Genius Sonority is a Nintendo affiliate that should be quite well known to Pokémon fans during and after the GameCube years. Founded in 2001, the studio began by developing the two Pokémon Coliseum games for the GameCube, with each featuring a general battle mode for Game Boy Advance link-ups together with a fresher adventure setting that incorporated new methods of monster capture. Since then, Genius Sonority has developed less higher-profile titles such as the Wii game Dragon Quest Swords: The Masked Queen & The Tower of Mirrors and the mainstream DS game 100 Book Collection. Now with the 3DS eShop's accessible experimental environment, a new Nintendo property has emerged in the form of what seems at first glance to be one of the most quirky Japanese-looking games possible; The Denpa Men: They Came by Wave. Has Genius Sonority got a hit on its hands or should this one be relegated to the back of the downloads line?
Much like its basic looks, The Denpa Men: They Came by Wave is a simple game to explain although it does hide much stronger depth later on. The game is structured as a turn-based Role-Playing Game mixed with dungeon exploring and a unique recruitment method. The signature main character varies depending on who is given when beginning a new save file, but the story remains the same; the lead's beloved is taken by the mighty King of Evil that wishes to marry her and it's the player's job to fight the treacherous paths laid out ahead to win her back. A simple plot that shapes the destination and motivation yet is thankfully never given enough emphasis to highlight its paper-thin nature.
Naturally, it cannot be done alone, and after being introduced to the Island Hub, it will be off to the Antenna Tower where the game's main selling point is introduced; catching the leotard-wearing Denpa Men in the wild. 'Wild' being quite literal, as there is a need to wander around looking at the environment through the 3DS' cameras to find different coloured Denpa Men wherever radio waves are. Catching is as simple as aiming a reticule and pressing a button to fire a net, so walking around and moving the unit in circles will be your main focus. This feature adds an interesting Pokémon-like collection goal as there are many types of Denpa Men colours and powers to search for, with many of them reappearing in the same place should one be missed or lost in battle.
Upon capturing a sufficient number of new recruits and sized them up at the Denpa Men house, the first dungeon looms and the battle mechanics are quickly introduced. In what ultimately would be best described as a concoction of Dragon Quest and, oddly enough, the Persona series, a battle screen initiates when touching a monster roaming around in the field, and the little Denpa Men line up to take a pop at it. Although fights are turn-based with both warriors and the enemies abiding by speed stat hierarchy, picking a basic attack move, for example, will show all of the fighters currently in the list together attacking at the same time, drastically cutting down on waiting for each to attack individually. What also helps this quicker-than-average pace is the auto-attack options mapped to two of the face buttons that let the men swarm in and attack straight away with a basic assault or make their own choices on what moves to use; the latter in particular is a specific highlight as it showcases one of the smartest Artificial Intelligence systems yet seen in an RPG. Not only do the characters remember and smartly figure out opponents' weaknesses, they cover for weaker members of the squad, heal others when needed, conserve special attack strength for lesser foes, and even change their choice of move in the middle of a round sequence to fit the situation (like reviving a team member instead of attacking or emergency healing a status affliction). There are very few in-game squads that could be allowed to fight for themselves if need be, but The Denpa Men certainly has one of them.
Aside from these distinctive traits, battles play out as would be expected, with elemental weaknesses, Hit Points and Magic Points, Accuracy effects and Critical hits all in the fray. Each of the Denpa Men has only one usable ability to its name, which usually gets upgraded at certain level milestones depending on what it is, and building an effective team with what is accessible to fit the situation is the key to success. One ability may sound needlessly restrictive but seeing as how more Denpa Men can be kept in reserve for later on and level up at the exact same rate as the active group, swapping out characters to form new parties and strategies couldn't be easier. What can get particularly bothersome, though, is reviving lost Denpas; if not brought back to life before exiting a dungeon either special items need to be used at a shrine on the island or catching them again in the same place they were found before is required. Either option ensures there is never a need to permanently lose anyone, but it feels like a long-winded way of doing it rather than letting the player simply use a revive item outside of a dungeon.
The Denpa Men isn't exactly a 3DS showcase in either looks or touch functionality, though it does make respectable use of both screens with clear, colourful visuals that add a respectable level of depth in 3D and handy stylus-based item management. The dungeons themselves, whilst being highly varied from each other with uniquely styled enemies littering the corridors, nonetheless start to feel a little too repetitive later on, and although there are small resident camps around, most of them do make up the vast majority of what will be done for those play hours.
The game's main theme is as loopy and endearingly strange as the concept itself, and even if it is being seen through low-resolution cameras, finding the Denpa Men in public has to be one of the more unique enrolment methods yet seen in an RPG. Another use for the cameras later on in the game comes in the form of QR Codes that can be scanned into the game or export out of to find new Denpas with abilities yet to be gained. This can unbalance the game slightly if collecting just one of each ability through this method and foregoing all those caught before, but the game's surprising amount of difficulty in the latter stages will ensure that some strong tactics will be needed regardless of the crew.
Although The Denpa Men isn't exactly an impulse purchase at £7.19 when considering the many other cheaper titles on offer through the eShop, it does make extremely good use out of the free demo and this is where everyone even glancing at this game needs to begin at. The demo covers the early stages of the game up until the end of the first dungeon and helps players get to grips with the method of Denpa recruitment, how battles work and abilities to use, all in an intuitive and simple manner. What is even better when finishing the demo is how progress made can be carried over to the full game in an entirely hassle-free transfer, and the demo's early basis ensures that if that is enjoyed, the full product will be loved.
Like the intricate makings of its battle system, the length of the game is also deceptive from first impressions. Truly a title that opens up more and more, with what begins as one dungeon turns into many with an island hub that almost doubles the number of features as progress is made. This won't be the longest role-playing title ever played, but it is easily one of the most memorable and user-friendly for new players of the genre and anyone that is after a unique downloadable experience. Just make sure to try the demo first.
Meshing together traditional isometric dungeon crawling with a solid and approachable battle system, The Denpa Men's biggest strength is the 3DS camera usage, making for a highly original experience. Lack of any real towns or interesting communities to break up the dungeon flow lets the side down slightly.
A very quirky Japanese-esque flair to the bright and colourful visual style of the Denpa Men and the world built around them. Dungeon designs are kept varied and look even more looming with the 3D effect, but does still mostly consist of corridor after corridor.
A suitable example of lively music that fits its host game to a tee, and battles very rarely become tedious thanks to the energetic backing themes within.
A game that starts off small and limited but opens up to so much more. Repeat play might not be as high on the replay list as other RPGs but the first time through will easily rank up double digit hours.
Offering far more value for money than what may first appear, The Denpa Men's overall variety may be in question, yet it does provide an excellent starting point for newer players as well as something a little different for veterans. The free demo that gives a highly effective first impression doesn't hurt either.
Loved the demo, and I'll be buying the full game soon. It is a great take on old-school turn-based RPGs while adding new elements to the mix.
This is probably one of the more bizzare games out there, didn't realise Genius Sonority worked on this one. Sounds pretty good though, so might give this a look in at some point.