Curse of the Poor Reviews
There's something strangely satisfying about discovering a gem-of-a-game that no one else likes. Almost all the critics panned it, and many folks overlooked it because of that. However, Tao's Adventure: Curse of the Demon Seal has ultimately confirmed my belief that reviewers, though often helpful, don't know me or my taste and can oftentimes (too often) be very, very wrong about what I'll enjoy...
In the city of Mondominio stands Monster Tower. The city has been home to monster hunters who have thrived for many years on the abundance of monster eggs found in the tower. One day, during a great storm, lightning strikes Monster Tower and damages the seal that had kept the monsters contained within...
Meanwhile, on a distant island called Bente, a boy named Tao and his family live peacefully until their small village of Air Spellers (those who cast spells by forming magical runes in the air) is attacked by monsters that escaped from Monster Tower during the aforementioned storm. All but Tao and four others are turned to stone. Tao, as the only surviving community member with the ability to cast offensive spells, is sent to Mondominio in an attempt to retrieve an egg of those very same monsters so that Bente's last remaining elder (one of the surviving four) can perform a ritual that will hopefully restore their people to normal.
The opening of the game moves along quite quickly, yet manages to mix some tutorials in with the story to help you get underway. Dialogue can been scarce, and ultimately Tao's Adventure proves to be more of a dungeon crawler than a story-driven RPG.
Konami took, what may at first glance seem to be, a complex approach toward the controls for this game. However, gameplay is indeed simple yet interesting. Played from the 3rd-person perspective, you can move Tao either by utilizing a control wheel on the touch screen or by using the control pad (D-pad). I've found the latter to be most comfortable, but I also make use of the control wheel for more precise diagonal moves during battle. You can scroll through text with the A button (or by tapping - with the stylus - a DS icon that appears on the touch screen) while in conversations, and toggle the "run" function with the Y button (Note: While in Monster Tower you must hold down the Y button to make Tao run). All other commands are executed via the touch screen using on-screen prompts; this includes the spell-casting system. Most folks reading this review will likely already be familiar with the game Lostmagic. Well, Tao's Adventure actually came out a little before that game, but the spell casting is pretty much the same (as I understand it): spells are performed by drawing runes on the touch screen. It is obviously one of the more interesting and enjoyable aspects of this game, and the system works great, in my opinion. Runes do not have to be perfect, but if they are not drawn accurately enough, then the spell will not work; it makes for a really exciting battle, and the more you level up the more spells you attain.
"Tao's adventure" takes place almost entirely within the confines of Mondominio, and even more precisely within Monster Tower. Battles in Monster Tower are an interesting mix, being somewhat real-time / strategy; but ultimately it is a turn-based battle system. The floors (there are 40 floors total in Monster Tower) are designed almost grid-like, and as you approach a monster, for each movement you make (whether it be to take a step or use an item, etc.) the monster is likewise afforded a movement. I was so relieved when I finally played the game and got into the actual battling, not being sure beforehand if it would be something I would enjoy. My main fear was that it would perhaps be too easy or tedious (which was the case for me when playing Final Fantasy II from the Dawn of Souls title for the GBA). Such was not the case here, and battles are very enjoyable. You never have to enter a "battle screen" - Tao's Adventure maintains a Diablo-esque approach that keeps your travels moving along smoothly - and there is a very good balance to the game overall. Playing has, for me, become mildly addictive.
As with most RPGs, you must complete certain side-quests that move the game toward its ultimate conclusion. To help you along on your journey, you will have the aid of a talking (in the form of text - there are no voice-overs) monster named Petcho. You'll encounter him early on in your adventure, and though controlled by the AI he is a huge help to you. Additionally, you will find monster eggs inside Monster Tower; you can sell them for money to use for buying weapons / equipment, or hatch them and use the hatched monsters also to aid you in battle.
One other notable aspect of Tao's Adventure is the coliseum. There you can compete your monsters against other monsters (ala Pokemon), either AI-controlled or if you have a friend (or foe) who also has the game you can battle them via local wireless connection; or perhaps you want to trade monsters with them - you can do that too. The coliseum battles aren't terribly exciting, but they are a fun distraction and allow your monsters to gain experience (and gold) that will help them level up.
Visually speaking, the game is quite aesthetically pleasing. The graphics are perhaps not the absolute greatest that I've seen on the system, but they do place right up there with the very best that the DS currently has to offer. Frame-rate motion is very smooth (with occasional slowdown at the end of battles); spell effects are entertaining; and the overall colors and design of the game are sure to please even the most jaded graphics snob like myself. There are some moments when camera views can prevent you from seeing an on-coming monster (usually this occurs upon entering a new room within a given floor of the tower), but it has not at all hindered my experience of the game; I can pretty much chok that up to the notion that you shouldn't necessarily always have the ability to see monsters coming, since entering a new room should contain some element of the unknown. Think I'm being too forgiving here? Well, incorporating real-life physics into a video game can sometimes be a good thing.
Additionally, I would have enjoyed seeing just a little more detail to the character faces in the 3D perspective, but overall I'm quite satisfied with the graphics and look of this game.
I guess it could be said that the music is not very original, but I truly can't stop humming some of the themes around the house. To me they're quite memorable, and with ear-buds you can more effectively enjoy the music in stereo. The sound effects all work quite well - some are perhaps more pleasing to the ear than others - and there's a good mix between the music and sounds. You can make adjustments to the sound effects and music levels, but I find the default levels very doable.
Tao's Adventure: Curse of the Demon Seal perhaps faced its biggest boss battle when, upon release, it came under siege by an onslaught of poor reviews. The game - though not yet out-of-print entirely - can be scarcely found anywhere, and it hasn't been out that long. That's okay though (I guess). I love the game, and so do quite a few other folks. There is a small following for it - those of us who were brave enough to look past the carnage that game critics left in their wake. But I personally think it's a game that deserves a chance. Even with the surge of great RPGs ominously marching forth on the horizon, I hold Tao's Adventure to be a worthy addition to my DS collection. I bought it to tide me over `til something better came along, and it ended up being "something better that came along."
Let me leave off by mentioning the cons of this game. No one reading this review should be under the impression that it's a near-flawless title. It ain't. One definite flaw is an issue with the Spell Input tab (used to execute spells). You should be able to touch the tab with the stylus to execute your spell. However, the player will have to actually touch the very outer-right edge of the tab in order to engage it properly. Once you figure this out it works like a charm every time, but it seems like a programming boo-boo that should have been fixed prior to release. In addition, there is no easy way for the player to reorganize Tao's inventory, and it can make finding items a bit of a chore (though, personally, it doesn't really bother me).
Hopefully, with the mention of these gripes as well as my other comments, I have helped to color a more accurate picture of this underappreciated Konami RPG. Thanks for reading my rap on this DS title, and as always...