Ten years ago this month, the broodingly Gothic and punishingly difficult RPG “Dark Souls” was released in Japan (the worldwide release staggered out the following month). That makes this a perfect time to talk about the game, so naturally this blog will be talking about everything but it. Well, two other games really, but they’ll all be related. The second game will likely require no introduction, but the first can use a little more help.
Even if “Dark Souls” presents a particular dark fantasy vision, the Souls series as a whole was not born in a vacuum. Some of its ancestors are well covered: the olde European style, spatial structure and obscure difficulty of “King’s Ques”;; the design choices, foggy plot set up and blunt failure screen of “Lost Kingdoms”; the Armored Core games because, uh, Souls director Hidetaka Miyazaki worked on some of them, I guess.
One game that never seems to get on that list is 2002’s “Otogi: Myth of Demons.” In fact, “Otogi” never seems to get on any lists. Every now and then there’s a retro review that hails it as one of the original Xbox’s most underrated exclusive titles, but even that’s not quite right. Contemporary reviews of the game were positive, and sales were just strong enough to warrant sequel. Nossir, “Otogi” is not underrated. It is a classic in search of a cult.
“Otogi” tells the stately tale of Raikoh, a silent executioner who shirks his duty right before something mystical wipes out the imperial court. Raikoh is apparently killed (we don’t see it happen; we get everything through a narrative crawl) but then seemingly brought back by an enigmatic Princess, unseen and known only through her voice. She tasks him with killing the demons that have overtaken the ruins of the imperial capitol, although her motivation for doing so remains unclear.
The philosophy of presentation in “Otogi” is very close to “Dark Souls.” Both games have a dark fantasy atmosphere (feudal Japan in “Otogi” and medieval Europe in “Souls”), with the emphasis heavily on atmosphere. There is painstaking attention paid to visual scale and weird flourish: towering landscapes, crumbling megastructures, twisted enemies, outlandish weapons and very uncomfortable looking suits of armor. These impressive images come at the expense of coherent narrative, leaving the stories to be told through the melancholy environment, as well as cryptic hints from characters.
Where the games diverge is in gameplay. At its core, “Otogi” is a hack and slash with fairly light RPG elements. No open world either. There is a central hub, but it’s a menu screen, giving the game an arcade-y feel. Before levels, Raikoh can be equipped with different weapons, magic spells and stat-balancing accessories; however, there’s no armor, so you can’t cosplay as an onion or a giant yellow spoon or whatever other weird crap you’re into. Also, the stat upgrade system is automatic, so there’s no control over how Raikoh levels up (although the effects are gradual, which feels very Souls-like).
If there’s anything else that’s especially “Dark Souls” about “Otogi,” it’s the difficulty. The game is neither easy nor fair. It starts Raikoh off with a fraction of his eventual health, which is pretty standard for an RPG, but there’s more. Raikoh also has a gauge for his magic, which is used to cast spells and dash and regenerate health… to a certain degree. Raikoh’s health is measured in discrete chunks. Take too big a hit and lose a chunk for the rest of the level, which magic won’t regenerate.
Magic is constantly decreasing too, although it can be replenished by killing enemies. If Raikoh runs out of magic, he starts to lose health instead (I guess his reanimation was not completely successful). This leads to some interesting scenarios, like an infamous boss battle that concludes with a lengthy posthumous monologue, where you risk dying after you’ve beaten the level simply by standing around while your life drains out.
Another early game kneecap is Raikoh’s starter weapon, his family’s ancestral sword. It’s powerful, but it’s also saddled with a mountain of damage that needs to be repaired. The gold required to do so will take a lot of grinding. Raikoh picks up weaker but more less damaged weapons pretty early on, so it’s not a problem, but this blog can’t remember seeing that mechanic anywhere else. It’s interesting. Not bad, interesting. It feels in line with the show-don’t-tell storytelling. More on that later.
Regardless, combat is probably “Otogi’s” weakest element. Raikoh only has a handful of spells and combos, which lends itself more toward button mashing than complex strategy. The spells, which are balanced around a mystical understanding of the cardinal directions, never get more involved than rock, paper, scissors. Weapons are even less dynamic, typically devolving into “sharp thing make bad man go away.” To be fair, Raikoh moves like a dancer while he gracefully beats the snot out of stuff, and he does so with an impressive selection of weapons, but they all fall into four basic categories and rely on the same mix of light attack/heavy attack combos. Simple to learn, simple to master. Even at the time, the combat was hailed as “repetitive.”
The enemies at least reflect this. They are not particularly bright, and their difficulty comes from them absorbing a ton of damage, turning some fights into twitchy wars of attrition rather than thoughtful showdowns. They can also hit hard. For added color, they’ll smash Raikoh through the all the nice Heian antiques, which risks flinging him off certain maps but at least gives you environmental destruction points.
So if gameplay isn’t necessarily a highlight and story is firmly in the backseat, why did “Otogi” get impressive ratings back in the day? Why would anyone want to play it now? One word: style.
There’s the art direction: colors and lighting focused on making the Xbox go pop. There’s the soundtrack: both the croaky and clangy sound effects, and the score, which is a mixture of traditional wind, string and percussive instruments and modern electronic and orchestral flourishes, all done to dissonant perfection. There’s the monster designs: mutated raven-men, twisted worms with baleen mouths, vegetables that resemble bloated corpses, all grotesques inspired by Japanese mythology rather than taken directly from it. There’s the landscapes and architecture: moody, imaginative, ethereal and fully destructible. This might have been the first game to use destructible environments as a selling point. Some people complained that a few levels in the second half were reskins of earlier ones, but I never cared (except for maybe the one that became an escort mission).
It’s almost 20 years old as of this writing, but “Otogi” still looks gorgeous. Of course it’s a little rough around the edges compared to today’s slick visuals, but the game’s focus on a singular stylistic vision has helped it retain an elegance and intrigue that more mainstream titles from its era now clearly lack. “Otogi” honestly feels like no other game, and it should probably be mentioned with the likes of contemporaries “Ico” and “Okami.”
I think I’ve spent more time reviewing this game than previous ones, but I am both fond of it and saddened by the lack of information about it online (publisher SEGA has long since axed its “Otogi” webpage; FromSoftware still has a page, which offers proof the bizarre Otogi/Brittey Spears advertising campaign actually happened). At the very least, the Internet deserves more “Otogi” content.
“Otogi” didn’t come out in the States until a year after its Japanese release. If memory serves, it was covered by the gaming magazine GMR in the same issue as action RPG “Fable,” although “Otogi” might have been a blurb and “Fable” a preview (that would make more sense with the timing, but I’d have to actually find the paper copy to confirm). It’s an interesting footnote because “Fable” was supposed to represent the big revolution in RPGs, with a dynamic world that both responded to the presence of the hero and shaped his adventures. However, while “Fable” was well received and spawned a franchise, it was also infamous for failing to deliver on a number of forward-facing fronts.
Curiously, it was “Otogi” that signaled coming change. It was a few years out, but the offbeat import pointed the way toward “Dark Souls” and the whole subgenre of Souls-like games that would dominate the next decade. “Otogi” is now, as it was then, an elegant mess: frustrating, cryptic, stunning and beautiful. Rather than old fashioned or cutting edge, it might be timeless.