelling, which involves drawing symbols in the air to conjure up all sorts of elemental blasts, curative auras, and more. The whole air-spelling thing is simply a thinly veiled excuse to make you use the touch screen on the Nintendo DS, which you'll have to do a lot of in this game. In fact, Tao's Adventure relies almost entirely on touch-screen controls. You can play the game without ever touching a button, although you can use the D pad to move around if you prefer to not use the onscreen arrows to move. Once you get used to it, the control scheme is mostly functional, but since you have to touch small, sometimes unresponsive buttons, wait for new input screens to load, and draw squiggly lines every time you want to do anything, the game requires a lot more effort than is necessary for what is a fairly standard dungeon crawl. It would have at least been nice to have an option to use the buttons to navigate the menus, because the novelty of the touch controls wears thin very quickly.
The bulk of the game takes place inside Monster Tower, where you have to work your way from floor to floor killing enemies and collecting eggs and assorted treasures. Each floor is basically a floating maze full of blocky geometry, but the levels do look fairly detailed and interesting, especially in how the levels vary slightly in theme from one to the next. The monsters and characters are colorfully detailed as well, which makes each level feel at least slightly distinct. As you ascend the tower, the monsters get progressively tougher, and every fifth floor you have to face a boss monster. The levels start out fairly simple, but later in the game they do start to pose a decent challenge as you try to figure out exactly how to navigate the labyrinthine walkways to get to the exit door.
While in the dungeon, the game plays like a cross between a turn-based and real-time game. For each move you make, each enemy makes a move. When there aren't any enemies around, you can run about as freely as you would in an action RPG, but when you're in the vicinity of an enemy, you have to plan your actions wisely. Moving, casting spells, striking enemies, defending, and using items each take a turn to perform. More often than not, you can simply run up to an enemy and start swinging, and you'll end up killing your enemy in one or two turns. The result is a boring tit-for-tat exchange that blends the worst of two worlds--lacking both the speed of an action-based system and the strategy of a turn-based system. Aggravating the situation is a terrible save system that requires you to exit the tower and return to the inn in town every time you want to save your game. There is no quick-save option available, which is absurd for a handheld game such as this.
You can use magic spells in combat, but they require you to open up the menu, wait for the casting screen to load, and then draw symbols from memory, which takes a lot longer than simply using physical attacks to defeat your enemies. Furthermore, the magic spells are relatively weak and consume magic points, so they aren't all that useful. There are more than 40 spells in the game, though, and the high-level spells are at least worth casting a few times to see the accompanying visual effects. If you want, you can forgo magic altogether and just use a sword, which is certainly easier but makes for especially dull battles.
You don't have to face the perils of Monster Tower alone, because you can summon monsters to lend you a hand--or mandible, or claw--in battle. When you find monster eggs, you can take them to a shop in town and have them appraised. Once you have an egg appraised, you can take it into the tower and hatch it. You can then summon a hatched monster to fight alongside you in battle. You don't have direct control over your familiars, and their intelligence is fairly limited, but they at least manage to stay out of the way most of the time. Occasionally, your familiars will attack of their own volition, but usually they follow you around and attack anything that you attack.
Tao and his familiars gain experience as they battle in the tower, eventually leveling up and getting much stronger. Familiars can be trained in the coliseum in town. In true Pokémon rip-off fashion, you can take your monsters to the coliseum and battle against other monsters. These battles are one-on-one, five-minute matches that play out according to a simple rock, paper, scissors system that determines the strength of each attack. You can play coliseum matches against computer-controlled opponents, or if you have a friend with a copy of the game, you can pit your monsters against each other. You can also trade monsters with your friends if you are so inclined.
The good news is that if you do manage to get into Tao's Adventure, there's plenty to keep you occupied. There are dozens of floors to explore, treasures to find, spells to master, and monsters to collect. The problem is that Tao's Adventure is too slow and unrewarding to make you really want to spend the 30-plus hours it takes to complete the game.